Malcolm Mercer’s Reading Journey

Born in 1925, Malcolm Mercer has lived most of his life in and around the Manor estate in Sheffield, and left Pipworth Road School in 1939. After seven years in the retail trade, disrupted by three years in the Royal Naval Patrol Service – Minesweeping (1943-1946), he trained as a teacher at Sheffield Training College and taught in several Sheffield schools before being appointed Head of Parson Cross School (1968-1983). He gained a Diploma in education management at Sheffield Polytechnic in 1971 and an MA in education at Sheffield University in 1979. He contributed to two of the major histories of Sheffield city and is the author of The School at Parson Crosse 1630-1980 (1980), Schooling the Poorer Child (1996) and A Portrait of the Manor in the 1930s (2002).

Unlike his wife Jean, whom we also interviewed, Malcolm did not pass the 11+, He left school at 14 to become a shop assistant. However that never prevented him doing what he wanted to do and as a teacher and historian he has written himself into the history of Sheffield, its schools and the community to which he still belongs, the areas of Manor and Park.

Malcolm has always read and he came from a family where there were books about.

I never saw father read but I’ve still got a number of his books. He was a newspaper man and though I never saw him read he’d bought a lot of books when he was younger including Shakespeare and I’ve got them now, and Southey and poetry by Goldsmith. So yes, he must have read.  My mother read Blackmore’s Lorna Doone and I’ve still got her copy and I can remember her reading Lorna Doone. So I think they must have read when I’d been put to bed.

Malcolm’s life was rich. He was a Boy Scout, and he has always been an active member of the church community at St Swithun’s on the Manor. He read constantly, like Jean his main source of books being Park Library. There were two tuppenny libraries on the Manor in the ’30s but the thrilling tales provided by Park Library seemed to satisfy the fourteen year-old’s need for adventure when he returned from working in a shop during the early 1940s.

The one I think that struck me most was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. But, I mean, I read quite a great deal, The Scouts of the Baghdad Patrol by Lieutenant Brereton, Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. The Last of the Mohicans by Fennimore Cooper, The Three Musketeers and then I read Dumas: Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask, Count of Monte Cristo, Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, The Queen’s Necklace, Chicot the Jester and The Forty-Five Guardsmen, all by Alexandre Dumas and of course Conan Doyle – The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventures of Gerard.

A lot of the stories that he loved were connected with nature: the Romany stories on children’s radio. ‘A Summer Road to Wales, I‘ve got a copy upstairs. I read that about three times.’

He also describes being ‘enthralled’ by a geography series on BBC radio for schools, which inspired an interest in ‘South America and the Amazon and the history of Aztecs and the Incas and I read books that were linked to that.’ The survival skills of Manga, a boy living in the Amazon, appealed to the Boy Scout as he prepared for his Camp Craft badge.

Malcolm’s boy scouting had practical consequences. His knowledge of signalling meant that in 1943 he was posted to serve on a minesweeper for the duration of the war. There were few books or readers on the minesweeper but Malcolm had taken Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to sea with him.

I had it throughout the war until … we were anchored, we were sweeping first in the Bristol Channel in order to make it safe for ships to cross from Cardiff and Swansea over to North Devon and we swept from there and we were anchored on one occasion and we drifted and the bottle of ink that I had went all over the pages of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the copy that I had so that was the end. I’ve got another copy but it’s not the same. But that was the only book. I didn’t have a Bible although I was a churchman.

After the war, Malcolm returned to Park Library where he found his favourite authors, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Though Malcolm began by reading such novels as The Tale of Two Cities for their stirring qualities, he was soon, as he began to think about the education and care of children in Britain’s cities, reading novels as social history. ‘Oliver Twist for instance, workhouse children, and I compared it because I’ve researched a fair amount about the Sheffield Workhouse’.

Malcolm still has in his possession a little notebook in which he listed all the books he read during the war years 1941 and 1942. Each letter of the alphabet has two pages, and just a look at the page for B shows how widely Malcolm’s curiosity ranged.

