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Albert Mingelgrün
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Beatrice Barbalato

La mémoire numérisée

Recalling radio: testing memory against archives

Peter M. Lewis

Résumé

As part of continuing work on a project, A Remembered Soundscape, this paper discusses the experience of researching oral history archives and the British Library’s National Sound Archive. Methodological problems are involved in treating the material discovered: with very few exceptions, particular broadcasts cannot be recalled in personal memory, so that generic examples must take their place. The remembered places and social settings can be recalled and corroborated by published accounts in the social histories of broadcasting and by archives, for example those of Mass Observation and books based on material in that archive. The process of finding recordings, and the setting in which contemporary listening takes place (e.g. in a sound-booth of the British Library), also affect the account that emerges. Finally, and perhaps most important, there is a need to take account of studies of ‘memory work’, recognising that the past is constantly rewritten, revised, and misremembered.

Cet article qui fait partie d'un projet en cours intitulé A remembered soundscape (Souvenirs d'un paysage sonore), discute les circonstances liées aux investigations concernant l'histoire orale et les archives sonores de la Bibliothèque Nationale de Londres. L'analyse des données pose des problèmes méthodologiques car il est impossible de se remémorer des émissions particulières, à de rares exceptions près. Par conséquent, il faut rechercher des exemples génériques. On peut se rappeler et confirmer les souvenirs d'endroits et de cadres sociaux en utilisant des comptes rendus d'histoires sociales de la radiodiffusion, des archives comme celles de Mass Observation Archive (MOA) et des livres fondés sur des matériaux provenant de MOA. La recherche elle-même des enregistrements et leur écoute contemporaine sans disposer d'une cabine de la Bibliothèque peuvent modifier le compte rendu. Enfin, et c'est peut-être le plus important, les études du "travail de mémoire" doivent entrer en ligne de compte en ce qu'elles démontrent que le passé est constamment réécrit, révisé et déformé.

Texte intégral

1. A Remembered Soundscape

  • 2 Arjun APPADURAI, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, University (...)

1I am going to speak today about a topic which is a part of an ongoing project -A Remembered Soundscape - a project which attempts to recover and provide a contemporary interpretation to remembered acoustic experience. The focus is a British child’s experience - mine - of listening to radio or ‘the wireless’ as we called it in those days. In the pre-television age the medium occupied, along with the gramophone, the cinema and the telephone, almost the whole known world of public, mediated sound. Wireless listening thus had a significant place in the mediascape, a term I use, following Appadurai, to mean the range of visual and audio media available at any one time and place2. In this period, the 1930s to the 1950s, the acoustic environment was less busy and invaded by mediated sound than it is today and the scope of my main project is concerned with the whole soundscape, (a notion coined by the Canadian musician and environmentalist, Murray Schafer) within which the mediascape is a part.

2Today I want to talk about what is involved in recalling, remembering, the radio programmes of my childhood. My own memories are supplemented by evidence from my mother’s diaries, by my letters home from boarding school and by reference to public archives, those in the Mass Observation Archive (MOA) and the radio programmes held in the British Library’s Sound Archive (BLSA).

  • 3 Murray SCHAFER, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Rochester, Vt, D (...)

3This project draws on three different fields: soundscapes, life history (autobiography) and media studies. It was Murray Schaffer’s comment that «sounds may alter or disappear with scarcely a comment from even the most sensitive of historians»3 (Schaffer 1977/1994: 8) which encouraged me to explore my remembered soundscape. This aspect of my project is a sort of aural ‘rescue archaeology’.

4Where life history is concerned, I have taken note of the considerable literature that discusses the methodology of ‘memory work’ and its place within oral history. Two citations are particularly relevant to my project.

5Annette Kuhn’s observation in her Family Secrets that

  • 4 Annette KUHN, Family secrets: acts of memory and imagination, London & New York, Verso, 1995, p. 18 (...)

[…] we cannot access the past in any unmediated form. The past is unavoidably rewritten, revised, through memory; and memory is partial: things get forgotten, misremembered, repressed. Memory, in any case is always secondary revision: even the memories we run and rerun inside our heads are residues of psychical processes, often unconscious ones; and their (re)telling – putting subjective memory-images into some communicable form – always involves ordering and organising them in one way or another4,

  • 5 Raphael SAMUEL, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, London & New York, Ve (...)

6and Raphael Samuel’s remark that «memory, so far from being a passive receptacle… is an active shaping force… what it contrives symptomatically to forget is as important as what it remembers»5 (Samuel 1996: x). The unreliability of memory is what requires, and what has led me to seek, the corroboration of family and public documentation.

2. Domestic routine and war news

7Mass Observation is one of the sources radio historians have used to recover the way radio was listened to in the period in question. Founded in 1937 by two anthropologists, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, Mass Observation recruited a team of observer/investigators to record ordinary life in Bolton in North-West England, and diarists from across the country who were also required from time to time to answer specific questionnaires. The activity continued through World War II until the early 1950s and is now kept as an archive at the University of Sussex. Some collections of MOA documents have been published, for example Garfield 2006.

  • 6 Shaun MOORES, «‘The Box on the Dresser’: Memories of Early Radio and Everyday Life», Media Culture (...)

8Media historians have given us accounts of British radio listening before World War II which confirm my memories. Shaun Moores interviewed people who recalled listening to the radio in their sitting rooms in the 1920s and 1930s6, while Scannell and Cardiff emphasised the BBC’s «calendrical role» in the nation’s life:

  • 7 Paddy SCANNELL & David CARDIFF, A Social History of British Broadcasting: Volume One 1922-1939 - Se (...)

the cyclical reproduction, year in year out, of an orderly and regular progression of festivities, rituals and celebrations – major and minor, civil and sacred – that marked the unfolding of the broadcast year […]. Such broadcasts unobtrusively stitched together the private and the public spheres […]. [The calendar] not only coordinates social life, but gives it a renewable content, anticipatory pleasures, a horizon of expectations7.

9The MOA diaries show how radio listening was embedded within domestic routine and how re-telling of the war news was a part of the diarists’ recording of domestic events.

10So it was in our sitting room. The wireless was a focal point, next to the fireplace. Its lighted dial offered sounds from exotic places, possibilities of distance adventures over the airwaves within the safety of the home. From it came familiar voices, and familiar names: during the war the BBC required its news announcers to identify themselves at the start of bulletins. «Here is the nine o’clock news and this is Alvar Lidell reading it». The cast of actors who played parts in Children’s Hour provided me with my first introduction to radio drama. A drawing I did («from memory», my mother noted, dating it to November 1941 when I was seven), showed another focal point in the sitting room, the piano where I pictured her playing for my younger brother as he sat in his high chair.

  • 8 Clifford GEERTZ cited in Steven FELD, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kalu (...)
  • 9 Raymond WILLIAMS, The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961/1984, pp. .63-64.

11What is going on here? - the sociologist’s classic question. I am trying to undertake a reflexive self-ethnography. As Geertz said «ethnographies are supposed to be what [we] ethnographers think about things, as much as they are supposed to be accounts of what we think the locals think they are doing»8. The problem is I am both the object of study and the ethnographer. From a distance of over sixty years I am trying to recover the meaning for a small boy of his acoustic experience, and to interpret that experience from a contemporary perspective. To recover the meaning, I cannot simply describe the soundscape, I have to uncover (re-discover) the «structures of feeling» which coloured the original experience - a term used by Raymond Williams to mean «the felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time»9.

  • 10 Peter LEWIS, «Buried Treasure: the case of British radio archives» The Researcher’s Guide. British (...)

12Let us see what happens when I get to the British Library Sound Archive. It is still necessary to make the journey to St.Pancras in central London – not difficult for me, only half an hour from where I live, but if you live in Scotland or even SW England? The catalogue is not online and ordering up programmes sometimes requires a day more of notice. «Radio archives», I wrote ten years ago, «represent a major part of Britain’s cultural and artistic heritage, yet the situation with regard to their accessibility is a national disgrace. [The consequence for radio history] is as if a contemporary generation of writers and readers lived in ignorance of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens»10.

  • 11 See for example http://www.meccsa.org.uk/pdfs/ThreeD-Issue015.pdf

13In recent years the situation has improved11 - and I invite you now to join me in a sound booth in the British Library as we order some examples of radio programmes from my youth. Get your notepad and pen at the ready as we wait for the operator to play out the programme I’ve asked for. What I’ve ordered up from the archives is a sample from a series or a genre that I remember listening to. I don’t remember a particular programme. In any case the Sound Archive’s actual store of recoverable programmes is quite arbitrary and may not provide the exact object for which one is searching. As the programme sequence unfolds, I engage with the programme sound, connecting with the voices of personalities, news readers, actors, experiencing again familiarity across the distance of years.

  • 12 BBC Home Service, December 1939.
  • 13 Anne KARPF, Doctoring the Media, London, Routledge, 1988, p. 34.

14Here is Up in the Morning Early12, a keep fit programme for men and women on alternate mornings. I do remember my mother jumping around to this in the sitting room and the bizarre sing-song chant of the female presenter as she spelled out the movements meant to follow the piano accompaniment. «In the first 8 days of the programme, over 11% of the population listened… the BBC claimed 40% of listeners actually did the exercises daily»13.

  • 14 Donald McCullough, presenting The Brains Trust, BBC Home Service, 1941.
  • 15 Andrew CRISELL, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, London, Methuen, 1977, p. 59.

15Next, The Brains Trust. Four wise men (in this programme from 1941, Quentin Reynolds, Dr. C.E.M. Joad and Julian Huxley – both popularising academics - and Commander Campbell), debate the issues raised by listeners’ letters to the programme. The first question here claims that «women are better looking than they used to be, and asks if there is any scientific reason for this. Sgt Styles, of the Ipswich Home Guard, compares mankind with the paintings of our ancestors two hundred years ago and asks if this improvement likely to be maintained.»14 «It is extraordinary to think that this programme, which wrestled with problems of philosophy, art and science, engrossed a third of the population. »15.

  • 16 Charles Hill, The Radio Doctor, broadcast on BBC Home Service, December 1941, track 79 on BBC Recor (...)

16Here is the Radio Doctor – Charles Hill. Later to become Chairman of both the commercial regulator, the ITA (Independent Television Authority) and the BBC, during WW2 he dispensed commonsensical medical advice with his characteristically gravelly voice. «How’s the stomach? Is it firm and steady? Or somewhat warm and a little wobbly and a trifle windy?»16.

17Now we are listening to a signature tune, summoning all teenagers with its urgent, hurrying call not to miss the next episode (no recording in those days, no ‘Listen Again’) of Dick Barton – Special Agent!

18Yes, I experience familiarity. But what seems foreign, and not familiar, what brings me up short with a shock in these archive recordings, are accent and intonation, the slow pace of delivery or plot development – aspects which make me feel a stranger as, like a character in a Back to the Future episode, I approach the small boy in his parents’ sitting-room to question what he makes of the listening experience.

  • 17 Letter by author to parents, 09 May 1943.

19Perhaps the programme that most of all brings back the experience of family listening is ITMA, starring the comedian Tommy Handley. Tommy Handley was the star of the hugely popular and morale-boosting weekly show that satirised wartime personalities and stereotypes, ranging from Hitler («It’s that man again» – ITMA – doubling as an acronym for both Hitler and Handley) to domestic objects of hate (bureaucrats) and admiration (Mrs. Mop, the cleaning lady). That I missed the show when I went away to school is evident from the ending of a letter written on the ninth of May, 1943. «What is Tommy Handley like to-day? Well I don’t think there’s anything more to say…»17.

20The BBC’s news bulletins were important markers of the day during wartime and no more so than at the boarding school to which I was sent aged 8. The headmaster, a retired Major who had fought in the World War I, followed the military campaigns closely and explained the news in current affairs sessions, aided by maps that lined the walls of the classroom. Keen to have us follow events, he re-arranged the timetable to allow us to hear the one o’clock news in a corridor outside the dining room before we went in to lunch.

  • 18 Letter by author to parents, 16 May 1943.

21«There is usually a 5 minute break, but now it has been changed and instead of that… we go in 10 minutes earlier to lunch and when we have washed etc there is a wireless in the corridor and we listen to the news»18.

  • 19 MOA diary R i.26.

22My mother’s diary records her hearing the church bells ringing on Sunday 15 November 1942: «Up rather late. Heard bells being rung on wireless to celebrate victory in Egypt and North Africa. Grand to hear them again». A Ms Brierly, writing for Mass Observation, also heard the broadcast: «How lovely to hear the bells ringing again. Afraid I cried when I heard the bells of Coventry Cathedral ringing»19.

23Another of my mother’s diary entries illustrates how listening was embedded in daily routine. July 21, 1944: «Hitler in a mess with his generals. Out shopping. Nothing special. Watched relay races. Peaceful evening. Did mending». This kind of reporting is to be found, too, in the MOA diaries.

