Ken’s reading journey

By Mary Grover

Husband and wife Ken and Kath were interviewed together for Reading Sheffield. Their marriage includes a strong ‘reading partnership’, based on their shared political and local interests. We will post Kath’s reading journey after this.   

Ken was born on 27 April 1924. For the first 20 years of his life he lived in Fir Vale, Sheffield, in a house where he was surrounded by ‘tons of books’. ‘Everybody in the family read.’ Ken got books as presents and his older sister handed down her favourites – some of them novels his mother and father would not have approved, ‘Istanbul Train and all those stories’.

And of course I read all the boys’ books that you would have. You know, tuppenny bloods and all that sort of thing, school stories and that, which were really funny. By today’s standards rather silly, I expect, but I used to think they were marvellous.

Though Ken didn’t think much of the radio programmes in the Thirties, he did enjoy the books read on Children’s Hour, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and all are still with him. Down at Fir Vale shops was a tuppenny library, a rich source of popular books, Ken’s favourites being humorous books and The Saint books by Leslie Charteris.

And then, when he was about ten, a new municipal library opened in Firth Park. Ken’s main aim on his first visit was to get the thickest book possible because you were, in 1934, only able to borrow one book a week. So his first choice was The Great Aeroplane Mystery by Percy F Westerman[i]. ‘Absolute rubbish, of course,’ but thick.

The old Firth Park Library building today

It was when Ken gained a place at the Catholic grammar school, De La Salle, that his reading tastes expanded to include a whole range of authors that were new to him.

An English master who was a brilliant man put me onto all sorts of good books. And he was a very opinionated bloke. He used to think that all the best writers were people like Lytton Strachey and all that lot. You know – the Bloomsbury outfit and all those people.

We used to have an English room and there used to be favourite things pinned up on the wall. You know, things like The Land and all those famous poems. Things I’ve never forgotten. I mean all those dreadful poems you had to memorise like The Ancient Mariner and ‘Young Lochinvar has come out of the west / Through all the wide borders his steed was the best’. You know, that sort of stuff and all the classic things – Sohrab and Rustum and all those sorts of things. But it stamps what you’re going to do if you listen. And he was a very unusual person. I used to hang on his every word really, I expect. He never failed to be right in what he’d said. Well, I think so. I thought he was bang on the nail with everything.

During his school days Ken became a socialist, reading ‘loads and loads of pamphlets, political pamphlets. They were all the rage then’.

The outbreak of war led to the closure of Ken’s grammar school and the end to his formal schooling. At 15, he left school to go into ‘the works’, first as an apprentice and then as a draughtsman. But the war meant an increase in Ken’s reading.

During the war that was all you could do, read books, with very little other entertainment. Certainly nothing like the radio or TV as there is now so you were thrown onto books and written material, newspapers.

Towards the end of the war, just turned 20, Ken was lucky enough to marry Kath who shared his taste in books and politics. Kath introduced Ken to Sholokhov’s books, ‘Quiet Flows the Don and all those Russian novels’. ‘And Chinese books, famous Chinese novels,’ adds Kath. These books opened the couple’s eyes to the suffering in ‘Old Russia’ before the Revolution. Ken describes himself ‘ploughing his way through’ Das Kapital. He and Kath became communists and during the Cold War, they took their children to a children’s camp in East Germany. Their experience left them with a deep scepticism about the way East Germany was represented in Western spy stories.

A lot of them are a whole load of rubbish, you know. Weren’t they, Kath? Absolutely. We used to know this girl – East German girl who was a teacher there – and she used to go across the border every night to go and be entertained in West Berlin. They were supposed to be at daggers drawn and everything but it wasn’t like that a bit when we were there, was it? Not a bit. And it makes you wonder just how the news and everything has been manipulated in the past, you know? Shocking, shocking.

However, despite his firm political convictions, Ken describes his reading tastes as catholic: Quiller Couch, P G Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Just William, Ken has read and enjoyed them all. Indeed, when asked to pick out a favourite book, he chooses one written by the journalist and novelist, Philip Gibbs, who was no socialist.

It was called European Journey. It was set in the 1920s just after the First World War. He’s an artist and a crowd of about six of them toured through France and Germany by car – typical better-off officer-class people. You’ve got to forget all that part of it – because he was a brilliant writer and he writes about Paris and all – really great – just how France is. I love France. He writes about France with real feeling. But it was when he was a comparatively young man. That’s a book I got by sheer chance, just by picking it up. It was old, of course; I’ve still got it upstairs. It’s a lovely book to dip into and just, er, read all these bits and pieces now and again.

As Ken puts it, ‘We never were tied up to one set of things’.

You can find Ken’s full interview here.

 

[i] Although Percy F Westerman wrote over 150 books, none has the title The Great Aeroplane Mystery. He wrote The Secret Battleplane (1916) and Airship Golden Hind (1920). His son, John F C Westerman, also wrote adventure stories for boys, including A Mystery of the Air (1931). Another adventure writer, Captain Brereton, wrote The Great Aeroplane (1911) and The Great Airship (1914), John Westerman’s book seems the closest in title and date, but there is no way of knowing for certain which book Ken borrowed. The Westermans are discussed here.

 

 

Gill Warren’s reading journey

Gill Warren, who was born in New Zealand, is Reading Sheffield’s first international blogger, and we are delighted to welcome her. 

I went to St Heliers Bay Primary School in Auckland when I was five years old, and stayed there for Primers 1 to 4, as infant classes are known in New Zealand. It was a public school, meaning free. I am not sure how I got there. Perhaps Mum took me as it was a 20 minute walk, and collected me again at the end of the half-day. I must have read books at home as there were plenty of books about – I had five elder siblings.

St Heliers, Auckland

When they were small, the elder children lived behind the hall door in their own nursery. They all had an English nanny and had their meals with her until they could converse and use cutlery properly. The eldest was born in 1940 and went to boarding school at nine years old. But Nanny had gone by the time Mum realised she was pregnant with me. Some of the older girls were at boarding school when I was born. Perhaps they read to me when home from holiday – I don’t remember Mother ever having time.

