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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Photo: Bert Hardy
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Why it’s not too late for baby boomers to open up about their postwar memories

An examination of people’s “unspoken” emotions is missing from recent British history.

John Maynard Keynes observed that by the time politicians achieve power, they tend to remain intellectually trapped in the assumptions and arguments they were exposed to in their formative period many years earlier. I’ve often thought about his remark – the equivalent of generals fighting the last war, not the present one – but it has only recently occurred to me that it might equally apply to historians of more mature years, including myself.

So, as a child of 1951, born when Clement Attlee was still in No 10 and King George VI still reigned, I think that three things mainly formed me as a historian. First, the counter­culture of the 1960s that lingered into the 1970s, at its best inducing a healthy scepticism about self-important elites, at its worst fostering a reluctance to enter fully into the adult world. Second, a strong reaction against the history I was taught at Oxford in the early 1970s, in particular the almost entire absence of social history. And third, the inspiring example of other historians: above all E P Thompson, rescuing forgotten and marginalised subjects from posterity’s enormous condescension; but also Raphael Samuel and the whole “history from below” movement.

Accordingly, when in 2002 I began sustained work on my postwar project, Tales of a New Jerusalem, I wanted to write a history that was inclusive, that was not predominantly top-down, and that got as close as possible to people’s everyday lives and concerns. In short, I wanted to write an intimate history of Britain in these years, the 1940s to the 1970s.

In terms of what I’ve so far produced, going up to 1962, I think I’ve succeeded, but only to an extent. Putting aside some obvious lacunae – for instance, in my regional treatment, or in my treatment of rural life – where I think I’ve fallen short is in what I might call the emotional-cum-psychological domain: that whole area of feeling, so often largely unspoken and therefore hard for others to retrieve or chart, as the emotionally driven and arguably irrational political earthquakes of 2016 revealed in abundance.

Here I’d like to quote a salutary passage by an American historian, Susan J Matt. In a 2011 essay entitled “Current Emotion Research in History: or Doing History from the Inside Out” – presumably in addition to history from the bottom up – she writes:

Today there are dozens of historians on both sides of the Atlantic working on the emotions, investigating topics as diverse as the history of lust and the changing experience of nostalgia. Together they are trying to recover the history of subjectivity, for in doing so they uncover intention, motivation and values that might be invisible if only external behaviours (the traditional subject of history) are traced. They are trying to write history from the inside out. The field has grown so much that some have suggested that history has taken an “emotional turn”.

It’s confession time. Perhaps because I’m not an academic and plough my own furrow, somewhat oblivious to what other historians are up to, I suspect that I more or less missed this “emotional turn”. Salutary also in Matt’s overview is her brief passage about class, the single theme that most dominates my own treatment. She writes: “Traditionally, historians and sociologists have discussed social class in terms of work, income, control (or lack thereof) of the means of production, family arrangements and consumption patterns. Emotional style, however, is also an important marker of class identity.” I’m sure she’s right; and though my treatment of class is not bereft of an emotional dimension, it’s far from as prominent as it might be. As for another crucial and related area, that of whether ordinary working people felt any real sense of empowerment over their lives, it’s almost entirely absent.

Now, if it is true that postwar Britain was a place where much that was emotionally and psychologically significant largely went unspoken, the methodological implications are daunting. But is it true? Certainly that would be my instinctive assumption, partly based on my memories, and I imagine it might well be yours, too. But to test that assumption, let me briefly give you the results of a bit of ferreting around.


I will start with J M Mogey, who in the mid-1950s examined St Ebbe’s, a working-class district near the centre of Oxford. “Adults,” he wrote, “put little emphasis on the ability to talk and the verbal expression of emotion is neither wished for nor possible.” Mogey went on: “In marriage both partners keep fairly rigidly to their household roles. Serious friction is handled by avoiding contact and by emphasising getting along together rather than any more positive harmony in the marriage relationship; a minor everyday friction is rarely allowed to rise to the level of conscious expression.”

Around the same time, Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques and Clifford Slaughter found much the same in Coal Is Our Life, their classic study of the West Yorkshire mining town Featherstone: husbands and wives living their daily lives in almost entirely separate spheres and, accordingly, often having “little to talk about or to do together”.

Oral history has so far largely confirmed that marital picture. Elizabeth Roberts, based on her extensive interviews in the working-class north-west, finds little or no evidence of companionate marriages before the 1970s; while as for sex specifically, Kate Fisher writes this on the basis of her pioneering interviews with men and women born in the first quarter of the century:

Many couples did not talk openly about sexual matters, and issues of childbearing and family limitation skirted very close to these sensitive areas. Many women chose to keep discussion unspecific, leaving the nitty-gritty details of exactly what birth control was used and what method was chosen to their husbands. Only in cases where the urgency of restricting births increased was explicit planning or debate necessary.

Was there any greater communication between parents and children? Probably not. Examining a working-class district of Liverpool in the mid-1950s, Madeline Kerr found that the typical adolescent girl was “unable to speak to the parents about anything other than trivial matters, and therefore has a secret life of her own completely outside the parents’ knowledge”. More­over, “Sex training appears to be nil. Mothers express horror at the idea of telling their daughters even about menstruation.”

As for a mother informing her children that she is expecting again, Kerr quotes a Mrs K: “Disgusting. That’s disgusting…” Dennis and co found a similar lack of communication in Featherstone, and it was hardly any different in the middle-class parts of north London that Raymond Firth and others studied in the first half of the 1960s. “Common in our material,” they concluded, “was the expression on the part of a married son or daughter that relations with a parent were friendly but superficial; that he or she liked the parent but did not feel they could discuss intimate matters with him or her.”

Perhaps, among these stolid and reserved Britishers, it all came pouring out in the pub instead? Not according to Mogey, who in the taverns of St Ebbe’s overheard little “close inquiry into individual lives”, but instead conversation that was “largely escapist, about horse racing and football bets, about seaside holidays and coach trips”.

So, too, in Mass-Observation’s 1949 breakdown of what people talked about in pubs: sports and betting led the way in more than 40 per cent of conversations, followed by pubs and drinking in 18 per cent. As for the 15 per cent of conversations categorised as “personal-topographical”, these “included all kinds of personal gossip and reminiscing”, in which discussions often developed “from or into topographical arguments and discussion”.

Nevertheless, it is possible that the larger picture was starting to change. As early as the 1950s, Mogey noted that on a new housing estate on the outskirts of Oxford, rehoused families were exhibiting what he called “a heightened ability to communicate desires and wishes”; in the early 1960s, mothers in Nottingham spoke to the psychologists John and Elizabeth Newson of their wish to have a franker and more equal relationship with their children than they had known themselves with their parents; and by the 1970s, the mantra of agony aunts in women’s magazines had become the importance of open, two-way communication between husbands and wives.

Making things explicit was certainly the mantra of Margaret Wilkins, the mother in The Family, the BBC’s groundbreaking fly-on-the-wall TV series in 1974 about the working-class Wilkins family in Reading. But here it is worth quoting the gloss on Mrs Wilkins provided by Deborah Cohen in her marvellous book Family Secrets: “Hers was not an ideological position. She disdained feminism, but objected, too, to what she saw as the silences about family problems, the constraints of propriety that made people feel alone.”

Mrs Wilkins was, in other words, far from typical. And although this is not the occasion for a systematic analysis of British exceptionalism or otherwise, I’m tempted to fast-forward two decades and cross the Channel, in the company of Theodore Zeldin. His An Intimate History of Humanity, published in 1994, includes this testimony from Annette Martineau, a greengrocer’s wife living in Cognac in south-western France and who as a child was taught not to speak at the table:

My parents barely talked to each other. My friends say their husbands don’t talk either. It’s often like that. Husbands didn’t say much in the past, because everything was taboo, and because they had nothing to say. In our dinner parties, the conversation is either non-existent or aggressive… My husband gets up at 3am to do the buying. He is completely immersed in his work and is not a man to waste words. I warned my daughter: “You will enjoy life more if you’re with a man you can talk to.”

Zeldin, in a typically eclectic chapter devoted to conversation, takes the long view. It’s called “How Men and Women Have Slowly Learned to Have Interesting Conversations”, and he argues that, in terms of the span of human history, “conversation is still in its infancy”. He also notes that Finland is “reputed to be the least talkative country on Earth”, and he cites the Finnish proverb: “One word is enough to make a lot of trouble.”


So how, to return to postwar Britain, do we uncover the unspoken? What was really going on inside the heads – and, in turn, affecting the behavioural assumptions – of a people often so reluctant to express their emotions or engage in emotional dialogue? Think of that supreme moment in our island story, as Geoff Hurst lashed home England’s fourth goal at Wembley in the 1966 World Cup final against West Germany, and of how eyes turned to one figure, seated and impassive: Alf Ramsey, the team manager. “I’m a very emotional person but my feelings are always tied up inside,” this man of Suffolk via Dagenham later said. “Maybe it is a mistake to be like this but I cannot govern it.”

