Malcolm Mercer’s Reading Journey

Born in 1925, Malcolm Mercer has lived most of his life in and around the Manor estate in Sheffield, and left Pipworth Road School in 1939. After seven years in the retail trade, disrupted by three years in the Royal Naval Patrol Service – Minesweeping (1943-1946), he trained as a teacher at Sheffield Training College and taught in several Sheffield schools before being appointed Head of Parson Cross School (1968-1983). He gained a Diploma in education management at Sheffield Polytechnic in 1971 and an MA in education at Sheffield University in 1979. He contributed to two of the major histories of Sheffield city and is the author of The School at Parson Crosse 1630-1980 (1980), Schooling the Poorer Child (1996) and A Portrait of the Manor in the 1930s (2002).

Unlike his wife Jean, whom we also interviewed, Malcolm did not pass the 11+, He left school at 14 to become a shop assistant. However that never prevented him doing what he wanted to do and as a teacher and historian he has written himself into the history of Sheffield, its schools and the community to which he still belongs, the areas of Manor and Park.

Malcolm has always read and he came from a family where there were books about.

I never saw father read but I’ve still got a number of his books. He was a newspaper man and though I never saw him read he’d bought a lot of books when he was younger including Shakespeare and I’ve got them now, and Southey and poetry by Goldsmith. So yes, he must have read.  My mother read Blackmore’s Lorna Doone and I’ve still got her copy and I can remember her reading Lorna Doone. So I think they must have read when I’d been put to bed.

Malcolm’s life was rich. He was a Boy Scout, and he has always been an active member of the church community at St Swithun’s on the Manor. He read constantly, like Jean his main source of books being Park Library. There were two tuppenny libraries on the Manor in the ’30s but the thrilling tales provided by Park Library seemed to satisfy the fourteen year-old’s need for adventure when he returned from working in a shop during the early 1940s.

The one I think that struck me most was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. But, I mean, I read quite a great deal, The Scouts of the Baghdad Patrol by Lieutenant Brereton, Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan. The Last of the Mohicans by Fennimore Cooper, The Three Musketeers and then I read Dumas: Twenty Years After, The Man in the Iron Mask, Count of Monte Cristo, Vicomte de Bragelonne, Louise de la Vallière, The Queen’s Necklace, Chicot the Jester and The Forty-Five Guardsmen, all by Alexandre Dumas and of course Conan Doyle – The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventures of Gerard.

A lot of the stories that he loved were connected with nature: the Romany stories on children’s radio. ‘A Summer Road to Wales, I‘ve got a copy upstairs. I read that about three times.’

He also describes being ‘enthralled’ by a geography series on BBC radio for schools, which inspired an interest in ‘South America and the Amazon and the history of Aztecs and the Incas and I read books that were linked to that.’ The survival skills of Manga, a boy living in the Amazon, appealed to the Boy Scout as he prepared for his Camp Craft badge.

Malcolm’s boy scouting had practical consequences. His knowledge of signalling meant that in 1943 he was posted to serve on a minesweeper for the duration of the war. There were few books or readers on the minesweeper but Malcolm had taken Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to sea with him.

I had it throughout the war until … we were anchored, we were sweeping first in the Bristol Channel in order to make it safe for ships to cross from Cardiff and Swansea over to North Devon and we swept from there and we were anchored on one occasion and we drifted and the bottle of ink that I had went all over the pages of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, the copy that I had so that was the end. I’ve got another copy but it’s not the same. But that was the only book. I didn’t have a Bible although I was a churchman.

After the war, Malcolm returned to Park Library where he found his favourite authors, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Though Malcolm began by reading such novels as The Tale of Two Cities for their stirring qualities, he was soon, as he began to think about the education and care of children in Britain’s cities, reading novels as social history. ‘Oliver Twist for instance, workhouse children, and I compared it because I’ve researched a fair amount about the Sheffield Workhouse’.

Malcolm still has in his possession a little notebook in which he listed all the books he read during the war years 1941 and 1942. Each letter of the alphabet has two pages, and just a look at the page for B shows how widely Malcolm’s curiosity ranged.

Since Jean and Malcolm got married, the books they bought have been mostly for Malcolm’s work as a teacher and historian of Sheffield’s schools. Despite their regular book-borrowing habits, Jean observes that ‘in fact this house is weighed down with books, if I took you round to see them. In fact people ring up and ask Malcolm something and he says “I’ll ring you back” and then he disappears.’

