Hear! Hear! For Oral History!

Bill Bunbury

Now freelance producer after 38 years working at the ABC in both radio and television and Adjunct Professor, Communications at Murdoch University.

“Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air!”

(from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”).

All too often a similar analogy could be made for the treatment of Oral History – but in this case ‘seen but not heard’.

I’m conscious that much of what I will say shortly is standard practice for many oral historians but if I can draw out ways in which we can look at oral history both through example and practice then I hope this excursion will prove helpful.

I am also conscious of that other 18th century character Samuel Johnson who noted that

It is often as helpful to be reminded

as it is to observe.

 I hope to do both.

In this presentation I’d like to draw out and illustrate a rationale for Oral history as a heard medium.  In practice much emphasis is placed on transcribing spoken words back into written ones and, while that is self- evidently useful, it can dominate the way in which we think of oral history.  I suggest that it can fail to point up an important dimension of oral history, not simply its content but the way in which the listener can perceive the content, i.e. the mood or emotion that the spoken word conveys, which adds considerably to our understanding of what we hear.

Take this example:-


Begins   What’s the use of talking..

Ends    ……  nearly fell asleep on the plate.

DUR   4’17

Three men interviewed in different places and times but all asked the same pattern of questions.  Their narrative is the summary, almost the script of enquiries about:-

Shelter ?


Attitudes of authorities?


Their self-perception of themselves at that time?

Print alone can never fully convey this aspect.  You hear it in the tones of the voices, bitterness, determination, fierce pride, gratitude etc.

In the second part of this presentation I’d like to talk about ways in which oral historians can interpret what they collect.  Sometimes the collection of discrete interviews alone marks a wasted opportunity.  As the NSW historian Patrick Farrell once observed:-

There are shelves and shelves of unheard cassettes.

Subsequent historians might get around to using this raw data but I strongly suggest that if oral history is to provide a useful arm of history itself it would be a good idea to do more in the way of analysing and evaluating what we collect and presenting it in a finished form.  In this way it has more chance of becoming a valuable record.

I recall hearing a paper some time ago which traced the continued history of numerous accidents in a rural industry.  But it was a catalogue of woes rather than an analysis of why they happened and what was done or not done to prevent them.

Did they tail off or continue?

Was there a union stance on this issue?

Management action/attitude?

Effect on morale/productivity?

One could go on but these are the kind of questions I’d like to probe.  The historian, reading or hearing this material later on, perhaps well after the lifetime of the original compiler, may well want these questions answered.

The 17th century poet John Dunne famously observed that NO MAN IS AN ISLAND and I am sure that today we’d remind him to include women.  But his observation applies strongly to the way we see ourselves or beyond ourselves.

I’ve heard and read some local histories which concentrate only on the area itself, with no connection with the larger world, and yet nurses and soldiers and immigrants in those communities have seen much of the rest of the world and those experiences have enriched and changed those communities.

How did a returning soldier see/ fit into his home town on return from Vietnam?

How did a Displaced Person from Poland see Port Lincoln in SA 1946?

Well we can look at this example?

After World War Two the Eyre Peninsula Railway in South Australia offered for many Displaced Persons -immigrants from war torn Europe, their first job in Australia.

And we’ll hear one shortly –Stan Domagalski from Poland,.

John McGeever was one of the Peninsula railway staff helping to create accommodation for migrants like Stan Domagalski.


Begins  Er, you know I was..

Ends      ……  the Germans were running away.

DUR  1‘07

Immediately after the war Stan Domagalski was in a DP camp, working as a driver for the UN.  He saw pictures of Australia when he delivered films to the camp for would-be emigrants, liked what he saw and applied.

Under the regulations he was to work for two years in a government job- and found himself doing railway work near Port Lincoln.


Begins        You live in a camp again..

Ends        ……  here till we die !

DUR    1’00

Stan wanted to learn English and helped himself by finding a local pen- friend, the daughter of a local farmer, a girl called Alice.


Begins   So we corresponded …

Ends     ……  the way the romance began.

DUR. 1’08

 Alice not only found a life partner but her partner and his fellow migrants helped to change the Port Lincoln community.


Begins        They brought in a lot of new ideas..

Ends          … cook prawns and squid.

DUR  00’47

I suggest these perspectives can enrich local histories.  We sense a wider world affecting Port Lincoln and the reaction of at least one local.  We also sense the optimism and the appreciation of someone escaping from the wrecked sub-continent of Europe in 1945.

And we also hear an amusing but very relevant account of the sectarian divide in post war Australia.

He’ s Catholic and I’m Methodist

These comments, I suggest, are the real stuff of local history, not when the Town Hall was built or who was the Mayor in 1955.  They’re good audio documents.  It’s more important, I suggest, to capture the texture, the flavour of past lives and decades than simply the facts of what happened when and where – that isn’t oral.


Now, if we have time, a bit about Design, if we are to turn our oral histories into accessible and helpful documents.

I guess for me a radio background has always helped.  There is nothing like the constraint of time to help you get a message across but there is also the imperative to be interesting and also to shed light on topics/ issues that may be obscure or have not been examined from a particular point of view.

