During the past six months or so, I have been occupied, on a very part-time basis, in researching the life of Elizabeth Spreadbury, a former PhD student of High Energy Physics (HEP) at UCL, who died in 1990 at the age of 32. That research is now complete, and the end result is, or soon will be, on a web page linked to the main HEP web page.

This blog is not about Elizabeth Spreadbury. Instead it is about the process of researching her life.

The experience taught me a few things. One of the things it taught me is that I am a lousy interviewer. I may have done an Oral History course, but most of what I learnt there was what not to do – don’t ask leading questions, don’t publish stuff without consent, etc etc. I did not learn how to wheedle information out of someone who found it difficult, or painful, to talk. Until I started this project, all the interviewing I had done had been with people desperate to tell their story, and all I had to do was switch the recorder on and sit back and listen. When I encountered Jane Spreadbury – already very ill (she died two months later) and on oxygen, she either found it difficult to physically speak, or perhaps to concentrate, or maybe it was all too upsetting for her to go over it all – or maybe her memory had simply deteriorated so much that she just didn’t have much to say. The whole thing was a farce, and I kicked myself for not being better prepared – for example, not even having a pre-arranged list of questions to ask her.

After the interview I walked around Salisbury for a bit before catching my train, trying to imagine what it was like for Elizabeth growing up in this pleasant country town. It was only later, of course, that I realised she hadn’t grown up in Salisbury at all, and that the place probably meant very little to her – just one of the surprising things I was to find out over the coming months.

Doing this biography involved several experiences which were totally new to me. One of the strangest was going to the RAF museum to look at Elizabeth’s late father’s logbooks (he was a pilot, first for the RAF, then for Bristow Helicopters;) the logbooks gave dates of all his flights and made it possible to pinpoint the many moves around the world that the family made while Elizabeth was growing up. I had never had anything to do with the military before, despite having grown up in West Surrey, and as someone who has come to view the very existence of the armed forces and the arms industry as a problem, it felt very much like going into “enemy territory”. A more pleasant prospect was going (for the first time) to the Isle of Skye – to talk to people who had known Elizabeth while she was living there, and to look at the ruin of the little museum that her mother had told me she created, single-handedly (which of course she didn’t, though she did have a hand in it).

The most incredible thing I learnt from the whole experience was that it is possible for almost all physical traces of a human being to be eradicated within little over twenty years of their death. In fact the entire thing, without pictures, fits on eight sides of A4. A life in eight pages! I have never found anything she wrote: no letters or diaries, nothing connected with her studies. I could not ascertain even quite when she left school or what A-levels she got. There were some photographs, of course, mostly by courtesy of her aunt (now her closest living relative) and her friends on Skye. There was talk of a video done at the University of London Observatory, in her undergraduate days, which might have featured her, but it could not be found. So I never heard her voice. (Friends said she had acquired a “soft Scottish lilt” from her time on Skye). She was an artist of sorts, but I have never seen any of her paintings.

It became fairly clear that her parents had disposed of everything, or nearly everything, connected with her over the years since her death. This might sound a bit callous, but who knows how they will react in that situation? (And it was quite an unusual situation, since they had also lost their son at the age of 26). Besides, a family friend told me that Jane and John had mourned their children for fifteen years before deciding to “get on with their lives”, so maybe it is not such an unusual thing. And they did keep some photographs.

All the same, one imagines that one would leave more of a mark. And it is true that, with more effort, I might have uncovered more facts. There are avenues that can be explored by the more determined biographer, especially given plenty of time and money – presumably searches of the Land Registry, or the Electoral Register, might bring forth clues (though I doubt whether either of those institutions knows about the Breakish caravan site where Liz lived for several years – I think many aspects of her life were simply “below official radar”). That said, I was very surprised to get some basic facts out of the Open University regarding which courses she had done, and when; perhaps with more determined pestering I might have got more, despite the fact that we live in an age when giving out someone’s personal details – even those of a dead person – is regarded as a heinous sin. There might yet be information lurking in a file somewhere, perhaps at UCL. But most of what is left of Elizabeth resides in the memories of those who knew her. Yet even there it is not easy – because she was such a private person, I became used to the very short replies coming back from people who were at school or university with her, or worked on the same experiment: “The name is familiar but I did not know her” … “I knew her, but not very well” etc.

When I read more conventional biographies – sometimes of people who died centuries ago – I am always impressed at the amount of information the author has managed to dig up. Why couldn’t I manage that? Well, there are at least four factors that have made it hard for me to find out about Elizabeth’s life. One is of course that most biographies are of famous people, about whom people will have shown some interest in their own lifetime, and their papers will have been preserved for the same reason; Elizabeth didn’t live long enough to be famous. Another source of information for biographers is family records and memories; but Elizabeth’s entire family has now been wiped out – she didn’t live long enough to have children either, and nor did her brother; and even his widow died young. But what about aunts, uncles and cousins? Here the third factor comes into play – the itinerant nature of the Spreadbury family’s existence (apparently Jane once told a friend that they had moved house 27 times!) meant that other branches of the family did not really get to know her, or even what she was doing a lot of the time; nor did friends find it easy to keep in touch with her. And Elizabeth’s own retiring nature meant that those friends were never numerous, and she did not always disclose much of herself to people she did get to know. As I said in the biography, she was something of an enigma.

Nevertheless, I am sure there is more information to be got, if one had the will and the means. Somehow, I can’t help thinking that, if MI5 and GCHQ were to decide they were interested in her for some reason, doors would mysteriously open; records, thought lost or destroyed, would suddenly appear. For instance, the record of her (presumably temporary) employment at Porton Down – who never replied to my letter – would become available. But even our beloved “intelligence agencies” can’t produce facts out of nothing (unless asked to do so by a government minister!)

Re-reading it, I wonder whether the use of two different names for my subject comes across as odd. It might be thought by some readers to be a deliberate device – like using synonyms – to avoid too much repetition; but in fact it just reflects the evolution of the piece as I was writing it. To begin with, she was simply “Elizabeth” to me; but as I found out more about her – sometimes trivial things which did not make it into the biography – I felt I was getting to know her better and thought that she probably wouldn’t mind now if I called her “Liz”. So the parts that refer to her as “Liz” are simply the bits that I added later.

Her mother referred to her as “Lizzie”, but I could not presume to use that name. Mothers are entitled to have special names for their children.

I have naturally been helped greatly by the technological tools now available to the biographer of the living or recently deceased – I was greatly assisted in the 17 interviews I carried out by my wonderful miniature digital voice recorder, which I never go anywhere without; and as well as sending 240 emails and 11 letters out (and getting nearly as many back, though sadly mostly in the negative) I found the Friends Reunited website a great help. I sent 188 messages out through FR, and while those messages really only produced one major contact and a few minor ones, I couldn’t have done it without them. But we have to bear in mind that technology is increasingly ephemeral. If I had unearthed that video, would there have been anything to play it on? And how long will my biographical web page itself last before some new technology makes it inaccessible?

I am a strong advocate of oral history, archiving, and the like. But there are limits. If we all kept and recorded everything there would be no room to put it. But I hope that the current popularity of family history will mean that people will do more of this sort of thing and maybe start to think about future historians. I think that as one reaches “a certain age” one starts to wonder what one’s life has been all about, and what one has contributed – what will remain after one has gone – and then I suppose the next step is to try and ensure – quietly and subtly, for those of us who don’t have oversized egos – that something does remain – though of course Liz Spreadbury had no reason to start thinking such thoughts at the age of 32.

The biography can be found at http://www.hep.ucl.ac.uk/library/lizbiog.shtml.