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Oral histories

Number: 
4
TTTotnes’ Hal Gilmore shows visitors from Taiwan around Totnes on a Transition Tour

Challenge

It is often said that there is nothing new under the sun . . . What can we learn from our elders about more frugal and resilient ways of doing things that might help us to design the future?

Description

Oral histories give substance to understanding how the place we live functioned before cheap oil changed it profoundly, dismantling its resilience to a point where little remains. These histories populate the vague past with real characters and stories.

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Solution

Bring elders and local storytellers into schools. Create events and meeting places where young and old people can tell their stories, formally or informally. Use artists and musicians to create evenings of storytelling and song about the local community.

Full description

Oral histories give substance to understanding how the place we live functioned before cheap oil changed it profoundly, dismantling its resilience to a point where little remains. These histories populate the vague past with real characters and stories. They change the way you look at the place you live. They help a more localised economy feel tangible. However, they are not about nostalgia. The future cannot be like the past, but it needs to learn from it if Transition is to succeed.  

I love doing oral history interviews. Here are a few tips:

  • The first few people you interview may well be people you know, neighbours or acquaintances. They will probably be able to point out other people to talk to, or your local museum may be able to suggest some.
  • Make sure your subject is happy to be interviewed and recorded, and for you to print excerpts. 
  • I usually start by asking for a potted 10-minute history of the person’s life so far. I then return to the period I want to focus on (usually the 1940s-50s) and explore their experience of food, energy, housing, employment, community and so on.     Record the interview digitally for transcription.
  • Interview one person at a time to avoid ‘reminiscing’ conversations between your subjects.
  • Send interviewees the transcript of the interview so they can check details.

“My dad and George Heath were both in the amateur operatic society and would be singing in the same Gilbert and Sullivan show, so they would sing little bits to each other (in George’s shop), and then George would say “oh no, tomatoes, we got no tomatoes, but let’s go get some then” . . . and then we all went over. That’s what we did. We all went over to the greenhouses at the nursery and picked tomatoes, and they sang songs to each other wandering up and down and talked about this and that.” Andy Langford, from the Totnes oral history interviews

You might also want to gather old songs and folklore. I tend to stay with practicalities. Where was food grown? How did people manage with less energy than today? What kind of work did people do? Were they happy? How did they entertain each other? What does frugal living look like in practice?

For Transition Town Totnes’s Energy Descent Action Plan, 14 people were interviewed. The article produced from their interviews opens the plan, setting out the history of the town in which the EDAP has its roots.[i]  Tales of urban market gardens, life with no need for a car, more seasonal diets and a town more related to its farmland offer a fascinating glimpse into the past, which can do much to inform our plans for the future.

PLAN-it Environmental Education in Cornwall ran a programme called ‘Traditions to Transition’. Pupils from Cape Cornwall School discussed life before cheap energy with their elders, contacted via Age Concern. The result was a fascinating bringing together of the generations that would be easy to replicate elsewhere.
 




[i] http://totnesedap.org.uk/book/part2/stories/

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