Oral historians

Howkins, Alun (1 of 17).  Oral History of Oral History

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  • Recording date

    2008-03-03, 2009-04-21, 2009-06-11, 2009-07-30, 2009-10-08, 2009-10-29, 2009-12-10, 2010-04-22, 2010-11-17, 2011-08-15

  • Interviewees

    Howkins, Alun, 1947- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Wilkinson, Robert (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: [Session one: 3 March 2009] Born in Bicester in Oxfordshire in 1947 in a rented terrace house (just outside town, area was formally known as Kings End) built in 1910s. No hot water or inside toilet. [01:30] Father was a motor mechanic, did a seven year apprenticeship in the 1920s. Badly wounded in during the war in the Middle East, was partially immobile but continued to work in the industry periodically until the mid-1950s when he began a series of semi-skilled jobs; store man for Yorkshire Imperial Metals, ended up working as a store man for the Government Rocket Establishment at Westcott, between Bicester and Aylesbury. [02:43] Mother went to work in the mid 1950s; this coincided with his fathers reduced income due to career change. Worked in the local cottage hospital as a night orderly, and became cook there as the kids got older. [03:16] In the mid to late 60s she began working for the Ministry of Defence at Central Ordinance Depot Bicester. The site caused a rapid expansion of Bicester from the late 50s, with people moving in from all over Britain who were then housed. [04:26] Both parents came from Oxford, moved to Bicester in 1938-or-9 probably due to fathers job. Fathers family were an established Oxford family of skilled working class; printers at Oxford University Press, railwayman and many Oxford college servants. Family originally worked the Oxford to Birmingham Canal, but sold their boats, great grandfather owned a shop on Jackson Street Wharf, owned no boats (possibly did on reflection). [05:35] Mothers family was rougher, from Osney Town. Maternal grandmother was an illegitimate daughter of a serving girl, who died in a workhouse in London, was brought back to Oxford with her brother Charlie and grew up in Hollybush pub in Osney Town. Mothers father was from South Wales, son of a pitman who maybe worked there too. Came in search of work between 1905-10. A cousin has investigated it, and discovered his father was a Somerset pitman and part of the movement from Kingswood to South Wales. [07:15] Had little to do with mothers side of family, knew maternal grandparents though not well, and fathers mother; a very powerful woman, a World War I widow, paternal grandfather was killed 17/7/1917 somewhere in Ypres Salient St Juliens  Farm, no known grave, she remarried in the mid 1920s to Jack Carter, he was killed in a motor accident in the late 1930s. As a child in Bicester, at Armistice Day only the veterans of WWI marched, WWII veterans were deferential to them until the 1960s. [09:50] Sister born in 1949, Christina (Tina), passed 11+ and went to grammar school which he didnt. She got good O levels, not A levels, she wanted to work and got a good job as a lab assistant at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford, stayed for 10 years.  Later regretted not becoming a doctor. Married, they have two sons, farmed in the West Country and are now retired. [11:13] Family was not conventionally close, sister was close to mother and he was OK with father. Father joined the Communist Party interwar years, his own membership later on bought them together a bit, Father was a working class Stalinist. In late 50s and 60s he worked for a local gentleman who kept old cars. Felt badly that he couldnt follow his trade, mechanics could earn £1,000 a year in the 60s a very good working class income. He was in frequent pain from a head wound, lost an eye, poor balance. [18:04] Arthur Smith had a bike shop, he married Frenchy Smith in 1918 in northern France, he died when Alun was 13 or 14, she became a French provincial widow, spoke with a harsh, stereotypical accent. two doors down in the Causeway was a Boer war veteran. Great uncle Arthur Nutt fought at Omdurman. Grandfather killed in Passchendaele, was a boot maker and college servant, as was Jack Carter. It was a popular job, she was well educated in the tradition of it. In the 1950s she and her spinster sister aunt, Mag, whose fiancé never came back from WWI, went back into service for the widow of the Master of Merton College, Mrs Howe, she would go to Biarritz