Naked voices

The best oral history has the depth and texture of fiction.

Before she retired, my mother worked as a district nurse. She wasn't called a district nurse in Canada but her job was very similar to that of the woman interviewed by Ronald Blythe when he first began research for his oral history classic, Akenfield (1969). The nurse in Blythe's small Suffolk village was a natural entry point for a collection of interviews on the subject of rural life. Nurses usually know where the secrets lie.

Occasionally, I accompanied my mother on her visits. I remember the way she sat and listened to what were, in effect, monologues delivered by elderly people who had too much to say and few chances to regale. Years later, when I began writing for newspapers and magazines, I learned how to condense these sorts of interview encounters, how to slice up a scene, wrap words in quotations and lodge them in a larger story, just like any journalist.

The more I worked this way, the more I felt dissatisfied with the results. I began writing more and more of what is known as oral history, so, instead of cutting, quoting and commenting, I recorded people, tried to let them speak, let them wander and, like a visiting district nurse, refrained from leaping in too early with the next question. I then edited the direct speech. The results made my other writing look bloodless and contrived in comparison.

Back in the world of normal journalism, I started to dislike the look of my own voice on the page and worked to minimise my interjections and judgements. It's been an interesting project; after five years of interviews, I have just finished writing my second book of oral history, Londoners.

The problem is that I loathe the phrase "oral history". It is redolent of dusty, local-village history societies and folklore studies, tweedy and old fashioned. This is a great shame, as a rejuvenated version is needed more than ever. Journalism today is stuffed with mediated language. PRs often sit in the room with journalists and interviewees, ready to step in with quiet phrases such as, "He won't be answering that question."

At its best, first-person oral history prises power away from official narrators. With Londoners, I did have to deal with the odd PR but, for the most part, the project steered away from their influence and became a contrapuntal mix of voices, one in which the language of the protester was given as much space as the big-time financier.

I began to think of it as a book of collages, full of the best kind of literary instability, where no one voice was given dominance and flow of language was what finally mattered. The form offered the chance to write a book that borrowed from the vocabulary of film, jump-cutting from person to person. There are no proper recurring characters, which was important for a book about London. I wanted it to sound like the city, with voices drifting in and out of range, opinions and stories and half-truths emerging and disappearing as the reader progressed. Just as a city promises a degree of anonymity, so does the form. As a writer, I was absolved of the role of all-knowing narrator. In this kind of work, the best expressions belong to the interviewees, not the person at the keyboard.

Those familiar with oral history will recognise the names Blythe, Studs Terkel and Tony Parker and might also have read Underground, for which the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami interviewed a series of survivors of the Tokyo sarin gas attacks. I was wary of showing too much reverence to the greats. Some of the work, even as practised by the masters, is overstuffed and underedited. While I was working on Londoners, there emerged other, surprising inspirations, among them Max Brooks's World War Z: an Oral History of the Zombie War, a fake first-person history that moves with startling speed. The lengthy middle section of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives is straight-ahead oral history. I read it while writing Londoners and it reaffirmed my belief that direct reported speech can have the depth and texture of fiction.

Diametrically opposed to Blythe's careful documentation of rural Suffolk is The Dirt, an account of the lives of the four members of the band Mötley Crüe. This might be one of the best examples of recent oral history. Whatever your opinion of the glossy side of heavy metal, the book captures four characters whose profane and often contradictory accounts of drug-taking, poverty, filth, rock'n'roll and tight leather trousers are revelatory.

Oral history, as I have been reminded many times, is very important as a record of social history but there is no reason why that record need be dreary literary medicine. It is not "pure" in any way; any text is an edited, heavily manipulated version of reality. Nonetheless, various voices emerge, each with its own verbal style. And now, each time I read an interview in which I learn more about the journalist than the interviewee, I realise the importance of oral history - even if its dry and dusty name remains unchanged.

Craig Taylor's "Londoners: the Days and Nights of London Now, as Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It" is published by Granta Books (£25)

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral