Norman Adsetts

Norman Adsetts

Norman was born in Manchester in 1931.

He is being interviewed by Mary Grover on the 17th February 2014.

[This is not a verbatim transcript; it has been amended by Sir Norman 20 April 2014.]

This is an interview conducted by Mary Grover, M A R Y  G R O V E R.  It is the 17th February 2014. I am interviewing Sir Norman Adsetts, N O R M A N   A D S E T T S.

MG: Sir Norman, where were you born?

NA: I was born in Manchester in 1931. My father was born in Sheffield in 1905 but his father died when he was seven and he was farmed out to various family relations. One of his sisters had married and was living in Manchester, and nobody had room for him in Sheffield, so he went over to Manchester in the early ‘twenties and married my mum and, as I say, I was born in 1931.

MG: 1941?

NA: 1931. I am 82 at the moment.

MG: And how long did you live in Manchester?

NA: Let me see.  It was two or three years, maybe less. My father got another job. He was finding his way in the world in various jobs until he discovered he was a good salesman and went to work for a firm called Caribonum that made carbon paper and all kinds of office equipment; he was one of their very successful salesmen and he was promoted to London in 1932 or 3 when I was about two.

MG: What was he selling?

NA:   Well, he was selling the products of this company Caribonum; the basic products that were sold to offices were carbon paper, ink and other office essentials like typewriter ribbon. That was the sort of basic range of products he sold. He turned out to be a very good sales manager in London, and kept on being promoted.

MG: And that was what brought him back to Sheffield, that kind of work?

NA: My mother never settled in London and my father was away a lot because he was promoted very quickly and he travelled the country supervising the other salesmen. In the end he wanted to take his wife back north and Caribonum didn’t agree, so he left them and came back to his home town of Sheffield, where he opened a sweet shop in Derbyshire Lane.  By this time there were two of us, myself and my sister, and we lived over the sweet shop in Derbyshire Lane; that was about 1935.

MG: And can you remember moving back into Sheffield?

NA: I can’t remember London at all so basically the first memories I have are of the shop

sir-norman-adsetts-age-7 Derbyshire Lane. I remember that as we arrived in Sheffield both my sister and I got measles. My sister was in a cot and we were both sleeping in a big room above the shop.

MG: And was your mother a reader?

NA: She had a better education than my father. My father left school at the age of about 11 or 12 and he had a pretty poor education before that in the tiny school of a Nottinghamshire village called Laneham. His father had retired early from a heavy job in one of the steel works, and moved to live with his small family in Laneham where he died in 1913 at the age of 49 when Ernest was seven.

My father went to the very small village school during the war and instead of being properly taught, ended up teaching the infants. So he never really got a proper education. My mother was better educated. She had been to secretarial school. She was a shorthand typist in a Manchester office. Was she a reader? Yes, she liked reading but she wasn’t a voracious reader like I became.

MG: And what kind of books do you remember your mother reading or having in the house?

NA: I don’t remember those much. My father was, as I say, a good salesman and he decided to attract more business by having a library in the sweet shop and I think in those days you could settle a deal with W.H. Smith to provide you with a selection of books. I definitely remember I was about four or five at the time when I was beginning to take books from the library and read them. I am sure my mother did the same, and the sort of book that I remember, a lady’s book really, was written by Ethel Boileau. Now nobody else remembers Ethel Boileau but if you look her up on the internet, she was at that time a very popular writer of romance, and my mother certainly read her books. I can’t tell you much more about my mother’s reading.

And certainly my own reading from about the age of about four or five was really governed by what I took from the tuppenny library.

MG: And that was your own father’s tuppenny library?


NA: That’s right. We lived over the shop and so I would be able to go down to the shop and the shelves were in the corner of the shop and I would simply take whatever was available. I read everything. I had a completely untutored and uncritical choice of reading and I have still got a few books which have the frontispiece of the library. The ones that I have, the ones I remember reading first were by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Now Edgar Rice Burroughs is better known for writing Tarzan books.

I don’t think there were many Tarzan books but there were Martian books. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote twelve or so books all about a man called John Carter who was magically transported to Mars and became a warlord of Mars. They were very adventurous and imaginative stories. I read The Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars and The Warlord of Mars. They were the three I got from the library. I’ve still got them on my bookshelves. But he wrote another seven or eight and in fact he has just come into prominence again because there was a recent film called Carter and that is the story of John Carter, this man who went to Mars. The main story line was to do with the Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, with whom he fell in love, the warlords Mars whom he had to fight and his rise to become the Warlord of Mars.


