Academic journal article Western Folklore

Stories and "Oral History" Interviews: A Thematic Analysis of "Embedded" Narratives

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Stories and "Oral History" Interviews: A Thematic Analysis of "Embedded" Narratives

Article excerpt

It is 1979, and I am sitting in a pub in Youghal, County Cork, Ireland, with six other people, five of whom have personal connections to an imperial past. We are talking informally, but the conversation quickly turns to the subject I have come to interview one of them about (though I will wind up taping four out of the five later) .

We have not come to Ireland to encounter grand oral performances, but rather the prosaic, everyday speech of interviews.1 We have come to encounter the colonial, though not because Ireland has been called Britain's original colony. We are here in Ireland making stops on the route of a larger field project (taking us through England and Scotland as well) that involves talking to British men and women who lived and worked in imperial India before independence came in 1947 - as colonial administrators, soldiers, business people, and in other capacities. In part my interest is personal and comes out of having had a Fulbright in India in the 1960s, an experience that made me curious about earlier generations of Western sojourners on the subcontinent, whose mark was certainly left upon the cultural landscape in various ways.

But my fellow interviewer and I are both folklorists, and our current project is also part of an interest in the expanding conception of the parameters of folklore, of seeing folklore as something possessed and communicated by virtually all human groups, not just "peasants," or "the common people," or "country folk." Though what we are doing here has connection to "oral history," we see our endeavor as folkloristic and ethnographic, as an exercise in what Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux once called "the study of culture at a distance" (Mead and Métraux 1953). The distance is temporal as well as spatial, for the subculture we are focusing on no longer exists either in situ or in present time, for the colonialists of India mostly came "Home"2 to the British Isles when their world in Asia ceased to exist. We want to know what sort of folklore that world once had and, in passing, to see something about the lore of a politically and socially elite group. To mention the various purposes of this project, however, is merely to provide a sort of prologue, a background for understanding why in the course of a series of interviews we recorded the stories I am discussing here.

We sit in the pub with Ian, the informant we have come to see, but also his wife Davida 's brother-in-law, Howard, and Howard's brother Arthur, as well as Davida and her sister, Howard's wife Marian (Arthur has never married).3 All three men were members of the small, elite Indian Civil Service, or ICS, the corps which provided imperial India with its key administrators. But I am particularly struck by a story Arthur tells about what happened to him after he left India following Partition (we have learned that our informants seldom speak of the Independence of India and Pakistan but rather reference the Partition of one entity into two nations as the culminating event of the British Raj).

I had gone to Egypt, he said [there was no tape recorder at our pub lunch, so obviously I am paraphrasing his story, losing much of its original style4] , and making my way south, thinking that perhaps I would get to Kenya and try coffee farming. When I reached the Cataracts of the Nile I ran into an English chap, who said to me, "I say, aren't you wearing a Marlborough tie?" and I said I was. And he asked, "Were you at Marlborough ? " "Yes, " I said. "Why, so was I," he said. "Well, what are you doing now?" he asked. I told him I had Ufi India and was heading for Kenya and might try coffee farming. "I'm in the Uganda fudicial Service, " he said. "Why don't you come to Uganda and join the fudicial Service?" And so I did.

It is the quintessential old school tie story. In the middle of Africa - still very much a colonial place, though India has become something else - Arthur is literally wearing a tie (in itself a rather extraordinary fact) , and by it his identity is recognized. …

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