Jo Buchanan writes about her personal reflections in relation to a new film that uses oral testimony to explore the cultural landscape of southeast Cornwall:
Voices of the Looe Valley oral history project was commissioned as part of the ‘Moor to Sea’ project, a National Heritage Lottery Funded place-based initiative to build partnerships and capacity between heritage and environmental organisations in the valley between Looe and Liskeard in southeast Cornwall www.moortosea.org.uk The oral history aimed to capture the personal stories and improve our understanding of the relationship that people have with the cultural landscape of the Looe Valley. This includes how official narratives expressed in connection with place intersect with the reality of the lived experience. An important aspect was co-producing the project with the local community, training people how to collect oral histories. Some went on to interview participants, and will hopefully continue to collect stories.
Another important legacy was communicating these stories in an engaging way, so we decided to create a film for YouTube.
The film involved a daunting process of distilling over twenty-five interviews (approximately forty minutes each), into themes, time codes and storyboarding for production by Pipewell Studios. The priority was making sure that each voice was represented and that the images participants valued were included – fuzzy or not! In addition images had to be precise and connect with the story that was being told. The latter was aided by donated postcards, local museums, including The Box (formally SW Film archive).
My time gathering oral histories in the Looe Valley has been, as Raphael Samuel states, one of a ‘privileged position’ (1972). Momentarily stepping into people’s lives, as they have shared their special memories and stories. Some of these moments have been emotional, touching on the past – special memories of people now gone, and places or experiences that moved them. There was also great fun, listening to stories of the past that were joyous and brought you to tears in other ways. For some it gave a moment to reflect on their lives, and make connections with the past, that still affect how they see themselves today. For me, collecting oral histories provided a range of feelings. Some voices showed concern over the loss of the community they once knew – familiar faces. As an incomer or ‘blow-in’, this caused a little discomfort, however the same voices showed warmth, kindness and generosity in taking part, which was uplifting. This generosity was not only in sharing their personal stories into public spaces (archives, exhibition, film) but also helping me to identify people to take part, donate photos, provide documents and so much more. Collecting these special fragments was as important as the story. Why the person kept these old photographs next to them on the bedside table, or in a box in the loft, all became clear. I remember when I copied the photographs and then showed the person for the first time a very clear, close up image of their old teacher, or their great grandfather on the farm – silence fell, eyes became wet with tears, throats were cleared ready to speak … emotive and moving, yes. Privileged, absolutely.
Cover picture: Agricultural life. Image provided by the Marshall-Tamblyn family
Dr Jo Buchanan was the oral history project leader for ‘Moor To Sea’.