Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part Two: School Instruction

Barbara Prater told us here about how she moved to Sheffield, to work in the public library, in the 1970s. In the second part of her story, she moves from Lane Top Branch Library to work with schools.  

Carving of Knowledge high up on the corner of the Central Library (by Frank Tory and Sons)

I applied for the post of School Instruction Assistant in Sheffield Central Library, working for the lovely Edwin Fleming, who sadly passed away last year. School Instruction, which Sheffield Libraries had been running since before WWII, involved delivering every 14 year-old student in the Sheffield area for a morning or afternoon class visit to the Central Library in Surrey Street. The idea was that they learned how to use a library. Every morning and every afternoon I had to plant 40 non-fiction books in their correct shelf order around the shelves. They had to be ready for the students to locate using their question papers, after they were taught how to use the catalogue. They had to fill in the answers to questions like ‘what is the name of the village pictured on page 26?’ to prove that they had located the right book. They then discarded the book anywhere they fancied, which I had to track down again before the next session. We also taught everyone the use of reference books, using sets of encyclopaedias, Who’s Who etc, which were shelved in the ornate Library Committee room upstairs.

Traditional card catalogues

Councillor Enid Hattersley[1] was chair of the Libraries Committee at that time and would often arrive early for her meeting in order to enjoy watching the scrum. There were always shouts of ‘Miss…tin tin!’ (that is, ‘t in’t in.’ Translation: ‘Excuse me but I don’t seem to be able to find the capital town of County Fermanagh within this particular volume of encyclopaedia, despite its being named on my quiz sheet.’)

If we finished our sheets in time, we took the students down to ‘the stacks’. Here we proudly informed them that there were six and a half miles of book shelves. I don’t know where that fact came from … can it have been correct?[2] I recall a member of staff who worked down there in the darkness all the time and allegedly only spoke Esperanto. Perhaps one lead to the other. We used to catch glimpses of his scampering, mole-like form, as he searched for the books requested on slips of paper which arrived in the squeaky wooden dumb waiter, down in the bowels of the building.

The School Instruction department also produced a magazine for all junior libraries, discussing and recommending children’s books. I used to take delivery of beautifully engraved shiny copper plates of book illustrations for the printers. There was a huge cupboard full. I wonder what became of them?

My boss Edwin Fleming was always very busy and not often in our tiny office, which overlooked the night clubs across Arundel Gate. I sometimes took calls for him and would hurtle round the building trying to locate him. He would then gallop down the stone stairs behind me back to our office, tremendously fast in his black shiny leather brogues like a suited cart horse. One day I took a call from the police telling me to ‘stay away from the window. The IRA say they have a gunman on the roof of the Fiesta Club.’

During the school holidays, I used to enjoy doing supply work in Central Junior, the branch libraries and even on the mobiles. I also became a NALGO[3] rep whilst at Sheffield Central, with Martin Olive from the Local History Library. I imagined exotic weekend conferences by the sea – I only ever got to go on one and it was in Huddersfield.

At this time I remember the computer room being constructed across Surrey Street from the library. We all stood on tiptoe to peer in the windows. We saw an enormous edifice covered with dials and knobs which seemed to fill the vast hall – it looked like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

I used to love going across Surrey Street to the Town Hall canteen for dinner – their suet pudding and custard was awesome. I got married in the register office, which was also across Surrey Street but further along, on 15 October 1971. Everyone came out of the library to watch the happy event and throw confetti as I became Barbara Rodgers.

The third part of Barbara’s story will be posted soon.

 

[1] Cllr Enid Hattersley (1904-2001) chaired Sheffield’s Libraries and Arts Committee for many years and served as Lord Mayor in 1981. She was the mother of Labour politician Roy Hattersley.

[2] A debatable question. Some say 12 miles of shelving. The staff in the Central Library today still mention all this if they show you around.

[3] NALGO, the National and Local Government Officers’ Association.

Librarians’ Voices: Barbara Prater – Part One: Up to Lane Top

In the first of three posts, Barbara Prater, who now lives in Scotland, recalls working for Sheffield Libraries in the 1970s and ‘80s. Here she talks about the beginnings of her career and her move to Sheffield, ‘City on the Move’. Her first post was at the new Lane Top branch.   