But the book that had the most impact on me was this one; it is called Cities of Refuge. I notice from this copy which I bought later that it first came out in 1937 so it must have been one of the first books to be put into the library; the Cities of Refuge is by a man called Sir Phillip Gibbs who had been a famous war correspondent and a pretty prolific writer of romance and adventure stories built around the conditions of the time. And I didn’t know from Adam what it was all about but I read it with fascination. It was all about the lives of a group of aristocrats from Russia who were displaced by the revolution and then wandered across the world living in various ‘cities of refuge’ where they were welcomed or thrown out, found work or starved; these cities of refuge included Paris, New York, London, Rome and Constantinople etc.  Very tragic it was, all these people who had been princes and princesses, generals and field marshalls; one was a taxi traffic driver in New York.  There was a great massacre in Smyrna in 1924 and some of them died. It was a very tragic and sad story about these very privileged people who had been the aristocrats of Russia, who had been thrown out from Russia, and were now homeless and penniless, trying to make their way in the world.  That was a grown up book. It was grown up in all kinds of ways. There was sex in it, there was murder and killing in it. There was everything in it, most of which I didn’t understand but I read it and shared in the sadness of it all.


That was more or less my pattern of reading. I would read anything, anything with print on I would read. So I must have wandered through the whole of that library from the age of four or five. When I started reading I taught myself and I would read words that I didn’t know how to pronounce but I would gradually work out what they meant.  There was a word ‘avalanche’ which I never, not till five or six years later, knew how to pronounce. In my mind I used to call it ‘avahlahis’.

MG: So you didn’t share your reading tastes with anybody else, it was quite a solitary thing.

NA: Absolutely, absolutely solitary and it wasn’t anything I copied from my parents; my father had some understanding but he didn’t share my obsession. He was not a big reader at all.  He had difficulty in reading a book because he hadn’t had either the training or the opportunity.

MG: But he didn’t dismiss your taste for reading?

NA: Not at all. In fact when we moved house from Derbyshire Lane about in the late ’30s, probably just before the war, he had some bookshelves built for me which were put in my bedroom in the new house and I held my collection of books in those bookshelves. And those bookshelves still exist. I passed them on to one of my grandsons just recently because he is beginning to build a stock of books. Though the one who has really inherited my approach to reading is my granddaughter who lives now in London, a fundraiser for charity, but she did the same as me, she started reading at four or five, and she has almost the same amount of books in her bedroom as I do.


[pause while NA asks people in the connected kitchen to turn off the radio]

MG: This is very interesting to me because these tuppenny libraries are often mentioned by the people we have interviewed but never have we interviewed someone who lived in a tuppenny library. It must have been such a resource.

NA: Oh absolutely. I just read anything and I didn’t exercise any preference or choice. Anything with print on it I would devour; I don’t remember everything I read. but certainly I got a taste for pulp fiction. I got a taste for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey and his cowboy stories. My father used to tell me stories at bedtime about books remembered from his youth; his interest in the cowboy stories of Zane Grey was largely based on the silent movies; Riders of the Purple Sage which was one of the earliest popular stories and when he was putting me to bed he pinched characters out of Zane Grey. Lassiter was one of them – an outlaw with a big black gun – and there was an Indian called Ackawack who also came out of a Zane Grey book. So I certainly read Zane Grey, I certainly read Edgar Rice Burroughs, I certainly read Sir Phillip Gibbs. I also have a book form the library called Westward Ho! which I never got into. I have still got it in my library. I have had it all this time but never read it properly.  I do remember Ethel Boileau.


MG: How do you spell Boileau?

NA: B-O-I-L-E-A-U. You can Google her. There were one or two books of hers that were very popular indeed. I can’t remember them at the moment but I must have read some of hers as well.

MG: We need some of hers in the Hallam Library, the popular fiction collection.

NA: I think so. Ethel Boileau is worth researching. I just remember the name because I couldn’t pronounce it so I would call it Boiley or something.

MG: Was she like Ethel M. Dell?

NA: Oh yes, I think she was one of those in the library as well. It would be an interesting part of research to find out if one could exactly what that list was that W.H. Smith supplied to the library because it was a big deal. Because my father didn’t buy them. He had a deal with W. H. Smith and he used to take me with him to W. H. Smith wholesale warehouse.

MG: And where was that?

NA: It is where the headquarters of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive is now or used to be, near the Castle Market.

MG: So your father would have no choice about what he had? W. H. Smith would just give him [a set of books]?

NA: No, he wouldn’t have had any choice. I do remember his interest in Zane Grey and he would talk about to me about cowboys and Indians and pinch characters from there. But whether he pinched them from the book or whether he pinched them from the early silent films, I don’t know.

MG: So he must have had a lot of imagination, your father.

