‘You Don’t Always have to Interview the Nearly Dead’: Recollections of the ABC’s Social History Unit

Tim Bowden

For the last four years I have been working with ABC Radio’s Social History Unit. What we do is to make radio programs based on taped oral history interviews with a variety of Australians – and I use that term in its broadest sense – whose memories go back almost to the turn of the century. One unkind criticism in the early days of the Unit was that we seemed to specialise in interviewing aged Australian Anglo-Saxon males. Oral history is as recent as yesterday, and our interests do not always take us back into the seer and yellow leaf. I might say that after several of our elderly and valued informants had died not long after a visit from a Social History Unit producer – a colleague was unkind enough to equate an oral history session with me as being not dissimilar to an appointment with the Grim Reaper – you know’ the kind of thing, ‘The Horseman comes not with a Scythe, but a Sony’.

But it is not our sole aim to chase the nearly dead to record them. What we try and do is to selectively make radio programs using interviews which try to capture the smell, feeling and flavour of a way of life and events long gone, from Australians who have contributed to our every day history. Two of our programs are broadcast on Radio National on Saturdays. “Talking History” is a magazine program that recently extended its brief as a show case for oral history segments, to interest itself in issues and ideas related to the history industry in Australia and overseas. And we have “Word of Mouth” at a quarter to ten on Saturdays, featuring personal profiles of a wide variety of Australians. A book called “Voices from a Vanishing Australia” based on “Word of Mouth” was published by ABC Enterprises last year, with a companion cassette set.

More studied documentary pieces are broadcast in the feature at 1.30 on Sundays on Radio National. The alleged preponderance of aged Anglo Saxon male voices has given way to the varied accents of migrant Australians in Siobhan McHugh’s six part series “The Snowy – the People behind the Power”, Sharon Davis’s interviews with Australian women war correspondents, or Ros Bowden’s series “Being Aboriginal” in which black Australians articulate their own feelings and attitudes to Aboriginal history. Bill Bunbury’s recently broadcast an eight part series on Dutch connections with Australia “going back to the 17th Century. I am working on a series examining Australians in the Antarctic in the post war years. We recently broadcast Hank Nelson’s five programs on Australian one teacher schools from the turn of the century. Daniel Connell produced a major series “The War at Home”, and Stephen Rapley’s eight part series “Bright Sparks” focussed on the technology of early radio communications, when Australia in many ways, led the world.

Often people will write or ring up to almost accusingly say, ‘Why don’t you interview so and so before his or her gnarled old feet lose their grip on the twig.’ We respond to this when we can, but essentially we are in the business of making radio programs using oral history techniques. We are not the national archive. Yet it is a most exciting area in which to be working, and I am delighted to say that oral history – an awareness of it, and expressions of it – is something of a growth industry. By accident, I have been connected with oral history for almost thirty years – the tape recorder was invented very conveniently to coincide with my entry into journalism in the mid 1950s.

Today no household is without a tape recorder. It probably has two or three. Ours has more than ten at the last count, but this may not be typical. The ubiquitous cassette is used by young and old. It is sent through the mail, bearing music, messages and contemporary accounts. It has become, in short, the electronic document. Yet the technology is fragile. Time, heat, damp, and careless use are destroyers of the gossamer – thick cassette magnetic recording tape. They are likely to be flung into a box, or thrown away because they are not properly labelled, or simply recycled for recording music. Family history is at the mercy of re-arranged electrons.

Recently the admirable Bicentennial Historic Record Search tried to locate important documents held in private hands. A similar drive to discover important tapes in private hands, would I suggest yield great treasures for Australian sound archives.

This child of the tape recorded age has clear memories of experimenting with a Pyrox reel to reel tape recorder that a headmaster uncle brought to the family home when I was about fourteen. But my professional association with recording started in 1959. I had started out as a cadet newspaper reporter with The Hobart Mercury when I was offered the chance to do some freelance work with the ABC. My first assignment was to record the frenetic sounds of a wool auction in the Hobart Town Hall, and record a ‘what’s your job like’ interview with a wool buyer. I suppose I’m a candidate for an oral history interview myself when I reveal that I was using a clockwork tape recorder. I kid you not. The sound was electrically recorded of course, but the spools were driven by a spring. It had a handle on the side – which you used like an organ grinder. It lasted for four minutes – approximately. I say approximately, because this depended on the condition of the spring. When it started to run down, this had the reverse effect when it was played back on a standard machine. An interviewee’s voice began to take on a rising note of hysteria, until it degenerated into complete Donald Duckery. Despite the Goon Show overtones of this operation I was instantly hooked. I well remember the feeling of excitement – the feeling of really being there, with the actuality sound of the strange yippings and yuppings of tJ1e bidding, and the laid- back drawl of the wool buyer as he told me about himself. Just think how many assumptions we make when we hear the first few words of someone speaking on the radio. You are immediately aware of age, sex, educational background, personality – perhaps even credibility. All this in a few seconds. You would have to write a couple of paragraphs to convey all that information in print. I thought, this is for me!

