To commemorate Remembrance Day 2020, children from Blackburn Children’s University took part in online craft making activities delivered by students from Blackburn University Centre’s School of Art and Society.
The event was introduced by Steve Irwin of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery who talked about the importance of listening to the memories and stories of those who were children during the WWII.
This was followed by a Treasure Hunt, with the children solving clues to find household items that evacuee children would have taken with them to their foster homes. They also learned about the Dickin Medal awarded to brave animals in times of conflict and made medals and purple poppies for an animal of their choice.
In another activity, the children were invited to make the connection between the gas masks worn during WWII and the face masks we are required to wear during the pandemic, before designing their own unique face masks.
The children’s designs will be printed and made into face masks by Blackburn University Centre Fashion and Textiles undergraduates and sent back to the children via Blackburn Children’s University Manager, Sara Burton.
Following the event, Project Leads Sandra Nichol and Val Jessop said: “The items produced by the children were wonderful! They were thoughtful, creative and very imaginative.
“We were very impressed with their polite behaviour and the enthusiasm with which they asked and answered questions about WWII. Our students have worked very hard to plan these activities and this was a very enjoyable event.”
Sara Burton from Blackburn Children’s University said: “What a fantastic event! This was a little different to meeting face-to-face, however, the quality and content did not suffer at all.
“The planning before the event from the staff and students at Blackburn University Centre was second to none and the feedback from both parents and carers and children has been brilliant. The children did so much in the two hours and many continued with their designing after the event was finished. I cannot wait for the next one!”
To celebrate National Poetry Day on 1st October 2020, staff, students, alumni and children from Blackburn Children’s University were recorded reading poems in an online Poetry Slam.
The poems were on the theme of war and/or childhood and some poems were written specially for the occasion. They have been compiled in a commemorative booklet which you can read here.
Participants were joined by Janey Colbourne, who is a performance poet, freelance non-fiction writer and the curator of Rise! Spoken Word at The Bureau Centre for The Arts, Blackburn. For more information about Janey Colbourne’s work, you can email Janey herself at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact her via social media:
Special thanks to Steve Irwin from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, retired staff member Jenny Billingsley and Mary Lee-Slade, former student of BA (Hons) English Language and Literary Studies. Thank you to the children of Blackburn Children’s University and to Sara Burton for organising the children’s recordings.
Many thanks to Liesl Burkhardt for producing the booklet and to everyone who took part in our virtual Poetry Slam. We hope you enjoy the readings!
Val and Sandra
Poetry Slam October 2020
Listen here to our alumni, Mary Lee-Slade, who is one of the co-founders of the Poetry Slam events at Blackburn University Centre. Mary talks about her undergraduate degree in English Language and Literary Studies, her progression to a higher degree at Lancaster University and her future career.
Welcome to the latest instalment of the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog has been attempting to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generation associated with World War Two. If you recall, I explained in the opening blog how my late father, Arthur, served in the Royal Artillery as a teenager. He was taken captive when Hong Kong fell to the Japanese Army on Christmas Day, 1941, and endured almost four years as a prisoner of war in the Far East, he and his comrades used as slave labour in Japan’s heavy industries. He had joined up in Blackburn in late 1937 claiming to have turned 18, the minimum age for recruitment, when, in fact, he was still 15 and six weeks short of his 16th birthday.
Since the last blog was posted online the country marked the ending of hostilities in the Far East – VJ Day – on August 15 with a number of 75th anniversary commemorative ceremonies. The one at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire attended by Prince Charles was particularly moving, with the service of remembrance broadcast live on TV. The 150-acre site is home to 25,000 trees among which sit 400 memorials highlighting, in dignified solemnity, a wide variety of organisations and events of national significance, among them a number recording the suffering and fortitude of Far East Prisoners of War.
I think it is important to make the point here that this is not the appropriate forum within which to develop the issue of the ill treatment of captives in the Far East in the Second World War, nor the devastating atomic bombing of Japanese cities which forced Emperor Hirohito and his military leaders to accept defeat in 1945. That is not the purpose of this blog series. But it is important to at least acknowledge its presence.
The inhuman treatment of prisoners of war and, indeed, civilians, was a sub text to the conversations illustrated in the series of correspondence I touch on below. It was the context around which parents and son spoke to each other in print, of what was left unsaid but which, for son was the grim reality of every day, and for parents was the subject of a growing awareness as the war developed and the long years dragged.
