Oral historians

Howkins, Alun (7 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 7: [Session four: 30 July 2009] Changing attitudes to Martin Carthy. [01:51] Is asked about films made at Blaxhall. Alun is not sure but thinks they may have been made for the BBC. He used an extract from the film in the Phillip Donnellan film. It was made in 1954/1955 and has an amazing film of women step dancing. [03:04] Is asked whether he ever considered becoming a professional folk musician. He thinks he wasnt good enough to become a professional. Now you can get Reg Halls twenty volume Songs of the People from which you can pick songs to perform but back in the 1960s all of the songs which were easily available were of revival singers which meant that people would sing Martin Carthy songs because people had little knowledge of traditional songs. He briefly had a friend who played the piano who taught him the tunes of songs from the Penguin Book of Folk Songs, the Bert Lloyd and Vaughan Williams collection. In the late 1960s folk records began to appear. One of the first was a Topic recording of Fred Jordan called Songs of a Shropshire Farm Worker, then later Topic began to release records and EFDS released the Copper Family and Harry Cox. Folkways released recordings by Harry Cox and Sam Larner. People then began to use the Cecil Sharp House collection and to use Peter Kennedys stuff in Devon or to BBC recordings. There was also a new back to the people movement to find people who were still playing in the sixties and listen to them and play with them which he identifies with Peta Webb particularly and also Danny and Rod Stradling and also Mike Yates who was a collector rather than performer. The chief person who did this was Reg Hall who had been doing it since the fifties. He played in the mid-fifties with Scan Tester and Walter and Daisy Bulwer in Norfolk and later the people who make up The Rakes, Michael Gorman. They recorded people in the late fifties. This hit the mainstream in the late 1960s with two or three groups, Oak, John and Sue Kirkpatrick, Rod and Danny Straddling, Bernie Cherry,  John Howson He became involved in this movement in a small way and very strongly identified with what these people were trying to do embedding themselves in the tradition which was complex and regionally very varied. [10:17] In the 1970s He began to realise that he was very English which was something still very embarrassing in the seventies, and that he was very regional and he believed in regions. This was partly to do with historical work, in agrarian social systems there was great difference in regions which affected the culture of the places so it is possible to talk of a Sussex tradition or an Oxfordshire tradition. This regionalism has influenced him greatly. When he arrived at Sussex in 1976 he met Vic Gammon who did an MA which Alun supervised about church band music. Vic was a well-established musician and multi-instrumentalist. He had worked in the folk movement since the age of around eighteen. He was involved with Ashley Hutchins in the Albion Band and Etchingham String Band. Gammon formed a band called Pump and Pluck Band which Alun began to perform with on banjo then on percussion and was with this band for twenty years on and off. Gammon is now a lecturer on English traditional music at Newcastle. The band played only local music stuff that Vic had found for example songs by Michael Turner and Sussex fiddle players. [15:48] They were influenced by Reg Hall. Alun did not meet Reg until quite late. He has recordings of him live from 1972. Reg was playing with Francis Shergold at Bampton from the late 1950s. He didnt meet Reg until he played with Pump and Pluck because Vic knew him well. Reg asked if he could do a PhD at Sussex on Irish music in London and Alun agreed so they got to know each other well. Reg Hall is a very important person in English folk music, the work he did in editing the Copper family, Harry Cox and the big Topic collection is vitally important. He is as important as Bert Lloyd and Ewan McColl. Reg Hall wrote some polemical stuff in the 1950s against Ewan McColl for a magazine called Ethnics which Hall was involved in and Bob Davenport and Mervin Plunkett also. [21:30] Is asked about the potter Alan Spencer Green. His studio was in Wimbish between Saffron Walden and Thaxted. Is asked about his time at Ruskin. He studied English History at Ruskin. Talks about the different courses he took at Ruskin. Was taught by John Walsh and Tim Mason. He did a Ruskin dissertation on poaching in Oxfordshire 1830-1880. Some of this was published much later. He also did a piece of work alongside this The Taming of Whitsun on the changing nature of British holiday in Oxfordshire which was later published as a pamphlet and later as a book. The History Workshop group at Ruskin had begun to produce pamphlets around 1970, which was Frank McKennas pamphlet on the railwayman. The next one was Sally Alexanders pamphlet on St Giles Fair. There were also pamphlets by Bernard Reanys on Otmoor and Stan Shipleys Club Life and Socialism. Aluns came soon after this. Then Bob Gelding on East End London coopers, Edward Mayos on Matabeleland and John Taylor  on working mens cubs. All these were produced by Ruskin students someone produced them on a golf ball typewriter; they were sold by the students and were self-financing. [29:28] Is asked to talk more about History Workshop and Ruskin. When he arrived at Ruskin he studies politics and economics but changed at the end of his first year to history. A small part of this decision was caused by what was technically the third History Workshop at Ruskin although it was the first proper one in late November 1968. The Workshop started from Raphael Samuels belief that the best way to do history was to immerse yourself in the archive and to work on a subject you knew something about. So Bob Gelding had been a cooper so worked on coopering, Frank McKenna had been a railwayman so he worked on this subject, Stan Shipley an east end radical worked on east end radicalism and working mens clubs, Jenny Kitteringham had been a woman farm worker and worked on harvest girls. [31:04] The third Workshop caught the mood of the time absolutely amongst Ruskin students, left wing students at the university and doctoral students who found the informal atmosphere conducive to discussing there work as opposed to academic conferences. The first Workshop had a section on proletarian Oxfordshire which included Sally Alexanders work on St Giles Fair and Raphaels and some work done collectively in a group on Headington Quarry (which Alun became involved in that December. He joined the group which declined in numbers as exams came. When Raphael became interested in the subject Alun mentioned this to someone who said Johnny Weston lived in Headington Quarry whom Alun knew as a foreman for a building firm. Alun got Johnnys phone number who worked at the Masons Arms in Headington. Alun went to see Johnny and asked if there was any he could ask about poaching which he was interested in, Johnny said talk to Walter Kerry. Alun borrowed a tape recorder from Ruskin in 1969 and recorded Kerry talking about poaching. You could only find out small amounts of information from court cases. Talks about different methods of poaching. Kerry had made a lot of his money from poaching. Alun decided to record this man despite never having heard of oral history. It seemed that using a tape recorder was a good way to give people back their history.