AN old friend of mine would occasionally look wistful, shake his head and say, “I wish I’d listened to what my father told me.”

“Why?” someone would ask. “What did he tell you?”

To which he would reply, “I don’t know. I didn’t listen.”

It’s a silly joke, but it always made me laugh. It also holds a truism that most of us let drift until it’s too late to do anything about – the wealth of stories old people can tell.

I wish I had listened more closely to what my grandma used to say. In fact, I wish I had questioned her and written down her answers about life in Victorian England.

But she is long gone and the chance went with her. The same goes for my mother and my Auntie Doris.

With their passing, went chunks of history that were not just about family, but which told vividly how people used to live.

Dramatic stories, of how three uncles of my mother went off to the Boer War and were all killed. A sort of Saving Private Ryan in 1900, except that none got saved.

Or the mundane, such as how my much-missed Auntie Doris attended half-day school when she was eight just before the First World War and spent the other half day going door-to-door selling bags of yeast, a little girl on her own.

There is a national wealth of oral history waiting to be tapped and Story Vault is an online archive that is trying to do something about saving it. The site encourages family cross examination: take a video camera, point it at grandad, and ask him to remember.

Anyone can contribute. It’s a marvellous idea and we could all do this for our own family histories.

It’s worth making the time to ask elderly relatives about their memories, ordinary and momentous, and writing them down or capturing them on video, before it is too late and they are lost for ever.