It’s interesting to reflect, looking back, on how little the basic technology of my working life has changed since the late 1950s. I no longer turn the organ grinder’s handle, but tape editing, with a splicing block, sticky tape and a razor blade is still the accepted method, almost thirty years on. One might have thought that the technology of radio would have changed a practitioner’s working life more than newspaper reporters – who have left their copy paper and Remington typewriters far behind, and now gaze glassily at green computer screens, writing their stories directly into the paper. But I digress. Although one more memory of that clockwork tape recorder – a C.B.B. it was called, and I don’t remember what those letters stood for. I flew in with one to the old Lake Pedder once. I put it down on the beach of dazzlingly white glacial sand, beside the aircraft. A breeze sprang up and blew fine quartzite particles into its clockwork mechanism. It crunched grindingly to a halt in seconds, and the ABC’s maintenance engineers later refused to believe that one person could do so much damage in such a short space of time.

Despite this technological disaster, I was allowed to join the ABC and continue practising with various portable and studio- based tape recorders. Incidentally some years ago I attended an oral history seminar in Brisbane, and was quite shocked to hear Wendy Lowenstein – who was speaking on her experiences while writing her excellent oral history-based book Weevils in the Flour – state categorically that she hated her tape recorder. The wretched thing was always letting her down, and judging by the traffic noise to voice ratio of the demo tapes played at the seminar, she seemed to have left it in the next room while doing her interviews. There are of course, many roads to Rome, and Wendy Lowenstein’s eminence as an oral historian transcends differences of philosophy in how tape recorders should be used. The broadcaster, however, is constantly striving for the best possible sound in the field, and I’m sure transcribers of raw interview material are always grateful for reasonably clean sharp sound even from print oriented oral historians.

My wife Ros Bowden was also taken aback when she attended an oral history session at the first “Women and Labour Conference” in Sydney in the late 1970s. Radio documentary makers begin with the human voice – from which so many judgements can be made. All these hidden messages may be apparent in the first few words spoken by an interviewee. Yet Ros – the only broadcasting professional taking part found that these academic oral historians used the tape recorder simply to get written transcripts of interviews, and often recycled the original tapes after transcription. All those extra dimensions of sound – accent, emotion, emphasis on certain words, the often subtle relationship between the interviewer and interviewee – all irretrievably lost. Fortunately since that time, and through the work of Oral History Associations, and university and college generated oral history projects, the importance of preserving original tapes – and praise be actually recording them using recorders and techniques that may even make the material available for broadcasting – is being imprinted on most practitioners.

But program makers themselves are limited by the demands of form. ‘Thou shalt not bore’ remains the cardinal rule. A full speaker, droning on with innumerable ‘ums’ and ‘ers’ will have the listener leaping for the off switch. Speech defects may be overcome in transcript, but not on air. ‘Twams, twains, twaction engines and other forms of mechanical twansport’ intoned one professor I interviewed many years ago. Definite problems there. Care must be taken with intercutting interviews that unpardonable liberties are not taken with time and place. Anecdotes must be sustained – a brilliant three minutes is simply not enough. Careful editing, juxtaposition of voices, actuality sound and music are used to produce our style of radio program. For the broadcaster working in oral history, there is a special joy in intercutting what might be described as a sound tapestry of voices.

I mentioned earlier that privately recorded tapes are seldom collected in established sound archives. Makers of oral-history based programs are in a similar position. I cannot tell you how many times someone has described a wonderful interview, or series of interviews they have done with such and such a fascinating individual. The tapes would make fascinating programs for broadcast. ‘Did you use a microphone’? Note not what sort of microphone, just any microphone … And Oh how often they reply, ‘microphone’? I just used a little cassette tape recorder with its own inbuilt microphone…

Groan. Nevertheless I say, ‘Well send in a sample tape and we’ll have a listen to it’. Of course the motor noise of the machine, combined with any other noises off, rules out any broadcast. Not always, but mostly. Sometimes the raw power of the material over-rides the technical imperfections. I sometimes wonder if a certain technological elitism is depriving our sound collections of a great deal of important contemporary material. Perhaps having SOME kind of sound record of conversations or events is better than none at all – particularly when some electronic salvaging of sound quality is possible. And of course, not all users of audio collections are broadcasters, and transcripts may have a wide currency.

