The radio silence over recent months is mainly due to time spent on project managing the 2017 Cambridge History Festival on behalf of the Museum of Cambridge. Considering the vital role that the Museum played in my plea for Heffers stories, it seemed most fitting to work with the trustees, staff and volunteers on this event.
And it was a pleasure. I particularly love the fact that the festival is a community-led initiative. Caroline Biggs, the Creative Director, like so many of us, is passionate about local history. She’s currently researching the story of Daisy Hopkins, arrested in 1891 for ‘walking with a member of the University’. Caroline writes her own blog on Real Cambridge.
Immediately after the festival, I delivered a talk at University College London on the topic of university and campus bookshops. I also started work on editing the next Gottahavebooks publication, ‘The Singer’s Tale’ by jazz singer, Carol Grimes; an autobiography that is refreshingly free from affectation, infused with raw honesty and emotion. Out later this year, it will appeal to many, no doubt.
Now I’m easing back into my own research and writing, catching up with local history conversations. As I do so, here is lesson number three from doing an illustrated social history of Heffers of Cambridge. It is a brief reflection on the practicalities and pitfalls of collecting and recording stories, with extracts from ‘This book is about Heffers’.
The first lesson, ‘Possession is a delicate issue’ tackled the tricky issue of having a personal connection with the topic of the research, and what to do if you find yourself being told what to write!
The second, ‘Connecting up and creating a conversation’, set out the various networks and places that enabled me to reach many people who were willing to share their memories of the firm. I also refer to some of the sources for printed and digital materials. Links to all the networks and sources are provided.
Lesson 3: two small dogs, an exotic caged bird and wandering hands
Visits & gatherings It’s surprising how trusting people can be when it comes to arranging interviews, especially in their own homes. Though perhaps I’m also trusting, as I usually (but not always) go alone. If you’re planning to audio record or film the encounter, do let your host know beforehand. I always declare that the recording saves me having to take notes, and confirm that I will not share it with any third-party. I also have a release form which I ask people to sign. At the end of the Heffers research I had over fifty hours of audio recordings!
Make sure you have enough battery charge in your audio recorder. If you run out and don’t have spare batteries, remember the recording facility on your mobile phone, which can be a great back-up. This happened when I visited author, Pippa Goodhart, who had worked at Heffers from 1974 to 1986. On reading the completed book in November 2016, Pippa kindly told me,
‘You’ve achieved a wonderful balance between a thorough factual account and a very human, often heart-warming and amusing account, and I think you’ve absolutely nailed the character of the Heffers firm… how it was/is made-up of so many characters.’
This is exactly what I had hoped to do by blending stories from living memory and the desk research. I’m thrilled with Pippa’s feedback.
Also, when setting out on a visit, make sure you get all the letters and numbers in the right order when entering them into the SatNav. On one excursion I found myself heading towards Norfolk instead of Suffolk. Not a disaster maybe for one who once lived in North Norfolk and still craves the seaside, but embarrassing nevertheless. The detour meant I was late for my appointment.
The setting of the encounter can drastically affect the quality of the recording. The more challenging, from a recording perspective, included a gathering of several ladies in someone’s lounge, a one-to-one in the corridor of a bustling academic building, and a three-way encounter in someone’s home interspersed with contributions from two small dogs, and an exotic caged bird.
Many meetings involved tea, coffee, sausage rolls, cake and chocolate biscuits, as well as great stories. Much to my delight. It is no wonder that I have walk five miles a day.
The ladies mentioned above had worked as invoice girls in the top office at the Petty Cury bookshop in the 1950s and ’60s.
Some of their memories relate to the 1960 publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence. I like this one:
‘The girls had been told they were not to concern themselves with the content of the book. This may have been irresistible for some but they recall that they were more intrigued by books on forensic medicine with their graphic illustrations – occasionally giving themselves nightmares.’
