History in the speaking

In 2000, the renowned cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, then aged 75, made a recording in London of such power it leaves the listener stunned. In it she speaks of her time in the women’s orchestra at Auschwitz-Birkenau: “What did I feel like? There? Feelings were a total luxury in those days. What do you feel like sitting in Birkenau with the chimneys smoking in front of you, you playing music? Dr Mengele, the mass murderer comes in – not just a murderer but the man who experimented on human beings – and asks to hear a piece of music by Schumann, what did I feel like?”

Lasker-Wallfisch’s is just one of the 2,306 National Life Stories recorded for the British Library since 1987, when Paul Thompson, the sociologist and oral historian, and Asa Briggs, the historian and provost of Worcester College, Oxford, set up NLS “to record first-hand experiences of as wide a cross-section of present-day society as possible”. They meant precisely that: lengthy tape recordings – typically 10 to 15 hours – of the lives and times of both the eminent and the ordinary.

The chef Michel Roux, interviewed in 2009, chatters about the physical sensation of rolling a croissant and the refined palate with which Cécile de Rothschild ate the omelettes he made her; the novelist Hilary Mantel, in 2007-08, speaks with measured elegance about the startling improvement in her health when writing about the rudely strong Thomas Cromwell; a post office worker recalls the business of delivering telegrams announcing a son or husband’s death in the second world war; an anonymous female City worker describes how in 1995 the “women in the fund management department at one of the banks called themselves ‘the Tampax team’”; Lucian Freud’s butcher speaks warmly of his eminent former customer, his benign words a counterweight to thoughts expressed in some of the recordings made for another of NLS’s projects, “Artists’ Lives”; and, interviewed just before his death last year, the computer scientist Sir Maurice Wilkes conjures up the “Sunday Soviets” at which scientists and the armed forces discussed exactly how radar might be put to use in the war.

What makes these recordings so remarkable is their fullness, their fascination not just with the work but also with the politics, the sex, the memories, the attitudes. They begin in childhood and strive to “add layers to the onion”, seeking out “detail – and then the detail behind the detail”, in the words of Cathy Courtney, who as a project officer of NLS has been making such recordings for 21 years. As a result they offer not only former London Stock Exchange chairman Sir Nicholas Goodison’s precise 1988 account of opening up membership of the Stock Exchange to overseas securities houses but also his memory that, “When my wife was producing our second son, Adam, I remember when I was standing at her bedside holding the gas over her nose, I was on the telephone, placing shares.”

Artist Antony Gormley (2008, ‘Artists’ Lives’)

Goodison became chairman of the trustees of National Life Stories in 2003; his interview, together with those of other City denizens, had in fact been something of an academic breakthrough. Oral history, says Rob Perks, director of NLS and by background a social historian, had “emerged in the 1960s and 1970s to redress the predominant interest of historians with elites. So a lot of it was to do with working-class experience, ethnic experience, women’s experience.” But, he adds, by the late 1980s “oral historians like Paul Thompson began to realise that large areas of society hadn’t benefited from oral methodology. And this was at a time when oral history was becoming much more mainstream in the academy. So NLS was set up with a mission to rebalance a bit.”

To raise funding, Thompson sold a Henry Moore his father had given him for £230,000 – which endowed NLS. The first project was “City Lives” (1987-2000), a radical, almost elitist departure from oral history convention, part-funded by City firms, that brought grandees such as Lord Rothschild and Lord O’Brien, a former governor of the Bank of England, together with Jane Partington, who had trained as a nurse and became one of the first three women to go on the floor of the Stock Exchange.

“City Lives” was followed by further NLS projects, all available to be listened to at the British Library or, increasingly, online: “The Living Memory of the Jewish Community” (1988-1993), “Artists’ Lives” (1990-), “An Oral History of the Post Office” (2001-2003), “Lives in Steel” (1991-1992), “An Oral History of Tesco” (2003-2007), “Book Trade Lives” (1998-2006), “Food: From Source to Salespoint” (1997-2007), “An Oral History of British Science” (2009-) and many more. Forth Bridgean though his task is, Perks is inspired by a vision of “total history; this concept of comprehensiveness”.

