Oral history in London in 2020

London (Sarah Gudgin) 

For many, the beginning of any year holds a sense of expectation and anticipation and the start of 2020 seemed no different to any other. I was looking forward to working on a number of heritage projects and carrying out oral history interviews. I had also joined the team of OHS trainers at the British Library and I was preparing to run OHS/BL oral history training sessions.  

However, when COVID-19 hit us, all these activities were suddenly disrupted or ceased, meaning all of my work and income ground to a complete halt, including group reminiscence work with people with dementia. 

Fortunately after many months in lockdown, Islington’s Pride, one of the projects which I was due to work on got back in touch again. The project had obtained an extension from National Lottery Heritage Fund which meant that I was able to resume some interviewing work when the restrictions began to ease in August. This project is creating an archive focusing on the London Borough of Islington’s LGBT+ heritage. With much of this heritage on the brink of being lost, the project has used education, outreach, preservation and exploration to preserve Islington’s LGBT+ history. For the oral history element of the project, I am recording the memories of 20 LGBTQ+ people who have lived and worked in the local area, talking about continuity and change in their lives and everyday experiences.  

Since starting back, some of these interviews have been done via remote recording and for a short period, others were carried out face to face as socially distanced interviews. However if you had said to me at the beginning of 2020, that I’d be conducting interviews wearing a face mask and a full Perspex visor, carrying out risk assessments, using hand sanitiser, keeping the windows wide open and disinfecting equipment after use, I would probably have laughed at you! 

When work restarted, it was immensely satisfying to step outside of my home bubble once more, to connect with new people, virtually and in person and to engage with their remarkable and inspiring stories. Many interviewees reflected on past struggles to gain LGBT+ rights, as well as the recent struggles of the Black Lives Matter protests. Some drew parallels between the horrors of the AIDs pandemic and its devastating effects on the community with the awful effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deaths that this has caused. These poignant interviews have made me more conscious of the importance of our work, especially in such uncertain times and to appreciate what a rare privilege it is to be able to sit with someone and to record their life story, something I never tire of. So far, I have completed 10 oral histories and will be recording another 10 for the project. These will be deposited, along with other materials which have been collected, as the Islington’s Pride Special Collection at Islington Local Heritage Centre.  Extracts from the interviews will be used as part of a digital landscape to create an interactive map using QR codes, which will detail LGBTQ+ heritage in the Borough of Islington. 

In these uncertain times, we have all had to learn to adapt the ways that we work and find alternative ways to meet, learning to navigate new platforms such as Zoom and Teams and to find new ways to work. Whilst some oral history work has still not been able to resume, others projects are finding ways to carry on. I was recently approached by the South London Gallery to complete 8 oral histories on the changing face of the Peckham Rye neighbourhood. Thanks to advice from the BL and OHS on remote interviews as well as their Covid19 guidance, I am able to start this project, which was originally meant to be carried out by volunteers. 

Another positive development has been the formation of the Creative Oral 

History Special Interest Group, which followed on from the success of the last 

Regional Network event, on the theme of Oral History and Creative Practice, held (in person) at the British Library in Nov 2019. The SIG was set up shortly after this event with a small group of core members and we had an in person launch meeting in February this year at University of Greenwich, where we agreed our roles and the group’s main aims. This was followed by an open meeting and a fascinating show and tell session, with a wide variety of talks about creative oral history projects. The COH-SIG now has 11 core members and 22+ in the wider membership. We have also embraced the opportunity to meet online via Zoom, which has benefitted us since it has enabled participants from around the UK to take part in our meetings more easily. We are currently researching content for an online project, mapping creative oral history projects past and present using History Pin, which will be embedded in the fabulous new OHS website which Beth Thomas has done a fantastic job of developing. We would really like to hear from anyone who can contribute content for the map, especially about projects outside of the London area which we are still searching for. The COH-SIG is planning more online events, including a joint book launch with the LGBTQ+SIG in November and our online Christmas gathering on 3rd December (information can be found on the OHS SIG webpages). I’d like to extend our gratitude to Craig Fees for his support and mentoring of the SIG groups. 

In terms of the London region’s oral history projects, I had not received any enquiries this year until November, when a couple of groups got in touch wanting advice. I hope this is a positive if tentative sign that oral history work will be carrying on. 

Reflecting back over this extraordinary period, we have learned that we need to be able to respond and change with the times. I take inspiration from Charles Darwin who said, “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”  As oral historians, we must stay safe, but we must also continue to think of innovative ways to sustain our work in order to preserve the past for the future. In due course, we can and will emerge from the difficulties of this year and it too will be history. 

European Reminiscence Network (Pam Schweitzer) 

This has been a relatively quiet year, since projects which were to take place have had to be shelved because of Covid-19. Opportunities for new Europe-wide reminiscence projects with EU funding are no longer open to us post-Brexit. 

The “Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today” (RYCT) project involving Reminiscence in Dementia Care, was due to be running in Westminster, Camden and Greenwich, with funding in place to start in March and June 2020 and January 2021. RYCT is a very hands-on intervention, in which families living with dementia attend 12 weekly sessions in which they use arts and reminiscence to re-visit key moments in their lives. During these sessions the central relationships are strengthened through creative exploration of the past together, and new friendships and informal mutual support groups are formed between participating families. The sessions are also supported by volunteers (usually excarers themselves) and apprentices trained in reminiscence arts by the European Reminiscence Network. 

Under Covid-19, these meetings and training sessions could not happen, so we have been exploring ways to maintain contact with families through telephone calls and correspondence. We have also offered to run virtual sessions and are continuing to explore the issues arising. It has proved quite problematical engaging older people reluctant as many are to try opening the computer or tablet (even assuming they have access to these) and attending Zoom sessions from home. Some have been afraid of the medium and just found it too stressful.  

Those being cared for by younger relatives, rather than elderly spouses, have more readily agreed to join in the experiment and have felt there was plenty of scope for trying out creative ways of exploring memories without having to leave the house. These carers have been encouraged to gather stimulus materials at home between sessions. So they might conduct a targeted search through photos and memorabilia at home or on the Internet which connect to the week’s chosen theme, or they might find and play extracts from favourite films available on-line, or even make a drawing of a memory shared. This ‘homework’ helps family carers to use reminiscence proactively, stimulating their relative to communicate and broadening their own horizons concerning what it is still possible to do. Participants were also happy to be able to maintain the friendships which had developed in the ‘live’ groups established before Covid-19 through these Zoom sessions. Now we want to explore further and try this approach with families who have not attended any reminiscence sessions before and see how Zoom can support them in the future.  

The main advantage of working in this way, is that participants who face huge problems in leaving their homes, can be ‘present’ in a stimulating event which supports their confidence and sense of identity. This is an on-going experiment which is being explored across the European Reminiscence Network. An ERN conference will be held in October 2021 in Amsterdam to share results. 

Work on the Reminiscence Theatre Archive at the University of Greenwich is an ongoing project. Students at the university are involved in drama work arising from the archive, and history students are involved in digitising the interviews. Much of this archive is now available on-line at www.reminiscencetheatrearchive.org.uk. At a personal level, it has been good participating in the establishment of the Creative Oral History Special Interest Group. The meetings have been lively and offer a valuable opportunity for an exchange of experience

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