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Frank Hovis

Chatting To Old People

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There is a (obviously) a tremendous amount of stuff that never gets recorded, and you only hear through speaking to old people. Not all of it is interesting but here's one:

In the early 20th century the hotels in Cornwall were grand places for those wealthy people who could afford a holiday. The staff in those days tended to be German - the east Europeans of those days - when the first World War broke out they were all rushed home by the hotel owners leaving them short of staff. He actually said when a German warship arrived in the bay they were rushed out of the back doors but I think this may have been dramatic licence given that he only holidayed down here at that time.

The old boy who was telling me this, whilst waiting in the barbers, must have been well into his eighties, very smart and preceded by saying his parents used to bring him on holiday here and drove down. Owning a car was very rare in those (pre WWI) and the journey included overnight stops. At each the car was garaged, they would not have considered leaving it outside overnight.

I understand that cars were hugely expensive back then so he would have been from a wealthy family, but he didn't say this.

This was in the early / mid 80s so I guess he was born about 1900.

There you go - recorded for an uncaring posterity on t'interweb. And the next please.

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There is a (obviously) a tremendous amount of stuff that never gets recorded, and you only hear through speaking to old people. Not all of it is interesting but here's one:

In the early 20th century the hotels in Cornwall were grand places for those wealthy people who could afford a holiday. The staff in those days tended to be German - the east Europeans of those days - when the first World War broke out they were all rushed home by the hotel owners leaving them short of staff. He actually said when a German warship arrived in the bay they were rushed out of the back doors but I think this may have been dramatic licence given that he only holidayed down here at that time.

The old boy who was telling me this, whilst waiting in the barbers, must have been well into his eighties, very smart and preceded by saying his parents used to bring him on holiday here and drove down. Owning a car was very rare in those (pre WWI) and the journey included overnight stops. At each the car was garaged, they would not have considered leaving it outside overnight.

I understand that cars were hugely expensive back then so he would have been from a wealthy family, but he didn't say this.

This was in the early / mid 80s so I guess he was born about 1900.

"

I quite like "old people", Frank, as I intend to be one! :(

There you go - recorded for an uncaring posterity on t'interweb. And the next please.

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I've posted this before on a now-defunct site, but it's an extraordinary tale, told to me in fragments by my uncle, but thankfully recorded for posterity by his neighbour, a journalist...

With WW2 in progress, in 1941 my uncle ran away to sea to join the Merchant Navy, aged just 15. On his second voyage as galley boy on a small tanker (part of a 70 ship convoy) the tanker was sunk off Newfoundland by the 15" guns of the legendary German vessel Scharnhorst. The sixth ship to be sunk that day by the elite battle cruiser.

The Porteous tanker crew (freezing in lifeboats) were eventually rescued by the Scharnhorst and spent weeks on board as POW's, finally being landed as prisoners at Bordeaux. Trains were waiting for them for the long trip into Germany, and four long years in prison camps.

The only detailed account of this teenage POW's experience is in the link below. The notebook of the journo who recorded it. BBC Radio 4 eventually did a programme on it - The Cabin Boy's War - some years ago. Sadly no longer available.

Those of you interested in WW11 - especially the Merchant Navy's role and POW camps - may find it of interest.

http://watertowerproject.blogspot.co.uk/2007/11/cabin-boys-war.html

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I've got it on my list of things to do to go and speak to someone's gran who lived on this street when it was built. She's getting on a bit now and not in the best of health so got to time my visit to be on a good day.

My gran used to tell me about when she was young. Not huge amounts but little bits. My dad filled in some of the gaps in her life for me. He wrote their family story, and his in the year before he got ill. My mum knew nothing about this book he was putting together until he'd died and I told her about it.

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As someone who has done oral interviews professionally, herewith the following tips for anyone who may be interested. Oral history can be an amazing primary source if done right, and a frustrating distraction if done wrong. The key to making it the former is a well-prepared and informed interviewer. Some basic rules of thumb:

Have a structure in place before you start. It's OK to wander from it if the subject wants to, but try to steer them back onto course eventually. This can take the form of a list of specific questions (often the best approach if you know or suspect that your subject has an agenda) or a structured walk-through the events or period in the subject's life that you're interested in.

If you're interested in a relatively short period from a relatively long life (e.g. WWI), don't rush your subject straight to the point. Experiences before the event can give you really useful context in understanding the subject's perspective on it, and experiences after it can inform how they remember it (what aspects of the experience stick in their mind and what do not). You might end up with two hours of useless (to you) footage, but that might not be useless to someone else further down the line.

People's memories DO fade with time, hence the old joke "The only name I can remember is Alzheimer". Therefore, prepare, prepare, prepare! If, as the result of reading up, listening to tapes of others involved in the same events etc., you suspect that something your subject says doesn't sound right, it probably isn't. If you're in that situation, you'll need to make a judgment call as to whether your subject is simply misremembering, articulating a different perspective, or being economical with the truth/outright lying due to an underlying agenda. Probe gently if you feel that it'll do any good.

If you're not clear about the factual accuracy of something your subject said, ask for clarification. Classic examples are a name in a foreign language you don't recognise: ask the subject to spell it (Ayatollah Buggeri or Grand Ayatollah Bug'herii?).

As noted above, establish whether your subject is likely to have an agenda and plan your approach accordingly.

Techie stuff:

Record standalone audio AND video if possible. Video media, codecs, files etc. are more difficult to preserve and less likely to survive in the long term (especially if using tape-based media, due to format obsolescence). A video recording will enable you to see your subject's expressions, mannerisms etc., but an uncompressed PCM audio CD on good quality media (e.g. archival gold, stored in a cool and dark place) is more likely to survive and be playable generations into the future.

Use a good quality lapel mic for your subject, and a high bitrate and sampling rate (or tape speed if still using analogue - 7.5 or 15ips for 1/4 inch tape). Accents, nuances in the speech - poor audio quality destroys that information.

Transcribe the recording as soon as possible after the event - within 24 hours if possible - and plan your time to enable doing this. That way, you'll still have the advantage of memory. Don't just write the dialogue down - note mannerisms, hesitations or any other aspect of the subject's behaviour that might make a later researcher want to go to the video or audio. Most historians will prefer to read a transcription first: you can skim it much more quickly than you can listen to three hours of audio. So make sure that either your reader is getting something complete or correct, or flag up that they can't and that they need to go back to the primary.

My favourite oral history experience was interviewing a film censor who worked during the 1920s and '30s. I asked her about a then senior government official involved in the process, whose reputation is of an enlightened philanthropist, charity worker, selfless volunteer who pulled injured people out of bombed buildings in WWII and all round good bloke. His name was Huntley. When I raised the subject, my subject replied, seemingly relieved to get it off her chest: 'That man was the most hypocritical, sanctimonious idiot it was ever my misfortune to meet. I suppose I shouldn't really say this, but we all called him Cuntley, you know!'

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As someone who has done oral interviews professionally, herewith the following tips for anyone who may be interested. Oral history can be an amazing primary source if done right, and a frustrating distraction if done wrong. The key to making it the former is a well-prepared and informed interviewer. Some basic rules of thumb:

Have a structure in place before you start. It's OK to wander from it if the subject wants to, but try to steer them back onto course eventually. This can take the form of a list of specific questions (often the best approach if you know or suspect that your subject has an agenda) or a structured walk-through the events or period in the subject's life that you're interested in.

If you're interested in a relatively short period from a relatively long life (e.g. WWI), don't rush your subject straight to the point. Experiences before the event can give you really useful context in understanding the subject's perspective on it, and experiences after it can inform how they remember it (what aspects of the experience stick in their mind and what do not). You might end up with two hours of useless (to you) footage, but that might not be useless to someone else further down the line.

People's memories DO fade with time, hence the old joke "The only name I can remember is Alzheimer". Therefore, prepare, prepare, prepare! If, as the result of reading up, listening to tapes of others involved in the same events etc., you suspect that something your subject says doesn't sound right, it probably isn't. If you're in that situation, you'll need to make a judgment call as to whether your subject is simply misremembering, articulating a different perspective, or being economical with the truth/outright lying due to an underlying agenda. Probe gently if you feel that it'll do any good.

If you're not clear about the factual accuracy of something your subject said, ask for clarification. Classic examples are a name in a foreign language you don't recognise: ask the subject to spell it (Ayatollah Buggeri or Grand Ayatollah Bug'herii?).

As noted above, establish whether your subject is likely to have an agenda and plan your approach accordingly.

Techie stuff:

Record standalone audio AND video if possible. Video media, codecs, files etc. are more difficult to preserve and less likely to survive in the long term (especially if using tape-based media, due to format obsolescence). A video recording will enable you to see your subject's expressions, mannerisms etc., but an uncompressed PCM audio CD on good quality media (e.g. archival gold, stored in a cool and dark place) is more likely to survive and be playable generations into the future.

Use a good quality lapel mic for your subject, and a high bitrate and sampling rate (or tape speed if still using analogue - 7.5 or 15ips for 1/4 inch tape). Accents, nuances in the speech - poor audio quality destroys that information.

Transcribe the recording as soon as possible after the event - within 24 hours if possible - and plan your time to enable doing this. That way, you'll still have the advantage of memory. Don't just write the dialogue down - note mannerisms, hesitations or any other aspect of the subject's behaviour that might make a later researcher want to go to the video or audio. Most historians will prefer to read a transcription first: you can skim it much more quickly than you can listen to three hours of audio. So make sure that either your reader is getting something complete or correct, or flag up that they can't and that they need to go back to the primary.

My favourite oral history experience was interviewing a film censor who worked during the 1920s and '30s. I asked her about a then senior government official involved in the process, whose reputation is of an enlightened philanthropist, charity worker, selfless volunteer who pulled injured people out of bombed buildings in WWII and all round good bloke. His name was Huntley. When I raised the subject, my subject replied, seemingly relieved to get it off her chest: 'That man was the most hypocritical, sanctimonious idiot it was ever my misfortune to meet. I suppose I shouldn't really say this, but we all called him Cuntley, you know!'

You have met me then?

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The most interesting stuff I hear from oldies in my family is how well the farming community used to eat before everyone moved to the cities.

Best way to get the generations to mix is to sit everyone around a table with a good supply of booze and play cards for money.

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As someone who has done oral interviews professionally, herewith the following tips for anyone who may be interested. Oral history can be an amazing primary source if done right, and a frustrating distraction if done wrong. The key to making it the former is a well-prepared and informed interviewer. Some basic rules of thumb:

I'll bear that in mind next time I'm chatting to my nan.

My nan (now dead) had some amazing tales to tell. Born in the early 30s, orphaned at the age of 14, married at 18, 6 kids. Her life was a total rollercoaster that I feel priveleged to have seen the last 25 years of. We were incredibly close, but it was only towards the end of her life she told me about affairs she'd had and things she'd done that she wasn't as proud of. Amazing woman, she was only 5 foot tall and about 8 stone wet through, but the weight of her experiences shook the earth when she walked. And everyone was shit scared of her.

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The most interesting stuff I hear from oldies in my family is how well the farming community used to eat before everyone moved to the cities.

Best way to get the generations to mix is to sit everyone around a table with a good supply of booze and play cards for money.

I know people do but whilst my extended family are great card players we have never played for money, even pennies. I don't think I'd enjoy it, cards are too random and it's bad enough losing from a poor streak without being out of pocket too.

I agree about the drink at Christmas. I heard a lovely story about a great Uncle who selected the cloth for a tailor-made blue suit and was so proud of it. People fell about when they saw it as it turned out he was colour blind (first he knew of it) and it was bright blue, he thought it looked the same colour as everybody else's!

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I know people do but whilst my extended family are great card players we have never played for money, even pennies. I don't think I'd enjoy it, cards are too random and it's bad enough losing from a poor streak without being out of pocket too.

I agree about the drink at Christmas. I heard a lovely story about a great Uncle who selected the cloth for a tailor-made blue suit and was so proud of it. People fell about when they saw it as it turned out he was colour blind (first he knew of it) and it was bright blue, he thought it looked the same colour as everybody else's!

That sounds like one of my mates, he has to take his wife with him shopping, in case he buys orange trousers! :lol:

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We live in one "half" of a semi-detached and behind that there's a cottage where our elderly neighbours live. They're in their 80s now and perhaps a little less active in the community than they once were but still get involved and help out.

And they're brilliant to talk to. Very welcoming. And it's when you do talk to them (the lady of the house is very, very strong-willed, like a cross between the Queen and Thatcher), that you realise that the oft-quoted phrase "the thing we learn from history, is that we do not learn from history" is so very true.

Reminds me - we'd planned to invite them round for wine and biscuits. Must get that sorted.

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The old people in my family thought I was strange wanting to know about the past. The past was WW1, the flu pandemic, the great depression, WW2, rationing and austerity. The past was a horrible place where people you knew died young. Now was better and all those bad things best forgotten.

A shame but that is how it was. They are all gone now.

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With WW2 in progress, in 1941 my uncle ran away to sea to join the Merchant Navy, aged just 15. On his second voyage as galley boy on a small tanker (part of a 70 ship convoy) the tanker was sunk off Newfoundland by the 15" guns of the legendary German vessel Scharnhorst. The sixth ship to be sunk that day by the elite battle cruiser.

Scharnhorst had 11" guns. The Bismarck and Tirpitz had 15" guns.

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:D

This week's pedant award has just been awarded!

Bugger, I thought they might be metric!

And the elevation might be in Grad, not Degrees? ;)

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