Knowledge Bank Volunteers on Radio Kidnappers – Frank Cooper

[Music] You’re listening to Radio Kidnappers, the Voice of Hawke’s Bay, and I’m Lynne Trafford, presenting on behalf of the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank. Today in the studio we have volunteer Frank Cooper. With a farming and real estate background, Frank, together with associate Jim Newbigin, has completed about sixty oral histories. People are a fascination to oral historians, so let’s find out why Frank Cooper undertook this voluntary assignment, and how it has panned out for him and indeed, the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank. So welcome to Radio Kidnappers, Frank Cooper.

Thanks Lynne. Yes, it’s interesting really, how I became involved. I had no intention of going anywhere near any place that had computers, because I worked in a world of computers that I didn’t want to be part of.

Anyway, one day it was suggested that I should find something else to do, because I’d been retired for a couple of years, and friends thought that maybe I should do something else with my life besides fishing, and children, and coffees and drinks. So off I went to the Knowledge Bank and walked in, and James welcomed me with open arms. “Yes”, he said, “we’ve got lots of jobs here.” But everything he talked to me about was related to computers. I said, “James, no – I don’t want anything to do with computers.” And he said, “What about … you could sort papers; you could scan …” And I said, “No, no, no – you’re not listening.” So anyway, I said, “I will go away and think about it.” So I went away and thought about it. And I remember one of the girls saying to me as I walked out, she said, “Have you thought of interviewing? Because”, she said, “your voice has the right timbre.” I’m not sure what that meant.

But anyway, I went back to James, and said, “Look, I really don’t want to do computer work, but what about this interviewing?” So he said, “Well, come with me.” So he took me up into the recording studio, and there’s the graphic equaliser going up and down, and the microphone, and a great big console; and I said, “James, you’re not listening to me.” So as a result of that I said, “Look, I’ll still have a think about it.”

And Jim Newbigin, who’d started about the same time as I had – July two years ago – we thought, ‘Maybe we should try and get away from the studio.’ Because the studio’s quite threatening to older people, and access was up very tall stairs. So we managed to procure a portable recorder which we could take out into the field … homes, lounges, hospitals, old people’s homes; and so that was the start. But the driver behind it all was the enthusiasm of James Morgan.

I interviewed James recently; if it were not for James having this vision, none of this would’ve happened, would it, Frank?

That’s right. Absolutely.

He’s really not only had the vision, but he’s pushed people to actually help make that vision come alive.

Well he’s found niche positions within the system; and by doing that people are comfortable in the areas they work in; it really becomes a very happy workplace because throughout the building at various times you hear laughter. You don’t hear any grumbling or anything like that. Obviously there are always some little things we grumble about, but in the main it is a very happy workplace.

Horses for courses …

I guess it is, but see … I went there not even knowing whether I wanted to be involved. But then once I started and we developed the interviewing system to suit ourselves …

Of course.

… to be able to go into the field, make the appointments when we had time to do it. So we were committed, but in our own way.

And that’s what makes volunteering work, isn’t it?

Yes, it is.

Because you must be able to have this looseness that sits alongside what it is you’re doing. I would quite like, Frank, if you can explain the process that one goes through; how you choose who you’re going to interview, and then what happens? How does it all come about?

Okay. Well I guess the first thing … Jim and I are probably very fortunate that we have a very wide range of people that we know in Hawke’s Bay, because we’re both from very old families who’ve been here a long time. So that really is the base. Now if we find someone … it may be that someone will ring and say, “This person has some historical significance and would tell a good story”; I would ring them up and ask them whether I could have an appointment just to come and have a chat to them. Because most of these people are in their early nineties through to ninety-eight, a hundred. So the first thing, as you know as an interviewer, you need to take the nerves out of – because some of them are very shy about talking.

And some don’t actually feel comfortable talking about themselves or their families; and yet they’ve got a story to tell.

Mmm. So I might go along to Mary Doyle [Rest Home] in Havelock [North], and sit down and explain to them what we’re about; who we are and how we do it. And then at that point I really like to get an appointment, because if you leave it you probably never will.

Got to make the sale …

That’s right. So – make the appointment; go back, sit them down in their lounge – usually go out at ten o’clock, or three o’clock or one o’clock, so there’s always a cup of tea, scones; sit down, and of course … relaxed for a start. And we start off and I usually say, “Well, what we need to do is for you to tell us where your folks came from”, in England or Ireland or wherever they were; “where did they come to; how did they come here … what boat? Where did they land?” And progressively build a mosaic of their lives. And then at a point where they married, we would introduce their wife into the interview … where her folks came from. And so it’s really about talking about families, rather than talking about statistics, it’s about people; the whole history. And by the time we’ve finished their minds become alive, and they remember things that they’d forgotten, because talking about old things … it activates. And several of them said, “I’ve told you things that I haven’t told my children.”