NA: Oh he did, yes. It was one of his strengths as a salesman. He was a brilliant salesman. I am busy writing his story at the moment. I am doing a load of research into the origins of the Adsetts name and also the sort of things that the family were doing in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

MG: Yes, because the rhetoric involved in being a salesman helps you appreciate the power of the word.

NA: Yes, yes. He had certain theories about selling but one of them which he felt very strongly about was that you had to understand the situation as the other person saw it; and that person had to like you before he would think of ordering from you. His theories of selling were very valid and I guess they were used by me.

MG: Absolutely. And going back to Phillip Gibbs, do you think that was the first book you read that you thought was an adult book?

NA: Yes. Yes, I knew that the Princess of Mars was unreal. I didn’t think it was rubbish, I mean it was a great story but totally unbelievable really.

MG: How old were you when you read Phillip Gibbs roughly?

NA: Five or six.

MG: Good heavens! So a lot of it must have been as strange as Mars really?

NA:  [NA looks at the front of Cities of Refuge] When was it printed? 1937. So I must have been six or seven.

MG: And you would have borrowed that from your father’s library?

NA: This is an American edition so it must have been published a bit later than in England; and we probably got it as a remainder item from W.H. Smith so it would probably been 1936.

MG:   What about Howard Spring? Did you come across him at the same time?

NA: No.

MG: Did you ever read him?

NA: I don’t think so.

MG: That’s interesting because I always think of him as the same sort of liberal view.

NA: No, I don’t think so. Around about the same time or when we moved, I got these sets:The Children’s Encyclopaedia and The Book of Knowledge. Both bought for me by my father after we left the shop to live in Norton Lane, and I would read them, devour them. I have just pulled these out; we still have them here. There are ten volumes of this, twelve volumes of that.


MG: That is the Waverley Book of Knowledge and The Children’s Encyclopaedia. Ah yes, Arthur Mee, a huge influence wasn’t he?

NA: Oh yes. I must have read every page and every word of that but I would also read as we moved a little bit further along, I would read the War Illustrated which was a weekly magazine I think, during the war. We then had it bound into volumes. So I read that from cover to cover and around about that time I would read a load of classics as well. These sort of books, Gulliver’s Travels, Walter Scott’sTalisman, various Pepys, Ben Hur and of course Sexton Blake – a great favourite.


MG: And Ibsen!

NA:  John Buchan became a favourite of mine, H. G. Wells a favourite of mine.

MG: You’ve got all the old Penguin editions of H.G. Wells.

NA: Yes, I’ve got Penguins of H.G. Wells. This was given to me by a family friend when I must have been about eight – The Complete Works of O Henry. I’ve probably read about half of those stories.

MG: And you seem to have read all these different books at the same time.

NA: Yes.

MG: It wasn’t like a sequence of getting more adult; you read the popular and very serious and classic.

NA: Yes, I read them all.

MG: But your family friends and your family did buy you books occasionally?

NA: That’s all they ever bought me.

MG: Is it?

NA: Even now it’s true that if anybody wants to buy me anything within the family they would often buy me a book.

MG: Did they belong to a book club, your family, at all?

NA: The Book Club. I remember the Book Club. I don’t know whether I have kept any of them but they would be adventure stories in the main. John Creasey I remember. Dennis Wheatley, there was a character called Blackshirt – a gentleman thief, but I can’t remember the author, The Saint. Lesley Charteris, I read almost every one of those.

MG: And The Cruel Sea?

NA: Oh yes. The Cruel Sea came a bit later but I read that. In 1942 I went to King Edward’s in Sheffield; I was still reading but of course grammar school education meant that you were reading doing a lot of reading anyway – but in a more structured way. Up to School Certificate I did the classics route – Latin, Greek and ancient history and so forth. Then up to Higher School Certificate I changed my mind and read physics, chemistry and maths only to change my mind at university and read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.


So all the pressures were on earlier specialisation, particularly in King Edward’s which was preparing the top students for Oxford and Cambridge, and placed a big emphasis was on the classics. I rebelled a bit against the whole thing of having to make choices in this way. I did equally well in most subjects. I got credits in everything, distinctions in a few, but I was just uniformly good as a scholar in a whole array of subjects and I liked them all. The efforts to push in one direction or another simply led me to keep on changing tack and in doing so I gave myself a wide education which actually prepared me for a career as a jack of all trades (which is what I have been for most of my life).

MG: So in that school experience which lessons introduced you to books that excited you? Would it be the classics or your English teachers, or history?

NA:  I always liked history but I still liked reading anything.

MG: Did you have a good classics teacher?

