Erica was born in Totley on the 10th May 1937 and lived in Hathersage between 1945 and 1965.
Erica is being interviewed by Mary Grover on the 9th February 2012.
Mary Grover: Just to start, even though this survey is mostly interested in your young adult reading, were you actually read to when you were young?
Erica Jeremiah: I can’t remember being read to. I’ve no memory of that, no.
Mary Grover: Right, so where do you think you got your first books?
Erica Jeremiah: When I went to school. I remember the joy of learning to read. I was interested in how it was done and it was a real skill that I found I’d got.
MG: So you learnt to read very young?
EJ: No, I didn’t, no, because my parents didn’t believe in schooling for young children. So I was about six before it was even suggested that I should read.
EJ: But I learned to read very quickly obviously at that age.
MG: Yes. And you got the books you read from the school library?
EJ: No. From the Sheffield library.
MG: Ah, which library did you use?
EJ: Erm, my father worked near to the Central Library and he used to go in every week for about eight books which he’d bring home. And I think, because I must’ve read every book that was well known at the time, the librarian must’ve sorted it out for him.
MG: Was there a children’s library then?
EJ: Yes, just as where it is now, I think.
MG: And that was near where your father worked?
EJ: In Arundel Street.
MG: Right, and what was your father doing at that time?
EJ: He had a pearl button manufactuary [sic] there.
MG: So he would get the books out for you and bring them out to Hathersage?
MG: On the train?
EJ: No. No, he had a car.
EJ: Quite. Well I think because he had a reserved occupation. Certainly I think by 1945 he had a car; he travelled by car.
MG: And can you remember any of those early books he brought back from Sheffield for you?
EJ: Erm, not specifically. I read so many. I think I remember the first book that I really read and enjoyed because it belonged to the maid we had in the house at the time. She came from Northumberland and brought a book of folk stories down with her which was called Granny’s Wonderful Chair or something like that. I’ve got the copy because she gave it to me, and that, I think she gave me, which sounds ridiculous, the first book that I read. But my parents were of the opinion that was following Montessori that children should learn by doing.
MG: Ah, how interesting.
EJ: Yes, so, there obviously were books in the house but not, I don’t remember, of course it was during and after the war. So maybe books, it was difficult to get books, to buy them.
MG: Yeah, can you remember any of those books that were in the house?
EJ: No! I remember my grandparents’ books funnily enough, but maybe, maybe it’s because we were in a rented house. We moved out to Hathersage, I think, during the war when my parents were afraid of being in Sheffield and also the factory moved a branch in Hathersage which father really had to manage. So we moved quickly out into a rented house and didn’t get our own house until after the war. And I think, by that time, they weren’t buying books but my grandparents, both grandparents, had a lot of books which I read. I remember later on reading all the school stories that mother had. Angela Brazil, or how she pronounced it. And also, ridiculously, my other grandparent had a great volume of Walter Scott, which I used to borrow one by one.
MG: Can you remember what age you were when you were reading Scott?
EJ: I think I was only nine or ten, because there was nothing else! I think that was it, except the Children’s Encyclopaedia which we did have in our house, yes. Because my parents got a set of second-hand. So they were a bit out-of-date but nonetheless we can all remember reading them.
MG: What about Dickens?
EJ: No. No. I don’t remember a set of Dickens. And presumably if there had been one, I would have read that rather than Walter Scott! [Laughter]. But father brought me, from the library, the popular books, the easy books, the Elinor Brent-Dyer and Josephine Pullein-Thompson, and then there was Arthur Ransome, which was, for a country child, which was a great development really.
MG: What about Richard Jefferies’ Bevis, did you ever read that?
EJ: No, no.
MG: So those Walter Scotts that you read. Can you remember which ones appealed to you?
EJ: Ivanhoe I remember reading. Peveril of the Peak because it was local. When I say read them, I can’t really believe, but I’m sure I took them volume by volume home. But maybe it was just to have some print, I don’t know.
MG:That’s very interesting. So it sounds as though those Scott novels were your introduction to adult books.
EJ: I don’t know because I was a bit young when I read them. No, I think as an introduction to adult books it was always Georgette Heyer and Margaret Irwin. Because there wasn’t any teen fiction, was there? You moved straight on from the school stories, Just William. I remember I read all the Biggles books. Perhaps I borrowed them from someone. But I remember particularly enjoying the fantasies; Beverley Nichols wrote some fantasies that I really enjoyed, which I suppose were the same as the fantasies the children enjoy now. And of course Enid Blyton. I must’ve started reading Enid Blyton come to think of it, though where I got them from I don’t know. Because I don’t remember being given many books either.
MG: You were talking to me earlier about going to Wards booksellers in Chapel Walk.
MG: When do you think you started to buy books, or your family started to buy books?
EJ: I don’t think we did. No. We had a brilliant library and as I say, my grandparents had books. I’m not sure it wasn’t a sort of rebellion from my parents. No, I know! I know what my father had bought. He had all the Left Wing Book Club books. That’s what I remember, of course. So he must have been buying books and they were all in these bright yellow covers. And when they inherited my grandparents’ books they all went, the book shelf was so deep, the Left Wing Book Club ones, mother put behind with the new ones in front of them! And there they remained.
MG: Why was that do you think? Why did she put them behind?
EJ: Well I think things had changed for them. And my father went to Cambridge and became very interested. He … The only person he recognised as coming from his own part of the world was a miner from Ilkestone with a Yorkshire, er, Derbyshire accent. And they became great friends. He was on a mining scholarship, and I think he introduced him to all these views and that was how he became interested in the left. I presume he started subscribing to the Left Wing Book Club, yes, and it was his house we moved into in Hathersage.
MG: How interesting.
EJ: So that must’ve been an influence which didn’t quite suit my mother. I think that’s why they were behind the other books. Because Hathersage was very different, of course.
MG: Was it more Conservative, do you think?
EJ: Oh yes. Yes. Yes. My father was the only person in the Hope Valley who subscribed to the Liberal newspaper. So we had to, we were the only people to distribute political pamphlets from the Liberal Party. And my sisters can certainly remember being chased out of somebody’s garden because they’d dropped this Liberal News into their house.
MG: Can you remember reading the book columns in the Liberal News of the book reviews?
MG: You mentioned earlier that your father was a great admirer of Arnold Freeman.
MG: Was there any way in which your connections with Arnold Freeman affected what you watched?
EJ: Yes because I remember going to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream very vividly, erm, and Faust I remember going to. I remember it was in the old Settlement but I forget where it was exactly.
MG: Shipton Street, was it?
EJ: I don’t know. I don’t know but it was before they moved to Tintagel House. And it was a fascinating, completely fascinating. And Faust, I do remember. Arnold Freeman was very keen on Faust.
MG: Did they have a library at the Settlement?
EJ: I’m sure they did. I know they did. But I wasn’t involved.
MG: Can you remember Arnold Freeman?
EJ: Vaguely as a presence, yes. But my mother kept up the connection with Tintagel House and Rudolph Steiner. They were very interested in, … I think that’s maybe why, … I think Rudolph Steiner didn’t think children should read. I think that’s maybe where it all came from.
MG: That makes sense, but obviously that attitude had no handicapping effect on your reading. You obviously read, once you’d started to read, very quickly.
EJ: Absolutely none. Absolutely none. In fact I observed my poor granddaughter aged four, people trying to teach her to read and to spell, because she was a late summer birthday, and thinking that it was appalling. I really do think we’re getting it wrong. Because, as it happens, our youngest son was at a Montessori until he was six, was not taught to read. I reckoned he was taught some letters, but because when we were in Mexico I remember saying to him well shouldn’t he be learning to read and they looked at me with some surprise and said “No, no, when he’s six it will be quite soon enough”. And I think it was good for him. I think there’s no question about it. If you’ve got, if the children have sufficient to do, and he was adept at cleaning shoes and scrubbing floors and things that they did in the Montessori school. And when he read, he read and enjoyed it.
MG: So when you went to school, you went to school I think in Sheffield, is that right?
EJ: No, in Hathersage.
MG: In Hathersage?
EJ: Yes. First I went to one of these interesting schools, the PNEU. Have you heard of it? And remembering it being so stimulating. And we were read The Pilgrim’s Progress, which I remember, and The Cloister and The Hearth, when we were eight and nine. And they were so exciting and I do think that was formative.
MG: And being read aloud to.
EJ: We were read aloud to yes, we didn’t have to read them ourselves, no we were read aloud to. And they had this system, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it: ‘Narrating Back’. At the end of the lesson the class retold the story that they’d heard. And I’m sure it was excellent.
MG: So you had a great fund there of really meaty texts.
EJ: Yes. Completely. And the vocabulary of course. That and Scott, your vocabulary, but I don’t remember finding it hard. And I do remember learning to read in church because the services were a bit boring but the actual working out the words that I’d never heard, was fascinating.
MG: What about church Sunday School books? Did you get prizes and books through church?
EJ: I think we did but they were flimsy and irrelevant really.
MG: So can you remember the first book that you read and you thought oh this is adult, this is serious? Or this is for adults?
EJ: No because I’m sure I read a mixture of adult and … I’m quite sure I did. Particularly at my grandparents’ because I would just take something from the bookshelf.
MG: You didn’t take your Grandmother’s Ethel M Dell though?
EJ: No! Well no, no I didn’t. No I remember Angela Brazil and I remember Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, yes.
MG: That made an impression on you?
EJ: That made an impression and Vera Brittain came to speak at Sheffield Town Hall apparently, and that was where Mother heard her. And she bought all her books. Tremendous impression.
MG: What about Winifred Holtby as a South Yorkshire …
EJ: I read hers later. But I think I read them at university, so much later.
MG: So going on to your secondary school, Erica, where did you go to school?
EJ: I went to boarding school and certainly I had things from the library there.
MG: Would the Georgette Heyer have been in that school?
EJ: That’s where it was, yes, yes, that’s where it was. Is there somebody else? I can’t remember.
MG: What about Mazo de la Roche?
EJ: Oh yes, yes all of them, yes [laughs]. Yes I do. That’s the ones I was reading.
MG:There were so many of them, weren’t there?
EJ: There were so many, yes. So many, yes. I got Georgette Heyer, Margaret Irwin, but I suppose at school you didn’t read so much actually, but I do remember thoroughly enjoying the period of being read to every Sunday evening. And I can remember those books very clearly.
MG: What were they?
EJ: Rebecca, Jamaica Inn we had, Jane Eyre, the sort of, yes, Daphne Du Maurier I read a lot. Those were the ones I think as young adults one read.
MG: When you were at boarding school were there any so called naughty books that girls smuggled in?
EJ: Not that I’m aware of, no.
MG: You never read Gone with the Wind, for example?
EJ: No, no. It simply wasn’t in the library. It was a Church of England – basically it was a school for the daughters of clergy. And presumably the library was well stocked books that they approved.
MG: When you left that school in the sixth form, you came to …
EJ: Sheffield High School. Yes. And I must’ve read a lot then but I really don’t really remember.
MG: Can you remember discussing books with any of your friends in the sixth form?
EJ: No. No.
MG: Because you recommended your friend Mavis to be interviewed and she was obviously a great reader as well. The pair of you must have been readers.
EJ: Well, you see, living out in Hathersage, I didn’t really see Mavis other than at school. I think she came out to visit me occasionally, but I didn’t, I was quite solitary really. I was the only person of my age that went to the High School. And there was [sic] no late buses so I couldn’t stay for anything, except concerts, the Halle concerts. ’Cos the last bus went at 9.20 pm from The Moor. If you quickly left the City Hall you could catch the last bus, but that was all.
MG: So you thought of reading in those days as a pretty solitary experience?
EJ: Yes. Yes.
MG: Was that part of its power, do you think? That it was a private activity?
EJ: I think so. I think so. I have two younger sisters and certainly this was my world, my books. But I don’t remember. Certainly in order to get to the train back to Hathersage I went past the library. So that’s, I must’ve used the library a lot. Well I know I did.
MG: So in those sixth form years when you were going through the library what did you borrow?
EJ: I can’t remember. I rather blotted those years out. They weren’t very happy years. And I think I’ve blotted out really all that young – I think you forget periods when things weren’t so easy.
MG: So when you went to university, what did you study at university?
EJ: I studied German. So tended from then on to read German and French texts.
MG: And did any of those texts make an impression on you personally or were they for your work?
EJ: They were work because we were very ignorant. We made choices in ignorance I think. And I didn’t realise that the university I was going to specialise in medieval texts! So I was really good at, sort of, medieval war weapons and things like that. But we scarcely touched, oh yes, of course I do know what made an impression – Goethe, yes Goethe. Definitely. And by the time I’d got to the novels, the Sturm und Drang novels and things, oh I read them definitely for pleasure. And Thomas Mann, yes. Yes they did make an impression.
MG: Where did you go to university?
EJ: London. King’s, London.
MG: So you were living in London?
EJ: Yes I was living in London.
MG: How did that affect your reading?
EJ: I don’t think I read so much. No, I’m sure I didn’t. Because there was a lot to do and a lot going on at that time, so I didn’t read so much.
MG: Did you go to the theatre or the cinema?
EJ: Yes, yes, yes I did. Quite a lot. It was very exciting coming from Hathersage. When I first went to interview, I thought this is it, this is wonderful! Quite whether it was I don’t know.
MG: So what years were those that you were at university.
EJ: Erm, ’56 – ‘58, were they?
MG: So London must’ve been being rebuilt. It wasn’t quite as battered by then perhaps?
EJ: No it wasn’t battered. Because I was entirely in the West End really. I lived in Marble Arch, near Marble Arch, and went to college in the Strand. So I either walked through Mayfair or walked … I still know all those streets around there very well.
EJ: Yes. Yes it was.
MG: What about the museums and art galleries, did they play a part in your life then?
EJ: I went, yes, yes I did. I just enjoyed everything. The concerts. I went to the concerts at South Bank. Oh I enjoyed everything about it. It was quite, quite different.
MG: And I imagine being at King’s, you must’ve had wonderful speakers come to the university.
EJ: We did. We did. I remember Edmund Hillary coming. I remember that judge coming who’s extremely well known, and er, he came. Yes we did. There was a lot going on.
MG: But actually private reading was not to the fore at that time.
MG: That’s interesting, yes.
EJ: No. Well don’t forget I had all the German and French to catch up on. Oh Andre Gide, I remember reading that. Yes, I remember Symphonie Pastorale. I remember reading that and… Yes I really read, mostly of course, the novels that were part of the course.
MG: Then when you finished university, where did you go?
EJ: I, my father was ill by that time, so I thought I … I came back to Sheffield. I thought I might go into social work but in order to get some experience our next door neighbour suggested that I should go and teach in Attercliffe. And actually, I loved it! It was a little school in the depths of Attercliffe. And the children were somehow, I found, really wonderful. They were fresh and yet I could see some of them were suffering. And then, so I decided I would stay with teaching but actually went back to London. But I had to come back again in a couple of years. So I came back to Sheffield. So it was a bit yo-yoing to and fro but father was very ill and he seemed to be getting better and then we were aware he had multiple sclerosis. So it’s, erm, I think that’s why I blotted quite a bit out because it was a quite difficult. The business had to go because of the building and he wasn’t well enough to start up again somewhere else. So it was all a bit difficult.
MG: So when do you think your circumstances changed enough for you to take up reading again and sort of have time and space to do that?
EJ: 1976. We came back from Mexico and I joined a book group. Yes, Rita Johnson whose husband was Professor of Geography came back from New Zealand with this idea of a book group. I think we’re the oldest book group in Sheffield. And the Geography Department, in which I happened to know someone, they started off there and I joined and really rediscovered reading, I think. No, I read in Mexico, the British Council, the wonderful British Council library, which was in the heart of Mexico City and I actually I don’t know how I had the nerve to drive down there with the children. We used to go to films and borrow books. So The British Council was marvellous. And the library was good! It had everything that I needed.
MG: Can you remember what you read in Mexico?
EJ: No, No! Life was too hectic! Yes! No, I can’t remember at all.
MG: And the children, were so small I think then?
EJ: The children were small, yes. I say it was hectic – it was a sort of a strange mixture because of course we had much more help there than we did in England. So really, I think there was quite a gap in reading then. I can’t say that I continued reading, all the time. And then of course, the great difference really. When did paperbacks come in? Because I don’t remember paperbacks at all until I went up to university. Now I don’t know why that was.
MG: Well there were paperbacks in the ‘30s, yes.
EJ: There were paperbacks weren’t they?
Oh, I never read detective stories!
MG: Did you not?
EJ: No not at all. I never read detective stories. I didn’t particularly involve [sic] with Agatha Christie because she was another one that we all read as young teenagers. Sorry, as middle teenagers.
MG: So you read some but they didn’t really grab you.
EJ: No, no they didn’t. Because I remember being quite surprised when my German penfriend came over and she had learned to read English on Agatha Christie. And it didn’t appeal to me at all. I think after Mazo de la Roche it’s not quite so exciting.
MG: And you liked fantasy didn’t you as a teenager?
EJ: I did. I did.
MG: Did that taste persist when you were an adult?
EJ: No. No. No I think reality dawns. No. Until The Lord of the Rings, of course, yes, that I read.
MG: Were your children old enough to have that read to them or did they read it?
EJ: They read it themselves. Yes. Definitely. The Hobbit, Mr Spider, I used to read to them in Mexico. I took a whole lot of books over for them.
MG: Which books did you treasure enough to take to Mexico? Or weren’t there any?
EJ: I took a lot for the children and I think I took my old favourites for the children. We were limited in what we could take and I always had a paper sent out, newspaper, the Observer. Always had the Observer sent out. Whether it arrived or not was a different matter. I remember it didn’t arrive for several weeks and I was getting worried. I said to someone I had to have this. And she said ‘Did you remember Postman’s Day’? And so I said ‘Postman’s Day’? And apparently one should’ve given the postman a tip on Postman’s Day and I hadn’t . So, as soon as that was put right the paper started arriving again! I do remember.
MG: So did the Observer have any influence on what you read at all?
EJ: Yes, yes. I always read the Observer I think right from being at university. I think I read a lot of newspapers. I read the Spectator and the New Statesman. Maybe that’s what supplemented my reading in university. The newspapers and the New Statesman. Because I remember I read the gardening column in the Observer written by Vita Sackville-West for years before I was interested in gardening, just because it was so beautifully written. And of course it was Katherine Whitehorn writing. There were some very good writers writing in newspapers at that time. I really think that’s, that’s why I don’t remember reading novels so much. Because the power of the newspaper … was the Guardian daily. I think as a young married person, that’s what I read.
MG: And the right sort of size for when you’ve got children and you can just sort of read a bit and drop it.
EJ: That’s it. I think that’s it. The Guardian’s Women’s Pages at that time was [sic] very interesting.
MG: Were you living in Sheffield when you were …
MG :…taking The Guardian?
EJ: Yes, yes. But it was the paper we always had. As northern people, you see, my parents always had the Guardian, not the Times.
MG: And when you came back to Sheffield from Mexico, would that be in the 1980s?
EJ: No, 1976.
MG: 1976 sorry. So that’s when you joined the book group?
EJ: That’s when I joined the book group.
EJ: So we’re a very well established book group.
MG: And it’s still going, Erica?
EJ: Oh yes! Now we’ve got to the stage when we’re losing members and it’s very distressing.
MG: What have you read in the book group that’s really impressed you?
EJ: Erm, we have read, recently, I was quite interested to discover Adam Nicholson’s book on the Bible, King James Bible. Have you read that? It’s very good, very good. And I read the Melvyn Bragg one just to compare them but it’s really good. And I was interested to see that we’ve read Nigel Nicolson’s book on the, erm, the marriage. We’ve read Harold Nicolson’s diaries and we’ve read Vita Sackville-West’s Orlando [sic], I think. So we’ve read three generations in the book group. Because I’ve got a list of what we’ve read.
MG: Have you, Erica?
EJ: Yes. Yes.
MG: I’d be most grateful to see those.
EJ: Oh, yes, yes.
MG: And how did you choose the books that you read?
EJ: We’d all take along a selection of five books and we would vote which of the five. And we’re reading The Finkler Question at the moment. What I do remember are the Paul Scott novels. Those were a real discovery. Someone who brought those along I felt completely grateful to. And Olivia Manning, her books, I do like that sort of book that has some exotic background to it.
MG: And some political and historical notion?
EJ: Yes. Yes.
MG: It’s interesting. The Balkan Trilogy and the Paul Scott novels do reflect a taste at that time for big, comprehensive overviews of a period.
EJ: Yes. And I don’t know whether it was just me who enjoyed reading the trilogy [inaudible as Erica tries to remember what she had forgotten]. That’s what I remember enjoying.
MG: As a northerner, did the writers Howard Spring or J B Priestley …?
EJ: I read them all, yes. Howard Spring, what’s the one? Cronin, A J Cronin. Those were the, yes, of course.
MG: They were all quite political, weren’t they?
EJ: Yes and my parents had J B Priestley’s.
MG: Did your father and mother admire J B Priestley?
EJ: Don’t remember. Don’t really remember.
MG: Well if they didn’t have many books and you can remember them having Priestley,
MG: …it rather suggests they did, didn’t they? Did your parents discuss their books at all?
MG: No it doesn’t sound as if they did!
EJ: It seems odd, it seems odd. Whether I forget – but it was quite a difficult time, I think. Though they must’ve discussed books, they must’ve done because they were very friendly with Francis Berry who taught, who was a poet. Do you know, have you heard of Francis Berry? Great friends of my parents and, er, somebody else who lived in Hathersage, whose name I’ve forgotten, so they must. I mean they were, but somehow they didn’t discuss it with us.
MG: Hmm interesting. Didn’t give you lectures on books like my dad did?
EJ: No, no, but they took us to the Settlement and er, no, no, they didn’t.
MG: And they went to the Settlement for the theatre mostly, wasn’t it?
EJ: The theatre and the lectures. They were both interested in Rudolph Steiner. My father’s great interest was the Oxford Group MRA [Moral Rearmament] which is, seems very odd. I think he thought it may solve the whole world’s problems. So that was a strong influence in our childhood. But I do remember it brought a lot of people from all parts of the world in, which was interesting. But it wasn’t a literary household, but yet my sister and I read all the time. I think Father thought if he brought us books, which I’m sure was the thing, you know, eight books a week, it would see to our literary development.
MG: It’s curious isn’t it that even though you can’t remember him talking about it, he invested so much effort to get those books for you.
EJ: I think that parenting then was very different. We were just expected to do well, expected to follow a certain pattern. I remember him going back to Cambridge. He always kept in touch with his old tutor and said ‘Look I’ve got three girls. Are they worth educating?’ And the tutor said to him ‘Educate a woman and you educate a family’. You know, educate a man. So that was that. We were all going to university. Which we did. You know it was, I suppose, going to the High School was … but we just did, we just did what was expected of us.
MG: And why French and German? Do you remember?
EJ: Because father needed someone in the business who could deal with the exporting. Someone who could speak French and German.
MG: And did you use your languages for that purpose?
EJ: No because the factory had gone by the time I’d finished. That, and I loved travel and languages. And I was as happy doing that as anything and I’d always found it interesting. And the school didn’t teach science, so, you see you can’t believe it! I didn’t do O level maths because I had to choose between maths and German. And no physics or chemistry was taught in the school. So when it came to go to university, fine – Latin and science was biology and that was sufficient. No maths were required. So I didn’t learn any maths from the age of fourteen.
MG: It would be interesting to ask whether, if you’d had a brother, he would have had a very different set of reading tastes. Because he might have been expected to be more on the technical, scientific side if your father was expecting him to go into his business.
EJ: I don’t think so. I think, I don’t think father was for moulding us in a way. I think nowadays people feel it their responsibility to mould children much more, don’t you think? So that they put pressure on the children to fill things, whereas in those days, certainly we, as I say, were just expected to go to university. Very much we did what we wanted.
MG: What about actually getting married, did that affect your reading time and taste, at all?
EJ: I’m sure the answer is that I was involved with reading newsprint and newspapers, all the time. So books became less important. I’m quite sure that was it. And that was the basis for discussion, the common ground, because we were a very politically aware generation in fact, we really were.
MG: Do you think that drove you to read realist sort of novels rather than escapist ones as a young adult?
EJ: Yes I think so. Yes, but one is so busy at that time you just don’t remember what you’re doing!
MG: So if you look back at all the books that you have read in your life, which would have been hundreds of them, is there one that you would say, you know, this is the book that actually changed the way I thought about things?
EJ: No. Not even Doris Lessing. No. My sister would, my sister would.
MG: What would she choose do you think?
EJ: I think a Doris Lessing. She read them all. I read all the Margaret Drabble, of course, because she was very much my age and generation. She went to the High School but left before I went.
MG: Were there any books you felt embarrassed to read because you felt that they weren’t serious enough or highbrow enough?
EJ: No, no, I’d read anything.
MG: No shame?
EJ: No shame at all, no.
EJ: As I can now. As I can now. I think anything in print that erm … having said that, I never read comics. That is one thing, we did not have comics in the house.
MG: Do you think your parents disapproved of them?
EJ: Oh father didn’t want them, no. In fact I must’ve started to read Sunny Stories from the girl two doors down and said, ‘Oh well, father…’ – I do remember this, saying our father wouldn’t let them in the house, wouldn’t let me take them to the house. And her mother being very irate and saying how moral they were! [Laughs]. But still they didn’t come into the house.
MG: So when you went to university were there any pressures did you feel to read certain sorts of things? To turn your back on certain sorts of taste?
EJ: No, absolutely none, absolutely none. Don’t forget I was reading foreign languages.
MG: Of course, so that was all in itself pretty sort of highbrow.
EJ: Yes. Yes.
MG: So just to query, the word middlebrow never entered your vocabulary? You never heard anybody use that word?
EJ: Oh yes, but I quite like middlebrow. I couldn’t stand trash, no, I just wouldn’t enjoy it.
MG: What would you classify as trash in the ‘40s and ’50s if you can look back and think I’d look at it on a book stall and think no that’s not for me?
EJ: I honestly don’t know. But I, what would you think of as trash, I don’t know?
MG: Well Queenie Leavis thought of Dorothy Sayers as trash but my mother put her towards me as someone who was valuable.
EJ: Oh yes! Absolutely! Oh Mills and Boon, I would never read a Mills and Boon. No, just wasn’t interested. Or stories in magazines, no. I think when you’ve read a lot you can’t, you can’t. No, Dorothy Sayers, yes. And the one I remember I said The Girl in Love? I said I didn’t read detective stories but I did read Dorothy Sayers. No I didn’t read them then I got one of those later. When I started to buy second-hand books which is what I’m doing, isn’t it?
MG: So where did this evil habit start, Erica, of buying second-hand books?
EJ: I can’t remember, Mary. I can’t think, but my sister would remember. I suppose when I was first married and, erm, you know, wouldn’t buy new books. It was jumble sale books, Norman Barnes’ Choir jumble sales. Yes, that’s where I got a lot of books and they’re still stacked up in Tom Lane, wondering what to do with them. [Laughs]. ‘Cause one hates to throw away books.
MG: So you say you stopped buying new books, did you ever buy new books?
EJ: No, no, until recently. Until the price of paperbacks was such that the library fines could amount to the same amount if you forgot it.
MG: Is there a contemporary book that’s really made an impression on you of late?
EJ: Oh dear, I’m sure there is, Mary, I’m sure there is.
MG: Isn’t it interesting that you’ve obviously had such a culture of reading right the way through your life, sometimes more or less, but, erm, it isn’t sort of one book that you treasured, it’s a whole dialogue with books in general.
EJ: It is. It is. And language. To my mind, the language of a book has got to be good.
MG: Do you still read French and German literature?
EJ: No, no.
MG: I wish I could. I can’t read German at all. Well, Erica, thank you very much.
EJ: Well thank you but I tell you my memory is very poor. I’m sure I could think of a lot of things afterwards but I do know that on the radio people were challenged to say the book had made a deep impression on them and I couldn’t think of one at that time. I remember trying to go through and think, no, I couldn’t.
MG: So do you want to end by just casting your eye down there and just picking out any of those names that invoke any sort of reaction?
[Mary show Erica a list of books popular from 1930-1960.]
EJ: Can‘t believe it that in our book group somebody brought along Precious Bane. I can’t believe it!
MG: Why not? Why did that horrify you?
EJ: Well that was almost in the trash.
MG: But you did read it though, Precious Bane?
EJ: I did. Because my mother read it and she almost classified it as trash. John Buchan. Of course I’d forgotten John Buchan. I read every one.
MG: Did you?
EJ: Oh yes. I can’t read them now though. I have tried reading one but not now, the language is too difficult. Not difficult but it’s the attitudes are so different.
MG: Prester John is quite shocking. I don’t know if you’ve re-read that one.
EJ: Now that’s one I loved.
MG: Fantastically tall story.
EJ: Fantastic. Well I tried reading The Island of Sheep not so long ago as an experiment thinking it might be a good to take It to the book club. No.
MG: You wouldn’t ever give it to Tom [ten year old grandson], say?
EJ: No. No. Yes I’d forgotten that. John Buchan. D K Broster, I forget what I read.
MG: The Flight of the Heron?
EJ: Oh yes. Yes.
MG: What about historical romances like D K Broster? Did you read many of those?
EJ: Yes, Margaret Irwin, Jean Plaidy.
MG: Hugh Walpole. Rogue Herries?
EJ: Oh yes! Yes I read a lot. He was on my grandmother’s shelves next door to Scott. That’s what I did. Oh, E M Forster I read.
MG: It’s curious your father didn’t urge you to read Dickens with his political sympathies because he’s often thought of as a sort of liberal author.
EJ: I did read Dickens. I can’t remember when though.
MG: And Jane Austen of course.
EJ: Yes I did. Evelyn Waugh. I find his books excellent. Still. His prose writing.
MG: Do you find them funny?
EJ: Scoop, I still find one of the funniest books. Yes I still find his books really, really engaging. No sorry, Mary, not one has changed my life.
MG: You’ve read pretty well everything on there!
EJ: I think practically. But Mavis will have read them all and with total recall I think. [cf interview with Mavis]
MG: Talking about trash, I think the ones on this list that would I suggest being classified as, that is anything by Berta Ruck. I can’t imagine you read. A bit like Mills and Boon but Florence Barclay, you never came across her? It would’ve been one of your grandmother’s books probably. More likely than your parents, actually. Very pious. George Orwell would be the other one I was going to ask you about.
EJ: I don’t remember reading George Orwell, no.
MG: Well that’s so useful. Thank you very much.