Speaking for themselves, John Holt

Remembering: Writing Oral History
ed Anna Green and Megan Hutching
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 1869403177

The first oral history project I undertook at university very nearly didn’t make it past the first hurdle. The project was to create and analyse a single recorded interview with an offshore oil worker, with the ultimate goal of placing the tape in the oral history collection of the Battye Library in Perth, Western Australia. A second-year undergraduate history major, I soon found myself lost in the grey ever-shifting and mysterious world of the university ethics committee, where nothing could ever be what it seemed.

A strange ethics form loomed, demanding to know if I would be “administering a placebo?”. God, I hoped not! Would I have to? The completed form was promptly lost in the “system” (a word which, in the correct bureaucratic hands, adds a faintly sinister air, the kind nightmares and Terry Gilliam movies are made of) only to be spat out six weeks later. I got the go-ahead, with one proviso – on completion the tape had to be stored in a locked cupboard on university premises, completely negating the purpose of the project. Such is the lot of the oral historian.

Any new book on oral history is cause for celebration, and Remembering: Writing Oral History has much to celebrate. It seriously examines many aspects of life that our society still considers peripheral, and does so by using one of the greatest forms of communications known to humanity: speech. The book is an eclectic compilation of projects based on recorded oral testimony, projects that feed into various disciplines, not just history.

Oral history has been the only method of documenting (for want of a better term) marginalised sections of society that have been sidelined into lonely and stigmatised individuals or developed into isolated and self-sufficient communities where little or no documentary evidence is readily available. The only way to begin to understand the existence of these communities is to speak to them and in doing so, allow them to speak for themselves. As the title suggests, this work boldly assesses the complex arena of translating what is heard into what is read. A process which in itself can and does cause oral historians many a sleepless night.

Just what are the personal mythologies we create for ourselves and why do we need to create them? Oral history can help us begin to understand how we, as individuals and communities, try to deal with (and to some extent appreciate) not only where we come from, but also the complex consequences of trauma, change and the threatened loss of cultural identity.

As a guide to oral history, Remembering touches on the development of the practice from the late 1960s onwards. Oral history has suffered much from the derision of “proper” historians and has long been seen (detrimentally) as simply the collection of mere folklore. Recorded oral histories have simply been ignored as a legitimate means of recording the past, with written documentation always the preferred medium for seeking the truth about any given situation or event.

For a fine example of the trustworthiness of the written word, look at recent media representations of the second war in Iraq; these show just how unreliable the written word is as source material for future generations. Perhaps then it is no coincidence that oral history is now taken more seriously as source material for present and future historians.

There are few clear-cut answers in oral history and that may be part of the cause of its long journey to maturity. It is the direct voice of experience, and experience is not prescribed. Each individual will, because of their upbringing, background and the simple individuality of a life lived, never experienced an event the way it “should” have been.

Remembering allows its contributors to share with us the remembered experiences of their subjects. They have each done so in their unique style and in some cases we are privy to the detailed planning and methodology established prior to beginning the project – information crucial not just for the professional oral historian honing a craft, but for those considering projects such as tracing the family tree or telling the history of the local footy club.

The pieces range over the wonderful gamut of human experience and not all of them make the easiest reading, since they challenge the reader to see life from the perspective of others. We contemplate lesbian issues in the social context of 1940s and 50s New Zealand. We read of the sense of liberation oral history can bring to adult victims of child abuse, whether sexual and/or mental and/or physical. There is the undocumented and unrecognised sheer bloody hard work of wives of post-war Rehabilitation Scheme soldiers. We “hear” of the freedom of acting in local theatre, which took women from day-to-day boredom as housewife and mother, and come to understand the role oral history has played in reclaiming Maori traditions and acting as catalyst for the public righting of past wrongs. The individual narratives of Remembering do not challenge us to become a more tolerant society but a more accepting one.

In one respect, the recent work of Chiaretta Formia, a writer and refugee advocate based in London, parallels Remembering. Formia has put the power of oral testimony at the heart of her recent central and as-yet unpublished work The Political Disability of Asylum Seekers and Refugees. In this case, the compassionate use of oral testimony allows the reader to begin to comprehend the very real suffering of people attempting to reconcile their life experience of prejudice and shocking arbitrary violence with a new form of prejudice: bureaucratic-rendered invisibility.

Memory, such a fickle thing at the best of times, will always be at odds with accepted “fact”. What one person remembers will sometimes be in competition with, if not in direct opposition to, the memories of another. One of the commendable objectives of Remembering is to inform the reader of some of the pitfalls of collecting oral histories. Ironically, it is this point that gives rise to my only real reservation. It concerns the book’s later chapters and their exploration of the ethical and moral labyrinths facing the oral historian. As a practitioner, I wrestle with the knowledge that my work has real potential to cause upset in the life of an interviewee, a community; it may affect an organisation’s future business performance. Oral historians have to walk a fine line between the moral obligation of maintaining the wellbeing of the interviewee and the need to create a unique historical record for present and future use.

I would have placed the two final chapters on this issue at the beginning of the book, so this significant body of work would have read more deeply. Then those contemplating an oral history project for the first time and reading this work as a guide would have had more understanding of the ethical consequences of their research and of how each oral historian here dealt with that responsibility.

R M Collingwood observed that “The past simply as past is wholly unknowable; it is the past as residually preserved that is alone knowable.” It is the job of the oral historian, exemplified by those who feature in Remembering, to add extra depth to materials that will be sifted through by future historians. Oral history brings many new elements to the great game that is objective historical analysis: emotional outbursts, strong feelings, initial responses – the reaction to a given question or a memory flash. Sometimes it is the silence, the nuance, even just a simple sigh that explains “the knowable”. Remembering allows us to see that through oral history we record ordinary people living historically, rather than assessing the neatly stacked and indexed, and residually preserved.


John Holt is a writer and oral historian based in Edinburgh. He is on the executive committee of the Scottish Oral History Group and is working on the community-based Stockbridge Oral History Project.


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