Neither is this the platform to discuss the issue of empire and colonialism – Britain’s presence, and the presence of its troops, in the far-flung corners of the world, and of the growing appetite for empire within Japan at the time. This country’s colonial past has rarely been more open to debate, and the place of Hong Kong in the great sweep of international relations is before our eyes seemingly nightly as the former colony faces up to Chinese government attempts to integrate it more fully within its own political order. They are debates for another time, another place . . .
This project provided a welcome opportunity to discuss how memory, oral history and family artefacts can combine to provide a powerful image of the past, foregrounding the ordinary and the everyday elements of life that, together with the grand narratives of national sacrifice, help tell Britain’s World War Two story. In addition, it was a means by which I could share, in a small way, my late father’s experience of conflict and its impact on his parents, through examining some of the fragile official documents, correspondence and personal ephemera that have survived the passing of the years and that stand testament to a time of crisis in their lives – a crisis mirrored the length and breadth of the country in family narratives of war.
With this in mind, I turn to material that forms the bulk of my father’s ‘archive’ of imprisonment – very brief letters sent by his parents to their son in captivity and those they received from him. I have no way of knowing how complete the correspondence is. I never asked my father that question. But the messages are disjointed, not always a sense of one letter responding to another. Perhaps some are missing. It would be incredible, really, if they had all survived. And, no doubt, some never reached their intended recipient – lost, diverted, destroyed in the chaos of global warfare. There are more than a dozen items of correspondence – postcards, letters, telegrams – all showing signs of their age but surviving through a balance of serendipity and careful management. With each passing year the more I consider these fragile artefacts and the fact of their survival through warfare, the upheaval of freedom and then repatriation, together with the later bustle of civilian life . . . their presence seems ever more incredible . . . ever more precious.
The correspondence dates between spring 1943, to September, 1945. After the surrender of the colony at Christmas, 1941, my father had endured a prison camp on the Hong Kong mainland until being part of the first draft of Allied prisoners to be shipped out to the Japanese home islands in September, 1942. He survived transportation on what became known as “hellships”, merchant vessels requisitioned by the Japanese navy and overloaded with prisoners who faced dreadful conditions at sea. In Japan he had been held in three different prison camps, originally near Tokyo and later, I understand, in the far north of the country.
In one letter posted from a prison camp near Tokyo and received in East Lancs, I think, in May, 1943, my late father writes of not having had a letter from home yet – a year-and-a-half since captivity had begun for him. The anxiety created by that silence, for all concerned, dad in Japan, his parents in Burnley, must have been oppressive. Official lines of communication had only gradually been opened, and there’s a typewritten letter from the military authorities to my grandparents drawing attention to a Post Office leaflet explaining the means of sending letters to prisoners of war held in Japan. In all the correspondence sent by my father he makes the point that he is well, in good health, and being treated well. All patently untrue but included so as to increase the chances of the letters being forwarded from Japan and, importantly, to ease the distress he surely knew his captivity had created for family and friends. That May, 1943, letter appears to have been the first received by my grandparents. Their letter, in response, postmarked June that year – “The happiest day of all to know you were still alive . . . hope your pals are still with you to make things easier” – was not received by my father until March the following year, more than two years into his captivity! Clearly, others would have been sent but had not been handed on. The relief in my father’s letter home in response is clear – “. . . I cannot tell you how happy I was to find you all safe and well . . . am looking forward to seeing you all again hoping it will be soon . . . “.
The sequence of correspondence ended with the letter my father sent home to his parents in September, 1945, celebrating the war in the Far East ending and his release from the prison camps, which I mentioned in the second of these blogs.
Overall, the letters do not fit together seamlessly. They are disjointed, as are their contents. They reflect the time and conditions. There is no sign of censorship. I imagine the POWs were advised by senior officers as to what would be acceptable for the Japanese military to pass on, and those writing from Britain to the Far East would be equally circumspect over what they wrote.
In addition to the letters mentioned above, there are two pocket-sized prayer books among my late father’s POW ‘archive’. Both are imbued with a tremendous sense of poignancy . . . One is a brown leather ‘Pocket Prayerbook’ with an inscription on the opening page – presented in boyhood to my father on his First Communion Day. It had stayed with him throughout his ordeal. Within it, in a neat hand, written in pencil are the names of 21 fellow prisoners of war with their home addresses – 17 British, three American and one Australian. Perhaps the intention had been to keep in touch after release. I don’t know if they did. But they had shared a harrowing experience. There is also a small blue leather New Testament. On the opening page my father had written in ink, ‘Dropped on this POW camp August 28th 1945 by an American Transport plane’, and he had signed it. The war had ended a fortnight earlier and the business of finding the camps and the Allied prisoners, of getting urgent food and medical supplies to them, often by air, and then preparing to send them home had begun. What emotions had gone through my father’s head as he wrote that short inscription?
