Oral and Visual History

4: Oral History

Oral history is the live recording on audio and video tape of the memories of older people. It is also the sharing of these memories with children. It can also be about children sharing their own memories. It has obvious advantages: it offers insights that no written document can give and it allows the children to ask questions. For the older person concerned it can be enjoyable, even therapeutic. Here too though, there are rules. Both the children and their visitor need to be prepared: the older person needs to know the focus of the children's interests and the children need to know something about the period they are enquiring into. The older person also needs to be sympathetic to children's concerns now. If feasible the older person should be someone already familiar to the children, a volunteer perhaps or someone who has visited the school before. In this way they will be more aware of the shortness of children's attention span, the need to keep to the point and to make descriptions lively. Needless to say the person should speak clearly, not use to many specialist or dialect words and not refer to too many subjects that the children know little about. All these conditions having been met, the experience can be one of the most rewarding for the teacher to arrange, demonstrating that history is not just about kings and queens of long ago but about ourselves, yesterday. It is the equivalent of film and television but the genuine article. For further guidance in this area go to the website of the Oral History Society (www.oralhistory.org.uk).

Diaries, letters and 'ephemera'

Whilst not oral history in the strict sense of the word there are certain kinds of historical document which have almost the same quality of immediacy as the spoken word. They are the 'off-the-record' utterances of ordinary and not so ordinary people, usually private in nature that give us an insight into the mentality of the period from which they come. Usually they survive by the purest chance, for example the papyrus which preserves the confession of the Ancient Egyptian tomb robber Amenpanufer (see above), perhaps the first occasion when we hear the voice of an ordinary man, albeit in extreme circumstances. From the time of the Romans come the graffiti carved or scribbled on the walls of houses in Pompeii, funny and sad, conniving and indecent. Not long afterwards life on the frontier of Roman Britain is vividly evoked by the Vindolanda tablets, the equivalent of Roman postcards or perhaps e-mails, shovelled out with the rubbish sometime in the second century AD, to be retrieved by archaeologists nearly two millennia later. We have to wait until the High Middle Ages to hear the voice of the common man again, relayed to us through the busy ear of Geoffrey Chaucer (died circa 1400). His successor was not another poet but the half crazy and wholly enjoyable Margery Kempe died circa (1440) who cried her way around Europe. Her 'Book' is the first autobiography in English.

Margery lived, though she didn't know it, at the end of one era and the start of another. From the later 15th Century comes the first collection of private letters to survive: those of the Paston family of Norfolk. They show ordinary people becoming increasingly conscious of their own importance, a trend that accelerates through the Tudor period, climaxing in the works of Shakespeare whose plays give us the whole spectrum of society in its own words, from beggars to princes. Shakespeare died in 1624; less than a dozen years later there was born the greatest of all pre-modern diarists, the always entertaining Samuel Pepys. Pepys wrote carefully in cipher so that his inner thoughts and experiences would be safe from prying eyes, especially his wife's. His honesty and generally good nature make him one of best guides to any period in history there has ever been, although - alas - he gave up his diary in 1669, believing that writing it was ruining his eyesight. By then he was becoming an important man, too close to the centres of power to maintain that detachment that is the hallmark of all great diarists. In that year his wife died and the concealment of his thoughts became no longer necessary. In any case, by the age of 36 he may have thought that he knew all there was to know about himself.

In the century that followed Pepys a host of individuals kept diaries and the habit of writing letters became widespread. For the time being however it was the literate who recorded their existence in this way. For the illiterate we often have to rely on court records and the conscientiousness of magistrates' clerks who wrote down the testimony of those accused of crimes or called as witnesses. Not until the advent of universal state education do we have direct testimony from those whom destiny would otherwise have consigned to oblivion. The largest class of these are soldiers in the First World War writing home. Their often vivid and moving letters form an unequalled archive of the thoughts and feelings of ordinary men, sometimes written hours before they were killed or badly wounded in the trenches. Alongside them are the faded family photograph albums that record both set-pieces - weddings and the like - and the more informal holiday 'snaps' that the newly marketed 'Box Brownie' camera made possible. The peak of such archive activity is probably the 1930s, with other kinds of media - notably the telephone - taking over after the Second World War. Nowadays e-mail has all but replaced the private letter but how much trace will it leave to the archaeologists of the Year 3000 to guess our innermost thoughts?

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