Designer Terence Conran (2004-2005, ‘NLS General’)

One set of “lives” can feed another. In 1993, Sir Roger Gibbs, then of the discount house, Gerrard and National, spoke to Cathy Courtney for “City Lives” about what she calls his “extremely interesting” family, which includes Christopher Gibbs, the grand antiques dealer who is godfather to one of Mick Jagger’s children and was heavily instrumental in persuading Paul Getty Jr to give £40m to the National Gallery. Gibbs was, Courtney felt, an obvious candidate for another project, “Artists’ Lives”, and he turned out to be a “superb speaker” whose recording is one of her favourites. Gibbs, in turn, “much enjoyed doing my rap – which went on for years [he was recorded from 1999-2007]. She came to me and we spent long hours jawing in the evening light of Albany [off Piccadilly]. She’s wonderfully adroit in extracting what she wants.” According to Courtney, “where radio wants people to speak concisely, we want them to do exactly the reverse. We want the ramble, the anecdote, the digression. We start with the family history they know and, by the time we’ve talked about the parents, grandparents, some uncles and aunts and all those relatives’ politics and clothes and cooking, by the time the spotlight is on the present person, they’re understanding where you’re coming from.”

One author never taped was Iris Murdoch, who died in 1999, but, O’Reilly points out, “If you type her name into the British Library’s sound archive catalogue (http://cadensa.bl.uk), you will find a host of interviews in which she features. [The artist] Harry Weinberger talks about her as a great patron of his work and describes painting her (‘Artists’ Lives’); theatre director David Gothard describes tea at the Ritz with Iris and Mrs Gandhi (‘Legacy of the English Stage Company’); [the designer] Ronald Costley gives details of the particular line spacing she wanted in her books (‘Book Trade Lives’).”

Perks points out such history is “aural” as well as “oral” – actually to listen to the recordings rather than simply read the transcripts is, says O’Reilly, a way of “extending your intimacy with someone; the voice carries layers of meaning – emotion, tone, emphasis.”

Indeed – except for one thing. A proportion of the interviews are closed – ie, not available for listening to – until after the subject’s death or until their children are older. Perks is relaxed about this: “I’m an archivist – I’m thinking constantly of the future. You have to offer people closure and confidentiality. In offering restrictions, people are generally more candid in what they say. And that’s fine with us.”

And fine, no doubt, for those gay nightclubbing subjects of the novelist Philip Hensher’s recording who, he recently told a gathering at the British Library, might now “be in the Cabinet or something” – that section of his interview is currently closed. But, as the writer Michael Frayn, interviewed for NLS in 2008, says: “It’s very difficult once you’ve started [doing a NLS] not to be more revealing and frank than you intended. There’s a great human need for confession, be it Roman Catholic or psychoanalytical, and the experience is like a secular form of confession, though it’s slightly different, in that the priest and the analyst are bound not to reveal. But the British Library eventually will reveal.”

Computer scientist Maurice Wilkes (2010, 'Oral History of British Science')

Frayn’s recording is closed till his death – “so as not to hurt people’s feelings” – while Caroline Waldegrave’s is closed till 2031. Waldegrave was interviewed for the “Food” project in 2000-2001, having run Leith’s cookery school and worked to improve hospital food. “I was frank,” she says, “too frank. But it was the most extraordinary sensation, talking your life through: cathartic.” Cathartic and, for some, distressing. According to O’Reilly, “Without fail, there’s a moment when interviewees are very surprised by how emotional they get. It’s certainly normal for them to cry.” Michael Frayn is an example: “Some of my memories made me cry. A central event was my mother dying [when Frayn was 11] and remembering that was very painful. But maybe doing the recordings set me off writing my book about my father, so they had some fruit for me, if no one else.”

When O’Reilly sends out letters inviting authors to participate, she often receives replies that remark, “What a refreshingly serious project!” This was something that dawned on Waldegrave as the interview went on. At first, she says, “I just thought it sounded a fun thing to do. When I realised how big it was [‘Food’ alone now has more than 200 interviews], I thought, ‘How incredibly valuable.’ It’s very easy to access and use” – particularly now that summaries of each tape have time references for each topic that might be searched for. For the influential art dealer John Kasmin, “It seemed like a good idea. And then, because I’d been in a privileged public position, I felt a sort of responsibility because people get contemporary history wrong.” He takes it seriously: “I do research, dig up photos, prepare for each session – it’s worth getting the record straight. Very Jewish, getting the record straight. I’m 100 per cent positive about it.”