In the fifth and final of these blogs I intend to examine the material my father saved relating to his end of captivity and journey back home to Lancashire, together with a remarkable discovery I made when looking at that material to refresh my memory in advance of writing these posts.
For those who want to know more about the plight of Far Eastern prisoners of war in World War Two, this link takes you to Captive Memories, a website containing research, and source material, conducted and gathered by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. The material is based on the School’s 70-plus years of engagement with service veterans, their families and their histories. The School’s initial involvement centred on the veterans’ health problems associated with the effects of tropical infections together with the psychological impact of incarceration. There is a fascinating section on artwork by prisoners of war, done in secret at great risk. The exhibition – ‘Secret Art of Survival – Creativity and Ingenuity of British Far East Prisoners of War, 1942-1945’ – was staged at the Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool, and is now online.
I have ended previous blogs with a quote from the writings of historians that, I think, have a resonance and worth in this current context, and which offer up insight surrounding the very idea of what History is. Today is no different, and the following is from an article by Dr Anna Whitlock, BBC History Magazine, October, 2015 –“The past is alive, dynamic, controversial and hugely relevant. History is constantly being written and rewritten, contested and reinterpreted. History is more than looking backwards and studying the past – it is about critically engaging with the present and the future. It is about individuals, families, nations and the global community.”
Olive Laurie was a young child during the Second World War and here she shares her memories and stories on life with her older sister and parents in the family home, being evacuated, getting her teeth knocked out, watching barrage balloons and removing a ‘sizzling incendiary bomb in an eiderdown’ from her Auntie’s bedroom. We hope you enjoy listening to Olive’s memories and stories as much as we have done. Olive has also provided us with some photographs that capture memories of her wartime childhood.
Olive said: “The first time we had an air raid during the day, we were in the park with my mother and the baby. I was very anxious because my chair was in the house and it could get bombed. Now this chair had been a present to me off Father Christmas before the war, Christmas 1938. And this chair was the joy of my life and my teddy used to sit on it when I went out to play. When we got back home, we used to pass my Auntie’s house, and Nor went to tell Auntie Belle we were coming. My mum got the chair and my teddy bear for me. We raced back to the house and we got into the shelter and mum suddenly realised we’d left the baby outside.”
“Every time we had our bedroom painted, the chair would be painted to match so the chair has been white and pink and lemon. And then years later, after we got married, my husband had the chair, had the paint scraped off it, you know, had it done properly, and it’s been re-stained, and I’ve still got that chair.”
Barbara Riding grew up in Blackburn during the Second World War and here she shares her memories and stories of being a child during World War Two. Barbara talks about what life was like in the family home, at school and playing in the local area. We hope you enjoy listening to Barbara’s memories and stories as much as we have done. Barbara has also provided us with some photographs that capture memories of her wartime childhood.
A selection of Barbara’s photographs and memories:
George VI letter – A copy of the letter sent by King George VI to children after the war.
Barbara – This a photo of Barbara Riding (nee Brett) at 88 and Barbara Brett in her Brownie uniform as it was in those days aged 9.
Air raid shelters – Top left: Underground shelter preserved in Stockport Museum. Underground shelter dug for children of St Silas’s School in 1939. Arched roof like a tunnel with benches to sit on and latrines in the corner. Thank goodness we never had to use them.
Top right: A cartoon concerning a Morrison shelter. We had a budgie which we taught to say ” Hitler’s a bad man!” We were lucky not to have any air raids, but when the siren went off we sat under the stairs and put the budgie under the shelter.
Bottom two: Photos of two Morrison shelters I took off the TV. My father got one as he was unable to go to a brick shelter in the school yard if there was an air raid. We used it as a dining room table for several years.
Charity poster – We collected money for charities during the war such as Aid for Warships, Aid for Russia, Aid for rubber dinghies for shot down airmen. This is a poster I designed and won a prize for in a competition for school children in Blackburn in 1942 during Aid for China week.