On Saturday and Sunday 6 – 7 am on the radio were stories for kids (where was the radio? I wonder now). There were stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Sparkie, Peter and the Wolf and the Madeline series. And This is London, This is San Francisco and This is Athens – perhaps they gave me the travel bug. There was Noddy and Big Ears but never Dr Seuss – way too modern! I remember I had books like Tales from India, with pictures of fine-looking elephants and tigers, and A Bear called Paddington and Winnie the Pooh. I got Winnie muddled up with Winston Churchill as they seemed to be the same shape.

I then attended a private school (meaning fee-paying with uniform, a 20 minute walk to the bus, a half-hour bus ride and then uniform checks at the gate for hats and gloves). It was St Cuthbert’s College for Girls, and I was there from Standard One at age seven through to Standard Five at age 11. We had exams each term time from the age of five years.

Glover Park, St Heliers, Auckland

I remember going to the public library with Father on Friday evenings to choose books for the week. The five elder children had also done this with him.

Later I read the Secret Seven and Famous Five books. I wanted so badly to be in that group, with a wee boat and limitless adventures.

We were not allowed comics. (‘They are COM or common, dear.’) When the TV arrived in our house (I think I was about ten or so), I did not know what animation was and I think it was the Jetsons or some such thing on the box. In black and white of course! Then colour came – red, blue and green striped bands applied to the screen to give the illusion of colour.

At age 11 I was sent to boarding school 500 kilometres away from home. My father’s sisters had gone there and as we girls were said to be ‘unspectacular in the brain department,’ Mother hoped for ‘nice’ girls. It was Nga Tawa Diocesan for Girls – Forms 1 to 6 for 11 to 16 year-olds. We had a school library and reading in the ‘silent time,’ after lunch on Saturdays and Sundays for one hour, was obligatory. If caught talking, you had to stand for the rest of the hour. If you talked at night when lights were out, again you had to stand in the cold corridor for an hour or so.

At some stage the nursery at home was re-modelled into a TV room, where my Mother ironed while watching TV. (There was no TV in the drawing room – only reading and music.) There were window seats for the toys and one wall of books: Time Life, hard-covered picture books, numerous piles of National Geographic magazines (good for cutting up for school projects), novels plus maps of NZ and the world. The book I was fascinated by was a massive book about World Wars One and Two. There were pencil drawings of life in the tube stations in London and of the trenches – very scary. Lots of black and white images.

I went to Hawaii aged 14 with my parents. They could not believe I would not look out of the window as I was deep into Gone with the Wind.

When I was 19, I went overseas to Thailand and Kathmandu, then overland to UK. I took books out of the St Heliers library to plan for the trip and Mother was most disappointed when she saw them on the sofa table, and realised they were for me, not her and Dad!

The Auckland City Council now has multiple libraries and we can go to any of them but I think that, when I was growing up, you could only go to the one in your suburb. We lived in Cairns in Queensland for a while and there we could for the first time go to multiple libraries on the one card. I now mainly read or listen to stories online from the Auckland Library for free. I listen and read on my i-pad.

 

 

The reading journeys of Pat and Mary

Sisters Mary and Pat were happy to be interviewed for Reading Sheffield by Mary’s daughter, Ruth, although neither wanted to be recorded. The short, verbatim notes Ruth took give a strong sense of the sisters’ personalities and of the importance of books in their lives.

Three sisters in Colwyn Bay, 1946. Pat, aged 20 is on the left, Mary, aged 23, is in the middle and Jean, aged 17, is on the right.

Mary’s journey

Mary was born in the Sheffield suburb of Tinsley on 24 May 1923. She left school at the age of 14 and had a job in a sweetshop until she was about 20. She then worked for the Co-Op, in their offices in Tinsley. Mary was a devout Methodist and, through church, met her husband Jack, who worked on the railways. The couple had two children, David and Ruth. Mary always regretted being unable to continue her education, and did become a mature student, studying for a while at the Open University.

Nobody read to me when I was young. I don’t think it was something people did back then. There were so many jobs to do around the house. My mum took in washing.

The books that made me feel like a grown-up were mainly the classics. I was about 16 or 17 and started to read Jane Austen. I loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I also read Charlotte Bronte and Anne and Emily too, but my favourite was Charlotte. I loved Jane Eyre. I also read some Thomas Hardy but got bored with his descriptions sometimes. So, yes, Jane Eyre made a great impression on me, as did Anne of Green Gables. But I can’t for the life of me remember where I got them from. Probably the library but I couldn’t swear to it.

Come to think of it, I think I did get my books from the library and it must have been Tinsley Library. I can’t remember there being many books at school, though there must have been some.

My parents didn’t really value reading. My dad, who was a miner, sometimes read a newspaper. I can’t remember my mother reading at all. I think they were suspicious of books and novels, thinking we’d get ideas above our station or that we were filling our heads with fantasy. Work was what they valued and they didn’t really think education and school were worth much. I passed the exam to go to grammar school but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought the uniform was too expensive and, as I was the eldest of three sisters, they said that, if they sent me to grammar school, they would have to pay for my sisters to go too. But, as it happened, neither of them passed the exam for grammar school. I really wish I’d had a better education. I love literature and I’m in a book group now. I’m 88 years old.

I used to read in our living room and everyone told me that, when I was reading, I got totally lost in the story and never heard anyone if they spoke to me. I’d read after work in the evening and in bed too.

I don’t think I had any idea about highbrow or lowbrow until I was in my twenties. Then I thought there were good and bad books. Love stories I thought were bad but then Jane Eyre is a love story and so is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and some Georgette Heyer, which I don’t think is highbrow. Maybe the middlebrow section.

I’d re-read all the books I read as a young adult, including the Mary Webb collection I had, but I think they’ve been lost. I loved those books.

