Posts Tagged ‘oral history’

Mantel on history and Constable and McTaggart exhibition

June 14, 2017

A very interesting article in The Guardian Review section by well known author Hilary Mantel. In the article, Mantel discusses “Why I became a historical novelist” and writes “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims”. The author cites her great grandmother as an example of a historical figure and there is evidence of where her relative grew up, who she married and of her 10 children. However, Mantel, argues “I have no access to her thoughts” and it is in expressing the thoughts and words of historical characters – real or imagined – that the work of the historical novelist is involved. Mantel also discusses what we call history and states that “history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record”. My first degree was in history and I’m now doing an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the 1950s, so definitions of history intrigue me. I remember having lectures in 1st year at university where the lecturer posed the question “What is history” and referred to E H Carr’s book with that title. Much of Carr’s arguments about what constitutes history has been revised since the 1960s when it was published. In my own educational research and in my current local history research, I take a constructivist view i.e. that historians construct their versions of history from evidence that is also constructed. For example, in my oral history project, when I was interviewing people about visiting the whales stranded at Thorntonloch in 1950, I was not expecting the people (aged between 70 and 95) to report what they saw, but to construct the scene from their memory. My job was then to interpret what I heard in the interviews and newspaper reports and construct a version of events in my book. So history for me is an interpretation of events in the past, not a reporting of them.

An exhibition currently on at the National Gallery in Edinburgh features the work of John Constable and William McTaggart. This is a small but powerful exhibition with 2 outstanding paintings at its core. The first is Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows shown below.

Constable_highlight

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows by John Constable (Click to enlarge)

This is a very large painting and in the booklet helpfully provided by the National Gallery at the exhibition, Constable is quoted as stating “I do not consider myself at work without I am before a six-foot canvas”. At the time of this painting, landscape was not seen as a proper subject for artists and Constable was also criticised for his use of both brush and knife when paintings were supposed to be smooth. It is also very detailed and worth close study at the exhibition or online. At first, you notice the rainbow, the church, the large tree and the cart being hauled across the river by horses. Then you see the dog in the foreground, the birds on the water and another church to the left. What is striking of course are the clouds and their various colours and the threat of rain. Constable was criticised for his depiction of the clouds as it was a departure from the painting norms at the time. The booklet states “Constable created a varied surface where dense, craggy areas alternate with passages of subtle translucence and movement is created by the dynamic application and flecking of paint”. The more you look at this picture, the more you do see movement in the horses, the swaying trees and the clouds.

The exhibition seeks to show how McTaggart was influenced by Constable, particularly in his painting The Storm shown below.

William McTaggart

The Storm by William McTaggart (Click to enlarge)

This painting is not as clear as Constable’s and deliberately so. The first impression you get is of the flow of the water and light and landscape, like a lava stream. Then you see the figures at the bottom left who look desperate and frightened. Look again and in the mid to top right a small boat looks in peril on the sea. The notes at the exhibition comment on McTaggart’s “remarkably dynamic brushwork” which was influenced by Impressionism. There are other paintings in this exhibition by Constable and McTaggart which makes a visit to the National Gallery well worth while. As a footnote, my lifelong friend Tam, on a recent visit to Dunbar, recalled that my current interest in form and shape in art did not match my inability to create art at school. Despite the advice of our excellent art teacher Carnegie Brown, my attempts were hopeless. I still can’t draw for toffee but I have learned to appreciate some aspects of art, including how it is constructed.

 

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My new book

May 20, 2016

This post is all about my new book entitled STRANDED: The Whales at Thorntonloch in 1950. The Stories of the People who were there. A couple of years ago, I started an oral history project on my home town of Dunbar in the early 1950s, with a view to interviewing people about shops and shopping in that era. Once I did some initial reading around the early 1950s, I realised that there were other topics I could pursue, and these included rationing (which ended in 1954) and the building of new council houses (where I was brought up) between 1949 and 1953. I was chatting with Gordon Easingwood, the chair of Dunbar and District History Society when he said “Oh 1950? That was the year of the whales”. I’d never heard of anything to do with whales in 1950, so I pursued the topic and found that 147 pilot whales had been stranded at Thorntonloch Beach on 13th May 1950. There were a fair number of press reports, some with photos but I wanted to create a more personal take on the event, so I asked around the town and found people who had been to see the whales. From the initial interviews, I formed a set of questions to ask. I did an article for the local paper and I was contacted by about 20 people from around East Lothian, Edinburgh and other counties, as well as people who now live abroad but saw the whales. There’s an excellent Facebook site called Lost Dunbar and again, I got a good response from that. People offered to be interviewed but also sent me photos of the whales. Very few people had cameras in 1950 but some photos have survived e.g. one man sent me 3 photos he’d found in his flat when he moved in.