Ministry of Food Cook Book – Lord Woolton was the Minister of Food during the war. This was the Ministry of Food cook book which my mother used to use. We used to listen to a five minute broadcast every morning called “The Kitchen Front” which gave hints and ideas on how to cope with your rations.
Music – These are some of the songs I used to play and we used to sing on different occasions.
Identity Card – We all had to have an Identity Card with name and details inside. I also had a silver Identity disc with my name and address on it which I wore on a chain on my wrist.
Evacuee Letter – Families were all issued with a letter about taking in evacuees. We were not asked to have any. I only remember one girl evacuee coming to my school from somewhere.
Parks and Churches – Parks and churches and all private houses had to have their gates and railings removed so that the metal could be used for war purposes. It was over 50 years before the Corporation Park replaced its railings and gates. My church, Leamington Road Baptist Church built a small wall instead.
Even a global pandemic can’t stop these children from being creative!
Saturday 11th July should have been the day of the Blackburn Children’s University graduation ceremony, but unfortunately it couldn’t take place this year due to social distancing rules.
This didn’t stop some of the children making their very own graduation caps; and a great job they did too! It’s been business as usual during the lockdown and the children have been taking part in all sorts of activities, which are continuing during the summer.
We can’t wait until we can meet them all in person again!
Children from Blackburn Children’s University were asked to imagine what it might be like to be an evacuee during WWII and were asked to write letters home to their parents. These are some of their letters.
In November 2019, children from Blackburn Children’s University took part in an event called ‘ A Wartime Childhood’ run by staff and students from the School of Art and Society. As Christmas 2019 approached, the children were asked to write stories imagining how it might feel to be a child during war time.
Here are the entries from the winners and runners-up.
A Wartime Childhood, by Aamina (year one)
I will be worried because they will shoot the gun at me. I will not see my daddy because he will be in the world war. I am upset because I am missing daddy. I want Santa to bring daddy home wrapped as a present so me and my sister can open it. This will make me happy.
I am scared daddy will never return. He might get shot in the world war.
A Wartime Christmas story, by Shayaan (year two)
Hello! I am Adam, and I lived at the time when the Second World War was taking place. My father had been sent off to join the troops and my mother quietly ushered me and my little sister, Lily, along with the rest of the children, to a peaceful countryside to keep us all safe from the German soldiers. I made plenty of friends, all from different cities and towns in Britain. When December has arrived, my friends and I were so excited. We made our very own advent calendar (because we couldn’t go to the shops) and started to count down the days to Christmas Eve and Christmas day itself.
Soon enough, Christmas Eve had approached. All the children living with me were very excited for Santa to come and shower our Christmas tree with presents. Very carefully, we started taking out paints and bits of newspapers and started making paper chains to decorate the room. Of course it was hard work making the chains. You had to cut the newspaper into strips, paint them in different colours, wait for them to dry and then put glue on them to stick (or link) together!
After we decorate everything, we play board games. I always lose, but that’s how I learn! However, I am really good at Scrabble and making different words and getting double and triple points for each letter! Yay me! 😊
It was finally getting towards 8 o’clock, and it was time for bed. Silently, I put on my pyjamas and snuggled in my roughly made bed with my 5 year old sister Lily.
Then Santa had come!
It was a MIRACLE!
A Christmas in the Countryside, by Afiya (year three)
The sharp sound of guns rang in Lewis’ and Zara’s ears every single day. They were stuck in the middle of a war and their father was fighting on the battle front. It was just Mother and them but it was becoming unbearable. Recently, there had been many bombings near their house and the street in front of them was completely destroyed. The children were unsafe living in the city so Mother made the hard decision to send them away to live in some peace – now they were evacuees. They had to pack away their belongings and catch the next train. The journey was long and boring because they missed their mother.
When the train stopped. Lewis and Zara stared at the fields and trees in amazement. Then a lady came to them and glared at their tired faces. She silently led them to their new house which seemed to have a horrible smell. Each room was filled with pink, hurting your eyes. As Lewis gazed at her, she introduced herself as Charlotte and ordered them to their room. It was quite small with only one bed and an old chest of drawers. Zara sighed as she started to unpack her clothes and Lewis tried his best to be positive. But what they really wanted was Mother and Father.
In the windows of the other houses, the children saw Christmas paper chains and they could hear Christmas carols. Charlotte didn’t have much up but the children got creative in their own room, making stars and snowflakes. The days passed slowly but soon it was Christmas Eve! Zara woke up excitedly and scared Lewis with her shouting. Charlotte stomped upstairs telling them breakfast was ready. The day passed like the others and it was quickly time for bed. They both got changed and tried their hardest to sleep but Zara could hear someone crying. Fed up of following rules, she decided to investigate. She peeped inside the kitchen and found Charlotte on the floor crying with a baking bowl in her hand. Zara called Lewis to join her and they both went up to Charlotte, trying to comfort her. Charlotte told them about how she was trying to bake a cake as a Christmas present but there wasn’t enough sugar. Baking also reminded her of her husband, John, who died in the war. Lewis and Zara had an idea.
They told Charlotte of their plans to ask the street for ingredients and she gave them a hug. They wrapped up and went outside on their mission. Lewis knocked on each door and Zara explained their plan. Everyone loved it and they were happy to help.
The next day was Christmas and Charlotte was up early, baking the special Christmas cake. The house smelt delightful. She carried it to the local village hall where the entire town was waiting. Everyone sang some carols and then it was time to eat. Charlotte was nervous but everyone loved it! Lewis and Zara were happy that their plan worked and they had an amazing Christmas in their new home.
1944 WWII Wartime Childhood, by Cheng (year four)
I was woken up by bombs and sirens everywhere in London. I had four gas masks for my father, mother, my little brother and also myself. We got outside and hid underground and we also closed the lights in our house and underground. We had lamps with us and also a bucket. We had to stay underground for two weeks. I heard screams, bullets being shot out of guns and it was a disgraceful sight. My mum opened the lamp and underground it had four chairs. Behind the chairs was a wooden door so I opened it and there was a shop. In that shop were my friends. They were Lin, Aliyah and their mum and dad. Me and Sammy were so excited to see Lin and Aliyah and we said ‘Hello’ to each other. However I saw something behind them and they were making paper chains using scraps of painted newspaper and other friends making pictures on paper. We helped them make the longest paper chains. We kept making more and more until there were no sheets.
After that, it was the last day and it was time to get out of underground. We hugged each other and got out. We waved goodbye and went home.
This is the best day ever!
My Christmas Story, by Mehek(year 6)
BANG! BANG! That was the sound of deathly shooting. Charlie and James were petrified with fear. Their mother, Emily, was also terrified. The place they lived in, London, was filled with smoke and pollution. It was a cold stormy night and their father had gone to fight on the front lines. Outside the rain lashed and pelted down.
Just then there was a knock on the front door. ‘I wonder who it is,’ pondered Mother. As she opened the front door, there was a man dressed in a black suit and hat. Whilst Charlie and James were doing their homework, they stopped for a moment and heard Mother talking. There was a lot of shouting and arguing. For a split second, they thought it was Father. But it wasn’t.
It was the man who came to take the children to keep them safe. The children had heard the big girls and boys talk about it. KNOCK! KNOCK! They opened the bedroom door. The man said, ‘Get your things ready, you’re going to go.’ Without thinking, the two boys got their bags ready. It was quite a difficult thing to say goodbye to their beloved mother but they followed orders and made their way towards the train. As they entered inside the train, they looked around and wondered where they were going.
After a long 2 hour journey they had arrived at their new house. They were now evacuees. They both felt a bit homesick because they missed their mother. When they met their new mother, Anne, they felt at home because it reminded them of their old mother. It was just a few days till it was Christmas. At that time, there were no shops because everyone was out at war. On Christmas Eve, the two boys were making Christmas decorations. They also started making their Christmas dinner. They couldn’t wait for tomorrow. Time had gone so quick.
The next day it was Christmas day! When Charlie woke up, he screamed with happiness and joy. James was excited too. As soon as they came out of the bathroom, they quickly ran downstairs and found presents under the Christmas tree. They went to the kitchen and found Anne making a cake. In the corner of her eye, she saw the two boys spying on her. ‘What are you doing?,’ they questioned. She said she was making something for later on. So eager to find out what it was, when Anne had left the room, they went to see what it was. Just then Anne came back in the room and found James and Charlie secretly spying on what she had made. They saw Anne and ran back to their seats and finished their breakfast. A few hours later, they were all dressed and had their scrumptious dinner. Then the cake had arrived. It was made from grated carrot and breadcrumbs. After eating, it was present time. All the gifts were homemade. Charlie and James gave Anne a special personalised rug and she had tears filled with happiness. Charlie got a homemade collection of jungle animals and James got a spinning top and a board game. It was their Christmas ever.
