Oral history of Mallorca
I never lived in the East End, but my mother was from there. Born in the sound of Bow Bells and all that – my first introduction. A small child could identify with the sound of the bells. They rang from the church it was up the hill where the posh people lived in our Home Counties village. We were creatures of the estates, the aspirational middle class in our case. The London overflow was separated by the railway line.
There were stories. They were more frequent when relatives were around and the Mackeson and sherry were downed. Mosley, the Blitz, a character called Daddy Lee. Stories that I half remember and that may, even as they are told, have been embellished or memory towers. How certain can you be of the accuracy of the stories?
Even so, if only they had been written, for they are now lost forever. When Gilda O’Neill brought out her book, ‘My East End’, I devoured it eagerly, as if I was looking for those stories, because she told people’s stories about the East End. There was a later book on hop picking. God yes, my mother and my grandmother used to go there pick hops. That was one of the stories; more than one.
Gilda O’Neill had to admit that she was concerned about whether the memories were accurate or whether they were stories influenced by why people remembered and told them in a particular way. They weren’t necessarily “innocent” sources of evidence for that reason. Stories are not the same as the story in the sense that the latter can be verified by documentation. Again, documentation in its various forms may be interpretation rather than fact.
So oral history comes with a caveat. But that certainly doesn’t make it any less fascinating, while there’s always room to back it up with cross-references to other people’s stories and from documented evidence. First and foremost, and this is why oral history has come into its own, is the concept of social history – how people experienced things. He can be much richer than dry university studies of texts. Richer, but much more likely to disappear, unless it itself is documented or recorded.
There can be no such nineteenth-century social history, for example, for the very obvious reason that no one is alive to offer it. Part of the 20th century is also a vacuum of oral history. Mortality has therefore been a motivation for researchers to ensure that it is captured before it is lost. In Majorca, the oral tradition flourished in the last two decades of the 19th century thanks to the efforts of a priest, Antoni Maria Alcover.
Under the pseudonym of Jordi d’es Racó, he published fables and folklore from Majorca. ‘Aplec de rondaies mallorquines’ was the title of his compilation. But what Alcover produced was not a story. Rather, it was a collection of tales passed down from generation to generation. While these tales could potentially offer insight into life, social history was very secondary and only then through the interpretations of the tales made by scholars ever since.
In Alcudia, an oral history project was started in 2008. I dare say there have been others, but this was the first in Mallorca. The material, in the form of recordings, has been archived, and so there is a body of work that allows us to reconstruct how things were, how people’s lives around the world were. second decade of the XXth century.
There are books dedicated to this story. The pharmacist Pere Ventayol compiled one in the 1920s. Some time earlier a doctor, Joan Reynés, had written a story. Their professions allowed them to reflect people’s lives, but they weren’t first-hand. This is the main difference – in people’s own words.
The project was stalled for about four years. In December, the town hall gave its agreement for it to be reactivated. Joan Pasqual, now 95, is the latest contributor. He was nine years old when his father, Miquel, was imprisoned at the start of the civil war. He was then assassinated in Porreres by Falangists.
The historical memory of the Civil War has become of deep importance in Mallorca, but the conflict is not the only reason to collect this oral history. As the mayor of Alcudia, Barbara Rebassa noted, it is interesting to have the memory of an Alcudia that no longer exists. How interesting it is to have a memory from anywhere, and from people’s experiences rather than from newspaper clippings or any other textual source.
A few years ago, I wanted to know more about civil war airstrip in Alcudia. I was put in touch with a gentleman, now deceased, who remembered the planes. An Alcudia that no longer exists. Only in people’s memory.