Gillian Applegate

Gillian Applegate

Gillian was born in Frecheville on the 27th October 1941.

She is being interviewed by Mary Grover on 3rd May 2012.

MG:    This is an interview conducted by Mary Grover.  It is 2nd May 2012 [actually it was 3 May] and I am interviewing Gillian Applegate.  Gillian was born in … Where were you born, Gillian?

GA: Frecheville.  It was actually North East Derbyshire at the time.  Sheffield eventually took over.

MG: And when was that?

GA: 27 October 1941.

MG: And where did you live in Sheffield between 1945 and 1960?

GA: Frecheville.  Various streets.  My mother moved out three times within Frecheville, but it was always Frecheville.

MG: Even though we’re most interested in what you read as an adult, we’d like to know where you started to get your love of reading.  So when you were a child how did you develop your love of reading?

GA: I remember at school – I don’t know whether they do it now – but on a Friday afternoon, always the teachers read you a story – Milly Molly Mandy, Worzel Gummidge – and I absolutely adored it and I think that from when I could read, I’ve always had a book in my hand.

MG: Did your parents read to you?

GA: They must have done, but I can’t remember.  But they did want us to read and be educated.  I can’t remember them reading a lot, except my mother very light romances from the library.

MG: You can’t remember where she got those light romances, can you?

GA: First we didn’t have a library at Frecheville but she certainly got them when the library was built, she went to the library at Frecheville.  Did Boots have a lending library?

MG: Well, I don’t think they did, Gillian.  I’ve had no record of anybody borrowing from Boots.  [In fact they did have a library in Fargate.] But there were newsagents’ shops which lent out light romances.

GA: Or the market?  You bought a book and then took it back.   I vaguely remember, very vaguely.  [Laughs]

MG: It’s just that the Council  didn’t tend to stock very light romances; they were quite severe sometimes in what they stocked.  Though people got the light romances, as you say, from market stalls and newsagents.

GA: Perhaps passing around amongst friends?  Because my mother had a wide circle of friends.  She loved dancing and I think ….

MG: Do you think it was partly from her you got the sense that reading a book was fun?

GA: I think I always had it, really [Laughs].  When I was older, when I was widowed, a friend invited me to go to a book club my sister, who now lives in Cirencester, said “I think you should, because you always had a book in your hand”.  And it saved me really, in bereavement.

MG: Yes, very important.

GA: If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d got a book on the go, rather than get upset, just switch the light on and read the book.

MG: So obviously at school you loved listening to stories.  When did you actually leave school?

GA: I was 16.  I loved history, and at school they actually wanted me to go to university to read history but again – my mother will figure very strongly in this because she was a very strong woman.  Silly now, but she said girls don’t need an education.  You’ll get married – which you’re not forced to, are you? – you know, or you could get married and lose your husband in various ways, or never get married but at the time I think she actually got me my first job, in the bank, because she was a legal cashier and paid in and asked if they’d got any vacancies.  So I went to what was the National Provincial Bank and became the National Westminster Bank near the Cathedral. [Very near the Boots Library so it is interesting she was unaware of it.]

MG: And did you find that the people you worked with were readers at all?

GA: We were all so busy, we were young.  It was actually a good time, although it wasn’t the job of my dreams I did enjoy it.  Part of the time I went to a small branch at Eckington where I was the only girl, and that was lovely because everybody used to come in and see me.  I really enjoyed that.

MG: So the staff there were friends?

GA: Oh yes.  Very much so.  I laugh now because it was at a time when they were expanding and we didn’t have two halfpennies to rub together.  But because they didn’t have the babies they got the promotions, the bank managers and everything…  We had a reunion a few years ago and they’ve all got really lovely houses.  They did very well.  You could stop on when you were married but once you started having children you left.  I think it was two years after I’d had my daughter that they started giving part-time work.  I often wondered what position I would have reached in the bank if that had happened.

MG: So you must have been good with figures as well as with books?

GA: I didn’t pass maths O-level but I managed in the bank.  Well you can see the use of it, can’t you, there?

MG: So when you were working in the bank you didn’t read that much?

GA: Yes, I did at home, but it was a lovely time really.  You were going out.  We had a walking club from the bank.  But it was mostly … Well you had dances but they didn’t drink like they used to do now.  You were offered cups of tea and coffee and orange.  I think the boys used to go sometimes to the pub and come in for the last dance.  And the last dance, then they asked girls out. [Laughs] We danced round our handbags.

MG: Sounds fun.  So you didn’t belong to a library at that point?

GA: Yes, I’ve always belonged to a library.  The one at Frecheville mostly.

MG: And what were the librarians like?  Were they encouraging?

GA: I was never in awe of them, because they were friends, really, and they’d tell you new interesting books that had come in.  I think I browsed an awful lot as well in the libraries which was a lovely thing to do.

MG: Can you remember any books which the librarians recommended to you?

GA: I can’t really.  I suppose it was something, if it’d taken off, if it had become a film or something, or a well-known author.  I definitely liked the historic novels of Jean Plaidy and any new ones of hers, they’d tell you they were in.

MG: Anya Seton, did you read  …

GA: No, I didn’t.

MG: So that really fed your love of history.

GA: I’ve always had a love of history.  Even now, if we’re in quizzes, I’m pretty on the ball if they ask historic questions.  I perhaps ought to have been a researcher in museums, but I didn’t.  I got into libraries later in life.  I worked at Castle College as a cashier which fitted in perfectly with having a young child and then when tertiary came, that job went.  I’d gone part-time and taken a library qualification and was offered a job in the library which I adored.  I’d found where I belonged, I think.

MG: And I hear you did very well in your qualification.

GA: Yes.  I got distinctions and merits.  And my husband said to me “Oh, I knew you’d pass.  It’s as if you were rehearsing all your life.”  But I’d be like everybody else: I always thought I wouldn’t.

MG: Did your husband share your love of reading?

GA: No, not really.  He’d had rheumatic fever as a child so his education was curtailed somewhat and he was left with a murmur in his heart, so his health wasn’t … He was in a wheelchair for a year and he went to the Gregg Centre for bookkeeping and he started at Stewart and Stewart, which is long defunct.  It overlooked the Peace Gardens.  A very nice department store: he was in the tailoring department there.  And when they went, he went to Austin Reed and he actually went for a time on the Queen Elizabeth, the shop there, to work.  And when he did that I went to London with the bank, when they had share releases and we met up.  So for six weeks I was in London and he was backwards and forwards to America.

MG: Did you enjoy that?

GA: Yes I did.  First of all it was Lloyds of London and that was quicker than we thought.  So I actually went to the Hampstead branch so I got used to whizzing on the Underground.  And everybody was very friendly there.  But they put us up for the night in a hotel and they gave us, I think it was 5 shillings a night entertainment allowance and it got you to the gods.  And there were girls from all over and they were friendly.   There was Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.  The Sound of Music was another one.  I can’t remember.  There was a few.  I remember, it was when the tennis players turned professional and they couldn’t go to Wimbledon and they were all on at Wembley: Lew Hoad, Rosewall, Roger Taylor.  I love watching sport and I persuaded all the girls to come .  We had to wolf our lunch and we were very late when we went in and we went up and we were “How much is it for tickets?” and the man in the box-office said “That’s a lovely northern accent.  Where do you come from?” and I said ”Sheffield”.  He said “I come from Barnsley” and we got in free.  [Laughs]

MG: That’s wonderful!  Was that before you had children?

GA: That was before I was married.  I was just what we used to call “courting”.

MG: So when did you have your children?

GA: I’ve only got one child.  I married in ’64 and had her in ’65.

MG: And did you find you had less time to read, or did you have more time when….

GA: Obviously … I did read a lot to Jane.  She reads books now, and I’ve carried it on with my grandchild.   I enrolled him in Gleadless Library shortly after he was born.  But he’s not got the love of reading we have.  I don’t whether that’s because he’s a boy.  He’s doing very well with science and maths – he’s 11 now – but in English he’s like all little boys, I think he only writes what he needs to.

MG: So when do you think you got back to your own reading?

GA: I’ve always had books and sort of read at home but not a lot.  But I think it really came back when I was widowed ten years ago.  He’d gone out walking, my husband and had a massive heart attack.  At least I didn’t see him ill, but it was such a shock and devastating.  Everybody was so kind and asked me to go to things and I went to everything.    Too much, really, but then you do say “Well, I like this”   and I told you about joining the book club.  So I joined the book club at Waterstone’s on a Sunday and then there was one on the Wednesday evenings at Sheffield City Libraries.  And then I met my partner – I have a partner now, he’s got his own house – but it’s lovely.  We are a partnership, we go out and about and then find we haven’t got quite so much time again to read.  So I resigned from the book clubs but for three years I’ve been running the book club for the Oddfellows.  So I run the book club for them.  We met yesterday.  We meet at Crucible Corner: it was buzzing with the snooker and we’re again using the libraries: we borrow them at the libraries, so it can only be ten members because they only lend you ten books.

