Ruth’s Reading Journey: ‘I read and read and read.’

By Ruth Owen

Ruth, who was born in Sheffield on 13 February 1954, is one of our original team of interviewers. She has been a teacher almost her whole career and is now a personal tutor for English and French GCSE and A Level. She is the daughter of Mary and niece of Pat, whose memories you can read here.

Just like so many of my generation, as children, I read and read and read. Frankly, there was little else to do. If the sun was shining and there were friends around, then we would all be outside, either playing on the street or in woodland. Games included hopscotch, French skipping, ordinary skipping, playing ‘two ball’ (throwing balls up against the wall) or riding our bikes.

But, when the rain came, or friends were away, or for some reason we had to stay at home, reading was always my first choice. I remember vividly hanging out of bed, reading by the landing light. My brother was rather more sophisticated in that he had a torch.

My parents were very different in their reading matter, but they both read. Dad was a newspaper man – cover to cover if he had the time between working at the railway for five and a half days a week and tackling all the DIY our house desperately needed.

Ruth’s mum and dad on their wedding day

Mum, on the other hand, was a voracious reader of fiction. Attempting to gain her attention when she was reading was quite a challenge. It would go something like this:

‘Mum. Mum. Mu-um.’ Louder now: ‘MU-UM!’

‘Yes love,’ she replied, paying little attention.

‘Can I go to Gillian’s?

‘Mmmm.’

‘Mum! Did you hear me? Can I?’

‘What’s that love?’

What she did hear was my dad coming home. She’d slam the book shut, stand up straight and pick up a duster. Dad had more than a bit of a temper. I’d give up and pick up a book.

So which books was I actually reading? I remember from a very young age reading Bible stories, especially the Christmas story. I was about four years old, was with my dad and was reading to him. I managed the word ‘suddenly’ which was the first word of the sentence telling of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. My dad was delighted. What influence his praise had on me to read further I cannot say, though it must have had some. His praise was very rare.

Other books I remember reading from childhood were Puppy Stories for Children – a book I loved and  still have. Every Christmas I was given by my aunt an annual called Princess – it’s worth noting that a princess was the last thing I aspired to be, but I did enjoy the annual. Somebody bought me The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies. I read that book from cover to cover about a hundred times. I could recognise and categorise every horse and the script that went with it.    

I have always loved animals and have read an awful lot about them. I am still horrified by the way humans treat them: factory farms, caged hens, the cruel dairy industry. This love of animals has also informed much of my reading, and still does. The question I asked as a child, ‘What have animals ever done to us that we treat them so abhorrently?’ No answer as yet.  

And then, in she came, the most popular children’s author of my generation and maybe all time: Enid Blyton. I read them all. Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Naughtiest Girl in the school and my all -time favourite, Malory Towers: every single one. All I wanted was to be in a boarding school with Darrell and her mates. Actually that’s not entirely true, as I was also reading Ruby Ferguson’s books about Jill and her love of horses. Jill’s Gymkhana was a firm favourite and there was its predecessor, A Pony for Jill. The nearest I got to my own pony was a stuffed sock with button eyes and a broom handle body. Despite its inanimate properties, I was still up at 6 am ‘to muck it out’ and feed it. Creeping down the stairs of our very small house, I’d hear my dad. ‘What the bloody hell is she doing going out to feed that stick horse? Can’t you stop her, Mary? She’s obsessed.’ In this instance, he was right.

I’m trying to recall where I got these books from. Several were bought for me by my parents. Astonishing really, as money was very tight. We were living in Darnall, but I have no memory of going to a local library. My dad believed absolutely in the power of education to transform lives. The books were regarded as an investment. A poor boy from Tinsley, a prisoner of war for three and a half years, he was determined that his children would have that which he had been denied.

To this end, we moved. We arrived in Beauchief and my brother and I became pupils at Abbey Lane County Primary school. The A stream had an excellent reputation for all its pupils passing the 11+.

Now 11 years old and the summer holidays stretching in front of me, I would go to the library almost every other day. Woodseats Library was about half a mile away and I was a devotee. We had to go over to my aunt’s in Tinsley during the holidays, as my mum was working – she had to – but on arrival home there was just enough time before the library closed, to succeed in a mad dash to the shelves.

Jane Eyre, for breakfast

Grammar school time arrived in the late sixties and reading was expected and enforced. Fine by me. Jane Eyre for breakfast, Persuasion for lunch and Tess of the d’Urbervilles for tea. Despite being made to walk across the desks as King Hamlet’s ghost, by my rather eccentric English teacher, I loved Shakespeare too. I would read anything and everything, and at A level developed a love for French Literature too. Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Zola’s L’Assomoir and Germinal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – superb.

Original advert for Germinal, one of Ruth’s favourites of French literature.

University was where I was able to study both French and English literature and was also where I developed a lifelong interest in literature from further afield too, particularly America, Russia and India.

Some friends of mine, six of us, about twenty-five years ago now, decided that we would form a book group and we are still going to this day. We take it in turns to choose the book which we discuss the following month. Several years back, it being my turn, I chose The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, in my opinion, a sublime writer. Sadly, this was not the opinion of the group, who really disliked what has come to be one of my very favourite books. It is so interesting to me how reading preferences vary. The fact that people with whom you have so much in common, educationally, socially and politically, can have such a wide variety of tastes in books, utterly astonishes me. But that’s how it is.

Right now, wherever I go, I have a book with me. Thrillers, serious tomes, studies of the English language itself; in short I have to have something to read. To have to wait in a queue, or wait for someone, or have my car break down or being unable to sleep – all of these irritations in life are soothed by the simple knowledge of having a book with me.

A Short Story of Readers in Stocksbridge

By Mary Grover and Sue Roe

Everyone at the Venue in Stocksbridge on 31 May 2019 came to reading in different ways. For children growing up in Stocksbridge in the 1940s and ‘50s getting hold of books was not easy. Stocksbridge Library was not built till the 1960s. Before then, Marilyn remembers borrowing books from the British Hall on Hope St or winning them as Sunday School prizes. One of the prizes was the story of smugglers in the West Country: Lorna Doone, won for ‘Endeavour’.

Chapel and Sunday School played a big part in the reading of many. Sunday School prizes were often the only books that children owned. The Bible featured frequently in the memory of Stocksbridge residents. There were chapels up and down the valley. Somebody described the pattern: pub, chapel, pub, chapel right through the town and into the country.

Frank pointed out the fact that the word Bible simply means ‘book’ and this book itself is a compilation of a huge amount of stories. He remembers Methodists in particular as reading the Bible out aloud, as a family. Your religion could affect the books around you in the home. A copy of ‘the Mass book’ was mentioned. Sometimes the only book in the house was the Bible.

If you or your parent was after light reading there was also at least one twopenny library in Stocksbridge. Gloria remembers a twopenny library where Lidl is now. She used to go and get love stories and Catherine Cookson books for her mum who wouldn’t go near the place. ‘She didn’t like the woman who ran it. She was abrupt, very sharp. All she wanted was your tuppence.’

Some readers from towns where there were public libraries weren’t able to use them because they weren’t allowed out on their own and their parents were too busy to take them. A few were given books as gifts or saved up their pocket money to buy them.

Enid Blyton was a part of nearly everybody’s reading life but each reader had her favourite series. One reader read and reread the poetic The Faraway Tree. Just William books came a good second.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

Like Blyton, Richmal Crompton delivered a long run of titles to keep you reading until you moved on to something else: What Katy Did, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals or Arthur Ransome’s books about children’s sailing adventures.

We were all struck by how middle class all the children’s books we came across were. But all delivered something familiar, however remote their setting: a sense of adventure and the ups and downs of getting on with the rest of the family.

It is when our readers became adults that their reading tastes began to differ quite a lot from their friends’ tastes. So much depended on where you went on to live and work. Those, like Terry, who did National Service in Germany came across the racy novels of Hank Janson. You were unlikely to find these in Stocksbridge. Roger went into farming so during his twenties he was keen to read about agriculture. Chris became an avid reader of science fiction. He moved from H G Wells to Asimov. He joined a library in his thirties. One book led to another: The Hobbit then Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.

The journey from one author to another never ends. The number of books mentioned on that Friday morning at the drop-in session, seemed almost countless.

This was Reading Sheffield’s first visit to Stocksbridge. Huge thanks to David Owen and to the Stocksbridge readers who shared memories about how they became readers.

Dickens: not the London papers for you, child!

I met Jessie in 1997, still living in the Norfolk Park estate near the vicarage of St John’s Park where she had begun work at the age of 14 in 1920.

St John’s Vicarage, where Jessie worked. (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield Archives)

I visited her to interview her about her reading because I was writing about popular fiction in the 1930s. On every shelf in her tiny flat were pictures of her grandchildren, most of them in their graduation gowns. Yet Jessie herself never had any formal education.

Charles Dickens and Little Nell (Philadelphia, USA. By Smallbones. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence)

Jessie was born in 1906 and in 1920 became a wage-earner. The story of how she came to love Dickens in the 1920s reveals how much the status of Dickens has changed from the interwar period to the present day: from ‘childlike’ popular entertainer to classic author. The Cambridge academic Q D Leavis asserted in 1932, in Fiction and the Reading Public (p 157), that Dickens’

originality is confined to recapturing a child’s outlook on the grown-up world, emotionally he is not only uneducated but also immature.

Mercifully Jessie never encountered this diatribe against her favourite author and the class of people who were seduced by him. But by chance it was a comparably low opinion of Dickens and his association with uneducated readers that enabled her to gain access to his complete works.

I used to read the Times when I was 14 because my first job was in a vicarage as a cleaner. Now the Canon Greenwood he was a Londoner. At 14 I went to the vicarage and it was an old house and it was dreadful, scrubbing . . . I stayed there till I was 19 but he used to take the Sunday papers and of course I had a field day with them because we used to have an hour for lunch and the housekeeper she used to go to sleep and of course she seemed to resent me reading the newspapers. I don’t know why.  . . . He had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and she had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.

Jessie’s employer, Canon Henry Francis Greenwood, Vicar of St John’s Park Sheffield

She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see. Anything on there of Dickens or Shakespeare I am there, but it was through her – even her resentment gave me a gift. And I love Dickens’ characters – she let me take them home.

Charles Dickens (public domain)

She used to let me take the paper home if it was two or three days old but she used to resent that. Some of these people they resent poor people like we were, very poor, because my dad died when he was 47 and I was 14 and my mum was left to bring up three girls and she used to go out washing and cleaning. 

[The housekeeper] was so possessive with everything he the Vicar had – she was a proper giant to me.  She resented me probably it was because I wanted to know things and I knew things but she lent me the Dickens because she resented me reading the papers, the London papers.

In his book, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History, David Price makes the point that churches and chapels broadened the horizons of many who came into contact with them because their leaders had been educated outside Sheffield.[i] Her job at Canon Greenwood’s vicarage introduced Jessie to the London papers and the novels of Charles Dickens. Despite the drudgery she endured, the vicarage in which she spent the first five years of her working life made her aware of a world elsewhere.

St John’s Park Sheffield today

[i] David Price, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History (2018), p 4.