Since Jean and Malcolm got married, the books they bought have been mostly for Malcolm’s work as a teacher and historian of Sheffield’s schools. Despite their regular book-borrowing habits, Jean observes that ‘in fact this house is weighed down with books, if I took you round to see them. In fact people ring up and ask Malcolm something and he says “I’ll ring you back” and then he disappears.’

You can read Malcolm’s and Jean’s interview here

Peter B’s Reading Journey

By Sue Roe

Peter was born in 1930 in the Ecclesall Bierlow area of Sheffield. His father was a musician and engineer, who came to Sheffield to play in a colliery band, and his mother was a homemaker. He gained a scholarship to King Edward VII School and, at 17, won an Exhibition to Oxford, studying Jurisprudence. Before taking up his place at Exeter College Oxford, he did National Service, based initially in Palestine and then, as Liaison Officer to the Americans, moving around several bases in Europe. After his degree he worked in Canada for two years and then moved back to Sheffield where new Assizes were opening. He practised as a barrister, became a QC and a judge. Though retired, he still works part time (2012). He is married with three children.

My life, let me put it this way, my life would have been different and I would have been different if I’d hadn’t had the ability and the privilege to have had access to a lot of printed stuff.

Peter’s reading journey began with his mother who read to him:

Usually bedtime stories… none that I recall now but they would be the usual child books.

He was a fairly precocious reader – he could read very readily by the time he was five:

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

Winnie the Pooh and then I got, by the time I was sort of seven or eight -Richmal Crompton’s Just William. It sounds dreadful now but … they were reasonably well written and grammatical.

He was also influenced by two older girl cousins who lived at Greenhill:

And they had books – they were, sort of, I suppose, girl-slanted, but the one I can remember most clearly was Little Women, is that Louisa May Alcott? And I also, I read some sort of  boys, pretty basic, Robin Hoods and Hereward the Wake, and you know, sort of quasi-history stories.

Hereward the Wake fighting Normans

Peter acquired his books from a variety of places:

They were bought for me by my parents or I borrowed them from my cousins or friends or what have you. I wasn’t into going into bookshops then – I was too young for Blackwells.

When he was older, he did frequent second hand bookshops:

… There was a lovely second bookshop on Division St called Applebaums and I used to go in there and …I used [to] browse as well as buy in there.

As a young adult he read widely:

By then I was reading pretty broadly – Dickens, and you know, the sort of easily accessible classics that you read. And – very difficult now to recall the specific impression from a specific book but I read a lot and I enjoyed it.

His studies did influence his reading:

One did various books, for instance School Certificate and High School Certificate – can’t remember oh now – Tale of Two Cities was one of the set books and also, at the time, it was very avant-garde, James Joyce, Ulysses.

He was busy, he recalls:

…bear in mind that by the time I was 16, I was studying fairly hard. I got a history Exhibition to Oxford & that involved a fair amount of reading so there wasn’t a lot of [time]…  and what with that, I was also engaged in music – I played a lot of piano at that time.

Peter was always interested in history:

I liked history – I’ve always slightly thought that novels are a waste of time … I suppose, indirectly, you learn things but … I got more out of biographies and history books … Elizabeth by Neale – that was the classic one then … and there was Peter the Great – [by] HAL Fisher

He gives one reason why he was very interested in history:

When I was very young, my father was a musician and we travelled around and lived in a number of places and I would be taken to stately homes.

Libraries played an important part in Peter’s reading journey: as a child he used to take the tram to Highfields Library but also:

King Edward’s, and City Libraries. I used to spend as time got on … Sheffield Libraries were very good – either the Reference Library which was upstairs at Surrey Street and then the Science & Technology Library, which a lot of the History stuff was in downstairs, so I read it there.

He singled out one particular library:

The Codrington Library (by Farradane, Creative Commons)

I was very lucky at Oxford because, apart from the Bodleian, which is lovely, my tutor was a fellow of All Souls as well as my college; and in All Souls was a library called Codrington. Codringtons were people who founded All Souls. It was all built from money from slaves and sugar. That’s where their money came from.[i] But the Codrington Library is a long Georgian library, exquisitely furnished – sort of astrolabes and things like that – and I found that more conducive to learning and studying than any place I’d ever been.

