My week in a nutshell
This week, I’ve been working on creating short audio stories out of our Lost and Found audio walk. It’s proving to be a bit trickier than I thought it would be. It feels like I’m trying to squeeze something huge and expansive into a small box. There’s so much I want to say about Esther Barnes, for example, the resourceful woman who ran an east London brothel (at the site in the Google Maps photo above), who was sentenced to the maximum sentence at the time, and who fought back against a moral crackdown on sex labor.
When I’m trying to work through an issue, I tend to write out my thoughts. Some of the best advice I’ve received through my studies is the power of writing. Whenever I’m stuck or need to figure something out, I’ll sit myself down for about 20 minutes and just write. I might not find an answer, but it gives me somewhere to jump off from and I usually end up in a better place than when I started.
There’s a lot to tell – I should mention why she opened her brothel, but how far into that story of her husband’s death do I go? It would be great to talk about her legal battle with East London, but it would take a good while to go through all the important bits there. Unless, of course, I want to be a bit reductive of her landmark case.
Reducing the story to a nice simmer
I guess that’s what this issue boils down to – being reductive. I don’t want to make it seem like this incredibly powerful life and its stories can be captured in a five-minute audio clip, that it can be crammed into 400 words and posted online. But I also want people to listen, to hear this story and resonate with it. And I feel like the way to get people to listen is to make these stories punchy, quick, and exciting!
It’s funny – I ended up following my own advice, the words that I said to Leah when I was recording her weaving the Barnes tale. I told her to imagine that she’s sitting at a dimly-lit bar – there’s a jazz musician tickling the ivories softly in the background, to set the comfy-but-intriguing atmosphere. I told her to imagine that she’s telling the story to a friend at this bar, and that her friend is incredibly interested but must leave soon to catch a bus.
What important bits would she want to include? How would she keep her friend interested? Striking the balance between speaking conversationally and being respectful of history and the truth of the case would be very important. And it’s just as important when I’m making this audio walk, as it’s more-or-less fixed in time and space – a little more permanent than knowledge passed out on a walking tour (but no more important!). I can’t tell the whole story, but I can make sure that what I tell is a curated selection of the highs, lows, and happenings of the lives of Esther Barnes and Emma Wilson.
I’m not in this alone
And, I’ve got to say, it helps to remember that this audio walk is not the last word in the history of these lives. It’s not even close! This is a specific project for a cemetery, so I should focus on what stories I can best tell in that context and keep it as accessible as I can. Thankfully, there are many others who have told these stories, some of them in much more expansive ways than I want to. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more exciting adventures into the baffling world of digitally preserving history.