every year, he stayed in the house, Gran would take him around the colleges, several of his relatives including Cyril King, head porter at Balliol worked in them. He was fascinated, especially by old peoples stories. Her father lived in a court on the Causeway. A Mrs Salter lived in a squatters settlement in Nissan huts. [24:45] Enjoyed history at school, Judith Walls was terrific. Went to primary school early, mother suffered from post natal depression, parents married in 1934, he was born in 1947, and she had a number of miscarriages. First went to the old National School in Bicester, called Crockwell School, both schools had huge classrooms divided by partitions remembers a Tortoise stove. Schools in Bicester - he went to St. Edburgs C of E Primary School as it was nearer. Went to Crockwell  because Charlie Rawlings children, Dave and Marion, could take him. Rawlings was a Methodist, so was Aluns grandmother. [29:24] Father took  (Lord) Guests car which had broken down back home to south Wales; he was shocked at the unemployment he saw there. He was involved in the anti-Mosley campaign. Mother believed in some religious input, grandmother came to live in Bicester in 1959 after Mrs. Howe died, with her sister Mag. Remembers going to Methodist youth clubs, feels he reworked his religious experience later when he became interested in religious non conformity. Local Labour Party was strongly non-conformist, chapel youth club was dominated by two conscientious objectors, one, Les, was a CND activist. [33:52] Reverend Treble at second Church of England school, he had a squeaky upper class voice, father told him he was gassed and he stopped finding it funny. Alun was badly bullied at school but grew and stood up for himself. Taught him to keep his head down at secondary modern, after he failed his 11+. No technical school in Bicester, attended Bicester Highfield Secondary Modern, Remembers Miss Walls and another lady who were extremely good history teachers as well as Derek Saint in his final year. County Leaving Certificate, roughly equivalent of CSEs, he got 12 in 1962 aged 15. [38:59] Then went to Banbury Tech to do O levels, left after nine months due to bad behaviour and grades. Derek Saint had moved to Banbury to teach liberal studies. A former Welsh Baptist minister who was kicked out by the congregation. He encouraged him to read. [42.24] When he left Banbury Tech he got a job as a farm worker for 12-18 months at two different farms on an apprenticeship, sometimes went to Oxford Tech one day a week for theory. Both were small mixed farms, run by Phipps and Goddard. Goddard was a tenant, Phipps owned his own farm but was not a very good farmer. [45.30] Describes farm work. He started work as an errand boy for Charlie Rawlins shop at 13. Started smoking at this time. Parents were disappointed that he was expelled. Farm work was hard work and lonely, not romantic. [53:48] Then went to work at Central Ordinance Depot Bicester. By this stage was interested in folk music and jazz. Spent time in Oxford meeting different types of people, Ray Bigdon and Ian Bagget (Jim). Ray had been at school, Ian from the Methodist youth club, all three were into folk music. Ray played guitar, Alun sang, they went to a folk club in Oxford, the Heritage Club which met in the Greyhound pub on a Tuesday night. Recalls Alan Ward who also went, started going in 1963-4. Other clubs began to grow, one near Thame and one in Banbury. Mother was a traditional singer; later collected traditional songs from Bicester, people included Les Herring. [1:02:18] Got to know Kevin Moore. Worked in Banbury then moved to Oxford. In approximately 1964, got a job as a copywriter for Robert Maxwells Pergamon Publishing. Colin Brooks was a baker, he organised Maxwells successful South Bucks election. He doubled his wages to become a direct mail manager, and then left for academic press in New York, Pergamon. Kevin got Alun a job there, wanted to be a poet, Maxwell interviewed him. There for 6-9 months. By this stage he was close to the Communist Party, mainly through the folk clubs, Eric Johnson was influential, he worked at Cowley, and he was a good singer also a member of the CPGB. Was summoned by Colonel Parsons and confronted about this. [1:09:50] Was sacked by Pergamon, formally for being idle, probably true. Had also set up a union branch there. Maxwell had lost his seat by then. Autumn 1966. Alun was now living in Oxford in a houseboat under Donnington Bridge with four other lads. Got a job