MG: Tell me about the Oddfellows, Gillian.  I don’t know much about them.

GA: Again I met a friend on a holiday.  She lived at the Stannington part of Sheffield.  It had come through her door where the Oddfellows were meeting.  So she said “Will you go with me?” and we did.  It’s evolved from the guilds when everybody bound together and helped each other.  They helped if you were ill and everything like that.  The Oddfellows were for when there was only one or two in a trade: hence the Oddfellows, it was any trade and it was that for a long time.  Then in Victorian times, because we’d not got a National Health Service, they always paid out if people were ill and helped them to pay the doctor and that happened until the National Health Service.  And then they stopped that and they went into insurance for some time – I’m trying to think what dates, I’m not quite sure of the dates – but they went into the idea of it being a social organization.  So when we meet it is really to help people meet people, meet together and have holidays.   I’ve had some lovely holidays with them at a reasonable price.  The particular branch I’m in meets at the United Reform Church near Marks and Spencer’s and it’s ideal because it’s people with disabilities.  It’s pretty much really people over 50, have got time – people are busy with work, I suppose.   I would say that’s our membership.  People can be enrolled from young but I think that’s the biggest membership and it’s just lovely.  They’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  We help each other and do different things.  One year I was – they’ve still got the old-fashioned word – it was called the Noble Grand, but really it was the chairman.  I raised money for the [indistinct] Society and I got 1000 pounds with it.

MG: And now you run the book group?

GA: The friend who helped me, I was helping her and I just thought “They haven’t got a book club” because we had walks, different things, and I said to the secretary “Can I start a book club?” and he said, “By all means, it’s in the diary”.  It was quite slow at first and then people, it wasn’t what they wanted and they dropped out.  It’s all women, unfortunately.  We’ve had men but it’s all women.  We’ve got a lovely nucleus of nice ladies and we meet there and he supports us very much.  He said if anybody forgot to bring the book back and there was a fine he’d meet that, but they’re all very good, I’ve got them well trained [Laughs] but what we’ve also had is visits, so we’ve had Bryony Doran who wrote The China Bird, and she came and that was lovely.  And one our members is Marjorie Dunn.  Again, my love, she writes historical novels, so she’s come and visited us.  And then we’d actually read – you know, Meet the Midwife, that’s been on television – we’d actually read that before it came on television, about the workhouse.  It went into much more detail about the workhouse than it did on the television and one of our members had been to the workhouse at Southwell.  We’ve actually had a trip there.  So we’ve all sorts.  So it’s going along nicely.

MG: So do you find that your love of historical novels is still …

GA: It’s still very much there.  The books I read myself, probably … I’ve just read Wolf Hall.  It was heavy going but I really enjoyed it.

MG: Is there any period of history you particularly like reading about?

GA: I like the Stuarts and the Tudors but I’ve read about the siege of Leningrad: I’ve forgot who wrote it, a well-known author – Dunmore? – so I’ve liked that period, World War I and World War II.  So I think any interesting period, really.

MG: There are a lot about the First World War, aren’t there?

GA: Yes, yes.  And I don’t know whether you do, Mary, but when they have the literary festival I go to quite a few of theirs.  Last Year I went to The King’s Speech and it was the grandson of Logue, one of them who’d helped with the film and since the film, another brother of Logue’s, they’ve found some more material about it.   It was at the University and they had a talk about it which was very interesting.  The question and answer session and then they had a break and I hadn’t seen the film and they showed the film.  That was really lovely.  I think it’s great, the literary festival.

MG: Do you enjoy that, getting to know the story behind a book?

GA: Yes.  We’ve also done the one on Black Diamonds.  So obviously again it’s history.

MG: When you were in your 20s and you were going to films more that when you had a child, did you find that triggered your interest in a book if there were a book connected with the film?

