Contrary to what one might think, the most rewarding aspect of joining the oral history team at the University of Hertfordshire was not to be ‘this looks so good on my CV’, it was the people.
The serious diverse group of people I met with to learn about the skill of interviewing others, but more so the people I interviewed. And if this process has proven one thing it is that every individual is full of colour and has a story. However, there are those who standout and Robert Rendell is a name I will not be forgetting. Glancing at people, in this case a mature, British man of a generation past my own, I did not get the feeling that there was much in common between us.
This didn’t mean that the interview was going to be any less interesting and one always finds they have something in common with the interviewee. Robert was both. He gave these truly rich anecdotes, (stories that were so rich that you craved to live life to its fullest from there on, just so you might have some of your own) and some actually related to my homeland Pakistan, which surprised me. After all, this was a just an older man living in Frieth, High Wycombe. At one point he even spoke of how he had dinner on Edgware in London with the once-president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. I was leaning in for the entirety of the two hours we were recording.
This is one of many reasons oral history is so important. There is simply a unique intrigue that can only be conjured by history told this way, verbally. And not only does it incite interest, the words of individual hold significant value historically. Yes, traditionally when one thinks of history, (and especially so in my case) the mind brings forward the journal article, the news extracts from 1943 and a reading list that will not be read.
Academics have not always attached much importance to words of individuals; they are not necessarily accurate and can be drowned in bias. However the idea that a verbal testimony, on whatever topic, is biased or misremembered gives way to questions and eventually answers in itself.
Why the bias? Why the misunderstandings? Ultimately, we must ask ourselves who is history written by and for what reason? The simplest answer I can give is, by people, for people’s understanding and insight. And the reason why I joined the Oral History Team was so that I could help supply and preserve knowledge for people, in a special and valuable way.