Without reading I would probably have gone mad! It’s a cheap but really rewarding pastime. I’ve learnt so much from books and I think it makes you understand the world better.

Gertrude and Ernest, the parents of Mary and Pat

Pat’s journey

Pat was born in Tinsley on 7 April 1926. She was christened Gertrude Ada, but disliked the names and called herself Pat when she was around 20. Her niece Ruth describes her as ‘quiet, beautiful and glamorous’. According to family legend, Pat had several proposals of marriage but declined them all. She stayed at home and was, Ruth says, devoted to her parents and younger sister, Jean.  

Nobody read to me when I was young. Like my sister Mary, I enjoyed the classics. I read Little Women and Jo’s Boys which made me feel that I was an adult, though I’m not sure that they are adult books, are they?

I think I got my books from the library and from work. I worked as a wages clerk at Shefftex and me and some of the girls would swap books. I used to enjoy the Dimsie books[i] but I think they were aimed at teenagers though I still enjoy them now. I remember all the Dimsie books and they did affect me. I suppose I wanted to live the life Dimsie lived. It was all so exciting and adventurous.

I always liked historical novels and still do. I go to the library at Greenhill every Monday morning but I’m not in the reading group that Mary’s in. I don’t want to talk about what I’ve read. I might say the wrong thing.

Some of my books came back from Sunday School when I was a child but I can’t remember what the books were. I think they might have been Bible stories. Nobody encouraged me to read and I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. I knitted and did a bit of sewing but reading has always been my favourite occupation.

I never married and I never had children so I’ve been lucky having had free time to read.

I’ve read everywhere. I used to read at work if it was quiet. Nobody encouraged me to read. I just did. Maybe I copied my older sister Mary. I do watch TV but I read more than I watch TV.

In the years you’re talking about, we had poor lighting really and I was always told that I’d ruin my eyes. When I was younger, we had gas lamps which weren’t very good really.

I particularly liked Georgette Heyer, Mary Webb, Daphne du Maurier and Jean Plaidy but I can’t remember individual titles, apart from the classics. When I see the serializations of the classics, I’m nearly always disappointed. I think it spoils your imagination. You have an idea of what the characters look like and when you see famous actors taking those parts it spoils it for you.

Reading has been very important in my life. When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better.

Many thinks to Ruth for taking these notes.

[i] The Dimsie books, written by Dorita Fairlie Bruce between 1921 and 1941, told the story of Dimsie and her friends at boarding school and at home

Charles Williams: ‘no novels anywhere quite like them…’

Following our previous post about reading and religion, here is a reader’s encounter in the 1950s with the ‘Christian fantasy’ novels of Charles Williams.   

One of our readers, Madeleine Doherty, recalled the novels of Charles Williams (1886-1945) in her interview. They made a tremendous impression on the young Madeleine but she found it hard to describe them or to account for their impact.

Charles Williams is perhaps best remembered now as one of the Inklings, the Oxford literary group which included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, with both of whom he has been compared. ‘What I owe to them all is incalculable,’ said Lewis. ‘Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?’

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, known as the ‘Bird and Baby’, where the Inklings met (GNU Free Documentation License)

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Williams was employed first as a proof-reader, then as an editor, at the Oxford University Press. He had been denied a university education (and therefore career) by his family’s financial difficulties, but was scholarly and in demand as a public speaker. He produced seven novels, as well as poetry, plays, theology, biography, literary criticism and reviews. His novels are strong stuff, featuring for example:

  • the discovery of the Holy Grail, which is then stolen by a black magician to aid his evil plans (War in Heaven, 1930)
  • the original and powerful deck of Tarot cards (The Greater Trumps, 1932)
  • succubi and doppelgangers (Descent into Hell, 1937)
  • a necromancer and ghosts (All Hallows’ Eve, 1945).

But the novels are not straightforward fantasy or horror. Instead of Narnia or Middle Earth, they are set in the Britain Williams knew, which has the effect of emphasising the stranger elements. More importantly, Williams used them as an instrument for examining the complex philosophical and religious ideas which gripped him. He saw, for example, no difference between the natural and the supernatural and thought it required only extra awareness to experience the supernatural. This review of The Place of the Lion (1931) from the Yorkshire Post of 23 September, 1931 sums it up well:

… one of the most remarkable [novels] I have read for a long time. Ecstasy and demonic power run through it like tongues of fire; the princes of heaven are abroad in the world and through the terrors of an earthly cataclysm we see ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory.’ And yet the apocalyptic vision is convincingly related to mundane cares.

Madeleine Doherty came across the novels through the church she went to in the 1950s, when she was in her late teens.

We had a curate at church who introduced me to some books that I have never yet found since, and they were not religious ones. They were … not spiritualist either, what’s the word I’m looking for? Word’s gone out of my mind, I can’t remember what I want to say. … Not science, oh what’s the word? Well they were fantasy in a way but that is not the word I would use to describe them. Oh dear, I can’t think of the word I want. …

It’s not magic either, it’s like magic but I don’t mean magic, I just can’t think of the word to describe, a bit Dracula type things … I suppose so they were weird, they were weird. Sometimes I used to frighten myself.

Madeleine was fascinated.

I think basically they were unpleasant things but once I started reading I was hooked, I’d take one back and bring another home … I would bring one and I would stay up, I can remember one night I woke. I was reading in bed and there was this spider and I’m terrified of spiders. I had been so absorbed reading this book, it was probably two in the morning or whatever and I thought, ‘I’ll have to stop, shut me book, there’s a spider hanging straight in front of me.’ It absolutely terrified me. I just couldn’t put them down.

She found it hard to describe what happened in the novels, although she remembered typical features like spirits, talismans and struggles between good and evil.

I just can’t even relate one of the stories really at all. All I know is that I was absolutely hooked on those books. So how old would I be? 17 or 18, something like that. I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that. I don’t know how many he wrote. You know, they’d have ghostly things in or they’d go to castles or houses and … I think there was a religious theme in it as well, kind of thing, in the background probably.

