White Ink Stains: a reading by Eleanor Brown

Wednesday 19 October at 6.30pm, Sheffield Central Library

Reading Sheffield is pleased to announce

White Ink Stains

A reading by Eleanor Brown


Eleanor is an award-winning poet (Maiden Speech, Bloodaxe Books) and adapter (Franziska, ad. Wedekind, Oberon Books).

Eleanor has written a number of poems based on the Reading Sheffield interviews. She will be reading from her poems (some of which you can see here) during Sheffield’s 2016 Off the Shelf Festival, on 19 October at 6.30pm in the Carpenter Room at the Central Library, Surrey St, Sheffield S1 1XZ.  The event is free, with support from the Humanities Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University.

Booking: mkg0401@aol.com


Betty MacDonald: A Rare Talent

Frances: … You told me about reading aloud in the house.  Was it my father or your father?

Mary: Oh yes, it was your father.  When I was expecting Jonathan I think, we still lived here, after I was married… after my father died we lived here, he used to read to us in the evening, I remember it was The Egg and I, I don’t know whether you know that book.  I can’t remember who wrote it…

Frances: Betty MacDonald… Betty MacDonald.

Mary: Oh yes, that’s right… we were busy knitting and he was reading to us.  I don’t know whether men still do that…

Mary is the only one of our readers to mention The Egg and I, written by the mid-20th century American humorist Betty MacDonald.  The image of her husband reading aloud from the book has stayed in her memory for around 60 years.  This pleases us because we are among Betty’s fans.  (Her fame has faded, but there are still many of us around.)

The Egg and I, a fictionalised account of Betty’s years on a chicken farm, was a sensation on publication in the USA in 1945 and was adapted into a popular film,  It made its author rich and famous.  ‘A good laugh is to be welcomed always: never more so than at the present, when much gloom and ill-humour stalk abroad’, said the Illustrated London News. Even if Betty’s name is less familiar, the book is still known.  It has apparently never been out of print in America, and the title and the names of two characters, Ma and Pa Kettle, have entered the language.

Cover illustration: The Plague and I

Cover illustration: The Plague and I

In the Reading Sheffield team, we like Egg but we prefer Betty’s second book, The Plague and I (1948).  It doesn’t sound very promising: her year spent recovering from tuberculosis in a strict sanatorium, with few family visits allowed and the threat of death hanging over her.  In fact, Plague is vintage Betty MacDonald, displaying her considerable gifts for observation and characterisation and her wonderfully sharp wit.  Here is the Charge Nurse dealing with a rebellious new patient

She noticed a bare shoulder.  Then turning back the covers, as though she were looking for maggots in a sack of flour, she revealed the rest of the bare and satin-clad Miss Kelly,  Her nostrils swelled almost to bursting point. She said to Granite Eyes [another nurse], ‘Miss Murdock … get a pair of outing flannel pyjamas.’ She turned to Miss Kelly … ‘why have you come here wearing silk (she breathed out heavily as she said this loathsome word so that it came out ‘suh-hilk’) pyjamas and nail polish?’

But (and this is important) Betty does not gloss over the treatments (or lack of them – streptomycin had not then been developed), the apparent harshness of the regime or the deaths of fellow patients.

Kate … explained that she had empyema, an infection of the pleural cavity, and added casually that she was dying.

Betty’s short and sometimes difficult life does not immediately suggest much opportunity for humour (although she might have said she had it no worse than anyone else).  She was born in 1907 or 1908 and died of cancer at the early age of 50.  Her father died when she was a child, and she and her siblings were brought up in Seattle by a loving but unconventional mother.  When she was 20, she married an ex-marine, Bob Heskett, and they started a chicken farm in a remote and poor part of the country (hence The Egg and I).  The work was physically exhausting and there was little intellectual stimulation.  After a few years, the marriage failed and Betty returned, with two small daughters but no means of support, to her mother’s home.  The family struggled financially in the Great Depression and Betty had various poorly-paid and unsatisfactory jobs.  The late 1930s brought tuberculosis and the sanatorium.  In 1942, she married her second husband, Donald MacDonald, and lived with him until her death.

Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray starring in The Egg and I

Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray starring in The Egg and I

Betty wrote all her books* during this second, happier marriage.  The Egg and I appeared first in 1945 and sold a million copies in a year.  The Hollywood film, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, was a hit in 1947, with the hillbilly characters, Ma and Pa Kettle, proving particularly popular.  (The film led to Betty’s being sued for libel by former neighbours who claimed they had been ridiculed.)  Egg was followed by: The Plague and I in 1948; Anybody Can Do Anything (1950) chronicling family life in the Depression; and Onions in the Stew (1955) about life with her second husband and family.

Betty MacDonald is under-rated as humorists often are.  She seems to have operated on the basis of writing about what she knew and remembering that everything is copy. Why is she a good writer?  Without flinching, she grounds the humour she finds in unlikely or unpleasant situations in the reality of those situations.  And her use of language is very precise, yet she pulls off the trick of sounding like someone chatting to you on the bus.  (This is perhaps why our interviewee Mary’s husband could successfully read her aloud.)  Taken together, her books are a chronicle of her times, but also a re-imagining of those times, where the humour is used to deflect the pain and stress she knew.

