Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life by Gilda O'Neill

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Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life by Gilda O'Neill

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: Recorded reminiscences of women who went hop-picking have been transcribed in to this factual account of what the life was like. It's interesting but not always easy reading, particularly where highly colloquial speech is included. It's worth reading by anyone with an interest in the industry or the history of the period.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: November 2006
Publisher: Arrow
ISBN: 0099498367

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This book is the story of the hop-pickers who travelled in their thousands from London to Kent each year from around 1920 until the late 1960s.

Gilda O'Neill has done extensive research, and recorded many conversations with people who remember these times. In particular there are ten women whose comments were taped, and which are transcribed throughout the book. The author quotes them directly, sorting what they say into several chapters covering different aspects of hop-picking: preparation and journeys, the day's work, relationships with the local people, weekends, and so on.

As a work of history, it's a good idea. The author points out in the introduction that while there's no way of validating every word that is recorded, each person's memories are true for them. There is no single truth in history, since we all remember selected events and have our own interpretations of them. In gathering together several such accounts, the reader can get a fairly clear picture of this vanished way of life, giving a good general impression of what life was like for these people. Most of the hop pickers were from very impoverished, working-class backgrounds with little education, and their memories would be lost unless recorded in a book like this.

I found the introduction quite inspiring, and really wanted to enjoy the book. O'Neill writes well, and was evidently very enthusiastic about her project. She herself was taken hop-picking by her family until she was ten, so she has some of her own memories to intersperse with those of the women she interviews. She adds some background where relevant, too, turning the rather random conversations into a kind of story, and interposing her comments on what is said with explanations where needed.

I liked learning more about something far removed from my own childhood - I knew almost nothing about hop-picking before I started the book. It was interesting, too, to read about the strong class consciousness and sexism of the time, and the deep-rooted need for women to be 'respectable', no matter how impoverished their circumstances were. Being respectable apparently involved having really white socks, not going to pubs, and not wearing men's hats. It was also fascinating to read about the deep sense of community which so many of the women recalled fondly from their hop-picking days.

Somehow, though, I didn't find the stories either moving or gripping.

It wasn't the kind of book I could read at one sitting; I found my mind wandering too easily. Nor could I quite reconcile my own, relatively priveleged upbringing and comfortable adult life, with the intense hardship and difficulties suffered by these women, who nevertheless long for the 'good old days' of manual hop-picking before the advent of machinery to do the job.

Unfortunately, many of the quotations were somewhat repetitive. I can see why they were included, to give slightly differing viewpoints on similar circumstances, but it meant I found myself skimming sometimes once I had got the gist of what was being said. I also found it rather difficult to read some of the highly colloquial speech; the author transcribes accurately (I assume) what the women actually said, along with breaks in speech and - at times - incorrect grammar. Again, I can see why she did this: anything else would have been exercising too much editorial control, and would be her voice rather than theirs. But it made the book much more of an effort to read.

At the end of the book is a reflective chapter on the nature of oral history - the methods the author used, the questions she asked herself in deciding what to include or leave out, and how egalitarian such a process is. I found this chapter actually more interesting than much of the book, and one I may return to in future.

I think the book would probably be enjoyed by anyone who ever went hop-picking, or who lived in the areas where hops were harvested, as it would probably bring back a lot of memories. Indeed, it's worth reading by anyone interested in history; I'm glad I had the opportunity to read it, despite my reservations.

Buy Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life by Gilda O'Neill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life by Gilda O'Neill at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life by Gilda O'Neill at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lost Voices: Memories of a Vanished Way of Life by Gilda O'Neill at Amazon.com.

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