NA: Ummm, yes I did. A lady called Miss Daft in King Edward’s. I went to King Edward’s as one of the last of the scholarship boys when the scholarship would only provide 25 per cent of the intake to King Edward’s. The other 75 per cent were fee paying and came in through the common entrance exam and the Junior School. There was no distinction between us and we were indistinguishable from each other within a year or two.

MG: That’s good. You felt equal.

NA: Absolutely, yes. In the end it was the scholarship boys who made up about half of the top forms; of course it all changed after 1944 when the whole intake came from the scholarship exam and no one paid.

MG: You can’t remember what books were set in English lessons can you?

NA: Moonfleet was one I remember. There was a Conrad I think – Youth and Gaspar Ruiz? And Shakespeare’s Henry V was set for School Certificate.

MG: Walter Scott?

NA: No. Not that I recall but I had read all Walter Scott anyway so I wouldn’t remember.

MG: You have got The Talisman edition there.

NA: There was an English teacher called Claypole who I liked and who was good. There was a Latin teacher called Watling, Marcus Watling, who was actually quite well known as a translator of some of the early Penguin Classics. I still have a copy of his translation of Sophocles’ Theban Plays – King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. I have a few more Penguin Classics, including one of my favourites – Xenophon’s The Persian Expedition which I now remember as a set book in the Greek from School Certificate.

I gradually acquired a taste, however, for J. B. Priestley, John Buchan, H. G. Wells and books like The Good Companion and Angel Pavement and a whole array of the novels of H.G. Wells like Tono-Bungay, The New Machiavelli, The Time Machine. I have collected the first editions of some of their books, including many by John Buchan.


In a pocket diary of mine from 1950 I have found a reading list which indicates my reading interests. In 1950 I had already got a scholarship to Oxford and was going to read biochemistry beginning in October and they said they would take me in October. So I had about six months or longer, nine months, of dead time that I was going to have to fill in at school before I went on to Queen’s College. However, after a while, I went back to Queen’s College and told them I would rather read Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and this meant I had to do my National Service first.

However, between January and March 1950 when I was supposed to be preparing some of the preparatory reading in biochemistry, I had spent my time reading all sorts of books. I wrote down the books I read.

MG: Wonderful!

NA: I will just go through them with you. Starting in January I read 25 books in 10 weeks. The first was The Red Prussian, which was a remaindered biography of Karl Marx which I picked up from Boots: wonderful book, I have still got it; then Pattern of Soviet Domination, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, whatever. Introduction to Comparative Biochemistry; The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism by Bertrand Russell; for a school trip to Denmark I read a guidebook; Half a Million Tramps by W.A. Gape; The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck; The Man who was Thursday by Chesterton; The Loved Ones by Evelyn Waugh; Ship of the Line by C. S. Forester; Chad Hannah by Edmunds; The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald; Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim; Prester John by John Buchan; Happy Return  by C. S. Forester; They Found Atlantis  by Dennis Wheatley; The Commodore  by C. S. Forester; Prince of the Captivity  by John Buchan; The Saint in Miami  by Leslie Charteris; Good Companions by J. B. Priestley; Jenny Villiers  by J. B. Priestley; Let the People Sing by J. B. Priestley; All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque; The Story of St. Michel by Axel Munthe and Behind the Curtain by Phillip Gibbs. Now those were about ten weeks and I stopped writing the list.

MG: It’s a great document. [Looking at the book] You seem to be preparing yourself for PPE in some of those.

NA: I am not sure about that, but my catholic reading taste probably had a bearing on what I eventually chose to study. I had started reading without any particular steer from anybody other than fascination with the printed word, and perhaps I realised that the wide and interesting range of topics in the PPE degree would give me more freedom to pick and choose.

I had perhaps lost interest in reading physics, chemistry, biology and maths because it was taking up good reading time. I was good at maths, very good at maths, won prizes in maths and did further maths and additional maths and so on. Perhaps I should have taken a degree in mathematics but I was more interested in words!

I did, for a time, stop reading when I was in the air force and when I got married. I was working hard to keep the family going and establish the marriage and so on. But when it was necessary to succeed in my job, I reverted to being a general learning machine and devoured the physics and mathematics books which enabled me to become a thermal insulation and acoustics specialist!

So there was a period when I didn’t read an awful lot and a further period when I was more settled in what I was doing and I would start reading again.  That was really when I began to read autobiographies, political biographies and moral philosophy – a legacy from my work on the PPE degree.

MG: Do you read less fiction than you used to?

NA: I did for a long period read less fiction and I am now back to reading a bit more fiction than I did. My taste for escapist books about spies and detectives re-emerged even while I was reading lots of biographies. There are very few left on these shelves because when we were down-sizing, the biographies and histories were the books I donated to a local college. A few volumes are left – Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson which is one of the best political biographies I have ever read alongside Alan Bullock’s life of Hitler in Study of Tyranny; and of course the life and works of Churchill.

