‘We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are.’ Rebecca Solnit’s image of dynamic engagement with the past captures what is, for me, one of the most enthralling aspects of oral history interviewing: each telling speaks to its moment in time. But I hadn’t imagined finding that spark through reading oral histories in an archive, nor that memories recounted by others fifty years ago might help me find new bearings in the present. The interviews in question were recorded in the early 1970s with women in the industrial north-west of England by the oral historian Elizabeth Roberts and are housed at Lancaster University’s Regional Heritage Centre in the Elizabeth Roberts Working-Class Oral History Archive, which is now accessible on line. I was interested in memories of animals and there were methodological reasons, which I won’t go into here, for exploring this collection. But there was another, more personal, impulse.
For those of us lucky enough to be able to set foot in it, the English spring of 2020 was a poignantly beautiful counterpoint to the unfolding horrors of the pandemic. From where I live in Northumberland, my own government-sanctioned daily walk led past hedgerows that grew impossibly lusher each day with cascades of the creamy-white hawthorn blossom known as ‘may’. ‘This summer’, wrote the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson in To a Child before Birth, ‘is your perfect summer’, one of blue skies, birdsong, and may that ‘smells like rum-butter.’ Next year, inevitably it will rain again and the may ‘will have its old smell of plague about it.’ The poem first appeared in 1948. Seventy-odd years later, on the other side of the country, the may that could well have smelled of plague exuded an unusually powerful scent of honey.
But the may was just part of the reason I couldn’t get Nicholson’s poem out of my head on those walks. As a nature poet, he evokes the part-rural, part-industrial Furness region, where I grew up in the coastal town of Barrow. I hadn’t spent any time there for years, but during that first spring of Covid, when travel was prohibited, I found myself longing for the place. Coincidentally, Barrow-in-Furness is one of the towns where Elizabeth Roberts recorded her interviews. Confined to my desk for the rest of the day, I immersed myself in those transcripts.
Roberts’ work, which was based on those and subsequent recordings made in Barrow, Preston and Lancaster in the 1970s and 80s, latterly in collaboration with Lucinda McCray Beier, helped shape the then new field of oral history in Britain and resulted in two landmark studies: A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890-1940, and Women and Families: An Oral History, 1940-1970. It is a testament to her vision – at a time when there were few precedents – that the sources should be as compelling and rewarding as they are today. Using a life-story framework, they focus on family and social relationships, health, education and training, domestic economy and work, but leave room for the conversation to follow unexpected threads.
Initially, then, I was looking for incidental memories of animals. But before long I was also being struck by references to phenomena that were neither central to Roberts’ enquiry nor directly connected to mine. From plants to minerals, from vegetable allotments to the sea shore, nature began to seem as insistent in the archive as it did in the world outside. In one interview, for instance, almost the first thing we hear about is sunlight. Responding to Roberts’ opening question, ‘Where were you born?’, Mrs W.1.B (as we know her) gives the address – which the archivist has redacted for security reasons – and explains why she and her husband had chosen to live in that street themselves.
‘My husband liked this house because of this beautiful view. We’ve always lived in the back because we get all the sunshine here – we don’t need our [electric] light until long after all the other houses have their lights on – and the most gorgeous sunsets you ever saw. We stay up to see the sunsets. […] Before they built the [new] houses, we used to just stand at the back garden and watch them, but of course all that’s spoilt now.’
The subject of housing was important to Roberts’ research, and the interview continues with an account of how Mrs W.1.B’s parents took the opportunity to move there in 1901 through her father’s job, the street being one of a number built by the Barrow Shipbuilding Company towards the end of the nineteenth century to provide homes for its work force. But the narrator began by showing us the sky, and its existence is now impossible to forget. Then there is the sea, a crucial, and unspoken, presence. It is the reason for the Shipbuilding Company, many of whose workers had sailed east from the Irish shipyards of Belfast to this town at the tip of the Furness peninsula, and it is also the reason for those sunsets. I too lived in a house that backed west across the sea to Ireland and remember rooms ablaze with evening light reflected from that great expanse of water. Although the narrator’s address has been redacted from the online transcript, I can visualize its bearings because in answer to the question, ‘Where were you born?’ she describes it in relation to the light.
At first, I wondered if noticing references to other biophysical phenomena was a consequence of focusing on animals, in a similar way that farmers preoccupied with livestock are alert to plants and wildlife and weather. But that seemed fanciful. More likely, my brain was trying to compensate for being housebound. Or could it be because I was craving a sense of connection to a childhood home? Certainly, these sensory memories – because above all, they were sensory – lent substance to my own remembering of that place.
