Session Three: Writing from Archival Photographs

A picture tells a thousand words.

So goes the adage.

In this session we turned from the oral histories we had been working with, to looking at pictures. One of the privileges of being in the same building as the City Archives is that we are actually sometimes able to take some of the precious archival material out.

This week I brought two files of photographs from the Archives along to the session, ones collected by the Oral History Unit. The Archives have thousands of photographs: from pictures of streets bombed during the Blitz, to family photographs, to studio and newspaper images of Southampton.

The Oral History Unit photographs are somewhat unusual, however. Some do not necessarily relate to Southampton, but were donated by interviewees, or collected from families by the unit’s oral historians and researchers. Therefore we have a distinctly un-Southampton image of an impressive bunch of bananas growing on a palm, somewhere in a far more tropical clime than ours.

But there’s a link, of course. The pictures in the files are incredibly diverse, and only serve to draw our attention to how Southampton as a city has been imbricated in so many differents kinds of history, different kinds of experiences. They are simply wonderful to look through, and rich for storytelling inspiration.

Yet in the writing exercises we did, we also came across some challenges. We had very little contextual information to go on, and had to rely entirely on the photographs, and the odd scrawled annotation, for clues as to period, location and so on. (Most of this information is available through the accession registers, but is tricky and time consuming to find.) The breadth of historical knowledge amongst our group is astounding, and together we deduced much more than we could have done alone. But it was challenging to write from so little, conscious of the fact that each photograph might in fact have its own story. To that end, the most evocative and resonant pieces of writing that came out of this session were derived from the photographs which had tiny slivers of information attached, either in captions or in clues within the images themselves. We needed something, a little hook, onto which to hang our embroidered stories.

In hindsight, I would therefore do the exercises for this week differently. I would look at the accession registers, pick some of the most interesting-looking descriptions, look up the photos, and use a selected group for writing from.

However, there was a great deal of creative pleasure derived from the collective leisurely meander through these pictures, and I wouldn’t have wanted to deprive the group of that experience. Not least, because in at least one instance, the experience working with these photographs did produce writing of extraordinary clarity and power.


Session Four: Visit to the Archives (participant piece)

Visit to the Archives


As part of the creative writing project, on the 23rd February 2018, myself and other members of the group visited the Southampton city archives.   The archives are held on the lower ground floor of the Civic Centre.   Despite living in the city for over half a century I was only vaguely aware of the existence of the archive and no real idea as to the scope of what is held.   We were treated to a very informative talk by the archivist who presented us with a range of documents and photographs.    The first document was a charter given to the city by Elizabeth 1st which bequeathed certain powers to the city.   The charter is a beautiful object, elegantly drafted in black ink with decorated margins and a large pendant hanging at the base.   I found it amazing to think that, as we sat around the table examining the charter, so too had civic signatories in a very different Elizabethan era hundreds of years before us.

However the creative project is very much to do with the historic lives of individuals from the more humble stations of life and there was much to see that depicted such lives.    We saw graphic representations of how war affected the inhabitants of the city, particularly the Second World War.    There are records and pictures of bomb damage.   We heard accounts of how some citizens defied instructions and camped out on Southampton Common and rural areas on the edge of the city to escape the strain of the bombing raids.    It was is very sad to think that over sixty years later people are still suffering from the terror and destruction of being bombed.


We were fascinated by a personal diary kept in 1940 in a blue hardback covered ‘Boots Scribbling Diary’.     In the diary the male diarist lamented the lack of Christmas spirit on Christmas Eve due to the city centre being badly damaged in a bombing raid.    A recurrent theme in the diary is his fear of invasion and, as a self-declared communist, he had particular reason, but his fear was no doubt almost universally shared at a time when such a threat seemed a real possibility.

As well as written documents, the archive contains many photographs from 1860 to the present day.   In the workshops we had already viewed some photographs of individuals and groups from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s and been fascinated by the stories of lives they evoked.      Today it was fascinating to see a collection of photographs from the slum clearances of the mid-20th century.      Many of the characterful properties, if spared and subjected to modern standards of sanitation and so forth, may well have been sought after today.    However on close inspection it was clear that many were in serious disrepair and most probably damp and cold dwellings.   I was struck how communities were swept away and the characterful and sometimes quirky houses replaced by the sharp contrast of the ultra-modern sixties housing estates.    In some pictures children were playing in the alleyways between the backs of houses.   Next they would be playing in the concrete walkways or the grass between the blocks of flats.

The fact of the city as a port was there in lists of goods arriving but also the human dimension in the index of merchant seamen who served on British registered ships.   These cards included a photograph of the seafarer.  As well as British seafarers there were details of foreign merchant seamen serving on board British registered ships, a reflection of the international nature of trade   ship crews.

The visit to the archive was a necessary component of the creative writing workshop, providing a wealth of material evidence to bring to life the projects themes of migration and movement, of struggle and displacement which are as relevant today as in the past.

Session Four: Subjects, People and Places (participant piece on visiting the City Archives)

Subjects, People and Places


In making this report upon a controversial subject I know that I am treading upon dangerous ground, but I feel that I cannot give a complete picture of evacuation problems without writing it.’ (Opening extract from a letter regarding Southampton evacuees, dated 1941.)

From the moment I read this letter, buried the Southampton Archives Department, I knew that I was in the right place, not only to be informed, but to be inspired. Selfishly, I had joined the writing group’s visit to the Archives Department to fulfil a personal agenda for my writing research. I wanted to know the answers to three disparate questions:

  • What were the facts behind the story of the RMS ‘Rhone’ which sank in 1867?
  • Were there any Southampton records of suffragist civil disobedience?
  • Who was the mystery woman, with a toy rabbit, who smiled directly at me from a faded black and white photograph?

The group listened attentively to the archivist, whose knowledge was both impressive, yet humbling. She laid before us a wealth of treasures from the past including a charter from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, which was as beautiful as any work of art in the gallery upstairs.  We looked sadly at twentieth century photographs of homes lost to the violence of war, or modernity, which illustrated in various shades of grey, the changing and lost landscape and lifestyles of Southampton.

It is said that we can learn from the past, but it seems that some things do not change: a school log book (1863-1893) recorded the altercation between an affronted parent and an indignant Headteacher;  a scrap book , compiled by Basque children (1937), highlighted the desperate plight of so many children who, in our current times, are still seeking a home, safety, normality.


This unassuming room held so much to see, so many stories to absorb, so many unresolved questions. Who was the smiling merchant seaman cuddling his terrier dog in his official ID photograph? What was the story behind the ID picture revealing a hunched, scowling fourteen-year-old boy?

My three personal questions remain unanswered: they are for another day. I left this safe space, the storeroom of history, of truths and of secrets, with so many more questions to explore and investigate.

In making this report upon a controversial subject I know that I am treading upon dangerous ground, but I feel that I cannot give a complete picture of evacuation problems without writing it.


What was the controversy and what were the dangers?

Session Two: Meeting the longer oral histories, and the ethics of storytelling

In our second gathering, we spent some time playing around with the short quotes that we had worked with in the previous session. We began with an exercise where I asked everyone to pick six or seven words from their quotes and use one of the words in each line of a short piece. The piece didn’t have anything whatsoever to do with the original quotation.

It was intended as a playful warm up exercise but it was really interesting to hear some of the results. Some were direct, personally felt responses to the quotes, as if the pieces and the quotes were in conversation. For example, a quote about England’s weather always being like autumn (in a pejorative sense) gave rise to a beautifully expressed contemplation of England’s seasons, and how elsewhere in the tropics, there isn’t the same close relationship between time and landscape. Others produced completely new voices and characters, including an amusing monologue on chocolate! Another developed and further imagined the experiences described in the quotation, and contemplated the loneliness of life in the “white city” in the 1960s.

I think it was illuminating for all of us to see how stripping back a sentence into a few key words can open up our imaginative responses to it.

In the main part of the session, my idea was that the participants were united with the long interviews that their short quotations had come from. After spending so much time with the short quotations, I thought it would be nice to first sketch out the character we had conjured through the short quote – would the person revealed in the longer interview bear any resemblance to the one we had spent so much time with until now? Would their stories surprise us? Or can even a short, single sentence, give us some idea of the person who voiced it?

When we came to reading the full interviews, it seemed that to a large extent the short quotations did actually reveal a considerable amount of their speakers’ personalities and experiences. Some of the predictive sketches our writers had made were almost uncannily accurate.

This later made me pause and reflect. These oral stories are gifts given to us, precious things we have to respect and take care of. They are closely tied to the people who tell them. Even a few words of them are someone else’s voice and character speaking, and not ours. We need some ways in which to acknowledge that, to maintain the distance from their words, in order to prevent us from appropriating them and swallowing the tellers’ identities in the process. At the same time, when we write with these stories, we develop an intimate bond with the speaker, the teller, and a responsibility to them borne from the empathy we feel for them. It is natural to want to share them, to make others appreciate how special and extraordinary the tellers were.

There are many different approaches to navigating the complex ethics of telling others’ stories. The verbatim method, not changing a single word, is one, and it can work very powerfully in theatrical form in particula. In the poems I am writing from oral histories taken for the research project I worked on, Fabric of Faith, I was extremely conscious of the stories I was writing about not being mine. I therefore used poetry, and not my usually favoured genre of prose. I also found that I wasn’t able to use the first person to narrate the experiences in any of the poems. Instead, I embedded variations of the phrase “She tells me” into each poem to draw attention to the existence of two subjectivities, of a teller and a listener. Other strategies might be to write to the teller, to anonymise locations, or to provide a citation or acknowledgement in the form of a prologue.

We must deal with other peoples’ stories with love and respect, as one would with any kind of gift that is meaningful and involved struggle in the gifting. But personally, I don’t think it should stop us telling the stories, especially when they were given freely with the hope often that they would be heard. This is my anxiety with the Oral History Unit archives: sometimes I lie awake at night thinking of all those tapes and transcripts, and the fact that so few of us who know that they even exist. All those stories, there, on the shelves waiting: waiting to be heard, told, retold and heard.

So: Write Stories: The first workshop, 16th January 2018

On Tuesday January 16th we had our first gathering for the So: Write Stories archives-based creative writing project.

In advance, I had done some online research on writing activities that use historical events or experiences as prompts. But I found these didn’t quite do what I wanted. Most of the “historical writing” prompts I found picked iconic historical events, and asked the writer to imagine a particular character encountering them. The events and situations were familiar ones to us all and the perspectives offered were obvious ones. I could see a whole line of stories coming out of these prompts: all with the same characters, the same backdrops, the same plots.

I realised that I didn’t actually need these prompts. In fact I think this is the wrong way to go about writing literary history and historical fiction. It’s top-down and too obvious. It inserts the story into the event, rather than bringing the meaning of an event into being through individual and the personal experience of it. But if you use archives as prompts, and you listen to them carefully and allow them to inspire you, then stories flow out organically from them.

This is how I came up with the story for my book: a few key images and extracts stayed, floating about my mind, until they evolved into quite an unexpected fantasy story. The newspaper cuttings and images I collected of lascars in nineteenth century East London, the Southampton Oral History Unit transcripts from their 1980s-2000s, Polish and African-Caribbean projects: these contain more inspiration and original stories than “macro-historical moments” such as “D-Day” ever could. Archives capture unique moments in time and space, in a range of media, from specific perspectives and points of view. Photographs, diaries, letters, interviews: all of which may indeed reference those huge historical events like the World Wars, but do so through embodied, lived personal experiences. If you start with these, and engage with them empathetically, and apply a little imagination, you can’t help but tell a unique, meaningful story. This is, at least, my hypothesis for So: Write Stories as a project.

As it was the first workshop, we started with a longer getting-to-know-you conversation. I didn’t use ice-breakers – just biscuits (food is under-appreciated as the original, ultimate ice-breaker) and an invitation to talk about what brought everyone to the group, and their own writing/reading loves and experience (if any). I just felt that ice-breakers, in this context, would be silly and gimmicky and perhaps not sit so well with some of the older participants. I wanted to open up conversation, rather than restrict the introductions to irrelevant, quirky facts. Biscuits were enough: everyone felt comfortable enough to share some thoughts with us about why they had come, and what they liked to read or write. Some were attending because they loved local history, and wanted to write historical non-fiction. Others were poets or artists, looking to expand beyond their current practice. Others simply came along because it sounded interesting.

This unstructured initial conversation was incredibly rich. It is wonderful what happens when you simply provide a safe, intimate space in which to talk and to share stories. This is something that is coming out as a key element of my creative practice, facilitating these kinds of spaces. The conversation – and there was interaction and cross-fertilisation of ideas even from the very beginning – touched on a range of relevant, fascinating issues. We considered whether art has to be “secretive” about its meanings in order to be good (something which has arisen in another context by the furore provoked by Rebecca Watts’ recent article on populism and poetry), or whether clarity makes for good art (as a children’s writer, and Philip Pullman disciple, of course I go for clarity over secrecy almost every time). We talked about Brexit, sanctuary spaces and this plaque which greets Art Gallery and Central Library users every time we enter the building:

We discovered a tragic story about a merchant naval ship that sank following its departure from Southampton, all those aboard drowned because they had been instructed to tie themselves to their beds during a storm. This provoked a reflection on the ordinary, everyday tragedies of the sea and why so much historical focus, particularly in Southampton, has been upon the Titanic, when so there are so many other tragic naval stories that need to be told.

I then displayed all the short quotes that I had selected for my previous Hands on Humanities day drop-in workshop for everyone to choose a quote from, one that jumped out, spoke to them, and invited everyone to then write to those quotes. What they wrote was up to them – it could be a continuation of the quote, from the speaker’s perspective, or a story or poem inspired by it, or a personal reflection.

We wrote for half an hour, broke for some reflection and wrote for another fifteen minutes. To end, we shared these, with some reading out their pieces, others describing what they’d chosen to do. What a range of different genres and ideas there were! Discussion of recipes in one quotation resulted in a range of different “what if” scenarios (prompted by talking about Stephen King’s “what if” plot generator”: ranging from fantasy to grisly crime stories, all centred around the inheritance of a grandmother’s recipe book by a granddaughter. We experienced an incredible moment of synchronicity when one participant’s evocative reflection of Kingsland Market in the 1960s, and a hippie hat-seller, provoked another participant to remember the same market, and then find the hat-seller in a book on Kingsland Market that I had brought along. There was an impassioned personal reflection on the intrusiveness of the “national identity” questions we are all obliged to tick on forms, stemming from a quotation where an interviewee was refused to call himself British, because he was black, and was told to refer to himself as West Indian only.

These are such promising beginnings. They show the different kinds of stories we can tell from archives: polemic, memoir, crime and fantasy were all started in the room this week. Next week, we will be united with the longer interviews that the short quotations came from. What happens to our stories when we are given more historical and biographical detail to work with? Do the stories we started contract, or expand? We’ve built an idea of the speakers, a “character” from these short quotations: what happens to this character when we hear more from them? I can’t wait to find out.

The next session is on Tuesday 30th January, 10.15-12.15pm in the Seminar Room at Central Library, and new participants are always welcome.

Hands on Humanities Day, 18th November 2017: designing an all ages drop in workshop on the history of migration

My creative project So: Write Stories will focus on celebrating Southampton’s history of migration. We will do this in part through oral histories and archival material to be found within the City Archives based, like the Central Library, in our beautiful vernacular art deco Civic Centre. Focusing on this element of Southampton’s history is due to a personal interest: I’ve had a long-held desire to explore in depth Southampton’s migration stories, in parallel to the academic research I have done on East and West London, which I have never had the time to undertake until now. But in the search for academic research on migration and Southampton, there also isn’t all that much out there in comparison to other port cities.

In preparation for this creative writing project, I’ve been gathering materials from the archives of the Oral History Unit, which I wrote about here. When I was invited to design a workshop for the University of Southampton’s annual day to celebrate the humanities, it struck me that focusing on migration would be a good way to trial some of the material I had gathered, as well as speak to my academic experience and knowledge as a scholar of the humanities.

I was presented with quite the challenge, however, particularly as someone who has just started to design her own participatory workshops: the workshop would be an all day drop in, for all age groups, and all levels of experience. Therefore the activities had to be ones that could be done easily and quickly, but flexible enough should participants wish to spend longer on them.

I couldn’t decide on a single activity that would cover all this. Instead, I drew upon my inspiration for my two forthcoming projects – sewing and writing –  and blended them together to create a range of activities that people could choose from.

I designed a quick making activity for all ages, including very young children, using short, resonant quotations I selected from interviews. Some of these were just single words: place names, terms for food, things that sprang out at me. These single words themselves almost make a poem, actually:

South of Poland


George Town

St. Vincent


West Indies




South West Poland





Pickled cucumbers

East Germany








At our recent symposium at UCL on textiles and participatory arts projects, Fiona Hackney presented her CO-CARE project, which used paper doilies to reflect on textile making practices. I loved this when she spoke about it – how much lovelier to write on than A4 pieces of paper! I decided to be the writer-magpie I am and reuse the methodology, but incorporate those most addictive of crafting elements: sticky gems and glitter gel pens.

