People are wonderful, surprising creatures. Their memories are even more so. This is true both in terms of their capacity to recall small, obscure details over many decades and also often in the ways that the content of the memories themselves can force us to rethink what we thought we knew of an era. One of the things that has really struck me on this tour is that the larger trends in cinema-going in the 1960s, such as the rise of television causing the closure of half of Britain’s cinema screens, tie into but don’t dominate the memories people have of watching films in the era. I’ve heard about lots of beloved cinemas that sadly shut down during the decade, but I’ve also heard about the adventures that people went on as a result of their desire to overcome these obstacles and to watch their favourite film stars in their latest releases. I’ve heard about the long journeys people had to make to Inverness, Oban, Glasgow and Edinburgh, but I’ve also heard charming, frequently funny and occasionally quite sad stories too, which don’t simply reflect the national story of cinema-going but also reveal a personal story about one particular person and their favourite pastime.
Last night was no exception. I arrived at Fort William library after a hotel dinner to talk about the project and to invite the audience to share their memories. These events are always great fun and throw up all sorts of surprising recollections. In Fort William one woman told me all about her visits to a cinema in Edinburgh that showed nothing but horror films. She wasn’t a fan, but returned more than once for reasons that she now isn’t entirely clear about, finding herself disappointed every time. Others recalled tensing up as it dawned on them that the end of the film was drawing near, ready to quickly throw on their coats, gather their bags and race out of the doors before the national anthem was played and they were obliged to remain standing until it ended. Everybody at the event remembered where they were when they head that JFK had been assassinated, but not one could tell me what they had been doing when they learned of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide. There were even some veiled (and not so veiled) confessions of amorous activity in the back rows, where the ‘love seats’ of earlier eras, which had one of the seat’s arms removed so as not to keep a couple from one another, often remained until the venue underwent refurbishment. I was particularly tickled by memories of one cinema in Fort William that had a corrugated iron roof. When it rained, as the locals tell me happens quite a lot in this town, hearing the film became impossible and the audience simply had to imagine what was being said and how the plot was developing.
This is perhaps my favourite part of researching cinema memories. You never know what you will be told. However, to make events like this come together it is also necessary to spend some time generating interest in order to ensure there is an audience to talk to, so at 9:30 yesterday morning I did something that I haven’t done in quite some time. I walked into a radio studio, sat down in front of a microphone and began talking about my work.
For some this may not seem like a terribly impressive feat, but for me it really was. I care about this research and think it is important work, so moments like this, where you have the chance to give the project a real boost by attracting a number of new contributors (or, of course, to accidentally make a fool of yourself in public) can be nerve-racking. Nothing quite prepares you for the moment you are asked to sum up something you are really passionate about and which has taken over most of your life for months on end in just a couple of sentences. How do you communicate why the collection of fifty-year-old memories of sitting in the dark that you have been meticulously curating matter in the same time that it takes to tie a shoelace?
It isn’t an insignificant question, especially in a time of financial crisis where public resources are being stretched. After all, a few months ago I gave a talk about the project to a group of fellow researchers, one of whom objected so strongly to what he believed was the sapping of funding away from the sciences, where research ‘matters’, to the arts and humanities that he stood up and left. Perhaps this was a little rude, but perhaps it was also my own fault for not making my case strongly enough and convincing him. Since then I’ve been gradually working out how to vocalise the significance of our work in a more persuasive way. When 9:30am came around and it was time for me to start talking on live radio, I just hoped I’d worked hard enough to prevent the listeners from reacting in the same way as this man had.
I think (though feel free to disagree with me if your were listening!) that I managed quite well. That is the funny thing about research – a project can seem like an enormous mass of data that can only be properly handled through the skilful application of intricate processes, but when you boil it down to its nuts and bolts the ideas themselves are often very crisp, clear and interesting. This tour has shown me very keenly that people aren’t put off by the complexities of research. They see the interesting ideas and engage with them. Night after night I’ve spoken about our investigation into 1960s cinema memories to rooms packed full of people who wanted to discuss the project and share their own experiences. Indeed, just the night before I’d hosted at an extremely busy and lively screening of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Fort William. If ever I’d wondered whether it was just myself and my colleagues who found this work fascinating, I’ve been rapidly disabused of that impression over the last two weeks and would be further so that evening when hearing about corrugated roofs and horror cinemas.
As a result, when David Ogg of Nevis Radio, the premier radio station for Lochaber, Skye, Fort Augustus, Mallaig, Kinlochleven and all parts of the Western Highlands, asked me the awful question ‘what’s it all about?’, I was no longer worried that people might deem the work a waste of money that could have been diverted to the sciences. Instead I was convinced that we have something very special in this research that is more than capable of attracting people’s attention and drawing them into asking the same sorts of questions we are about life, and importantly memories of life, in the 1960s.
Sadly, the Fort William event was the last on my itinerary for this Scottish tour. I’m writing this final blog post in the series from the train back home. The landscape outside the windows is as wild and rugged and I had imagined it would be, but the memories I’ve collected, which are now neatly packed in the suitcases beside me, have been anything but predictable. I’ve heard stories of resilience in the face of the closures that resulted from economic uncertainty in the cinema industry, of the damage done to communities by the total withdrawal of access to films in their area, and of all manner of bizarre and moving incidents that took place in Scottish cinemas in the 1960s. I’ve discussed the presence and absences of accents, politics and moustaches on screen and have listened to a loving eulogy for a local cinema’s cat. I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m sure many more memories from this region will come flooding in via the project’s questionnaire over the coming weeks. More importantly, I hope I’ve caused some of the people I’ve met to reflect critically on their own experiences during the 1960s and to question whether their lives support or challenge the dominant narratives of the era. After all, this project isn’t just about collecting memories. It is also about examining and exploring people’s lives and that isn’t possible if your participants aren’t willing to take that journey with you. The people I’ve met in Scotland have been generous in many ways, but particularly in their willingness to begin that process of exploration. What more could a researcher have hoped for?
Dr Matthew Jones