Chapter 9

 

Oral Histories: the biographical background of the collective (1999)

 

Oral history as a methodology is introduced in some detail. This is followed by a discussion of the six interviews with collective members made in the autumn of 1999. This discussion is in three parts and covers matters of ethnic identity; educational and class backgrounds; and cultural influences. Relations between these life experiences and the broader historical provenances of the group are noted.

Oral History Methodology

I was only seven when she (my great-grandmother) died and most of her stories came to me through other family members. They taught me when I came to consider them much later, to treat so called 'oral history' with care. As stories and anecdotes they were lively and interesting, as were the stories passed on by other branches of the family - stories of seafaring under sail and of the theatre and music hall. But as factual or descriptive accounts they lost and gained much in the telling. (Dorothy Thompson, 1993 p5)

Is this what is meant by oral history? If a person takes note of the stories told by their grandmother are they an Oral Historian? Dorothy Thompson's great grandmother's stories were told to her by other family members. They were not direct memories of experiences but memories of the stories related by the grandmother. To construct an oral history in the academic sense of the word it is preferable to record a person talking about the past that they themselves experienced. What Dorothy Thompson is talking about is the story of the past that is passed down to us through oral culture. A clear distinction needs to be maintained between the two meanings of oral history. Clearly someone talking about their own experience has a certain immediacy and veracity that a secondary account does not.

Someone relating their memory of what someone else said is clearly a lot less reliable than a direct memory of what they themselves experienced. With memories of secondhand stories we enter an area of hear-say and eventually myth - which is in itself interesting but which we can usefully differentiate from accounts of actual experiences. Even directly related memories of things experienced constitute evidence that should not be asserted as historical fact without a rigorous checking against other sources.[1]

Oral cultures may be defined as being all those cultures in which the written form does not play a central role. The performative is central in oral cultures. The word is not just spoken but accompanied by a veritable flux of expressive forms. Oral communication occurs in forms which include tonal variation, volume modulation, velocity and rhythm as well as gesture, posture and facial expression - it is a multi-sensory performance medium. This is in addition to the musical characteristics which are unique to spoken language like jingling combinations and regional rhythms. As the Booker Prize winning Glasg'wegian novelist James Kelman has shown, people from oral cultures may communicate with few words but will have a rich non-verbal communication.[2]

I have already made the point that Exploding Cinema is embedded in an oral culture. It is therefore important to understand oral culture if we are to fully appreciate the communicative dynamics of phenomena such as Exploding Cinema.[3]

For the purposes of this methodology we should note that whilst written and printed documents, such as the programmes, may be more accurate at fixing events in a precise chronology, oral accounts might tell us more about the dynamics and force of experience that actually motivates and gives qualitative content to social history. Both sources of data have their uses in making sense of the past and there is no reason why these uses cannot be complimentary.

Quite apart from the formal differences whole areas of human life have gone unrecorded in written documents and are accessible only through the verbal reports of witnesses. This information can be quite utilitarian; such as how an obsolete tool was made and used. Or it can be more subjective information such as persons experience of a war. This subjective information may not be simple to transcribe as much of its value may be contained in the non-verbal aspect of oral communication, as described above, rather than in words alone.

The oral history interview differs from the journalistic interview in that it should not be contained by the agenda of the interviewer. Ideally it is the interviewee that decides on the priorities of what is to be recounted. Oral history is ideally interviewee led.[4]

The History of Oral History

How and why oral history came to differentiate itself as a distinct area of study from mainstream history is important in understanding oral history as a distinct methodology.

After WWII the expansion of higher education meant that thousands of lower-class people entered tertiary education of the first time and began to notice the absence of their own ancestors from the history books. The hegemonic controls of the literary elite were also being challenged by the insistent demands of the new mass communications markets. Historians such as G.D.H.Cole and H.L.Beales, radicals from the Thirties, founded the Society for the Study of Labour History and for the first time the history of the common people began to be studied in earnest and without condescension by historians such as Edward and Dorothy Thompson.

