There’s a note from the office.
Just had a call from Michael Burns (80). He lived through the war in the forest as a child and has lots of memories…couldn’t stop him talking! Very happy to meet with people for a cup of tea and talk through his memories.
Our first response to the call-out ad we placed in the local newspaper.
I call the number.
“Hi. You called us about the ‘Secret Forest’ project we’re doing..?’
‘Are you still happy to talk to us about your memories?’
‘Yes, of course’
And we’re off! I find out he lives less than a 2 minute walk from my parents’ house. Ideal for the first meeting. Turns out the memories really are on our doorstep, if you just look for it.
I arrive with my list of questions for the meeting. Armed with my recording device.
Michael’s dug out all sorts of documents as well as a hand-drawn map of where he used to live – in Broadwell, between two prisoner of war camps.
I quickly realise the memory recollection for him started as soon as the phone went down in our previous conversation. He’s ready to talk. He’s ready to share his life. Right now. With me, right here. I feel a sense of responsibility, a pressure not to miss anything which might be the golden nugget which unlocks this whole project. I take a deep breath and heed Craig’s advice;
‘If they want to talk, just let them’. I breathe. And…I listen…’
A plentiful flow of golden nuggets follows.
The team are at the Dean Heritage Centre for a day of training with oral history expert Craig Fees from the Oral History Society. I’m thinking ‘how can he possibly fill a whole day out of training a group of people to switch on a voice recorder and chat?’. Turns out, quite easily…
The day is packed with unexpected and brilliant insights into the heritage and importance of oral history. We look at the ethics behind the whole process; the weight of responsibility that comes with asking someone to open up and talk about deep-rooted memories. The careful balancing act between letting the interviewee ‘just talk’ and prompting with just the right amount of questions to keep the dialogue flowing. Not to mention how to build up a carefully constructed rapport so that interviewees feel they are in safe and trusted hands. And then the technical requirements involved in making sure you actually capture these important stories, right there and then.
But the day goes further than that. Craig looks at our own histories, our own reasons for wanting to be part of this project, and crucially how we transfer that energy and enthusiasm to our young team who will be tasked with conducting these chats alongside us. We look at the challenges inherent with placing two different generations in the same room as each other, and ways to help them connect and to feel rewarded from the experience.
We all open up about own own connections to history, to our own family’s past. It’s what I imagine a pre-production research meeting would look like on ‘Who do you think you are!’ And the end of the day we are all changed in some way. We are armed with the information we need to light the blue touch paper on this project and fuelled with the energy to succeed.
[So, as it turns out it’s not just as easy as ‘switching on a voice recorder and chatting…’]
Next stop: To find some willing interviewees willing to open up about their past.