David Flather

David Flather

David was born on the 8th May 1931.

He is being interviewed by Mary Grover on the 31st May 2012.

This is an interview conducted by Mary Grover [M-A-R-Y G-R-O-V-E-R] with David Flather [D-A-V-I-D F-L-A-T-H-E-R].  It is the 31st of May, 2012.  And David lived in Retford and in Hathersage and most of his life in Sheffield.

[Nothing omitted. The three dots signify pauses. Occasionally David consults a list of books he remembers reading which Mary Grover has.]

DF:  Yes, after 1955.

MG:  Yes.  Okay.

DF:  Came back Sheffield and I lived in Tickhill as well.  All around the area, but I’ve always been based in Sheffield at a distance.

MG:  Thank you David.  Can you explain to me why you moved around such a lot?

DF:  Well, I had … I lost my mother when I was very young and my father remarried and our steelworks were in Tinsley and my grandfather had gone to live in Maltby.  And we went to live in 1935 in Tickhill where we rented a house that was another four miles further away.  And we lived there until the outbreak of war when we were given notice to quit.  And my father, who was in reserved occupation in the war because he was running a steelworks, wanted to be on the railway, so we moved to Retford in Nottinghamshire, which is on the … not only on the London line but was also on the cross country line between Retford and Sheffield.  So that’s one of the reasons we went to live in Retford.  And we lived there until 1949, when we moved back to Tickhill again, again because that’s the side, our factory was on the east end and it was so much easier to get in and out from Tickhill into the works.

MG:  So when you were a child, David, were books part of your life?

DF:  Yes, books have always been part of my life.  I could read at a very early age, probably at the age of six I was … I could read.  In fact, I was taught to read the newspapers as well, particularly for the cricket scores and things like the coronation of 1937.  We pored over the papers for that.  So I was reading from a very early age, yes.

MG:  I don’t think I said, David, that you were born on the 8th of May, 1931.

DF:  Yes.

MG:  So when you were a child, it was before the war, and can you remember the kind of books that were in the house then?

DF:  To some extent.  I suppose I wasn’t terribly conscious of what we were reading.  I mean yes, I’ve got my Christopher Robin books, which I still have, and also, because my mother was a very gifted musician, I’ve got the  music, Fraser-Simson settings that are very well known, which I’ve still got.  I think… I can’t … Yes, things like Wind in the Willows and Alice … the Alice books of course, those are probably the earliest books I’ve got written down.  But with going away to boarding school at a very young age, we started … we went through The Dandy and The Beano, that sort of stage in the early days, those comics.  I suppose serious books I couldn’t say too much until I was about eight or nine, something like that.  But one thing I did pick up, rather than books, was that I, at a very early age, I learned to read maps.


My grandfather, who lived in Hooton Levitt Hall, near Maltby, which has since been demolished, was an enormous collector of books, mainly Masonic, and he had two road atlases, which were the only two books I could find of interest in this enormous library.  And I still have those, and I started and developed the ability to read maps.  I was also … another influence on this was that when I was seven, I suffered a very serious mastoid operation which left me in hospital or nursing home for about a month.  And again, the specialist lent me a very old Michelin guide book which I pored over and I developed the art of reading maps and so that was another early thing I came on.  And that’s never left me.  And I have a very wide collection of very old maps, some were my grandfather’s.  And this interest I’ve had, both with maps and also a growing interest in railways, which is another interest that I’ve had throughout my whole life.  I think we’ve got to move on really to the eight to ten things because there was a school library.  I’m moving into the sort of schoolboy filler authors, such as Biggles, W.E. Johns, Percy F. Westerman, and I used to read a lot of his.  I can’t remember them now, except they were stirring Boys Own Paper stuff:  Sapper, whose proper name I can’t remember. And I was very interested in joining the navy at some stage and throughout the war I followed the naval activities with great interest.  One of the other sea based books are people like Bartimaeus, was his pen name.  I can’t remember his proper name.  Sapper was another one, and particularly Taffrail, who, again, has probably lapsed into obscurity now, but in fact I’ve got a signed copy of one of his books because my father met him.  Because he was on … he was a serving officer on…he was Captain Taffrail Dawling, who was a serving naval officer.  And he met my father, who was on some armaments committee to do with the navy, because my father was very involved with this sort of thing.  And he actually signed a book … I’ve got a signed copy of one of his books.

MG:  So when you were at prep school these books were very readily available.

DF:  We had a library, yes, yes.  And I suppose the thriller type books, again, things like Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel, which again I have one or two of those, Ian Hay and then moving on to Rudyard Kipling, all the Jungle Books I’ve read.  And still have, although I haven’t got those, we’ve, in the house, got quite a lot of Kipling still.  Rider Haggard, you know, King Solomon’s Mines, and again I’ve got one of his, but I’ve read all his books, virtually.  And I think not only did … were they school library books, but my father, he wasn’t big on television or radio, so he used to read a lot.  But he’d accumulated over the years 1920s books, that I really couldn’t get into.  People like Dornford Yates and well I’ve lost the other name now.

MG:  Jeffrey Farnol?

DF:  Jeffrey Farnol was another one, Jeeves … P. G. Wodehouse.  He’d got whole rows of these, but they were 1920s and I just couldn’t get into them.  They weren’t our scene in the sort of late 30s, early 40s.  In the same way, I had my uncle who wrote a book, again late 20s because he was an author as well, which I have.  I haven’t read it because it’s so heavily dated now.  But I think with the other books which my father read and I think what he read influenced me to some extent and the name John Buchan springs to mind.  And between us, it must have taken ten years to re-accumulate all of his books.  The whole lot.  And later on, I’m jumping a bit, at university, I used to go around the second-hand bookstores looking for the last two copies.  And finally, we did manage to achieve all of John Buchan’s books.  The other contemporary person that my father had and I enjoyed was Francis Brett Young.  Again, same sort of South African activities as Rider Haggard.  This was the empire and it was all jolly good fun and activity.  And again, Francis Brett Young, because he was based in … his father’s a chemist in Halesowen in Worcestershire just outside of Birmingham.  And oddly enough, a few years later, we bought a steelworks there.  And he had to go to South Africa because the books he … the novels he wrote like My Brother Jonathon all the tremendous scope of energy he had for that part of the world, he had to go to South Africa because his name was mud in the town because the characteristics were a bit too close to the real thing that he wrote.  So he is another one at the top of my list.  I suppose as my reading developed, I suppose I did read a lot and there are other sort of names that spring to mind and some of them I look at them and think how on earth did I manage to read that.  But people like Hugh Walpole spring to mind, where I read, we had, but haven’t now, all the Rogue Herries books, the three I think it was in the set.  But not only those, but we have a lot still here of Hugh Walpole, all the Jeremy books, and so forth.  We have probably half a dozen of Hugh Walpole and others.  Particularly on the other…going on to the thriller side is again, perhaps, Dorothy Sayers springs to mind, Agatha Christie was coming on the scene, but certainly Dorothy Sayers’ the Nine Tailors and Gaudy and things like that, I read quite a lot.  But not the highbrow ones, I got a bit stuck on those.  But beyond the Nine Tailors, which is one I really enjoyed., another old book we had, I think it was my father’s, was Warwick Deeping Sorrell and Son, which was again a 1920s, 1930s book.  Which probably is out of fashion now, to say that.

MG:  Can you remember anything about the book, Sorrell and Son?

DF:  Oh, yes, Sorrell and Son.  It was someone who fell on bad times.  It was easily done in the 30s and he went to serve as a porter in a provincial hotel in a market town somewhere and garnered his tips so well that he sent his son to public school.  I can always remember that one.  I haven’t got it now, but I’ve read it two or three times.  The copies have long since gone.  But I think it’s the only book I recollect from Warwick Deeping.  But I think, again, the books my father had available influenced what I was reading.  Books that were available in the school library influenced what I was reading.  And so these are sort of classical books of the 1930s, nothing very serious, but books like J. B. Priestley’s The Good Companions, which I still have, and others of his as well.  Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes books, I’ve read them all, I’ve got them all still, and others, not just the Sherlock Holmes books, but a load of his historical books.  I can’t remember them all now, but I’ve read quite a variety over the years of Conan Doyle.  You’ll probably see … I’ve flirted with Dickens, but the Dickens I’ve read have largely been film based, so, in other words, I’ve read Great Expectations, which is probably the greatest film that occurred in the 40s, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, little else, perhaps a few papers.  I’m not a tremendous Dickens fan.  But I enjoyed reading them.  The only historic … one or two, not really historical books, perhaps the only ones of the 19th century I’ve read particularly are the Brontë girls.  I’ve read them all, largely because they’re fairly local, but also because they’re well read.  Particularly the one I did like was probably not the best one, was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall which was written by Anne, yes, by Anne.  But, of course, since those days, these books have been flogged on the media so much, and have been done and redone again and done once more that the level of language and English in the original books perhaps has been lost a bit in history.

MG:  Why do you think Tenant of Wildfell Hall appealed to you more than the others?

DF:  I don’t know, it’s a long time since I read it.  It was a bit different from the Wuthering Heights type.  Honestly, I can’t remember at this stage, to be truthful.  It’s probably forty odd years ago since I read it.  I thought I’d got a copy but in the turmoil we’ve had with all our books in this house and other houses, I think it’s gone.  The only one I have left is Villette and that’s a rather small and dusty copy that I’ve got.  I think, you know, my … I think, as I moved on, again, moving schools as well more library books appeared, but then pressure at work and I probably read less.  But there are other authors which I have read and I really enjoyed.  And for all the hype about the Forsyte Saga, I read a lot of Galsworthy and went right through that book long before it was on the screen, you know.  I really enjoyed that.  We actually have got a lot of Galsworthy in this house, most of which I’ve probably not read because they haven’t come from me.  But, certain other books I’ve seen which come to mind.  Again, I’ve got Kidnapped …  I didn’t really get R.L. Stevenson.  A bit heavy, I didn’t really like that one very much.  Ian Hay, going back a bit.  I’ve read one or two of his, but couldn’t really get into that one.  Denton Welch, one … is a 1940s book.  I’ve still got that one.  He was a bit of a strange character.  1943 is when I bought that one and I still have that.  Others later on then … I think moving on … one or two other odd ones, again because my family come from that part of the world, my grandmother came from East Riding, is Winifred Holtby, South Riding. which, of course, has been made into a film twice and serialised as well.  But the book, again, which I’ve still got, because in fact she’s buried in the village where my family came from, or one part of my family.  What other ones do we have moving on?  I think moving into the late 40s early 50s, one or two others, you may not have heard of them.  There’s an author, a big game hunter, and this is probably non-fiction, called Jim Corbett.  I have all of his books because, again, I was recommended to read them by my great-aunt who lived in Kenya, who was a personal friend of his after he left India after Partition.  He went to live in Kenya and went on to … well, he was a big game hunter, but he was also a very good author and could really put in print the excitement of hunting tigers.  And my great-aunt bought for me, and so I got, the four books that he wrote which I still have.  He has been on the box as a big game hunter, but I use the written word as I had a great admiration of him.  And of course he was when the … with the Jubilee coming up, when the old King died, he was at the base of the tree with his shotgun keeping guard.

MG:  You say that your relative, your great-aunt, bought you the Jim Corbett books.

DF:  Yes.

MG:  And I know that you moved between relatives after your mother died.  Did any of those family homes have books that you can remember?

DF:  Well, apart from my grandfather’s books, not really.  I say … the moving between relatives was a fairly early … that was at a fairly early stage, you know.  When I settled down a bit and was commuting between school and home, not so much, because my grandparents, they both died in the 1940s and my maternal grandmother, I lost touch with her.  She went because my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was an author, went to live in as far away as she … went to live in Mullion, which is in Cornwall.  And she went down there as well.  In fact, I lost touch with her during the war and after the war she was too elderly to recognise anybody.  So, probably not, apart from my father’s books, which he had a lot.  He was an avid reader and my stepmother was an avid reader, but it was mainly … I used to … she used to us the Boots lending library and I used to fetch and carry books for her from the Boots lending library in Retford, which is one of the jobs I used to have to do.  I didn’t move around family so much later on.  Friends more yes, and Scouts camps and harvest camps and all the rest of it.  But one other person who came back into our lives, because the family’s…my mother’s family we lost touch with them during the war because my uncle was serving in the RAF and away.  But after the war we established contact again.  And my uncle’s house, who lived at that time in Mersea Island in Essex, he’d moved down there.  He was an author and he worked on the Sheffield Independent, which belonged to our family in 18th century … 19th century.  And his whole house was full of books, even in the loos there were piles of Penguins.  And this has carried on with my cousin who I’m very close to.  She has, she’s had to downsize and I never spent a lot of time going through his books because he had so many.  But that’s where the bookish part of my life is, although my mother took no part in my upbringing.  The interest was there and I say my uncle was an author in his own right as well, apart from being a correspondent and other things as well.

MG:  What kind of thing did your uncle write?

DF:  He wrote one or two novels, but he was a reporter on the Telegraph for a bit.  Then he went to work for … and he’s written historic … local history and things like that.  Not very much.

MG:  What’s his name David?

DF:  Waterhouse.  My middle name is Waterhouse and I have one of his books here.  And there is a very strong literary connection coming down through my mother’s family with Sheffield history because I’m descended from the Leader family, which wrote all the books on early … a hundred years ago the Curtis Company books.  They…My great grandmother was sister to the Leaders and I have actually got a present, from my uncle … my great uncle wrote a book on Mary Queen of Scots when he was not very well.  It’s an enormous volume which he wrote and I have a copy he presented to his mother when it was finished which has come down to me through the family.  He also, interestingly a bit of side issue, researched the Waterhouse family in the 1880s.  And we now have an enormous family tree thanks to a cousin in Canada, with about four-hundred people on it, you know.

MG:  So, would you say, David, that the Waterhouse side of the family is the more bookish side of the family?

DF:  I think it was even-stevens to some extent because my father … my grandfather was, again, no mean author.  My Waterhouse grandfather I never knew.  He died several years before I was born, but my own grandfather, whose name I share, was no mean author himself.  Masonic, technical writing he did quite a lot of that.  And interesting, I too have done quite a lot of technical writing as well, in the course of business.  So, we are … I suppose to some extent are also a bookish family, but we leanings more that way.

 David Flather's grandfather’s house in1861

David Flather’s Grandfather’s house

MG:  Would you say that when your father was running the steel company, would he have time to read?

DF:  Not a lot.  Well, if I move on a bit, I suppose the next author that springs out to me has got to be Nevil Shute.  And we had those … Nevil Shute from the late 40s, early 50s and he was…my father used to order these books and he would grab it as soon as it arrived and sit down and read it.  And then halfway through the afternoon he would hand it to me to read.  So we had all Nevil Shute’s books and I think he’s a storyteller.  And I have read the whole lot and I think we managed to buy the whole lot even the early ones that he wrote before the war.  Marazan and the early ones before he hit fame with A Town Like Alice and No Highway and other ones that have been dramatised and filmed, of course.  Some of them I didn’t like, others I thought were brilliant.  And again, being an aeronautical engineer, I was interested in his autobiography to some extent.  He was a very interesting man.  So yes, he was a … sort of moving on into the 50s, Nevil Shute was, again, one of the must have authors, like John Buchan and Francis Young.  I suppose one I have missed is John Masefield.  I’ve got only one of his three … not poems, although we have got a Box of Delights, which is my wife’s.  But his naval books that he wrote, the three which he wrote from the late 1920s, which I have … Sard Harker, The Bird of Dawning.  I think, in the desert island situation, The Bird of Dawning, is again is a must have book.  It is so well written, the use of English.  And I think this is what I like about people, Francis Brett Young, their descriptive narrative is so much better than these modern day people.  Haven’t got a clue how to write what I call descriptive narrative.  And this is where people like Masefield and so forth were real professionals.

MG:  Can you tell me why that book would be a desert island book?

DF:  Because it’s so thrilling.  It’s a book that holds you up to the last page and that to me is a good book.  You can’t put it down, it’s action all the way through, it’s well written and graphically … graphic descriptions.  I think that’s the book, there’s a description of a storm in the South Pacific…the language which is so descriptive.  It’s brilliant, you know, so … A lot of these books I’ve read … And John Buchan was a professional storyteller and you keep it going right to the end on that side there.  Right, let’s move it on a little bit.  Then always underlying this are people like Agatha Christie, who was always a good fall-back.  Once you’ve read them, you tend to have read them all because they have a pattern, a bit later on like Ellis Peters and the Cadfael books are the same.  Once you know the way they’re thinking, you can probably solve the problem before they have.  Very much enjoyable.  Perhaps moving on a little bit into the … one or two more … a bit of a mixed bag, this.  Hugh de Selincourt The Cricket Match.  That’s another thrilling book, which, surprise, surprise, is about a cricket match.  And that goes to the last ball, it’s as close as that.  I haven’t got it, I read it as a library book I think, at that stage.  Thomas Hughes, a lot of Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s School Days and Tom Brown at Oxford.  Going back in time … Norman Collins London Belongs to Me.  Again, a wartime book probably, maybe pre-war, I don’t know.  I’ve got copies of maybe three to four books by him.  Again, topical, seasonal action, well written.  These are the sorts of books I’ve got written down.  Perhaps on the crime front again:  Patricia Wentworth and The Miss Silver books.  My great-aunt, who lived in Sheffield all her life, she was a great fan of Patricia Wentworth and we used to share books with her.  Because she looked after me a lot during my travels, was one of my bases where she lived.

MG:  Can I just go back to your going to Boots Library?


DF:  Yes.

MG:  Because I don’t think there was a Boots Library in Sheffield in the 1940s [MG There was, in the basement of the Boots on Fargate.]

DF:  Well, I don’t know.

MG:  It was Retford.  Can you remember anything about that Boots Library?

DF:  Oh yes.  Yes.  They issued a book, and you had your own book, and somebody used to fill it in, out of the papers or wherever she got … and put it into the library.  And the library would hold and bring in books for her.  And every time you went in, ‘Have you got any books for Mrs Flather?’  ‘Oh yes, we’ve got two today’ and you’d take them back in and tick them off the list.  And then she’d keep adding to the list and it worked a dream.  It worked a dream.  Now, I think the many romantic books she read, I can’t claim very much notice.  I was just the book carrier.  But it worked, certainly, and I do know that my wife’s family was also involved.  But whether there was one in Sheffield I don’t know because I wasn’t living in the town.  I couldn’t say, but this was Boots in Retford.  The basement of the shop was all the library, you know, it was quite a big area.  The other thing that you have to remember in those days, that the public library, they weren’t exactly banned but they weren’t the places that you went.

MG:  Really?

DF:  Certainly there was a public library in Retford.  I think I went to it once in ten years because it wasn’t really in our net, for no other reason than that.  I mean, conversely, when I moved to Sheffield, we were only a few doors from Eccleshall Library, as it was there, and we became very frequent visitors.  It became a major source of books and it always has been.  But in the war time, I just don’t know.  We had other things on the agenda and we had a really sort of books and I was in and out anyway, I was on my travels.

MG:  So, during the war, you were at boarding school in Oundle.

DF:  No, mainly…it was split.  I went to Oundle in the last year of the war in 1944.  Before that I was at prep school in Staffordshire near Market Drayton.

MG:  Right.

DF:  Where we had our in-house library.  And I was librarian at two schools … two houses, yes, yes.  My interest in books had been recognised in that respect.

MG:  And eventually you read natural science and economics at Cambridge.

DF:  Yes.

MG:  So when you were at Cambridge, did your reading … did your love of reading sort of fade a little bit?

DF:  Oh yes, yes, I think it did.  Apart from hunting around for books in second-hand bookshops.  Difficult to say that because I found that particularly reading a science subject.  In fact, both the subjects I read there was a lot of work to be done.  It’s not a … to get through the syllabus and get yourself up to speed you had to work at least three or four hours a day in your own time reading.  And I was rowing and doing all sorts of side things as well, aside from chapel stuff and singing and so forth.  I hadn’t actually had time for a lot of reading.  As far as I can remember.  I don’t know.

MG:  Because you’re a singer as well, David.

DF:  I would sing in the chapel choir, yes.  But I have sung all my life to some extent, but it’s not been a … apart from the last eighteen months or so, it’s not been a major activity because we’ve led such busy lives in other things because of commitments.  We were … Sally and I were always about to join a choir.  We were asked to join the Hallam Singers about four times, but other things got in the way and we found we couldn’t manage a regular commitment, as you have to do to sing in a choir.  So we never did it.  Although we have sung in the … when the Ranmoor Centenary was on, we both … they wanted an augmented choir… we both joined in then, you know.  And Sally, before we married, was singing as well.  She would sing in her church choir in Baslow.

MG:  So, can I bring in Sally here.  When you married Sally, and that was in 1955 …

DF:  Yes.

MG:  Did your reading change?  Did she influence your reading at all?

DF:  I don’t think so because our tastes didn’t … I think she did her own thing, really.  Not particularly, no, to answer your question truthfully.  We tended to have our own little sphere of interest and she read, particularly when she was immobile, she used to read quite a lot.  She used to read quite a lot, but not the sort of books I would read, you know.  She had different tastes.  She’d go for Trollope but not Anthony.

MG:  So when you left Cambridge, which was very much focused on your studies, and you went to work with Edgar Allen for two years, did your colleagues read at all? Was there anybody there that you would have swapped books with?

DF:  No, no.  I was there as a trainee.  I got to know only two or three people really well.  I was moving around a lot.  And also, you tended to some extent to compartmentalise your life to some extent, and this was particularly so when I went into our own family business.  You tended to have to keep yourself a little bit aloof from the staff, although some became very, very good friends of mine over the years.  The family position relaxed considerably over the years, but there was very little influence there.  Very little influence there.

MG:  And that was the same at the family business, was it?

DF:  Oh yes, yes.  We tended not to … there wasn’t a great crossover at all between work and social life, including reading.  We tended to keep it separate.

MG:  So, outside of work, were there any friends that you discussed books with or swapped books with?

DF:  I honestly don’t think so.  I don’t think so.  The thing is, as we got on in life, there’s other people I read a lot of.  But I don’t think … Reading certainly, as you started working, diminished.  And the time spent reading because of family, houses to run, social activities, community activities, whatever … the time for reading diminished appreciably.  One thing I would say is that for many years, our reading, both Sally and I, had been restricted to about twenty minutes in bed at night.  We both adopted this and for many years that was our main … although me particularly, I always liked to read fifteen to twenty minutes at night.  Just as a complete change and to relax and get away from it all, that sort of thing.

MG:  So your enormous reading as a child and an adolescent must be a great resource, really.

DF:  Oh, yes, yes, yes.  But I must say, the amount of reading I’ve done has diminished considerably.  Because of my interest in railways, I do quite a bit of technical reading, you might say.  And I’ve become … I have quite a wide range of railway … historical books on railways, without filling the place up.  I’m not into sort of coffee table, photograph … I’m not a photographer.

MG:  So, going … before we get on to the rest of your list.  Staying with your work experience, would you say you were unusual in your firms in your reading as widely as you did?  Would it be difficult to tell?

DF:  I’m afraid I can’t answer that because, again, we … with the odd exception, we tended not to socialise beyond the problems of the day in the factory.  We tended to go our own ways whenever … I don’t think there was a lot of interchange, quite honestly.

MG:  So …

DF:  Quite honestly.

MG:  At that time, do you think you would have thought of reading as a very private thing?

DF:  I don’t think it concerned me to that extent.  I think it became more of a family thing and always has been, rather than a business activity.  I don’t think there’s enough points of contact, or interest, to, in the business sense, to have any influence at all.  I think all my reading activities … bear in mind I married into another great reading family and so … again that’s continued.  My daughter-in-law is an English student, an English graduate from Sheffield University, so it’s carrying on.  But it’s been all outside business.

MG:  You used the word highbrow earlier on, David.  Do you feel, to some extent, you avoided books that would be regarded as that?

DF:  Definitely, yes.

MG:  Right.

DF:  Definitely.  I must say that I’m much more adventure books, in a broader sense, be it criminal or whatever it is.  I think the heavier books are conspicuous by their absence on this list, really.  There’s a lot of particularly, of the classics, not present on this list.  Apart from Conan Doyle, there’s nothing much before the 18 … with very few, apart from the Brontës, there’s very few books here written before 1900.  There’s a lot o f… I would think I’m not a highbrow reader.  I’m not an intellectual reader.  I read for fun.  I read for fun, for pleasure, relaxation.


MG:  Yes.

DF:  Really.  I can’t … Interestingly, there’s a book here I’ve actually put on my list, I only put it on this morning, looking through, because … and that’s … I suppose it’s from the period, The Silmarillion Tolkien.  Now I’ve not read any of his books at all, apart from The Silmarillion and I’ve got two thirds of the way through and I gave up.  It was too … I enjoyed it to a point, but you had to get your brain in gear all the time and I thought it was too much like hard work.  And I have not read any of his other books at all, so there it is, you know.  But I’ve put him down because I’ve finally come across the copy I have right now, which is a paperback.  But I’ve never actually finished The Silmarillion, but I really enjoyed it as far as I got.  But the allegory and the thing, I thought it was a bit … it was hard work, so I put it down.

MG:  So you wouldn’t pick up a book, throughout your life, which you thought was hard work.  It was for pleasure…

DF:  Yes, yes.  And there are books I’ve … Now I have various parameters for what books I read and what I don’t read, when I go to the library.  Which is not so often these days, but I’m talking about today, not historically.  I do have various parameters, yes.

MG:  Would there … on the other side of the scale, would there be any books that you would be embarrassed to be seen reading.  You’d think, ‘Oh goodness, what would they think if I were reading …’  No?

DF:  I don’t know.  We’ve all read Lady Chatterley’s Lover you know.  And in fact, I’ve read quite a lot of… I haven’t put him on the list.  But I’ve read quite a lot of D. H. Lawrence, not just that, but half a dozen of his other books, because they’re good stories.  They’re good stories and they’re well written.  They’re good stories and that to me is the criterion.

MG:  What about books that you would be embarrassed to be seen reading because they were badly written or, like a Mills and Boone romance or anything of that nature?  Was there any experience in your life when you thought people would say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be reading that’?

DF:  No, well … I ’m not very good on what I call … Sally would have read things called family books, things.  They’re not really my scene, they’re not really my scene.  I tend to polarise my reading to some extent.  Because I was a magistrate for nearly thirty years, I tend to read crime books, but only English written, with certain exceptions, without being sexist, but I tend to keep away from female authors and I tend to keep away from, certainly, American authors.  I prefer British males, but with one classic exception which is P. D. James, you know.  Who I think is an absolute brilliant storyteller, she really is.  She’s in a class of her own, to some extent.

MG:  Certainly.  Do you want to take me through the rest of your list?

DF:  Yes, right, well I think we’ve done fairly well.  I’ll go through real quick:  Agatha Christie, Nicholas Monsarrat.  That’s another must have.  The Cruel Sea has been dramatised, but I’ve actually read all of his books.  When you find an author you like, I tend to go through also … many a library.  And in fact, I’ve read all of his books and some of the later ones are even better than The Cruel Sea, really.  I can’t remember them all now.  Who’ve we got?  Tolkien.  Oh yes, Kidnapped, that’s a classic one.  R.L. Stevenson … I struggled with Kidnapped and put it down.  I’ve put a question mark, but I know I’ve got it.  Some later ones … Gavin Maxwell, I got interested in him because I heard about it on the radio, Ring of Bright Water.  I picked it up, but again, not just that book, but I’ve read all his books, particularly his autobiography, The House of Elrig, and other ones he wrote about Marsh Arabs and Morocco and all sorts of other activities he got up to.  So, again, all down again there.  Again, moving into the … probably a bit later on, people like Leslie Thomas, which are again may have been risqué at times.  But I found these were very good and very readable and good fun.  Philip McCutcheon is a lookalike, a bit like a poor man’s Nicholas Monsarrat, but quite readable.  Who else have I got on there?  One or two odd ones you may have heard of.  Anthony Trollope The Warden.  I read a lot of, not just those, but I found that we have quite a bit of Antony Trollope, not his namesake whose son I used to read, who I couldn’t really get into at all.  They weren’t my scene.  The other book I found this morning, which again, it must have been one on the list is A.J. Cronin The Keys of the Kingdom.  Which was made into an exceptionally good film, but I’d read the book before I saw the film, you know, and sometimes with films, they miss things, so much, which is in the written word that they can’t put on the screen.  Another one I found was an old book:  Denton Welch The Maiden Voyage, 1943.  It’s one I’ve had a long time, but I liked it, I’ve still got it and kept it.  The … Nicholas Rhea is another local one.  He wrote all the Heartbeat books because it’s Yorkshire, north Yorkshire.  And he’s been writing … they’re all adapted later on but the early books that he wrote before Heartbeat started are, again, very well written and I like those.  I’ve also had to read because I did for Higher School Certificate at one stage … I had to force read books which I’ve mentioned, but when you’ve had to force read a book, I tend not to follow it up again.  And I think the one that I had to do was Thomas Hardy, where I had to read The Mayor of Casterbridge under pressure.  I didn’t enjoy it and never touched the lot of his books.  I did have to read Vanity Fair, all eight or nine-hundred pages of it.  Which I enjoyed enormously but it was a lot to get through to … for an exam paper.  Other ones I’ve done, that I’ve had to force read are books for examinations.  The one that is missing is Shakespeare because I’ve had to do three Shakespeare books.  I’ve never done Shakespeare because it’s not my scene, although I have got the complete works, which are jolly useful when you’re doing crosswords.

MG:  David, you often use this word ‘not my scene.’  Do you feel that other people’s tastes, that you just sort of accept them as theirs and you don’t really tend … it doesn’t sound as if you pass judgement on other people’s reading tastes, particularly.

DF:  Not really, no.  I … there’s such a wide spectrum of books anyway, that you can … it’s everyone literally to their own tastes.  Sally’s tastes were different.  I’m probably nearer to my father’s tastes than anyone on there.  But there we are.  The only other books I’ve got are sort of non-fiction, but really they’re historical books mainly, that have come down to me from family, apart from the things like that … One thing I have got a lot of is, which I have read a lot of and you may remember these, there was the King’s England series edited by Arthur Mee.  I don’t know how many I’ve got, but I must have about a dozen books of those.  Started in the late 30s, and, again, because we were living in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire we got the early ones.  And as my interest spread around the country, I got other books as well, and we must have eight or ten volumes of those.  Terribly dated now, but interesting if you interested in church architecture, because that’s what they’re good at.  But they really are dated though.  So I’ve still got them and I still keep them.  They’ve been up in the loft but they’ve come down now because there’s a bit more space.  We have, I don’t know if you’re going to ask me about libraries and how we’ve evolved.

MG:  Yes.

DF:  I think, first of all, my father had a very great collection of books.  But my stepmother died very suddenly and at a fairly early age, and my father within a year, remarried, for the third time.  And married a lady I knew from childhood, and actually lived in Retford about four doors from us.  And I … she used to terrify me as a small child, and my sister too.  But anyway, they were actually … He came by and said, ‘Can you and Sandra come and watch my marriage tomorrow?’  which we did, but sadly, he was already not well at that stage and he came to live in Sheffield ultimately and died at the ridiculously early age of 62, leaving everything to his new wife … his newish wife, he’d been married seven or eight years by then.  And all the books went.  She left everything to him. [sic]  She did actually, being fair, my grandfather’s books and historical books I did get, but there … all the novels … well, we couldn’t have stored them anyway, but it was there.  One other thing I did have, which I’ve not mentioned here because they’ve all gone, but I accumulated a lot of cricket books.  I was brought up, in the early days of reading newspapers before the war, the first thing I was taught to read was the Yorkshire cricket scores, to get things in the right perspective, you know.  And I accumulated and used to watch a lot of cricket even in the university, because I was in digs very near the cricket ground and there was nothing like relaxing and watching an hour’s  of cricket.  And when we moved from Retford back to Tickhill, all my cricket books got lost.  And I wasn’t there when they were moving, it was a school year I remember now, and they all went.  So I lost all my cricket books, which has been … Actually, R. C. Robertson-Glasgow springs to mind, and they were a cricket…I had all his books but I never … and he was a very sound author of cricket subjects and so on.  They’ve all gone, I’m afraid.  But we’ve done quite a lot of shuffling of books over the last fifty years, I suppose.  We did have a flood in our house on Riverdale Road, where a washbasin suddenly started pouring water out onto the book  in my daughter’s bedroom above the books, which didn’t do them any good and we did have to scrap quite a lot, I’m afraid.  Since then, Sally’s parents, Sally’s mother particularly, was … really was … had an enormous stack of books.  And she, again, was not very active but read enormously, mainly from Bakewell Library, but she had accumulated loads of family books.  When that house was shared with Sally’s sister, we had another great lot of books here.  I’ll have to look in the books I have here to see where they’ve come from.  It’s likely that some have come from Sally’s side as well as from my side.  And we’ve got rid of books that have come back again, you know.  Looking through the books I have, we have quite a collection from all sorts of sources, even going back a few … because my mother-in-law was from Scotland, from Glasgow, and we have quite a few books from Glasgow now.  Ironically, her … my granddaughter Harriet is now back in Glasgow in music college there, so living in the college is about two streets away from where her ancestors lived, which is a bit of a silly situation, but there we are.  I think, really, we’ve probably been through all the books I’ve got and read to the best of my knowledge.

MG:  Wonderful.

DF:  I say, the books we have we’ve thinned and thinned and thinned and I’m still thinning them, quite honestly.  But a lot of the ones I’ve got left now, apart from the sort of the old Sheffield books I’ve got, I keep looking, ‘Do I really want these?’  And I’m still thinning to some extent.  But most of the coffee table books, as I call them, are all gone.  Okay.

MG:  While you’re thinning, David, would there be one book that you know you would never get rid of?

DF:  Oh, quite a lot.  Particularly inscripted books.  Yes, some of the books I would definitely keep.  I wouldn’t get rid of those.  Particularly with family interest in them.  Book s… one book that I have written by my uncle, Bob Waterhouse.  Books that have come down … I have some books which actually belonged, because my grandfather’s grandfather was also called David Flather and I have one or two of his books.  My grandfather was … had an enormous library with book plates in and I’ve got some of his old Sheffield books as well, with book plates with David Flather on it.  And he had his own book plate, he had so many books.

MG:  Do many of your books have book plates?

DF:  No.

MG:  No, no.

DF:  I will say this.  I found out from Sally’s sister, because Sally was a highly organised and efficient friend of mine, you know.  When she was a teenager, she catalogued all of her library books and they were all numbered, because she was so methodical and everything she did, she…I’ve got rid of most of her schoolbooks now, but everything she did was catalogued.  And every book she had as a child had numbers in them, so I know where they’ve come from, you know?

MG:  That’s nice.

DF:  Because she was, you know, very…she was an avid reader.  But not read the sort of books I went.  I’d take her down to the library and she’d go around in her wheelchair and collect a dozen books or so and take them home.  And I’d be shuttling back…or she’d reserve some and they looked after her very well at Highfield Library.

MG:  At Highfield Library?

DF:  Yes.

MG:  That’s the one you used?

DF:  Yes, because you can get in with a wheelchair.

MG:  Of course, yes.

DF:  You see, so she was known and recognised.

MG:  Yes. So, last question David.  Of all the books you’ve read, is there one you think changed the way you look at things?

DF:  Quite honestly, I don’t think so.

MG:  No.

DF:  No, no.  Because the books I’ve read are adventure books, you know.  They’re action books, you know.  So those in its broadest sense, these are what I enjoy reading because when you read a book, you get into the book.  You’re part of the book, you’re part of the action and that’s what I enjoy doing.  And if I can’t get into the book I don’t read it, you know.  That’s because I’ve got quite a vivid imagination.  Which I can always do, as you can do in a book or hearing a play on the radio.  This is something else we have lost, you know, with television.  You know, the things we used to do, certainly as a boy in school, the highlight was Saturday night theatre.  Where you could sit and listen to a play on the radio, and you could fill in the bits yourself because you’re in there listening.  And this is the difference, you know, which you don’t get when it all comes up on the screen or on the box, you know.

MG:  Do you think those maps you read as a child filled your imagination in a comparable way?

DF:  I still go back to old maps, I must say.  I mean, if you look at a map, it depends how you read it.  My sister lives in, who’s older than me, she lives in Lincolnshire, near the shore of the North Sea and if it’s busy, I go over the Lincolnshire Walls and I go on the old ridgeways to miss the traffic, particularly on a summer Saturday and I don’t see any traffic.  When I travel on the ancient pre-Roman ridgeways and I think back and look at a map, you can pick these out and there’s two I travel on when I go down there.  And it’s sort of looking back into history and I use maps as that connection on there.  Just a useful tool to have, really.  And my grandfather had, I’ve still got my grandfather’s walking maps.  He was a geologist who was of the old sort.  He was a self-taught scientist, he taught himself metallurgy.  And so much so,  I’ve … when, because our company was involved in the, from day one, with the motorcycle industry, then the motor industry, then the aeronautical industry.  In 1900, he sat down to write, with others, the specifications for motorcars, so you know, he was absolutely in at the ground floor of new science.  A lot of work he did himself, of trial and error.  A lot of experiments he carried out.

MG:  So right the way through your family, technical writing, science and fiction … all of these books have been part of your diet.

DF:  Yes, oh yes.  I’ve actually done quite…I realised something back … I’ve actually done quite a lot of technical writing.  Quality manuals and instructions.  Things for supermarkets I’ve written.  Again, I … it’s the use of language again.  Talking about the use of English rather than reading books particularly.  I always get told off because my English prose has to be absolutely right, I’m afraid, and I won’t put a sentence down if it’s not right.  So it takes me a long time to write, and a lot of the things I have to write it and correct it afterwards, to get the grammar right and the best use of language, particularly where … if I’m writing you get excess verbiage and cutting that all out, I’ve learned, is one of the things I’ve learnt to teach myself to do.  Is to … why put two words in … why put five words in when two will do?

MG:  Like Buchan.

DF:  Yes, yes, absolutely.

MG:  Yes.  Thank you very much David.  I think we’ll leave it there.  Thanks a lot.

DF:  Right.

Still checking the provenance. September 2014

Still checking the provenance.
September 2014

Access David Flather’s reading journey here.

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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.



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