I’d like to talk a bit about family history. Many individuals have had the wit and motivation to record their elderly relatives during the time that the cassette tape recorder has been part of the furniture. The librarian of Putney Public School in Sydney, Marie McGuire recently involved me in a project where primary aged school children had interviewed their grandparents – with commendable results. Marie herself had interviewed an elderly aunt of hers before she died. I have a copy of the tape. It is of quite acceptable broadcast quality. That extraordinary Australian, Fred Patterson, recorded his own story on tape before he died, and the tapes were released by the Communist Party. They have a curious didactic quality about them – somewhere between a public speech and a monologue. After some debate recently we decided to run them on “Word of Mouth”. They were very well received.

Family history can be extremely well served by the tape recorder. I have just completed a book based on the life of my father, who is 83 and who lives in Hobart. It started out as an exercise in family history. He is the last of six children, and I asked him to describe what it was like growing up in Hobart around 1915-20. Because of the tyranny of distance, he had to work on his own, reminiscing into a tape recorder and working on a very general brief indeed. It was no great problem for him to do this, because while my mother was alive, we used to send tapes to each other. We would put the cassette tape recorder on the dining room table (with a microphone!) and chat away while we ate. Anyway the point is that Father Bowden was used to talking into his tape recorder. But I became very conscious as I listened to John’s tapes, that I was hearing a very different style of oral history.

You see an interviewer profoundly directs the course and structure of an interview. By the very act of asking a particular question, an interviewee is guided down a certain path. The interviewers may find a particular aspect of a story particularly interesting, and ask further questions. The interviewer is very much in control of the agenda.

But in the case of John’s tapes, his mind was ranging freely over the very general brief, and quite clearly anecdotes and impressions were occurring to him as he went along. This was often expressed in very amusing anecdotes. Some stories that may have historical value as well as humour – may not have been recorded had I been interviewing John face to face. I might have asked him to talk about something else. It could be argued that what I was getting in the tapes from Hobart was a more pure style of oral history than I would have achieved had I been sitting with him. Certainly a different style anyway.

In the beginning John had asked me whether he had to keep any constraints on what he said. What about libel – or matters that might cause family hurt? I suggested that he NOT impose any self censorship, that he speak absolutely frankly, and we would consider whether or not to keep all the material on record later. I can think of very few occasions when we actually pulled back from what was said. In one case I deleted a story involving an emotional attachment, which was not central to our main purpose, and which would undoubtedly have caused unnecessary anguish – perhaps that is too strong a word – to certain family members. In that case I discussed the matter with John, and destroyed the transcript and actually erased his commentary from the original tape. That happened on only one occasion. Actually Father has rather a salty turn of phrase, and although he is a kindly man, generally well disposed towards other members of the human race, there were certain individuals in his life not remembered fondly. When my sister Lisa read the galleys of the book, she was mildly concerned that John had called a one-time pillar of the Tasmanian establishment – one Henry Allport – a pompous old prick. More concerned for John than for propriety, she asked me if it was all right to have him quoted in that way. Happily, even in the minefield of Australian libel and defamation laws, you can rarely defame the dead. The query was really about the appropriateness of the language. I put this to Father.

‘Well he was a pompous old prick’, said Father. The sentence stayed unchanged.

One of the great strengths of oral history is that it enables ordinary people to go on the record in a way that would never happen if we had to rely on people writing their stories down. Not many people write stylishly, instinctively, and well. Yet almost everyone can tell a good story. With few houses these days being without the ubiquitous tape recorder, there exists the means to record anecdote and memory. I am continually urging as many people as possible to do this.

I think there is a case to be argued for the contribution of so called ‘ordinary’ people to history, call it social or any other fancy name. Not to take account of such stories is, I believe, arguably elitist. After all, the official history of the Australian POW experience under the Japanese was written almost entirely from the testimony of officers. The oral history work done by Hank Nelson and myself has produced some significant and new material which is not be found in the existing literature.

But what about the veracity of the spoken record. Did you know that Mark Twain is one of the patron saints of oral history?

Samuel Langhorne Clemens once wrote: I find that the further back I go, the better I remember things whether they happened or not!’

As you all know, there has been a lively debate in recent years on the value or otherwise of oral history testimony in the writing of history. The man who began it all, with his review of Wendy Lowenstein’s Weevils in the Flour, Professor O’Farrell ended his now legendary article with these words:

‘Mrs Lowenstein tells us, this book is not a precise history. That is what it is not, but what is it? And where will it lead us? Not into our history, but into myth.’

That was first published Quadrant in 1979, and it sparked a great deal of to and fro, enshrined in what is now a collectors item, the Oral History Association of Australia Journal: Oral Sources: Use and Abuse, Number 5 of 1982-83.

