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