Last month I wrote of an exciting oral history project based on Stanmer, which is to provide the basis for a play by Sara Clifford of Inroads Productions that is due to be written. It will be centred around a clash of cultures – ancient and modern – which were very much accentuated during the 1960s with the construction of Sussex University on part of the Stanmer Estate. I jumped at the chance to be involved – helping record a wide range of people’s stories. As I have said before, Stanmer has many connections with my own project about the history of Newmarket Farm.
However, I discovered from Sam Carroll that the discipline of oral history recording is not primarily about producing a record of historical events. It is to capture people’s personal stories. The interviewer – me on this occasion(!) – is supposed to be as invisible as possible and only there to enable the interviewee to tell their personal story as best they can. I initially found this hard to grasp – as an ‘oral historian’ I was not to steer them towards an objective account of (alleged) historical facts – my aim was ‘just’ to record their highly subjective and fallible memories. And I found that really challenging. I wanted to learn about the historical events associated (directly or indirectly) with my own researches about Newmarket Farm – and the person I interviewed (John Gapper) was interested (where possible) in doing just that. However, to remove interview bias, all the interviews were based on the same pre-prepared questions relating to their experiences of living, working, or visiting Stanmer.
This part of the project has now been completed, and about a dozen volunteers each interviewed one of a wide range of people connected in different ways with Stanmer. It was interesting to hear highlights from such a diversity of voices and points of view.
People tell their stories differently to different people. John told his stories to me knowing that I was a local myself, as are both sides of my family – and similarly interested in wildlife and local history. But not everyone has such narrow interests. What would John have told someone who wasn’t local, or interested in rural community traditions, wild flowers, or the consequences of the WW2 training exercises which decimated much of the Stanmer Estate, including the village, house and church? So I had to restrain myself during at least the recording! I wanted to ask him more about what he remembered of the stories told him by the previous generation, whose memories went back 100 years or more, working and living in Stanmer. I wanted to know dates, names, places, events…
Yet I should (and do) know better. Not that it made it any easier! People’s memories are fallible. I know that because I have direct personal (often painful) experience that my own recollections are often partially or occasionally completely wrong. Personal bias is always present. From my studies a few years ago on the philosophy of science I know that subjectivity is always present. This doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t know anything. It just means that we rely on others to share their subjective experiences and to compare and contrast them with our own. So it is that I have come to believe that ‘objectivity’ is an ideal based on shared collective experience. Multiple subjective experiences of an event or a phenomenon add depth or ‘colour’ to that event, making it richer and more interesting. This, I believe, is the aim of an oral history project. To recognise that people’s memories – however ordinary or extraordinary they may be – can be precious gems. Diamonds may be valuable, but it is their multiple facets that make them sparkle in the light!