Intimacy, memory and the oral historian’s project

Jan Gothard, Murdoch University

Alistair Thomson, Moving Stories: An Intimate History of Four Women Across Two Countries, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2011 (352 pp). ISBN 9-78174223-278-2 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

Change, growth, and movement are the essence of migration studies. So too is the dynamic relationship between individual experiences and the larger social structures which shape them. Al Thomson’s Moving Stories: An Intimate History of Four Women Across Two Countries combines all these elements in a work which, in its approach to history, is as dynamic as its content.

Moving Stories evolved from an earlier study of ‘ten pound poms’ who migrated to Australia in the post-war period (Hammerton & Thomson 2005); but as the title suggests, this book has a very personal agenda. Thomson describes the book as a collaboration between himself and four British women, Gwen Good, Dorothy Wright, Joan Pickett and Phyl Cave, who all journeyed to Australia in the 1960s. It’s a migration story, a ‘moving story’, in one of the senses encapsulated by the title, but it’s about more than narrowly-defined ‘migration’. As he has written elsewhere, Thomson sees ‘the physical passage of migration from one place to another as only one event within a migratory experience which spans old and new worlds and which continues throughout the life of the migrant and into subsequent generations’ (1999, p. 24).

Only Gwen Good and her family stayed permanently in Australia, though the stories of the temporary sojourners make it very clear that a returned migrant was not necessarily a ‘failed migrant’ (p. 304). Dorothy Wright and Phyl Cave returned to the United Kingdom with their families (the Wrights subsequently spending time in Africa); while Joan Pickett never intended to ‘migrate’ in the first place, the ‘ten pound pom scheme’ having given her, as a single woman, an irresistible opportunity to explore the other side of the world. Through their stories the book enlightens our understanding of the life chances available to women in both pre- and post-war Britain and in post-war Australia.


Thomson started his research with a treasure trove of journals, diaries, photos, audio tapes and letters home, complementing this with material the women wrote specifically for the project. Retrospective personal interviews gave him an opportunity to interrogate the women’s memories. The book’s early chapters explore the lives of the four protagonists in sometimes overwhelming detail, while a summary chapter puts their experiences into a larger context of women’s lives and women’s history. The focus then shifts to different aspects of the ‘moving story’: letter stories, photo stories and memory stories. The structure lends itself to sometimes irritating repetition, with facts, comments and events from the women’s life stories revisited and recycled in the context of differently nuanced discussions, but it’s difficult to suggest an alternative way of presenting the material, given Thomson’s interest in both representing individual lives and reflecting on his craft as oral historian and biographer. The ways in which these four women chose to remember, forget and re-invent are fundamental to the book.


Authorial presence is a byword of recent life writing.

Moving Stories is described repeatedly as ‘our book’, with Gwen, Dorothy, Joan and Phyl all taking a clearly proprietorial pride in seeing ‘their’ stories in circulation. ‘Shared authority’ (Frisch 1999), the explicit acknowledgment that both interviewer and informant have an intellectual and personal investment in the creation of an interview, is a focus of much discussion amongst oral historians. To my mind, this project’s approach exemplifies good practice, captured in Thomson’s concluding words as he reflects on

the inevitable tension between the author’s responsibility to history, on the one hand, and to narrators and collaborators on the other … People are not paper, buried in dusty archives … On balance, however, we can usually learn more, and not less, by involving the subjects of oral history in the writing of their lives and histories (p. 325).

The corollary of this, for Thomson, is self-revelation. Some readers, like some reviewers (Russell 2011, p. 56), may be unenthusiastic about Thomson’s personal revelations in the text and the extent to which he exposes aspects of his own life in uncovering the four women’s ‘intimate histories’. But authorial presence is a byword of recent life writing and this, and the associated emphasis on collaboration, has strongly shaped the book.


The book’s other defining methodological element is introspection. All historians have an obligation not to misuse or falsify their sources and to treat them with respect, but for oral historians the obligation is also a personal and ethical one which sometimes predisposes them to infinite introspection on their role in the co-creation of their interview sources.

As a reader too, I found that the book evoked in me more nostalgic reflection—and indeed introspection—than I had anticipated. I grew up in the 1960s in a household of books and readers and one of life’s pleasures was illicit leafing along the bookshelves for new fodder. Two books which I remember perusing were Dr Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1946), and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) (though at the time I found The Kinsey Report (1948; 1953), also on the shelves, much more entertaining!) My Australian-born parents were neither ‘liberal’ nor liberated and I suspect those books owed their place in our family’s collection to my father’s eclectic interests rather than family practices.

There are echoes of other women’s stories.