You can read Malcolm’s and Jean’s interview here

Peter B’s Reading Journey

By Sue Roe

Peter was born in 1930 in the Ecclesall Bierlow area of Sheffield. His father was a musician and engineer, who came to Sheffield to play in a colliery band, and his mother was a homemaker. He gained a scholarship to King Edward VII School and, at 17, won an Exhibition to Oxford, studying Jurisprudence. Before taking up his place at Exeter College Oxford, he did National Service, based initially in Palestine and then, as Liaison Officer to the Americans, moving around several bases in Europe. After his degree he worked in Canada for two years and then moved back to Sheffield where new Assizes were opening. He practised as a barrister, became a QC and a judge. Though retired, he still works part time (2012). He is married with three children.

My life, let me put it this way, my life would have been different and I would have been different if I’d hadn’t had the ability and the privilege to have had access to a lot of printed stuff.

Peter’s reading journey began with his mother who read to him:

Usually bedtime stories… none that I recall now but they would be the usual child books.

He was a fairly precocious reader – he could read very readily by the time he was five:

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

Winnie the Pooh and then I got, by the time I was sort of seven or eight -Richmal Crompton’s Just William. It sounds dreadful now but … they were reasonably well written and grammatical.

He was also influenced by two older girl cousins who lived at Greenhill:

And they had books – they were, sort of, I suppose, girl-slanted, but the one I can remember most clearly was Little Women, is that Louisa May Alcott? And I also, I read some sort of  boys, pretty basic, Robin Hoods and Hereward the Wake, and you know, sort of quasi-history stories.

Hereward the Wake fighting Normans

Peter acquired his books from a variety of places:

They were bought for me by my parents or I borrowed them from my cousins or friends or what have you. I wasn’t into going into bookshops then – I was too young for Blackwells.

When he was older, he did frequent second hand bookshops:

… There was a lovely second bookshop on Division St called Applebaums and I used to go in there and …I used [to] browse as well as buy in there.

As a young adult he read widely:

By then I was reading pretty broadly – Dickens, and you know, the sort of easily accessible classics that you read. And – very difficult now to recall the specific impression from a specific book but I read a lot and I enjoyed it.

His studies did influence his reading:

One did various books, for instance School Certificate and High School Certificate – can’t remember oh now – Tale of Two Cities was one of the set books and also, at the time, it was very avant-garde, James Joyce, Ulysses.

He was busy, he recalls:

…bear in mind that by the time I was 16, I was studying fairly hard. I got a history Exhibition to Oxford & that involved a fair amount of reading so there wasn’t a lot of [time]…  and what with that, I was also engaged in music – I played a lot of piano at that time.

Peter was always interested in history:

I liked history – I’ve always slightly thought that novels are a waste of time … I suppose, indirectly, you learn things but … I got more out of biographies and history books … Elizabeth by Neale – that was the classic one then … and there was Peter the Great – [by] HAL Fisher

He gives one reason why he was very interested in history:

When I was very young, my father was a musician and we travelled around and lived in a number of places and I would be taken to stately homes.

Libraries played an important part in Peter’s reading journey: as a child he used to take the tram to Highfields Library but also:

King Edward’s, and City Libraries. I used to spend as time got on … Sheffield Libraries were very good – either the Reference Library which was upstairs at Surrey Street and then the Science & Technology Library, which a lot of the History stuff was in downstairs, so I read it there.

He singled out one particular library:

The Codrington Library (by Farradane, Creative Commons)

I was very lucky at Oxford because, apart from the Bodleian, which is lovely, my tutor was a fellow of All Souls as well as my college; and in All Souls was a library called Codrington. Codringtons were people who founded All Souls. It was all built from money from slaves and sugar. That’s where their money came from.[i] But the Codrington Library is a long Georgian library, exquisitely furnished – sort of astrolabes and things like that – and I found that more conducive to learning and studying than any place I’d ever been.

The quality of writing has always been very important to Peter:

Yes, I do like Bennett. I think Bennett is beautifully written… Of course Wodehouse writes beautifully.

Arnold Bennett (Project_Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg)

And he is a great fan of Raymond Chandler for the same reason:

Humphrey Bogart reading The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I think I’ve read everything he’s ever written and seen most of his film scripts… he writes brilliantly – and he can create an atmosphere.

He is interested in crime fiction:

Having spent a lifetime – not in crime – mine was civil law but concerning courts and it’s interesting when you read to see if the one who is writing knows anything about it or not.  It’s readily apparent when they don’t.

