articles > Catching stories...
Catching stories: oral histories from the Brighton fishing community
Lorraine Sitzia, University of Sussex
In 1996 QueenSpark Books published Catching Stories: Voices from the Brighton Fishing Community, (1) an oral history book which brought to life the memories of those who had been or still were involved with fishing in the local area. Linda Shopes has argued that to assess community oral histories we must, in the first instance, understand the provenance of the interviews, and in the second instance we must consider the extent to which the interviewees' voice or the 'researcher's' voice dominates the final product. (2) As Catching Stories was a community publication it is therefore necessary to provide a brief overview of its genesis in order to understand the original aims of the project. (3)
QueenSpark (QS) is a community publishing and writing group, based in Brighton, that grew out of community politics in the early seventies and began publishing mainly autobiographical books by local people in 1974. (4) Although QS is currently undergoing a period of significant change, and is very different to what it was in the nineties, it is still a non-profit making, voluntary-run organisation. Equally the original aims of QS to publish the hidden histories of local people – life histories left out of mainstream history and ignored by commercial publishers – and to encourage writing within the local community remain the same. (5)
It is therefore within this context of uncovering histories of 'ordinary' people that in 1993 it was decided by the QS management committee that the next large oral history project undertaken should focus on the Brighton fishing community, a declining community. The Brighton Fishing Museum was not in existence at this point, and while there was some documentary evidence of the fishing community in the form of census data, council documents and newspaper articles, there were no oral testimonies and no records of the lives of ordinary people as told by the people themselves. (6) Consequently it seemed that this was a perfect example of uncovering the lives of those neglected by mainstream history. It was intended that the resulting book would be a people's history that would in a sense be a living record of the way in which people in the fishing community remembered their own history.
The process from starting the project to collecting the interviews and using these to make Catching Stories has been discussed in-depth elsewhere. (7) However it is important to note that initially the interview transcripts were read to draw out themes that would become chapters in the book, as it was decided by the editing team that the book would be thematic rather than a collection of individual life histories. Selected extracts were taken from these transcripts and placed in appropriate chapters, ordered in such a way as to enable the reader to follow the narrative of each theme (for example, beach life, types of fishing). Publications from oral history transcripts can only provide a selective account of the contributors' reflections, but in putting together Catching Stories it was intended that the book would bring to life the fishing community in an accessible form for local people.
The interviews used to make Catching Stories and the resulting publication are valuable because they expand our understanding of a working community. By showing the minutiae of everyday life they highlight the dreams and realities of those involved with fishing in Brighton. Equally the interviews show us how the interviewees remember and reflect on their lives, and the impact of the changing world in which they have lived. What Catching Stories attempts to do is bring together these recollections in an accessible form and show an interconnected community, and a changing way of life.
Producing Catching Stories also brought to light the tensions within the community, highlighting the complex nature of a 'community'. For example, some of the fishermen were unhappy that their wives and their now grown-up children were interviewed, as they felt only fishermen should contribute. But the women's stories enable us to understand the hardships and anxieties felt when their husbands were out at sea, and the strains of this type of life far more than do the men's accounts, as these all focused on the practicalities of fishing. Even among the fishermen interviewed there were disputes as to who qualified as a fisherman; in particular there was an on-going dispute between those termed 'full-time' fishermen and those that were 'part-time' fishermen.
There are many other themes which become evident through these interviews. For example, the hopes and dreams of families; many expressed their desire that their children did not follow them into the industry. The descriptions the interviewees paint of the different types of fishing required at different times of the year due to the seasonal migration of fish give an impression of just how complicated, difficult and all-consuming being a fisherman was. They reflect on the changes brought on by legislation, over-fishing and technological changes that have caused the death of the industry as it once was. The boats and nets now available mean that fishing continues all year round, and fishermen no longer depend on the seasons to guide them. The way the older fishermen talk about their knowledge of the seasons and landmarks, and how they fished without any modern equipment, is both fascinating and brings to life a disappearing industry.
By also interviewing the fish market sellers the economic relationship between the fishing and retail side is uncovered. For example, how the two sides saw each other, who had the power, how the selling was done, the role of the auctioneers, and the methods of payment. Those fishermen who were part-timers reflected on the difficulties of selling their catch if they were not considered part of the community. The women talked about hawking around town the fish that the auctioneers would not take, or smoking the fish in their own backyards. Many interviewees also talked about the role of Brighton Council, influenced by the tourist industry, undermining the fishing community.
This piece has attempted to show, albeit very briefly, how the interviews
and subsequent publication of Catching Stories provide a more personal
representation of the realities of life in a fishing community. These
oral testimonies help provide more democratic and encompassing histories
of 'living the fishing', (8) by not only showing the similarities
within people's remembered pasts, but also the differences, the
disputes and even the misremembered incidents. From these narratives
we gain a better understanding of the ways in which people remember
and interpret their past, their feelings and perceptions of the life
they have lived. This enables us to understand in a more enriching way
the everyday experiences of a fishing community in decline.
1. Catching Stories: Voices from the Brighton Fishing Community (Brighton, 1996).
2. L. Shopes, 'Oral history and the study of communities: problems, paradoxes, and possibilities', Journal of American History, 89.2 (2002), 588–98.
3. It is not the purpose of this piece to examine the complexity of using the term 'community', for a useful discussion on community with regard to community publications see J. Bornat, 'The communities of community publishing', Oral History, 20.2 (1992), 23–31.
4. L. Sitzia, 'QueenSpark Books – publishing life stories for the local community', The Local Historian, 27.4 (1997), 218–224.
6. It is interesting to note that the museum does not use oral testimonies, but in the revamped Brighton Museum the local gallery has a section on the Brighton fishing community and makes extensive use of Catching Stories. For an informative discussion of oral history and maritime museums see A. Day and K. Lunn, 'Tales from the sea: oral history in British maritime museums', Oral History, 32.2 (2004), 87–96.
7. For a complete overview of the process from tape to book see N. Osmond, 'The growth of a community oral history archive', Oral History, 26.1 (1998), 32–37 and L. Sitzia, 'Making a community oral history book', Oral History, 26.1 (1998), 38–45.
8. Taken from P. Thompson with T. Wailey and T. Lummis, Living the Fishing (1983).