Storytelling in the news ….
The next time you overhear an entertaining conversation in the pub, write it down: it may find its place in a boom in oral history that harks back to the great days of mass observation.
Last week the British Library announced it is to work with local BBC radio stations to set up The Listening Project, a Radio 4 programme that will create an oral survey of the nation by putting together thousands of recorded conversations from across Britain. Selected daily excerpts will be broadcast on Radio 4 before news bulletins from the end of this month and an omnibus edition will be aired at the weekends.
Although contributors will be able to select the kind of conversations they send in for consideration, Radio 4’s controller Gwyneth Williams hopes that submissions will add up to more than a barrage of banal small talk. “I would like to invite listeners to help us catch, broadcast and archive for the nation those rare exchanges that really matter, those conversations that can change the course of a life, that are utterly memorable, that we have all had and never forget,” she said last week.
Listeners will be able to submit their conversation through the project website, launching next week, and the British Library, which already holds a wide oral archive, will create a permanent home for the majority of the conversations that are sent in.
The social historian David Kynaston was one of the key authors to develop the oral history approach, while Simon Garfield’s popular treatments of the experimental mass observation projects of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s have also given increasing weight to the voice of the common man and woman in history.
“My book Austerity Britain actually starts with some overheard conversation in a shop on VE Day,” said Kynaston this weekend. “People were heard complaining that it had all been arranged so hurriedly and asking why no church bells had been rung. Because the people are speaking so unselfconsciously, it takes you right there.”
Kynaston said he backs new initiatives aimed at preserving contemporary conversations, both those overheard and those deliberately recorded, for posterity. It is important though, he added, for readers and listeners to be provided with the full context. “There is obviously a difference between retrospective oral history, a reminiscence recounted for recording, and a contemporary note of a conversation,” he said.
The BBC’s move into oral history follows the critical success of Craig Taylor’s book about the capital, which has put the testimony of a rickshaw driver, a council registrar, a city planner, a dominatrix and a market trader on an equal platform and then used them to create a wider picture of London. Over five years Taylor interviewed more than 200 people.
Storyvault, an online video repository for memories, is another response to the new thirst for hearing from the people who really experienced things.
“How often have you heard a person speaking and said, ‘someone should record this before it’s too late?'” the site’s home page asks, urging readers to preserve “fascinating memories from ordinary people which should not be allowed to be forgotten”.
Although technological developments, such as smartphones and internet archives, have boosted interest in contemporary oral history, it is a tradition which has long had advocates in Britain. The mass observation movement was a research organisation set up to balance what was seen as partial reporting of national events. It began in 1936 after Edward VIII’s abdication and concentrated on documenting public feelings about the coronation that followed by collecting anecdotes, overheard comments, and “man-in-the-street” interviews.
In some ways Rob Perks, lead curator of oral history at the British Library, is carrying on the movement’s work. It will be his job to curate and archive the BBC’s Listening Project.
For Kynaston, the new urge to record and preserve a record of our own times is an interesting social indicator. He wonders whether the speed of modern living, coupled with the number of competing distractions, has somehow set up a psychological need for society to shore up its fragments and protect them.
Sellafield: ‘It was all contaminated: milk, chickens, the golf course’
Six decades after Britain’s worst nuclear accident, an oral history of Sellafield reveals what it felt like to live near the plant
I t says something for how Britain’s nuclear establishment worked from the start that when Windscale No1 Pile caught fire in October 1957, it was hushed up so well that even with 11 tons of uranium ablaze for three days, the reactor close to collapse and radioactive material spreading across the Lake District, the people who worked there were expected to keep quiet and carry on making plutonium for the bomb.
Sellafield Stories: Life In Britain’s First Nuclear Plant by Hunter Davies
This was Britain’s worst-ever nuclear accident, but no one was evacuated, no iodine pills were distributed, work went on and most people were not even told about the fire. But, thanks to Sellafield Stories, a book of interviews with nearly 100 people who worked there, lived nearby or whose lives have been linked to the vast West Cumbrian nuclear complex, we know more now about how people really reacted.
Union leader and ex-Commando Cyril McManus says he thought the fire might mean the workers got a day off; Wally Eldred, the scientist who went on to be head of laboratories at BNFL, says he was told to “carry on as normal”; and chemist Marjorie Higham says she paid no attention. “Things did go wrong so you just didn’t take any notice. The less you know about it the less you can tell anyone else.”
“You kept quiet. But you know you were scared stiff really. Those who were working there… didn’t want to be seen against the thing,” says Mary Johnson, now in her 90s, who was born on the farm that was compulsorily purchased to become the site of Sellafield.
But we also know from the interviews that it was largely thanks to the courage of deputy general manager Tom Tuohy that the Lake District is still habitable today. When all else had failed to stop the fire, Tuohy, a chemist, now dead, scaled the reactor building, took a full blast of the radiation and stared into the blaze below.
“He was standing there putting water in and if things had gone wrong with the water – it had never been tried before on a reactor fire – if it had exploded, Cumberland would have been finished, blown to smithereens. It would have been like Chernobyl… there was contamination everywhere, on the golf course, in the milk, in chickens… but it was quickly forgotten about,” says McManus.
Everyone in West Cumbria has a relationship with Sellafield. Every family has someone who worked there or has somehow benefited from it. The book includes interviews with Sellafield foremen, scientists, managers, farmers, labourers, anti-nuclear activists, the vicar, the MP and bank manager, policemen, physicists, welders and accountants.
My relationship began at 13 when I went to school at St Bees, just three miles away. We ran punishment runs past it, danced at Calder girls school, kissed the daughters of the scientists, were jeered at by the workers for wearing shorts and we got shown round it, I am almost certain, by Tom Tuohy, whose son was at school with us. I remember my dad saying the nuclear scientists thought they were “little gods” and my mum demanding that our medical records include the fact we were at school so close to the reactors.
What emerges is the intimate, honest, sometimes ugly story of how a wartime bomb factory was dumped in one of Britain’s most cut-off areas, turned to producing plutonium for the atom bomb, then nuclear electricity and is now a American-led multinational corporation decommissioning the mess that it largely created.
But how did Sellafield become Europe’s nuclear dustbin and the target of so much hostility to nuclear power? Its roots in weaponry explain the high security and the arrogance of its inward-looking early management. The fact that much of the workforce was drawn from the declining local iron ore and coal mines may explain the camaraderie of the workers and the vibrant community. But, the book suggests, its sheer physical isolation may have been responsible for some of the deep fears that people have of nuclear power.
The stories, edited by Hunter Davies, suggest that much of what happened then is inconceivable now. Management, profligate with money, was criminally careless with safety and ecology. It thought nothing of trying to block Wastwater lake to get more water or trying to mine the national park for a waste dump. It recklessly dumped contaminated water out to sea and filled old mines with radioactive waste.
It was useless with people, too. “I used to get very cross with their housing policy. The place was set up very much like a War Department settlement. If you lived on a certain street, you were of a certain status within the works. It was just bonkers,” says Alan Postlethwaite, the truculent vicar of Seascale, who was accused of being a crypto-communist for even thinking the plant might be linked to cancers.
“What aroused my anxieties was within 12 or 18 months I conducted the funerals of thee children who died of leukaemia. And that put the frighteners on us because we had small children. When you asked, ‘How many would you expect in a community of 2,000 people?’ and were told, ‘Perhaps one in 20 years’ and you’d had three in a year… that’s something to bother about. No, I am not anti-nuclear, but my goodness, I think they could have made a better fist of it if they’d tried harder,” he says.
Seven rare cancers were found in the small Seascale community between 1955 and 1983, yet the authorities “proved” this was due to the natural movement of people. “I often think there will have been a Seascale cluster of leukaemia because that’s where the fallout from the big chimneys was closest. These people have pontificated about bringing the stuff in from outside systems and that would give the kids leukaemia. Now I look back and think, no, we caused that,” says McManus.
McManus suffered, too. “It was a great job. Don’t get me wrong. I left in 1990 a free man but plutonium-exposed. They told me I had a lung burden and that was an accumulation from the 30-odd years I’d worked at Sellafield. I was a radiation leper. I was a non-desirable person on site.”
But some folk could laugh it off. “I could always tell when my husband had been irradiated… because… his hair was standing on end when he came home,” says Pam Eldred, wife of Wally.
The plant has changed. The bunker mentality has eased and the safety systems are better. But the economy of the region is more dependent on nuclear than ever before; the MP, Jamie Reed, is a former press officer for Sellafield and no one dares say anything critical if they want to keep a job.
Instead of bumbling, British, gung ho pioneers, Sellafield is now run by corporate PR folk and slick American businessmen. Here’s Dick Raaz, the outgoing head of the waste depository: “The good news about radioactive waste is it self-destructs, if you just give it long enough.” The bad news from the new management? Well, from the interviews with Raaz, Reed and former Sellafield boss Barry Snelson, there isn’t any. The future is rosy. Just like in 1957.