He is not a fan of science fiction:

Science fiction as a whole drives me up the wall. I cannot do with it particularly on the tele. I loathe and abhor and would run a mile to avoid War of the Worlds – I don’t mean HG Wells’ War of the Worlds  but I mean the spaceships, zipping to and fro. ‘Beam me aboard, Scottie.’

Peter had read Lady Chatterley’s Lover ‘even before copies were generally available’ – and he felt that Lawrence ‘…advanced literature in the sense that it was the first time that sort of thoughts had been attributed to the working class’.

He has some early editions of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler,

…which are interesting both as to me as a fisherman – hence the shirt – and also from the historical context, and of course there are strong local connections … Charles Cotton lived [in] Beresford Dale in Derbyshire, and the little fishing temple that he and Izaak Walton used is still there.

Peter has always seemed to find time to read:

I’ve always been – not so much lately – but I was always  an early morning person – I found both at school, and at university, army, everywhere – if you get up early in the morning, particularly light mornings we have in spring and summer, you are not interrupted.

He still reads widely, though mainly history and biographies, and he has hundreds of books,

I try and give them away but the trouble is, as soon as I give some away, that creates a space, and I get some more!

Something we all can relate to!

Peter’s full interview is here.

[i] In fact, All Souls was founded in 1438 by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry VI, who was co-opted by the Archbishop as the College’s co-founder. In the 18th century, the College library received a substantial donation from Christopher Codrington, who did indeed make his money through slavery, and became known as the Codrington Library.

 

 

Barbara Green’s Reading Journey

Barbara was born in 1944, in the Sheffield suburb of Pitsmoor. Her father was a steelworker. Her mum returned to work in the Mappin & Webb warehouse when Barbara was 18 months old and then later worked as a cleaner at Balfours. Although she passed the 11 Plus, Barbara wasn’t able to take up her place at grammar school. She continued her education later, going to university to read Literature at the age of 48. She is married to another of our readers, Jim Green, whose interview is here. They have two children.

Barbara and Jim Green on their wedding day

I think my opinions have been formed by fiction and then pushing me out into real life, not real life coming into the books that I read.

Barbara started her reading journey in her mum’s company. She was the youngest child, born to a mother in her forties, and the only daughter. Inevitably perhaps, mother and daughter spent a lot of time together and this, she thinks, ‘is how I came to be a reader’. Her mum, Kitty, is:

always in my head. Dad didn’t play a big part in my life. It was … I think, I don’t know whether it was just us, I suspect it wasn’t; but mothers ruled, OK. They were the biggest influence.

Barbara and Kitty were a team:

Mum and I would do things in the week – we were like a sort of duo. Dad was either at work or he was in the pub [laughs]. So it was usually me and Mum. … So it would be in the week … sort of either after school or in the school holidays and that was one of our regular visits with the Botanical Gardens and the Museum, and stuff like that.

Books were part of their routine. Both her parents enjoyed reading. Their choices were ‘quite stereotypical really, Dad [reading] men’s books and Mother … romances’. Her dad liked westerns, which his wife used to point out were ‘really just romances on horseback’. Kitty liked ‘Daphne du Maurier, Ruby M Ayres, people like that’ and Catherine Cookson who ‘seemed to speak to Mum about life as she had experienced it’.

Life was a drudge to some extent so [my parents] wanted to be taken out of it, yes. There wasn’t an intellectual view of life in my family. It was whatever gave you pleasure when you’d got time to take that pleasure. … But books were part of it. Very much so, yes.

The family used the public library.

From the local library which for me was Burngreave.  It was something that we did, you’d go and get three or four books out and … I mean I can’t remember the first time I visited the library but it was part of life. My mum used to clean when I was an older child and she would go to work and come back and she’d have a cup of tea and sit at the table and she’d have a chapter of her book as she called it. She did that for the rest of her life. Every morning after breakfast – read a chapter of a book.

Burngreave Library was ‘a couple of roads away’. ‘It was ”Ssh!” as you walked through the door.’ Kitty

had got favourite writers and she‘d look for new editions of their books coming out but if you remember, the libraries were … at that time, they’d be a bit like Waterstones is now … romances, historical novels etc. So you would browse those sections for whatever you were interested in.

Barbara’s reading included:

Enid Blyton, Secret Seven … all of that sort of stuff. Interestingly all about a different class, and I loved those and longed to go to a private school where we could have a midnight party … or whatever … because life was very different for me. … I loved all the girls’ classics … you know … Heidi, Little Women and all of that.

School seemed to have little influence on Barbara:

… the reading, it was much more regimented, more prescribed, and you weren’t discussing books per se; you were more or less reading by rote. Or at least that’s my experience.