Rather trickier is NLS’s financial situation. Paul Thompson’s endowment “barely gives us anything now”, says Perks, and the British Library “basically gives us two full-time staff, plus office space”. Waldegrave spends a lot of time trying to raise funds and “that’s quite hard. Once people know about it, they’re definitely interested. What’s difficult is, people give money for specific projects, not admin.” And without such core funding, the number of projects that can be run at the same time is limited. As Sir Nicholas Goodison put it at a party in March for the launch of the CD, “The Writing Life”, culled from “Authors’ Lives”, “Enjoy your drinks. And anyone with any money – come to me.”

It’s to be hoped that they do. National Life Stories are mesmerising – whether it’s the geologist Janet Thomson, interviewed last year, recalling her struggle to be allowed to participate in the previously all-male British Antarctic Survey cruises or the poet Anthony Thwaite on being asked if he could describe the first moments a poem came and how it came, shouting, “You’re ruining my life! The more I talk about it, the less likely I’ll be able to do it.” Or my favourite, from the artist Michael Rothenstein, interviewed in 1990, telling how his tutor, AS Hartrick, lent Van Gogh his Paris flat one August and returned to find the walls covered with drawings Van Gogh had made with the chunks of candle ends he’d turned into wax crayons. To thank Hartrick, Van Gogh appeared the next day with half a dozen canvases and asked him to take one; among them was “Sunflowers”. And, Hartrick told Rothenstein, “You know, I couldn’t stand his work. I said, ‘Look, Vincent, I can’t accept. You need to sell them. Take them to your brother, Theo, and see what he can do with them.’”

Our hidden lives: Simon Garfield on the origins of Mass Observation

Ordinary people are the most interesting people of all, which is why the oral history collected by National Life Stories concentrates not on the instant celebrity but on fascinating lives.

The roots of the NLS project lie in something that occurred 75 years ago, when a man called Tom Harrisson returned to England after a stint in the South Pacific studying cannibals. In 1936 he had one momentous thought: we may know more about distant tribes than we do about the lives of people living in Bolton. The official census recorded statistics but where were the records of our everyday emotions and cumulative daily grind? By 1937, Harrisson had formed a partnership with the poet Charles Madge and the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings, and Mass Observation was born.

Tom Harrisson in 1940

It was a new type of science, “an anthropology of ourselves”. MO logged the real stuff of history as experienced by those not generally called upon for their opinion (this was long before focus groups, Gallup and newspaper vox pops). The experience was written rather than recorded, and methods varied: MO staff began by eavesdropping in northern pubs and factories, noting down what people said as they watched the wrestling or stood in the tripe queue. They also sent questionnaires to a panel of Mass Observers recruited through the newspapers, asking them for their thoughts on the royal family after the abdication crisis, and about their local sports facilities. Those unfamiliar with such tasks were given the introductory challenge of writing about the things on their mantelpiece.

By September 1939 the tone had changed. “Failing further directions being sent you,” the MO panel were told, “would you keep a diary for the next few weeks, keeping political discussion at a minimum, concentrating on the details of your everyday life, your own reactions and those of your family and others you meet.” About 500 people responded. They wrote from industrial centres, country towns and remote villages, completing their diaries after their work as secretaries, accountants, shopworkers, housewives, scientists and civil servants.

About a million pages found their way to the MO headquarters in Blackheath, south London, some on scraps of tissue, some on scented notepaper, some neatly typed, many almost illegible. Some commented merely on the weather and their journey to work, but many kept compelling and detailed journals containing almost every disappointment, joy and quirk of their lives.

In the 1970s, the MO archive was moved to the University of Sussex, where it has been consulted by grateful historians. (I edited three volumes of wartime and postwar diaries and found the experience revelatory, not least the elements expunged from the official biographies, including our anti-Semitism and not very Blitz-spirit selfishness.)

Today, the project is as active as ever. Much of the archive has been digitised and it has an expanding panel of writers submitting their observations on modern topics. The original notion abides, as true in the age of tweeting as in the age of rationing: we, the people, make the best history.


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