The quality of writing has always been very important to Peter:

Yes, I do like Bennett. I think Bennett is beautifully written… Of course Wodehouse writes beautifully.

Arnold Bennett (Project_Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg)

And he is a great fan of Raymond Chandler for the same reason:

Humphrey Bogart reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I think I’ve read everything he’s ever written and seen most of his film scripts… he writes brilliantly – and he can create an atmosphere.

He is interested in crime fiction:

Having spent a lifetime – not in crime – mine was civil law but concerning courts and it’s interesting when you read to see if the one who is writing knows anything about it or not.  It’s readily apparent when they don’t.

He is not a fan of science fiction:

Science fiction as a whole drives me up the wall. I cannot do with it particularly on the tele. I loathe and abhor and would run a mile to avoid War of the Worlds – I don’t mean HG Wells’ War of the Worlds  but I mean the spaceships, zipping to and fro. ‘Beam me aboard, Scottie.’

Peter had read Lady Chatterley’s Lover ‘even before copies were generally available’ – and he felt that Lawrence ‘…advanced literature in the sense that it was the first time that sort of thoughts had been attributed to the working class’.

He has some early editions of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler,

…which are interesting both as to me as a fisherman – hence the shirt – and also from the historical context, and of course there are strong local connections … Charles Cotton lived [in] Beresford Dale in Derbyshire, and the little fishing temple that he and Izaak Walton used is still there.

Peter has always seemed to find time to read:

I’ve always been – not so much lately – but I was always  an early morning person – I found both at school, and at university, army, everywhere – if you get up early in the morning, particularly light mornings we have in spring and summer, you are not interrupted.

He still reads widely, though mainly history and biographies, and he has hundreds of books,

I try and give them away but the trouble is, as soon as I give some away, that creates a space, and I get some more!

Something we all can relate to!

Peter’s full interview is here.

[i] In fact, All Souls was founded in 1438 by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry VI, who was co-opted by the Archbishop as the College’s co-founder. In the 18th century, the College library received a substantial donation from Christopher Codrington, who did indeed make his money through slavery, and became known as the Codrington Library.

 

 

Barbara Green’s Reading Journey

Barbara was born in 1944, in the Sheffield suburb of Pitsmoor. Her father was a steelworker. Her mum returned to work in the Mappin & Webb warehouse when Barbara was 18 months old and then later worked as a cleaner at Balfours. Although she passed the 11 Plus, Barbara wasn’t able to take up her place at grammar school. She continued her education later, going to university to read Literature at the age of 48. She is married to another of our readers, Jim Green, whose interview is here. They have two children.

Barbara and Jim Green on their wedding day

I think my opinions have been formed by fiction and then pushing me out into real life, not real life coming into the books that I read.

Barbara started her reading journey in her mum’s company. She was the youngest child, born to a mother in her forties, and the only daughter. Inevitably perhaps, mother and daughter spent a lot of time together and this, she thinks, ‘is how I came to be a reader’. Her mum, Kitty, is:

always in my head. Dad didn’t play a big part in my life. It was … I think, I don’t know whether it was just us, I suspect it wasn’t; but mothers ruled, OK. They were the biggest influence.

Barbara and Kitty were a team:

Mum and I would do things in the week – we were like a sort of duo. Dad was either at work or he was in the pub [laughs]. So it was usually me and Mum. … So it would be in the week … sort of either after school or in the school holidays and that was one of our regular visits with the Botanical Gardens and the Museum, and stuff like that.

Books were part of their routine. Both her parents enjoyed reading. Their choices were ‘quite stereotypical really, Dad [reading] men’s books and Mother … romances’. Her dad liked westerns, which his wife used to point out were ‘really just romances on horseback’. Kitty liked ‘Daphne du Maurier, Ruby M Ayres, people like that’ and Catherine Cookson who ‘seemed to speak to Mum about life as she had experienced it’.

Life was a drudge to some extent so [my parents] wanted to be taken out of it, yes. There wasn’t an intellectual view of life in my family. It was whatever gave you pleasure when you’d got time to take that pleasure. … But books were part of it. Very much so, yes.

The family used the public library.

From the local library which for me was Burngreave.  It was something that we did, you’d go and get three or four books out and … I mean I can’t remember the first time I visited the library but it was part of life. My mum used to clean when I was an older child and she would go to work and come back and she’d have a cup of tea and sit at the table and she’d have a chapter of her book as she called it. She did that for the rest of her life. Every morning after breakfast – read a chapter of a book.

Burngreave Library was ‘a couple of roads away’. ‘It was ”Ssh!” as you walked through the door.’ Kitty

had got favourite writers and she‘d look for new editions of their books coming out but if you remember, the libraries were … at that time, they’d be a bit like Waterstones is now … romances, historical novels etc. So you would browse those sections for whatever you were interested in.

Barbara’s reading included:

Enid Blyton, Secret Seven … all of that sort of stuff. Interestingly all about a different class, and I loved those and longed to go to a private school where we could have a midnight party … or whatever … because life was very different for me. … I loved all the girls’ classics … you know … Heidi, Little Women and all of that.

School seemed to have little influence on Barbara:

… the reading, it was much more regimented, more prescribed, and you weren’t discussing books per se; you were more or less reading by rote. Or at least that’s my experience.

It was Barbara’s mum who was responsible for the ‘book that impressed me most,’ The Wide, Wide World by the 19th century religious writer, Susan Warner:

… that was a book Mum had read and passed on to me. A book that she’d cherished from her childhood and she gave to me. And I don’t know what happened to it, the copy, the original copy, and a few years ago it popped into my mind. I don’t know if we’d been talking about it at Book Group and I bought it as an e-book and I read it again and I still loved it. It’s really quite a didactic book … it’s about adversity and being good and how kindness wins out in the end.

As time passed, Barbara naturally developed her own taste in books: literary fiction, classics, new writing and, thanks to her grandson, the occasional graphic novel. She discusses books with her husband and children. She still belongs to the public library and enjoys a book group. Underpinning this lifetime of reading is her mother’s early encouragement:

… I think I was treated more or less as an adult because, as I say … I’d come into a family where, really I was a mistake as my Mum used to call it. [laughs] And I used to think that was awful when I was young but I came to appreciate it. Because there was she, a forty one year old woman, who felt that the kids were getting off her hands and she was going to go back to work and then she’s pregnant again. I remember being on my own from an early age and I think that shaped me. It made me into a solitary person and I found escape in books … and so I think that was part of it.

You can read Barbara’s interview in full, or listen to the transcript, here.

The Toolhouse Club: a gift for Christmas

What do you give the thirteen year old son of a leading steel manufacturer for Christmas in 1911?

Jacques Reindorp’s The Toolhouse Club, of course.

This beautifully produced book, gilt edged pages and meticulous illustrations, found its way to Reading Sheffield because of its inscription:

A friend of Reading Sheffield found the book in Sheffield’s Oxfam bookshop,searched the name Kenneth Darwin Flather and was led to our interview with Kenneth’s nephew, David Flather. David was heir to various Sheffield traditions. His father’s family were longstanding and pioneering steel manufacturers in the nineteenth century and his mother was related to Sheffield authors from the Leader and Waterhouse families. David himself studied engineering at Cambridge but also became a voracious reader of maps, adventure stories and ‘the Bronte girls.’ You can find his account of his reading history here.

It is a book that could have consumed Kenneth throughout the following year. It describes the purposeful activities of a group of boys absorbed by the challenges of making a canoe in which they set out on bold but never foolhardy adventures. From the outset the processes of decision making are democratic and preceded by thoughtful deliberation. The frontispiece of the book  depicts ‘A Debate at the Club’. seven boys in the sparsely furnished club shed, all in three piece suits, seven little homunculi practising at being lawyers rather than engineers. Or perhaps drawing up a new British Constitution.

 

Though their debates about how to go about building a canoe are extensive, the book is chiefly concerned with the skills the boys acquire in constructing a clinker build canoe. The steps they take at each stage of the process are illustrated by detailed diagrams all designed to be a practical guide for the young engineers. Sheffield is not rich in large expanses of water so it would be surprising if either Kenneth or his nephew were ever able to make practical use of the book but since David was to spend much of his professional life writing technical manuals for the Sheffield firm of Edgar Allen it is tempting to think that he was inspired by the clarity of these images in his uncle’s library.

The off-stage heroine of this novel is ‘mater’ on whom the boys rely to bring on a constant supply of wholesome food for the ‘young lions’ who ‘diligently and merrily’ pursue their dreams.

Remembering the Sheffield Blitz

My dad picked me up and carried me around to me aunt’s house because she had a cellar, and we went down the cellar. And as he was carrying me around, I could see all these beautiful lights in the sky. And I said to him, ‘Dad, dad, stop. I want to look at those pretty lights.’ And he said, ‘Another time.’  (Dorothy Norbury, b.1934)

…I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed… (Dorothy L, b.1931)

The Sheffield Blitz – the worst air-raids over the city during World War Two – happened 77 years ago this week, between Thursday 12th and Sunday 15th December 1940. The city was a target because of its many steelworks. It’s thought that, by the end, over 600 people had been killed, 500 seriously injured and 40,000 made homeless. About 80,000 buildings were damaged, mostly houses but also schools, shops and offices, and thousands were destroyed.

Sheffield Blitz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_fire.jpg)

Our readers born in the 1920s and 1930s remember the Blitz and the war well.

Mary Robertson (right) in childhood

Working life was disrupted. Mary Robertson’s father was an industrial chemist. He worked at Vickers ‘seven days a week’. ‘The day after the blitz,’ Mary (b.1923) said, ‘he walked all the way to Hillsborough and the place had been bombed. … And his laboratories were all a mass of broken glass.’ Hazel (b.1929) was due to start work in the sewing room at John Walsh’s, the grand department store on the High Street, but it was destroyed. ‘It caught fire from a shop next door and it just went right through the building.’ Florence Cowood (b.1923) had a narrow escape on her way to work.

I remember we used to hitch rides on whatever we could manage, to get to work, or walk to work. I … hitched a ride and he dropped me at Darnall and I walked right along to the back towards the Wicker, to get back to Bridgehouses, where I worked. … And there was no one about at all. And when I got to the end, a policeman stopped me and he said, ‘Where have you come from?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘Well, you know that’s all closed because there’s been an exploded [sic] bomb.’ But it didn’t blow me up.

The war affected people’s leisure time too. Margaret G (b. 1924) remembered almost being caught in a raid.

I was young – very young until I was 19. We weren’t like they are today. I wasn’t allowed to do things. I mean the night of the Blitz I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go. My parents said no and that was it. You see, they said no.

And Florence’s sister was caught.

And after the Blitz, I was at home with my parents, but my sister was in … what was the … the Chantrey picture house. … In Woodseats.  And she couldn’t come home, because of the [bombing] …

Then there was the impact on children’s education. In the early days of the war, many schools were temporarily closed to enable shelters to be incorporated. Instead they  were taught in small groups in private homes. Peter Mason (b.1929) said:

‘… after the Blitz, in 1941, they closed a lot of the schools and you had what they called Home Service and you went to a teacher’s home to learn, and you were given books to read – I suppose more than anything because they didn’t have many facilities there.  It only lasted a couple of months but that was that.’

Alma (b.1928) also recalled home schooling.

Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table. I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.

Several schools were destroyed in the raids. Doreen Gill (b.1934) was living near Attercliffe:

Whenever the Blitz was, 1940-whatever, we were bombed out. ‘Cos I used to go to Phillimore Road School and that had a bomb through it.  So we moved down to Don Road at Brightside and then I went to Newhall School.

Doreen Gill

Ted L (b.1919) had vivid memories of what he calls the ‘great raid’:

Duchess Rd [School]. Just down the bottom here. It got bombed in the war … it was just bombed, flat out of it. I was at home at that time. I was on leave. It was in, was it December, was it 1940? And I came home, was it draft leave? And we had that great raid then and that’s what destroyed it. It was one of these Victorian schools and everything [inside] was made of wood you see. Incendiary bombs got in and it just blew up sort of thing.

Ted L

John D (b.1927) lost more than his school:

… then I went to Attercliffe Council School and that’s where I sat the scholarship it was called in those days, the eleven plus if you like. But that was bombed; it was set on fire on the same raid that you know … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I.

People waited out the raids in shelters and cellars, but unsurprisingly hated the experience. Eva G (b.1925) was living in the suburb of Pitsmoor.

… of course there were a lot of incendiaries dropped around there, you know, they lost a lot of houses, and we were in the cellar. We had one of those [Anderson shelters] in the garden, but when it was raining and wet it was horrible, so we used to go down the cellar!

Not everyone bothered with shelters. Florence said:

We didn’t worry about it. I mean, we used to get sirens going, we had the reinforced cellar and we used to go down in the cellar. And I got so fed up with it. I thought, ‘Blow it.’ So I used to just stop in bed. … I slept through it, me. I could sleep through anything.

Florence on her wedding day

But for Alma and her family in Rotherham, the shelter was a blessing on one of the nights of the Sheffield Blitz:

… we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there. There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air! So we had got an auntie – it was Auntie Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter. It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright. Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and … my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something. So that was exciting.

The Reading Journey of Joan C

Joan was born in 1941 and lived, as a child, in Ecclesall, a western suburb of Sheffield, close to the moors. She used Ecclesall Library (which she calls Weetwood, after the original name of the library building) and in the 1950s she used the library of her grammar school, High Storrs. Her mother, Wynne, also shared her reading memories with Reading Sheffield. Joan now lives in Wetherby.

Joan was read to by her grandfather. She has no memories of her home without his companionship. He had been a miner and then a gardener. He spent hours sitting in the dining room under a grandmother clock they had on the wall, reading to the little girl on his knee.

I remember one book. I can see the front cover: it had a little girl on it. At the end a fairy had three wishes and she had to choose one. One was a purse that always had another penny in it, one was a book that when you got to the end always had another page to read – I can’t remember the third wish. I always chose the book (that never ended).

In 1949, when Jona was a little girl, Weetwood Hall, a large house near her home, became the local municipal library so books were easily available, despite the constraints of buying stock during the war years and post-war austerity. It was there she discovered Enid Blyton.

Joan’s father was also a reader. When she was a child, he was consuming westerns by authors such as Zane Grey but later, in the 1960s and ’70s he read books about the sea – Alexander Kent’s novels.

Joan did not remember finding her set books at grammar school inspiring. While she did not enjoy the works by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare that were on her syllabus, she thoroughly ‘hated’ Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. H G Wells’ The Time Machine was a rare success.

However, nothing put her off reading. She always found a time and a place to read.

Well, I’ve always read in bed, from being 10 up to getting married.  I took seven books on honeymoon! … My husband liked reading and it was hot and we lay on the beach and read.

Like many other of our readers she read Lady Chatterley in the 1960s and found it disappointing: ‘It wasn’t very good.’

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Joan, her sister and her brother all visited their mother in Ecclesall regularly so that her mother received a visit every fortnight. Once Joan’s mother became unable to go out and get her regular supply of Mills and Boon, Joan and her sister became the source of their mother’s reading and gradually their mother’s tastes became closer to theirs. All three particularly enjoyed historical novels. Joan’s mother told her that she had learned more history from the novels her daughters had lent her than she ever did from history lessons at school. However, some authors did not meet Joan’s requirements.

I didn’t like Georgette Heyer, she was too frivolous and I could not get into Catherine Cookson at all. My mother-in-law kept giving me them to try. She said, “you’ll like this one”, but I never did. I read all Anya Seton.  I read Daughters of England – Philippa Carr – there is a series of 20-odd books. I enjoyed learning more about history – royalty.  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles started off writing about the Tudors and one mentioned round here, Wetherby, so that interested me.

Before her mother died, Joan, her sister and her mother formed a reading group of three and Joan still trusts and shares her sister’s tastes, persisting successfully with a novel by David Baldacci that her sister recommended. She knew that if her sister recommended it must have something about it, and it did.

Joan still delights in sharing her tastes. In Wetherby she has a 90 year-old neighbour to whom she lends books. When asked by her interviewer if reading mattered to her, Joan replied, ‘Oh, absolutely!’

 

Here are the notes from Joan’s interview.

Here are the links to her mother Wynne’s interview and reading journey.

 

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

Kath’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 interests.   

Kath was born on 3 February 1928 and married Ken in 1945 when they began a life of shared reading pleasures and shared political commitment. As we have learned from Ken’s reading journey, it was Kath who introduced Ken to the Russian and Chinese classics authors who shaped his understanding of the world. Kath described them both as ‘revolutionaries’ and they relied on each other for introductions to new books and to new ideas.

Not only did Kath introduce her older boyfriend to new books but, long after they married, she became the hub of a great family book swap.

Nowadays what we do is that books go round the family. My niece is an avid reader. She brings books that she’s bought for tuppence or fourpence or whatever from charity shops. And we end up then all swapping those, reading them and passing them on and giving them away to anyone that wants one. What was that one, Chocolat, was it called? I thought it was a lovely story. And then of course there was – was he Swedish? – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and all those. We read one after the other of those.

Kath and Ken’s son too has books stacked up in his room and recommends titles to his parents. Kath finds the books she seeks from all sorts of sources: friends, family, libraries, charity shops and eBay, encouraging and drawing inspiration from all around her. She gathered new words from a woman at work:

…a wonderful person. She read everything. And everyday I could see her coming and she’d say a word and I’d have to memorise this word, a long word that‘d fit a certain subject. I can’t just think off the top of my head, you know. But it really taught me a lesson, to look, and then I’d get the dictionary out and start looking through for words that I’d baffle her with, you know, but … [Laughs.] I never did, like, but that was the idea behind it.

But Kath’s parents, like Ken’s, had prepared her to learn from everything that came her way.

They both read all the time. My dad was deaf so he couldn’t hear the wireless anyway when that was on. But he just read and read and read. And of course that got passed down to the family – you know, ‘cos there were seven, yes, seven kids.

Kath developed the skill of creating a space in the living room to read, blotting out the world around her. She cannot remember reading in bed but does recall her older sister telling her Just William stories. These Kath retold at school with her own variations. She knew the stories off by heart:

… so I could juggle all the – you know – silly things he got up to in all the stories and … just stand there … and tell the rest of the class. And when I think about it now I shudder. You know, I must have been a provocative little girl!

She was also very determined, making the long trek to the then new Firth Park Library to find the week’s reading.

The old Firth Park Library building today

We used to go down the ‘backwacks’ to it from Shiregreen ‘cos it was ever such a long way and the nearest one was Beck Road School apparently. (So my sister said, ‘cos she remembers more about the area where we lived then. I was only a young kid). But we used to walk all through Concord Park and down all the ‘backwacks’ there.

Reading has been, for Kath, a private escape, a family adventure and a shared passion with her husband, Ken. Sometimes, listening to Kath and Ken share their memories of books, it is difficult to make out whose tastes they are describing, Kath’s or Ken’s, so closely have they shared the books that came their way. ‘What was that book we both liked, Kath? Fame is the Spur?’ says Ken, and Kath explains why it is a favourite. Kath appreciates Ken’s speed reading, which he developed in order to get through all the technical books he needed to master for his work; and Ken appreciates Kath’s thorough reading of the Guardian, ‘cover to cover’. She laughs and admits:

I’m miserable without a large paper with lots of articles in. I read it all day, you know. If I were sitting here not talking to you, I should be reading through the paper.

When asked what their lives would be without reading, they are, together, clear where they stand.

Ken:  Oh, it’d be empty, wouldn’t it? I mean, just think of the things you wouldn’t know. Or opinions you wouldn’t have read. Or places you’d never have gone to because you’d never read about them. Or even imagine going to places.

Kath:  Oh, it would have been dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.

Ken:  I can’t think of life without reading.

Kath:  I can’t. Not at all.

 

You can access Kath’s and Ken’s interview here.

 

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.

 

 

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