It was Barbara’s mum who was responsible for the ‘book that impressed me most,’ The Wide, Wide World by the 19th century religious writer, Susan Warner:

… that was a book Mum had read and passed on to me. A book that she’d cherished from her childhood and she gave to me. And I don’t know what happened to it, the copy, the original copy, and a few years ago it popped into my mind. I don’t know if we’d been talking about it at Book Group and I bought it as an e-book and I read it again and I still loved it. It’s really quite a didactic book … it’s about adversity and being good and how kindness wins out in the end.

As time passed, Barbara naturally developed her own taste in books: literary fiction, classics, new writing and, thanks to her grandson, the occasional graphic novel. She discusses books with her husband and children. She still belongs to the public library and enjoys a book group. Underpinning this lifetime of reading is her mother’s early encouragement:

… I think I was treated more or less as an adult because, as I say … I’d come into a family where, really I was a mistake as my Mum used to call it. [laughs] And I used to think that was awful when I was young but I came to appreciate it. Because there was she, a forty one year old woman, who felt that the kids were getting off her hands and she was going to go back to work and then she’s pregnant again. I remember being on my own from an early age and I think that shaped me. It made me into a solitary person and I found escape in books … and so I think that was part of it.

You can read Barbara’s interview in full, or listen to the transcript, here.

Remembering the Sheffield Blitz

My dad picked me up and carried me around to me aunt’s house because she had a cellar, and we went down the cellar. And as he was carrying me around, I could see all these beautiful lights in the sky. And I said to him, ‘Dad, dad, stop. I want to look at those pretty lights.’ And he said, ‘Another time.’  (Dorothy Norbury, b.1934)

…I can remember standing on my lawn at home in the middle of the night and we knew Sheffield was being bombed… (Dorothy L, b.1931)

The Sheffield Blitz – the worst air-raids over the city during World War Two – happened 77 years ago this week, between Thursday 12th and Sunday 15th December 1940. The city was a target because of its many steelworks. It’s thought that, by the end, over 600 people had been killed, 500 seriously injured and 40,000 made homeless. About 80,000 buildings were damaged, mostly houses but also schools, shops and offices, and thousands were destroyed.

Sheffield Blitz (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blitz_fire.jpg)

Our readers born in the 1920s and 1930s remember the Blitz and the war well.

Mary Robertson (right) in childhood

Working life was disrupted. Mary Robertson’s father was an industrial chemist. He worked at Vickers ‘seven days a week’. ‘The day after the blitz,’ Mary (b.1923) said, ‘he walked all the way to Hillsborough and the place had been bombed. … And his laboratories were all a mass of broken glass.’ Hazel (b.1929) was due to start work in the sewing room at John Walsh’s, the grand department store on the High Street, but it was destroyed. ‘It caught fire from a shop next door and it just went right through the building.’ Florence Cowood (b.1923) had a narrow escape on her way to work.

I remember we used to hitch rides on whatever we could manage, to get to work, or walk to work. I … hitched a ride and he dropped me at Darnall and I walked right along to the back towards the Wicker, to get back to Bridgehouses, where I worked. … And there was no one about at all. And when I got to the end, a policeman stopped me and he said, ‘Where have you come from?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘Well, you know that’s all closed because there’s been an exploded [sic] bomb.’ But it didn’t blow me up.

The war affected people’s leisure time too. Margaret G (b. 1924) remembered almost being caught in a raid.

I was young – very young until I was 19. We weren’t like they are today. I wasn’t allowed to do things. I mean the night of the Blitz I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go. My parents said no and that was it. You see, they said no.

And Florence’s sister was caught.

And after the Blitz, I was at home with my parents, but my sister was in … what was the … the Chantrey picture house. … In Woodseats.  And she couldn’t come home, because of the [bombing] …

Then there was the impact on children’s education. In the early days of the war, many schools were temporarily closed to enable shelters to be incorporated. Instead they  were taught in small groups in private homes. Peter Mason (b.1929) said:

‘… after the Blitz, in 1941, they closed a lot of the schools and you had what they called Home Service and you went to a teacher’s home to learn, and you were given books to read – I suppose more than anything because they didn’t have many facilities there.  It only lasted a couple of months but that was that.’

Alma (b.1928) also recalled home schooling.

Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table. I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.

Several schools were destroyed in the raids. Doreen Gill (b.1934) was living near Attercliffe:

Whenever the Blitz was, 1940-whatever, we were bombed out. ‘Cos I used to go to Phillimore Road School and that had a bomb through it.  So we moved down to Don Road at Brightside and then I went to Newhall School.

