Small fish, big pond: using a single oral history narrative to reveal broader social change

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Abstract

It was midday on 6 April 2009 and I was sitting on a bench in the Parisian suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt feeling discouraged. I reflected that, a day into my month-long field trip to France, my interviewing technique was poor. How else to account for the past few hours? I was there to collect material on the impact of the Allied bombing of France on children during World War II, beginning a tightly budgeted tour of three French towns for my PhD project. Boulogne-Billancourt was bombed heavily on 3 March 1942 – a Royal Air Force (RAF) air raid, the first of its size on a French industrial target, the Renault factories – again on 4 April 1943, and twice in September 1943, all by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). A misunderstanding was at the root of the problem, it seemed: the woman I had just interviewed, Marguerite, was too old for my sample, and I had assumed I was interviewing her son. But on arrival, I found he had been born after the war. I reasoned, nonetheless, that she could give a contrastive reflection from an adult’s perspective, or some information on fears about air war during the interwar years. But, as I wrote in my field notes, ‘She doesn’t remember any talkof air war before the war!’ Yet I knew this interview was valuable. This chapter will consider how the

interview has provided me with an insight into broad social processes beyond the scope of my doctoral research. From a methodological perspective, it sheds light on the nature of interviewing, and the problems of using memory as a historical source. From a substantive point of view, it allows us to see that historical memory acts as a gateway to understanding the relationship between the individual and the social. In my notebook, I jotted further thoughts:

most striking – she doesn’t recall the bombing of 3 March 1942 – hardly any destruction – a few panes of glass – says few people died …

In the first part of this chapter, I show that Marguerite’s misremembering of the events of 1942 provides an open door into meaning, rather than a missed opportunity to gather content. I will account for Marguerite’s and my different understanding of events by looking at the divide between the relative importance of our priorities, the lack of available cultural scripts for her to use

when speaking of bombing, and the effect of my implied demand for her to slice a chunk out of a longer life story. Another section of my field notes comments upon Marguerite’s ‘good luck to get into shelter and so avoid the fate of those in the streets; bad luck that only [her family’s] factory was destroyed’: there is an oscillation between her own experiences and those of others. This dialogue between the one and the many will also be explored, showing how we can use one narrative to move between individual and group experience. The last part of the chapter focuses directly on the narrative itself, examining Marguerite’s reflections on bombing, her family and the town of Boulogne-Billancourt. My field notes flag up this connection:

[her family was] one of the biggest, most well-established of the blanchisseurs [laundry firms] – 4 April ’43 raid destroyed the business … the end of an era in their family – and of an époque in the town.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMemory and History
Subtitle of host publicationUnderstanding Memory as Source and Subject
EditorsJoan Tumblety
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherRoutledge
Chapter2
Pages34-49
Number of pages16
Edition1st
ISBN (Electronic)9780203552490
ISBN (Print)9780415677127, 9780415677110
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2 Apr 2013

Publication series

NameRoutledge Guides to Using Historical Sources
PublisherRoutledge

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