Irene H’s Reading Journey

Irene was born in Grimesthorpe, Sheffield in 1921; she grew up there and later lived in Birley Edge. After school she worked in an office at Firth Brown’s steelworks and in 1943 married a draughtsman who also worked there. She and her husband left the company and set up a nursery business in Barnsley.

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene grew up in a home where reading wasn’t regarded as important,

I could read quite early. I was never stopped from reading but my mother didn’t read and my father read a paper and that was it……I sometimes got shouted at because I should have been doing something else.

Occasionally her mother would read a Playbox comic to her on a Saturday morning but otherwise her earliest memory of being read to dates from when she first went to school at the age of five and the teacher read ‘How the Elephant got his Trunk’ from Kipling’s Just So Stories to the class.

Irene read widely; early reading matter included Pip and Squeak annuals sent to her by an old friend of her mother’s and Schoolgirls’ Own annuals. hailstone-flyleaf-signed-

She got books from quite a range of sources. At about ten or eleven she benefited from this special offer,

A man came to the door getting you to buy the Daily Herald…..my father signed up and so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

She occasionally bought sixpenny novelettes from the newsagent at the bottom of their street. She was given books by aunts and by her paternal grandmother; when older she would sometimes ask for a specific book as a birthday or Christmas present.irene-hailstone-fondest-love-

She used Firth Park Library and later on the Central Library. As well as the municipal libraries, she sometimes used the Red Circle Library on Snig Hill.

From secondary school (Southey Green) she remembers reading Kidnapped and The Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson and also potted biographies of famous people.

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene’s parents had an account with Weston’s, a wholesale stationers in Change Alley; this meant that sometimes she could get books at a discount. She also read magazines and bought Woman almost from the start.

During the 40s she belonged to a national book club and recalls getting novels by Howard Spring and Anya Seton from there.She also bought books from bookshops such as Smith’s and bookstalls, both new and secondhand. She used the bookstalls in the Norfolk Market Hall on Haymarket and, later on when working in Barnsley, in Barnsley market. Her husband used to buy westerns from a market stall: if you took them back, you got money off the next one. Irene didn’t like westerns particularly but would sometimes read one,

Well, it was just something to read. If there was nothing to read, I would read anything.

The mark of a true reader. The war and marriage reduced her time for reading, ‘I was working and running a house but I still always found a bit of time.’

Irene doesn’t remember other people recommending books nor did she tend to read novels because people were talking about them or because they might be improving in some way. She has a special fondness for historical fiction and biographies of historical characters; she likes them to have proper research behind them. She mentions Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Baroness Orczy. She sometimes read crime fiction and liked Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers, though found Agatha Christie ‘a bit obvious’. She read romantic fiction too, such as Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Among later writers, she read Catherine Cookson: ‘Somebody always has to be illegitimate’.

Irene couldn’t identify any way in which reading had changed her life but she was always a reader: ‘No real encouragement, I just enjoyed it’. She still reads, getting her books now from Hillsborough Library, Waterstones and sometimes Amazon.

Ladybird, Ladybird (Sheffield Central Library, 2015)

It may be slightly beyond our Reading Sheffield remit, but I cannot resist blogging about the Ladybird, Ladybird exhibit recently on show at the Central Library during Off the Shelf, Sheffield’s annual literary festival.  The work is by artist Andrew Malone.  As a whole, the exhibit has the look to me of a delicate 1950s fabric, suggesting the work of Mondrian.   Closer up, you see the way Andrew Malone has cut into the pages to make the drawings of animals, planes, trees etc pop up and out.  This is inspired, although I also find the idea of cutting into books disturbing.

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None of our Reading Sheffield interviewees mention Ladybird books but I’m confident that most would remember them, either from their own schooldays or their children’s.  For so many people, Ladybirds were the first books they learned to read, practising their skills on the beautifully designed and carefully scripted pocket-sized books.  Whole generations of children across the world were brought up with them – the books have been translated into over 60 languages.  Even now, as I look at them, I feel a sense of security, even serenity, reminding me of my own schooldays in the mid-60s.  But of course I also recognise now that some of them portrayed an idealised, middle-class world where Mummy always did the housework, Daddy went out to work and everyone seemed to be white.

According to the Ladybird Books website, the first Ladybird books appeared in 1914, marketed as ‘pure and healthy literature’ for children and published by the printing firm of Wills and Hepworth.  Henry Wills had started with a bookshop in Loughborough in 1867.  He was joined in 1904 by William Hepworth and the company focused on printing guidebooks and catalogues.  Their Ladybird range was developed by editorial director Douglas Keen to include the Key Words Reading Scheme (better known as the hugely popular Peter and Jane stories) and the Nature, How It Works, Learnabout and What to Look For series seen in Andrew Malone’s art.  The company policy was to commission experts to write the text and quality artists to illustrate them.

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The Guardian’s 2008 obituary for Douglas Keen described the creative development process:

In 1948, using the kitchen table as his desk, Keen devised the first factual Ladybird. He made a mock-up of a book of British birds, with watercolours by his mother-in-law, drawings by his wife and text by himself, and took it to his boss, Jim Clegg. The resulting Nature books were to be the longest-running of the Ladybird series. Clegg and Keen now steered the company towards the educational publishing for which Ladybird was to become world-renowned.