I also often think of my father. He was an army officer, and his daily habits were as regular and unchangeable as one might expect. He was also, again predictably, given his small-town Shropshire background, a man of few words. Yet on that July afternoon, as England neared the end of normal time and, hanging on at 2-1, missed a chance to clinch it, and the TV commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme remarked that it didn’t matter now, my father got up from his armchair, more or less shook his fist at the screen and said loudly: “Of course it fucking matters!” – prophetic words, as it turned out. But as to what, over the years, he thought about his family, or the world at large, or God, or what the novelist Anthony Powell would have called his personal myth – it’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I’m in the dark.

What, then, are the sources that more generally might help? Sociologists, in what was the golden age of British empirical sociology, were better at getting people to talk more freely about subjects – for instance, class – than they would normally have felt able to; the same intermittently applies to letters pages, especially in women’s magazines. Transcripts of radio programmes, particularly Woman’s Hour, can yield similar rewards, especially from the 1960s, when, like some TV programmes, they became more confessional.

But inevitably, for the real pay dirt, one has to go to private letters and diaries, especially the latter, whether located at the Mass-Observation Archive at the University of Sussex or elsewhere. My postwar sequence uses diaries extensively, and there are some wonderfully revealing quotations from them included in my books.

That said, they have significant limitations: not only because almost all the diarists were middle class (at a time when Britain was still predominantly a working-class society), but also because most of them were not particularly introspective and shied away from Rousseau- or Pepys-like frankness. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, they are quite limited in number, at least in terms of accessibility. Yet I wouldn’t be without them.

I also wouldn’t be without retrospective sources. These include what one might call Mass-Observation Mark II – the project that the archive’s Dorothy Sheridan initiated in the 1980s, and that continues, in which “participants write about their life experiences and emotional journeys from the vantage point of these more recent times”. That description is by the historian Claire Langhamer, whose 2013 survey The English in Love convincingly charts how, during the 20th century, the institution of marriage increasingly became less of a pragmatic transaction and more of a vehicle for – in aspiration, at least – romance and personal fulfilment.

Naturally, there are also published memoirs. And here it’s time for a second confession: I’ve found it difficult to bring myself to read the so-called misery memoirs, the genre of paperbacks that peaked in 2006, comprising in that year no fewer than 11 of the UK’s 100 top-selling titles. What’s my problem? Partly it’s that they seem formulaic; partly it’s their unattractive neediness; but, above all, instinctively I don’t quite trust them, a view not helped by their almost entire lack of dates.

Instead, I read with relish the flood of well-written and emotionally nuanced mainstream memoirs that have appeared over the past thirty years or so – for me, the right sort of confessional flood, one that arguably began in 1987 with Ian Jack’s superb Granta essay about his father, “Finished with Engines”. Margaret Forster’s Hidden Lives, Tim Lott’s The Scent of Dried Roses, Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood, Janet Street-Porter’s Baggage, Ferdinand Mount’s Cold Cream, Joan Bakewell’s The Centre of the Bed, Jeremy Harding’s Mother Country, Rupert Christiansen’s I Know You’re Going to Be Happy – these and many others undoubtedly constitute a golden period of British autobiography.

Yet inevitably, these books share two intrinsic drawbacks. First, they would probably not have been written, and almost certainly not published, if the authors had not already been established public figures and/or writers – which raises the serious issue of how representative they are. And second, these autobiographical writings give no opportunity for the historian to stop the flow and ask questions. What do you mean by that? Could you elaborate? Any hard examples? Would you go to the stake for the accuracy of that story? Are you quite sure you’re not exaggerating? And so on.

Happily, oral historians can ask such questions, albeit rather more politely, and indeed it’s to oral history that I’d now like to turn. Starting with a final confession: over the years, my relationship with oral history has been somewhat ambivalent. In the course of researching the last volume of my City of London history, plus half a dozen institutional histories – beginning with the Financial Times and, I suspect, ending with the Bank of England – I’ve conducted several hundred interviews, in which I’ve learned much that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to discover. Also for my City history I was grateful for the “City Lives” strand of the National Life Stories collection. Yet in practice, in all of those books, as well as in my postwar sequence, I have been quite sparing in using oral history material – for three reasons.