If you look on those shelves there, there begins to be a demonstration of the sort of taste I now have. The whole of that left hand side there is really books about the stage, about film stars, about playwrights, about variety and the music hall and I don’t know when that started but I was always fascinated by film and music hall. My father too would reminisce about the stars of the music halls in Sheffield and Manchester. I was never a very good actor but I appeared as an Irish policeman in the school play Winterset in 1950; and I used to sit in the cheap seats of the Lyceum whenever I could to avoid Wednesday afternoon games, never realising that fifty-odd years later, I would spend ten years as chairman of Sheffield Theatres helping to restore the Crucible and Lyceum to the highest levels of regional theatre.

And my other shelves contain books on social history, theology and genealogy. I am trying to trace the history of the Adsetts family in this region, and to link the individuals with local history in an interesting way; if I can begin to understand the environment that they were living in, setting it in its place in history, then that is what I am trying to write about. I’m reading an awful lot as well as background to this research.

MG: Adsetts is a very interesting name. I haven’t come across it before. Is it a Sheffield…?

NA: The name is uncommon. There is no real reference to it in books of surnames or anything like that. However, Adsett is a hamlet in Gloucestershire but there are no people called Adsett in and around the south-west of England. The origin of the name Adsetts is probably here in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, North Lincolnshire and it’s here that you have names like Woodsett and Langsett and Thornsett and so on. The origin of Adsett is said to be ‘sett’ which means field or fold and ‘Ad’ that way could be perceived as a name – Adda, Edda. And of course this area, not quite Sheffield, but the area to the East has an awful lot of Saxon and Viking settlement. So my guess is that is it’s either a corruption of Woodsetts or a similar name which has been lost.

When I got my knighthood, the College of Heralds asked me if I wanted a coat of arms, which they built around the very interesting pictorial pun of a set of adzes. They were very clever, and set the adzes within red, white and blue lines to indicate hot and cold areas separated by insulation. So that describes my career and my name.

They ask you for a motto as well. It took me a while to think of a motto and I found it in a book of European quotations; I chose an Italian phrase, ‘Chi non fa non falla’, a very intriguing comment on decision-making: Chi non fa non falla’ means ‘he who does nothing makes no mistakes’ – or as I understand it ‘you need to make mistakes in order to achieve anything’.

MG: Wonderful.

NA: And therefore that was a very good motto.

MG: What was very interesting listening to you, Sir Norman, is that your reading life and your working life don’t seem separate. You don’t seem to feel that they were mutually exclusive.

NA: Not at all. At times in your life you don’t really see what you are gaining from all your reading because you are dealing with situations as they arise – but I have always been able to get value from a rational and considered approach, even though I’m a very practical sort of businessman. This is far removed from what we were going to talk about – my book collection – but you can always learn.

In 1950, aged 19 I was a newly appointed Equipment Officer in the RAF stationed in a flying training school and one of our aeroplanes crashed. There was a certain procedure for dealing with a crashed aeroplane requiring me to take charge of it and make sure that it was repaired or scrapped. The Air Ministry auditors came and they found that an aeroplane that had crashed was still on my charge. They asked me where it was. I didn’t know – it had obviously been sent away for repair but nobody had recorded the fact. So that was my biggest mistake!

Years later, when I was a successful businessman in Sheffield, I was asked by the Independent on Sunday whether I would agree to be interviewed in a series called ‘My Biggest Mistake’. I agreed. I said that my biggest mistake was to lose an aeroplane and that the experience taught me to pay attention to detail.

Three university researchers years later wrote a book on the ‘blame culture’, basing their research on analysis of the two hundred and odd interviews in the Independent. They printed my interview in full at the end of the book and confirmed my conclusion that there are certain things that you can only learn by making mistakes. You can’t be taught them, you have got to learn them by making mistakes. You need to make mistakes in order to achieve anything.

MG: A very scientific attitude isn’t it?

NA: Yes. And that’s more or less what I’d said in my article. That’s more or less what my motto says. The only way to avoid making mistakes is to actually do nothing. Or if we think about decision-making, what I look for in people who work for me, are people who will make decisions, not go the safe way of avoiding error by not making decisions. It is just what these academics concluded in their book Ending the Blame Culture, and they picked on me because I had lost an aeroplane! So that’s a lovely book that one, another favourite book of mine. It is also something that I had worked out as a management principle through my life.

MG: Your whole life seems to be about learning in all sorts of different areas.

NA: Yes. I think it probably is, yes.

MG: So when you were reading as a five year old, you didn’t seem to be reading in an instrumental way saying, ‘If I read that I will do well’. You just seemed to be driven to read. Is that right?


