Vol 29 (2009): Special Issue: Remembering Family, Analyzing Home: Oral History and the Family
Families As Archives: Sites of Remembering

A Remembered Soundscape: A British Family Listens to the Wireless in the 1930s and 1940s

Peter M. Lewis
London Metropolitan University


Drawing on media history and studies of soundscapes, this essay uses a reflexive self-ethnography to recover and provide a contemporary interpretation to remembered acoustic experience. The focus is a British child’s experience of listening to radio in the 1930s and 1940s. The enquiry has two aspects: one is the author’s personal audio memory, the other is the cultural context of radio listening in the pre-television age when the only means of reception was the “wireless”, a medium which occupied, along with the gramophone and the cinema, almost the whole known world of public, mediated sound. “Wireless” listening thus had a significant place in a rather undeveloped mediascape. Contemporary sources – family diaries, the author’s letters home from boarding school, social histories, and records of the period, including Mass Observation – assist in reconstructing the context and culture of listening within a domestic and school setting. Throughout, an attempt is made to trace and interrogate the interweaving of public and personal memory and, drawing on recent studies of “memory work,” to recognise that the past is constantly rewritten, revised, and misremembered. The experience under study was in part pre-literate, while the long-gone radio listening culture, situated within an acoustic environment less busy and invaded than that of today, bears comparison with the geographically remote cultures more usually studied in aural anthropology.