Recording the Past

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I was up at my Mother-in-law’s house this weekend in the historic gold field town of Maldon, and one night we got talking about the importance of recording the stories of many of our, now very elderly, relatives. This conversation was prompted by my husband reading a book about a famous Australian landscape architect by the name of Ellis Stones who had designed his grandmother’s garden in the early 1960s. As we read some excerpts out aloud we realized how little any of us really knew about the details of her life. It turns out the garden she designed with Ellis Stones was considered one of his finest but, apart from photographs, the garden no longer exists (destroyed after redevelopment) -yet another piece of history consigned to the rubbish heap.

Tim’s grandmother is now 97 years old and imagine the stories she must have to tell – about her life in a country town before the second world war when, despite her talents, her father refused to let her go to university; her recollections of a brother who was taken away; her trials during the war as she struggled to bring up two boys alone; and her despair when her husband was declared missing and no news of was received for 2 years (during which, it turns out, he was a Japanese POW). Imagine the insights she would have into the way people lived and worked then – yet no one has chosen to record her story, and, I fear, she is now too frail to be interviewed at any great length about her life.

As a writer of historical fiction, I draw upon the stories of ordinary people to be able to paint an accurate, detailed picture of what it was like to live during a particular era. Thinking about all the lives that go unrecorded has made me realize how much ordinary day-to-day history we may be losing. Hardly anyone writes letters or keeps hard copy records anymore – still fewer probably take the time to ask and listen to people tell their stories of the past. Much of our world is consumed with the here and now or the latest and greatest innovation. Thinking about my husband’s grandmother has made me realize that we all need to become keepers of the stories of the past. Interviewing our relatives and friends may become an important first step in ensuring that these ordinary lives do not get forgotten.

So have you talked to anyone ‘of a certain age’ about their lives lately? How do you think we can preserve these stories so writers like me will be able to read them (perhaps even hear and see them as well) in the future and be able to recreate the past in all its ‘ordinary’ detail?