Whilst I usually prepare some notes in advance of what topics I’d like to cover, I prefer the exchange to be more of an open conversation than a structured interview. See what comes up. What then emerges is arguably, more authentic. Sometimes a really significant memory may be shared after you’ve switched off the recorder and when you’re about to leave. If that happens, write it down the moment you get in the car. You can always go back to the person another time to check out the detail.
A particularly memorable visit, kindly arranged by retired bookseller, Clive Cornell, was to the home of his former colleague, Frank Collieson who at the time was fast approaching his ninetieth birthday. At the end of a most captivating afternoon with the two gentlemen, I went to shake Frank’s hand, and he gave me a big hug. As I walked back to my car I found myself in tears. I was most saddened to hear of Franks passing a few weeks later but pleased to learn that he did make that special birthday. I do treasure the meetings, however brief, and fondly recall Frank reminiscing about Heffers as he alternated between glasses of Bushmills whiskey and cups of tea. Much of Frank’s voice is in the book, not only from that afternoon but from a 1985 BBC Radio interview, his writings, and the extraordinary publicity materials he produced for the firm over many years. (The only time I ever broke my rule about sharing a recorded conversation with a third party was when I sent the recording of that afternoon to Frank’s daughters, after he had passed away. Jenny had been present at Frank’s house anyway, and had joined in the conversation.) Earlier this month I received a wonderful letter from a reader in Ireland who had known Frank, thanking me for putting his contribution into print.
I describe the memory cafe at the Museum of Cambridge in a previous post. The event was a pivotal moment, providing a tangible sense of place for the project.
As we all know, photographs can be a great tool for triggering memories.
This image, from a news report on the 1946 fire at Petty Cury, took Audrey and Peter Coleman back to the day they first met. Audrey was working in accounts for Miss King at the time and Peter, who worked for the Electricity Board, attended to the repairs. Audrey says,
“We didn’t know anything ’til we got to work and there’d been this awful fire. Miss King said we’d better first go back for a little while because the Police and everyone were there. We went to her mother’s house in Clarendon Street and then we came back and had to help clear up. All of us put turbans on our heads. There was all the smoke and an awful lot of damage. We had tarpaulins up and we had our national cash machines transferred to the basement. All the books were charred. It was horrible.”
Not all the damaged books were successfully removed, however. Over a decade later, Clive Cornell observed charred books on the shelves when he started work at Petty Cury as a shop assistant in 1958, and Frank Collieson saw the scorch marks still there in 1962.
If you’re collecting someone’s memories via a telephone call, do tell them if you want to record the conversation. I used the loud speaker facility on my mobile phone and recorded the conversation on my digital recorder. Not ideal but adequate.
Books, written accounts and emails
Robert Webb tracked down Sue Bradley’s fascinating 2008 oral history of the book trade via the British Library and I bought the last copy in stock. The book included accounts by Nicholas Heffer and bookseller Frank Stoakley, who served over sixty years with the firm and worked with my great-grandfather. Online you can find summaries of the transcripts. I didn’t have the time or resources to visit the Library and listen to the recordings, but the topics listed in the summaries were nevertheless very useful.
I had written accounts from several former Heffers staff, and from customers. For example, Shelley Lockwood, a Cambridge alumnus and oral historian who now works for the David Parr House project in Gwydir Street, kindly wrote about her experience of Heffers as a student, setting up an account and using her Heffer diary. And Mark Jones, a former Heffers employee who now lives in Scotland, wrote his own memories of working for Heffers Sound. Here is one of his stories from the book,
‘One year, on the last Saturday before Christmas, whilst putting a refund through for a Russian student, Mark accidentally swiped her debit card before first entering the amount to be refunded. Automatically, the till instantly refunded the first four digits of her card number. On the busiest and most profitable day of the entire year, Mark had given away £4,567. His manager was very understanding and the money was returned after a week or so (the student had to ask her bank to refund the refund). The cash register was reprogrammed to prevent a similar error from ever happening again.’