I was still speculating about this when, in connection with my work on animals, Indira Chowdhury recommended Rustom Bharucha’s Rajasthan: an oral history, which consists of commentary and transcripts of Bharucha’s conversations with the ethno-musicologist Komal Kothari. In one chapter, Bharucha presents Kothari’s account of researching how people view the five elements: fire, earth, sky, wind and water. ‘I wanted to know,’ Kothari explains, ‘what kind of insights could emerge from their day-to-day experience of these tatvas (elements).’ He began with a study of water, which revealed, for example, how, for hundreds of years in a drought-ridden region where livelihoods depend on animal husbandry, ethno-geological knowledge had enabled cattle fairs to be held at the right place and time to ensure a natural water supply for people and animals. Bharucha is also interested in the mythic significance of water, and Kothari responds with accounts of fables, songs and personal tales that recall human resilience at times of drought, stories of survival that are, as he says, ‘now part of people’s memory.’
If the references in the Roberts archive to other-than-human aspects of the biosphere have no such obvious purpose, this does not mean they are gratuitous. It always makes sense for humans to register environmental phenomena, and a heightened awareness of life as precious and/or precarious may make us especially receptive to them. But the current pandemic is just part of a bigger picture. Writing about the climate crisis, Solnit says she is afraid ‘that this chaos will come to seem inevitable, and even normal, as war does to someone who has lived their life in wartime. I believe we now need to tell stories about how beautiful, how rich, how harmonious the Earth we inherited was. […] Otherwise we might forget why we are fighting.’
In his poem to the unborn child, Nicholson asserts that the experience of that pre-natal summer will not be lost to them: ‘Perfection is not the land you leave/It is the pole you measure from; it gives/geography to your ways and wanderings.’ Mrs W.1.B’s recollection of the view does something similar: ‘Before they built the new houses, we used to just stand in the garden and watch [the sunsets], but of course all that’s gone now.’ Whether or not the houses were needed is not the issue here; the point is to remember what they have obscured. Human memory is permeated by experiences of the biosphere. They speak from the past to the future and are there to be found in old and new oral histories alike. How or why we find them doesn’t matter, but it is vital that we can and that we do.
‘The present’ says Solnit, ‘rearranges the past.’ Certainly, my focus here reflects my own concerns rather than those of Elizabeth Roberts or the women who talked to her, and I have found their accounts inspiring both as a personal reminiscence resource and in terms of animal history. But reading these memories recorded half a century ago has also made me want to ask new questions, about relationships between human and other-than-human life in our shared world. To that extent, these histories have rearranged my thinking: animals, it seems, are just the start. With thanks to Elizabeth Roberts, Mrs W.1.B, and to Sam Riches and Ann-Marie Michel at Lancaster University’s Regional Heritage Centre.
Sue Bradley is an oral historian who listens out for animals . She is a research associate on FIELD (Farm-level Interdisciplinary Approaches to Endemic Livestock Disease) in Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy, and a member of the Newcastle University Oral History Unit and Collective. Her article, ‘Hobday’s hands: recollections of touch in veterinary practice’, appeared in Oral History vol 49, no 1, 2021.
 Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, London; Granta, 2013, p.246.
 <https://www.lancaster.ac.uk/regional-heritage-centre/elizabeth-roberts-working-class-oral-history-archive/> Accessed 04.12.21.
 A Cumberland treat made from butter and sugar laced with rum.
 Norman Nicholson, Rock Face, London; Faber and Faber, 1948, p.36.
 Elizabeth Roberts, A Woman’s Place: An Oral History of Working-Class Women 1890-1940, Oxford; Blackwell, 1984; Elizabeth Roberts, Women and Families: An Oral History, 1940-1970, Oxford; Blackwell, 1995. See also: Lucinda McCray Beier, For their own good: the transformation of English working–class health culture, 1880–1970, Columbus; Ohio State University Press, 2008.
 Mrs W.1.B interviewed by Elizabeth Roberts, Barrow-in-Furness, 1972 (Elizabeth Roberts Working-Class Oral History Archive).
 Rustom Bharucha, Rajasthan: an oral history: Conversations with Komal Kothari, Penguin Books India, 2003, p.65.
 Bharucha, 2003, p.82.
 < https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/18/ten-ways-confront-climate-crisis-without-losing-hope-rebecca-solnit-reconstruction-after-covid > Accessed 04.12.21.
 Solnit, 2013, p.246.