Williams’ novels[i] were never particularly popular, and there was of course criticism (J B Priestley, for example, described one novel as ‘painfully incredible’). But his adherents were warm in their praise. For C S Lewis, Williams showed the ‘everyday world … invaded by the marvellous’. T S Eliot, whose firm published one of his novels, said that there were:

…no novels anywhere quite like them … [Williams] makes our everyday world much more exciting because of the supernatural which he finds always active in it. … and seeing all persons and all events in the light of the divine, he shows us a significance, in human beings, human emotions, human events, to which we had been blind.

After Williams’ novels, it happened that Madeleine’s habits changed:

… after that I don’t think I read so much really. I think I seem to have, after I had been, started me teaching, me books sort of more or less went out the window. I didn’t sort of have time I suppose, to sit and read as much.

Madeleine (third from left, back row) as a student teacher

She was training as a teacher, and then she married and had a family. She had less time or energy to read. Perhaps this is one reason the extraordinary Charles Williams remains so vivid for Madeleine. He was the author she read at the time she left her girlhood for the world of adults.

 

This post is for Thecla Wilkinson (1956-2016) who sometimes wrote for Reading Sheffield. She enjoyed Charles Williams’ novels and had planned to write about them for us.

[i] You can read some recent reviews of Williams’ novels at our sister blog, Reading 1900-1950.

Reading religion

Some of our Reading Sheffield interviewees had vivid memories of the contribution religion made to their reading lives.

… the services were a bit boring but the actual working out [of] the words that I’d never heard, was fascinating.

This was Erica (b.1937) remembering how she learned to read, not in school, but in church.

Erica

Malcolm (b. 1925) also remembered religion helping his education:

…And some of the psalms – you know ‘In the year the King Uzziah died I saw the Lord lifted high and up and his strength filled the Temple’. So we learned Biblical scriptures. … I am sure it contributed. … the love of the old Authorised Version and the words of Evensong and Matins still stick with us in a way that modern prayers don’t. That’s not true but they don’t keep you in the same way. I know when I was in training college to become a teacher, people, colleagues, would criticise the Prayer Book because of its language, but this was something that I as a choir boy had to learn, which is very useful for reading anyway because you learned words there that you wouldn’t normally have learned – same with the hymns. I think it was the language of the Prayer Book that kept us there to some extent.

Shirley (b. 1936) owed her whole existence to Methodism – to the Scotland Street Methodist Church:

… church is the connection! [My parents] were both keen Methodists … And theirs was a romance born and bred at church, that’s how they knew each other, the families knew each other, and they were very enthusiastic members, you know, morning and evening and Sunday school and I grew up the same way.

Shirley

Shirley’s parents shared an interest in church music. She remembered their ‘tune books for the Methodist Church’ in one of the bookcases at home.

‘We always went to Sunday school.  We nearly lived there. … if they were putting something on, we were expected to join in,’ said Edna (b. 1928). Sunday schools and church schools often gave books or book tokens as prizes. The quality of the books varied, of course. Erica was not impressed with her church’s efforts, describing the prize books as ‘flimsy and irrelevant really’. The books at Erica’s boarding school were equally unsatisfactory in her opinion.

It was a Church of England, basically it was a school for the daughters of clergy. And presumably the library was well stocked books that they approved.

Meg (b.1936) was luckier:

I once took the scripture exam … and came second in Sheffield, with 98 marks. We had to go to the Montgomery Hall to be presented. So I had a book token, and whenever I got book tokens from church – I was at Walkley Methodist Church, on South Road – or the scripture exam, they used to take me to the Methodist bookshop in Chapel Walk to buy books. This occasion, I remember I got an Arthur Ransome book, which was quite a thick book – it was a good token!

Grown-up Meg

Winnie (b. 1923) had kept some books given to her mother, a Salvationist. There was, for example, Jessica’s First Prayer by Hesba Stretton, inscribed ‘Salvation Army Slum Corps’ and presented to Hannah Stacey, ‘for regular attendance, February 2nd 1899’. The Slum Corps was based on Infirmary Road, Sheffield and Hannah Stacey was Winnie’s mother, who was ten years old in 1899. Winnie thought that this type of Victorian book was usually sad.

They were very hard. Like Jessica’s Prayer, in fact I only found that out a few weeks ago and I thought I’ll read this again. She’s on her own completely and living in a garret and I think it was the verger at the local church … Yeah, Jessica’s First Prayer.

Oh he was a coffee stall keeper and he also looked after the local church.  Must’ve been like a verger or something there. Yes. And he took her under his wing and gave her shelter and fed her and took her into church and she’d never been in church before. It’s very – a real tear jerker.

Winnie

Winnie treasured her mother’s prizes but she was never awarded any herself. ‘Ooh no!  Never! Never! I never went long enough! No, no!’

Doreen (b. 1934), who said ‘We weren’t taken to church, we were sent to church,’ knew her Bible. Her favourite book was Ruth, because ‘it’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?’

Doreen aged 17

Maureen (b. 1941), in contrast, wasn’t from a churchgoing family. In childhood, she went to services only occasionally, when staying at her grandfather’s house.

I was friends with the family next door, the two youngest daughters there, and we sometimes went to the Methodist church.

Religion became, and remained, important to her.

I’ve got a Bible there, which was given to me after I asked for a Bible for my ninth birthday. This one. And I’ve written in it, because my aunt bought it from … there was a really good toyshop at Firth Park, expensive toyshop, and she bought it me from there. And I put on it: ‘1951. To Maureen, for her ninth birthday from Auntie Edith.’ But I wrote it. And I put how many words are in the Bible and how many chapters and how many verses. So that was mine as a child. I don’t know where I got that from – I’ve not counted them obviously.

Maureen appreciated the Bible as a source of stories, as well as religious teaching.

