Janice’s Reading Journey

Janice Maskort was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 2000 and 2010, and still lives in the city. She was born in Orkney and grew up in Kent. Janice worked for Kent County Libraries for several years, including in Maidstone, Rochester and Canterbury, until her move to Sheffield. Reading has been a pleasure, a mainstay, a need all her life.

Here Janice describes the beginning of her reading journey.  

Janice as a young child

I was reading long before school. I will never forget the moment when I realised that I could read. I was in church with my father and the hymn was All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I knew. Turning my hymn book round (I was holding it upside down), I realised that the black marks were the words! I was so excited I climbed on the pew and shouted, ‘Daddy, I can read!’ The Presbyterian congregation did not appreciate my joyful interruption, and I was smacked and went without pudding at lunch. I was so thrilled that I didn’t care and went round the house looking for print to practise on. As a librarian I was always moved when a child learned to read whilst in the library. It was like finding the key to a magic kingdom.

My parents were both serious readers and regular public library users. My mother was also a member of Boots Booklovers’ Library, which was in walking distance. Going to the ‘proper’ library entailed a long bus journey. Once my father bought a car, however, trips to the public library were easier.

There was a reasonable collection of books at home but very little children’s literature. I was always begging my many aunts and uncles for books as birthday or Christmas presents. As my mother was one of ten children and my father one of four, I did pretty well. In those days children often received postal orders as presents and if I could prevent my mother from appropriating the money for new shoes, I was able to buy a book. One Christmas my aunt in Canada sent me Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, but this was an edition all in pictures with truncated text. I adored it and was very disappointed when my father bought me the original version. I missed the illustrations.

The copy of Heidi bought by Janice’s father

I could not have survived without the library. I could always read at great speed; it is genetic and my daughter inherited the skill. Even then though the library was frustrating. We were only allowed three books at a time and I had read them all in the first 24 hours. Then a whole week before the next visit! Being able to read so fast was a blessing and a curse as my daughter also discovered. No teacher would believe me when I said I had finished the set book on the first day and I was always being surreptitiously tested. Eventually a new headmistress recognised my genuine distress at being accused of lying and told the staff that I could have access to all the books in the classroom. In later years I found myself trying to explain the ability to my daughter’s teachers.

My parents who were strict in some ways were remarkably liberal about reading and I was allowed to read anything. The only book my mother ever censored was a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. I still have no idea why. I have never subscribed to the theory that children should only read ‘age-appropriate’ material. I had browsed The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Kama Sutra before I was eleven. I only understood what I knew and ignored the rest. My mother asked me one day what the Kama Sutra was about. She had no idea what it was. I remember saying that it was very strange but had a chapter on flower arranging (as it has). Neither she nor I had any idea why my father laughed so much!

My father did get exasperated at my constant questions about unfamiliar words and introduced me to the dictionary. I found it helpful but also frustrating as each definition seemed to require another one and I often felt I was going round in circles. He gave me an atlas as well but when I couldn’t find Narnia, I decided it wasn’t very helpful. One day he arrived home with an old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. This kept me going for a whole summer. I read all the stories first, then history and mythology. I ignored most of the ‘informative’ sections but do remember lace-making in Nottingham, dress-making pins from Sheffield and shoes in Leicester.

As a child I suffered badly from bronchial asthma and in the winter, not helped by the awful fogs and coal fires of the period, I was often off school for weeks. This did little for my maths; I seemed to miss the introduction of long division or whatever. However I could read in bed. I preferred my mother’s choice of books from the library. She often took Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. My father brought The Last of the Mohicans and Wind in the Willows (which I never liked). But Dad also gave me David Copperfield, which began a lifelong love of Charles Dickens. There were lots of books for boys too, but I found all the stories of saving the empire and killing natives both boring and upsetting. I didn’t mind stories about animals as long as there were no killing sprees. My father, who often went abroad for work, did give me travel books and I adored Farley Mowat’s book about the Inuit people.

Rumpelstiltskin, from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (ca. 1889)

Original illustration from David Copperfield

Original illustration from David Copperfield

I was called an imaginative child, but in fact all children are. I lived my characters. If I was told off, I was Marie Antoinette in a tumbril or Mary Queen of Scots on the block. Like many children, I found comfort and solace in my literary companions.

When I was ten, I won a national painting competition. We had to paint ‘the most exciting place in the world.’ I was the only child to paint a library.  I won an enormous box of Reeves paints but was also allowed to choose a book. I opted for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and my father was disappointed, as he wanted me to pick something sensible like Woodworking Tips for Boys. I still have my prize book.

