Oral historians

Howkins, Alun (9 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 9: [Session five: 8 October 2009] The theoretical Marxists were in a minority compared to the pragmatists. Mentions Bernard Reany, a Trotskyist, and his pamphlet on Otmoor. Not much theoretical debate within it.  Alun sides with the pragmatists. In the 1970s he was very critical of the Leninist model of revolutionary organisation. The only organisation he joined was Solidarity which was one of the oldest left wing parties, anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian socialist.  Some of its origins in 1920s  more localised action than central control. A member from 1971-1975/6. There was group in Oxford with about a dozen members.  Strength in Liverpool but it split with a new organisation called Big Flame. This lasted until 1980s. Older men in Solidarity Joe Jacobs had left the Communist Party and had left as a result of anti-Semitism.  Mentions Reg Groves and remarking that he was religious and had links with Conrad Noel, Vicar of Thaxted. [13:43] Ruskin University split. St Anthonys seminar was more theoretically Marxist and rigorous. Tim Mason and Gareth Steadman Jones both had an affection for populist history. Tims work was on German fascism his beliefs informed what he wrote influenced by Franz Neuman Gareth Steadman Jones wrote Outcast London and theoretical Marxism is embedded in it.  Later repudiated Marxism. [17:30] Raph Samuel was a populist at that time. Workshop method was a populist one. Some of Aluns early work on poaching for his Ruskin dissertation mentioned the political context and Raphael said he did not need that in. Mentions Raphaels background.  Mentions EP Thompson and The Poverty of Theory.   Mentions Althusser  and his revisionist beliefs. [22:00] Discussion in a pub about Marxism. Gareth Steadman Jones and structuralist theory.  His critique of Chartism. Mentions Stuart Hall saying Thatcherism had captured the language of politics. Demoralisation of the Left over Thatcherism. [26:48] In the Autumn of 1969 he met Sue Himmelweit involved in the Cambridge Left and they began a relationship in late Autumn of 1969 until 1974. She is now Professor of Economics at the Open University. He decided to stay in Oxford. He had applied for a trade union job which he didnt get because of politics asst editor of The Landworker.  [29:20] He applied to do History at Oxford. Through Ken Morgan he got a place at Queens. Serious mistake on his part. The college was wrong. He was supposed to go to Jesus which was a more Ruskin friendly place.  John Walsh at Jesus and Brian Harrison at Corpus got in a Ruskin student each year. Alistair Parker was at Queens in a debate with Chalmers on appeasement. John Prestwich taught him medieval history. He had places at UEA, Warwick and Sussex.  He hated Oxford because of class differences. He had real problems in the college; they tried to throw him out. But it kept him in proximity with the Workshop. He was taught by Tim Mason who told him he ought to do research. [34:40] Met Sues German uncle, Ernst, who said German was reasonably easy to learn. Wanted to write something on Bremen socialism.  So drew up alternatives which he mentions. He did write on the Farm Workers Union. Mentions people who had left Oxford which left him even more detached. [38:44] He was at Oxford from 1970-3. He was going to do his degree in two years but not possible as he did not have a clear grounding in a lot of history.  Queens agreed that he could do it in three years. [40:37] Towards the end of his second year the Queen Mother opened a building at Queens. Lot of drink and there was a fracas. He and Alan Adler and Adam (not sure). They were summoned to see the Master. The drunken hippies apologised and got a fine.  Lord Blake asked to him to explain what went on. He fined him £25 but he was told he could not do the three years.  He spoke to Tim Mason and James Halliday, a classicist at Trinity. They both went to Blake and he relented. He only missed a First by a whisker. The best historian was a Welshman, Trevor ? and he refused college funding for a PhD as he wanted to be a preacher. Blake approached him but by then he decided he wanted to go to Essex to do a thesis that had an oral history content. [46:39] Criticises the tutorial system at Oxford. John Prestwich was a very good tutor. Taught by Alistair Parker, liked him as well. [51:22] Cannot remember when he first met Paul Thompson.  It was possibly in 1971 in the Childhood Workshop and possibly Paul and Thea spoke there.  When it became clear what he wanted to do he knew he had to work in East Anglia. UEA had a very conservative History Dept. It made sense to go to Essex and work with Paul.  He went for an interview with Paul and others.  They gave him a quota award if he got a 2.1. [56:21] Moved to London with Sue and went to Essex once a week. Used Colindale for newspaper research. In late summer of 1974 he lived in Norfolk to do interviews. [57:30] No-one had written about the 1872 Union in Norfolk in any detail. Reason the Union had been refounded in 1906 was based in 1890s. He found that Swanton Morley and villages near East Dereham and Trunch near North Walsham. He wrote to the Methodist minister in East Dereham. He arranged for Alun to see Charlie (Herbert) Butcher Rayner. Bad interview, but he wife knew a lot more as her father and her brothers had been in the 1872 Union in Swanton. She had had a heart attack and Butcher wouldnt let her speak, although he did record an interview with her about victimisation. She did give him a few photos, copies of which now in the Museum of Rural Life in Gressenhall. Also interviewed Charlie Butcher, (Barber) very old.  Very important interview as he gave Alun the sense that industrial action took place on individual farms with or without the Union.  He mentions the points in the farming calendar where there was conflict over the price for the job. He describes the details of negotiation. Billy Dixon interview about Trunch disputes.  [1:07:15] Went to see the Union District Organiser at Norwich. He had interviewed Bert Hazel, President of the NUAW in 1973, born in Wymondham ( actually Attleborough). He had been a farmworker when he left school. In late 20s had become a Union official. In 1964 he had won North West Norfolk seat but lost in 1970 and he became President of the Union.  Not a good interview. He did it in a grotty hotel in Grays Inn Road. The Organiser suggested he see Arthur Amis. [1:12:00] Trunch was stronger in terms of union organisation before the First Wold War.  Went up to live in a caravan for five months rented off a farmer called Lark. Arthur had been a Labour County councillor and Bert Hazels election agent. He was a Methodist. He was a cowman not a horseman.  Through Arthur he met a number of other interviewees, within four to five miles of Trunch, whom he names. [1:16:00] Looking back he had good and indifferent interviews. He interviewed five or six hours with Arthur. Jack Leader was a good interviewee. His brother Bert had been blind from birth but had been a Union official. He had originally planned to interview people not in the Union. However ended up only interviewing them as a homogenous group. Mentions Thomas Wright, journeyman engineer who said men who were in the Union were respectable. [1:19:57] The Trunch Crown was a good pub which had traditional music. Through there he met Colin Clark who played the melodeon on Sunday lunchtimes. He also met Taddy Wright there. He had been in the Union, born in Knapton. He was taken out of school in 1917 aged 11 to work on the land.  He got to know Billy Lee at Paston through Taddy.  [1:21:00] Alun made a contribution to recording traditional song.  He did a lot of recordings with Percy Brown from Antingham. Tony Engle had recorded him in 1971 for Topic Records, but limited. Alun recorded him talking and playing for 4-5 hours. John Howson has got the music and remastered. He eventually became a level crossing keeper and chimney sweep. He and Billy Bennington used to go round pubs with fruit playing a few tunes and do a raffle. Percy used to play melodeon for Shrimp Davis a step dancer in Cromer. [1:24:00] Alun spent the day transcribing and visiting Norfolk Record Office. He met George Ewart Evans. Howard Newby had done some recording before Paul in East Anglia. Howard had got in touch with George as well as Paul. By the time Alun got to Essex in 1973. Paul knew George fairly well. Relationship a bit tense. What George got out of it was academic recognition.  He had been recording since the early 1950s. George had attended the inaugural meeting of the British Agricultural History Society. He was also very involved with Iowerth Peate, Welsh Folklife Museum.  George knew ? Jenkins who wrote a book on Welsh folklore.  Keidrych Rhys a poet. Paul took Alun to see George at Brook near Norwich. He lived up to his expectations. Over next three years he got to know him very well. [1:31:00] Sue and he had split up so in 1974 Alun moved to Lawford near Manningtree then Colchester.  George had become more involved with the Department. Paul had got him some work.  Alun got to know him very well and listened to a lot of his tapes. George was a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Spoke to his son, Matthew, about this and George talking about how Gorbachev would destroy the Soviet Union. [1:34:30] Mentions Georges attitude to Akenfield which he hated. George wrote a critical article.  Alun saw the film in Ipswich and thought it was awful.  Trouble with Akenfield is it is written in prose. [1:37:30] In the summer of 1974 he went to Buckie on the fishing project and did some work for Paul. Mentions the Edwardians project. Paul had spoken to Denis Marsden and others in Essex. Mentions Mike Savage at Manchester using it recently. What it is, is a sociology questionnaire. Paul had said he would interview a sample based on 1911 Census. They found they had gaps and Alun was doing lower middle class women in rural areas. Mrs Cherry and Miss Broad and a doctors widow in Woodstock  he interviewed plus a couple in Norfolk. [1:42:00] When he was in Oxford he did some teaching for the WEA in Charlbury. He did a course on folksong and social history. There were about four people very keen.  Set up the West Oxfordshire Oral History Group and interviewed people and printed and sold a broadsheet in local pubs. One of them Sue Robinson met a man called Mont Abbott who had been a shepherd, a wonderful interviewee. He was persuaded by someone in the village to write an autobiography Lift the Latch. Sue later did a couple of interviews for Paul. Used some of these interviews for an article on shopkeepers with Thea. [1:47:00] Tried to do some interviews with Bampton Morris dancers Porky Tanner one of them. These were less successful. Possibly this is because he went in talking about the subject. Paul taught him to have more contextual questions.  He did less on early life.  The Morris tapes related to Whitsun as most of the traditional groups would only dance at Whitsun. [1:51:00] He had done some interviews with Sally Alexander on St Giles Fair. He did believe that oral history was the only way of getting back to working peoples pasts. Structural conflicts in Norfolk would only come out through the interviews. Mentions various Union led strikes and smaller farm based disputes. [1:54:55] Oral history was a thing that he automatically thought of. However no conception at that time he was part of a movement.  Always regarded oral history as a unique source.  The first editions of Oral History had appeared. By number 4 it had acquired a cover and then he became Reviews Editor. [1:57:14] Split within the Workshop between them and people like Ken Worpole and local activist work. That group become increasingly critical of people not doing politically directed work.  There has always been a role for non-political work. He mentions QueenSpark who now do not do much history any more. A lot of the work is very uncritical.  Alun got fed up with the attacks.  Also what about people who are politically powerless? [2:01:30] Goes through an edition of History Workshop and mentions the contributors.  Academics versus community activists.  Paul tried to work with both camps.

  • Description

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

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