Howkins, Alun (2 of 17). Oral History of Oral History
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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
Howkins, Alun, 1947- (speaker, male)
Wilkinson, Robert (speaker, male)
Part 2: [Session two: 21 April 2009] Alun is of welsh origin, named after mothers father, birth certificate says Alan, and most documentation says Alun. [01:41] Father was a motor mechanic in small workshops. In some ways typical working class, left, labour aristocrat proud of his skills. Was a union member but it had no workshop branch. Didnt explain his politics until Alun was older. Was involved in the anti-Mosley movement in the 1930s, Arthur Exell from the AU remembers him though he was not really active and drifted away after the war. He was probably the only member in Bicester. This made it difficult to him to stay involved as well as his war injuries. Describes history of the British Communist Party in relation to the impact on Britain of the Spanish civil war, and the wartime coalition with the Soviet Union. Criticises media bias. Gives synopsis of Weskers play, Chicken soup and barley. [10:13] Began discussing politics with his father in the early 60s, his father was only casually interested. Fathers involvement in politics was largely social. [11:49] Mentions Mrs.Saunter who was involved in the middle class squatters movement in the late 40s - mid 50s, between Chesterton and Bicester. This Movement was mixed, Harry Cowley was important in the Brighton Labour Movement, left wing people helped facilitate it though it was largely self-organised. They took over Nissan huts. Describes history of squatting from 17th century. [15:53] Bicester Highfield Secondary Modern had approximately 600 students, he was bottom of the tripartite education system and aware of this. There was animosity towards grammar school students and the middle class in general, though nothing tangible. Bicester population in the 50s approx. 4,500, this meant they had a large rural catchment area. Lots of country children accepted their role on the bottom of the system and sought a trade or apprenticeship. Agricultural apprenticeship scheme came into being as he left school but was not well regarded. Morriss gave apprenticeships, but most went onto unskilled line-working jobs. £20 a week was a very good wage for this work. Bill Osgerby work on youth describes the decline of apprenticeships in the late 50s. In theory he missed National Service by a year. Paul Thompson is 70 and did National Service; he had presumed he would join. [23:31] No languages were taught in school, English, History, Geography, Maths Science, Art and Crafts, Music, Woodwork and Metalwork, Cooking and Domestic Science (for boys). School was built in 1947; it was the first secondary modern in Bicester. Left school at the end of term, got 12 county leaving certificates. [26:20] Aged approx. 14 went to a Methodist youth club and joined in with debating group which he was good at. Won Oxfordshire then south midlands Methodist debating contests - went to national but lost. Tony Butterfield was a judge and county drama organiser, aged approx 16 Tony got a grant from the County Council to set up a county youth theatre and contacted Alun to be involved. At Joscars in Headington every Sunday about 20 people, 1pm till 8.30pm. Worked towards one production per year, first was Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas and then The Hostage by Brendan Behan. He pulled out when he was about 18. The company produced some professional actors, Meg Davis, Jeff Perkins and Jeff Bateman. They went to training days at the Oxford Playhouse. Jeff Perkins and himself along with Kevin Moore, a building worker, were different (secondary modern, working class). First show before the plays was a touring show of youth clubs, performing snippets of plays. Left after three years feeling he had achieved all he wanted to, not keen to become an actor. Had a reunion in 2005 or 2006, the theatre had continued for five or six years after he left. Tony had been at RADA with Vanessa Redgrave. Came back to drama at Ruskin and then Oxford due to Jonathan Lewis invitation. Didnt take to the culture of acting, enjoyed working with Jonathan Lewis and Mel Smith. Remembers one of the actors from If at college.[39:40] Mother knew some traditional songs, The Miners Dream of Home, A Gypsies Warning, Jim McCarters Lad, Barbara Ellen. Wishes he had asked where she knew them from. Later recorded a singer from Bicester, Mrs Cherry. Langford Brook was a version of a poaching song specific to the area. [43:35] An interest in music and acting were side by side, after the war Sid Hedges was a well-known author of Christian childrens books, owned a big shop in Bicester. Known as Fiddler Hedges due to rumours of dodgy business practices. In the 40s he set up The Red Rythmics band, mainly harmonicas. They were on the radio and ran through youth clubs, Les Allen, accordion player was involved. Ray Brigdon and he would sing folk songs. They sang Christmas carols together. Remembers this fondly as feels the practice has now died out. Was never involved in the chapel, just the youth club. Describes positive qualities of the youth club and its organisers. There was nothing to do in Bicester, started going to pubs at 15. Had a TV from the mid 1950s but the consensus in his age group was that it was for old people and kids. Was mistrustful of pop music and ignored it as a bourgeois conspiracy. [51:18] Became interested in blues through folk music. Saw Long John Baldry and The Hoochie Coochie Men with Rod Stewart singing. Also saw The Rolling Stones at the Banbury Winter Garden. Got into folk music at Banbury Tech, Ed Lee taught music he knew a lot about traditional music and bought in a friend, Dave Turner to play folk songs. Went to Centre 42 concert fronted by Ian Campbell, a result of the TUC Resolution 42 (financing of workers art). Ray Brigdon and himself became involved in the local folk scene, then later at Oxford. June Tabor came later but remembers Peta Webb. Lists other members of the local folk scene. Three folk clubs sprung up in Oxford around this time as the scene grew; saw Pete Seeger in the Oxford Union in 1964 and Julie Felix. Preferred Irish and English music and was unsure of American music. Never learnt a musical instrument until the 1980s when he joined a band. Experimented with the melodeon in the 1970s. Did feel English music should be unaccompanied. Sang at the Methodist club in Bicester with Ray. Got a Joan Baez record and an EP of miners songs, Trimdon Grange Colliery Explosion was the first he sang. Learnt songs by sound, penguin book of English folk songs was very influential. In the mid 70s his repertoire grew enormously due largely to Vic Gammon .Went to Harlow, Sawbridgeworth, Bishops Stortford and Thaxted folk clubs and learnt many songs. As well as the Heritage Folk Club, others came and went along with their organisers. Ray and Ian Bagget ran one. Sang at the Heritage but moved away from the scene, found it precious, felt an envious ambivalence towards students. Irish singers would perform sessions in pubs, mostly men but Peta Webb did perform on occasion. [1:08:35] National Union of Farm and Agricultural Workers had few village branches, possibly none at the time. They would meet in a pub in Bicester. They had a large scattered membership. They had county organisers and branch leaders. Got frustrated with old men in unions and feels this was a theme in unions at the time. The Labour Party in Bicester was very small, it grew rapidly in the 1960s with town growth and the economic immigrants this bought. Ernie Keeling was a local activist but Arthur Exell and others at Morriss came from outside Bicester and had a left wing political history. Not many young people were active in the union, he joined out of principal. [1:14:46] Blackwells was a big shop, a traditional firm. Blackwells Scientific became a separate publishing arm, BSP. Basil Blackwell had three sons in the trade, Julian ran BSP. Alun was a dogsbody but went into second hand. This was not unionised, the pay was decent for the time. Enjoyed modern novels and poetry and attempted to publish poems. Began to think of himself as an intellectual and met middle class people like an early girlfriend Meg Montague and Pat St John who ran a block of flats. Pat St John was rural gentry, her husband committed suicide, she did a degree in sociology and an MSc. in social work, she is now 87 (in 2009). She was a huge encouragement to Alun, Megs father Larry was sports editor of the Manchester Guardian.
Life story interview with Alun Howkins, Emeritus Professor of History at University of Sussex and agricultural historian and folklorist.