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.


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.



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

Plus ça change: the British and foreign languages

In 2013 a survey for the British Council found that three out of four adults in the UK could not have a conversation in Spanish, French or other foreign language.  There were calls for more language teaching in schools and colleges. Our inability to speak other languages and our apparent reluctance to try have serious economic and cultural consequences, said the British Council.  Businesses miss trading opportunities, and we all miss chances to experience other cultures.


Plus ça change, you might (be unable to) say.  The findings of the 2013 research are, sadly, not new: there have been many such reports over the years.  Back in 1929, in their regular Books and Readers bulletin, Sheffield Libraries discussed a report of the time.

Education for Salesmanship. The charge has often been made that the British manufacturer is steadily losing his grip on foreign markets, and we wish to draw attention here to “The Interim Report of the Committee on Education for Salesmanship – British Marketing Overseas,” which has just been added to the Commercial and Technical Department. … It has been formulated by a Committee of some thirty leading business authorities and its suggestions are worthy of deep consideration.

Deficient Knowledge of Foreign Languages. This was a subject of very special inquiry by the Committee, and they report that “we agree with one witness in thinking that in view of the increasing severity of foreign competition, alike as regards trading and technical skill, the acquisition of foreign languages has long passed the luxury or drawing room stage, and their study will determine to some extent the future measure of British overseas trade prosperity.”

The report goes on to stress the importance of having catalogues and prices compiled for foreign markets in the language of the country to be traded with and in terms of the weights and measures in local use.  … Yet a large number of British Firms attempting to do, or actually doing business … display a strange insistence on writing to their customers in English.”

The final summing up of the Report, as follows, is particularly challenging. “If we were asked what our evidence shows to be, broadly speaking, the outstanding weakness in British marketing overseas, we should answer:- A detached and insular attitude and unscientific practice – relics of the time, long past, when we enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the world’s markets for manufactured goods.”

The article in Books and Readers goes on to ‘draw the attention of the people of Sheffield to [the library’s] comprehensive selection of books on modern marketing methods, salesmanship, advertising, etc…’

Help available for learning languages is also described.

Language Talks, at Hillsborough and Walkley Branches.  As regards the need for better language training may we also point out that all the City Libraries stock good books on the major languages, especially from the commercial angle, and in the Central Lending Library there are in addition continually growing collections of reading matter in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Learning the written languages, however, is only half the battle and the need for actual training in the spoken language needs to be met.  There are two active mechanical agencies in this work: the gramophone and the wireless.

A early Philips wireless from 1931. Were the Sheffield Libraries' models something like this? (Creative Commons licence)

A early Philips wireless from 1931. Were the Sheffield Libraries’ models something like this? (Creative Commons licence)

The Library does not yet stock gramophone records, but it is making an attempt by means of wireless to help students to attain a knowledge of French, German and Spanish as spoken and written to-day.  The Walkley and Hillsborough Libraries have special rooms set aside for Wireless Discussion purpose*, and these rooms are available to language students on the evenings when language talks are broadcast.  The set is a three-valve Philip’s [sic] All-Mains, and the tone of the loud-speaker is particularly good.  For the information of students we give the [BBC] programme for the next three months:

Walkley Mondays (2LO#) 7.25-7.45 p.m.
French by M.E.M. Stéphan Jan. 27th; Feb. 10th; 24th; March 10th; 24th; April 7th.
Spanish by Dr. A. R. Pastor Jan. 20th; Feb. 3rd; 17th; March 3rd; 17th; 31st.
Hillsborough Wednesdays (5GB#) 8.0 – 8.30 p.m.
German Language Talks by Mr. O. Siepmann. Weekly, January 22nd to April 9th


* Wireless Discussion Groups were a BBC initiative of the 1920s and 1930s.  Libraries welcomed groups of people to listen to one or more set programmes and to discuss them afterwards.

# 2LO was a BBC London station in the 1920s.  5GB, based at Daventry, became the BBC’s National Programme from the late 1920s.

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.

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Sorby: ‘Gosh…where to start?’

Barbara Sorby worked in Sheffield Libraries for about 40 years, starting and finishing her career at the Manor Library in the east of the city.  Manor also happened to be the library she belonged to as a child and growing up.  It opened in 1953 (it was supposed to be 1938 but World War II and its aftermath got in the way).  It was the country’s first modular library: that is, the interior walls were kept to a minimum to allow maximum flexibility in use.  More than sixty years later, Manor Library shows its age a little but remains a harmony of light and space.

The Manor Library today

Manor Library today

‘Gosh …where to start?’ she says.  With a scent…

My enduring memory of Manor is of my first day there, which was actually my very first working day.  I had used Manor since the age of 8, and year on year the foyer was filled with beautiful flowers and plantings from the Parks Dept.  On my first day in January 1963 the foyer was full of hyacinths, and the smell of them is so evocative, every year I return to Manor in thoughts as I smell those flowers, wherever I am.

But Barbara might have taken against Sheffield Libraries forever…

At the age of eight, I and three friends from Charnock Hall School went to join the library, following a ‘marketing’ visit to the school by the then children’s librarian.  Unfortunately she had omitted to tell us that, if we were from ‘over the Derbyshire border’ (which then split Gleadless Townend in two at Ridgeway Road), we would have to pay to be members.  At five shillings per person [about £6 today] we were appalled…one small boy declaring that we had come to borrow books, not to buy the blooming library!!