By the mid-Sixties a new lower-class intelligentsia had started to ask radical questions about the lack of primary sources from which a more democratic history could be constructed. Quoting Dorothy Thompson again;

The wealthy and educated insiders had left many records. Not only in the mass of material concerned with government and high politics, but in the literature, in the records of legal cases, property transactions, in personal journals and correspondence, and in every kind of document from wills to laundry lists. The poor had no muniment rooms and seldom entered any records on their own terms. They appear as servants, criminals, recipients of charity or as turbulent or obedient subjects. (Dorothy Thompson, 1993 p16)

It was in the heady atmosphere of Sixties cultural revolt that Oral History arose to fill this void. It was Paul Thompson from one of the new universities that made the first large scale oral history programme in Britain in which 459 Edwardians born between 1872 and 1906 were interviewed about family and work.[5] [published in 1975 as The Edwardians.. check and list]

This work was aided by a technological advanceƒ the portable cassette tape recorder. The first oral history tape recording had been made in the 1930s as part of the US New Deal Federal Writers Project but cumbersome early equipment limited its use.  The advent of simple cheap hi-fidelity sound recording allowed the oral to be archived as evidence so the most compelling argument against the use of oral sources in the construction of history began to evaporate.

Oral History, as a sort of movement, symbolised a democratic repositioning of the viewpoints from which representations of ourselves were being made. Our consciousness of who we are as humans is made from and contained within these shared representations.

Since then oral testimony has informed many history programmes on television and had a huge influence on documentaries.[6] There are now several major archives in London: The Imperial War Museum, The National Sound Archive, the BBC Sound Archive and The Museum of London are amongst the largest.

Methodological Considerations.

Many witnesses may suppress traumatic memories. The full emotional force of a person's experience is not usually available outside of the special conditions of regular therapeutic counseling. This is a limitation of my interviews. In spite of this some very personal and emotionally charged information is revealed. Again it should be emphasised that the reductive nature of transcription does tend to mute the emotional charge of oral statements.[7]

Apart from the suppression of trauma, another problem with oral testimony is related to the vagaries of more distant memories. For instance, it is very common for people to telescope two similar events into one. Even the two world wars have been mixed up by people who lived through both of them. This was true of the Exploding history when I was asking about the early continental tours. I was not able to get a coherent account of the second tour to Germany.[8] The more dramatic, recent and repeated an experience, the more likely it is to be remembered clearly. Even relatively recent events are not available without the right triggers. Asking the right question can gain access to a flood of vivid memories which in another context might not be accessible.[9]

Even written documents are dependent on the vagaries of memory and as Alessandro Portelli points out; "What is written is first experienced or seen, and is subject to distortions even before it is set down on paper." (History Workshop Journal 12 1981)

The process of oral history can be a medium of social and personal change in itself. Even something as simple as asking someone to tell you their life story can allow them the space to re-appraise their lives, sometimes in profound ways. Being part of the rituals of a more formal history making process can validate the worth of a person's life - perhaps at a time when little else does. Oral history in old peoples' homes has been noticed to have a profoundly therapeutic effect. This has led to a cross-over in practice with clinical psychology which is now an area of practice often known as Reminiscence work. As the population of elderly people grows the value of these processes may become increasingly important.

But the recording process can also lead to unexpected closure. Recording an account of an experience can give it a sense of completion. This is even more likely if the record is published. A published validation of the efforts of the Exploding Cinema Collective might make it seem less urgent to keep asserting the live event. It could give a sense that it was time to move on.

As I have said the limitation of research into the past using Oral History is the life-span of the population under study. Now that tape archives, such as the excellent resources offered by the Imperial War Museum, are established, it will be increasingly possible at least to listen to people who died some time ago. It must be admitted that cassette tapes are a tedious form of primary source being impossible to flick through in the way you can a book. This constitutes a real limitation to their use compared with records on paper. The advanced search facilities of digital recordings will go some way to dissolving this barrier and promise to make oral sources an important component of future knowledges.

Oral History offers the possibility of a more diverse or consensual history whose emphasis is not so much the hard - cold - dry - facts but more the soft, warm, moist aspects of human experience. The existence of a diverse, non-linear digital archives based on a democratic process of recording oral testimony is something that would make the historicising of social relations on a wide scale more feasible. My aim with the current interviews is less ambitious. It is simply to see what influences in peoples lives led them to join Exploding Cinema and once there how these earlier experiences might have contributed to the cultural activity.