  • 20 John Snagge reading BBC news, 4 September 1944.

24The news was not in those days a ‘fast food’ to be consumed 24/7. Apart from daily and evening newspapers, there was only one source – the BBC, and one had to wait for the news bulletins. The Nine o’clock news (21.00 hrs), preceded by the chimes of Big Ben, was a key moment in the day’s routine, a ritual that bound together the national community so that for an announcer to talk of ‘we’, as John Snagge did, was not inappropriate: «Reports have come in from British Army 2nd Headquarters this morning with the good news that we are in Brussels»20.

  • 21 Murray SCHAFER, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Rochester, Vt, D (...)
  • 22 Bernie KRAUSE, «Nature’s Surround Sound». Interview with Jennifer Ouellette, New Scientist, 12 July (...)

25News events are perhaps the easiest genres of broadcasting to assist in the search for the contemporary context of listening. Where were you when you heard of the assassination of John Kennedy? Or of the terrorist attack of ‘9/11’? But for the rest, recalling radio is hard memory work. Even more so, the soundscape within which radio listening took place. Murray Schafer pointed out that «[to] report one’s impressions of sound one must employ sound»21. If I was producing a radio broadcast, I could interview contemporaries for their recollections, or draw on archive sources to use recorded sounds to stand in for those sounds I want to include in my account - what broadcasters call ‘reconstruction’. In my presentation for the Télémaque colloque, for example, I went to YouTube, an increasingly important source for sound, to get a recording of the bells of Coventry Cathedral. But in my project I also have to write words, and what interests me is the challenge of writing about sound when «there is virtually no language to describe sound in our culture»22. (Krause 2008: 42/3). I have to choose my words carefully, hoping that they do justice to the remembered sounds they represent.

Notes

2 Arjun APPADURAI, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

3 Murray SCHAFER, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Rochester, Vt, Destiny Books, 1977/1994, p. 8.

4 Annette KUHN, Family secrets: acts of memory and imagination, London & New York, Verso, 1995, p. 184.

5 Raphael SAMUEL, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, London & New York, Verso, 1996, p. X.

6 Shaun MOORES, «‘The Box on the Dresser’: Memories of Early Radio and Everyday Life», Media Culture and Society 10, 1988, pp. 23-40.

7 Paddy SCANNELL & David CARDIFF, A Social History of British Broadcasting: Volume One 1922-1939 - Serving the Nation. Oxford, and Cambridge, MA, Blackwell, 1991, p. 278.

8 Clifford GEERTZ cited in Steven FELD, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982/1990, p. 253.

9 Raymond WILLIAMS, The Long Revolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961/1984, pp. .63-64.

10 Peter LEWIS, «Buried Treasure: the case of British radio archives» The Researcher’s Guide. British Universities Film and Video Council, 2001, pp. 1-6.

11 See for example http://www.meccsa.org.uk/pdfs/ThreeD-Issue015.pdf

12 BBC Home Service, December 1939.

13 Anne KARPF, Doctoring the Media, London, Routledge, 1988, p. 34.

14 Donald McCullough, presenting The Brains Trust, BBC Home Service, 1941.

15 Andrew CRISELL, An Introductory History of British Broadcasting, London, Methuen, 1977, p. 59.

16 Charles Hill, The Radio Doctor, broadcast on BBC Home Service, December 1941, track 79 on BBC Records (1972) 50 Years of Broadcasting.

17 Letter by author to parents, 09 May 1943.

18 Letter by author to parents, 16 May 1943.

19 MOA diary R i.26.

20 John Snagge reading BBC news, 4 September 1944.

21 Murray SCHAFER, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World, Rochester, Vt, Destiny Books, 1977/1994, p. 153.

22 Bernie KRAUSE, «Nature’s Surround Sound». Interview with Jennifer Ouellette, New Scientist, 12 July 2008, pp. 42-43.

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Auteur

Senior Lecturer in Community Media, Faculty of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University.
Peter M. Lewis est docteur et maître de conférences des Média Communautaires à la London Metropolitan University à la Faculté d’Applied Social Sciences. Il a travaillé dans la radiodiffusion scolaire et communautaire et a produit des publications nombreuses sur les média communautaires. Il est membre de la Radio Research Section d’ECREA (http://www.ecrea.eu/) et de la Community Communications Section d’AIERI. (p.lewis@londonmet.ac.uk)

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