We wish Betty MacDonald were better known today.


(There is brief footage of Betty MacDonald on YouTube and information about her here.  And for all we said above about Betty not being well-known now, two books about her are appearing in 2016: Betty, The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of The Egg and I, by Anne Wellman; and Looking for Betty MacDonald, by Paula Becker-Brown.)

* In addition to the list above, Betty MacDonald also wrote children’s books, including the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle series.

“The Fifth Floor to Heaven” (28 December 1939)

In the 1930s, Sheffield’s libraries were being reformed and developed, and the numbers of borrowers and books issued were both rising.  One strategy to promote the library service seems to have been to seek coverage in local newspapers.  Here is an example of this – an odd little anecdote in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 28 December 1939.  Odd because it seems incomplete without the name of the teacher or details of the books she wanted and why these were unobtainable locally (there were established library services in Manitoba at the time).  Today, when the story might at most have merited a tweet, we would have had a photo and a quote from her, but no doubt transatlantic communications three months into the Second World War were restricted.  At this remove, we will likely never know who she was or whether she ever returned to Sheffield.  At all events, the fact of this slight story appearing in the paper suggests the good links between the library and local media.

“The Fifth Floor to Heaven”

City Library Praised

Sheffield has just had a remarkable tribute to the efficiency of its library service.

A Sheffield girl who is teaching in a small town in Manitoba, Canada, required books of reference for a lecture she was preparing.

Being unable to get the books in the district and not knowing of any place near at hand where she could get them, she wrote to the Sheffield City Librarian (Mr J P Lamb) asking him to send books and offered to pay postage both ways.

In her letter she described the Sheffield Library as “the fifth floor to heaven”.

As it is scarcely possible to send books from Sheffield to Canada in this way, Mr Lamb has referred the request to the Chief Librarian of Toronto, suggesting that some regional library organisation in Canada might be able to supply the demand.

James Green’s reading journey

James was born on 27 April 1936 in Darnall, Sheffield. He is married to Barbara, whose interview is here.

As a boy, James enjoyed stories, excited and caught up in the adventure. As an adult, he looks back at the boy, half amused, half amazed, with the man’s knowledge and experience.james-green-3

James’ parents were readers, borrowing their books from a library, and he remembers:

… going with my mum and dad to the local library, and coming back with picture books, and they’d come back obviously with adult books. And even though I couldn’t really read at that stage, we used to sit on a Saturday night in particular when my dad was at home, they’d be reading books and I’d be pretending to be reading.

James thinks he ‘graduated in two to three years from sitting on a settee pretending to read with my mum and dad to actually reading’. When he was about seven years old, he got a book for Christmas. It was an omnibus of abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe, Little Women, Gulliver’s Travels and a couple of others.

… it was my own book, probably the first book I’d really owned, you could go through it and you could go through it again, and so it was with me for quite a long time.  And at that stage, I probably wasn’t all that good at reading, so it’d take me a long time, and it was quite a hefty book.

James is conscious that his younger self missed a lot. Robinson Crusoe can be seen, for example, as the march either of civilisation or of cultural imperialism but, James says, ‘… to a kid at seven on a desert island [it] is an adventure book, isn’t it really?’

James enjoyed popular adventure novels. He was a ‘big fan’ of Sherlock Holmes and ‘used to love’ Biggles, the intrepid air ace created by Captain W E Johns. He ‘read an article years and years later that he was actually a fascist, so…’. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Biggles books were often condemned by teachers and librarians.* But this was all beyond the James of the 1940s:

No no, it were just an adventure. Algie and Biggles and Ginger, very gung ho I suppose. Patriotic. Really patriotic weren’t he?

It was much the same with another popular hero of the period, Bulldog Drummond.


I read Bulldog Drummond … who were again a bit of a fascist, I found out later. In fact I only read the other day, it said Bulldog Drummond – it were talking about Sapper – it were a pseudonym for I can’t remember the name – he were a lieutenant colonel retired. So you can guess how he wrote. It was ‘Bulldog Drummond was six foot six (or something) in his stockinged feet, excellent shot … Extremely fit, a really good boxer, and as dim as a Toc-H lamp’ … Someone taking the mickey out of that type of writing, but when you were a kid, you just read it, don’t you, you know.

James wouldn’t read this type of book now, he thinks.

I’ve more insight – and not just because it’s a boy’s… It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there. … Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it.

Orwell, whom he first read when he was about 15 or 16, helped form James’ adult beliefs and attitudes.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Well – I think – I don’t know when it started, or when I were aware of it, but you started getting writers who condemned that outlook. George Orwell for instance. Very critical of a lot of what we were doing and what we did and critical of this country as a whole.

… through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very gung ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. ‘God is an Englishman.’

… But Orwell, Road to Wigan Pier – really opened my eyes, you know. Because living as we did, we were living as he were describing, the conditions he was born into. And the first dawnings in my mind were this ain’t right. We shouldn’t be living like this, and we’ve no need to live like this.

You can find James’ story in full here.

* There have been more recent calls for Biggles’ rehabilitation.