My mother is a treasury of oral history. With an unrivalled knowledge of our complex family tree, where cousins marrying cousins mean a tangle of connections, she can also talk her way along each of the roads of the village, recalling the families who lived at each of the farms and cottages.
Following the death of my father in March of this year, there is a keen awareness that story tellers do not remain forever. I need to record my mother’s local history, either digitally or on paper.
But where is the line drawn between oral history and personal reminiscence?
Do stories like those of the cider house kept by a great uncle count as oral history or are they just a piece of family tradition?
And what do you do with stories that are just personal recollections?
One of my favourite recollections is one that she tells of a cycle ride through icy fog from her work at Harvey’s hairdressers in Langport, to her home at Pibsbury, on the road to Long Sutton. It is on the Somerset Levels, Pibsbury is a place with a pumping station to deal with winter floods.
As my mother rode her bicycle around Pibsbury Corner, she saw a car had skidded on the icy road, and, out of control, had gone over the bank of the catchwater.
Rushing to try to help, she found the car balanced precariously, and stood on the bumper to try to add weight to the rear of the car. A couple were in the car and while my mother did her best to balance the car, first the woman, and then her husband, climbed over the seats into the back.
The local vet, returning from a call, stopped and saw what had happened. “I am heavier than you,” he said to my mother, “I’ll stay here – go to the garage and fetch Bob Atkins.”
My mother pedalled to the garage where Bob Atkins had a breakdown truck. “Go and find Dick Weller,” he said, “tell him to come and help.”
My mother went to find Dick Weller – and then went home. There was no further need for her.
The couple stayed with Dick Weller and asked that my mother call in the next day so that they might offer their thanks. My mother was working late, so there was no opportunity to do so, and there the story ended.
Do such stories merit recording?