NA: Yes. I was an addictive reader really, a compulsive reader and I wasn’t an altogether critical reader. I would be clearly, you are right, thinking about it. I would clearly be learning something from everything I read and I was absorbing things very quickly. I am a very quick reader. I once read a book that told me how you read quickly! It was the way I was reading anyway – I read quickly by reading a line at a time and not a word at a time.

MG: Is there any book you think changed your life? That you feel you really learnt something very significant from?

NA: There must be and there is. The book that didn’t so much change my life but gave me an approach to life that remained was Three Men in a Boat. The first book I ever read which led me to laugh out loud on every other page sitting there in our front room and my mum asked me what on earth I was doing. All I was doing was reading a book and I was laughing. Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat was that book and I wouldn’t say it was the one that changed my life but the fact that a book can be like that and can influence you in that way was certainly something that I had never before experienced.

MG: A Miscellany of Sense and Nonsense by Jerome K Jerome.

NA: Here are all the best bits of Three Men in a Boat.

MG: I see, Three Men on the Bummel.

NA: That’s right. There’s another one called Three Men on an Omnibus which is a clever way of titling an omnibus edition of Three Men in a Boat as well. One of the first books I ever gave my granddaughter was Three Men in a Boat.

But what book really influenced me? In Chapter 14 of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis is a single sentence, ‘Watch your own step: be slow to criticise the doings of other people’. I have been guided by that, and tried to keep emotion out of my decision-making – I can’t think of anything more valuable.

MG: Obviously the Phillip Gibbs book influenced you.

NA: Obviously the Phillip Gibbs did. Phillip Gibbs taught me something about life, a life of the kind that people can live which is full of tragedy and full of challenge and with occasional achievement. I read an article by Robert Fisk, a feature writer in the Independent. He was in Baghdad when the Americans started to bomb and he wrote his article standing in the British Commonwealth graves of Northern Baghdad, standing by the tombstone of a Corporal Adsetts, one of 40,000 British soldiers who died in Mesoptotamia between 1916 and 1921.

MG: Good heavens.

NA: Here was a man with my name and he was in Baghdad in 1921, died in Baghdad in 1921 and what was the story? He was a miner at the age of 18 when he joined up in Doncaster 1914; he had been in prison; he went to France and because he was a bit of a lad and because he was an ex-miner and because he was small he was put in a tunnelling company. Birdsong is about a tunnelling company, and that fictional book told me more about this relative of mine than I could have any other way.  I also discovered out of the blue that an American mining engineer was the commander of his tunnelling company and he had also written a book. And so I developed really a fascinating story about this man from nowhere. That’s why I read books.

MG: [When did Corporal Adsetts die?]

NA: He was 18 in 1914 so he must have been about 24 when he died. What a life. An incredible life but a real life quite like those people in Cities of Refuge.

MG: Yes, yes.

NA: Totally.

MG: It seems to be the combination of sort of ordinariness and extra-ordinariness – in both.

NA: I am still reading now but I am reading to support what I am writing.

MG: Of course, yes.

NA: All through my life I have thought a bit at times about writing something but never really done it. I have never really had time.

MG: I wondered about that because reading so much you must have had an impetus to write.

NA:  Yes but it was mainly used in my work. I was a good letter writer, I was a good report writer. I was good at analysing situations and so forth and so on. It sounds as though I am blowing my own trumpet.

MG: But you were [good at things].

NA: But I was good at these things. In the main as I run into situations, the inclination on my part, and my nature really, was not to write about them but to do something about them. So I was very much an actor in whatever I did, whether it was business in which I would do things, initiate things, take risks, make mistakes, recover from mistakes and so on. Even when I retired and got to know about the battles that were going on between the Labour group and the business community in Sheffield, my inclination was not to write about it but to go in and try and do something about it.

MG: The reading you described when you were a child seemed to be very much not about Sheffield, about a world elsewhere.

NA: It wasn’t about Sheffield at all, no.

MG: Whereas now you seem to be focusing …

NA: When I left Sheffield I had no real inclination to come back.

MG: Didn’t you?

NA: None whatsoever. Sheffield was a very boring place for a young teenager. One thing you read about Sheffield from almost anybody who ever came and visited here in the 19th and 20th centuries was that it was a dreadful place. They were saying that in part because there was nothing about the centre of Sheffield that attracted one. Sheffield was a kind of solid mass of factories and houses all mixed up and there was no centre. Yes you could find a centre because there would be a place where the politicians met and there would also be a place where there was a theatre. There was nothing about the centre to tell you that it was a centre and so civic leaders have had to work hard to create one.


So in 1940 when I grew up in Sheffield, I mean there was the war, the Blitz, there was going to school in Sheffield. I liked Sheffield, I would support Sheffield Wednesday and so on and so forth and I was to some extent interested in the history of it then but as a place to grow up in it was a bit of a bore really. There was nothing, no real places to go and eat, there were no real places to go and play. It wasn’t a place that you would naturally think of and all the inclination in those days of course was that you got your degree and you found a job; and most of the people who did that left Sheffield. I had no inclination to stay and chose deliberately not to go into the family business but to go and work for a multinational company.

MG: From Oxford?

NA: Straight from Oxford. I learned a new trade then. The fact is – I found myself very much at one with the sales director of a company who interviewed me, who seemed to understand me better than I understood myself and knew perfectly well that the  other firms were offering three-year training programmes. At the end of the three year degree, two years in the air force and a three year training programme, he knew instinctively what I needed. His sales pitch to me was, ‘Join me. I will give you some training and give you a job. If you succeed in it you will have a great career, if you don’t, then you can try something else.’ I liked that and he also said, ‘I want somebody who has done Higher Certificate in sciences and has read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.’

MG: Good heavens.

NA: He wanted me to have almost the same degree he had but to have done sciences as well because if you are going to sell insulation you have got to understand physics, mathematics and so on. He brought me in and said, ‘You are not going to sell insulation for houses, you are going to sell insulation for ships and I will give you three months training.’ And it worked.

MG: That’s fascinating. I mustn’t keep you now. Sir Norman. There are just two questions I can ask before I go. Did you ever use the municipal libraries as well as your father’s?

NA: Yes.

MG: You did. Which one did you use?

NA: The Graves Art Gallery.

MG: Central?

NA: The Central Library, yes.

MG: You went up to the Graves?

NA: Oh yes, yes. I used that, yes.

MG: And were you ever steered when you went to the library? Did the librarian ever suggest you read anything?

NA: No.

MG: No.

NA:  I wandered. My attitude then and now is always to wander round until I see something that looks interesting. Of course I am a member of the London Library as well.

MG: Oh yes.

NA: I have been a member for a long time and I have often asked the staff there for guidance.

MG: It is a wonderful place.

NA: And they always have the book you want.

MG: The other library that interests me is the Red Circle Library because quite a few people we have interviewed borrowed pulp fiction from the Red Circle Library but you wouldn’t have come across that I suppose?

NA: I knew about it, yeah. I knew about it, it was fairly popular but no, I didn’t go to those libraries, no.

MG: Because you would have had your store of pulp fiction in your father’s library?

NA: Absolutely.

MG: Absolutely. That’s fascinating.

NA: It was small enough to give me an opportunity to read the lot which I think over the space of a couple of years I probably did.

MG: Every book?

NA: I wouldn’t be surprised.

MG: Wonderful. Thank you very much Sir Norman.

NA: I hope that has helped.

MG: It is superb, thank you.




Transcribed by Mary Grover and Ruth Dawson April 2014 then cut and amended by Sir Norman.

Access Sir Norman Adsetts’ reading journey here.

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On the BBC: ‘The more we read the more we live.’

The more we read the more we live. The better our reading is the better our living is sure to be. Food, clothing and shelter are requisites of life, but reading is necessary for complete living.

This sentiment – authoritative, clear and aspirational – is at the heart of a talk given on the BBC’s first Sheffield station, 6FL, on Thursday 27 January 1927.[i] The speaker was the city librarian, Richard J Gordon (1881-1966), and the broadcast was for a series entitled ‘How Sheffield’s City Departments Work’. As a whole, this sounds worthy, even dull, but Gordon, who had, a colleague said[ii], ‘an innate flair for saying and doing the right thing at the right time,’ is fascinating for what he tells us about the ambition felt for public libraries by the people who ran them in the early twentieth century.

Sheffield was lucky to have Richard Gordon. A ‘dynamic person who believed so passionately in the civilising mission of public libraries’, he ‘added lustre to his profession,’ say his obituaries.[iii] His lifetime contribution was recognised when he was chosen as President of the Library Association in 1947.

The converted music hall on Surrey St, which served as half of the central library in Gordon’s day. It was inconvenient and unsafe.