I mean, if you just read it as a book, you’ve got murders, you’ve got all sorts, you’ve got wars, you’ve got murders … I mean, I’ve just been reading about the king who married Jezebel and all of that, and John had his head put on a platter … so even if you just had no faith, but read it as a book, there’s everything in it really, I suppose. There’s love, there’s hatred, there’s forgiveness …

Her favourite book was Isaiah:

… it’s relevant for today, the things that are happening in the world today were happening in Isaiah – and we’ve still not learned very much, have we? We must have, but I think a lot of what is prophesised … came true. The words that he used – and I do have doubts sometimes – the words that he used actually came to fruition in Jesus, and then the gospels, you know, what Jesus said as well, but … yes, Isaiah stands out for me.

Reading the Bible strengthened Maureen’s faith:

I think you grow in the spread of what you read, and your faith changes all the time, you can read something one day and you can read it another day and it means something different to you.

Some of our readers had relatives who were preachers or ministers. Anne (b.1930) remembered that her grandmother was not a reader but had:

a big bookcase that was full of books but, my grandfather, she kept all his books, he was a, he wasn’t an ordained minister, but he was a minister in the church.

John (b.1929) also remembered ‘devotional books’ at home. He grew up in the Wesleyan Reform Union. His mother worked for years in the Book-room, the Union’s bookshop:

… in effect, it was the headquarters of the Wesleyan Reform Union and Sheffield was chosen as the centre for it and it was on West Bar, Sheffield. And my grandfather became the very first full-time general secretary of the Wesleyan     Reform Union, and that’s when he actually moved to Sheffield to take up this post and also the ministry at the Attercliffe Wesleyan Reform chapel on Bodmin Street. It’s still there, it is now a mosque …

John’s relatives featured in The History of the Wesleyan Reform Union, which he read ‘more than anything’.

This was written by the general secretary at that time. And of course, my grandfather’s mentioned there, my great-grandfather is. There’s pictures of them and my uncle, who was a minister there.

So strong was the link between church and family that John thought:

… that if my mother had been – it sounds silly this – if my mother had been a man, she’d have been a minister, because both her elder brothers went. She didn’t. The only job she ever had, as far as I know, was as assistant to her father in the Book-room in Sheffield. But she was a constant worker for the church right through, as long as she could be.

In later years, with his memory suffering, John returned to books from his youth:

… one thing now that I like reading is the hymn books, because it’s the Bible in another form. … The point I’m making, why I like the hymn books, is because things like that you remember better, because my memory’s very bad now, so I can’t remember things. I remember this one verse in particular:

I am not skilled to understand

What God had willed and God has planned

I only know at God’s right hand

Stands one who is my saviour.

And things like that you remember, and it makes you remember them. This is what I try to do now, to sort of stoke up my memory.

 

With thanks to my colleague Mary Grover for making the notes on which this post is based. 

 

 

 

Mais où se trouve la bibliothèque?

Continuing website editor Val Hewson’s reading journey

In the late 1970s, I spent a year in France as part of my university course. I was the English assistant in a school, the Collège Jules Ferry, in the small town of Montluçon.

Montlucon and its château (Creative Commons)

If you look at a map of France, Montluçon is just about in the centre, near Vichy. It is at heart a medieval town, with a castle on the top of the hill, a 12th century church below and narrow streets twisting around. The castle was home to a hurdy-gurdy museum (the only one in the world, they told me). Around the historic centre is the newer town, with some beautiful 19th century houses, modern apartment buildings and, across the River Cher, a Dunlop factory. The school where I worked is based in a former convent near the centre. For a few weeks I lived there, before I moved to a tiny flat on the banks of the Cher.

Narrow streets twisting around (Free Art Licence)

Detail of the old town (Free Art Licence)

I must have taken books to France with me. I would never have gone so far away for so long without cramming as many as I could into my trunk. But I don’t remember titles. Fiction rather than non-fiction, I think, for relaxation. Catch 22 is a possibility, as I read and re-read it then. Loyalty oaths, the soldier in white and Major Major promoted by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Almost certainly I packed at least one of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels, as I was devoted to these long, intricate tales of a 16th century adventurer. Maybe there was a Georgette Heyer – Frederica, at a guess. Filled with good intentions, I might have put in set texts like Madame Bovary and Germinal. No, never Germinal, which I hated.

At all events, these books would not have lasted me long. Clearly I needed to find other sources of reading material. If there was a school library, I never found it. There was a bookshop in town, with lots of Gallimard, Garnier Flammarion and Livre de Poche paperbacks. I used to go to a newsagent, for the local newspaper, La Montagne, and for magazines like L’Express or the occasional Paris Match for celebrity news. I remember a story in Paris Match that the Duke of Edinburgh was mysteriously ill, and a teacher begged me to ask my mother if this was known about ‘chez vous, en Angleterre’. I also used to buy the International Herald Tribune, where I discovered Doonesbury.

Livres de Poche

Some books came through the radio. BBC Radio 4 on long wave gave me Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, read by Robert Powell. ‘Midnight Orgy at Number 10!’ and Agatha Runcible saying ‘too, too sick-making’ (a phrase I still use). And I learned the Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

At some point, I realised that Montluçon had a public library. I think I had to pay a small subscription. I embarrassed myself at the registration desk by using the verb ‘joindre’ [‘to attach’] than ‘s’inscrire’ [‘to enrol’], and was glared at by the librarian. In hindsight, ‘attach’ perhaps better describes my feeling about libraries. I suppose I did read some original French novels but mostly I borrowed English and American detective stories in translation. There was one about a woman being told that one of her aunts – she had seven? – had murdered her husband and trying to work out which one. I would love to know the title. Anyone?

Just before Christmas, the grumbling appendix I’d had for some years finally had enough and I ended up in the Centre Hospitalier, having an emergency operation for peritonitis. I spent the next ten days there. (As the first ever English patient, I was a sensation and staff came from all over to see if I was the same as the much more familiar French patient. One nurse looked at my freckles and informed me that I could probably have them surgically removed. Perhaps it was a joke.) Lots of my students, their parents and the teachers visited me. Most brought marrons glacées and the like, which was nice, but someone – one of the English teachers? the headmaster’s wife? – thoughtfully arrived with two books. She had bought, she said, the only English books in the local bookshop. This was, for someone twitchy if there was no book within a foot or so, the best thing she could have done.