Alongside this “easy/quick” activity, I had a table of sewing materials and embroidery hoops, where the same quotes/words could be sewed and decorated on fabric – a longer, more intensive activity for slightly older participants.

On a third table, I arranged books on Southampton and migration, and copies of the full interviews I had taken the short quotes from. I coded the short quotes and the corresponding full interviews, so that anyone who was inspired by a short quote could, if they wanted, look up the full interview and read the quotation in context. I had pens and paper on this table, the idea being that people could write creatively here to respond to the interviews.

Over the course of the day, the sewing and doily activities proved very popular. Even adults came and decorated doilies and found the activity satisfying and pleasurable, while also agreeing that the act of “writing out” the quotation actually made the words more meaningful. The sewing table had a wonderful, peaceful dynamic, which was very inviting, and a contrast to the frenetic activities occurring elsewhere in the building. Many participants stayed for much longer than they intended, which was simply wonderful.

The least attended table was the creative writing table. In one way, this was to be expected: I wasn’t able to provide a great deal of support or a structured activity, given that I had to manage all three activities simultaneously on my own, as well as the inevitable feedback forms. But the few that did spend time at this table, simply read through the interviews, and reflected upon them in conversation with me. Would I have dispensed with this table, in hindsight, given that only three of four of the forty participants spent time there? No, I don’t think I would – because it was a very enriching, meaningful activity for those who read the interviews. I think it was also important, ethically and symbolically, for the full interviews to be available for consultation for those who wanted them. And the interviews and the history of migration to Southampton were the themes that tied together all three activities – it was important that they were there, to make sense of what we were doing at the other tables, as well as what I’m doing in my creative practice as the Libraries’ Writer in Residence over the course of this year.

Most of the feedback forms praised the peacefulness of the environment that had been created. This was extraordinary for me to read. I have General Anxiety Disorder, and I struggle with uncertainty and unstructured activities where I have little control in particular. I’d been up all night the night before this workshop, terrified as to what would happen, how many people might turn up, how I’d manage all the activities on my own. The fact that none of this translated within the space of the workshop itself was pretty amazing.

Hopefully, I’ll be less nervous the next time I do a drop-in session, because it all turned out brilliantly in the end. It did so in part because all the activities were calm, reflective ones, and partly because I was passionate about introducing people to these stories and these ways of making.

Southampton Oral History Unit 1983-2008

oral history pic

In preparation for the So: Write Stories creative writing project, I’ve been gathering materials from the Oral History Unit files in the City Archives. The council used to have its own Oral History Unit, with paid, professionally trained historians, who between 1983 and 2008 went about Southampton with one simple and hugely important aim: collecting stories.

The idea that this used to be something valued and invested in, part of our public services, strikes me with sadness and wonder equally. Of course, we live in austere times now, and it was one of the first things to be cut once the financial crisis hit. But without it, I wonder how much would have been preserved of Southampton’s lived heritage, of those generations no longer with us. I wonder how much we are losing now, every day, now that the unit no longer exists.

The Unit was committed, from the very start, to collecting diverse stories. It covered a staggering breadth of experiences and topics: from place-based projects looking at Woolston and other areas of the city, to the experiences of female dockworkers, to the stories of South Asian women. Some of these interviews have full transcripts, while all have detailed summaries and tapes. There is one set of FOUR or FIVE massive black ring bound folders which comprise the transcript of one single (I assume fairly talkative) African Caribbean gent (someone needs to gain his family’s consent and translate this incredible resource, this overwhelming act of giving, into an appropriately rich and detailed biography.)

And all its work is there, nestling among the shelves of the City Archives, itself tucked away in the basement of the Civic Centre.

What can we do with these archives, to celebrate them, to draw awareness to their existence, to encourage people to use them? As the suggestion of a biography indicates: one way we can do that, is through writing from and with them. And here, about them. This is my idea for the recently started So: Write Stories creative writing project, based at Central Library, which meets fortnightly on Tuesdays from 10.15-12.15.

The City Archives has many treasures within it, resting quietly within its unassuming basement rooms. But for me the archives of the Oral History Unit is one of its richest jewels. It captured a city in all its multiplicity, its rapid demographic, economic changes, its resilience and heart. It reached far back beyond the time it existed, far beyond the locality of Southampton, within the life stories of those who were gracious enough to give interviews and those with the sensitivity and passion to listen to and record them. We should celebrate and treasure its work.