My sister Rebecca and I began classifying our own books early on. Well, I did, and she enjoyed stamping them out to our dolls. To this day I wonder why we classified Ballet Shoes as ‘E7’. It’s as incomprehensible as the Library of Congress classification scheme.

Not all of my large, extended family approved of my addiction to books. When I was diagnosed with severe myopia, at the age of ten, my poor mother often faced a chorus of ‘Well, we told you she would go blind’. I remember, in her defence, saying to one great aunt that sewing also made one go blind and told her about French nuns ruining their eyes making lace. She looked at me and said ‘Well, we don’t need to worry about your reaching that level of expertise.’ This was unfair because I can sew, but her embroidery was exquisite.

Orkney was an important influence. My mother was Orcadian, as am I, and in my childhood we went there every year. We visited lots of relatives and I was allowed access to all their books. There were a lot of Victorian ‘prize books’ and I read many moralistic tales in which daughters saved their fathers from intemperance and nursed dying siblings. Later on I did my dissertation on the impact of prize books as a major source of reading material in isolated and poor communities. This is probably where my love of Victorian and Edwardian literature began, although my mother’s admiration for Mrs Henry Wood might also have been a factor. She and I often intoned ‘Gone! And never called me mother!’[i]

Some of Janice’s collection of prize books

Orkney has a strong oral tradition so I experienced stories long before I could read. Language is powerful and its cadences and rhythms communicate so much. As a librarian I was passionate about telling or reading stories to children. For example, I have worked with children with severe learning difficulties and have never failed to engage with them through stories. And on another occasion, when I visited Africa for work, I followed a story-telling session. The children all knew and loved the story. I couldn’t understand a word but heard the build-up and the repetition of phrases. I was gripped. When we reached the denouement, I fell off my chair, which made the little ones laugh. While I didn’t understand the words, I felt the power of the story.

 

[i] This famous line is in fact not from Mrs Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, but from the stage adaptations.

Nicholas Monsarrat, now and then

By Chris Hopkins, Professor of English Studies and Head of the Humanities Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University

Nicholas Monsarrat, his naval books are extremely good … Oh yes, yes, one could get the impression with them that you were there.  He expressed the feeling and he kind of gave graphic descriptions of the way the sea rules, whoever’s on the sea, no matter whether you’re a little skiff or a big destroyer or a battleship of whatever it is, the sea at the end of the day is in charge and you get that impression with Monsarrat that whilst we, and his men, did very well, the sea inevitably won.

Peter Mason (b. 1929)

In May 2019 the reading groups from our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, read popular authors or books read by our Sheffield interviewees years earlier and still remembered by them. We wanted to discuss ‘then and now’ – why an author or book was popular in the mid-20th century and why he or it remains well-known today, or has been forgotten. Here, in the first of a short series of posts, is guest blogger Chris Hopkins, writing about Nicholas Monsarrat.

Monsarrat was born in Liverpool in 1910. He studied law but decided early on to become a writer. In World War II he served in the Royal Navy, and drew on his experiences for his books. After the war, he continued to write, and also became a diplomat. Many of his books are in print, but he is not well-known today.

Plaque commemorating Nicholas Monsarrat at his birthplace, 11 Rodney Street, Liverpool. (image by Rodhullandemu, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979) and his novels are referred to quite often in the Reading Sheffield interviews (in fact by nine readers, three male and six female).[i] His most famous novel is The Cruel Sea (Cassell, 1951), a best-seller in its own right, the popularity of which was further magnified by a successful film (made at Ealing Studios and directed by Charles Freund, 1953). The film made stars of a number of the actors in its cast, including Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, and Stanley Baker. Monsarrat had published a number of novels before the war, but it was his post-war naval novel which first made him a best-seller. He went on to have a very successful writing career, publishing novels on quite a broad variety of topics (not all maritime).

During the war, Monsarrat had been commissioned directly into the RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) solely on the basis of pre-war yachting experience, which gave him sufficient navigational skills. He earned steady promotion from postings on relatively small ships carrying out hazardous convoy escort work, rising from the rank of sub-lieutenant to lieutenant-commander by 1945. During the war he published with Cassell a number of short and more-or-less documentary accounts of his experiences. These included HM Corvette (1943), East Coast Corvette (1943), Corvette Command (1944) and HM Frigate (1946). The three corvette books were reissued in one volume as Three Corvettes in 1945. Monsarrat then revisited this material and worked it up into a fully novelistic form (with many additions) to create The Cruel Sea.

