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Record Them: The Herts company making audio documentaries of people's lives

PUBLISHED: 10:21 08 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:21 08 October 2019

Sylvia (left) with a friend petting a carthouse at the former blacksmiths in Church Lane, Stevenage in the 1940s

Sylvia (left) with a friend petting a carthouse at the former blacksmiths in Church Lane, Stevenage in the 1940s

Julie Lucas

In our increasingly fast-paced world, we rarely have time to sit with loved ones and hear about times gone by. Enter a St Albans company aiming to make sure those memories are not lost

'I'm not sure if it was Donk or Honk,' my mother says. She is remembering the donkey she had as a child. 'My mother used to bring him and I'd ride him home from school. He wore a hat and we would go for a picnic.'

She is in her living room in Walkern talking about her life for Record Them, a St Albans company specialising in audio histories of loved ones, and it's quite a revelation. At 79, Sylvia Richardson was born during the war, in 1940, at the grand arrival point of Brocket Hall near Welwyn, which was used as a maternity hospital at the time. Known as a 'Brocket baby' she used to be invited every so often for tea at the stately home and to see the room where she was born.

She chats animatedly about her house in Hatfield being bombed during the war. The windows blew out but she was saved from injury by the blackout screen falling on top of her cot, shielding her from the glass. She remembers her father carrying her down the stairs. She describes her brother Bobby making a homemade bomb in the garden, and her favourite house in Bishop's Stortford.

Dave sets up the recording at Sylvia's Walkern home. Putting interviewees at ease is key (photo: Julie Lucas)Dave sets up the recording at Sylvia's Walkern home. Putting interviewees at ease is key (photo: Julie Lucas)

Across from mum is Dave Creasey, who launched Record Them last year. A former BBC radio producer, the 27-year-old also did a stint presenting his own show in Cyprus with the British Forces Broadcasting Service, where he says he heard some fascinating stories. He describes Record Them as a Desert Island Discs for the ordinary person. As he sets up a mini recording studio around my mother, his friendly and relaxed demeanour immediately puts her, and me, at ease.

Dave came up with the idea a few years ago when a family friend lost her son.

'She said to me I can't remember the sound of his voice. She had a voicemail from him and used to listen to it, and after a while they get wiped. She said effectively on that day she lost him all over again.

'I've worked in this sort of game for a long time and we have made thousands and thousands of hours worth of audio that doesn't mean much, so thought why not do something that means something.'

The recordings are made at the interviewee's home and typically last around three hours, which is then edited down to 40 to 60 minutes. He mixes the dialogue - editing out the inevitable pauses and ums and ahhs - with sound effects, archive newsreels and music personal to the interviewee, to capture a snapshot of a loved one's life. The recording is presented on a CD and, appropriately, on a memory stick.

One of the musical pieces my mum chose is from Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. A popular choice, Dave says. He genuinely seems interested in what mum has to say. 'I like meeting older people because they have lived through a period that I haven't,' he explains.

Sylvia with her mum Marjorie holding writer Julie as a baby in Shephall, Stevenage in 1968Sylvia with her mum Marjorie holding writer Julie as a baby in Shephall, Stevenage in 1968

The first person he recorded was his partner's great uncle Bill, an 85-year-old Londoner who remembers the Blitz and could 'really spin a yarn'. Since then he has heard remarkable life stories from a former Foreign Office minister to an ambassador to the United Nations and a Spitfire pilot in the Second World War.

'I had a lady who was 101. She was an ambulance driver during the war and she was walking down a lane one day and there was a German Luftwaffe firing guns at her.

'Sometimes we have people who have stories about being at Dunkirk or meeting the Queen and some people have a normal life like me and you. The main point is not about the grand stories, it's more about what you want your kids to know.'

Syvia recording her memories at home (photo: Julie Lucas)Syvia recording her memories at home (photo: Julie Lucas)

And this passing on to the next generation, and beyond, is a kind of treasure.

'They really think about things and the real nuggets you get are how that person feels about life. I think from the sound of someone's voice you can get to know who someone is. It's also a chance to ask things that maybe you wouldn't normally ask. You wouldn't go out for a lunch in a pub and say, "What were you like as a kid?". I find that audio is such an overlooked thing, people take photos or video. But unlike video, audio is a more relaxing medium which can be edited.'

He encourages his interviewees to talk openly and finds they often open up to someone they don't know - he has heard stories that even the family didn't know.

Sylvia on her wedding day to John at St Nicholas Church, Stevenage in January 1963Sylvia on her wedding day to John at St Nicholas Church, Stevenage in January 1963

Has he recorded his own story? 'Yes,' he says laughing, 'to ensure I'm not forgotten!' He adds, 'It's an amazing tribute to someone. A lasting gift - can you imagine hearing your great-great-grandparents? I tell people that a recording will last longer than you or me or anyone else.'

For my mother, it made her think about things she had done long ago. Although hesitant at first she was soon chatting to Dave like he was an old friend, who every so often would ask her a question.

'Although my memory is not what it was, when I started to talk memories came flooding back to me,' she says. 'I would have loved for my mum to have done something similar.'

Sylvia on her wedding day 1963Sylvia on her wedding day 1963

At the end of the recording session Dave asks her some quick fire questions. What sound does she love? 'Birdsong,' she replies. What profession other than her own would she have liked to have done? 'I would love to have run a nursery as I like little children; little children are just so surprising.'

During the last half an hour my mother records some messages for family members. I feel quite emotional and have to leave the room. After listening to them later, I suggest anyone who does this to have a glass of wine and a box of tissues at the ready.

Having lost my father seven years ago, to hear his voice and hear him talk about his life again would be immeasurable. It's not until a loved one has gone that you realise how important it is to have their memories. Like images of them in your mind, their stories begin to fade. I now have something to cherish and as my mother's memory fades, which is now happening, her memories won't. u

Sharing a family album with Dave (photo: Julie Lucas)Sharing a family album with Dave (photo: Julie Lucas)

Record Them recordings cost £899. Visit recordthem.co.uk for details.

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