The books were by Agatha Christie. There was her autobiography and a Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder. I remember Fontana paperbacks, with distinctive covers. I rationed them carefully, as I didn’t know where my next book would come from. Christie’s autobiography was, helpfully, very long, although it failed to explain her famous disappearance in 1926.  Sleeping Murder is the rather creepy story of a young woman who, visiting England for the first time, stays in a house she finds she remembers. I’m not a great Christie fan, but both books were wonderful distractions from stitches, glucose drips and the tea served in French hospitals.

Still in France at Christmas, I was farmed out among various kind teachers, until I was strong enough to fly home. Wanting me to enjoy my first Noël, they gave me a hand-printed silk scarf and a book, Joachim a des Ennuis [Joachim in Trouble], by Goscinny and Sempé. I still have both scarf and book, and I still laugh at the story of Nicolas being pursued about the house by his visiting Mémé [grandmother]. ‘Un bisou! Viens encore me faire un bisou!’ [‘Come and give me another kiss!’]

To Kindle or not to Kindle

Frank (b.1938): Oh no, no… I’ve always read for pleasure. I’ve done that the whole of my life. Still do… I’ve actually bought a Kindle now.

Books or Kindle? Kindle or books? The debate staggers on.[i] (I prefer the real thing, as a glance at my home would show you. But I’m very happy to go digital when travelling, whether on holiday or on a bus, and the Kindle is a good way of reading books I don’t want taking up precious shelf space.)

Here is what Reading Sheffield interviewees, born between 1923 and 1950, have to say. (Since we are interested in 20th century reading, we don’t generally ask about e-readers, but sometimes they come up.) This is not by the way a scientific survey on any terms.

Not everyone is open to the idea:

Anne (b. 1944): Ohh, I couldn’t be doing with that! … I don’t know. It’s electric, int it? I’m allergic to anything electric.

But those who’ve bought (or been given) a Kindle appreciate the convenience.

Christine (b. 1940): Yes. I’m afraid I’ve got a Kindle now as well because we go to France and I used to take ten books in the car – and now I get the Kindle, sit in the garden in France and bingo! … I still prefer a book. I only take the Kindle when we go away and when you’re in France it saves you, well you have to take books with you because it’s difficult to find English books in France.

For one interviewee the Kindle gives her family the chance to share and even to read books they may not choose for themselves:

Mavis (b. 1937): … there were five of us on one Kindle ownership and you can get five copies of a book, people can use the same book. So my son bought his three children, two of who are adults, and his father a Kindle. Mine’s not on that because I had mine first but those five have back copies of probably a 100-odd books now because every time any one of the five adds a book it’s available to all the others. … I pinch my husband’s [Kindle] and let him have mine on occasions because I don’t have access to these. I swap with my daughter who doesn’t have a Kindle as well… We tend to have, if not similar tastes, sufficiently similar for it to be things you wouldn’t have chosen yourself but when you pick it up and read it you think ‘Ah’. … my granddaughter came and said, ‘Ooh, can I have that after you?’ and I said ‘No, but you can have it after your aunt.’  So there’s quite a … five or six of us.

The Kindle (NotFromUtrecht) (Own work) (Creative Commons licence)

We ask if owning a Kindle changes reading habits.

Mavis: No.  I look for what I want.  Sometimes I don’t find it. It does mean that occasionally I’ll buy books…. I still tend, if something looks as if it will be of real interest, I still tend to buy a book, specially if I can get it when it’s just published.

E-readers can take some getting used to.

Mary (b. 1923): I tell you what I have got, I have got a Kindle. [The book I’m reading is] very strangely written and I can’t find out who’s written it because I don’t know quite how to go back and then go forwards. It’s my son’s partner, she gave [the Kindle] me. … I can get big print you see. It is small and that is as much as my eye will take. …

Chris (b. 1939): I was given a Kindle for Christmas, which I won’t say I’m struggling with, I’m quite enjoying so I suppose that counts as a book. It’s quite handy though I guess for taking on holiday. The one thing I’m not too keen on, you can’t, well I haven’t found a way of flipping from looking back 27 pages to find what went before. … I’m not very technological.

There’s the business of finding books you want:

Chris: Well I haven’t loaded it up because the ones that you get free are not necessarily the books that I want to read anyway. On the basis that I find looking for a specific author and I find they don’t come free.

Kindles or books, there’s still a lot of rubbish published.

Mary: You can get any book on that. Oh I tell you what the first one that was on it, I don’t recommend it to anybody, was the Hundred Shades of Grey or Fifty Shades of Grey? You have never read such tripe! I managed one, two chapters. It isn’t even well written. … I don’t mind sex if it’s well written!

For some people, the e-reader cannot compete. It’s all about the physical quality of books.

Judith (b. 1939): And I’ve always had this ingrained, you know, get-me-a-book kind of thing. I don’t even want to have a Kindle or anything, because I like the feel of a book…

Peter (b. 1930): No. I think, it sounds a bit smug this, I think the book trade is suffering from unfair competition particularly with these electronic books and whatever so I just do my little bit. If there’s a book I like, I buy it from the bookshop.

No, I’ve seen [Kindles]. I can sit for hours with a book in my hand. I find it very difficult to sit for more than about a quarter of an hour with a screen. That’s probably an age thing, I don’t know. … I like the feeling of a book.

Josie (b. 1942): I’ve got one. I won’t use it. I’ve inherited it from my husband and until I get too feeble to turn a book and my eyesight’s too bad that I can’t see there’s nothing like having a book in your hands. Seeing it and feeling it and turning the pages, looking how much you’ve got left to read … no, I’ve never touched it. I’ve no desire at all.  I can see when you go on holiday instead of taking twelve books with you if you’re flying, a Kindle would be handy.

