Christine M

Christine M

Christine was born on the 4th November 1940.

Christine is being interviewed by Peter Watson on the 12th March 2013

[NB see pen portrait for important additional information about access to books and favourite books]

christine-markham-abbeydale-grange-school-age-14-years-

PW: What I want to do to start is to ask about when you were a very small child. Did anyone read to you?

CM: Not that I can remember. Not at all. My father would be away the entire time I grew up, in the [British] army. I can’t ever remember anyone reading to me.

PW: Was your mother working?

CM: No. She looked after me.

PW: When did you actually start to read, then?

CM: You’ve started with a difficult question here. The first thing I can remember [about reading] was at school. Things like Enid Blyton and Treasure Island [by Robert Louis Stevenson] particularly. That [Treasure Island] was the first thing that caught my eye.

PW: Did you have any reading schemes [at school] at all?

CM: No. It just happened!

PW: So, Robert Louis Stevenson, Enid Blyton.

CM: Yes, the first influence was teachers reading to us and getting us interested in books. Maybe I’m doing my mother a disservice. Maybe she did read to me; I just can’t remember it.

PW: That’s interesting, so did you [your family] own any books at home?

CM: Yes, yes. Again, I’ve been thinking about this [in preparation for the interview] and the only books we owned were in the bookcase that was full of my father’s books and they were of the ‘Great Short Stories’ type: Great Short Stories Of  The World and Dashiell – Dashiell Hammet [the best-selling American author of so-called ‘hard-boiled’ American detective fiction]. Things like that – they were in a bookcase. As I grew up, I was encouraged to read them, although I wasn’t reading them at the age of five or six. Those are the books I remember seeing in the house.

PW: So a fair mix of books, then?

CM: Oh, yes. The other thing I can remember was my sister, she was nine years older than me, I can remember a boyfriend [Christine’s sister’s boyfriend] of the time bringing me one of these annuals – Stories for Girls annuals.

PW: Was this a Christmas gift?

CM: I think he was trying to curry favour with my sister. It was just a gift, and it was secondhand!

PW: Did it work?

CM: No! [laughs].

We didn’t buy books at that stage. It was during the war [Christine was born in 1940], and just after.

Well they [new books] weren’t available, were they?

I can remember later when I was getting on a bit, about eight or nine, I won a school prize, but it was a secondhand book. The teacher gave me a book. It was one of her [Christine’s teacher’s] books. The prize was a secondhand book! So you didn’t buy books then, well, not in my experience.

PW: Were you using a library at that stage?

CM: I did start going down to central children’s library [Sheffield Central Library in Surrey Street] but I think I was older, I think it was when I wanted to be independent when I was eleven or twelve [years old]. In those days I don’t think my mother would have let me go into town on my own.

PW: So which books made the most impression on you?

CM: To start with, Enid Blyton.

So what was good about Enid Blyton?

CM: Exciting. Different. A different world.

PW: Yes, the pace is good, isn’t it?

CM: Yes, and then after that it must have been Anne of Green Gables [the story of an orphan and set in Canada, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 Anne of Green Gables is a children’s classic]. That was the [school] prize. So the teacher must have been reading it to us, and that was in my final year at junior school, ten or eleven [years old]. Those were the books, yeah, at that sort of age.

PW: Did you read any non-fiction books?

CM: Not that I can remember. No. From that [Anne of Green Gables] I went on to the Chalet School books [a best-selling 1925-70 series of ‘school stories’ set first in the Austrian Alps and latterly Switzerland, by Elinor Brent-Dyer]. That was the stage at which we used to buy books. We used to go into Andrews [Sheffield bookseller] and a treat would be for me to save my pocket money, so I did collect all the earlier Chalet School books.

PW: It must have taken you quite a while to save up. I think I got sixpence a week pocket money.

CM: Yes, oh yes. It wouldn’t have been much. I think I used to take my mum in [to Andrews’] and she used to help me out. So they [books] were always considered a luxury. Well, perhaps they weren’t very well off, I don’t know. They certainly didn’t spend money on books.

