Interviews, memory and generation

I was going to write this blog about memory and its place in history: the tricky ins and outs of personal story-telling and collective myth-making. As I prepare to start my interviews and piece together various testimonies about one period in time it seemed a good place to start. But then I got to thinking about who it is that is doing the remembering, the memorialisation, the story-telling.

Given the period of my research – the 1950s – those people I am interviewing are now in their seventies and eighties. It is easy to automatically draw conclusions not only about their attitudes and beliefs, but also about the way in which they are going to recount their stories to me. Though we live in an aging society where retirement age creeps up and good health prolongs quality of life, we continue to view ‘old age’ as a separate category: full of cups of tea, soft furnishings, net curtains and cushions.

How unfortunate such stereotypes could be. If I were to belittle those people responding to my interviews without taking their words sincerely, carefully and in their entirety, then there would be no testimony, no fluid account of that person’s life according to them. As a result any history I might try to write with the interview could be misdirected, my position altered and the history itself tainted with judgement.

Being the ‘interviewer’ bestows authority and (unwanted) power. I must beware this possible power relationship, the appearance of authority conferred by the research project itself, the feelings of vulnerability that arriving in another person’s home might inspire, the offence that patronising or undermining language could cause.

Moreover, any stereotypes that we assign to an age bracket not yet reached can never be based on personal experience or understanding. As the author Penelope Lively says: ‘… when you are young. We won’t ever be old, partly because we can’t imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don’t want to, and – crucially – are not particularly interested’.

Gladly I am very interested, in my interviewees as they are now, and were then. Without their contemporary selves I cannot know how their past selves felt and thought in the 1950s. Their memories are like funfair corridors of mirrors, starting here and reflecting their selves, the image of themselves, further and further back into the distance.

As I begin to interview, I can only hope to respect the closeness that my project brings with interviewees, and the distance that they will traverse as they start to remember.