I’m thinking here of a radio series I made some twelve years on from the event itself.  In 2001 I researched and produced a two part series called


It was the story of the Australian civilian pilots’ dispute in 1989.  In that year, their Union lodged a wage claim for a 29.4% wage rise.  This was in the context of the Accord brought in by the Hawke government, limiting wage gains to 6%, (with few exceptions) to cope with inflation and provide more jobs.

The pilots were never going to be an exception.  Ansett, under Sir Peter Abeles, seized the chance to write new rules for pilot employment – and to cut a long story short, unless the disputing pilots accepted the new conditions, they were effectively blackballed.

What the travelling public remembers is the inconvenience of aircraft travel, cancellations and delays, foreign pilots flying our planes, being flown in Hercules by the RAAF etc.

As I went through the archives and interviewed pilots and their families, it was clear that there were at least two stories here.  The third is the one you’ve just heard, passenger inconvenience.

Story 1 was an industrial dispute. Incidentally it was not a strike.  It was a story of perhaps poor pilot leadership, failure to read the political and economic climate, and a story where the government and the airlines broke the will of the pilots Union.

Story 2 was about the personal consequences for those who took industrial action.

Many pilots never flew again.  Those, who from economic necessity went back were ‘scabs’ in the eyes of those who refused to accept the altered conditions offered by the airlines.

On the other hand there were bankruptcies, suicides and broken marriages.  Some pilots had to leave families behind and work for overseas airlines.  In many ways they were the fortunate ones.

It wasn’t all bad news either. Some flew on international routes, First Officers became Check Captains etc.  But the initial effect on nearly all families was a sense of catastrophe, a sudden alteration of what had seemed a secure existence and professional careers for both husbands and wives abruptly ended or altered.

It seemed important for me to interweave these two stories together, to show the effect of a large scale dispute on individuals.  When I started I was well aware of Story 1 – the Industrial Story- what became equally compelling was the Personal story, whose depth I had not fully appreciated until I met the people involved.

This is a recurring situation in any work of this kind.

One of the traps in any compilation is to set out with too fixed a view of what you are trying to do.  One of the most important lessons for me in documentary making was to re-think and revise constantly.

An early lesson for me came in 1986 when I made a radio feature called


Essentially it was the story of a virtual concentration camp in pre- World War Two Western Australia, an enclosure for Aboriginal men, women and children –either surplus to labour requirement, or simply a ‘nuisance’ in certain country towns – or in the case of children – almost an orphanage for those taken from their parents.

My initial aim was to depict the situation as accurately as I could, which, with interviews with former inmates told its own story.  I recall feeling appalled at their treatment.

But as I went on I began to hear other voices and realised I was not listening to victims but rather to survivors and – perhaps more than survivors, men and women who had come through Moore River with dignity and courage.

One phrase buzzed in my head as I came back from talking to playwright Jack Davis, author of “No Sugar” which dealt in part with this story.  Jack had been through Moore River himself and in answer to one of my questions about the effect of the experience, he simply said.

It made some of us very weak.

It made some of us very strong. 

It was an element I began to include in the program as I built it.  I was in fact hearing the beginning of the indigenous struggle against that kind of treatment.  People like Ken Colbung and Jack Davis were to lead that only a few years later.

Stories or social issues are often complex and paradoxical and all the more interesting for it. They also help us avoid political correctness and polemics.  What I have to say here applies particularly to areas like a record of a dispute or an ongoing social phenomenon.

Again, another indigenous story.

I made a three part series on the long term effects of the Northern Australia Pastoral Workers Award of 1965 when the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission awarded Aboriginal pastoral workers equal wages with white workers.

Good intention- socially just and it had to happen.

But in its application, the effects often fell far short of the desired effect.  Whereas hitherto pastoralists had maintained whole communities on stations, largely on a welfare basis, they now argued (and had done so in the Commission hearings) that they would have to let people go.  In some cases treatment was humane, in others not, but the net effect?

Drift into towns like Katherine and Halls Creek of able bodied former stockmen and families.

Initially poor housing, camping out on the fringes

Unemployment – passing into the next generation

Alcohol Abuse

The list goes on and it still resonates today.  The outstation movement of the late 1980s was a direct attempt by indigenous Australians to break out of this cycle – by returning to country.

I called the series – and later the book I wrote on this issue


I was hearing the strongest distress from those stockmen and their families and it was about their sense of absence from country.

The loss of station life meant in most cases the loss of contact with land that in a very real sense was and is their mother and gives them their identity and their life meaning; concepts often difficult for Europeans to properly appreciate.

And this came home to me when I asked one particular question.  I was sitting with a group of people at Ringers’ Soak, some three hours south of Halls Creek, in the Kimberley, land from which they had been roughly evicted in the1980s.

I’d asked one former stockman how it felt to lose his country at that time.  His reply was terse.  In the lunch break we took shortly afterwards, the Djaru interpreter, Patsy Mudgabel took me aside – I had been recording the interviews in the local language – for ease of expression- and Patsy had been doing spontaneous translation- 

 Patsy said

You asked him the wrong question – he never lost the land – it was always inside him –in his being.

That mistake on my part crystallised the whole story and gave the focus to the whole series.

 I’ve found it pays to be a constant learner and mistakes or taking wrong directions are useful experiences.  Your interviewees are often your best teachers.