Spoken History 
by George Ewart Evans.
Faber, 255 pp., £9.95, August 1987, 0 571 14982 0
Show More
Show More

There is the idea of the story-taker, the necessary collaborator in the act of telling, the one who listens, shapes the narrative by assuming that there is something there to be told, who takes the story, not as appropriation, but as part of a deal, so that the outcome – an entity, a story – might be placed there, in the space between the listener and the teller. The presence of the story-taker wards off the question ‘So what?’ According to William Labov, a story-taker from a tradition quite different from the one George Ewart Evans represents, a sociolinguist rather than a folklorist, that is the response that every good narrator is continually evading: ‘when the narrative is over, it should be unthinkable for a bystander to say “so what?” ’

The story-taker was first identified by the branch of folklore studies that has recorded and transcribed children’s narratives over the last forty years, though he appears as timeless as the huckster or the trickster, a man without place or history. In fact, he began to assume professional status at the end of the last century, when folklorists started to collect and analyse the stories of country people in a systematic way. Later, in this century, sociolinguists like Labov, pursuing linguistic complexity in the face of theories of linguistic inadequacy and linguistic deprivation, recorded the verbal accounts of adolescents, complex New York street-fighting stories of the Sixties which, when transcribed and analysed, asserted a grammar of Black American English. Some accounts that appropriate the clinical practice of psychoanalysis to narratology suggest that since the 1890s, the story-taker’s purpose in the consulting-room has been to give back to the analysand the story of his or her own life, welded into chronological sequence and narrative coherence, so that at the end of it all, the coming to psychic health might be seen as the reappropriation of one’s own life-story. The most familiar modern professional story-taker is probably the oral historian, with tape-recorder placed discreetly to one side, prescribed smiles and nods of encouragement: ‘Can you tell me a bit more about that?’ Such professionals really do tape and take away the stories they hear, though it is the social anthropologist rather than the historian who experiences the dilemmas of possession in the starkest of ways. In publishing Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman in 1981, Marjorie Shostak had to reflect on the propriety of making a book out of the words of a woman whose world did not encompass literacy, nor an understanding of the production and consumption of texts.

These were not George Ewart Evans’s problems over the past thirty years, in which he published ten accounts of rural life and folklore, told largely in the transcribed words of the many men and women he spoke to, particularly in East Anglia and in the Glamorganshire valley in which he was born, in 1909. For most of these accounts, as he reminds his readers in Spoken History, he sought out people born in the 1880s and 1890s, and they certainly knew what he was doing among them, taking notes at first and later using a tape-recorder. As the first generation of consistently-schooled rural poor, they possessed a sophisticated understanding of the meaning of books and the purpose of making them (though the literary furnishings of their imagination are not really discussed by Evans, anywhere in his corpus).

Spoken History is an account of the evolution of this particular story-taker’s craft, and the influences on him. It was published a few months before he died, at the beginning of this year, and is a meditation on all the material he published since the mid-Fifties, gathered around the themes of place and work: the material that came out of Wales and Ireland, farms and fishing, men’s work with horses. Like Robert Roberts, another recorder of the lives of the poor born at the end of the last century, Evans grew up in a grocer’s shop – not in the classic slum of Salford, but in the mining valley of Abercynon. The children of shopkeepers in poor working-class communities were apparently able to learn the useful strategies of liminality, of being both part of the culture that surrounded them by class allegiance and sympathy (as in the case of the Roberts and Evans families), but also in contact with wider worlds of commerce and ideas. Their families were possessors of secrets: they grew up in households where the financial interstices of the surrounding streets were bread-and-butter matters, but about which a proper discretion was maintained. Evans retained an honourable reticence through his long life as a folklorist, or oral historian, and there is a good deal of charm to it. What must captivate, as the narratives are handed over, is Evans’s recognition of the charm of other men, who tell good stories in public bars, grip with their detailed accounts of something done, of a process of labour completed, the account of it precisely offered. What is unsaid, what the formality of the exchange does not permit, is eloquent in its silence. That the men he talked to rarely offered personal stories, never talked of love, or sex, or what they watched on television, is much to do with Evans’s conviction that ‘in tackling the main work of a community we identify the main historical topic. His work is the centre of a man’s life: all, or most, of his physical and mental energy goes into it.’

This conviction allowed him to present the farm labourer as bearing the huge symbolic weight that this culture has bestowed on him, since Richard Jefferies allowed Hodge to lumber into view, in the 1880s, a huge, romantic figure, of elemental simplicity of mind. Indeed, Evans’s earliest work can be clearly placed in the context of the neoromanticism of the Second World War and the early Fifties, with its celebration of country life as patriotism. But at the same time – and this is Evans’s contribution to the tradition – his taking of narratives within the contained area of work allowed him to reveal great complexity of mind, to bear witness to the intelligence with which work is accomplished, processes of labour refined and working lives led.

The discretion and formality, the respect for privacy and dignity, that evidently characterised Evans’s interviews are to be seen in The Strength of the Hills (1983), where the account of an obviously troubled adolescence and family life is given with such reticent warmth that to think of asking for more seems an impropriety. This autobiography described his Board of Education scholarship to University College, Cardiff to read Classics; being bound to teaching when he finished, yet loathing it; his attempts to write fiction; his discovery of a life’s work in East Anglia, where, freelancing in the Fifties, he brought up the children whilst his wife worked as village schoolteacher. He never went far away from the people he wrote about: he calls most of the East Anglian farm-workers he recorded his friends. By sympathy, and by the social position brought him by his wife’s job, he belonged to the complex rural communities in which he found himself.

Spoken History pinpoints the crucial experiences and encounters that helped Evans evolve his craft: his discovery through Engels of the work of Lewis Henry Morgan, his meeting with Seamus Delargy, Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, his work for Charles Parker in sound radio, in the Sixties. In this way, it is a companion volume to Strength of the Hills. He reflects on his craft, by exploring the differences between social anthropology, folklore, history and oral history. The book reproduces a good deal of the material that is to be found in the sequence that started with Ask the fellows who cut the hay (1956), and presents some hitherto unpublished material collected in Blaxhall village in the Fifties. Evans would rather have called himself a social anthropologist than a historian, but the accidents of life, and the relative nearness of the Thompsons’ Centre for the Study of Oral History at Essex University, led him to oral history, though he criticises the genre for ‘an overemphasis on the oral component ... and a comparative neglect of the history’. He may have in mind here the formal origins of oral history in the US, where the life-stories of significant citizens were collected in a Columbia University project from the Forties onwards. For Evans, these public figures did not embody ‘the mythical and non-rational elements’ that he so consistently encountered in his own work, especially when talking to old men about their work with horses. Literally, these old men were history, exemplars of ‘historical depth’; and should the horseman’s belief in magical rites, in, for instance, the efficacy of the frog’s bone in jading horses, be doubted, then what they had to say can be verified by turning to ‘their particular document ... [which is] the whole world as anthropologists have demonstrated during the last hundred or so years, by their researches among primitive peoples’. Spoken History is a powerful retelling of the myth of a single origin. Evans argues that students of oral history should not find it strange that people from cultures remote in time and space may offer evidence of a universal communality: ‘under their surface differences’ they belong to ‘the same human ground-plan’, ‘are moved by the same human laws’.

Evans’s first books were prompted by the urgent need to capture the past of a rural society before it disappeared, for mechanisation, particularly in arable country like East Anglia, was bringing about a greater change in farming practice than the society had ever before witnessed. He wanted to record the men and women who were, in the Fifties and Sixties, ‘survivors from another era’, particularly the men who found themselves with no one to whom to tell their story: ‘the work had changed so very much after the horses had gone ... so that the young men and the retired workers had very little in common ... the old were glad of someone to talk to.’

The books of the Sixties and Seventies elaborated the pattern laid out in the first, as did his short stories in Acky (1973), and his fiction for children. For Evans, all the accounts he took and reproduced offer confirmation of the belief that there is ‘no backward limit in time to which it is not possible for oral tradition to refer’. Particularly, here in Spoken History he reflects on the material he collected for Horse Power and Magic (1979) and The Horse in the Furrow (1960), and argues that the lineage of horsemen’s beliefs gives access to ‘the prehistory of our islands. Up to the present only the findings of the anthropologist have been accepted.’ Once, reading The Pattern Under the Plough (1966), Raymond Williams looked up from the formula on the page, that ‘a way of life that has come down to us from the days of Virgil has suddenly ended,’ reflected on the ever-receding lost rural past of English literary culture, on the immutability of the terms ‘country’ and ‘city’, on our profound desire for lost ruralities, and in response to this (and to other works as well) began to write The Country and the City. Whatever it is we want from the countryman’s voice, talking out of an eternal past, Evans’s work has to be seen as a directive force among those memoirs, observations and histories of rural life that, in Williams’s estimation, actually replace lived and experienced histories, of land tenure and land ownership, histories of labour, of class relations, in the English countryside. In Spoken History, the lived history disappears before our very eyes: towards the end of the book he reflects briefly on the bitterness about the old days evinced by so many men, when they were treated like ‘medieval serfs’. He refers his readers to an appropriate piece of evidence in Horse Power and Magic, and goes on in the same breath to say that it was contained in ‘one of those long accounts, full of contributory details that are nevertheless worth recording’. The point of the account becomes a blacksmith’s rasp, and the fact that rasps were sometimes turned into gardening implements.