I just don’t know [what it is about the actual physical feel of the book]. It’s just comforting, isn’t it?  It’s like you’re touching … I love it, I just love it. … It’s quite a phobia when you think about it.  I didn’t realise I was this bad.

Kindles may be light and slim but for our readers swiping lacks the pleasure of turning pages, and the faint plastic/metallic smell is not to be compared to the woodiness of paper. (I do know Kindle owners who love their actual devices, who are distressed if they have to change or send them away for repair.)

In the end e-readers generate mixed feelings. There is uncertainty about the ability to make them work, but also interest in the convenience they offer. But for some of our readers, Kindles just don’t feel right.

Jude (b. 1950): Erm, not at the moment I wouldn’t [get a Kindle]. If I went travelling I would actually … I wanted a long read but at the moment, I quite like the pleasure of… A book, yes.

 

(With thanks to Reading Sheffield colleague Mary for gathering the information.)

[i] E-readers may already be yesterday’s technology. In 2015, in the USA, for example, 19 per cent of adults reported owning an e-reader, down from 32 per cent in early 2014. But of course many people read books on their smartphones or tablets.

Christine’s reading journey

By Sue Roe

Christine was born in 1940 and her reading journey was inevitably influenced by World War Two, though her parents and her choice of career in librarianship were clearly also important factors.

Christine, aged 14, playing snowballs at school

Christine has difficulty remembering her first experiences of reading:

You’ve started with a difficult question here. The first thing I can remember was at school. Things like Enid Blyton and Treasure Island particularly. That was the first thing that caught my eye.

The war meant that fewer books were available. Christine read what and where she could:

I can remember a boyfriend [of Christine’s sister] of the time bringing me one of these annuals – Stories for Girls annuals… I think he was trying to curry favour with my sister. It was just a gift, and it was second-hand!

Clearly even schools seemed short of books:

[At] about eight or nine, I won a school prize. The teacher gave me a book, but it was a second-hand book. It was one of her [Christine’s teacher’s] books. The prize was a second-hand book! So you didn’t buy books then, well, not in my experience.

The prize seems to have been Anne of Green Gables, the children’s classic much loved by many of the Reading Sheffield interviewees. Christine was also reading Enid Blyton (whose books were ‘exciting. Different. A different world’) and books about life in girls’ boarding schools.

Left to myself, I went through the entire Chalet School [series] like a dose of salts. That’s the thing that really comes over to me – the Chalet School books.

It was at this stage that buying books became important, although she didn’t have much pocket money: 

We used to go into Andrews [a Sheffield bookseller] and a treat would be for me to save my pocket money, so I did collect all the earlier Chalet School books. I think I used to take my mum in and she used to help me out. So they were always considered a luxury.

Although he was away in the army for the duration of the war, Christine’s father played an important part in her reading. This was in contrast to her mother whom Christine ‘can’t ever remember … having any direct influence’. Christine still recalls her father’s collection of books:

The only books we owned were in the bookcase that was full of my father’s books and they were of the ‘Great Short Stories’ type: Great Short Stories of the World and Dashiell – Dashiell Hammett… As I grew up, I was encouraged to read them …

After the war, he would:

…push me towards these classics that were in the bookcase: the Wilkie Collins and that type of thing, which probably was a little bit old for my age group… I struggled a bit with some of the classics that my father wanted me to read.

He also encouraged her to enter competitions in the Children’s Newspaper which they had at home:

It was a short story competition and I got an ‘honourable mention’.

When she moved to the grammar school, Christine was able to take advantage of the class library – a cupboard of books such as H G Wells’ Kipps. At this point she started reading war stories:

I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and … we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd and then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader…

 

Generated by Carsales Image Server on 04:42.09 05/09/2015

These war stories had a profound effect:

I’m a convinced pacifist. I think war is absolutely stupid … I think he[her father] thought I was a bit of a leftie because by the time I was 18, 19, I’d already joined CND.

Libraries were an important stop on Christine’s reading journey from an early age:

I did start going down to Central Children’s Library but I think I was older, I think it was when I wanted to be independent when I was eleven or twelve.

When she was 16, Christine went to stay with a distant relation who was ‘deputy chief librarian for Tottenham libraries’. He gave her a ‘book list’ and brought books for her to read, including The Crowthers of Bankdam and Marjorie Morningstar. Christine herself started working in libraries around then. This influenced her reading in several ways:

I got hooked on light reading. Certainly Georgette Heyer. I got through all of those and I think Lucilla Andrews, who wrote about doctors and nurses and I got through those as well.

Christine took an Open University course and professional librarian exams over the years, with the support of her employers. This led to her reading particular sorts of books, not always to her taste:

The first professional exam was a four-part thing and one part was Literature, so again I had to read things like Charlotte Bronte. … Again I was pushed into reading certain books. Again it was Victorian novelists. You’ve not got time to do anything else.

[With] the Open University I did the novel course so obviously again I had to plough through Dickens and Hardy.

Her love of books continued after retiring from the library service. She worked part-time in a children’s bookshop and had her favourites there too:

One of my favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It’s an early Raymond Briggs… [Also]  The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. And Peepo! Again, it’s got a war theme in it. When you see the father, he’s wearing a uniform.

Nowadays Christine enjoys crime rather than war stories:

I go more for the detective solving the crime… It’s trying to work out ‘whodunit’ and get there.

It is amazing Christine managed to fit in so much reading:

Well, because over the years I’ve studied [for] so many different exams and had to be tied in to what they wanted to read and had children. A full-time job; two children and I was studying first for a degree in and then for a master’s, so I hadn’t really got much time.

 

You can read Christine’s full interview or listen to the audio here.

 

Penfriends through the Public Library? (Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 16 August, 1939)

In August 1939, two young American women, Meredith Hall and Dorothy Pawlicki, of Holland, a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, sent a letter to Sheffield Libraries. They wanted to find English penfriends:

To whom it may concern

We are two young ladies, married, and interested in England, and would like to correspond with someone likewise interested in our US.

Would it be asking too much to have you give the addresses below to two other persons, preferably ladies ranging in ages 25 to 40.

The City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, passed the letter on to the Sheffield Star and, never one to miss an opportunity for publicity for the library service, got an article in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph.

Sadly, we have not been able to find out why Dorothy and Meredith chose Sheffield or if they ever made friends locally. There don’t seem to be any further newspaper articles. Perhaps the outbreak of World War II in Europe, just three weeks later, put paid to any correspondence. But perhaps not. It would be good to think that transatlantic friendships were made, particularly in wartime.

Following Dorothy’s and Meredith’s enterprising example, we contacted the Holland-Springfield Journal. Thanks to the Journal and the local historical society, we have been able to find out a little about the two women.

Buildings Dorothy and Meredith would have known.: the Hotel Secor (top) and the Ohio Bank Building (above), Toledo, Ohio (both public domain).

Dorothy was born Dorothy Stirn on 24 November 1910 in Paulding, Ohio and died 27 March 1979 in Toledo. She married Alfred F Pawlicki in 1930 and they had two children, Janet (b. 1931) and Jerry (b. 1939). In later life she worked as a secretary at a law firm. Meredith was born on 27 March 1907 in Swanton, Ohio and died in Florida on 30 November 1993. She was married three times, including to Canadian Myrven Hall and had one son, Charles Wyant (b. 1924). She worked most of her life as a telephone operator for the Riverside Hospital in Toledo.

Columbus Drive, Holland, Ohio today (public domain)

Not perhaps a very successful piece of research, but it does illustrate the unusual requests sometimes made of public libraries.

‘The most important tool of industry’ (J P Lamb, Yorkshire Post – Monday 26 September 1932)

Libraries are under threat today. Councils say there is not enough money. People claim that, with Google, Kindle and the like, there is simply no longer a need for buildings filled with paper or the librarians who look after it. Sometimes the lack of funds and the redundancy of print are combined, justifying cutbacks or closure in an unconvincingly circular argument. Meanwhile, defenders[i] (they are many and we at Reading Sheffield are of their number) point out that libraries are safe, social spaces. They secure and organise knowledge efficiently, impartially and to accepted standards. The information they hold is available to all, in support of democracy and free speech. Librarians are expert guides who help us find what we need. (This is not to dismiss the internet, which is powerful but altogether less discriminating.)

Librarians have always had to promote their services to potential users. At its annual conference in September 1932, the Association of Special Libraries and Information Bureaux[ii] discussed how to encourage businesses to use libraries. According to a report in the Yorkshire Post on 26 September, Bertie Headicar, the librarian of the London School of Economics, commented on the need to win business trust. There was the ‘difficulty of the library user who dare not tell the librarian what books he wants’ for fear of appearing ignorant or giving away secrets. ‘No true librarian,’ asserted Headicar, ‘was capable of [such betrayal].’ (You can hear the ‘harrumph’.)

The City Librarian of Sheffield, Joseph Lamb, said:

The ordinary man completely fails to grasp the fact that in these days, when national economic survival is largely a question of applied and organised intelligence, the book has become the most important tool of industry. … The public library can provide material and an organisation which will help industry in the unceasing fight to maintain its position, and further developments are possible. But we are faced with the problem of convincing commerce and industry of the library’s ability to do these things.

Lamb lamented that only rarely did industrialists use scientific and merchants, commercial libraries.

In the year 1932, a great firm in my city was not aware that British patents specifications were stocked at the library, though they had been there for fifty years.

Headicar and Lamb agreed about the contribution made by the thoughtful, professional librarian. ‘Nothing mechanical could take the place of the human element…and the personal contact with the librarian,’ said Headicar. (Today’s librarians, mindful of the search engine, might substitute ‘technological’ for ‘mechanical’.) Lamb thought that public librarians could be better at selecting reference library stock. Many, he said, still thought ‘in terms of pure literature.’ He went on, in typically trenchant tones:

They brought to their task of keeping up to date a modern scientific library the outlook of the cloister and shrank from the ruthless modernity of weeding. The staggering pace of research, the extraordinary development of the application of chemical processes to industry, left them a little bewildered.

The Yorkshire Post article notes that there had been meetings with businessmen in Yorkshire, to tell them what libraries could do for them, but these had been poorly attended. ‘Our Yorkshire business men must be assured of value for money.’ (It was ever thus.)

Back home in Sheffield, Lamb did not give up the fight to convince businesses of the value for money of the library service. He must in fact have been planning his next move as he spoke at the conference. Sheffield’s ‘economic survival’ depended almost exclusively on steel and other metals. Lamb’s innovative Scheme for the Interchange of Technical Publications, introduced in 1933, was a partnership between his library and local industry for collecting and exchanging technical and commercial information. SINTO (the Sheffield Interchange Organisation), as it later became known, lasted into the 21st century. Lamb also oversaw the establishment of the World Metals Index (WMI), a comprehensive listing of grade names, trade names, series numbers and abbreviations of metals, which survives to this day. Finally, in 1955, he wrote Commercial and Technical Libraries, a handbook published by the Library Association.

Here is an example, from librarian Alysoun Bagguley’s memories, of SINTO helping local industry.

In 1970, when fire almost destroyed the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait, Alysoun unearthed invaluable information about Robert Stephenson’s original, Victorian construction for Husband & Co, the Sheffield consulting engineers helping re-build the bridge.

What lessons are we to take from this story? Libraries have knowledge in depth, curated by experts. They gather their holdings over time (weeding as they go, as Lamb advised) and without bias. They change and develop, according to the needs of their borrowers. They are, not stuffy mausoleums, but living institutions. They lived in the days of Lamb and Headicar, and they do now.

 

[i] Ironically, of course, many of us use the internet to promote our views.

[ii] Founded in 1924 and now known as ASLIB, the Association for Information Management.