Naked Voices: The Best Oral History Has the Depth and Texture of Fiction

Article excerpt

Before she retired, my mother worked as a district nurse. She wasn't called a district nurse in Canada but her job was very similar to that of the woman interviewed by Ronald Blythe when he first began research for his oral history classic, Akenfield (1969). The nurse in Blythe's small Suffolk village was a natural entry point for a collection of interviews on the subject of rural life. Nurses usually know where the secrets lie.

Occasionally, I accompanied my mother on her visits. I remember the way she sat and listened to what were, in effect, monologues delivered by elderly people who had too much to say and few chances to regale. Years later, when I began writing for newspapers and magazines, I learned how to condense these sorts of interview encounters, how to slice up a scene, wrap words in quotations and lodge them in a larger story, just like any journalist.

The more I worked this way, the more I felt dissatisfied with the results. I began writing more and more of what is known as oral history, so, instead of cutting, quoting and commenting, I recorded people, tried to let them speak, let them wander and, like a visiting district nurse, refrained from leaping in too early with the next question. I then edited the direct speech. The results made my other writing look bloodless and contrived in comparison.

Back in the world of normal journalism, I started to dislike the look of my own voice on the page and worked to minimise my interjections and judgements. It's been an interesting project; after five years of interviews, I have just finished writing my second book of oral history, Londoners.

The problem is that I loathe the phrase "oral history". It is redolent of dusty, local-village history societies and folklore studies, tweedy and old fashioned. This is a great shame, as a rejuvenated version is needed more than ever. Journalism today is stuffed with mediated language. PRs often sit in the room with journalists and interviewees, ready to step in with quiet phrases such as, "He won't be answering that question."

At its best, first-person oral history prises power away from official narrators. With Londoners, I did have to deal with the odd PR but, for the most part, the project steered away from their influence and became a contrapuntal mix of voices, one in which the language of the protester was given as much space as the big-time financier.

I began to think of it as a book of collages, full of the best kind of literary instability, where no one voice was given dominance and flow of language was what finally mattered. The form offered the chance to write a book that borrowed from the vocabulary of film, jump-cut-ting from person to person. …