I was born Barbara Page in East Ham, London in 1948. I left grammar school on a Thursday in July 1965 and, as instructed by my father, began my library career with East Ham Library the following Monday. After detailed training – a group of us were shown the only acceptable way to shape letters and numbers in order to ensure consistency with spine labels and book cards, and correct positioning of date sheets and book pockets – I was launched onto the unsuspecting public (and library staff) at Boleyn Branch Library, next to West Ham football ground.

I enjoyed the Swinging Sixties to the max, my friend and I regularly going ‘up London’ to the clubs and dance halls and arriving home on the last tube of the night. Life was perfect. Then in 1967 my father’s employer transferred him to Stirling – Gateway To The Highlands. After a couple of years I couldn’t stand the excitement of knitting on a circular needle and not being allowed in pubs. No self-respecting lady was ever seen in a pub. As a matter of interest, local government rules refused married ladies a permanent contract lest they become pregnant – regardless of their age. It was not quite like swinging London.

In 1970 a friend took me to visit his home town, Sheffield – City On The Move. I fell in love with the buzz of the smart new shops, clubs and markets, compared to sleepy old Stirling. I phoned Sheffield Central Library and asked if there were any vacancies. Soon after that I was busy on the issue desk in Stirling when the Deputy Librarian came and announced that I was summoned to the Chief Librarian’s office immediately. I hurried to the imposing, oak-panelled room wondering which of my many misdemeanours he had discovered. Mr Robertson gestured wordlessly towards the telephone receiver resting on his desk. I held it to my ear to hear the offer of a post with Sheffield City Libraries, processing stock for the new library opening at Lane Top, over Hillards Supermarket. I accepted, and headed off for the bright lights of Sheffield Lane Top.

The new Lane Top Library, above Hilliards

Whilst we sat up there at the worktops in front of the window, processing books and chatting, I noticed some suspicious activity down below us at the back of the terraced houses. I public-spiritedly dialled 999. We all looked on as the boys in blue hurdled the back fences in a pincer movement, from either end of the long terrace, before tackling the young lads who were trying to break into the house. We all let out a huge cheer as they were successfully captured. Later on one of the policemen popped round to inform us that the lads actually lived there and had lost their door key, but he praised us for Doing The Right Thing.

When the library was ready to be opened, the photographers arrived to take photos for a promotional brochure. We all (Peter Bayliss, Barbara Sorby and others whose names have sunk in the porridge of my brain) had to don our coats and strike Member Of The Public attitudes, to lend authenticity.

Pretending to be members of the public – Barbara is sitting at the desk.

During the time I was there, I got more training. I went on Mary Walton’s* excellent book repair course, which has stood me in good stead ever since. I learned how to bleach out biro scribble with a fine paintbrush, invisibly mend torn off corners, repair ‘perfect binding’ and re-attach spines constructed in various mediums.

When we opened, we had to deal with the culture shock of ‘decimalisation’ which had occurred during the time we were out of circulation. Charging fines in decimal currency seemed very exotic, and we were equipped with special charts to help calculate ‘new money’.

 

The next part of Barbara’s story will be posted shortly.

* Mary Walton was the first Sheffield Archivist and author of various books about the city.

Kath’s reading journey

By Mary Grover

Husband and wife Ken and Kath were interviewed together for Reading Sheffield. Their marriage includes a strong ‘reading partnership’, based on their shared political interests.   

Kath was born on 3 February 1928 and married Ken in 1945 when they began a life of shared reading pleasures and shared political commitment. As we have learned from Ken’s reading journey, it was Kath who introduced Ken to the Russian and Chinese classics authors who shaped his understanding of the world. Kath described them both as ‘revolutionaries’ and they relied on each other for introductions to new books and to new ideas.

Not only did Kath introduce her older boyfriend to new books but, long after they married, she became the hub of a great family book swap.

Nowadays what we do is that books go round the family. My niece is an avid reader. She brings books that she’s bought for tuppence or fourpence or whatever from charity shops. And we end up then all swapping those, reading them and passing them on and giving them away to anyone that wants one. What was that one, Chocolat, was it called? I thought it was a lovely story. And then of course there was – was he Swedish? – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and all those. We read one after the other of those.

Kath and Ken’s son too has books stacked up in his room and recommends titles to his parents. Kath finds the books she seeks from all sorts of sources: friends, family, libraries, charity shops and eBay, encouraging and drawing inspiration from all around her. She gathered new words from a woman at work:

…a wonderful person. She read everything. And everyday I could see her coming and she’d say a word and I’d have to memorise this word, a long word that‘d fit a certain subject. I can’t just think off the top of my head, you know. But it really taught me a lesson, to look, and then I’d get the dictionary out and start looking through for words that I’d baffle her with, you know, but … [Laughs.] I never did, like, but that was the idea behind it.