Gordon arrived in Sheffield in 1921, when the public libraries were stagnating (a strong word but the one used in the official history[iv]). Sheffield had made a good start: in 1856 it was the first city in Yorkshire to adopt the 1850 Public Libraries Act allowing corporations to establish free libraries. For the next half century, things went quite well, with central lending and reference libraries and  branches opening. But then the service declined, to the extent that in 1920 the Council shamefacedly asked the chief librarian of Leeds to assess the problems and recruited, from 60 applicants, the chief librarian of Rochdale, Richard Gordon, to rebuild the service. The challenge is set out in City Libraries of Sheffield 1856-1956:

… the bookstocks were so bad throughout the lending libraries, and the administrative methods had fallen so far behind … What little money was available was wasted by bibliographical incompetence both in book selection and binding… The buildings were revoltingly dirty, both externally and internally… The staff … had been actively discouraged from attempting to qualify in their profession …

A letter to the Sheffield Independent in April 1920 said that the libraries were a ‘disgrace to a city of such importance’ and blamed the ‘Council’s absurd policy of parsimony’.

By 1927, when he spoke on the radio, Gordon was revolutionising the libraries. New books were bought and old, worn-out ones removed. The staff were re-organised and new systems designed. Open access shelving was introduced.[v] Information and publicity campaigns were initiated. The central libraries were reformed, five branch libraries attractively renovated, a children’s branch library opened, the school library service expanded and plans laid for a much-needed, new central library building.

Walkley library – where Gordon opened a  children’s library in 1924, which was used by many of our readers.

Highfield Branch Library, renovated and re-opened in 1923.

These achievements are evident in Gordon’s radio talk: ‘Much has been done to make the libraries worthy of their name, but much more remains to be done.’ More importantly, Gordon used the opportunity to make the case for reading and for public libraries. (Although our situation today is very different, his arguments still have merit). Libraries were, he said, ‘community schools where all may increase and supplement their education’, although their contribution to the ‘national educational structure is but, as yet, dimly recognised.’ An experienced local authority man, Gordon pointed out that the libraries were good value (11d – £4.70 today – per head, less than in other northern cities), offering ‘[information] freely placed at the service of the public; competent counsel in the choice of books; [and] where to look for the required information…’ He aimed, he said, to ‘attract and cultivate readers’, including children, and to anticipate and supply people’s needs:

If we have not the book wanted don’t hesitate to say so. If you do not tell us what you want, we are only able to guess at your requirements …

He went on:

Please do not mistake my meaning regarding this, I mean requirements of books of real value, and not merely of recreational interest.

‘Books of real value’ is an important phrase for Gordon and other librarians of the day. Free libraries were part of the great social reforms of the mid-19th century, founded with a view to the improvement, the self-improvement, of the working classes. Reading for pleasure and reading fiction (particularly the cheaper sort) were frowned upon. By the 1920s, librarians had mellowed somewhat, but the focus on education remained, along with the feeling that ratepayers’ money must be spent on the worthwhile, rather than the entertaining. So Gordon said:

[The central library] is not for readers who require only the latest popular novel, unless it should happen to be the work of a novelist of admitted quality. In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.


Too often the public library is only thought and spoken of in connection with the reading of novels, and without detracting in the slightest degree from the value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading, yet I would emphasise the contribution it offers to the raising of the standard of general intelligence which is the library’s greatest value to the city.

Gordon concluded: ‘I believe the libraries have something for everybody … I hope many more will … find pleasure and profit in [them].’ The broadcast was clearly part of a communications strategy, aiming to draw Sheffielders in. There were also updates in the local press and trade papers, public lectures, reading lists, exhibitions and slogans such as ‘The Library exists for Books, Information, and Service’. But it seems likely that Gordon was also talking to his employers, the Council. He emphasised the benefits of the library service, including as a means of profiting local industry, and he talked confidently of growth: ‘…when our library service expands, as it must expand…’ A library, he said, is ‘books made productive’.

1927 was to be Gordon’s last year in Sheffield. Shortly after the broadcast, he started a new job as chief librarian in Leeds. There were press suggestions that Sheffield had itself to blame, as the salary offered was well below that of other northern cities. He stayed in Leeds for the rest of his career, and was much praised for its libraries. In Sheffield, he was succeeded by his equally energetic and insightful deputy, Joseph Lamb, whose work is explored elsewhere on this website.

Gordon presided over an increase in borrowing in Sheffield from 711,000 books in 1921 to over 1.5 million in 1926.  His friend Lamb wrote of him: ‘when he was in charge libraries became marvellously alive’.[vi]


[i] The script can be seen in the Sheffield Local History Library.

[ii] Obituary by J P Lamb, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.418.

[iii] Obituaries by E Hargreaves and A E Burbridge respectively, Library Association Record, November 1966, p.420.

[iv] The City Libraries of Sheffield, 1856-1956 (Sheffield, Libraries Galleries and Museums Committee, 1956).

[v] Open access, i.e. shelving accessible to the public, is almost universal today. In the early twentieth century, closed access, where books are chosen from catalogues and brought to borrowers by staff, was the norm.

[vi] From (ii) above.

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