The interviews with the Exploding Cinema collective were recorded on DVCAM[10] video in people's homes from August to December 1999.[11] The forty minute interviews were divided into two halves. For the first twenty minutes I asked people to tell their life story with some emphasis on their first experiences of film and art. There was then the possibility of a short break followed by a twenty minute interview which asked for their most memorable experiences of Exploding Shows and whatever else they wanted to say about their time with Exploding Cinema.

I had made an earlier Hi8 video recording of Duncan Reekie talking about the early history of the Exploding Cinema and his own life in 1996.[12] So I started the new interview by asking him further information about one aspect of his family history which had a direct link with musichall. The rest of the interview was a discussion of theoretical issues with regard to the historicisation of Exploding Cinema.

The audio was then transferred to standard audio cassette tape and professionally transcribed. The transcriptions were checked against the tapes. VHS viewing copies and electronic files of the transcription were sent to each of the interviewees.[13]

Print-outs of the transcriptions were then used to construct an edited script that foregrounds what key aspects of the life histories of these collective members. I edited the transcripts under three headings: Where they are from; What their early influences were; How they came to join Exploding Cinema. I wanted to show how people's backgrounds have an influence on present cultural formations. Or to put it another way how present formations arise in part from the subjective experiences of actors and those of their ancestors. A draft of this script was also circulated to the collective. Other material recorded in these interviews that covers more recent experiences of Exploding Cinema is used throughout the narrative history section of this thesis.

It would no doubt be better to view this material on video than read the edited transcript. The sound and image on video inevitably gives a richer and more vivid representation compared to the transcripts and allows us to grasp the performative quality of oral communication. [14]

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[1] Even testimony, which must be regarded as factually doubtful, such as stories of second-hand experiences, may be of use in reflecting on people's values and interests. Giving information, not on fact, but on myth which can itself be analysed as an expression of a peoples values.

 

[2] See his Booker prize winning novel How Late It Is, How Late by James Kelman (W.W.Norton 1994)

 

[3] Understandably, and as I have noted in the previous chapters (on Culture and semiotic analysis), oral culture and its communicative media have been relatively unstudied compared with the study of the literary sphere.

 

[4] Of course when it comes to selecting from the recorded interviews and making an analysis and interpretation the historian still has tremendous power to form the resulting history.

 

[5] One of the best sources on the history of oral history is Paul Thompson's The Voice of the Past: Oral history, (Oxford U.P. 2nd edition, 1988 orig. 1978)

 

[6] Stephen Peet produced and directed 'Yesterdays Witness' the worlds first oral history TV series from 1969 to 1980. 'We made over 80 programmes for this series' Stephen Peet (CV/self information flyer, 1999).

 

[7] Videotape copies will be available at the presentation of this thesis.

 

[8] According to a small poster the second Tour of Germany was around the beginning of December 1994.

 

[9] Paul Tarrago had prepared for the interview by talking to his mother in the days beforehand.

 

[10] They were recorded on forty minute long DVCAM videotapes with a SONY PD100p camera equipped with a Sennheiser ME66 microphone.

 

[11] Interviews were made with Thomas Zagrosek, Colette Rouhier, Paul Tarrago, Jenet Thomas and Duncan Reekie in their own homes. Caroline Kennedy was interviewed during an event at the Anarchist Bookfair in October.

 

[12] This was made as part of my MA thesis at KIAD (1996) and was one of my first personal contacts with the group.

 

[13] The interviewees were thanked and invited to make further contributions if they wished to amend or add to what they had said on tape. There were no amendments. Some however did not find it easy to watch themselves on tape.

 

[14] Alessandro Portelli has argued (1981) that studying transcripts is like studying paintings from the reproductions in colour supplements. The spoken word has so many inflections, especially when considered as performative communication, that much of the communicative content is lost in the process of transcription. But even so quotes from transcriptions can infuse an otherwise dry academic account with an emotional charge which can radically change an interpretation of content.