Whale Book Cover-page-001

My new book front cover

The book has been sponsored by Community Windpower who gave me a generous grant to allow publication of the book. All profits from the book go to the History Society and not to me. The book was superbly edited by Emma Westwater of Source Design and contains many photos of the whales but also of the cranes used to remove the whales, contemporary cars, buses and bicycles. The first chapter examines press reports of the event and this is followed by chapters on how people got to Thorntonloch in 1950, what they saw when they got there, how people felt and behaved, and a final chapter on why whales strand and what might happened today if a similar stranding happened. The heart of the book is the series of oral history interviews I conducted – face to face, on Skype and via Skype phone – with people who contacted me and others who were recommended by the initial contacts.

My good friend and old school pal Nigel helped me to design a website for the book. My input was text and Nigel did all the techie stuff and what a great job he’s done. Check the website out here as it allows you to buy a book online via PayPal or credit card. I want to use social media to publicise the book, so if you have a Facebook page or you Tweet, please put details of my book on your page and encourage all your friends to do likewise.

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

Myrtle Cornwallis and Dorothy Scully visit the whales

I had some interesting research to do for this book. For example, I bought the photo above from The Herald and Times Group and on the back of the original photo was the photographer’s writing “Myrtle Cornwallace and Dorothy Scully from Edinburgh”. I assumed that Myrtle’s real name was Cornwallis and I looked up the name in the Edinburgh phone book and found one Cornwallis. I spoke to someone who confirmed that there was a Myrtle Cornwallis,  who now lived in Dunning, Perthshire (good photos) but of course, could not give me her phone number. I looked up Dunning and found Dunning Parish Historical Society and then I found that a Myrtle Potter had written an article for the site. I contacted the site manager and he put me in touch with Myrtle Potter, now in her 80s but with a very clear memory, so her interview added greatly to the book. In research, persistence pays.

I’ve had excellent feedback from many people about the book and although I wrote 11 books as an academic, this was like having my first book published again – that was in 1978!

Eyemouth walk, oral history and inside tulips

May 3, 2014

A walk around the town of Eyemouth last weekend proved to be interesting. Eyemouth is a historic town 23 miles (37K) from Dunbar and only 5 miles (8.1K) from the border between England and Scotland. It is still a fishing town with some large boats and fishing in the town goes back more than 800 years. Some of this history is on show at the Eyemouth Maritime Centre which is situated at the harbour’s edge. The Centre also records details of the widespread smuggling that went on in the 19th century to avoid taxation on basic items such as salt, but also spirits such as brandy and gin, and more luxurious goods such as lace. It’s a very well designed museum. Our walk took us to the far side of the harbour, where we passed (1st photo) the steam powered drag boat Bertha which may have been designed by the famous engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, although this appears to be disputed. The 2nd photo shows a picture postcard view of the harbour, although postcard producers would probably have waited until the D R Collin lorry had departed. At the far end of the harbour is Gunsgreen House, an impressive building originally built by a smuggler and now a museum. Away from the harbour, you come across the statue of Willie Spears (see photo 3) a fishermen’s leader at the time of the great disaster of 1889 when 189 men from Eyemouth and surrounding towns and villages, were lost at sea in a huge storm. Eyemouth is perhaps not as visually attractive as other fishing towns on the south east of Scotland but it’s well worth a visit.

Steam dragboat Bertha

Steam dragboat Bertha

Eyemouth harbour

Eyemouth harbour

Willie Spears

Willie Spears

When I retired 2 years ago, one of my aims was to do some local history about my home town of Dunbar, and two years later, I’ve started. My intention is to research shops and shopping in Dunbar in 1950. The research project will firstly involve using a number of secondary sources such as newspapers, council minutes, organisational records and photos from the local history museum. I will also be aiming to interview people who lived in Dunbar in 1950 and my initial plan is to interview people over 80, who would be 15/16 in 1950. As part of the background reading, I’ve been looking into oral history in order to examine definitions, techniques and interpretations. Writers such as Paul Thompson state that oral history is not new, as much history was handed down in stories told by the older members of early societies. Modern oral history takes the form of recording the narratives of people who lived through historical events or periods, and it is only in recent times that people other than members of the ruling elite have had the opportunity to give their version of events. So there is value in older people’s own stories, whether they were e.g. farm workers or farm owners. I hope to interview a cross section of Dunbar society in 1950 in order to get a range of views on what happened e.g. when people went shopping. My research background is very helpful in organising such a project but I’m learning new perspectives by reading the views of oral history practitioners and academics.

Over the past 3 weeks in Dunbar, we’ve had an east wind, very cold at times but fairly light. Some days, the sea at the back of our house has disappeared with the incoming haar (sea mist) and there has been a ubiquitous greyness. I would say that every cloud has a silver lining, except on most days, there were no clouds to be seen, just one long uninterrupted grey sky. However, one silver lining is that the tulips have lasted much longer this year, as often they are blown apart in strong westerly winds. This gave me an opportunity to do some close up photography on the tulips and the following 3 photographs show how the insides of the flowers can take on an abstract quality, as if some other form of life was growing inside the tulip.

Inside a tulip

Inside a tulip

Inside a tulip

Inside a tulip

Inside a tulip

Inside a tulip