In our recent discussion of the not-for-profit world we did not touch upon community projects. These kinds of jobs mostly consist of either maternity coverage or working up a flier for a particular event. However, I did once pitch up at a voluntary event and talk myself into editing a local newspaper and entered a new world of civic journalism, but that is best left for another day. The point is local community projects can be diverse, challenging and some of the most fun encountered in a working life.
One of the most interesting projects yours truly was engaged in was a local history project. It was initially conceived to extract the oral history from elderly residents before they moved on, so to speak. This was an example of a well-meaning project based on untested assumptions that threw up quite a few unforeseen obstacles.
On the face of it the idea was sound enough. Our team arranged interviews at care homes, local clubs and followed up several interesting leads. There were six of us, three researcher/writers and three support staff, all self-starters working to a single paragraph brief. We would capture those soon-to-be lost memories for posterity and 40 or 50 elderly people would have something useful and therapeutic to do.
The idea had been conceived by the head of the local teacher training college and the funding had been provided by the county council. Early on we made contact with a retired BBC producer who was a gold mine. His first response was ‘great, but I tried that back in the day and… well it wasn’t easy.’ He warned me, ‘just because people have lived a long time doesn’t mean they have anything interesting to say.’
This was not to be our only problem. The brief was to focus on one town and get a residents’ eye view of the 20th century. However, many of our contacts turned out to be incomers who would regale you with such stories as the town hall being blown to smithereens. Fantastic copy until one pointed out that the Victorian town hall was still standing.
“Not that one, I am talking about Yorkshire,” was a typical response.
The project turned out to be great in theory, but beset with challenges, to say the least.
Then we had a breakthrough. I met a man in a local pub who had only moved to the area in 1960 and was reluctant to talk. However, given he was articulate, available and had a memory of the town going back further than anyone else we had spoken to, I pressed him.
He eventually explained that he had been the founder of a local business in the hitherto unknown entertainment sector that had been developed in the 1960s and 70s. He also turned out to be the town’s first legal bookmaker. Once he got talking, a dozen people in the pub chipped in with their own personal memories’ and suggestions of who to talk to.
The outcome was not only new leads, but a new line of inquiry. Instead of asking individuals, we followed businesses, such as pubs for instance, and generated yet more lines of inquiry. Then we asked people about what we had found, who in turn suggested new people.
Two particular finds made it all worthwhile.
One landlady of the local pub talked about her famous customer John Betjeman, author of the ‘Village inn, the dear old inn, so ancient, clean and free from sin…’ might it have been inspired by his visit?
She laughed when she told me about an old meat platter she had removed from the wall when she had retired. She had taken it because during the Second World War the pilots had used it as an impromptu sled and had ridden it down the pub stairs. It had many fond memories for her until following an insurance claim it transpired that it was 400 years old and worth £40,000, having been in the pub for centuries. She happily returned it, after all, “Who was she to take it?”
One man of 100 worked as the town’s first mechanic. He spoke of putting candles under the engine to get it warm enough to start in the mornings. He had also worked part-time as a telegram boy in the First World War. “It was grim work,” he said, but bringing bad news to families had stuck in his mind, immortalising them there for some detailed retrieval by the project.
He recalled a very old man who had once been a pot boy fetching beer for the war veterans. Which war was this? He was asked.
“Oh, these would have been the old Waterloo veterans housed at the alms-houses,” he replied.
I had met man, who had met man who knew veterans from Waterloo, which was now 200 years ago. Nothing has ever made me realise more that history is at the end of our fingers.