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Helmdon Historical Articles

The Foundation of Oral History: Reminiscence

an article by Jean Spendlove

Jean Spendlove.
Jean Spendlove.

Oral history is very popular. It is history based on word-of-mouth evidence preserved word for word and generously quoted. It reads so vividly, bringing two or three generations of the past very close to us. You fancy you can hear the speakers, and you imagine them readily.

Some of them have found it hard to believe their memories actually matter to anyone but themselves. It is true that for a lot of what they tell us, there are other sources of information; but there is no other source for what their life felt like — depending on the Helmdon shops for example, going to work or to school just along the line from a Helmdon station, running the Reading Room, whether on its committee or by looking after the people in the building, or attending no other school at all but this one in the village ... What people say about their feelings can't be argued with — no one else can know. We can only try to understand them and then set them in context. Out of a total of such feelings the idea will grow of any community one might study — one subservient to a despotic squire, or one that was neighbourly, or divided and resentful, or varied but tolerant, a lively one, or bored ... or what?

We want both to preserve what is said and also to weigh it, which as historians we are obliged to attempt — one memory against another, and memories against other kinds of information. That is why we prefer to be allowed to use a tape-recorder, and to take time for people to relax and talk naturally in spite of the gadget. The recordings will be a sample of local voices, increasingly valuable as broadcasting blurs the differences in the way people speak; and they will be much closer to what people meant than notes could be.

A tape-recorder makes it unimportant that people hesitate, change their minds about details, and wander from the point in hand. The historian can listen to the tape at leisure and pick out what he needs to know. Many people of all sorts (I am thinking of one very highly educated and articulate friend, a regular word-magician) cause complete misunderstanding by abrupt changes of subject and unexplained pronouns. The historian can go back from the tape to ask about what was not clear. Always the informant must be given chance to check that what is written is what was meant, and also that he or she really meant to disclose it. The historian must also ignore information that is too personal to use in what will be published in the village, and let it rest in his mechanical memory, confidential as long as is necessary but not lost for all future time — like census returns and Cabinet papers. What people don't choose to tell us, we can't press to hear; if this sometimes leaves an obvious gap in what we write, that is just the necessary price of people's privacy.

Even when the necessary informants are happy to reminisce for us, there are things we may find difficult and techniques we need to learn. At the outset much thought is necessary about how to gather reminiscences. For most purposes it is useful to work out a series of questions to ask all the informants alike, so that assertions are more comparable from one person's recollection to another's and their value can be weighed; but to stick to a plan too rigidly is to risk missing hearing one really full witness able to tell you more than you thought anyone could. Sometimes the questions can be adapted to a group talking together in a less organized way, prompting one another to recall forgotten details.

Then how far can you rely on reminiscence when you have no confirmation from other sources? Most of us find from experience that memory is more beguiling than dependable. Not only are many things forgotten: many are differently "remembered". From police evidence taken from witnesses of an accident a few minutes ago, to reminiscence from people who shared childhood experience sixty, seventy or eighty years ago, memories will differ, even when the witnesses confront one another. Some difference may be talked out, and resolved into confusion over just what is being referred to; or some witnesses may give way to the authority of another, right or wrong, and so raise a new uncertainty in the mind of the historian. But some differences arise from real and interesting differences of perception: the same steps may be iron to the man who fixed them but wood to the woman whose feet didn't slip on the treads set in his frame; the same hedge is stock-proof to the grazier but unsound to the shepherd at lambing time or the small boy or roaming fox whose path goes through it. The best paddling place you remember may depend on whether you wore Wellingtons, as well as your experience of broken glass, rusty tins, or leeches. The length of a path, the steepness of a slope, the height of a tree ... depends on your size, and also on whether you walk or ride, and for pleasure or necessity, often or seldom, whether you have a toboggan, and whether you climb.

All memory tends to be selective: the extraordinary is more memorable than the ordinary, but is not necessarily remembered as extraordinary. Among the few Helmdon children lucky enough nowadays to go to school sometimes across fields, how many in old age will assert, "We used to walk across the fields to school" — and believe it happened nearly always? Reminiscence of weather is particularly unreliable. A friend of mine when she grumbled at cold summers used to insist that in her childhood even after dark people sat at cottage doors to chat. How often did they? Just on the odd night when she was too hot to go to sleep? We have to make allowance for the influences on memory, but also for the influences on the circumstance that is remembered: those women who worked at their lace at the cottage doors were not only needing a free good light: they also wore much warmer clothes than we usually do, and were more used to the cold indoors, especially cold floors and draughts: and they worked such long hours that they would put up with some discomfort for the sake of being within reach of a neighbourly chat while they worked — so their practice is doubtful evidence on weather. We know that they worked at their doors, but we can't argue from that that the weather was warm.

When you have decided what evidence is sound, you have to consider how to present it. The character of an informant, as well as the situation described, can come over vividly, if what he or she says is printed fully. But few of us can talk clearly enough for that, even about ourselves. Mont Abbott, of Sheila Stewart's Lifting the Latch (1987, OUP), was a solitary superb autobiographical speaker standing out from a host of the rambling and the diffident. So editing is unavoidably heavy sometimes. But the historian can choose from a wide range of interference with his material, from selecting passages on selected topics and doing very little inside them beyond omitting 'um' and 'er' and the like, to quoting here and there to fill out and colour an objective narrative or explanation. Literary discretion will decide when a character is interestingly quotable, or when a range of informants reinforce or conflict with one another in a way that makes quotation richer than the historian's own words judging between them. Good judgment as both historian and writer is needed to avoid overloading with quoted colour, or a superfluity of evidence that drowns rather than confirms the argument drawn from it. The hoped for readership will influence decisions: informants are thanked by being named and quoted for their neighbours to see, and potential readers may be interested in a topic partly because of who may be mentioned in the discussion of it.

We members of the WEA local history group are a mixed bunch, not only in our experience of Helmdon As local historians we are all amateurs, some with less experience than others. Oral evidence may be useful to any of us for part of our information, and for some subjects it is all the evidence there can be. It would be helpful to hear your reactions to this first issue of Aspects of Helmdon, and we should warmly welcome any memories you will share with us.

Jean  Spendlove

[Article first published in Aspects of Helmdon 1 (1997), pp 3 - 5]

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