Welcome to the third post on the blog, Lest We Forget. As part of the WWII East Lancashire Childhoods project the blog aims to examine how family memorabilia combined with shared recollections can help foster a better understanding of the generations associated with World War Two.
In this latest blog I want to examine the idea of oral history. The advantages and some of the pitfalls associated with this method of historical enquiry – a method that might be best suited to the sort of family reminiscences that this World War Two anniversary lends itself to. There’s a sense that oral history, history written or recorded as evidence gathered from a living person, perhaps a family member, can provide us with a direct route to the past, unadorned and unembellished. A means of extending the historical record – what we know of the past – to include the ordinary man and woman, perhaps our elderly relatives and their memories of wartime, or of their parents’ memories as recounted to them many years earlier.
At its most basic, oral history, in terms of this wider heritage project, can be described as talking to elderly relatives about parts of their lives that might otherwise go unrecorded. It involves recording, in some way, their first-hand recollections.
For some historians oral history, the spoken word, is a poor substitute for official records and written sources. They argue that spoken reminiscences leave too much open to doubt and to speculation, too much rests on the whim of the speaker, the person being interviewed, as to what they see fit to reveal and what they wish to remain unsaid. Spoken reminiscences can lack a sense of precision. Memory itself can be elusive and limited, open to forgetfulness and partiality. The order of events can become blurred. There are gaps. And oral history can only take us a relatively short distance into the past. It depends on what people can actually remember accurately!
But proponents of oral history as a means of understanding the past argue that it can deliver a sense of freshness. It assumes that everyone’s memory is valuable, however humble the person speaking or being interviewed might feel. It can certainly expand and extend the range of ‘voices’ from the past, opening the door to those outside elite circles, those living what might be seen as more ‘ordinary’ lives. And the argument that oral history can lack precision is often compensated by the element of emotion and detail that personal memories can deliver. At its best, oral history can deliver powerful insights, it can speak of the lived experience, it can deliver a sense of immediacy, and it can provide colour and drama!
‘Doing’ oral history sometimes involves quite sophisticated techniques, but it can also prove accessible to all. It can deliver a democratic feel to the study of the recent past. Everyone’s testimony can have a value. That is particularly true when, in our case, we might be interested in simple domestic routines associated with life in wartime Britain. The sort of detail that just might not be recorded anywhere else!
One thing to bear in mind if we embark on our own version of an oral history project, is that in recording wartime or as-near-wartime reminiscences as feasible, our presence as an interviewer is bound to affect the person being interviewed. It will influence what they recall and the manner in which they recall it, especially if being led by our questions. Even if we ask no questions and just listen, we are playing a part in the process. As one historian wrote, “the voice of the past is inescapably the voice of the present too”. The memories we are presented with have been filtered through other experiences and in a search for a sense of the past, as in some forensic exercise, we risk ‘contaminating’ the evidence. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try!
But let’s think of a few rules. Presuming we are looking at family members speaking amongst themselves, it is still important to tell the person you are interviewing what your purpose is – what you will be doing with the interview, whether it be written down or recorded. Will you be circulating it among other family members? Or outside the family? If they are to go beyond the family, you need to know if the interviewee is happy to have their name linked to their reminiscences or whether they would prefer a form of anonymity, say, with just their age and perhaps initials to identify the speaker. We must maintain an air of respect, too, in how we deal with the interview process and the end product. It is important to prepare for the interview, or series of interviews. What is it you want to discover? Have starter questions in mind. Decide how much you are prepared to intervene to guide the conversation if things slow down. Consider a few prompts in terms of events, locations or the names of other family members from the interviewee’s generation that might guide the course of the chat. Be prepared to be flexible. Think of the times on TV chat shows when someone being interviewed has started to discuss a really interesting point only to be annoyingly interrupted by the host (all too keen to hear their own voice) and the moment has been lost. Sometimes it’s good just to go with the flow . . .
A good example of oral history in practice can be found on this heritage website (‘When the lights came back on in Blackburn’). Stephen Irwin, Education Officer at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, interviewed Richard Croasdale who was a young child when war broke out. The questions Stephen asked in a telephone conversation had been prompted by children from our area, including Blackburn Children’s University, intrigued by the stories on this website. The details Richard reveals are fascinating, and I was particularly taken with the childhood rhyme for skipping! The ordinary parts of life all too easily lost to the record.
