Kosher cake and golden syrup: notes from the field

Since I began working on this project eighteen months ago I have become quite good at giving a basic account of the project when people asked about my work. “Well,” I say, “we’re conducting an in-depth study of the work of independent community archives and heritage projects.” Depending on response from the person opposite I might go on to explain why we are focusing on communities that have been marginalised from history (primarily in our case because of their non-European origins), talk about the challenges of assessing ‘soft’ social impacts or explain our methodology. But I have also found that the nature of conducting fieldwork means that it’s often the people who know me best and who see the most of me who find it hardest to keep up. This is partly because working with four different case studies has been a bit like starting four different jobs in the course of a year: new people, new environments, new challenges. But above all it is because of the amazing diversity of work that our case studies themselves undertake, and that I have been lucky to be involved with. This is particularly true of Eastside Community Heritage, our fourth and final case study, with whom I have been working since April.

Last Wednesday, for example, I found myself accompanying a group of 14 children from a Dockland primary school to a day care centre in Stepney for Jewish elders where they gave a performance of a play they have put together (and with which I have been helping out). The play, written by Richard Morris, drew on voices from Eastside’s archive to tell the story of Silvertown during the Second World War and was part of the Mayor of London’s Story of London initiative, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. This is not the first time Eastside has worked with Jewish Care in Stepney – a few months ago they also brought young people of Bangladeshi origin together with the elders to talk about their experiences of growing up in East London (watch the video here) – but for me it was fantastic to see the impact of this kind of inter-generational and inter-cultural work for myself.

What this meant in practice is that I spent yesterday afternoon counting small people on and off the DLR and the no. 25 bus (in the pouring rain!), sitting on the floor in a community centre whispering prompts where required, handing out props (including a tin of Tate & Lyle’s golden syrup, from the Silvertown factory), mediating between the children and the elders as they asked questions about growing up in the war, evacuation and working in the docks, joining in a group rendition of ‘the Hokey-Cokey’ and helping to explain what was special about the (kosher) cake the children were given as a thank-you treat at the end of the performance, all the while trying to consign as much of the afternoon as possible to memory so that I could write it up later. Given that working with Eastside has on other occasions brought me into contact with factory workers in Bexley and Havering, and, at a recent ‘witness seminar’, the architects of the redevelopment of the Docklands in the 1980s and 90s (including former Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Howe) it is unsurprising that my friends and family have struggled to keep up. No two days have been quite the same.

Silvertown community play at Jewish care

This will all change soon. I only have two more fieldwork days pencilled into my diary and then the long task of processing all my observations and our interview transcripts into a final report begins. What I do know, and what we must find some way of communicating in our report, is that as well as being a huge privilege, fieldwork has, for the most part, been tremendous fun. Like the children who enjoyed their day-out (or maybe just the kosher cake!) so much they didn’t want to leave for home, I shall also be sad to be moving on to the next phase.

Mary.

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