These two works implicitly underwrite the lives of Thomson’s women: as iconic texts of the generation yet, as in my own family, largely irrelevant in practice. On reading Dorothy Wright’s life story I was struck, as Thomson goes on to point out (p. 192), by how she and others lived out Friedan’s ‘mystique’. My mother’s life had points in common with Dorothy’s and, like Phyl Cave, she battled with a husband who resented her taking on paid work, even from home (he once famously hid his black Olivetti typewriter so she couldn’t complete some commissioned typing), and a less than perfect marriage. And I have few doubts my mother would have empathised with Dorothy Wright’s feelings about family life. Child rearing, the daily round of the housewife, were all done well and conscientiously but, as Dorothy whimsically pointed out in a letter home, she was no ‘slow mother’, allowing the children to set the agenda as Dr Spock advised her (p. 49). As the child of such a 1960s mother, one felt that it was duty—the characteristic which had taken my mother and women like her off to join the armed forces—rather than any real passion or pleasure which directed her life as housewife.

I was amazed too at Dorothy Wright’s seemingly unremarkable (for the 1960s) cleaning routine—a day for every room. Is this what my mother did after she despatched us to the local primary school each morning, neatly uniformed in box pleat grey tunics and hand-knitted school jumpers, hair in ribbons, the unvarying white bread sandwich packed into brown Globite school case? And I cringed with vicarious guilt when I read Dorothy’s letters home, the adult daughter apologising to her mother for the simple unthinking ignorance of the child: ‘I often think how mean I was not to help you more … However you got through I just can’t imagine’ (p. 54). Like Dorothy, my mother certainly didn’t spend the day reading Betty Friedan, though it might have done her good if she had; but did she too ever silently question where her life had led her and why?


In Joan Pickett’s story of a single traveller too, I found echoes of other women’s stories. Thomson describes Joan and her ilk as the forerunners of the modern day backpacker but there were much earlier antecedents, as I’ve explored in my own work on British women migrating to Australia (Gothard 2001). A century before Joan embarked on the Oronsay, other single women had taken up cheap passages provided by Australian colonial governments, to come out to the colonies and work as domestic servants. Like the ten pound poms, most of those women stayed; but there were some few who, just as Joan Picket did, capitalised on the cheap passage to travel: living and working in the homes of different employers across a number of Australian colonies perhaps, then sailing on to similar work in New Zealand before working a passage back to the United Kingdom as an accompanying nurse maid or mother’s help. More than one subsequently took a second assisted passage to yet another colonial destination—maybe South Africa or Canada this time. There was no shortage of passages or work.

This book gives us an intimate view of Australia in the 1960s.

Like our ten pound poms, 19th century migrants were also forced to leave many aspects of their travels in the controlling hands of emigration authorities. ‘A passage has been arranged’, Joan Pickett found, almost to her surprise, and she was not the only woman who applied for migration at least partly as a joke, only to find herself ensnared in the reality of a process almost thoughtlessly set in train. But an enterprising few took their subsequent fate very much in hand, like Joan making fine use of the opportunities provided by governments looking for workers and population. As Thomson points out (p. 122), an anticipated future role as wife and mother ironically freed some single working women such as Joan to ‘drift’, ‘duty free’ as Ros Pesman (1996) has described Australian women travelling in the opposite direction, whereas single men needed to ‘get on’. Like Russell (2011), I found Thomson’s ability to talk to the women who are the subjects of his book deeply enviable.


Tension over the reliability and shaping of both personal and popular memory is a recurrent and critical theme amongst practitioners of oral history. This book covers the experience of women in Australia over the 1950s to the 1970s and therefore gives us an intimate view of Australia in the 1960s; yet ‘the Sixties’ as an era, a zeitgeist, a ‘happening’, seems palpably absent from the lives of these four women. Phyl Cave didn’t go on the Pill in Australia because she thought she would need her husband’s permission to do so, as had been the case in the United Kingdom; Gwen Good commented on her social and political conservatism; Dorothy Wright retained some of the values of her upbringing, which she described as ‘Victorian’. The Wrights did take a photo of the Beatles’ visit to Australia in 1963, the photo simultaneously capturing an image of their brand new television to send ‘home’, and the occasion, Thomson suggests, was used to illustrate the common links between Australian and British culture. But even Joan, who saw the Beatles in the flesh and who wrote tongue in cheek of becoming ‘politicised’, made few broadly social or political allusions other than commenting on JFK’s assassination, a pivotal ‘Sixties’ moment. There is no comment on the impact of Vietnam on Australian streets in the late 1960s, or the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt. Were these events too local to share with an audience in Britain or were they too ‘political’ to have impacted on these women’s lives? Particularly surprising to me was the fact that the huge Australian television and media coverage given to the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 is not mentioned. I remember clearly (I think!) how avidly my Anglophile mother watched the sombre procession, though her interest was as much the London landmarks so familiar to her from her own years as a ‘duty free’ traveller as it was patriotism. Although as Thomson points out, social change enabled Phyl in particular to benefit from employment opportunities opening up to women in the 1970s (she arrived in Australia in 1969), ‘the Sixties’ did not appear to touch these women’s lives in any way they consciously acknowledged. When it comes to silences and absences in narratives of popular memory, this one is worth exploring.