About that, Frank, because often we live a very busy life, and to ask an older person to explain what life was like, or what their family was like – sometimes they’ve never been asked that.


D’you find also sometimes, you’re touching on maybe a part of life that they have never really wanted to talk about?

No, it doesn’t actually. I caution … sometimes say, “Now if there’s anything you might say that you regret, we can remove it.” And they say, “Heavens no; no, what I’ve told you is exactly as it happened.” And so that’s really quite wonderful, because if you can create the atmosphere of being relaxed you go through the interview; most of them are round an hour and three quarters, two and three quarter hours, then we finish the interview. I explain what we do with the interview … “but what we need from you now is some history photos from as far back [as you have] until today, of your family.”

Of the story …

“Because what we’re doing is creating a documentary with your voice talking about the family history; and spaced along the bottom of the documentary are the photos that are a part of the [story]. And then this becomes locked into our website; it’s available forever, for anyone in the world. If any of your great-great-great-grandchildren want to hear about Granddad or someone, it’s there, but it’s in your voice.”

Don’t you think that’s the nicest bit? When you’re telling your own story, and leaving it in perpetuity one hopes, that’s really nice …

You know, we get boxes of memorabilia, photos, and our archivists sort through it and process it so it’s coded, so it comes up in the right place when you push the computer buttons looking for … you know, whatever these people may have done. But this material eventually will disappear or it will be thrown out. And the other thing that’s quite interesting … a lot of people have photos that don’t have names on them, so I’ve said to them, “Now I want you to go and buy a white or silver pencil; write your names of who these people are.’ All of a sudden, they’re involved.

But they remember, too …

Yes; well if they don’t they’ll ask a daughter or somebody. And then once we’ve completed the interview and we’ve got some photos – because I always say, “Now I’ll come back in a fortnight when you’ve got [had] time to hunt out the photos”, so that means another visit; another contact with them. And then I take the chip [recording] into our studio, hand it on to a computer man who downloads it; and then the hard copy’s typed up, it’s edited, and then we start processing the photos. And for every interview that we do of say, three hours, we’re probably making at least twelve to fifteen hours of work for other people because as you know, it takes a while to edit a three hour interview; sometimes even longer. Some of them we’re talking about ninety-five years of life, and it’s so fascinating to hear them talk. And some of the memories are so sharp you would’ve thought it had only happened yesterday.

Yeah. It’s so important to get these older people’s memories down, because ten years time you may have lost all that. [You] haven’t got your source any more. It’s great work that the Knowledge Bank is doing by going out and finding these older people with such links to Hawke’s Bay.

Now, according to a little sparrow, James, you’ve done about sixty interviews.

Jim and I work as a team; we’ve both done sixty-odd interviews. We’ve got so many out in front of us to still do …

Oh, you’ll never come to an end. [Chuckle]

We won’t.

Because we’re all getting older, the next lot are just coming along waiting for the next Jim and the next Frank …

That’s right.

But these sixty interviews that’ve been done thus far, that’s an awful lot of time, effort and work, not just from yourself and Jim, but also with the team that sits behind you. Have you got a couple that you would be prepared to share?

Well I guess one I did when she was ninety-nine; that was a lady who now lives in Blockhouse Bay in Auckland. She was born in Havelock North in Waimarama Road, down by Undercliff. And it was really quite special talking to her, because her family lived probably about a mile as the crow flies from where our farm was. And so all the people that she knew, I knew and our family knew. But it was the clarity of what she was telling me … the detail … that was so amazing, and I eventually ended [up] going back to Auckland only three weeks ago, with the first website recording that we had, for her birthday. Unfortunately we couldn’t play it to her on her birthday because it was too busy, but I’m getting a report this week about it. Just [an] incredible life, you know?

Every one I go to is different. My family came to Hawke’s Bay in 1862 to work for Chambers, and we never recorded any of that history. My father was born in the village, I was born in the village, my mother … we all grew up in the village; but we didn’t think it was history because it was part of our lives.

It’s just you …

That’s right. So now I’m able to capture some of the history by listening to other people.

But also, listening to this lady when it links in so closely with you and your family – did that sharpen your memories as well?

Well not really, because I’ve got a very good memory anyway; it’s not cluttered by a lot of computers and things like that. [Chuckles]

Frank, has anyone interviewed you?

Yes. In fact I interviewed Jim Newbigin, and he interviewed me.

Good. [Chuckle]

And you know, I’ve known Jim for many, many years, and I didn’t realise what a historical family …

They are, they are.

… and what a major stamp they had made on Hawke’s Bay history. We never stop and talk to someone; we only see people as we see them.

That’s right, or just the face that you see before you.

That’s right.

And often we’re way too busy to actually ask. When you actually start to talk about what actually sits behind the man, out comes all this wonderful story.

That’s right.

How do you explain the Knowledge Bank to people?

The Knowledge Bank is a name that I don’t understand; I really promote it as the digital recording of history; and that’s the second phrase in the heading of The Knowledge Bank. I’ve got to be careful that I don’t talk too much about the Knowledge Bank, you know? It’s very easy to … The wonderful thing about it is that I had been involved over years in many committees, Rotary, all sorts of things, when I retired I said, “I’m going to shed all those committees” … all those things. Now, I’m totally a free agent – I can ring who I like when I like and make my own appointments; and that’s really wonderful, because I can go fishing … I can do all the other things because I’m not committed except to the person I’m going to interview. And if they can’t be interviewed that day, well …

What is the hope for the life of these interviews? Is there a dream for other organisations to perhaps link in? I mean, you’re not a museum, you’re not a library, but a lot of what you’re collecting would be good stuff for museums or for libraries.

We are linked in a way to New Zealand Archives and the National Museum because we do everything [using] the same systems. James is very insistent that we can’t have things that don’t marry up to one another. The end result, I guess, it goes into a system I don’t understand, like the cloud. But it will be held forever, because the storage systems are so easy.

Do you explain this to people when you’re interviewing them?

Oh yes.

Is there a wariness about this, or is there any acceptance?

I haven’t had a query from anyone. We are very conscious of security, of privacy, of all of those things. But people sign a document when we go to interview them, that we can use this. And we would never compromise a person that we were interviewing by taking information that we knew was libellous, or you know …

No, I’m sure not. But you are also taking photographs that are very special and may be precious to them.

They love it!

But they get it [them] back.

But when we tell them they or their family can go into the website, and all those photos they can see … all of them. And some of them are in a bushel apple cart, and it’s full of hundreds … but we process the lot. I don’t sort them and say, “Look, I’ll take these ones.” We bring everything, and let our archivists make that decision.

Are they coming across any particular little gems?

Just local history that we didn’t know about; we thought we knew, but every time I interview somebody, it’s special, and that’s the fascinating thing about it.

Well you’re never going to run out of material, are you?

One of the ladies – she was ninety-nine when I interviewed her – she called me ‘Sonny’.

Nice … [chuckle]

[Of] course I’m seventy-nine; [chuckle] she’s ninety-nine, and I guess there was twenty years … but little things like that.

They give you a little smile, don’t they?

Oh, absolutely. Lived on that for a couple of weeks.

Have you got a long list that you’re working through?

I’ve got sixty people.

Still to go?

Oh yes, but it keeps … every week I meet someone else somewhere, or I see them. And I say, “Look, I’d like to have a talk to you”, and “can I come and see you one day?”

Does the Knowledge Bank need more interviewers? Is there a need for more people to help with your work, Frank?

Well, currently I think the two interviewers are creating so much work for the rest of the system, we daren’t encourage anyone else to start. Because it might only be twelve hours to process the talk, but when you get a boxful of photos and everything, you’re committing someone to maybe two or three weeks [of] scanning. The fact that we’ve got forty volunteers who come in at different times – we can’t ever pressure people. People can only work until they, you know, have to go home. It’s that feeling about the volunteers that drives it; and James is a key person. And others – our Doctor David Barry …

They’re a nice pair those two; they drive it together.

Yes, yes.

And of course I think you’re probably going to get more and more people who want to be part of it.

Well it spreads, because when you interview someone it radiates out. And they’re the people that advertise us, and tell other people about us; yeah.

That’s how it works.

And you’ve got to talk about it – it’s like radio, isn’t it? You’ve got to talk about it; if you don’t talk about it nobody knows.

No, that’s absolutely right. Frank Cooper, oral historian; interviewer for the Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank, thank you for being a guest on this series of interviews, and for explaining your work.


This programme was produced by and first broadcast on Radio Kidnappers, a volunteer-based community access station. Thanks to New Zealand On Air for making this programme available through funding the Access Internet Radio Project.


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Radio Kidnappers Interviewer: Lynne Trafford (undated; approx 2015)

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