The historical romance that Evans delineates, the desire for the past to be there, within reach, is matched by a linguistic romance, in which the accounts of farm practice, themselves embodiments of an unbroken tradition stretching back to the beginnings of recorded history, are told in a language ‘fitting to the material information conveyed’, helping to give it ‘a proper and more durable clothing’. Remembering the men and women born at the end of the last century, and recorded by him thirty years ago, Evans recalls their using a language that was ‘steeped in centuries of continuous usage, describing processes and situations and customs that had gone on uninterruptedly since farming began. It was as if their work, the work of their hands, had fashioned their tongue, and moulded their speech to economical and often memorable utterance.’ So, as the men sit and tell their stories, the words themselves are items of evidence: each utterance contains the past. Horace White dies, and Evans records that ‘he was not a man you could easily forget. As well as being a very companionable exponent of oral history, he was the sort of man you were always glad to meet.’ The young cannot be this kind of companion – except, significantly, Mervyn Carter, born in 1936, dyslexic and unschooled. His range of knowledge about the horse and his willingness to impart this knowledge are implicitly linked to his illiteracy, for in this romance of language, writing is separated completely from speech, and the oral culture is described as the primary and the first. And yet: the old men whose words provided Evans’s life work grew to maturity in a literate culture, where the written constantly interacted with the spoken, were schooled as children in a form of language that taught them something of the ways of rhetoric that would not have been available to the children of the rural poor living only a century before, never mind in the time of Virgil – through the syllabification demanded by hymn-singing, the shape of the words on the page of the reading primer, the pauses and stresses of long pieces of recitation learnt by heart. And by separating speech so definitely from writing, Evans is unable to reflect on the central contradiction of all studies of spoken language, which is that they have to be made a text before they can be looked at, used, heard – before they can be taken. The process of his own extraordinarily elegant transcriptions, in which the stress and cadence of speech is indicated by a particular use of punctuation-marks and the careful placing, now and then, of a dialect word in modified orthography, is taken for granted throughout all his books.

What lies behind Evans’s craft as transcriber is respect for those whose stories he writes down, and the conscious desire to render them with dignity. Anyone familiar with the tradition of countryside literature from the late 19th century, and with Sturt’s and Jefferies’s transliterations of Hodge’s words, knows how easy it is to use dialect to make a man look a fool, so that we might smile, and raise an eyebrow at the quaintness of vocabulary, the plodding of a mind. Evans’s style of transcription and his beliefs about language have asserted themselves against this tradition of condescension. When a history of popular theories of language in this society comes to be written, Evans’s books will have to be seen in connection with a radical assertion in the schools, made since the Sixties, of the validity and worth of working-class children’s speech against various theories of deprivation, and beliefs about a poverty of thought connected with patterns of language. That history would show the difficulties of the radical position, and how it has led to a denial that people may be deprived of modes of language, in the same way as they are denied access to other aspects of the material world. Outside the school, but motivated by the same radicalism, Evans asserted a compelling dignity and primacy of language among the rural working class, a true, original language of men, that is as engrossing a political idea as it was when William Blake learned of the real, original language of nature from the Swedenborgians. Given that we do not yet possess a social theory of language that can acknowledge deprivation without attributing stupidity to the disinherited, we can say that, though his work represents a linguistic romance, it represents a necessary political position as well.

George Ewart Evans’s earlier books were decorated with Bewick woodcuts; the later ones, like Spoken History, owe much to David Gentleman’s line-drawings. Gentleman’s illustrations can be surrounded in the mind’s eye in the same way as Bewick’s can, by an enclosing circle, so that we feel we might reach out and grasp that little world, take hold of the lost green place, of which the words that are caught here speak.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences