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

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:

The Methodist Church, Walkley

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.