almost immediately at Blackwells, worked in the shop until September 1967. Often stole books. Bookshops back then were hotbeds of intellectual activity; heads of department had degrees in the subject. Editor, Roger Watson gave him a reference. Has never been unemployed for more than a week. Pergamon had a small office in London, but based in Headington Hill Hall, with perhaps 200 staff, 40 union members. Maxwell negotiated with former Soviet bloc countries to become western publishing end for their industry details. Alun was a copywriter for books. [1.23.30] Was a relaxed job until new head of section Don Havard, a Jehovahs witness, took over and straightened out the department as it was too relaxed. Alan Briggs, Colin Bates, Richard Purbrick, Jackie Keenan, average age 21 were all artistically minded and so replaced. Havard was eventually sacked. Headington Hill Hall was also Maxwells house but they later moved. He would walk through the office checking up on progress. [1.30.05] At Blackwells everybody started working for Geoff Neil on orders, most profit was made on overseas university orders. This was a good way to learn the ins and outs of the company. Briefly worked for Tommy Templeton in Antiquarian Books Section. Worked in tandem with a German Jewish refugee who was an expert and bibliophile. [1.33.40] While reviewing for the New Statesman, reviewed a collection of English watercolours and met a man, who worked behind the scenes organising sales of paintings yet had no interest in any of it other than for monetary value. [1:36:51] Interest in Folk music started when he heard Bob Dylans first album and Ramblin Jack Elliott from a man named Dave Turner who played guitar, preferred Elliott to Dylan. Bought a Joan Baez album early on which he also preferred to Dylan, got into Ewan MacColl. Heard a single (EP) called Colliers Rant, with traditional English songs on it, this had an impression on him. Disliked Americans, and reacted against this, some people liked blues. Sang Trimdon Colliery Explosion in a folk club for the first time. Got into Irish folk too. Father knew Irish rebel songs from the army, which were used as a way of winding up officers. [1:43:50] By the late 1960s he had become a folk purist, believed people should not sing songs from outside their own culture. Heard McColl sing at a Communist Party meeting in 1964. The only student he met during this time involved in folk who influenced him was Peta Webb at Oxford. Alan Ward played with her, knew her as an undergraduate at Oxford. Some notable people involved were Eric Johnson and Dennis Manners. Eric was into Celtic and Irish music along with, Dougie ? and Mick Henry, who was an Irish singer and tin whistle player who worked as a builder. Mick Henry ran an Irish night at the Rose and Crown pub. There was a really good Scottish/Irish session in a backstreet pub on Iffley Road. [1:49:30] The Communist Party had a rigid branch structure. First got involved in the Young Communist League, there were also Young Pioneers but this was not active as membership was too small, most joined the party at 17-18. Joined National Union of Agricultural Workers on the farm, Civil Service Clerical Association at Pergamon and then the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union, stayed there at Pergamon and Blackwells, then ASTMS at Longmans, then the AUT when it became affiliated with the TUC in 1980. [1:53:00] Discusses CP activities. He was not recruited, Eric Johnson invited him. Edward Thompson and John Saville and Christopher Hill were probably discriminated against due to membership. [1:57:40] Discusses attitude to left wing politics. Joined the Labour Party for 10 years in the 1980s to fight Thatcher. It did politicise him, learnt about working class history first heard of Joseph Arch from Jack Dunman. Wilf Page, Jack Dunman, Lionel Mumford, Arthur Brown Communist Party members or supporters. Communist shop stewards in England, they were voted in not due to political ideals but practical issues. The Party lost strength in Morris Motors/British Leyland, mainly due to age; Arthur Exell retired, Robinson went up to King Street. Trotskyists moved in, Alan Thornett was recruited to the Socialist Labour League, a formidable trade unionist and Trotskyist. Party was male dominated.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Alun Howkins, Emeritus Professor of History at University of Sussex and agricultural historian and folklorist.

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