GA: I think it’s been the opposite way probably.  I think I’ve read a book and then the film’s come.  Because they’re never quite as good, are they? [Laughs] I think I prefer to read the book.  But in The King’s Speech I hadn’t actually read the book: I read the book after.  But I thought it was very good, the film, very good.

MG: What about Dickens, because there’s so many wonderful films of his.  Do you enjoy reading him?

GA: Definitely.  We did Great Expectations, that was one of the things we did for English Literature.  For O level, GCSE.  Or GCE it was when I took it.  I enjoyed that very much and I won the prize for English Literature at school.  So we went to Andrews and I didn’t just manage one, I got two books.  I got Ivanhoe and Emma by Jane Austen.  And it’s all got “School Prize: Gillian Stannington”.

MG: Stannington is a very Sheffield name, isn’t it?

GA: Yes, I always say I had a road named after me [Laughs].

MG: I taught up there.  So Emma and Ivanhoe, did you enjoy reading them?

GA: Yes.  And I thought again, Ivanhoe was better than the film but I did see the film because Robert Taylor was in the film and I thought he was gorgeous.  [Laughs]

MG: Did it get you reading other Walter Scotts?

GA: Yes.  I can’t remember now; I have read quite a few of them, but it’s very vague in my memory, it’s a long time ago.

MG: He didn’t turn out to be one of your favourite authors?

GA: No.  Tell you who was – again I’ve forgotten a lot of the things – he writes tomes, James Michener.  Potomac the river going through Washington and it was all about the settlers from the very first.  It went to the present day and it sort of followed, where there was this Indian girl and she’d got a bit of a lip, turned-up …

MG: A hare-lip?

GA: Not a hare-lip.  And so her descendants come into the story all the time and she’s got this distinct – I suppose it’s like the Mallen streak isn’t it?  From Cookson.  But it was very interesting, you know.  How they were conquered, the Indians, and people came in and the Swedes [???], all the Americans, yes, it was good.

MG: So do you read many American authors?

GA: I have more since we’ve been in the book club.  Some I find fine, but others, no.  But you’ll have to prompt me for the authors: I’ve forgotten!

MG: Margaret Atwood?

GA: Yes.  Oh dear, you’ll have to prompt me again.

MG: In the book club, Gillian, who chooses the books?

GA: We take it in turns.  I have to go in with them.  I don’t know if you know but when they lend you ten books, they want it to come back as ten books so it has to be channelled through me.  They can’t just go in and take their particular book.  Yes, we got one yesterday.  Do you want to know?

MG: What was that?

GA: Do you want to see what we chose?

MG: Yes.

GA: I’ll go and get it.  I’ll be two minutes.  [Pause] The lady who chose this chose it because she wanted it to be a bit lighter.  We had one before which was The City and The City.  I’ve got that there because I didn’t hand it in, but it was like … it was an unnamed divided city so it was about what they called breached the meeting of it [sic] and it was a detective story of a murder.  A lot of us didn’t finish it, and I usually finish a book .  What with being on holiday, there was such a lot of foreign-sounding names so you couldn’t get to grips with the character.  But it’s disappointing for the lady who chose it [laughs].

MG: You need to be quite diplomatic, I expect.  So this one that Gillian’s just brought in is Julie Buxbaum’s The Opposite of Love.  Have you started this?

GA: No, I only got it yesterday.  And the lady who chose that book, she also brought us all a book for the World Book Day.  Last year it was Cloud Atlas she brought us.  And they’ve just made a film of that, haven’t they?  But again, that was hard going and a lot of violence.  I wouldn’t say it was my favourite book.

MG: Going back to your American tastes in books, did you ever read Gone with the Wind?

GA: Oh I’ve read that, and I see the film every time it comes on television.  Absolutely adore it.

MG: What is it, do you think, about that book which makes it so powerful still?

GA: Well, there’s a lot more in the book that there is in the film, a lot more, and I think it’s just a period that’s … it is a long way away, but it doesn’t seem so far away and then you’ve to the themes of slavery and, I suppose, women’s emancipation with Scarlett O’Hara because she was a businesswoman which she wouldn’t have been if they hadn’t have had the war.

MG: Yes, that’s true.

GA: So I think that theme … And she was silly, she thought she was in love with Ashley when she just wasn’t, it was just a romantic silly idea in her head really.  It was wet, really. [laughs]

MG: That reminds me, that Rhett Butler figure seems to crop up in Georgette Heyer’s historical novels.  Do you like them?

GA: No, they were a bit too … more lightweight.  Jean Plaidy did more of the proper history.

MG: So that’s what you like, an historical novel that gives a sense of real history?

GA: One as well, I’ve forgotten the author but The Other Boleyn Girl [Phillippa Gregory] and that sort of reading I like, with more detail.  Now Fraser …

MG: Antonia Fraser…

GA: But her daughter wrote a book and she came and spoke at the Quaker Meeting House at the Festival.  She was a lovely girl.

MG: Rebecca?

GA: Fleur?

MG: Flora.

GA: Flora, yes, a lovely person.  But with them being, her father was a lord, wasn’t he and she did have access to the Royal Archives which not everybody would get would they? [laughs]  She was lucky.

MG: Does that interest you, how people get their information?

GA: Yes.  It did on the Black Diamonds because she came with a gentleman who had been a policeman in Darnall and he knew a lot of the…..He was from that area.  He liked to hear himself speak.  He rather … she wasn’t allowed to say as much as she could.  But with her knowing that he’d got her access to the Durham miners and the miners round about there.  Perhaps because she’s got a posh voice they might not have spoken to her and he got her entry into it.  She’d already got entry into the archives of the stately home , because Chatsworth comes into it with Katherine Kennedy, things like that.  But she’d been allowed there with no trouble.  I’m interested in what’s going to happen to Wentworth Woodhouse.  Be lovely if it was restored, wouldn’t it.

MG: It was a lovely house.  This interest in history, do you belong to a local history society?  Do you like the fictional representation of history?

GA: No, not so much. Last year we took my daughter and grandson because I’d decided … He was ten then and like all boys he liked dinosaurs.  I said it’s time we went to the Natural History Museum because is we take him when he’s older he’s not going to … We thought we’ll have a morning there, but we were there all day, all day.  But it was lovely, he loved it.  We stopped at the Tower Hotel which is a horrible concrete monstrosity near the Tower.  It was a Star trip, and we went to Greenwich and they’d just had the riots; it was all boarded up, the town of Greenwich.  The Naval Museum that was lovely, and then we walked up to the Observatory.  It was a beautiful day, and there was this gentleman outside, he said to my grandson “Do you want to see the sun through my telescope?”.  He was a volunteer from inside the Observatory but he’d thought they should go out.  Fantastic, because he was seeing all things around he sun.  It couldn’t have been a more perfect day for him.  And he said  “I’ll meet you at the coach.  But if you want to go back on the river boat, if you don’t come at 4 I’ll know you’re not going”.  And we went back by the river.  My daughter had worked for the police and the River Police headquarters was there and it was all Canary Wharf.  It was brilliant going back.  Well, the next day we were supposed to go to Windsor.  We’d been to Windsor a lot so we actually went in the Tower.  I was saying “Waste not a morning” and then they went off to the HMS Bristol, to look at that.  I was there all day.  So no, I like the facts of history.  I think the Beefeaters there, once they know the history. They were actually showing … because I’ve got asthma and everything they showed me short cuts and said “If you want to go down you can down on the Up, you’ll not have so much climbing to do .”  So I actually… that was wonderful.  I’d been before, but it was still wonderful seeing it again, you know.

MG: So do you feel that your love of history has taken you to places…?

GA: Yes and I’ve really enjoyed looking at stately homes.  I like seeing the kitchens and how the servants lived.  I think it’s very …  I suppose in those days I’d have been a servant.  I wouldn’t have been a lord [laughs], it must be nice being a lord.

MG: It’s interesting how much new history is coming out, about the view from the servants’ perspective.

GA: Yes.  And do you like George Eliot?

MG: I do.  And do you like George Eliot?

GA: Yes.  Middlemarch.  That was on the telly, it was a good series.

MG: Why does George Eliot appeal to you, do you think?

GA: Again it’s not just the sentimental view of history, is it?  You know she was an heiress and she just threw herself away on that cad of a man, didn’t she, because she thought she could help him?  She just didn’t want to just be a housewife.  It was a disaster but you could see why she had married him, you know.

MG: Women didn’t have that many choices, did they?

GA: No.  The Brontes, I do like them.  You remember them, as you begin talking.  And Elizabeth Gaskell, I quite like hers.

MG: Did you read Gaskell and George Eliot later on in life, in the last ten years?

GA: Certainly George Eliot.  Elizabeth Gaskell and the Brontes I had read.

MG: Were you introduced to the Brontes at school?

GA : No, we didn’t do the Brontes.  And of course I love Jane Austen.  [Laughs] I went to my sister’s on holiday at Cirencester and we had a day in Bath.  That’s lovely.

MG: Which is your favourite Jane Austen, do you think?

GA: Pride and Prejudice, I suppose, yes.  And I thought the Colin Firth version….I didn’t like the new one.  Well, yes, it was good, but it wasn’t as good as the ……you know.  It was in the time when I was in the library at college and we got a great big poster of Colin Firth when it come out.  You could see his nipples.  We’d got it up in the office and I thought if the students only knew… I suppose that’s sexy, really isn’t it?

MG: On the other hand, if you’d put it up in the library maybe you’d have lent lots of copies.  [Laughs]

GA: Perhaps the boys wouldn’t have liked it though.  [Laughs]

MG: When you were working in Castle Library, [in the FE College] Gillian, did you come across any books that you liked through the library?

GA: I did when I first went there because they must have had a lot more English  courses.  But the librarian who came in got rid of a lot of those and just concentrated on the subjects they were doing.  But he did again, what I did find interesting, he did get a lot of things that were, it was more pamphlets, and I liaised with a girl in the Town Hall and got everything about Europe.  So everything new that was coming up and that was one of my jobs, to keep that up-to-date.  I found that very interesting – very heartbreaking sometimes – [Laughs] they meant well really, but it’s just all gone wrong, hasn’t it?

MG: I’m afraid so.  Did it lead you to read any European novelists?

GA: Yes reading Lolita.  That’s not European is it?  The Kite Runner, I love that.  Umberto, is it Umberto…..?

MG: Eco.

GA: Yes, I’ve read it.  I thought they were all the same stories in the end.  I enjoyed the first few, but they all sort of had the same theme, didn’t they?

MG: Do you tend to do that: you find an author you like and then read everything by them?

GA: No.  Not now, because we’re doing so many different ones.  We’ve just read that Marina – I can’t pronounce her name. [Lewycka]

MG: Oh yes, the Tractors. [Short History of Tractors in the Ukraine]

GA: No, not the Tractors, We are all Made of Glue.

MG: I don’t know that one.

GA: That’s interesting and different, and that was a library copy.

MG: Another Sheffield author.

GA: Yes.  And another one, that was lovely, it was a detective story, and that was on a Greek island, beginning with “Z” and she’s a Sheffield author.  We all enjoyed that, because you could smell the thyme, and it was so well written about a Greek island.  Because of that I read myself, not through there, Victoria Hislop’s The Island.  Don’t know if you’ve read that.  I think they going to do The Return.  It’s about the leper island where they had to go if they got leprosy and that was wonderful.  I think it won a prize, didn’t it?  And I think because I’d read this one by Anne I enjoyed that and it reminded me of my Greek holidays.  I can recommend that: it’s certainly very good.

MG: Did you ever read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?  Did you like that?

GA: Yes.

MG: You’ve mentioned a couple of times detective stories.  Do you enjoy them?

GA: I don’t but we have had one or two because there’s people who like detective stories.  Now, The Skeleton Coast.  We’ve got a member who comes from Zimbabwe and been in South Africa, and she got that because it did take it in.  But that was sort of a detective story.  It was interesting.  Some didn’t like it but I quite enjoyed that.

MG: You don’t crave detectives [Laughs]

GA: I don’t, no.

MG: I get the feeling you don’t go for romances particularly, do you?

GA: No, I mean yes, they’re all right but no, you know, because you can have romance in your own life, can’t you? [Laughs]

MG: That’s one of the things that interests me Gillian, that when the people I interview were young, going out to dances and so on, they didn’t stop to think very often.  So  I wonder if reading comes into people’s lives very often when there aren’t other things to grab them.

GA: Yes, I think so, but now I shan’t let it go now I’m back to it.

MG: You can have romance and reading.

GA: I’m certainly lucky to have met my partner but he’s lucky to have met me because he’s been divorced 17 years so he thinks Christmas has come having been on his own a lot.  And we do have fun together, laugh a lot.  And my daughter thinks we’ve got the best of both worlds because we’ve each got our own life as well and I think – do you want personal things? – I don’t thin we will marry because silly things, like I get a small pension from my husband and that will go if I marry and I think “Well, my husband worked hard for me to get that”.  Sounds very mercenary …

MG: Realistic, yes, absolutely.  The one question I ask everybody, and it may not mean anything to you, but is there any book you read that really changes the way you looked or felt about things?

GA: I think I can say one thing: I didn’t particularly like the book but one of the first ones we read when I was at Waterstone’s bookshop was The Girl with a Pearl Earring which I thought was a bit tedious and everything but then a lady said “There’s a film and they’re having it at the Anvil” and about 6 or 7 of us went to the film and it sort of got me into circulation again after I’d been bereaved because this little nucleus started going to exhibitions: we read a book about the plague, I’d never been there and we went to Eyam, and it sort of started life beginning again, shall we say.  Do you understand that?

MG: Yes.

GA: I just remember that’s the particular book we’d read.  I wouldn’t say I was enamoured of the book but it certainly changed my life.

MG: That’s very interesting.  One of the things talking to you is that books seem to have opened the door to social activities.  Do you think that’s been true all your life or mostly in the last twenty years?

GA: Mostly in the last twenty years, yes.  Because social things happened from walking and certainly I’m in a walking club and that’s opened other [indistinct] because we all wanted to sequence dance. So one lady said “Oh I’ve hired a church hall and I’ve got a lady who can teach us” and it’s blossomed and now a gentleman runs it and there’s about 60 members.  He’s doing a holiday which we’ll not be able to go this year because we’re doing something else but we’ve been twice to Blackpool to dance at the Tower Ballroom and that’s been wonderful.  Bur before that, when I met Keith, who I met at the walking club, but he was like a relative of Norman and my best friend, Hazel and John: Hazel was his cousin.  So we’d both joined this walking club, not knowing him, and he said “It is Gill, isn’t it?” and it’s as if it’s meant to be really and it gradually got from a friendship.  Now he’d always liked dancing and I didn’t dance with my husband, because he used to [indistinct]  waltzes or a quickstep and so we went to Draper’s to learn to dance, and that’s when we became a couple because you’re dancing close, aren’t you?  And we go Saturday nights to have a dance there.  It’s a big part of our lives.  So books and other things, I think some sort of social club.

MG: So many things, Gillian. [Laughs]

GA: Oh, I’ve not finished, I do tai chi [Laughs] and swimming.

MG: Amazing.  Well I probably ought to draw it to a close now because we’re getting near the hour and it’s about an hour that I save on the CD.  There’s just one other question I’d like to ask you.  Were there any books that you loved but would think “Oh, I wouldn’t like them now”?  But you liked them at that particular time in your life.

GA: I always liked Little Women and whether that would seem a bit twee.  I’ve read March that somebody wrote.  Is it a prequel?  I didn’t really like that very much.  It didn’t paint Mr March in a very nice light, I don’t think.

MG: There’s a bit of a fashion for that.

GA: Well, it is sort of saccharine,  I suppose.  But again, mentioning Dickens, that brought in Dickens in the Pickwick Club.  It touched on that.

MG: When did you read Dickens , Gillian?

GA: Really at school.

MG: Great Expectations.

GA: That’s another one.  A Tale of Two Cities.  I’ve read them all, really, but they take some reading, don’t they.  I think I liked David Copperfield, that’s good.

MG: But your parents never had any copies of Dickens in the house?

GA: No.  They didn’t not have books, but they didn’t have many.  They were more or less, you know … they had the Bible that my dad’ve got from school and things like that.  But no, I meant I’ve always had … they’re in my bedroom, the shelves, I’ve always had books on the shelves.  I think that’s a good thing.  Norman did, because he had a love of nature so he’d got bird books and things like that.  While he didn’t read he did have books like that.

MG: And where did he buy his books when you were married?

GA: He didn’t buy books when we were married.  I think people had bought them for him when he was ill.

MG: Do you think he was reading more when he was ill?

GA: Well, I don’t think he could do anything else.  Well, you wouldn’t believe it because we then had a grocery shop so he was humping potatoes about. [Laughs] But he couldn’t run, but he walked, you see.  But he died walking, but he loved it.  He was 63.  So from his point of view it was the perfect place; he was with two friends.  But 20 years too early, I think.  It wasn’t meant to be, no.

MG: Well, thank you so much, Gillian.

GA: I’ve enjoyed it.

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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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