[39:30] Talks about Susanna Martin(now Susanna Wade Martins). She became interested in tape recording at the same time. Wade began attending the Ruskin history workshops. He had read Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay which showed him that doing the history of the farm worker was OK. His interview gave him a very good sense of how poaching worked. Kerry was a fantastic talker, he was in his eighties at the time of the interview so was born in the 1870s. The tapes were re used and the only bits transcribed were the bits he needed about poaching. [43:10] At about the same time Raphael decided to discover more about Headington Quarry community. Looking back now, people did not do history like that at the time. Even the work of the Society for the Study of Labour History was straightforward institutional history of trade unionism, which is another reason so much of the workshops work concerned industrial areas because people like Davy Douglass rejected this institutional history of trade unionism and saw the trade union bosses as stifling the working class movement. [45:11] Raphael wanted to look at the history of Headington Quarry again and it became clear that the last incidents there were later than they had thought in the 1890s. Alun has been working again on the history of Headington Quarry since the 1990s and knows more about it now than he did back then. When Raphael died there was a meeting at Ruskin about him and his work and about the people who had worked with him and the work they did. In 1971 Alun had written up an account of the quarry dispute which he sent to Raphael. In 1984 he gave it back saying it was very interesting and that they should do something with it. Alun did not look at it again until Raphaels death but he is now preparing it for publication. [47:05] He and Raphael had discussed looking into the background of the Headington Quarry disputes and decided to do some interviews. Raphael found some contacts in Headington and Alun went with him for the first few interviews. It became clear to both of them that they were not getting to the working class part of Headington Quarry. So Alun went to Johnny Weston who gave him some contacts and Raphael did a whole series of interviews. The interviews were very successful and went onto form the basis of the Quarry Roughs article in Village Life and Labour. [50:33] Alun conducted some of the interviews at this time. No one had any sense that these interviews were different they were simply extensions of the kind of history they were already doing which was a working class history from below. The first History Workshop book, Village Life and Labour, contains as its preface Brechts poem. Oral history can give some answers to this question. Raphael later wrote a sceptical piece on oral history in the History Workshop journal. They were 19th century historians and oral history could not go back very far. Almost everyone worked on 19th century history. Most students now want to study 20th century history. [54:43] There was a strong opinion in the historical establishment that you ought not to study very modern history. Although the Workshop was radical in some ways it was also conservative in others and was shaped by the Oxford school of history. Talks about writing about modern history. The 19th century also presented the important subjects to historians at that time. They were also shaped by two books: The Making of the English Working Class and Eric Hobsbawms Labouring Men. Talks about the importance of the 19th century. Oral history could only get the end of the century. People say Raphaels oral history ends with Quarry Roughs but he also did The Life of Arthur Harding. [58:32] Talks about the Robin Morton book, Come Day Go Day Godsend Sunday. Robin Morton was in a band The Boys of the Lough and was also an academic and in the late 1960s began a series of interviews with John Maguire, a ballad singer and published this book which is an oral biography.  [1:00:24] In the early days of oral history there were other people like A.E Green and Stewart Sanderson who was working on the English dialects survey at Leeds. Sally Alexander did some interviews for her work on St Giles Fair; Alun was involved in one or two of these because he knew some of the Thurston family who were a fair family. Sally also did some interviews at Quarry. At the end of his time at Ruskin in August 1970 there would have been around a dozen people who were part of the Workshop: Alun himself, Sally Alexander, Stan Shipley, Steve Jones, Jenny Kitteringham, David Morgan, Bob Gilding, Bernard Reany and Raphael. There was also another group which overlapped - a social history group at St Anthonys which was organised by Tim Mason. Mason was an outstanding Marxist historian of Nazism. Talks about Tim Masons background. The other person involved with the social history seminar was Gareth Steadman Jones. Talks about his background. Tells a story about Sheila Rowbotham. Some of the people involved in the social history seminar later became unspeakably right wing such as Brian Harrison. Joachim Romero Maura, a visiting Spanish historian, was also involved. There were these two groups which were both similar and different. One represented a theorised version of the new social history and one representing a rag tag and bobtail army of dig where you stand populists. St Anthonys was politically left wing. Talks about the politics of St Anthonys. When the History Workshop journal was founded there were representatives from both groups, so the journal was different from the Workshop itself which was dominated by populists.

  • Description

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

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