On the other hand, this book’s powerful combination of personal texts recording events at the time and subsequent interviews, means that gaps and silences in personal narratives were challenged directly. Given the collaborative nature of the project, the interviews also gave participants the opportunity for self-reflection on how their letters and correspondence, even memories, had been so artfully shaped to create a narrative suitable for sharing with family and friends, and for themselves. Thomson dissects the process at length, as he and others have done before (Thomson 2011).

Now, few secrets are kept from the camera and there is often little time for reflection.

It is his chapter on photo memories however, with its accompanying photographic essay, which opens up new reflective ground for oral history practitioners and shows the rich debt the practice owes to other disciplines, in this case cultural studies. Photographs too are constructed for their audience and Thomson investigates the careful compilation of photographic narratives, the physical production of albums, their annotations directed at a very particular and carefully circumscribed audience. Photos revisited become aides memoires in an interview, provoking analysis of the larger context of their production: Aunt Aileen, for instance, smiling and waving farewell to Colin Cave, whom she had just called a traitor for leaving his country. Few people born in the pre-digital era will forget the agony of the fixed smile, the tortured ‘informal’ scenario constructed with infinite care, families ‘having fun’ together, and the arguments and tensions which invariably seemed to accompany the capturing of those frozen moments of forced conviviality. When everything clicked into place, those photos were precious, not least because of the labour involved in their production; and in the 1960s, they were not cheap.

But digital photography has altered the value of the image considerably. Constructed, annotated visual narratives preserved in albums, themselves fabricated with painstaking attention to detail, have been replaced in the age of Facebook with instantaneous transmission and the broadcasting of literally thousands of personal images. Spontaneity is now the defining element of their production. Thomson reflects on the role of digital technology in changing patterns of correspondence, and the impact this has had on letter writing, but the same factors increasingly impact on the way we evaluate photographic memories as well. Future historians drawing on photographs will have as their sources not just the carefully created family albums free of ‘illness, depression, painful experiences … and dreary settings’ (p. 276) but a bewildering plethora of digital images replete with all of the above and worse. We no longer create simple photographic narratives, on Facebook or anywhere else, for a discrete family audience. Now, few secrets are kept from the camera, there is often little time for reflection, and the audience is immediate and global. Thomson’s proposed new study of oral history and photography, building on the themes developed in Moving Histories, will be a welcome addition to work on this aspect of oral history methodology.

This book’s introspective, self-reflective, self-revelatory approach will not appeal to all readers of history. Not everyone will agree with Thomson that they learned ‘more, and not less’ about what they wanted to know after reading it. Moving Histories, however, with its forensic and nuanced analysis of the way four women lived their lives, and its sensitive, skilful and multi-faceted analysis of the meaning behind memory and of the oral historian’s craft, is an iconoclastic example of recent developments in both oral history and life writing.


Friedan, B. 1963, The Feminine Mystique, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Frisch, M. 1999, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History, SUNY Press, Albany, New York.

Gothard, J. 2001, Blue China: Single Female Migration to Colonial Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Hammerton, A.J. & Thomson, A. 2005, Ten Pound Poms: Australia’s Invisible Migrants, Manchester University Press, Manchester.

Kinsey, A. 1948, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Saunders, Philadelphia.

Kinsey, A. 1953, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Saunders, Philadelphia.

Pesman, R. 1996, Duty Free: Australian Women Abroad, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Russell, P. 2011, ‘Testaments’, Australian Book Review, September, pp. 55–56.

Spock, B. 1946, Baby and Child Care, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, New York.

Thomson, A. 2011, ‘Memory and remembering in oral history’, in The Oxford Handbook of Oral History, ed. D.A. Ritchie, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Thomson, A. 1999, ‘Moving stories: Oral history and migration studies’, Oral History, Spring, pp. 24–37.

Jan Gothard is associate professor at Murdoch University, where she teaches Australian history. Her research interests include migration and disability. Her most recent publication, Greater Expectations: Living with Down Syndrome in the 21st Century (Fremantle Press, 2011), was based on interviews with more than 60 Western Australian families who live with Down syndrome. She has also written about ethical issues associated with interviewing people with intellectual disabilities and is a member of the Oral History Association of Australia.