But Kath’s parents, like Ken’s, had prepared her to learn from everything that came her way.

They both read all the time. My dad was deaf so he couldn’t hear the wireless anyway when that was on. But he just read and read and read. And of course that got passed down to the family – you know, ‘cos there were seven, yes, seven kids.

Kath developed the skill of creating a space in the living room to read, blotting out the world around her. She cannot remember reading in bed but does recall her older sister telling her Just William stories. These Kath retold at school with her own variations. She knew the stories off by heart:

… so I could juggle all the – you know – silly things he got up to in all the stories and … just stand there … and tell the rest of the class. And when I think about it now I shudder. You know, I must have been a provocative little girl!

She was also very determined, making the long trek to the then new Firth Park Library to find the week’s reading.

The old Firth Park Library building today

We used to go down the ‘backwacks’ to it from Shiregreen ‘cos it was ever such a long way and the nearest one was Beck Road School apparently. (So my sister said, ‘cos she remembers more about the area where we lived then. I was only a young kid). But we used to walk all through Concord Park and down all the ‘backwacks’ there.

Reading has been, for Kath, a private escape, a family adventure and a shared passion with her husband, Ken. Sometimes, listening to Kath and Ken share their memories of books, it is difficult to make out whose tastes they are describing, Kath’s or Ken’s, so closely have they shared the books that came their way. ‘What was that book we both liked, Kath? Fame is the Spur?’ says Ken, and Kath explains why it is a favourite. Kath appreciates Ken’s speed reading, which he developed in order to get through all the technical books he needed to master for his work; and Ken appreciates Kath’s thorough reading of the Guardian, ‘cover to cover’. She laughs and admits:

I’m miserable without a large paper with lots of articles in. I read it all day, you know. If I were sitting here not talking to you, I should be reading through the paper.

When asked what their lives would be without reading, they are, together, clear where they stand.

Ken:  Oh, it’d be empty, wouldn’t it? I mean, just think of the things you wouldn’t know. Or opinions you wouldn’t have read. Or places you’d never have gone to because you’d never read about them. Or even imagine going to places.

Kath:  Oh, it would have been dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.

Ken:  I can’t think of life without reading.

Kath:  I can’t. Not at all.

 

You can access Kath’s and Ken’s interview here.

 

Ken’s reading journey

By Mary Grover

Husband and wife Ken and Kath were interviewed together for Reading Sheffield. Their marriage includes a strong ‘reading partnership’, based on their shared political and local interests. We will post Kath’s reading journey after this.   

Ken was born on 27 April 1924. For the first 20 years of his life he lived in Fir Vale, Sheffield, in a house where he was surrounded by ‘tons of books’. ‘Everybody in the family read.’ Ken got books as presents and his older sister handed down her favourites – some of them novels his mother and father would not have approved, ‘Istanbul Train and all those stories’.

And of course I read all the boys’ books that you would have. You know, tuppenny bloods and all that sort of thing, school stories and that, which were really funny. By today’s standards rather silly, I expect, but I used to think they were marvellous.

Though Ken didn’t think much of the radio programmes in the Thirties, he did enjoy the books read on Children’s Hour, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and all are still with him. Down at Fir Vale shops was a tuppenny library, a rich source of popular books, Ken’s favourites being humorous books and The Saint books by Leslie Charteris.

And then, when he was about ten, a new municipal library opened in Firth Park. Ken’s main aim on his first visit was to get the thickest book possible because you were, in 1934, only able to borrow one book a week. So his first choice was The Great Aeroplane Mystery by Percy F Westerman[i]. ‘Absolute rubbish, of course,’ but thick.

The old Firth Park Library building today

It was when Ken gained a place at the Catholic grammar school, De La Salle, that his reading tastes expanded to include a whole range of authors that were new to him.

An English master who was a brilliant man put me onto all sorts of good books. And he was a very opinionated bloke. He used to think that all the best writers were people like Lytton Strachey and all that lot. You know – the Bloomsbury outfit and all those people.

We used to have an English room and there used to be favourite things pinned up on the wall. You know, things like The Land and all those famous poems. Things I’ve never forgotten. I mean all those dreadful poems you had to memorise like The Ancient Mariner and ‘Young Lochinvar has come out of the west / Through all the wide borders his steed was the best’. You know, that sort of stuff and all the classic things – Sohrab and Rustum and all those sorts of things. But it stamps what you’re going to do if you listen. And he was a very unusual person. I used to hang on his every word really, I expect. He never failed to be right in what he’d said. Well, I think so. I thought he was bang on the nail with everything.

During his school days Ken became a socialist, reading ‘loads and loads of pamphlets, political pamphlets. They were all the rage then’.

The outbreak of war led to the closure of Ken’s grammar school and the end to his formal schooling. At 15, he left school to go into ‘the works’, first as an apprentice and then as a draughtsman. But the war meant an increase in Ken’s reading.

During the war that was all you could do, read books, with very little other entertainment. Certainly nothing like the radio or TV as there is now so you were thrown onto books and written material, newspapers.

Towards the end of the war, just turned 20, Ken was lucky enough to marry Kath who shared his taste in books and politics. Kath introduced Ken to Sholokhov’s books, ‘Quiet Flows the Don and all those Russian novels’. ‘And Chinese books, famous Chinese novels,’ adds Kath. These books opened the couple’s eyes to the suffering in ‘Old Russia’ before the Revolution. Ken describes himself ‘ploughing his way through’ Das Kapital. He and Kath became communists and during the Cold War, they took their children to a children’s camp in East Germany. Their experience left them with a deep scepticism about the way East Germany was represented in Western spy stories.

A lot of them are a whole load of rubbish, you know. Weren’t they, Kath? Absolutely. We used to know this girl – East German girl who was a teacher there – and she used to go across the border every night to go and be entertained in West Berlin. They were supposed to be at daggers drawn and everything but it wasn’t like that a bit when we were there, was it? Not a bit. And it makes you wonder just how the news and everything has been manipulated in the past, you know? Shocking, shocking.

However, despite his firm political convictions, Ken describes his reading tastes as catholic: Quiller Couch, P G Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Just William, Ken has read and enjoyed them all. Indeed, when asked to pick out a favourite book, he chooses one written by the journalist and novelist, Philip Gibbs, who was no socialist.

It was called European Journey. It was set in the 1920s just after the First World War. He’s an artist and a crowd of about six of them toured through France and Germany by car – typical better-off officer-class people. You’ve got to forget all that part of it – because he was a brilliant writer and he writes about Paris and all – really great – just how France is. I love France. He writes about France with real feeling. But it was when he was a comparatively young man. That’s a book I got by sheer chance, just by picking it up. It was old, of course; I’ve still got it upstairs. It’s a lovely book to dip into and just, er, read all these bits and pieces now and again.

As Ken puts it, ‘We never were tied up to one set of things’.

You can find Ken’s full interview here.

 

[i] Although Percy F Westerman wrote over 150 books, none has the title The Great Aeroplane Mystery. He wrote The Secret Battleplane (1916) and Airship Golden Hind (1920). His son, John F C Westerman, also wrote adventure stories for boys, including A Mystery of the Air (1931). Another adventure writer, Captain Brereton, wrote The Great Aeroplane (1911) and The Great Airship (1914), John Westerman’s book seems the closest in title and date, but there is no way of knowing for certain which book Ken borrowed. The Westermans are discussed here.

 

 

Gill Warren’s reading journey

Gill Warren, who was born in New Zealand, is Reading Sheffield’s first international blogger, and we are delighted to welcome her. 

I went to St Heliers Bay Primary School in Auckland when I was five years old, and stayed there for Primers 1 to 4, as infant classes are known in New Zealand. It was a public school, meaning free. I am not sure how I got there. Perhaps Mum took me as it was a 20 minute walk, and collected me again at the end of the half-day. I must have read books at home as there were plenty of books about – I had five elder siblings.

St Heliers, Auckland

When they were small, the elder children lived behind the hall door in their own nursery. They all had an English nanny and had their meals with her until they could converse and use cutlery properly. The eldest was born in 1940 and went to boarding school at nine years old. But Nanny had gone by the time Mum realised she was pregnant with me. Some of the older girls were at boarding school when I was born. Perhaps they read to me when home from holiday – I don’t remember Mother ever having time.

On Saturday and Sunday 6 – 7 am on the radio were stories for kids (where was the radio? I wonder now). There were stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Sparkie, Peter and the Wolf and the Madeline series. And This is London, This is San Francisco and This is Athens – perhaps they gave me the travel bug. There was Noddy and Big Ears but never Dr Seuss – way too modern! I remember I had books like Tales from India, with pictures of fine-looking elephants and tigers, and A Bear called Paddington and Winnie the Pooh. I got Winnie muddled up with Winston Churchill as they seemed to be the same shape.

I then attended a private school (meaning fee-paying with uniform, a 20 minute walk to the bus, a half-hour bus ride and then uniform checks at the gate for hats and gloves). It was St Cuthbert’s College for Girls, and I was there from Standard One at age seven through to Standard Five at age 11. We had exams each term time from the age of five years.

Glover Park, St Heliers, Auckland

I remember going to the public library with Father on Friday evenings to choose books for the week. The five elder children had also done this with him.

Later I read the Secret Seven and Famous Five books. I wanted so badly to be in that group, with a wee boat and limitless adventures.

We were not allowed comics. (‘They are COM or common, dear.’) When the TV arrived in our house (I think I was about ten or so), I did not know what animation was and I think it was the Jetsons or some such thing on the box. In black and white of course! Then colour came – red, blue and green striped bands applied to the screen to give the illusion of colour.

At age 11 I was sent to boarding school 500 kilometres away from home. My father’s sisters had gone there and as we girls were said to be ‘unspectacular in the brain department,’ Mother hoped for ‘nice’ girls. It was Nga Tawa Diocesan for Girls – Forms 1 to 6 for 11 to 16 year-olds. We had a school library and reading in the ‘silent time,’ after lunch on Saturdays and Sundays for one hour, was obligatory. If caught talking, you had to stand for the rest of the hour. If you talked at night when lights were out, again you had to stand in the cold corridor for an hour or so.

At some stage the nursery at home was re-modelled into a TV room, where my Mother ironed while watching TV. (There was no TV in the drawing room – only reading and music.) There were window seats for the toys and one wall of books: Time Life, hard-covered picture books, numerous piles of National Geographic magazines (good for cutting up for school projects), novels plus maps of NZ and the world. The book I was fascinated by was a massive book about World Wars One and Two. There were pencil drawings of life in the tube stations in London and of the trenches – very scary. Lots of black and white images.

I went to Hawaii aged 14 with my parents. They could not believe I would not look out of the window as I was deep into Gone with the Wind.

When I was 19, I went overseas to Thailand and Kathmandu, then overland to UK. I took books out of the St Heliers library to plan for the trip and Mother was most disappointed when she saw them on the sofa table, and realised they were for me, not her and Dad!

The Auckland City Council now has multiple libraries and we can go to any of them but I think that, when I was growing up, you could only go to the one in your suburb. We lived in Cairns in Queensland for a while and there we could for the first time go to multiple libraries on the one card. I now mainly read or listen to stories online from the Auckland Library for free. I listen and read on my i-pad.

 

 

The reading journeys of Pat and Mary

Sisters Mary and Pat were happy to be interviewed for Reading Sheffield by Mary’s daughter, Ruth, although neither wanted to be recorded. The short, verbatim notes Ruth took give a strong sense of the sisters’ personalities and of the importance of books in their lives.

Three sisters in Colwyn Bay, 1946. Pat, aged 20 is on the left, Mary, aged 23, is in the middle and Jean, aged 17, is on the right.

Mary’s journey

Mary was born in the Sheffield suburb of Tinsley on 24 May 1923. She left school at the age of 14 and had a job in a sweetshop until she was about 20. She then worked for the Co-Op, in their offices in Tinsley. Mary was a devout Methodist and, through church, met her husband Jack, who worked on the railways. The couple had two children, David and Ruth. Mary always regretted being unable to continue her education, and did become a mature student, studying for a while at the Open University.

Nobody read to me when I was young. I don’t think it was something people did back then. There were so many jobs to do around the house. My mum took in washing.

The books that made me feel like a grown-up were mainly the classics. I was about 16 or 17 and started to read Jane Austen. I loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I also read Charlotte Bronte and Anne and Emily too, but my favourite was Charlotte. I loved Jane Eyre. I also read some Thomas Hardy but got bored with his descriptions sometimes. So, yes, Jane Eyre made a great impression on me, as did Anne of Green Gables. But I can’t for the life of me remember where I got them from. Probably the library but I couldn’t swear to it.

Come to think of it, I think I did get my books from the library and it must have been Tinsley Library. I can’t remember there being many books at school, though there must have been some.

My parents didn’t really value reading. My dad, who was a miner, sometimes read a newspaper. I can’t remember my mother reading at all. I think they were suspicious of books and novels, thinking we’d get ideas above our station or that we were filling our heads with fantasy. Work was what they valued and they didn’t really think education and school were worth much. I passed the exam to go to grammar school but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought the uniform was too expensive and, as I was the eldest of three sisters, they said that, if they sent me to grammar school, they would have to pay for my sisters to go too. But, as it happened, neither of them passed the exam for grammar school. I really wish I’d had a better education. I love literature and I’m in a book group now. I’m 88 years old.

I used to read in our living room and everyone told me that, when I was reading, I got totally lost in the story and never heard anyone if they spoke to me. I’d read after work in the evening and in bed too.

I don’t think I had any idea about highbrow or lowbrow until I was in my twenties. Then I thought there were good and bad books. Love stories I thought were bad but then Jane Eyre is a love story and so is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and some Georgette Heyer, which I don’t think is highbrow. Maybe the middlebrow section.

I’d re-read all the books I read as a young adult, including the Mary Webb collection I had, but I think they’ve been lost. I loved those books.

Without reading I would probably have gone mad! It’s a cheap but really rewarding pastime. I’ve learnt so much from books and I think it makes you understand the world better.

Gertrude and Ernest, the parents of Mary and Pat

Pat’s journey

Pat was born in Tinsley on 7 April 1926. She was christened Gertrude Ada, but disliked the names and called herself Pat when she was around 20. Her niece Ruth describes her as ‘quiet, beautiful and glamorous’. According to family legend, Pat had several proposals of marriage but declined them all. She stayed at home and was, Ruth says, devoted to her parents and younger sister, Jean.  

Nobody read to me when I was young. Like my sister Mary, I enjoyed the classics. I read Little Women and Jo’s Boys which made me feel that I was an adult, though I’m not sure that they are adult books, are they?

I think I got my books from the library and from work. I worked as a wages clerk at Shefftex and me and some of the girls would swap books. I used to enjoy the Dimsie books[i] but I think they were aimed at teenagers though I still enjoy them now. I remember all the Dimsie books and they did affect me. I suppose I wanted to live the life Dimsie lived. It was all so exciting and adventurous.

I always liked historical novels and still do. I go to the library at Greenhill every Monday morning but I’m not in the reading group that Mary’s in. I don’t want to talk about what I’ve read. I might say the wrong thing.

Some of my books came back from Sunday School when I was a child but I can’t remember what the books were. I think they might have been Bible stories. Nobody encouraged me to read and I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. I knitted and did a bit of sewing but reading has always been my favourite occupation.

I never married and I never had children so I’ve been lucky having had free time to read.

I’ve read everywhere. I used to read at work if it was quiet. Nobody encouraged me to read. I just did. Maybe I copied my older sister Mary. I do watch TV but I read more than I watch TV.

In the years you’re talking about, we had poor lighting really and I was always told that I’d ruin my eyes. When I was younger, we had gas lamps which weren’t very good really.

I particularly liked Georgette Heyer, Mary Webb, Daphne du Maurier and Jean Plaidy but I can’t remember individual titles, apart from the classics. When I see the serializations of the classics, I’m nearly always disappointed. I think it spoils your imagination. You have an idea of what the characters look like and when you see famous actors taking those parts it spoils it for you.

Reading has been very important in my life. When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better.

Many thinks to Ruth for taking these notes.

[i] The Dimsie books, written by Dorita Fairlie Bruce between 1921 and 1941, told the story of Dimsie and her friends at boarding school and at home

Charles Williams: ‘no novels anywhere quite like them…’

Following our previous post about reading and religion, here is a reader’s encounter in the 1950s with the ‘Christian fantasy’ novels of Charles Williams.   

One of our readers, Madeleine Doherty, recalled the novels of Charles Williams (1886-1945) in her interview. They made a tremendous impression on the young Madeleine but she found it hard to describe them or to account for their impact.

Charles Williams is perhaps best remembered now as one of the Inklings, the Oxford literary group which included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, with both of whom he has been compared. ‘What I owe to them all is incalculable,’ said Lewis. ‘Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?’

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, known as the ‘Bird and Baby’, where the Inklings met (GNU Free Documentation License)

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Williams was employed first as a proof-reader, then as an editor, at the Oxford University Press. He had been denied a university education (and therefore career) by his family’s financial difficulties, but was scholarly and in demand as a public speaker. He produced seven novels, as well as poetry, plays, theology, biography, literary criticism and reviews. His novels are strong stuff, featuring for example:

  • the discovery of the Holy Grail, which is then stolen by a black magician to aid his evil plans (War in Heaven, 1930)
  • the original and powerful deck of Tarot cards (The Greater Trumps, 1932)
  • succubi and doppelgangers (Descent into Hell, 1937)
  • a necromancer and ghosts (All Hallows’ Eve, 1945).

But the novels are not straightforward fantasy or horror. Instead of Narnia or Middle Earth, they are set in the Britain Williams knew, which has the effect of emphasising the stranger elements. More importantly, Williams used them as an instrument for examining the complex philosophical and religious ideas which gripped him. He saw, for example, no difference between the natural and the supernatural and thought it required only extra awareness to experience the supernatural. This review of The Place of the Lion (1931) from the Yorkshire Post of 23 September, 1931 sums it up well:

… one of the most remarkable [novels] I have read for a long time. Ecstasy and demonic power run through it like tongues of fire; the princes of heaven are abroad in the world and through the terrors of an earthly cataclysm we see ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory.’ And yet the apocalyptic vision is convincingly related to mundane cares.

Madeleine Doherty came across the novels through the church she went to in the 1950s, when she was in her late teens.

We had a curate at church who introduced me to some books that I have never yet found since, and they were not religious ones. They were … not spiritualist either, what’s the word I’m looking for? Word’s gone out of my mind, I can’t remember what I want to say. … Not science, oh what’s the word? Well they were fantasy in a way but that is not the word I would use to describe them. Oh dear, I can’t think of the word I want. …

It’s not magic either, it’s like magic but I don’t mean magic, I just can’t think of the word to describe, a bit Dracula type things … I suppose so they were weird, they were weird. Sometimes I used to frighten myself.

Madeleine was fascinated.

I think basically they were unpleasant things but once I started reading I was hooked, I’d take one back and bring another home … I would bring one and I would stay up, I can remember one night I woke. I was reading in bed and there was this spider and I’m terrified of spiders. I had been so absorbed reading this book, it was probably two in the morning or whatever and I thought, ‘I’ll have to stop, shut me book, there’s a spider hanging straight in front of me.’ It absolutely terrified me. I just couldn’t put them down.

She found it hard to describe what happened in the novels, although she remembered typical features like spirits, talismans and struggles between good and evil.

I just can’t even relate one of the stories really at all. All I know is that I was absolutely hooked on those books. So how old would I be? 17 or 18, something like that. I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that. I don’t know how many he wrote. You know, they’d have ghostly things in or they’d go to castles or houses and … I think there was a religious theme in it as well, kind of thing, in the background probably.

Williams’ novels[i] were never particularly popular, and there was of course criticism (J B Priestley, for example, described one novel as ‘painfully incredible’). But his adherents were warm in their praise. For C S Lewis, Williams showed the ‘everyday world … invaded by the marvellous’. T S Eliot, whose firm published one of his novels, said that there were:

…no novels anywhere quite like them … [Williams] makes our everyday world much more exciting because of the supernatural which he finds always active in it. … and seeing all persons and all events in the light of the divine, he shows us a significance, in human beings, human emotions, human events, to which we had been blind.

After Williams’ novels, it happened that Madeleine’s habits changed:

… after that I don’t think I read so much really. I think I seem to have, after I had been, started me teaching, me books sort of more or less went out the window. I didn’t sort of have time I suppose, to sit and read as much.

Madeleine (third from left, back row) as a student teacher

She was training as a teacher, and then she married and had a family. She had less time or energy to read. Perhaps this is one reason the extraordinary Charles Williams remains so vivid for Madeleine. He was the author she read at the time she left her girlhood for the world of adults.

 

This post is for Thecla Wilkinson (1956-2016) who sometimes wrote for Reading Sheffield. She enjoyed Charles Williams’ novels and had planned to write about them for us.

[i] You can read some recent reviews of Williams’ novels at our sister blog, Reading 1900-1950.