Posts Tagged ‘local history’

Book translation and History Society talk

February 11, 2016

This is my 500th blog post! Thanks to all my followers and readers.

In the post this morning, I received a copy of the translation of my last academic book (before I retired) into Japanese. This is the 2nd book I’ve had translated into Japanese, the previous one being Teaching Information Skills in Schools. The new translation is of Improving Students’ Web Use and Information Literacy. The book is for teachers and school librarians and has been used in schools and universities in many different countries around the world. It aims to provide school staff with both theory and practical advice – with many case studies of schools – on how to ensure that their students/pupils are effective users of the Web. My own research showed that students were often poor web users i.e. they could find lots of information but struggled to find relevant information for their school work. Developing students as information literacy practitioners implies that students identify a purpose for, find, analyse and effectively use information from a range of sources. It also implies that they will reflect upon and transfer these practices.

Scan book

English version of the book


Japanese version of the book

Yesterday evening I was the guest speaker at the Dunbar and District History Society. My current research is on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s and this talk was on New Housing and Entertainment. The first topic related to the building of new council houses in Dunbar from 1949-1953. I’m using oral history interviews to record people’s memories of moving to these new houses, situated in what was (and is) called the Tree Scheme, as all the streets were given names of trees e.g. I grew up in Cedar Street. The interviews revealed a phenomenon identified across the UK after the 2nd World War – overcrowding. The postwar baby boom was not accompanied by a housing boom, due to shortages of materials and men, and the poor state of the British economy. As a result, many young families stayed with their parents, usually the wife’s parents. Two of my interviewees lived in small flats with shared toilets, with the parents sleeping in the living room and two or more children in a bedroom. Another interviewee moved from a rented house with only gas light.

Tree scheme photo

Pine Street Dunbar in 1950

On the whole, young families were delighted with the new houses as they at last had a home of their own, with front and back gardens, inside toilet and bath (as opposed to outside toilet and tin bath), spacious rooms and (by 1950 standards) modern kitchens. My interviewees are mainly children and young adults who moved to these houses. When I interviewed males, the reaction was totally positive. My female interviewees expressed delight for themselves with their new homes, but noted that their mothers’ experiences were not totally positive. For women, who often had several children, the new houses did not provide a release from the drudgery of washing clothes using 2 sinks and a hand wringer and cooking for large numbers. They had much more space but no longer had their mother on hand to help with these onerous tasks. They had to spend long periods in the kitchen. One feature of these houses was that they were heated by coal fires with back boilers in the living room but the coal was not kept in an external bunker, it was stored in a large cupboard in the kitchen. The plan below is not very clear but you can see the word FUEL in the top left hand corner. As you came in the back door, there was a larder, a second storage cupboard and then what was called the coal cellar. For women, this meant that once a fortnight, when coal was delivered, the coal men came in the back door and deposited the coal and created a coal dust storm which filled the kitchen – and had to be cleaned. I asked the female section of my audience whether they thought these kitchens were designed by a man or a woman. You know the response. There was thus a gendered and a class aspect to the design of these houses. The architects – presumably middle class men – were designing kitchens for working class women, so their view of the expectations of the women were, it’s clear, much less than the women’s own expectations. Even in 1950, you would not have chosen to have a coal cellar/space in your kitchen.

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Plan of ground floor in the Tree Scheme

My second topic was entertainment and although I have recorded interviewees’ memories of listening to the wireless (later called the radio) in these pre-television days and going to local dances, I only covered their memories of the two picture houses (as they were called then) in Dunbar in 1950. The old cinema, The Empire, was a large hall built on a slope, with a narrow entrance. It had been built in the 1920s and was, according to one person ” a pretty dingy place” but it was cheaper. The local paper advertised the films and an example follows. At the talk, I played part of the YouTube trailer for the Marx Brothers film.

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Empire Cinema Dunbar advert in 1950

The newer cinema was The Playhouse, opened in 1937 and a much grander affair altogether. It held over 1000 people. One of my interviewees – now a sprightly 90 years old – told me that there was a story that the cinema designers had visited Dunbar in the summer time, when the population swelled because of the seaside visitors and based demand on this and not the normal population – thus the large cinema in a small town. The inside of the Playhouse was decorated in the art deco style shown in the photo below.

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Inside the Playhouse in Dunbar in 1950

The Playhouse was much more luxurious than the Empire, with a proper balcony section, as opposed to the rope divider in the old cinema. It also had a café. The Playhouse showed 3 lots of films in one week, plus a Saturday matinée for children, as this advert shows.

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Playhouse cinema advert 1950

I played part of the Challenge to Lassie film. It’s Lassie as you never imagined and the accents are awful. My audience enjoyed it as well as the memories of my interviewees who recalled going to the Playhouse on a regular basis. In the advert above, you will see that, at each showing, there was the Gaumont British News. This was the only way that people could see the news in 1950 as television did not come to Scotland until 1952.


