PETER FROST hears the genuine voice of country people echoing down through the years.
Today we take oral history for granted. We know just how valuable recording the real voices of ordinary people is to give an accurate picture of the way working people live and have lived.
George Ewart Evans was a frustrated writer until he began to record the reminiscences of farm workers in East Anglia. He invented the new technique of oral history and we all owe him a huge debt.
George, born and raised in a Welsh mining village became a writer and a poet contributing to the many radical Welsh magazines of the 1930’s and 40’s.
Politically he moved to the Left influenced by personal experience – his family had made great sacrifices to send George to grammar school and to university, as a result his father’s grocery store went bankrupt.
George supported the miner’s struggles and was contemptuous of the moneyed class, the leisured capitalists whom he held responsible for the economic and political crisis of the 1930s. Like many at the time he joined the Communist Party.
In 1934 with no prospect of employment in Wales he moved to England. First teaching at Sawston Village College in Cambridgeshire; a pioneering secondary school that was also a community centre. There he met the woman who would become his wife, Florence Ellen Knappett.
When they married in 1938 George was secretary of the Cambridge Communist Party.
After the war George and Ellen moved to a remote part of Suffolk. Ellen became headmistress at Blaxhall village school, the job offered a house.
Still writing mostly poetry and fiction, George started to hear the voices of those about him. Under his very nose was the subject that was going to occupy him for the rest of his life – the actual voices of working people. He knew they had something important to say.
His was a village populated by farm workers who had seen the virtual disappearance of the horse as the main motive power on the farm.
He saw it as an important piece of social history to record the voices, experiences, attitudes and feelings of these people in their own words. And to do it before they died and their memories were lost forever.
David Thomson a radio producer at the BBC lent him a tape recorder. The resulting recordings were heard on the Third Programme. Oral history had reached the airwaves.
George also realised that the recordings could be used in book form. In 1956 he wrote to Faber and Faber: “For the past eight years I have been living in the above village which is in a remote part of Suffolk; and I have been struck by the number of interesting survivals here.
“The old people, who have such a knowledge of the village community which is quickly passing, are dying out; and with their going much of real value is being lost. I have recorded some of the material they knew and have included it in the enclosed MS. I offer it to you as something that might be of interest.”
The manuscript became Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay, the first of ten books – all still in print – by George Ewart Evans.
Still worth reading they bring alive rural England after the war and before European subsidy and the scramble for profit before everything changed life on British farms forever.
This article first published in the Morning Star, 2012