PW: So what was her attitude to what you were reading? Did she [Christine’s mother] direct you towards anything? Or…

CM: I can’t ever remember my mother having any direct influence on my reading at all. My father, yes. But not my mother.

PW: So your father was away during the war?

CM: Yes, he came back in ’45.

PW: So you must have hardly known him.

CM: Yes.

PW: It must have been quite a shock.

CM: Yes. More for him than me, I think!

PW: So, you were saying that he had an idea of what you should and shouldn’t read?

CM: He would push me towards these classics that were in the bookcase: the Wilkie Collins and that type of thing, which probably was a little bit old for my age group.

PW: Yes, thinking about ten or eleven – Wilkie Collins – some of the constructions would be quite difficult, and the themes – quite adult.

CM: Oh yes.

PW: So they [Christine’s parents] weren’t worried about you reading adult books?

CM: No. My mother was very worried about me being top of the class at school. She didn’t really go further than that; that I can remember.

PW: So she didn’t make the connection between reading and being top of the class?

CM: No.

PW: Because obviously the more you read … So they [Christine’s parents] had high expectations of you?

CM: Yes, yes, very much. To a limited degree, yes.

PW: Did you buy secondhand books as well as new ones?

CM: No. It was always new. I didn’t even know there were secondhand bookshops.

CM: No. We had something called The Children’s Newspaper.

PW: Yes! Arthur Mee! [The 1919-65 weekly The Children’s Newspaper was marketed to parents as an ‘educational’ alternative to comics and first edited by Arthur Mee of The Children’s Encylopaedia and The King’s England series of guidebooks fame. Mee died in 1943, and Hugo Tyerman became editor].

CM: Yes, that was again my father’s influence. I was interested in writing stories, so he encouraged me to enter competitions.

PW: So did you enter competitions in The Children’s Newspaper?

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

PW: Obviously some parents didn’t think comics were a good idea, so I can see which direction of your father’s interest with The Children’s Newspaper. So your father thought, by implication, that reading was a good idea, because you’ll know, as a [former] librarian that some parents see reading as anti-social.

CM: My father and my mother were very different characters. My father was a musician, and always reading and doing crosswords and my mother thought that that was not a very good idea for a girl, maybe.

PW: Were there books that you read that you thought ‘oh, this is rubbish’?

CM: I struggled a bit with some of the classics that my father wanted me to read. Left to myself, I went through the entire Chalet School [series] like a dose of salts. That’s the thing that really comes over to me – the Chalet School books.

PW: Looking at the authors we’ve got down here [in prompt notes], looking at the adventure stories, they all look like boys’ books. Edgar Rice Burroughs – did you ever read the Tarzan books?

CM: No.

PW: John Buchan?

CM: Yes, I must have read The Thirty-Nine Steps.

PW: Did you like thrillers? What sort of books did you move on to from school stories?

CM: I actually moved into war stories. The next influence, once I left junior school – I went to Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar School – and I can remember that we had a cupboard of books, a class library, and there were things in that like Kipps [by H G Wells], which stands out. The things I can remember were, well I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and I won form prizes and we were always taken to the bookshop [to choose a book from its stock] and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea [WW2 naval fiction by Nicholas Monsarrat] and C S Forrester’s The Good Shepherd [also WW2 naval fiction]. And then Best Foot Forward [by WW2 pilot Colin Hodgkinson], which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader, but I’m still reading The Chalet School. Later on I remember someone saying to me ‘you read a lot of this bloodthirsty stuff!’

PW: Have you carried on reading war memoirs?

CM: Not really. I tend to read crime now. But that’s pretty bloodthirsty isn’t it?

PW: Thinking about books that have had a deeper effect on you. Can you think of any books you’ve read that have affected you politically, or what you’ve done in life?

CM: Oh, it’s the war stories. I’m a convinced pacifist. I think war is absolutely stupid.