I had read all these books over the last few years, so for this reading group I decided to buy another post-war Monsarrat which I hadn’t read: HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1947). This turned out to be not a full-length novel, but three long short stories, which had originally been published under the title Depends What You Mean by Love (the title was amended to the title of the first story in 1956 – which I suspect will have more effectively attracted Monsarrat fans than the less naval and less informative original title).

HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour

The three short stories are called HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, Leave Cancelled and Heavy Rescue. I enjoyed the HMS Marlborough story best and will mainly focus on it as it seems most typical of Monsarrat’s work of the nineteen-forties, but will also report on the two accompanying stories. Marlborough is a sloop – a small ship class from early in the war intended for escort duties, and later reclassified as corvettes. Returning from Atlantic escort duty independently (that is, alone), she is a day or so away from her British port. The very first sentence of the story reports that she is hit by a torpedo and severely damaged. The captain (I don’t think he is ever named) and the bridge-crew try to assess the damage, establish casualty numbers and bring some order. It becomes clear that many men below deck are dead or missing, that the hull is holed in the bow, and that the ship is so far off an even keel that the screws are out of the water. Soon more men below decks drown as they try to shore up a collapsing bulkhead. The captain knows that the ship is likely to sink and without power, it is adrift and at the mercy of enemy ships, and perhaps immediately threatened by the undetected U-boat which fired the fatal torpedo. The captain also knows that he should give the order to abandon ship since though very risky, it is probably safer than staying aboard.

But here a factor kicks in which the captain fully knows is not really part of his naval training and experience: he feels such affection and attachment for Marlborough that he simply does not want to abandon her and cannot quite believe she will not bring him and the surviving crew home (hence the story being included in the original Depends What You Mean by Love volume). He sets about leading the crew and the surviving chief engineering officer in an attempt to keep the ship afloat, get the bows up and the stern down, and to get one of the engines working. If they can succeed in all of these tasks then they may be able to make it back to a British port. The entire remaining narrative is about the heroic efforts captain and crew make to see if they can achieve this quest … (I won’t spoil the ending). It is, from my point of view, entirely gripping until the end.

I think readers of this post can probably detect the kind of enjoyment this novel is offering me from the way I’m writing about it. It allows some access to a world of dogged (and I guess ‘masculine’) heroism, but in an authentic and perhaps plausible setting. This is a story based in recent history, against the back-drop of the Battle of the Atlantic – the only campaign which post-war Churchill said he thought might lead to a British defeat. That history is linked to several underpinning myths about British national identity and a moment of (final?) greatness in World War Two. The story also offers access to a world of specialised knowledge – of ships, of the sea, of navigation, of engine rooms, of warfare, of sailors – command of which may ensure personal and, in the larger picture, national survival. I may have spent a certain proportion of my life teaching high modernism and post-modernism, but have, it seems, not entirely lost my earlier childhood satisfactions in narratives from a somewhat boy’s own adventure tradition. I suspect that Reading Sheffield readers may have derived similar reading pleasures to these (and some may have been much closer to these experiences than I am, of course), though I note that equally a number of female readers refer to Monsarrat or The Cruel Sea, so perhaps my sense of a specifically gendered reading pleasure is far from adequate.

The Cruel Sea has remained continuously in print in edition after edition, and is now in a Penguin World War Two collection series, so neither it nor Monsarrat have been forgotten. If you like that kind of thing (and many clearly do), it is still very much a good read. HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour went through quite a number of editions in the Panther paperback edition in the nineteen-fifties, but then went out of print, though there is now an edition on sale again. It is in many ways a miniature version of The Cruel Sea, offering similar reading pleasures.

The Other Two Stories

Neither of these seem so characteristic of Monsarrat – which is perhaps merely to say that I associate him so strongly with Royal Navy stories that I am surprised to find he used other settings during the nineteen-forties. Maybe that association also pre-determines the following judgement: I do not think these two stories are of the same quality as the HMS Marlborough one, though both do have virtues.