Luke Rendell on whales and the colours of tulips

May 9, 2015

As part of my local history research on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s, I’ve interviewed local people on a range of topics including the stranding of 147 whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar in May 1950. I’m writing a short local history book on this event and it will examine the press coverage (which greatly exaggerated the number of people who saw the whales), as well as an analysis of the interviews, covering how people got to Thorntonloch,their description of the scene on the beach, how people behaved and their feelings about what they saw, the social aspects of the event i.e. what it tells us about society in 1950, and an examination of why the whales stranded. This week, I interviewed Dr Luke Rendell for the last chapter of my book. He is an expert on whales and dolphins and is the joint author (with Hal Whitehead) of a fascinating new book, cover below, entitled The Cultural Life of Whales and Dolphins, described in a Guardian review as “provocative, brilliant”. Luke Rendell told me that there was no definitive theory of why pilot whales strand in such large numbers, but that it definitely had to do with the social structure of the whale communities. The authors argue that there is a strong culture within groups of whales and dolphins and that these animals (from the Guardian review) “observe rituals of the dead and exhibit grief”. You can hear Luke talking about whales and dolphins (cetaceans) on Start the Week or download the podcast from April 21st 2015.

Whitehead and Rendell book

Whitehead and Rendell book

Another Radio 4 programme caught my ear this week. Word of Mouth which is presented by the children’s author Michael Rosen (poems, articles and performances on this site). This week, the discussion was on the names that people have given to colours over the centuries. Rosen and his guests discussed how, for example, what we now call pink did not always have the same meaning and that, in some languages, there are no words for certain colours such as blue. You can listen to the podcast of the programme and think about what names you allocate to certain colours and how some colours are not defined e.g. mauve. Interestingly, Michael Rosen and his guest pronounce mauve as “mowve” (as in to row a boat), which I would pronounce it “mawve” (as in raw). After listening to this I was out in the garden taking photos of my tulips of which I have this year a “rampant array” (Richard Ford). The photos below show the vibrant colours of the tulips and their abstract appearance when shot in close up. Tulips were originally grown wild in Turkey and came to Europe in the 17th century. The lack of strong winds this spring has helped to make the tulips last longer and the colours – reds, pinks, yellows and purples i.e. different shades of each colour, are a joy to look at. Enjoy the following:

Pink tulip beginning to break up

Pink tulip beginning to break up

Red tulip with yellow heart

Red tulip with yellow heart

Tulip head as abstract

Tulip head as abstract

Pot of tulips in front of my stone wall

Pot of tulips in front of my stone wall

1950 Whales, cycling and the Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

September 24, 2014

One of the most striking events that I’ve uncovered in my local history research project on Dunbar in 1950 is the beaching and death of 147 whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar. The whales were discovered by two local boys who could see a few whales on the beach but many more in the water. There was an attempt to put some of the whale calves out to sea, but they immediately swam back to their parents. The whales attracted huge crowds and it was estimated that around 33,000 people came to the site. This is a remarkable figure, given that very few people in 1950 had cars. The local paper The Haddingtonshire Courier (now the East Lothian Courier) reported that “hundreds of vehicles, including specially chartered buses” arrived at the scene and people had to walk 2 miles in some cases to see the whales. The photo below – from the Illustrated London News of 1950 – shows the whales and the onlookers. As part of my research, I’m going to be interviewing people who went to see the whales.

Stranded whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar, in 1950

Stranded whales at Thorntonloch, near Dunbar, in 1950

We’ve had a great summer here in Dunbar and we’re now into an Indian summer, a term which  has its origins in North America, where the native Americans needed warm and settled weather in September in order to get their crops in. The fine weather has meant that I’ve been able to do quite a lot of cycling. This week’s cycles around the East Lothian countryside have seen me accompanied overhead by huge skeins of pink footed geese, heading for Aberlady Nature Reserve. The extended V shapes in the sky are a great sight and you can hear some of the geese calling out. These calls are to keep the younger geese in line and to prevent them from getting separated from the main group. The countryside itself is changing. The harvest is over and the ploughs are back in the fields, turning the fields from the post-harvest yellow to shiny brown. The poet A E Houseman features ploughs in his poems, including Is my team ploughing? which opens with “Is my team ploughing,/ That I was used to drive/ And hear the harness jingle/ When I was man alive?”/ Ay, the horses trample,/ The harness jingles now;/ No change though you lie under/ The land you used to plough”. Horse ploughing in small fields is no more and today’s satnav enabled tractors with their shiny, flashing blades ease across the fields, leaving a glistening brown wake behind them.

Hilary Mantel, the author of the excellent Thomas Cromwell centred novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has a new collection of short stories out, under the arresting title of The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The title story was published in full in The Guardian at the weekend and an intriguing read it is. A woman in a flat near a hospital where Mrs Thatcher is being treated answers her door, expecting the plumber and lets the man in as he might be the plumber’s son. The man turns out to be an IRA assassin. I’ll let you read the story yourself via the link, and decide for yourself whether this is up to the high standards set in the two Cromwell novels.