Manor Library in the 1950s, when Barbara would have first known it

Here and below, Manor Library in the 1950s, when Barbara would have first known it


And it might have all ended in disaster…

I once had my hair set alight by a firework thrown into the children’s library.  And I was impressed to find that the perpetrator had been chased by another member of staff and brought down on the Ridgeway Road zebra crossing with a zealous rugby tackle.

The days were full…

The library used to be frantically busy, with borrowers stalking staff who would be shelving huge piles of books…and trying to grab the Catherine Cooksons and Zane Greys.  And it wasn’t always the men wanting the cowboy stories or the women wanting the romance!

I worked there for five very happy years…with the National Fiction Reserve Scheme as part of my job, acquiring every ‘fic’ title published in the UK by authors whose surnames began N-S.

These and many more books were stored in the Manor basement, and we had great fun switching out the lights on colleagues working down there and setting the stacks rolling!

A day Barbara could not forget…

I remember being on the counter when a shocked borrower came in to tell us that President Kennedy had been shot.  They say you always remember where you were at that time.

Four decades later…

I finished my career at Manor too…four decades later!  I was Area Librarian for South East Sheffield and based at Manor.  It wasn’t half as much fun then…nor a fraction as busy!


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?

Lady Chatterley (and her Lover) in Sheffield

Today, Saturday 1 October, sees the end of Banned Books Week, the annual American campaign for the freedom to read.  (These are the top titles challenged in the USA this year, and here are some classics which have been attacked.)  So here are Reading Sheffield readers’ memories about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, perhaps one of the most famous banned books of all.  (Coincidentally, a dramatisation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is on at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre until 15 October 2016.)


D H Lawrence’s novel was first published in Italy in 1928, and in an abridged version in the UK in 1932.  The full version was published in the UK in 1960 by Penguin Books.  Penguin was prosecuted for obscenity and won the case.  The trial made headlines, and Penguin’s victory liberalised UK publishing.

As it happens, the Reading Sheffield readers were not all impressed with Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  But what is important is that, thanks to the 1960 challenge by Penguin Books, they had the chance to read it and make up their own minds.

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

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

For Mary Robertson, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was ‘the most boring book I’ve ever read!’  Her memories are vivid:

Oh yes! It was banned and then it went to court. Before that we would get it and we would pass it round and it was one you would read under the bedclothes. … The part that was thumbed was the part with the gardener. That’s the only part. I mean now it would be nothing, would it? Oh we laugh about that. … It was [sharp intake of breath] ‘I shouldn’t be reading this’, yes. I didn’t get the D H Lawrence books. They were too gritty, they were too real. I quite like some of his plays [sic] but not the books.

Eva G was also unimpressed. ‘I didn’t think it was shocking! I did think what all the fuss was about!

Anne B was younger – 14 or 15 – when she read it.  She was shocked: ‘Oh yeah because I was totally innocent in those days.’ She got hold of the novel by chance:

I found my dad reading surreptitiously, which was totally…I mean it was when it was all in the papers about the …[laughing] I remember he pushed it under the pile of newspapers in the cupboard and I found it one day and I started doing the same thing and reading it surreptitiously. There was always a half hour part of the day, when I got in from school before they came back from work,  that I’d got to myself and I used to read it. I worked my way through it. That was the only time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it so I never let on. I don’t think my mother knows today that I ever read it.

Discretion was not unusual. Nurse Betty R said:

Yes, sister on the ward was reading it and she said “Would you like to read this Betty?” And she said “Keep the brown cover on it.”

Peter Mason illustrates what often happens with challenged books:

… we weren’t meant to read his [Lawrence’s] books so we read it and, looking at it now, I don’t know what all the fuss was about, because you see more about it on the TV and the news these days.

He thinks that Lady Chatterley’s Lover only ‘became famous because they banned it, I don’t think it would have…’

Alan B studied Lawrence for his Open University course and concluded that he preferred the poetry to the novels:

… he is one of these people who makes some very insightful…observations on life but you have got to read through a lot of stuff to get to them [chuckles] whereas his poems are more punchy.

Peter B read Lady Chatterley ‘even before copies were generally available’.  He thinks it is now ‘a bit dated’.  But Lawrence:

advanced literature in the sense that it was the first time that sort of thought had been attributed to the working class. You had to be either a business man or a lawyer or something to be written about.

Mavis was, she says, too young when she found D H Lawrence and so she ‘could not understand why it was banned’:

… I had no idea what I was reading.  The sex scenes went right over my head.  In fact somebody lent me a forbidden copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  I could only have been about fourteen.  Somebody got it from her sister who was much older and I didn’t notice why it should be banned, I couldn’t understand! (Laughs)  And I look back now and think how could I possibly not have noticed what that was all about.

But Mavis does think that Lawrence changed things for her:

It both led me on to a different level of adult fiction even if I didn’t always pick up on the nuances but as I did pick up the nuances I think it made me see how people adapt, grow up, fall in and out of love – I think it went along with my development at the right age.