First, what I might call the “literary” motive. What I most enjoy as a writer is relating an unfolding narrative. The notion of a chronicle, a kind of passing national pageant, is somewhere near the heart of my concept of the New Jerusalem sequence. I’m trying to do other things as well, but that’s the spine. Crucially, for that to work in terms of providing a satisfying narrative, I rely more on contemporary than retrospective sources – in other words, on sources derived from politicians, or journalists, or diarists, or others who are living in the present and who, like characters in a play or a novel, have no knowledge of the future.

Second, while I am well aware of how sophisticated oral history techniques and procedures have become, there will always be the problem of unconscious bias. I’ve mentioned Anthony Powell’s concept of the personal myth, and an observation by the renowned oral historian Alistair Thomson puts the matter well: “Memories,” he writes, “are ‘significant pasts’ that we compose to make a more comfortable sense of our life over time, and in which past and present identities are brought more into line.”

To which I would add that there is an important additional factor in relation to oral history and postwar Britain. Historians and attentive readers may know otherwise, but I would guess that for most TV-watching people – in an era when the visual image dominates the written word – the 1950s remain in their mind’s eye still unshakeably repressive, the 1960s unshakeably swinging, the 1970s unshakeably crisis-ridden, the 1980s unshakeably materialistic. It is hard to banish these simplistic and in many ways misleading characterisations as one digs down into the unique memories of one’s own life.

And third – very mundane – I try to do most of the research myself, and as a non-academic with publishing deadlines to meet, inevitably there isn’t the time to listen to everything or, if in transcript form, read everything, however helpfully indexed. Especially in regard to my postwar history, I am conscious that because of this I have missed a lot. But I comfort myself with the thought that, as poor Mr Casaubon never quite learned, completism is not the way to go.


The National Life Stories project was established by the British Library’s national sound archive 30 years ago – Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, Ronald Reagan was the US president, the Berlin Wall still stood – and it represents a phenomenal achievement. The closing pages of the latest annual report list the work completed and still in train. “Artists’ Lives”, “City Lives”, “Legal Lives”, “Living Memory of the Jewish Community”, “Lives in the Oil Industry”, “An Oral History of British Science”, “Food: from Source to Salespoint” – I could go on. By my computation, some 2,460 interviews have been conducted, and no doubt there have been more since the report was published.

This is a body of testimony that will endure and be indispensable for future generations of historians. Even so, I suspect that relatively few of the interviews focus all that much on the interviewees’ private lives, and in particular those shadowy areas I’m calling “the unspoken”. My argument is that in our oral history – this marvellously flexible, access-all-areas instrument – we should be doing so rather more.

Baby boomers, now in their sixties and seventies, won’t be around for ever. There are many questions that they – we – are in a position to answer and, in this post-Diana confessional age, may be relaxed about answering even under rigorous, systematic questioning: not just about their upbringing, but about the main body of their lives, including the internal-cum-private dimension as well as – and conceivably even more than – the external-cum-public one.

Let me give some examples. What from our childhood and adolescence do we recall, even if we would prefer not to, about the charged and now highly topical matter of sexual abuse? More generally, what were the sexual norms – and, indeed, our relationship to sex itself – during and after the much-publicised 1960s?

On moving away from the family home and forming full-time autonomous friendships and friendship groups, were the boundaries between the spoken and the unspoken so much less rigid and inhibited than they had been at home? Among our peers, how was “success” defined, or did the very notion of success seemingly disappear? How, in our twenties and beyond, did our political and spiritual consciousness change? Did Thatcherism and its legacy, arguably creating the world we live in, challenge or entrench our assumptions? Similarly, what has been the impact of parenthood, even grandparenthood, on assumptions of, say, social liberalism?

As the shadows start to lengthen, though it’s not dark yet (as someone once sang), can we look back on our lives and attempt to estimate the extent to which the objective reality has matched our individual personal myth?

It wouldn’t be too difficult to come up with other pertinent questions, but you get my drift. Baby boomers are always hungry for attention. I may be wrong, but in this area I’m not sure that they’re getting it quite enough.

I would like to finish with an observation by a French historian, writing about world-weary other historians:

So many people go around despairing at every turn – there is, they say, nothing left to discover, or so it seems, in regions that have been too well explored. All they need to do is plunge into the darkness where psychology wrestles with history – they would soon get back their appetite for discovery.

The historian was Lucien Febvre, the date was 1941, and all those years ago he called it right: the time has come for dancing in the dark.

This is an edited version of David Kynaston’s recent National Life Stories Lecture 2017 at the British Library, “Uncovering the Unspoken: Memory and Postwar Britain”

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit