Saturday 19 November 2016

Treasures of Oral History by Katherine Webb

Whenever I'm asked about my research process, I always say that I read as much that was written at time as I can. You simply can't beat hearing about something from the horse's mouth. Nobody knows what it was actually like to live through a particular historical event or era unless they actually did so, and, as a writer of historical fiction, I can pick up up valuable pointers on vocabulary, attitude and what was really important to those people, as well as an insight in to what actually happened.

There are some great collections of oral history around; the 'Voices' series are excellent, for example:

The local history section of a library is also often a treasure trove - the WI and other such groups will often have compiled, somewhere in their history, stories of their member's childhoods. I often write about rural village communities in the early twentieth century, and these seemingly 'small' stories of school days, hedge remedies, pocket money, do-it-yourself fun and favourite treats are endlessly fascinating to me.

Whenever I can, I try to find somebody to actually talk to who lived in the time and place I need to learn about - not always easy or possible, but so rewarding when it works out. Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about my grandparents - how they met, in North Africa, just after the Second World War, how I first came to find out about their adventurous, romantic history, and the effect it had on me. You can read the article here (copy and paste link into browser) -

- but the crux of the piece was that almost always, when we lose somebody, particularly an older family member, we find ourselves wishing we had known them better, and had asked them more about themselves and their lives, before it was too late. 

This is especially true for anyone with an interest in history. The elderly are, of course, invaluable sources of knowledge. The generation who lived through the Second World War, the 1950s and swinging sixties, are gradually being lost to us. But on a personal level, I find the stories of those we know and love to be so much more compelling. And so, in the spirit of preservation, I decided to interview my beloved dad for this blog post:

John Alfred Webb, born in 1937

Dad turns 80 soon. 80! I can't quite believe it and neither can he. When I think that somebody so closely related to me remembers the Blitz, it gives me an odd feeling - as though it has become more real, when before it was just something that happened in the past to other people. It makes Dad seem like a time traveller of some kind. Which of course he is; we all are. Dad was born and grew up in Ilford, East London; he was too young to be evacuated, and so remained with his parents in London during the blitz. I interviewed him about his earliest memories, now so far in the past (sorry, Dad) and this is what he told me:

"My earliest memory, aged 3, is of seeing contrails in a blue sky, which must have been during the Battle of Britain, and not understanding my mother's explanation of aeroplanes with men in them... The first Christmas I remember, maybe when I was 4 or 5, was waking up to find presents on the foot of the bed, including a wooden lorry, painted in camouflage colours, complete with a load of miniature sandbags. I was also convinced that I had seen Father Christmas.

I remember my mother spending all day on a Monday doing the washing, with a copper and a mangle. Then later in the week she would spend all day ironing it, with two flat irons that she heated on the gas stove and used in rotation - it was all very Dickensian.

Dad, seated, with his older brother David and sister Margaret

My memories of the Blitz include being woken in the middle of the night, wrapped up in a blanket and carried in a rush to the shelter in the garden, but most of all the noise of the anti-aircraft battery in Barking Park (about a third of a mile from the house). Another vivid memory is my frustration at not being allowed out to see a burning German bomber on the way down, or the burning house across the road, which had been hit by an incendiary bomb.

At that young age the war was fragmented for me, and did not really figure again after the Blitz, until the advent of the V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets. A V1 hit the school I subsequently went to, about to approximately a third of a mile away; and a V2 rocket hit Seven Kings Park, also a third of a mile from my primary school, during lunch playtime. I don’t remember feeling afraid, but I must have been, because the sudden noise of a siren being tested (they were used as fire alarms) opposite my workplace in 1955, caused my heart rate to go up to about 200 bpm - it had obviously touched my subconscious memory.

My favourite meal in earlier days was my mother’s steak and kidney pie – a highlight of the week after school lunches, which were somewhat unusual. My least favourite was anything containing cheese, a result of unhappy memories at primary school when food was in short supply during the war. (ed.: After 70 years of this cheese boycott, Dad has recently started eating mild cheeses like brie and feta. Go figure.)

My memories of school are mixed. I was quite daunted by grammar school at first - teachers in gowns and mortarboards, and initially a very strict disciplinary regime. Overall my memories are positive, but we were a small school and in the sixth form you had to take part in some activities, e.g. acting in house plays, which were not by choice, and I always dreaded. I think we were privileged to receive a very good education. Careers advice was in its infancy as was not very good – the headmaster was not really interested unless you were going on to university.

Dad with his father and sister Margaret, on holiday at Corfe Castle, Dorset; Dad aged eleven

Family holidays were few and far between due to the war and the lack of cash after it. My parents, sister and I went to Swanage in 1948 and Exmouth in 1952. We stayed at private houses on both occasions for the said financial reasons. My last family holiday was to Sandown, Isle of Wight, with my parents and my best friend Brian Johnson – the occasion of my first real encounter with the opposite sex. (ed.: I intend to find out more about this!)
I do not remember my father being very “hands on”. He was too busy being in the army during the war and working afterwards. We just did as we were told (most of the time). My sister and I fought like cats and dogs when we were young, with me always coming off worst. We drove my mother to despair.The first encounter with the doctor that I remember was when he visited my primary school after I had broken my leg in the playground. This came about at the age of 5 after a collision with a “huge” girl, who was 7 years old.
I do get annoyed when people, usually on tv, talk about the 1970s as though they were the Dark Ages of taste. There are so many comments, often from people who were not there, judging them by today’s thinking/standards. Today's tastes and opinions may be viewed very differently in the future. Certainly most practical aspects of life are better now, though, for example the standard of living, the quality of food and clothing, the ease of travel to virtually anywhere on the globe. 

My mum, Alison, on the left; Mum's grandparents and Dad, right. (1970s fashions...history will decide! Ed.)
However, life was simpler and more sensible in many ways a few decades ago. We believed, rightly or wrongly that most politicians had the good of the country at heart and were not devious, “economical with the truth”, and looking after No.1. There are now too many career politicians who have never had experience of anything else in the commercial or professional world. At a more trivial level, we did not have “Health and Safety” or political correctness; and the country was not the blasted talking shop it has become. (Why else did the main character in “Life on Mars” jump off the roof to get back to the 1970s?) Car manuals definitely did not have 750 pages back then! I dislike the swearing that has become commonplace, particularly with comedians.
I never formally proposed to your mother. We had been together for over a year, and had been sharing a house with two friends under fairly basic conditions. Eventually, after Mum had dropped some fairly subtle hints, it just seemed a very good idea. Having decided, we were married two or three months later. I regret not having thanked my parents for all their efforts and support until I finally realised and appreciated it, by which time it was then too late." (ed.: potentially some kind of hint here?)

Mum and Dad on their wedding day, November 1971
There's something so poignant to me about the thought of my grandma using flat irons heated on her stove to do the family ironing. Surely the world has changed more in the past 100 years than at any other time in its history to date. But then, who nows what the next 100 years will bring!


Sue Bursztynski said...

Oral history is amazing. In fact, that's basically what Herodotus's Histories is. He didn't have dusty library archives to look at. He just asked people who said they had been there(and, I'm guessing, made up the rest!). My niece has to do a speech in Ancient History at school and asked for my help. So I did some looking up for her.

I love local history. Wherever I've worked, I look up what happened in that area(the Melbourne suburb where I work now was the hind if the Harvester Judgement, which gave workers the world's first basic wage. Some of our students have had family living in the area for generations). When I was working at a school that was closing down, I was in charge of getting memories from people who had attended the school and putting them together into a publication. One woman sent us a letter remembering her wartime experiences, when the school was collecting rubber tyres for the war effort. She recalled rolling a tyre up the hill and having it roll back! Others recalled when the room we used as a staffroom was part of a flat for the Principal, who had the cleaning and the washing done by her students(it was a girls' school and the students were training to be housewives or servants).

You can't get that kind of stuff in a book, except when someone puts it all together, but it brings history alive as kings and generals don't.

Ms. said...

WHAT AN ENLIGHTENING PIECE. Must have been a joy to compile. Over here on the other side of the big 'pond' I've similar memories of childhood during world war two--Grandma and heating irons on the old stove, the smell of naptha flakes on wash days and the labors of hanging clothes on rickety lines in backyards, the ice man bringing blocks of ice for the ice box, making margerine with a dye pellet worked into lard, liver with onions to make them edible when meat was too dear, newspapers with alarming headlines, swimming in the Hudson river, praying for the dead soldiers---but different of course, without the blackouts and the sound of bombs, more concentrated on the fears of nuclear war after Hiroshima...practicing hiding under the desks at school and being smart enough to know that would never protect us - having seen the mushroom cloud and firestorm, the shadows on the land of incinerated beings. How fortunate you are to still have elders for your research. I've become fascinated with the first world war recently...well for several years now. My father (now gone) lost almost all his brothers to that bloodbath. A fellow blogger has taken the 'great war' as his main topic and I've been checking in there often (

Becca McCallum said...

Fascinating stuff! I love hearing older people talk about their lives - I've spent years listening to my grandma's stories of her early years growing up in California and then coming back to Scotland and being sent to boarding school. Now I've started to write them down in her own words, and it's amazing just how much she remembers. My great aunt, also, has some wonderful stories. You can never see someone as 'just another old person' once they've told you about herding sheep to market with their brother, or sitting on the wall as a teenager chatting with an Italian POW worker.

Katherine said...

Thanks so much for these replies, Becca, Sue and Ms. Great to hear some of your memories! And yes, it is so, so valuable talking to older folk about the times they lived through, and what they remember. You absolutely cannot get it from most history books. Let's hope people keep on compiling.

AnnP said...

I really enjoyed this post - thank you, Katherine. I was born just after WW2 and certainly remember Monday washday with the copper and the wringer. My father was born in 1913 and told me a lot about his early life though I wish I had written down more while he was alive. One thing that particularly sticks in my mind was that he learnt the alphabet at school using a sand tray.