Doreen Gill

Ted L (b.1919) had vivid memories of what he calls the ‘great raid’:

Duchess Rd [School]. Just down the bottom here. It got bombed in the war … it was just bombed, flat out of it. I was at home at that time. I was on leave. It was in, was it December, was it 1940? And I came home, was it draft leave? And we had that great raid then and that’s what destroyed it. It was one of these Victorian schools and everything [inside] was made of wood you see. Incendiary bombs got in and it just blew up sort of thing.

Ted L

John D (b.1927) lost more than his school:

… then I went to Attercliffe Council School and that’s where I sat the scholarship it was called in those days, the eleven plus if you like. But that was bombed; it was set on fire on the same raid that you know … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I.

People waited out the raids in shelters and cellars, but unsurprisingly hated the experience. Eva G (b.1925) was living in the suburb of Pitsmoor.

… of course there were a lot of incendiaries dropped around there, you know, they lost a lot of houses, and we were in the cellar. We had one of those [Anderson shelters] in the garden, but when it was raining and wet it was horrible, so we used to go down the cellar!

Not everyone bothered with shelters. Florence said:

We didn’t worry about it. I mean, we used to get sirens going, we had the reinforced cellar and we used to go down in the cellar. And I got so fed up with it. I thought, ‘Blow it.’ So I used to just stop in bed. … I slept through it, me. I could sleep through anything.

Florence on her wedding day

But for Alma and her family in Rotherham, the shelter was a blessing on one of the nights of the Sheffield Blitz:

… we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there. There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air! So we had got an auntie – it was Auntie Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter. It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright. Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and … my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something. So that was exciting.

The Reading Journey of Joan C

Joan was born in 1941 and lived, as a child, in Ecclesall, a western suburb of Sheffield, close to the moors. She used Ecclesall Library (which she calls Weetwood, after the original name of the library building) and in the 1950s she used the library of her grammar school, High Storrs. Her mother, Wynne, also shared her reading memories with Reading Sheffield. Joan now lives in Wetherby.

Joan was read to by her grandfather. She has no memories of her home without his companionship. He had been a miner and then a gardener. He spent hours sitting in the dining room under a grandmother clock they had on the wall, reading to the little girl on his knee.

I remember one book. I can see the front cover: it had a little girl on it. At the end a fairy had three wishes and she had to choose one. One was a purse that always had another penny in it, one was a book that when you got to the end always had another page to read – I can’t remember the third wish. I always chose the book (that never ended).

In 1949, when Jona was a little girl, Weetwood Hall, a large house near her home, became the local municipal library so books were easily available, despite the constraints of buying stock during the war years and post-war austerity. It was there she discovered Enid Blyton.

Joan’s father was also a reader. When she was a child, he was consuming westerns by authors such as Zane Grey but later, in the 1960s and ’70s he read books about the sea – Alexander Kent’s novels.

Joan did not remember finding her set books at grammar school inspiring. While she did not enjoy the works by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare that were on her syllabus, she thoroughly ‘hated’ Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. H G Wells’ The Time Machine was a rare success.

However, nothing put her off reading. She always found a time and a place to read.

Well, I’ve always read in bed, from being 10 up to getting married.  I took seven books on honeymoon! … My husband liked reading and it was hot and we lay on the beach and read.

Like many other of our readers she read Lady Chatterley in the 1960s and found it disappointing: ‘It wasn’t very good.’

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Joan, her sister and her brother all visited their mother in Ecclesall regularly so that her mother received a visit every fortnight. Once Joan’s mother became unable to go out and get her regular supply of Mills and Boon, Joan and her sister became the source of their mother’s reading and gradually their mother’s tastes became closer to theirs. All three particularly enjoyed historical novels. Joan’s mother told her that she had learned more history from the novels her daughters had lent her than she ever did from history lessons at school. However, some authors did not meet Joan’s requirements.

I didn’t like Georgette Heyer, she was too frivolous and I could not get into Catherine Cookson at all. My mother-in-law kept giving me them to try. She said, “you’ll like this one”, but I never did. I read all Anya Seton.  I read Daughters of England – Philippa Carr – there is a series of 20-odd books. I enjoyed learning more about history – royalty.  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles started off writing about the Tudors and one mentioned round here, Wetherby, so that interested me.

Before her mother died, Joan, her sister and her mother formed a reading group of three and Joan still trusts and shares her sister’s tastes, persisting successfully with a novel by David Baldacci that her sister recommended. She knew that if her sister recommended it must have something about it, and it did.

