Saving stories: CAT’s oral history project


Allan Shepherd writes about CAT’s oral history project which has been collecting memories of the Centre. Stay tuned for a podcast next week (Thursday the 17th of January) on the first year of CAT – and if you’re near Machynlleth, come along to one of our exhibition days.

CAT will be 40 years old next year. To commemorate, celebrate and investigate its history we have embarked upon a unique project to gather up and save in perpetuity an audio memory bank of stories about CAT. Supported with funding from GLASU, CAT and a legacy from CAT founder Gerard Morgan Grenville the CAT Oral History Project will deliver a unique collection of interviews with volunteers, workers, site community members, students, trustees, local people and others who have recollections and stories to tell about their life and their connection with CAT.

This is part of a wider archiving process being organised by Peter Harper, which will see all of CAT’s historical material – papers, photos, film and audio recordings – archived in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, where it will be stored indefinitely as a permanent loan from CAT, available to anyone to view, watch or hear.

The oral history project is a volunteer project – we have nearly 20 – and each volunteer will interview at least 3 people. Part of the remit of the project is to build oral history skills in the area so that other projects may flourish when this one ends. As I’m discovering, oral history offers a unique way of building links between people who may not normally get to talk to each other.

I’ve interviewed 14 people so far and each interview has been a fascinating and unique experience. People are so interesting and different and it’s been a real pleasure to have the time and space to really ‘meet’ them. I think people enjoy the space to be heard and listened to too. Indeed in some situations oral history is a kind of therapy. One of our volunteers has previously worked on a project talking to people very close to death. Both interviewer and interviewee find this process of talking extremely valuable.

So what do people talk about? The most interesting subjects come up – not all to do with CAT. One member I interviewed at the members conference told me of her work in the 70s as part of a campaigning organisation that changed the law to help single mothers. A group of women met each week, decided which law they would change and then went direct to Parliament to lobby their MP’s. They would turn up at midnight, walk past the sole ‘bobby’ standing by the door and bang on their MP’s door. She came to CAT the first year it opened and has been coming ever since; commited to CAT and the work we do here. Having worked here for 18 years I found this personally inspiring and reassuring.

Not that CAT is beyond criticism. Everyone in interview has had negative things to say but this project needs to be a ‘warts and all’ account so that’s all good. Almost everyone I have interviewed so far thinks CAT is scruffy, and in fact it seems always has been. In fact interestingly enough most of the staff members I’ve interviewed think the same, yet no one has ever quite managed to fix the scruffy thing; maybe because CAT has always been strapped for cash (a common theme with each of the four directors I have spoken to spanning thirty years of CAT history so far), because people are more interested in experimentation than presentation, or perhaps simply because the people who stay here a long time just give up trying to keep an ex-slate quarry tidy.

Through one interview – with CAT’s second director Rod James – I found out that in the very early days CAT was policed by an ‘ogre’ system. Each week the appointed ogre walked round the site asking people why they hadn’t finished the jobs they said they would finish. These were the days when staff members did a bit of everything and there was probably only around 20 people working on-site. Over time people became more specialised and stuck mostly to their own job – 80% of their time on the job they were employed to do and 20% doing something else. This system seems sane to me because it allows people to know about everyone’s work – and respect it – yet still fulfil the role they feel most happy with.

I arrived to volunteer at the tail end of this system, where we still had rotas for cooking, staffing the cliff railway and cleaning the toilets, but in previous era’s I know there was also rotas for making bread – although according to one interviewee the results were, as you might expect, mixed.

Food is a common thread in interviews, especially for those people who ‘enjoyed’ the delights of communal meal making and sharing for the first time. Most of us from traditional nuclear families never cooked for large groups before we arrived at CAT; suddenly realising this was part of the deal of being a CAT staff member was a huge shock and eventually an immense pleasure, if you got it right!

People do however tell stories of loving or avoiding the meals of certain staff members, and of course of getting meals spectacularly wrong. I know from folklore that one member of staff worried that he had poisoned the staff when he put the wrong ‘ingredient’ in the mix. For my own part, with a rather small amount of culinary confidence, I stuck to making veggie Lasagne every time – shame on me!

CAT’s extraordinary management and salary system exercises quite a few people in interview: why it didn’t work, why it did work, how it changed. CAT’s second director Rod James told me about one salary self-assessment experiment where each member of staff was asked to assess their own performance and that of every other member of staff.

You’d think that this might create a terrible mass of conflict but actually all but two assessed themselves the same as the rest of the group. Unfortunately somebody that day came away with the realisation that they were not at all the highly valued and valuable member of staff they thought they were. But it did stop any gripes about how much pay everyone should get. Like so many experiments at CAT this one ended as the organisation grew.

For much of its life CAT has had a flat management structure of one sort or another but starting out, CAT’s direction was set from a distance by founder and occassional visitor Gerrard Morgan Grenville, who also persuaded a variety of influencial establishment friends and associates to donate a wide range of surprising contributions to the cause, including 200 railway sleepers and a van load of digestive biscuits.

CAT’s first director Mark Mathews told me they built a railway with the sleepers and placed upon it a steam engine donated by a narrow guage railway society in North Wales. Looking back I’m not quite sure what the logic was for building a railway on such a small site (and it was later dug up again) but in any case it was ready for a visit by Prince Philip in 1975, who was driven round the site using straw pellets as fuel.

The visit, which included cakes baked by quarry owner Audrey Beumont, caused consternation amongst some of the anti-monarchist rank and file at CAT but was incredibly useful in persuading local councillors to take CAT seriously. In many ways this marks the beginning of another perpetual tension in CAT’s history: the philosophical struggle between respectability and revolution.

Interested in CAT’s history? Download our book Crazy Idealists about 30 years of life in Quarry.