Having spent the last decade making oral history based radio documentaries, I was absurdly apprehensive not so long ago, when I was introduced to Prof. O’Farrell at one of Eve Abbey’s ‘meet the author’ gatherings at her book shop. I need not have been. It turns out that Prof. O’Farrell is an enthusiastic consumer and supporter of the BROADCASTING of oral history. He makes this point strongly in an article in the Oral History of Australia Journal No.9 of 1987: ‘The Great Oral History Debate Revisited’

Words in speech convey not only concepts, but sounds, the unique music of the person who utters them. Which is why the natural and appropriate modern medium for oral history is radio…

He goes on though, to express reservations about transposing that testimony into print – which he feels, ‘changes and diminishes the essence of what is to be conveyed’. Print, is ‘as a published score is to the musical performance.’ Well that could be an opening salvo in another great debate – but not right now. I’ll do a lateral arabesque on that one, and return to an earlier comment in Prof. O’Farrell’s 1987 article which is:

Whether anybody likes it or not, oral history is likely to remain a significant aspect of historical activity: the technology, the outlets and the demand continue.

But of course oral history, like any other source, must be carefully scrutinised and put through rigorous checks and balances. In the case of some broadcast work, this is not always possible. Some years ago I broadcast several “Word of Mouth” programs featuring a former schooner captain who told wonderful stories and life and times in the South Pacific – around the New Hebrides in the ’50s and ’60s. Nice stories they were, told with dry humour and considerable flair. I’ve had to withdraw them from the system though. It appears that although the substance of the stories was essentially true, the gentleman concerned was not always present or involved in them as he said he was. I mention it because it was one of the rare occasions when I have been deliberately misled.

Documentary series like ‘Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon’ are produced with more historical rigour – particularly with Hank Nelson riding shotgun beside me, and making the POW series a fascinating window into the strengths and weaknesses of oral history mostly strengths. In the first place, the timing was right. Forty years on, people were ready to talk – knowing that if the story was not told by them, it never would be. Some of the 120 men and women interviewed admitted that they had spoken on tape for the first time about events and experiences that they had not even told their families. Recalling the traumatic events of so long ago caused some to break down emotionally, and I became aware that I was leaving a trail of sleepless nights behind me as I went. But the material was powerful and good.

One weakness that soon became apparent was if someone said that it was on the 15th of June 1944 that 350 men were transferred from X camp to Y camp that it was axiomatic that the date and probably the year would be wrong, certainly the numbers of men involved and probably the name of one of the camps. Fortunately army records keep track of that kind of detail. What was reassuring was the way in which individual memories of specifically witnessed events dovetailed with other peoples. Recall of dates and statistics might be fuzzy, but recall of events was impressively consistent – and on several occasions more accurate than the official record.

It was soon very apparent that the material being recorded was breaking new ground. We were not simply illustrating generalisations already known about Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese – the hardships suffered, and the perfidy of their captors. We were raising new issues – about the relationships between the prisoners themselves, about survival in horrific conditions, and about the impact of traumatic experiences on individual lives. These interviews were clearly of national importance, with a meaning beyond private memories of horror.

It is, I think worth noting, that very good results were obtained from having more than one interview with a particular interviewee. Once a basic confidence had been established – and the realisation that the interviewer was quite well informed about the topic – better and better material could be recorded. One survivor of the feared Outram Road military punishment prison in Singapore told me – on… the third interview – how he had personally murdered one of the most brutal of his guards in the first few hours after the Japanese surrender. As he weighed less than eight stone at the time, and had almost died at the hands of this particular guard, it can be described as quite a physical achievement for him – putting aside any moral niceties. But it is unlikely I would have been the recipient of that kind of confidence on the first interview.

Many of the then young men who survived their POW experiences gave statutory declarations in 1945, which were used as evidence in the War Crimes trials. On several occasions it was possible to take some of the ex-POWs over the same ground, more than 40 years not for accuracy so much but to compare the changed perspective. That is where different accounts of the same incident proved so worthwhile. There is no such thing as recording a ‘definitive’ account of a witnessed event. Each person’s view cannot be separated from their individual perceptions and editorial direction – thank goodness.

It may well be that you get a better, more thoughtful, account forty years on. Take the case of a public servant writing a report, essentially sanitising a gross over-spending of public money in an under-researched and incompetently carried through foreign aid project. I’d far rather talk to that person now, when he or she has no reason to gloss over the truth – feed in retirement from any obligation to former bosses, and well clear of the 30 year secrecy provisions. And fortunately for oral historians, long term memory tends to survive better than short. What was I doing last week?