Joan still delights in sharing her tastes. In Wetherby she has a 90 year-old neighbour to whom she lends books. When asked by her interviewer if reading mattered to her, Joan replied, ‘Oh, absolutely!’

 

Here are the notes from Joan’s interview.

Here are the links to her mother Wynne’s interview and reading journey.

 

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

A walk through Park with Jean

Jean Mercer was born in Sheffield in 1925 and has lived in the city all her life. In 1950 she married local boy Malcolm who became a teacher. 

Above Sheffield Station lies an area called Park. Beyond it spreads the Manor Estate, built in the 1930s on the fields surrounding the Queen’s Tower, where the Earl of Shrewsbury guarded Mary Queen of Scots during her period of imprisonment in Sheffield. On the deer park of the castle was built in 1957 the austere Park Hill flats dominating the ridge above Sheffield station and ‘hailed universally in the technical press as a visually as well as socially satisfactory conception’ according to Nicholas Pevsner. As an architectural historian with a taste for modernist brutality, Pevsner admired the Council’s vision of a village in the air, but sadly, as he predicted, Park Hill soon became a slum.

Park Hill and Sheffield Station today

The partly-renovated Park Hill Flats today. Park Library is behind the flats, up the road on the left. (Creative Commons licence)

Jean and Malcolm Mercer have lived in this area all their lives. They grew up in the streets bulldozed to construct Park Hill. Then, after the Second World War they married and moved to the Manor Estate, then a thriving community when the working classes it housed were actually in work. When we interviewed them, they had moved off the estate and were living in a house in one of the Victorian terraces which are a remnant of the old Park district.

Since 1903, all the communities around Park have been served by a glorious complex of buildings which used to house public baths, a laundry, a swimming pool and a library, all heated by the furnace whose red brick chimney still rises against the hill behind it. The library has survived all this time, rather against the odds: in the 1930s it was almost closed because of its proximity to the splendid new Central Library; and now it is run, not by the Council, but by community volunteers.

Park Library now

Park Library then

Jean Mercer has been a member of Park Library since she was two years old. She remembers the delights on offer when she visited the library with her class from school.

When I was a girl they had story-time. We used to go from school. There was Miss Heywood. She was absolutely wonderful at telling stories. She would sit on the counter and tell these stories, and especially about Epanimondas. He was a little black boy and he was lovely. He never did anything right but Epanimondas was lovely. [Miss Heywood] she was wonderful at telling stories and I can still remember, I can see her sitting on the counter now, yes, it was lovely.

Though Jean passed the scholarship exam she was not able to take up a grammar school place. But there is no trace of bitterness or any sense of loss in the way she describes her secondary school education.

At Standhouse School and Prince Edward as well, I can remember the teachers now, and it was really a very good education – very good and reading was part of it and composition, it was composition then. If you could write a composition, it was absolutely wonderful and you were encouraged to and poetry was part of it.

Like many pupils from elementary schools, Jean treasures the poetry she learned by heart. Elementary schools seemed to set much more value on reading and reciting poetry than grammar schools. Elocution lessons were also part of Jean’s school experience.

Jean can’t remember a school library. Instead the children were marched down to Park Library and encouraged to use it regularly.

Park Library – all that it is left of the spiral stairs which used to lead to the first floor children’s library

Her parents also encouraged her reading. They were chapel-goers. Jean’s father’s health had been damaged in the First World War so he was found a job in the fruit market by his uncle. Though this was a physically Iess strenuous than a job in a steel mill, it did mean a very early start. So he would get home from work early and spend the early evening reading. She can remember him reading westerns by Zane Grey and then The Man in the Iron Mask.

As for her mother,

she did more crocheting but she loved to write. She loved recipes. I’ve got some of her books that she wrote recipes and poems in, didn’t she? She was always doing something like that, but Father loved reading.

The passion for reading that Jean shared with her parents prepared her for a life-time of supporting Malcolm while he wrote books of his own. Jean would field the phone calls and the children while Malcolm prepared his lessons, researched and wrote his histories of Sheffield schools. Like her mother, Jean took delight in the margins, always finding time to explore new novels and read to her own children.

Jean never bought the novels she read because Park Library was so handy.

And if there wasn’t a book if you wanted one, they soon found it for you. Well they are now, aren’t they? If you ask they’re still very helpful.

 

Poetry at Off the Shelf: White Ink Stains

Eleanor Brown

Eleanor Brown

On 19 October 2016 we welcomed over 60 friends and poetry-lovers to the launch of the most surprising outcome of Reading Sheffield – a series of stunning poems, inspired by Sheffield readers, from Eleanor Brown, the award-winning Bloodaxe poet.  We thank the Off the Shelf Festival for their generous sponsorship and Sheffield Libraries for their hospitality.

eb-ots-crowd-oct-2016

Eleanor’s poems are a unique and highly persuasive way of honouring Sheffield readers’ experiences.  We are delighted that they are to be published by Bloodaxe in 2018.

Here is one of the poems Eleanor read for us, inspired by reader Jocelyn Wilson’s story. You can read more of Eleanor’s poems here and Jocelyn’s story here.

Honeymoon

 

Married in 1948. I had

the most exquisite nightdress, sort of like

a Greek goddess, and dressing gown to match.

They were the loveliest things I’d ever owned.

During the weeks before the wedding I’d

unwrap them from their tissue paper, hold

them up against myself and slowly sway

a sideways figure-of-eight. Didn’t have

a full length looking glass and didn’t dare

steal to my parents’ room to look in theirs.

 

We went away on honeymoon, the boat

to France and then by train to Switzerland.

I hadn’t brought enough to read. A kind

lady lent me a silly magazine:

the actress Lana Turner, 28,

was married for the fourth time, her trousseau

reported to have cost ten thousand pounds.

I gazed out of the window doing sums,

how many pairs of stockings must she have?

how many nightdresses and dressing gowns?

 

My husband hadn’t long been back from war

and – sort of totally exhausted – so

he slept a lot, in the warm weather. Well,

and I was very bored. But luckily,

luckily in this little Swiss hotel

there were a few English books. I was so

pleased to have them. I’d have read anything

(always somebody worse off than you

in a Thomas Hardy). Nobody says,

pack enough books to last the honeymoon.

 

In memory of Jocelyn Wilson 1926-2015

Jocelyn Wilson

Jocelyn Wilson

Hybrid memories: Dorothy H’s reading journey

By Val Hewson and Mary Grover

Dorothy was born on 26 January 1929 and, one of a family of eight, grew up in Malin Bridge in the north of Sheffield.  She married Fred in 1953, having met him at the regular Thursday night dance at the City Hall.  They had no children because, she says, she ‘had had enough looking after her younger siblings’.  Dorothy studied book-keeping and typing and spent 40 years working in a small business, where she ‘did everything, did [her] own filing, quotations, invoices, statements’.    

Dorothy’s reading memories are bound up with film and television.  This is hardly surprising, as she belongs to the first generation to grow up and live all their lives with film, radio and television.  Talkies started in 1927, two years before she was born.  The BBC began broadcasting in 1922 and experimented with television in 1929, the year of her birth. In the 1920s and ‘30s, cinemas – some of them glorious Art Deco picture palaces – were being built around the country, and in the 1930s radio ownership grew quickly.  During World War II radio and film became even more popular, with people relying on them for both news and entertainment.  The television service came into its own with the coronation of The Queen in 1953, the year Dorothy married, and it has been with us ever since.

Gaumont State Cinema Kilburn: an Art Deco picture place (Photographed by Nathan, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Gaumont State Cinema Kilburn: an Art Deco picture place (Photographed by Nathan, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic, is a good example of Dorothy’s ‘hybrid memories’.  She still has the copy bought for her 21st birthday by the sister of a boyfriend, but remembers enjoying the movie, and comparing it with the book:

Oh yes, I read it and of course when you see the film there is a lot cut out for the action, isn’t there? … until you sort of saw the adaptation into the film you don’t get the same feeling about it when you’ve read the book.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh are Rhett and Scarlett in Dorothy’s mind, as they are for so many people of her generation. (She does, however, think that Elizabeth Taylor would have done a better job as Scarlett.)

Gone with the Wind

Rhett and Scarlett (public domain)

Change genre from epic historical romance to crime fiction, and Dorothy again associates actors and characters, book and adaptation.  David Suchet is Poirot, Humphrey Bogart is Philip Marlowe and Jeremy Brett is Sherlock Holmes.

Filimg Poirot, London, 2009. (By hairyeggg. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Filming Poirot, London, 2009. (By hairyeggg. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

Then there is comedy.  Dorothy enjoys P G Wodehouse’s stories about Blandings and its porcine Empress, but is unimpressed by a recent television adaptation:

The television thing that was on not long ago, I couldn’t really put it to the actual stories that I had read. … No, I don’t think it was as good enough [sic].  I think they sort of set it a bit more modern than it actually was. … And you never heard about the pig!

