RONALD FRASER (1930-2012). A giant of oral sources.[1]

Ronald Fraser’s most notable feature was his ability to reinvent himself through relentless hard work and always knowing how to revive and renew himself from his ashes. All his books are pioneering works; unique and strenuous existential challenges. Few scholars have enriched Spanish historiography as he has, and no-one has left a legacy as essential and original. His first work with oral sources was a compilation of interviews with workers entitled Work: Twenty Personal Accounts, published by Penguin in 1968.Twenty years later, to commemorate the Revolution of 1968, he directed and edited a work of international acclaim A Student Generation in Revolt, Pantheon (1988): “It was a challenge like all my books and was done with a group of historians who were engaged in collecting sources oral in North America and Europe. A difficult task indeed.” As a counterpoint to this bitter experience he started researching an area from the early nineteenth century, far from oral sources, and became engrossed in the war of Spanish independence – a work which was published twenty years later. His best known books and those works which concentrated greatly on the two wars of Spain: Blood of Spain (1979) [Recuérdalo tú y recuérdalo a otros, Crítica, Barcelona, 1979] and Napoleon’s Cursed War (2008) [La maldita guerra de España, Crítica, Barcelona, 2006].

Ronald Fraser had three children born out of three different relationships: with Fern    Fraser his first wife, with his literary agent Charlotte Wolfers, and with Rosalind van der Beek. The last twenty-five years of his life were shared with the historian Professor Aurora Bosch, University of Valencia, who was with him at his passing on February 12, 2012. Fraser was born in Hamburg in 1930 to a Scottish father and an American mother with whose fortunes the family acquired the manor of Amnersfield, in the county of Hampshire. He lived there after leaving Germany in 1933. It is also where his brother Colin was born in 1935. Fraser attended several elite schools and served as an Officer of the Guard for several months, then spent a short period working as a journalist for Reuters. In 1957, with the inheritance he received upon the death of his mother and inspired by the work of Gerald Brenan whom he had befriended, he settled in Mijas, an Andalucian village near Malaga. In Mijas, he met André Gorz, then a journalist for L’Express, who inducted him into the circle of Jean-Paul Sartre in Paris and also into the New Left Review, which from then on, he always belonged to.

His life was a constant paradox: he moved to Spain to become a novelist but was unsuccessful, despite the publication of his first and only novel Yvette: “If I have added a bit to the history of Spain, I owe this debt to a failure, which I find ironic. I sought the sun, cheap living, the good life. I wrote a juvenile novel which got published and which was wisely forgotten.” Once the novel was finished, he faced a “deep and large emptiness” and began psychoanalysis, which twenty-five years later would be the base of his autobiography. After the publication of Yvette, according to Fraser himself, his life was a succession of encounters or “lucky” circumstances that shaped his professional trajectory. First and foremost was the reading of “The Children of Sanchez” by Oscar Lewis, because he realized he could write about others without having to invent anything. He discovered the distance required to create another world. In London he asked Lewis: “Would you consider your writing to be anthropology or literature?” Lewis thought for a moment before replying: literature. “I was in heaven because I could fulfill my desire to be literary thanks to others. I went immediately to buy one of the first cassette tapes that had come to the market, and I started to educate myself about the servants of my house in Amnersfield that were still alive …” And thus, he embarked on the interviews that would be the basis of his autobiography at a later point in time. “That was the beginning of the new career that I had invented. A stroke of luck saved me from depression …”

“By chance, in 1969 in London the Times had published an article in its front page about a former mayor of the Spanish Civil War who had reappeared in the town of Mijas … I had lived in Mijas years ago when I was trying to become a writer … I returned to Mijas and I wrote about the life of Manuel Cortes, In hiding: The Life of Manuel Cortes, 1972 (El calvario de Manuel Cortés). Then an American publisher asked me to write a book about Mijas and the fear of repression by Franco’s forces. This became Tajos. Only after writing about the Spanish Civil War and about Mijas that Fraser decided to work on his autobiography using some interviews he had conducted many years ago. “Through my relationship with the psychoanalyst I could write a book including interviews with domestic servants who had acted as my caretakers in my early years. I combined the techniques of interviewing with the act of being interviewed into a vision, upon something as personal as my own youth.” Thus emerged “In Search of a Past,” En busca del pasado (1984), a work mixing emotional memories with a new methodology.

His style of interviewing: When I met him in the early seventies, Fraser gifted me his book Tajos and I realized that being a historian might be a different job than what I understood it to be at the Faculty. Ronnie then changed my life because he taught me another way of writing history. With his unique and amazing interview techniques, he was to me what Lewis was to him. In Granada a few years ago, I along with Joseph A. Alcantud Gonzalez interviewed Fraser and asked him what the key to his interviews was. The response could be considered one of his last methodological lessons:

“If I had to summarize, I would say four words and they all begin with the letter P: privilege, passion, patience and persistence. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to create a new historical source, something is not given to all historians. As an oral historian, you find the opportunity to examine one’s own sources in a way that for an ordinary historian is not possible. Passion to be able to share with the person, to some extent, the recreation of his life. But be careful with this, because in part what the respondent creates is a self-representation of himself in the moment he is being interviewed, and if it stands as the only character in history, not only of his personal history, you have to be critical, I think, in believing it. As the Spanish speak a lot, I must have patience. I ask two questions at first, simple ones, which result in objective responses: in what year were you born, and where and how your parents lived. It’s something you need to know and is sometimes forgotten in the course of the interview. These are harmless questions that do not frighten anyone; they appear normal because they can be answered easily. Hence, patience and a good memory. Listen to the man or woman telling their life. You will always focus on two things: what questions you have to ask next, and that which you do not understand exactly, or the contradictions or disparities that occur in their stories. And persistence: if I can – and it’s not always possible – I do two interviews where in the first I ask people to develop their life story and in the second I ask specific questions. What I want to know is what happened to the respondent in those moments of their life and what they thought of it.”

Ronald Fraser was one of the first to explore the memory of others in Spain. He opened unusual windows and revealed to us unexpected landscapes of ourselves. He knew how to listen and ask, and he never withheld the criticism by which his interviewees judged themselves or the organizations or institutions that they did not belong to. At the end of his tether, after writing about the Spanish Civil War he confided to me: “I will never again interview militants because they just want to manipulate you to write about history the way they wanted it to be.” He was true to his word and after 1979 his books followed other paths. The key to his greatness was the sincerity and honesty of his work: always original, always distinct. He was not a follower, but a teacher.

Mercedes Vilanova

Ex President of IOHA and Profesor Emeritus at the University of Barcelona

[email protected]


[1] Some of the information in this note are my personal memories which have already been published in “Homage to Ronald Fraser, the historian” HAFO, Number 40, 2008, and, Jose A. Alcantud González and Mercedes Vilanova, “Ronald Fraser: Exploring Oral Sources”, University of Granada, 2011. View some biographical details in: Alik Tarik, “Ronald Fraser: Obituary”, The Guardian, February 15, 2012.