Communicating by letter
Don’t forget that some people still prefer to communicate by letter. for whatever reason. I found former Heffers director, Norman Biggs, via Bunty Heffer who kindly gave me his address. I wrote to Mr Biggs and subsequently arranged our three visits by letter. He had been in charge of Heffers Stationery and the Sidney Street premises for many years, and his stories were most illuminating. He recalled, for example, some of the characters from Cambridge academia,
‘One of the Proctors used to come into the Sidney Street shop early morning, soon after nine o’clock. He hadn’t combed his hair, he clearly hadn’t shaved and his pyjamas were sticking out from the bottom of his corduroy trousers. Another time, an academic customer ended up running out of Sidney Street screaming because they could not find a particular type of stationery file that fitted his exact requirements from the hundreds of options available.’
Mr Biggs also kindly loaned me a very grand portfolio, presented to him by Heffers on his retirement.
Social media has an important role to play, not just in reaching people but in gathering memories, no matter how fleeting. Remember, it’s a continuous feed on both Facebook and Twitter. People will react to an image or quotation. You will get more responses to something specific than to a general plea for stories. Publish your posts at different times of the day and always engage with the responses. It helps if you have a personal connection with the topic and if you share your own memories. Through the dialogue you will no doubt find people who are willing to talk further.
Diplomacy at all times
When collecting stories from living memory, you are very likely to hear anecdotes about people who are still alive. If someone is indiscreet or insensitive, don’t react. Move on to another topic.
Be aware, when writing up, that different people will recall the same incident in differently. It’s a good idea to cross-reference stories and double-check with all sources. Often, just a slight tweak can help to avoid any potential embarrassment or consternation.
A challenging topic in this case was the tricky issue of ‘wandering hands’. As I state in the book,
‘like many organisations certainly at the time [the 1960s], some male colleagues had what was then termed ‘wandering hands’, giving the phrase ‘hands on’ a somewhat different and unpleasant meaning, particularly for the ladies. It would not be appropriate to deny that this occurred, as so many have mentioned it when interviewed for this book, but it would also be inappropriate to name the alleged culprits, who are now long gone. Needless to say, for some ladies, taking dictation could be a hazardous chore, when they were trapped between the wall and their manager. For others, there were certain amenities best avoided, so not to give a gentleman colleague an opportunity to get too close. John Welch [General Manager] was made aware of certain issues on his arrival in 1964 and his response, not untypical of the time, was, “we all have our little idiosyncrasies”.’
And In a previous post I wrote about the challenges of having a personal connection with the topic. I share my thoughts on this blog with the aim of hearing what others think about a range of different topics, and this has been difficult one.
As I said in the previous post, the memories of Heffers are uncomplicated but the family association with the firm did cause a moment of anxiety. That moment came when a member of my family (who had not worked for Heffers) demanded that they be included in the book. As I mentioned in the post, I was told in no uncertain terms that Heffers is “our” family firm. It was because of this they felt they had a right to be included.
This not only created a rather delicate situation, it was deeply upsetting. It was not a matter of disagreeing with their opinion but of balancing that opinion alongside those held by others. Particularly those who had had a more direct involvement with the firm – who were inside that world. This is why, in the book, I acknowledged the claim about it being “our” family firm, whilst at the same time declaring that no doubt Heffers had engendered a similar sense of loyalty in many Cambridge families. I didn’t want to upset other families whose members had given many years of service to the firm, as well as my own. The story of Heffers belongs to everyone and no one. It doesn’t belong to the Heffer family or to any one family, and certainly not to mine.
Everyone’s experience is different and there is a need for diplomacy and sensitivity when collecting and sharing living memories. There were many things that came up in the interviews that I chose not to write about, for the sake of people’s feelings, and I took great care with what I did write.
At the end of the day, it’s a collection of different viewpoints. That’s what history is.
2 thoughts on “Two small dogs, an exotic caged bird and wandering hands”
Great tips for people like myself who still have to do their first oral history. Lovely to learn all this
Thank you, Tricia!
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