Dorothy’s hybrid memories make us consider the relationship between screen and page.  The two media feed on each other, promoting the film of the book and the book of the film. In the 1930s, for example, the celebrity of the author could boost the popularity of a film as much as the allure of a Clark Gable could help make Rhett Butler a romantic icon. Between 1925 and 1939 over fifty of Edgar Wallace’s stories were filmed, but it is the author we remember, not the films.

Caricature of Edgar Wallace by Low

Caricature of Edgar Wallace by Low (public domain)

Dorothy appreciates the ‘double experience’ of film and book.  She has always been happy to engage with both page and screen, influenced by both in her choice of reading and viewing; and using her own imagination but also drawing on other people’s.

In Miss Foyle’s Opinion

How did Reading Sheffield readers choose books?  Was it largely by chance? (City Librarian J P Lamb once said that people generally just wanted ‘a book, preferably an attractive one’.)  Or by favourite author?  The next book in a series?  Influenced by a film? (Gone with the Wind was often mentioned.)  Or a recommendation by someone in the book trade?  We have no definitive answer.  Our readers were probably swayed, at different times, by all of the above.

Christina Foyle, by Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 7 December 1936 (NPG)

Christina Foyle, by Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 7 December 1936 (NPG)

But here, for what they are worth, are the views of a literary insider – Christina Foyle of Foyle’s Bookshop.  She was speaking, with characteristic firmness, in Belfast in 1950, right in the middle of the Reading Sheffield period, and her remarks were reported in a local paper.

Publishers’ rejects that became best-sellers (Northern Whig – Friday 21 April 1950)

What makes publisher after publisher reject a book which later becomes a best-seller?

This was one of the questions posed yesterday by Miss Christina Foyle when she addressed the Belfast Alpha Club on “Writers of To-day and Yesterday.”

Some of the people whose books were turned down by publishers were Bernard Shaw, Jeffrey Farnol, Richard Llewellyn – Foyle’s were among the publishers who rejected his “How Green Was My Valley” because they did not think that readers liked dialect – Baroness Orczy  – every publisher in London turned down “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” though it has now been translated into every language – and Edgar Wallace.  Edgar Wallace had at first to publish his own books and find his own travellers to sell them.

Another book which was very nearly not published was “Little Women.”  The publisher kept the manuscript in his home; he thought very little of it and intended returning it.  Then one day he found his small niece sitting up reading the manuscript; he told her it was late and she must go to bed, but the child pleaded with him saying she simply must finish the story.  So the publisher had second thoughts!

Books which had surprised the book trade by their popularity were Louis Golding’s “Magnolia Sweet”, “Fanny by Gaslight” and “The Egg and I”.

Although Miss Foyle is a young woman, she does not think present-day writers are as good as their forbears.  Some who had been most promising and had written brilliantly, had turned to religion or politics, and thought that might have been a good thing for religion or politics it was not good for literature.

“Dorothy Sayers used to bring out wonderful detective stories, but is now more interested in religion; A. P. Herbert has turned from novel writing to politics; and Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley and Ethel Mannin have got themselves involved in mysticism,” she stated, and added:

“There is no writer today who can compare in wit to Philip Guedella or Humbert Wolfe.  Peter Cheyney is the most popular thriller writer, but I don’t think he can compare to Edgar Wallace or Conan Doyle.”

Modern poets, Miss Foyle thinks, have committed suicide.  They are difficult to read, and if the public reads poetry at all, it is the poetry of Wordsworth or Tennyson.

“The most popular cookery book is still Mrs Beeton,” she said.

Miss Foyle considers that income tax has had a terrible effect on writers.  An author might take four years to write a book but is taxed as though he spent only one year on it.  The sales of Trevelyan’s “Social History” amounted to £15,000 but he received only £3,000.

Yet Miss Foyle feels that the present is a good time for writers , and she told the meeting that there is a great demand for books in every field and: “If you can write yourself or you know anyone who can write you should tell them of the opportunities.”

By any reckoning, Christina Foyle was a Personality.  Born in 1911, she started in the family bookshop on Charing Cross Road when she was 17, and took it over in the 1960s.  The way she operated was notoriously odd (shelving books, for example, by publisher) but Miss Foyle did know everyone who mattered.  The literary lunches she started in 1930 alone ensured that.

For the record, many of the writers mentioned by Christina Foyle were quoted by Reading Sheffield readers.  So how much influence did someone like her have on readers?