Dr Alison Chand, University of the Highlands and Islands
Paul Thompson, in his pioneering book, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, wrote that, ‘It is no doubt here – for history in the community – that oral history has its most radical implications’, pointing to the role of oral history in ‘the discovery of a kind of history which means something to ordinary people’. This argument for the importance of the local, the community and the region in oral history, was fundamental to the origins of my PhD research into the subjectivities of men who worked in reserved occupations in Glasgow and Clydeside during the Second World War, which led in 2016 to the publication of my monograph, Masculinities on Clydeside: Men in Reserved Occupations During the Second World War.
The region under study, Glasgow and Clydeside, was obviously central to my research, and the extent to which oral testimonies of men who worked in reserved occupations in wartime Clydeside reflected distinct regional aspects of subjectivity formed a fundamental part of my recently published article in Cultural and Social History: ‘Belonging to Glasgow and Clydeside in the Second World War: Retrieving Regional Subjectivities Among Male Civilian Workers’. Indeed, I discuss in the article the substantial evidence that emerged in my research of local pride in industries around the Clyde, noting that, while some of this can be linked to the region’s contribution to the war effort, such pride can also be attributed to deep knowledge, understanding and awareness of the region as a distinct locality, based on the immediacy of everyday life in the distinctive industrial and working-class environment of Clydeside to the subjectivities of reserved men.
However, I do also assert in my article that the wartime subjectivities of reserved men in Glasgow and Clydeside did not exist in a vacuum, arguing that men working in the area during the war shared a number of aspects of subjectivity with others employed in different regions of wartime Britain, particularly those containing higher proportions of younger men employed in heavy and industrial reserved occupations. As with men working in Clydeside, those in other areas sometimes linked their masculinity to military service, while others defined their subjectivities independently of this notion, associating themselves with multiple alternative masculinities. Male civilian workers also felt some solidarity with reserved men in other British regions and often shared ideas of industrial militancy.
Oral history, and the collection of testimonies from men who worked in reserved occupations in a specific region of wartime Britain, therefore acts as a bridge here between the regional and the wider national picture. The demonstrably regional and local experiences and subjectivities of reserved men in Glasgow and Clydeside are demonstrated in the article to be inextricably intertwined with rhetoric on social change and life on the home front in wartime Britain. As Lynn Abrams notes in her book, Oral History Theory,
‘Memory is not just about the individual; it is also about the community, the collective, the nation. In this regard, memory – both individual and collective – exists in a symbiotic relationship with the public memorialisation of the past, so we must always be aware that memory expressed in an interview exists within a field of memory work that is going on at many levels in our society… Individual memory then, is not seen as a straightforward psychological phenomenon but as a socially shared experience.’
In-depth exploration of the regional and the local must therefore be fundamental to our interest as historians in wider studies of events, and oral history methodology is uniquely positioned to consider the intricacies of the findings and perspectives that emerge.
About the author: Alison Chand is a tutor at the Scottish Oral History Centre, University of Strathclyde, and a lecturer in History at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She also works as a freelance oral historian in various interviewing, transcribing and advisory capacities. She completed her PhD, focusing on the experiences of men working in reserved occupations in Clydeside during the Second World War, at the SOHC in 2012, and published her monograph based on her PhD thesis, entitled Masculinities on Clydeside: Men in Reserved Occupations During the Second World War, in 2016.