Leave Cancelled concerns a wartime army officer and his wife (who is also in the services, but which service is disappointingly unspecified). It takes the form of a highly personal first-person reflection addressed to his wife by the unnamed officer. They had married at the beginning of the war, but their honeymoon was prevented by their having to report for duty urgently. Both have long been anticipating a period of three weeks’ leave when they can put this war-time interruption to their lives right. The story begins with the male character waiting in a hotel foyer for his wife to arrive from her posting. But he has just had bad news: due to wartime exigencies his three weeks’ leave has been cut to twenty-four hours’ leave – hence the story’s title. He breaks this news to his wife when she arrives, and though both are disappointed they decide to make the best of the twenty-four hours they do have available. This generates the story’s main content – which is of course about how they can best enjoy sex and love given the artificial pressure of this time-constraint. This must, of course, have been quite a common experience of the war, producing high expectations, but also clearly potentially uncomfortable pressures in intimate relationships.

Monsarrat’s publishers, Cassell, were unwilling to publish the story as a self-contained piece in 1947, arguing that it might damage their and his reputation. Their view prevailed, though they did publish the three stories together a little later. I should be clear that there is absolutely nothing sexually explicit in the story, either by nineteen-forties or contemporary standards. It is much more about emotions and the difficulty of talking about sex in a way which recognises its importance within love, than it is about sex itself. Nevertheless, the story is in a sense wholly centred on sex (and an American newspaper review was titled Briton Slave To Sex, quoted in the author’s foreword). I think Monsarrat has set himself a serious and sincere writing task in taking this on, but I find the story pretty embarrassing and also lacking in variety or tension. I think the problem is that in the end the story tries to share an intimacy the value of which is usually preserved precisely by it being privately shared rather than publicly expressed. However, this is a very different Monsarrat from the one we usually expect (indeed, for his male characters love of ships often trumps love of women). What would Reading Sheffield readers have made of this story? I speculate that though they might have read it with a certain interest, many might have preferred Monsarrat’s more usual naval concerns.

I liked Heavy Rescue more than Leave Cancelled. It is set in the first two years of the Second World War and its central character is George. He had been a private in the trenches in Flanders in World War One and was awarded a medal for bravery. But the post-war world has not been kind to him: he has been unemployed for much of the time and consequently his wife and teenage daughter look down on him and treat him with complete disregard since he does not supply they income they would like (they are one-dimensionally selfish – picking up a strand of misogyny which surfaces from time to time in Monsarrat’s novels). George has lost his self-respect and at times he wonders why the country which was apparently so grateful to him and fellow-servicemen in 1918 has done so little for them in the peace-time crisis of the Depression. George, though not in top condition because of his recent living conditions, is powerfully built, and when he has been able to get work, he has often been employed as a navvy. When war is declared again in 1939 he sees a call for volunteers for Civil Defence work and immediately joins the relevant queue at the town-hall. There is a choice of roles – stretcher bearers, first aid, light rescue and heavy rescue. Without really knowing what the words actually mean George feels that he may be cut out for heavy rescue and is very pleased to be accepted.

As it turns out, both kinds of rescue squad are charged with digging survivors out of the ruins of bombed buildings, and are distinguished not by the physical strength of their crews, but by the gauge of the equipment they use (mainly shoring and lifting gear). Nevertheless, George feels he is meeting a kind of destiny – at last someone needs him and he has the right skills and personal characteristics to serve his country. Not only that, but he is even to be paid – the welcome sum of three pounds a week (his wife and daughter remain unimpressed). However, the phoney war of September 1939 to May 1940 undermines morale in Civil Defence as they wait and wait with nothing in fact to do. For George, heavy rescue has indeed rescued his life and he retains his faith in the necessity of standing by and constant training and is eventually vindicated by the blitz on London in September 1940. He shows extreme courage, along with the rest of his squad, in tunnelling into a cellar beneath a collapsed building to save a child and her grandmother. However, his refusal to leave the probably already dead grandfather leads to George’s own death: he has over-fulfilled his sense of destiny. The story is interesting in picking up Monsarrat’s interwar interests in social inequality and the possible solutions of state intervention – something not always so obvious in his naval stories which see things very much from the officerly perspective of the bridge. I was however disappointed by George’s unnecessary death – I was not sure that the narrative logic or the story’s clear context in ‘the people’s war’ did necessarily demand that his commitment be seen as morbidly excessive.

Conclusion

I can certainly see what attracted some Reading Sheffield readers to Monsarrat’s novels. While his work as a whole is quite varied in focus, the reinforcement of particular kinds of British (masculine?) national identities in the post-war period, as well as the narrative pleasures of his naval novels, provided understandable reading satisfaction.

[i] Peter Mason, Christine W, Diane Howell, Judith G, David Flather, Chris F, Dorothy Latham, Dorothy H, Irene H.