PW: Had you family lost anyone in the First World War for instance?

CM: No. My uncle was in the First World War and he was deaf afterwards. I’ve started researching the history of what he was doing now but at the time he was just someone who was deaf and my father came back from the war and didn’t really talk about it.

PW: So what did he think about the books you were reading? And did he have the same sort of reaction [to war]?

CM: I think he thought I was a bit of a leftie [politically left wing] because by the time I was eighteen-nineteen [years old] I’d already joined CND [the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament]. Although he enjoyed his books he was, well he voted Conservative, so we diverged.

PW:Talking about CND, were there any books you read [about pacifism and disarmament]. Did you read any Bertrand Russell?

CM: Not that I can remember. By that time I was in libraries [working in libraries] and taking the exams [Library Association examinations to qualify as a professional librarian]. I started [in libraries] when I was 16. The first professional exam was a four-part thing and one part was Literature, so again I had to read things like Charlotte Bronte. This was part of the librarianship thing. Again I was pushed into reading certain books. Again it was Victorian novelists. You’ve not got time to do anything else! That’s what I would be reading.

PW: Did your work in the library tend to influence what you were reading?

CM: Again I got hooked on light reading. Certainly Georgette Heyer [light historical fiction]. I got through all of those and I think Lucilla Andrews, who wrote about doctors and nurses [35 novels 1954-96] and I got through those as well.

PW: They’re just a relaxation, aren’t they? Did you know anything about medicine?

CM: Oh, no. They’re very light. They don’t have any operations! But the background’s there.

PW: I suppose it’s like crime books – they vary tremendously in the depth as far as [police] procedure you get.

CM: Yes,

PW: Which [crime writers] do you prefer?

CM: I go more for the detective solving the crime. Some of them are too violent. The Scarpetta ones [Kay Scarpetta is a leading character in Patricia Cornwell’s crime fiction]. They can be quite violent. Too gruesome.

PW: Yes, some of the Jo Nesbo’s are too depressing for words.

Peter Robinson?

CM: Yes, and Ian Rankin. I really rate him.

PW: John Harvey?

CM: No.

PW: Are you interested in the social aspects of crime?

CM: Not really, no. It’s trying to work out ‘whodunit’ and get there.

PW: Finding time to read. Have you never found that a problem?

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

PW: Open University?

CM: Open University. Six years Open University. Then two years’ day release up in Leeds studying for a master’s in librarianship. So I can’t remember picking up anything, although the Open University I did the novel course so obviously again I had to plough through Dickens and Hardy.

PW: So the entire history of the novel?

CM: Well, it was Victorian novels.

PW: You seem to have been constantly pushed in that direction.

CM: Yes, yes. I can’t say I always liked them, but yes.

PW: Reading habits. Do you tend to take books with you wherever you go?

CM: Yes. I’m afraid I’ve got a Kindle now as well because we go to France and I used to take 10 books in the car – and now I get the Kindle, sit in the garden in France and bingo!

PW: So you’re a big fan [of the Kindle]?

CM: I still prefer a book. I only take the Kindle when we go away and when you’re in France it saves you, well you have to take books with you because it’s difficult to find English books in France. You run out. I know we shouldn’t use Amazon, but…and books in France are expensive. I can read French reasonably well and I’ve looked at buying French paperbacks but they were 16 Euros. Well, that’s ridiculous!

PW: Looking back, it seems to me that you had this interest in light literature and then you’re having to read and awful lot for these examinations. So you’d have been doing [studying for] examinations for about 20 years?

CM: We started the first professional [librarianship course] when I was seventeen; then it went on to the registration [to eventually become a fully-qualified librarian with ALA – Associate of the Library Association – after your name]. I did opt in and out to twenty-five. Then I had a gap: ’65 to ’75 [1965-1975] where I had kids. And to be honest I couldn’t afford the Open University fees. From ’76 until way into the ’80s I was doing six years of the Open University and two years of [the] master’s. So there was a big chunk out of my life there as well.