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For a whole generation the price of a Ladybird book was maintained at 2/6 – 12.5p now, half a crown then, which meant that you could buy eight for £1.  This low price resulted from the production process which used a single (large) sheet of paper for each book.

Wills and Hepworth was taken over by Pearson in the 1970s and then merged into Penguin Books in 1998.  The long-established Loughborough printing works was closed down around this time (I used to travel through the town by train and remember a big sign at the station welcoming people to the ‘home of Ladybird Books’).  Ladybird has continued to thrive, with new titles and series, including e-books and apps.

Ladybird’s new directions include their first books for adults, which started appearing in 2015.  The tongue-in-cheek titles include: Mindfulness, The Shed, Dating and The Hangover, and the books have the traditional look.  I admit to mixed feelings about this development.  On the one hand, it’s quite a good joke, but on the other, I think it’s rather a pity to trespass on my childhood memories.  I suppose the fact that Ladybird can think of doing such a thing speaks to the strength of the brand.

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Betty’s Reading Journey

Betty’s reading journey begins with the savour of the words Aesop’s Fables on her tongue and the beauty of its pictures as her mother read to her from the book.  There were singing and nursery rhymes too, and the gorgeous colours of the pictures in an illustrated Stories from the Bible, and the remembered motion of being lifted onto her mother’s knee.

Betty’s experience of her early reading seems a sensory delight which flooded her play and her early education – she took her baby sister from her pram and put her in her garden irises in imitation of Moses, and practised beautiful curls on her letters, helped by her older cousin.

At her first school her teacher read from a lectern to the class at the end of lessons, and in this way Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island (who frightened her) entered her life.  Her mother supplemented the school stories with Mowgli and more Anne of Green Gables, her childhood favourite.

Born in 1925, Betty says there wasn’t much money for books in her house, although ‘we used to always get a book at Christmas’.

… we didn’t have a lot of choice. We wanted books. ‘There is a new book for you.’  You’d always want it.

As a teenager at school she read Dickens, who she didn’t like, but loved Wuthering Heights, a story so vivid for her that she relived it on a family walk on the moors.

And I can remember … we went on the moors, my Paula and Cecily, mum and dad and myself and … there was a stone where you sat and I said, ‘I’m going to walk up further up, keep turning and when you can’t see me, turn round and come back.’ I went running up, and I crouched behind something, I don’t know what it was, and I was calling to Heathcliff, I was calling ‘Heathcliff, Cathy’, and two people were walking past as I was calling, and ran down past my mother and father and they said, ‘There’s voices up there! We’re so frightened.’ And my father said, ‘No, I think I know who is making the noises,’ and my father came up and I was crouched down and he said, ‘Betty!’ He grabbed me like this.

Betty remembers the 12 volumes of encyclopaedias the family owned, their purchase financed by a friend of the family.

All sorts of information you could find, and I can remember everybody from the village used to be coming up, ‘Can we look in your encyclopaedias?’

With the coming of the Second World War – ‘you couldn’t really buy books in the wartime’ – the Paper Salvage scheme took some of Betty’s store of books for paper recycling.

A lot of these things you had to give to the war effort, and they wanted paper.  Paper was in great demand. I can remember mum and dad … thinking which books should go. They said, ‘That is for Betty, Paula and Cecily to decide. If they want them they won’t go, they should decide, but we’ll tell them it’s needed for the country.’

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And when she started her training at the Royal Hospital the nursing books she bought were ‘very small and on roughish paper’.  These were supplemented by books borrowed from the patients’ library, organised by Toc H, a Christian charitable organisation.  From the Toc H trolley she picked The Snow Goose, now her favourite book which she has read many times.  She also borrowed from wealthier nurses who ‘could afford to buy books and share’.  When her training finished and she finally got a salary, she bought The History of the English Speaking Peoples – ‘you got one book at a time. I got one book as a present … you went to the shop and bought each one.’

During her career Betty came to read books she had ‘never read at home – Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Dylan Thomas.  In the hospital where Betty nursed for the greater part of her working life – the Royal Hospital Annexe, a specialist burns and plastic surgery unit – she remembers reading Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy, which recounts his experiences as a Spitfire pilot who suffered terrible burns in 1940 and endured months of plastic surgery.  ‘The medical staff would discuss things and what they read in the paper that was interesting. They included you and they had their books and they’d let you borrow if you wanted.’  She also read Anna Karenina and War and Peace – ‘That took a lot of time, you read little things‘ – Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in brown paper covers), Daughter of Time, books on Field Marshal Montgomery and Mary Queen of Scots.

Later, in her retirement, Betty has continued with her reading in another lively community of older friends, and latterly, as an avid reader from the city’s mobile library:

I don’t pick, I let them decide and they get me some good books. One about Marco Polo, I couldn’t put it down!

She is still as enthusiastic and engaged a reader as ever.

by Loveday Herridge

Access Betty’s transcript and audio here.