On a personal note, I regret not having engaged in that sort of oral history exercise in my father’s lifetime . . .
On the last web posting I said I would continue my late father’s story, following his ‘archive’ in chronological fashion, from the surrender of British forces in Hong Kong in December, 1941, where he was posted in the Royal Artillery, and the means of families finding word of those missing in the pandemonium of war. If you recall, I went out of sequence in the last blog and wrote about a powerful, recurring image of my father’s end to captivity after three-and-a-half years, prompted by the letter home that he wrote to his parents mentioning Lancashire songstress Gracie Fields entertaining the troops in Manila in the Philippines.
I want to return to the months following the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese army in late December, 1941, and consider the trauma my father’s family must have experienced on the Home Front. The mood is captured in a handful of newspaper clippings and official letters. The first, of January, 1942, a tiny news-cutting from a Burnley newspaper, carries under a small headline, ‘MISSING’, the fact that ‘Gunner Arthur Tate’, who had enlisted aged 15, had been ‘posted missing’ after the surrender of Hong Kong. The nine lines of print are accompanied by a head-and-shoulders pre-hostilities portrait photograph of an incredibly young-looking and proud teenager in uniform. In the same month, his Burnley-based father and step-mother received an official typed letter from the Royal Artillery in Rugby. It was clearly in response to an earlier enquiry seeking news of their son. The letter informs the couple that, ‘I am sorry to say that just at present I am unable to state Gunner Tate’s exact whereabouts. You will appreciate that the recent developments in the Far East have delayed and interrupted the receipt of routine information. It may lessen your anxiety however to know that under present conditions the location of a man or even a Unit may be unknown for a time to the military authorities in England. If you do not receive any news of Gunner Tate within the next few weeks and you will write again to this office, I hope I may then be in a position to be of more help to you’.
It is clearly a standardised letter, the sort being received at thousands of homes across Britain as the war began to take its toll. Some six months later, in July, 1942, the same Burnley newspaper among its reports of local men missing in action from various theatres of war, carries equally brief news of Gunner Tate, announcing he, ‘is now officially reported to be a prisoner of war’. That, too, is accompanied by a photograph but, intriguingly, one different to the one printed earlier in the year.
There is a postcard among my father’s ‘archive’, unfortunately undated, written in pencil, faded by the years, from ‘Hong Kong Prisoner of War Camp’. In half-a-dozen lines my father writes to his parents, ‘I am quite well and in good health and I hope you are the same. We are being well treated so please don’t worry . . . hoping we will meet again very soon’. Prisoners were allowed to write only brief remarks, approved by their captors. How long it had taken the card to reach Burnley is not known, but presumably it was the first word of his whereabouts, of his survival, since the colony fell months earlier. The mood of his family when the card arrived can only be imagined . . .
In the next blog I want to concentrate on my father’s wartime ‘archive’, and consider the means of staying in touch during the long years of captivity.
I will close this blog by once again using one of my favourite quotes on the nature of History and this time it’s from a book on the sporting past, although the context is not really relevant. Here the author cautions against present-day readers imposing their own ideas, their own world view, on individuals from the past, or of attempting to explain their actions merely in terms of our own experiences. It’s quite a lengthy extract, but it is central to a reasoned understanding of those who have gone before.
“It is worth stepping back from the discipline and its attendant debates to remember that what we call ‘history’ or ‘the past’ was the present for other people. An appreciation of this simple fact is useful when faced with debates about the nature of history. The people who lived through what we are studying were not thinking of themselves in the historical terms that we use for them, but were simply getting on with their lives: fighting their wars, having their families, worshipping their gods, working in their fields, or whatever. Keep this in mind whenever you come across historians using shorthand terms such as ‘between the wars’ or ‘before the industrial revolution’, and remember that the people who lived then could not have known what they were between or before. The period we now call ‘medieval’ or ‘the middle ages’ was, for the people living through it, nothing to do with the middle of anything: to them, each day was the present. Remembering this can also help you to avoid anachronistic judgements about past people’s behaviour, beliefs, or motives. Burning women accused of witchcraft, voting for a dictator, or basing an entire economy on a single crop may all strike us as foolish things for people in the past to have done: but those acts must have made sense or been viable options for the people who did them, and to criticise them only in the light of later evidence or opinions does not make for good history.” – Martin Polley, Sports History. A Practical Guide (Palgrave Macmillan), 2007, p.6.