PW: So what were you reading when you were doing the MA?

CM: Absolutely nothing. It was full-on. I got day release. I was sponsored by Sheffield Libraries [which was] very, very good. It was one day [a week] which was a full day up in Leeds and then the first year you had one and a half modules to do and in the second year I pushed two modules into one year. It was just impossible to do anything else.

PW: Now that you’ve retired, what do you tend to read now? Apart from crime.

CM: Apart from crime – history.

PW: Local history?

CM: No. Well, I worked in a local history library. I worked all over the place!

PW: When you were working in the local history library, when you were shelving did you think ‘oh, I’d quite like to read that’?

CM: The one thing I did get involved with; I don’t know the author. You know – The First Day of the Somme.

PW: Martin Middlebrook?

CM: Somebody else wrote a novel [about 1 July 1916]. John Harris [whose novel about the lead up to 1 July 1916, published in 1961 is Covenant With Death]. He was a reporter on the [Sheffield] CM: Telegraph at one time.

PW: Oh yes, he was. He wrote the famous one about the war in the air in the First World War. You were helping him [with research], were you?

CM: Oh no. I just found it in the stack [in the reserve book stock not open to the public].

PW: Going back to the history you read at the moment.

CM: I’m quite interested in Victorian painting. So I’ve read one or two books about that.

PM: The Rosettis, that sort of thing?

CM: Yes. And [Jeremy] Paxman’s written some books about the Victorians. At the moment, believe it or not I’m reading something edited by Colin Firth, you know, the actor. Yes, it surprised me, and it surprised me about how left-wing he must be. He and some historians have collected the writings of people who fought against the establishment going way, way back. So anti-slavery and , er. So I’m half-way through that. It’s called Let The People Speak [The People Speak by Colin Firth, Anthony Arnove and David Horspool]. He did a stage production of it in 2010.

PW: My favourite book about [the history of] Sheffield is Sheffield Troublemakers. Do you know that?

CM: Oh, yes, yes. There’s someone I know called Mike West in that.

PW: Do you think that your own political views have been formed by what you like to read of history?

CM: Oh yes. Do you know John O’Farrell? Things Can Only Get Better [subtitled Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter 1979-1997]? He stood as a [parliamentary] candidate in the recent election at Eastleigh [in Hampshire in 2013; the byelection triggered by Chris Huhne MP’s imprisonment; O’Farrell was the Labour candidate]. This was a book he wrote about the time when the Labour Party was in the wilderness, going up to getting back into power with Blair. It’s brilliant. Very good, that.

PW: We seem to have covered your reading [habits] pretty well. Is there anything else you think we should mention?

CM: The other thing we should mention is that after I left libraries I went to work in a children’s bookshop and I’ve only just retired from working in a children’s bookshop.

PW:  And how long did you spend in the children’s bookshop?

CM: Ten years. I saw this job, which just happened to be paid and thought ‘that’s my sort of thing’. It coincided with me getting my own grandchildren and I only worked two mornings a week. When I left work I said I would do something on a voluntary basis and I saw this job which actually happened to be paid.

One of my [children’s] favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It’s an early Raymond Briggs [with Elfrida Vipont]. Do you know that?

PW: No. I suppose you’re familiar with Beatrix Potter. Is that the sort of thing you’d buy for your grandchildren?

CM: No. One of my favourites is The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. And Peepo! [by John and Janet Ahlberg].

PW: Oh, yes, the Ahlbergs!

CM: Again, it’s [Peepo!] got a war theme in it. When you see the father, he’s wearing a uniform. That’s what I bought for my grandchildren. What I recommended to people – although I didn’t buy it for my grandchildren – was Helen Cooper’s Pumpkin Soup. It’s ideal for Halloween, it’s all orangey and pumpkinny.

PW: So you’ve had a tremendous amount to do with books from a professional side, as well as being a keen reader yourself.

CM: Yes, yes.

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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.

And:

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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