Everyday Reading in Sheffield 1920-1960

Reading in common: everyday reading in Sheffield (1920-1960)

A paper given by Dr Mary Grover at the fifteenth annual Modernist Studies Association conference at Sussex University, UK: ‘Everydayness and the Event’ August 29th to September 1st 2013.

Reading Sheffield is not as obvious a project as Reading Leeds or Reading Manchester, our two industrial neighbours in the north of England.  The metal and mining industries of nineteenth century Sheffield did not generate the need for large clerkly classes such as existed in Leeds and Manchester. The low concentration of legal, commercial and design skills has, until recently, made high literacy skills a less than obvious way to self-advancement. So, it is no surprise to find that at the turn of the twentieth century Sheffield municipal libraries were notoriously bad and the take up of grammar school places notoriously low.

However, here we are, with over sixty reading histories of people who developed a passion for reading in mid-twentieth century Sheffield. Who were they and how did they acquire a compulsion to read for pleasure?

Our initial group of interviewees was recruited in 2011 through the Housebound Library Service.  Then recruiting visits to groups for the elderly throughout the city ensured that our sample was roughly representative of Sheffield in the 1940s both socially and geographically.

None of our sixty one readers were heirs to a high literary culture and they were rarely exposed to any kind of evaluation of their reading. Yet their voices never betray the sense of subordination that Pierre Bourdieu assigns to ‘le culture moyen’. Neither do they exhibit the delightful playfulness of those whom  Michel de Certeau imagines remaking or appropriating legitimate culture from below.

The fact that neither Bourdieu nor de Certeau can help us understand the absence of either shame or playful ‘bricolage’ in these accounts of reading development is not to suggest that such negotiations do not take place. However, there is scant evidence that they took place in this historical and geographical context. So, the absence of an awareness of cultural subordination makes these records a useful site within which to examine the apparently compulsive rather than strategic nature of the process of becoming an habitual reader. I do hope that our project will stimulate similar projects in different times and places. Only then can we assess empirically the usefulness of different models of cultural hierarchy and draw conclusions about how such hierarchies are perceived and negotiated by people for whom reading is an everyday affair.

A brief summary of what we were up to and how we structured our project. The aim of the project was to discover how Sheffield readers developed their reading tastes in the 1940s and ’50s. Our readers grew up in Sheffield and were born before 1941. Members of the interviewing team worked or studied in Sheffield for the greater part of our working lives, as teachers, writers, broadcasters, archivists and librarians. This helped us contextualise the references of our readers fairly readily. We armed ourselves with a set of prompts, an information sheet about Sheffield libraries and bookshops in 1950, and a list of fiction well known at the time.  We were seeking qualitative not quantitative records so we used these prompts at our discretion,  allowing each interviewee to feel that his or her reading journey shaped the course of the interview. We tried to avoid direct questions which might make interviewees feel they were being judged or pressed to recall names and dates in a way that would make them falter. The question of whether they felt that their reading had been evaluated came way down the list of prompts and was only raised if we felt there was no danger of the interviewee mistakenly thinking that we were there to evaluate them. The key prompt for exploration of the extent to which the reader felt that his or her tastes had been evaluated was the question, ‘Were you at any time made to feel embarrassed about what you read?’  (‘Only Lady Chatterley’, was a frequent response.)

Before I focus on the responses of the few readers who did have an awareness that their tastes might be evaluated, let me summarise the ways in which the vast majority of our readers perceived their place in an imaginary community of readers.

Only half a dozen readers gave no indication that they had tried to tackle books that were held to be ‘classics’ or were a bit of a reading stretch. These readers decided early on what gave them pleasure and had tended to conform to the Leavisite or Marxian stereotypes of the reader of popular fiction being in thrall to an author or publisher who catered for fixed and commodified tastes. By far the majority of our readers were, in J.B.Priestley’s terms, broadbrow  – they had wide reading tastes.

In order to understand how these readers set texts and genres in relation to one another we need to understand how they mapped their physical access to books, how they negotiated the city in order to find them.

Most of our readers had few books in the home. Sheffield has not been noted for church attendance so even the Bible was noticeable by its relative absence. However, church attendance and hymns played a significant part in the reading journeys of many: perhaps accustoming the reader to linguistic difficulty, introducing a wealth of narrative and enacting the power of the written word. One man said his desert island book would be a hymn book because each hymn pointed back to the stories he would no longer be able read.

The other common source of reading was the Red Circle franchise of tuppenny libraries advertising, ‘Reading, your cheapest pleasure’. Journeys to the Red Circle were nearly all with a parent or on behalf of a parent. Fathers were working on a Saturday when the child was free. So Winnie, for example, was deputed to fetch her father’s racing novels and was in trouble if she got one he had already read. The four branches of the Red Circle were, in the ’40s, a major source of romances, thrillers and westerns, nearly all read by our interviewees but chosen by parents. Most surprising was the nature of the ‘humorous books’ to be found in the Red Circle libraries. Just William was the most frequently cited but P.G. Wodehouse was probably sourced there as well.  Because the majority of books that found their way into our readers’ hands were not chosen by them they quickly learned to fall on anything available. The lack of opportunity to choose or discriminate made each book a potential source of delight and disappointment too. A grammar school girl hoped that the book lurking beside her parents’ bed might contain the Aenead.  Plunging in she quickly recoiled: ‘It can’t be as bad as this,’ she thought. It turned out to be a book of rather lame prayers; the faded type on the cover said Vigil, not Virgil.

If parents were inclined or able to foster their children’s reading choices in the ’30s they tended to buy comics or annuals, the Girls’ Crystal by far the most popular. A couple of children were bought subscriptions to Boots’ children’s libraries. As soon as they could, these two children made their way to the municipal libraries of Sheffield, which in the ’40s and ’50s were transformed from a national disgrace to international models of excellence. In 1956 the architect of this transformation, J.P. Lamb, caused a film to be made, A Book in Hand, which explains the basis of this transformation – thirteen glorious minutes are to be found on Yorkshire Film Archive website.

So the first sense of the wealth of books that was their own to plunder came when a primary school child was marched down from school or brought by a parent to one of the twelve branch libraries in Sheffield. In most of our readers’ lives, these initial introductions were followed by solitary journeys, up and down one of our seven hills, threading through the ‘backwacks’. John D got his first ticket when he was eight and walked the two miles on his own to his nearest library at the first opportunity. Like many of our male readers, he aimed to borrow the fattest book he could and found a copy of Dr Dolittle. He trudged home and read it within the hour because, disappointingly, there were so many pictures. When he returned in the afternoon to borrow another he was told that one ticket meant one book a week.  John, like many of our readers had no parent at home on a Saturday. Therefore the libraries played something of the role of home for many of these children in the ’30s and ’40s.

At this time Sheffield children who passed their 11+ did not get a place at their nearest grammar school. Such schools were graded and you were allocated a place according to examination score. This meant, for many, a journey right across the city and through local areas where you were readily identified by your grammar school uniform. One of the seven readers who passed their 11 + but declined the place, did so because he could not face ‘the solo run’ (TL). But two girls speak eloquently of the freedom this social isolation lent them. In Florence’s description of her lonely Saturdays, we get a sense of the riches to be gained once you did ‘go solo’:

I think I was rather a solitary child, in that your parents are busy working.  And I used, on a Saturday morning, I used to go have a little trot around the Moor,  by meself, you see.  And I used to go to Central Library, get my library books, go up to the gallery.  I used to like to go up there to look at the pictures.  And then I used to go down to the reading room.  You could read all sorts of magazines down there, and I used to spend  [the whole day], you know, really, and then come home on the tram … and read my library books … I had loads of friends, but in those days, when you went to a grammar school  people came from all over the city, So my best friend lived in Pitsmoor, and another out at Grindleford.   FC

As has been often noted, the choices made by such unguided autodidacts are often unexpected – governed by random characteristics. It could be the number of pages, the thicker the better, the volume of an author’s output, the more the better. The alphabetical position of the author’s surname could change the literary landscape. Thus two became readers of Warwick Deeping, the one because he was next to Dickens and the other because he was misfiled alongside her favourite, Hugh Walpole. Mavis, one of the most literary of our readers, discovered George Eliot at ten years old because there was no queue for her books whereas the new Enid Blyton she had her eye on was in excessively high demand.

My first interview was with a man who collided with books in these apparently random ways. Malcolm had failed his 11+. In 1941 he was 16 and had been working in a shop for two years.  He began to keep a notebook of every book he read, listing the authors he read alphabetically. Under B are Boethius and Buchan; under D are Deeping, Doestoevsky and Dickens. Under both letters are manuals that will help him with his job, his work as fire warden and as scouting leader.

Bourdieu is very clear about the social disadvantages likely to be suffered by such an autodidact. Given no map to guide him, he will pursue long avenues at the end of which he meets the stony features of a cultural superior who divines that the poor sap cannot tell a Dostoevsky from a Deeping; eliminated is the innocent confidence that had inspired his early reading choices. However most of our readers, even those who achieved a university education, have been left not with the sense of ineptness described by Bourdieu, but only with delight at the recollection of happy collisions with the marvellous: in Malcolm’s case with the Mayor of Casterbridge.

Alan, who like Malcom had failed his 11+ (and like Malcolm went on to gain professional qualifications and a degree) describes this moment of discovering his autonomy as a reader as a moment of violent revelation:

‘about the time I went to secondary school I seemed to have this sort of explosion, you know, I’d sort of discovered reading and I’d got a lot of time to make up and everything. I was probably, looking back, I probably didn’t understand them at all. … started reading classic books like Charles Dickens and I remember trying to read Paradise Lost and finding it absolutely totally beyond me …I had no concept of what people would refer to as good books or lightweight books. So they were all the same to me’. AB

The attitude to Paradise Lost of this unassuming but determined reader is entirely consistent with the ways in which our other readers describe their encounters with texts for which they have not been equipped to deal. We never heard texts dismissed in derogatory terms such as ‘highbrow’ or ‘posh’. We were careful never to use such terms ourselves.  Alan’s sense that Paradise Lost was ‘beyond him’ is echoed in the way other readers described their encounter with difficult texts. The phrase is used more than any other to describe texts before which the reader stalls.

The sense is of worlds beyond but not of access barred. A comparable metaphor is used by a man whose background was very different from Malcolm or Alan’s. David was a Cambridge engineering graduate whose father owned a factory. He read ‘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.’ He got ‘stuck’, a non-evaluative term in itself, merely in the sense that he couldn’t move in that direction.

Even when our readers were formally introduced to a text presented as part of a canon, they were free from anxieties either about they might have to measure up to such a text or that they might be  judged by their response to it.  When Julia attended her teacher training college in Bingley, the students studied European classics:

Well in literature we did Anna Karenina, you know, Henry James, and you know all the normal things. It wasn’t fiction that I had chosen to read, that was prescribed reading. [But] the books that I enjoyed more were like Bertrand Russell, you know the really hard stuff. You think, ‘well yeah, I never thought about that before but yeah’. You know? It was that you were learning something new, new situations.   JB

The fact that she had not ‘discovered’ Anna Karenina for herself seems to have rendered it ‘normal’. It appears that the very randomness of many of our readers’ encounters with particular books renders them all ‘abnormal’ and potentially wonderful. Despite the fact that Julia had the chance to pursue further education she resisted the notion that she or her mother read ‘to increase their social mobility’ – there was nothing instrumental in their reading.

None of our readers used the metaphor of the ‘social ladder’ but they had nearly all, in fact, moved into another class because of their confidence with the written word.  Yet the metaphor implied to their ordering of the texts they encounter is not of a pyramid with increasingly elevated tiers but of a map of infinitely expanding worlds. The way in which these readers sense a world beyond is sometimes of an explosive entry of a text into the private world of the reader and sometimes of the exit of the reader into a new world, a sense of horizons suddenly extended.

Once books entered a home, that sense of those worlds beyond became visible. Julia felt that books in a home gave ‘a different feel’ ‘you were aware of an outside.   Not just so concerned with the immediate’. Julia acknowledged the encouragement of her mother and her aunt Lil but says ‘I think because of the person I am I would have found some way of reading’.  Key to these readers’ sense of reading identity is that it has come from within.  Perhaps it is this sense that makes them find the notion that their reading might be evaluated beside the point. The book’s the thing, not what others made of you and that book.

A grammar school boy, son of a mining engineer, who became an educational administrator, made this point emphatically. [PP9]

No, I’m not led, I’m not led by convention. I read what I want to read. If somebody tells me I’ve got to read it then my instant attitude is, no I don’t want to read it. I want to read because I want to read it and I choose what I want to read. I don’t not read anything ‘cos I consider that it’s not my views because I feel that I should embrace everybody’s views so I know what they’re thinking as well as what I’m thinking. PB

Such bloody minded independence of spirit has long been held to be characteristic of Sheffield workers. Such openness to the views of others perhaps not, yet it is utterly consistent with the attitudes of other interviewees.  The catholicity of taste of most of our avid readers and occasional resistance to cultural policing may be linked to the sense of adventure bound up with seeking out books in their teens. Intrinsic to much of the pleasure recalled is the experience of autonomy, of stumbling over a book to which one has not been directed.

To exemplify this sense of autonomy I will end with a brief comparison between the two readers who emerge as two of the most intellectually adventurous of our group. Their awareness of a world outside Sheffield make them most likely to have encountered a sense that their reading passions might have been regarded as parochial, and to have withered in the icy blast of highbrow distaste.

Ken and Mavis both came from supportive homes. It is perhaps no accident that the fathers of both were in clerkly jobs, whilst the fathers of most of our readers were, unsurprisingly, steel workers or engineers. Ken’s father was the secretary of a small company and Mavis’s father the colliery weigh station manager. They both went to grammar school and thus encountered teachers who were more likely to come from outside Sheffield than were the teachers of secondary or technical school pupils.

Ken was one of only two interviewees who described his English teacher as transforming his reading tastes. There is a sad dearth of such stories in our sample. Ken went to the Catholic Grammar School in the 1930s. There he had an English master whose literary judgements were ‘bang on the nail’ as he put it.  This teacher 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.  But also, Kath introduced me – and I met her very early on – to all [Sholokhov’s] books.  Quiet Flows the Don and all those Russian novels.

His wife who was also being interviewed added, ‘And Chinese books.  Famous Chinese novels’. Kath’s intervention in Ken’s reading life reflects their shared involvement in socialist politics which led them to take their children to a summer camp in the Soviet Union in the early 50s.  Ken’s political convictions closed the door to any potential critique of life behind the iron curtain but they in no way circumscribed his openness to books by his class enemies. He described Wodehouse’s writing as ‘elegant’ and had a particular fondness for the travel writing of Phillip Gibbs, especially 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.

Ken’s confidence in tackling a range of texts, including Das Kapital, another ‘brilliant’ book, stood him in good stead as a draughtsman interpreting highly technical engineering manuals. He did not have the opportunity to develop his formal education, leaving his grammar school at 14 because it closed on the outbreak of war.

Mavis, equally intellectual, had a more conventional education. An only child, she came from a socially isolated home. Her father was manager of Tinsley colliery weigh station, deliberately some distance from the colliery to minimize collusion and fraud with the lorry drivers. So Mavis, from the age of 5 walked one and half miles to primary school. Her secondary schooling transformed her life. Because she got the top mark in Sheffield for her 11+ she won a scholarship to a GPDST Girls’ School where university entrance was regarded as the norm (three or four miles from home).

It was only when she when she travelled to Leeds University for an interview that laid herself vulnerable to the gorgon stare of an arbiter of taste who could have prevented her developing her reading tastes formally.

I don’t think it occurred to me really, though, that there were things that you shouldn’t be seen reading until I went for an interview at Leeds.  It’s only an hour’s journey even then and my mother, that’s the one thing she would read was Readers’ Digest.  So I bought a Readers’ Digest. Interviewer  – “what did you read on the train?”  So I said “Readers’ Digest” and I saw this expression and I thought “Ah” and I explained about my mother [she] wasn’t a reader but she did enjoy the Readers’ Digest  and I explained to be honest I had never been on a train before and I was on a stopping train as the most suitable one and I didn’t want to get into a book because [after Leeds] the train didn’t stop until it reached [Scotland] ….[If] I got into a book I might not have got off until I reached the Scottish border, and I thought “I hope I’ve got out of that one all right”.  After that I was aware that there were things you didn’t own up to but apart from magazines I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me.

It was her anxieties about the physical journey away from home that exposed Mavis to the possibility of cultural humiliation. However, despite the expression of contempt on her interviewer’s face, Mavis did not assimilate the cultural subordination being conferred upon her. Instead the gorgon’s question prompted her to display her quickness of wit, openness and honesty

It is perhaps only fitting that the only person to be culturally evaluated in the making of this project was myself.  Malcolm (of the reading notebook) was my first interviewee; I knew him slightly and judged him to be robust enough to cope with those explicit and notorious markers of cultural hierarchy: the brow words.  However, he was puzzled that I raised them in the context of literature and he had never heard of low or middlebrow.  He associated the word highbrow with his mother’s musical tastes (the family used to tease her for singing songs from the opera). When I explained how the word middlebrow has been used to dismiss certain literary tastes, he rather sternly admonished me:

‘Mary, I think those are words from your end of town; you wouldn’t hear them round here.’

Mary Grover 2013




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *