In October 2020, I gave a talk to the University Women’s Group about Sheffield readers and the novels of Charles Dickens. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own relationship with Dickens. You can find the full talk, with slides, under our Research tab here.
Unlikely as it may seem, in the 1930s intellectuals and academics such as the influential Q D and F R Leavis often dismissed Charles Dickens as an author for the uneducated masses. That assessment was strengthened when popular newspapers, fighting a circulation war, offered their readers relatively inexpensive sets of Dickens in presentation bookcases, making his novels available to a vast number of people. My father, who lectured on English Literature, grew up in the 1930s, in a modest home with one of those – in his case, treasured – sets of Dickens.
In 1934 the Daily Herald got the ball rolling with the first subscription offer: eighteen volumes for eleven shillings, a saving of 69 shillings on the market price. Frank Burgin, who grew up in Mosborough in the Thirties, described the process.
A man came round to the house getting you to buy the Daily Herald. My father said, ‘We’ll never use that newspaper because we don’t agree with those politics’, but eventually, the man must have been good, because he signed up so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.
For all that he remembered acquiring the novels, Frank was no great fan. But many other Reading Sheffield interviewees loved Dickens. Dorothy, for example, who saw poverty as she grew up in working class Sheffield, responded powerfully to the story of Oliver Twist, ‘the way he was treated’. Betty Newman, who in general dismissed novels, thought Dickens ‘was the nearest I got to fiction’ and concluded, ‘I don’t think he really is fiction’. For Dorothy, Betty and others, Dickens dealt in harsh economic realities which they recognised. They learned history from him. ‘It gave you an insight into just how unfortunate some people were and how they lived,’ said Peter Mason.
For others, it was Dickens’ vivid characters, like Mr Micawber and Magwitch, that captured the imagination. The frequent dramatisations and readings on BBC radio programmes of the period reinforced this. In 1930, for example, Bransby Williams, ‘the Famous Portrayer of Dickens Characters’, led a musical extravaganza, ‘A Pickwick Party’, subtitled ‘A Dickens Dream Fantasy’ with a ‘Chorus of Dickens Dogs and Dainty Ducks’.
In time academics like the Leavises changed their minds about Dickens. He was deemed a worthy subject for study, much to my pleasure, as I was brought up surrounded by my father’s Daily Herald copies of the novels. For eighteen years Dickens was a constant physical companion and, in my teens, an imaginative one.
For my father and thousands like him Dickens made reading and rereading, affordable and pleasurable. And it was the pleasures he delivered that enabled many unschooled children to get the reading habit.
Guest contributor Mike Peart, born in 1944, has lived in Sheffield for many years. He is an independent researcher, specialising in railway history.In March this year, Mike wrote A Reading Journey of Sorts. In the strange months since COVID arrived, he has expanded his original memories.
During my childhood in Heston, Middlesex, I don’t ever recall being taken to the local library. There certainly was one when it was the Borough of Heston & Isleworth, but I’m not sure if I ever darkened its door. My mother was a member of the Boots Booklovers’ Library in Hounslow which was the nearest large shopping centre. She regularly read her way through their books with the shield bookmark and eyelets punched into the binding. I’m not sure what she read but I suspect that much of it would have been linked to the films of the day as she was also a keen cinema-goer, going at least once a week with my godmother. Apart from Heston Library, there was also a library in Hounslow where an aunt of mine was librarian in the 1930s before she married. But my mother didn’t go there either. I wonder if she was suspicious of public libraries and their late 1940s preoccupation with infectious diseases and their effects on the book stocks. She had lost her firstborn in 1942 at the age of ten months to gastroenteritis and this affected her life and attitudes right up to her death in 1996. It may be that she thought the books at Boots were more hygienic, what with the Booklovers’ Library being consciously refined, not to mention the company being chemists and all that – but I don’t really know. Thinking back, I cannot remember my father ever reading any fiction – his reading was always related to his engineering profession.
I have absolutely no recollection of either parent or any aunt or uncle reading to me. I think my mother helped me although I don’t think it was from children’s books necessarily as we didn’t have any. It was just as likely that I had to read cartoon strips or sections for children in the Daily Express, the News Chronicle or even the Daily Mirror, all of which appeared in the house at some time or other during my childhood. I think that most of my reading at home started with occasional copies of the Dandy comic, then the Rupert Bear strip in, I think, the Daily Express newspaper. A legacy of Rupert’s simple rhyming in cartoon strips is my tendency to produce some awful verse. On shopping trips with my mother, I may well have read shop and bus signs and the labels in places like David Greig’s grocery and MacFisheries: the word ‘eels’ always looked strange to me. I did spend a lot of time listening to the valve radio, BBC Home Service and Light Programme, and Listen with Mother from 1950, noted for its ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ introduction. Some stories surely must have come across that way.
I think my mother told me I could read before I got to infant school in 1948/9, but I have no recollection of what reading and writing took place there under the kind, hatted and elderly Miss Farrah with her aura of eau-de-cologne and mothballs. The only thing I do recall from infant school is ‘music and movement’ to the accompaniment of a wind-up gramophone. It was only later in junior school years that some comic annuals started to appear as birthday or Christmas presents, although they weren’t what you would call ‘quality reading’. The tales of Desperate Dan, Biffo the Bear and Korky the Kat were hardly improving literature. I was also given a small number of the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton, although only a small fraction of the 21 apparently available in the series. They were read repeatedly during bouts of scarlet fever, chickenpox and German measles.
Apart from my mother’s library books, there were very few books at home although there was a small dark oak bookcase which was used for other purposes. As to its contents I can only recall an ancient edition of Pears’ Cyclopaedia and two hefty tomes called The Home Doctor and The Family Lawyer, all of which may have come from my paternal grandfather after he died in 1938. This latter volume was about three inches thick and served as a useful stand upon which to place the potty for a growing boy when potty training was taking place! (Was this the way of developing into a barrack-room lawyer through a process of osmosis?) The only fiction books of ours that I can recall at home were both prizes given to my father at school: Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith. I did try to read both, unsuccessfully I think, when I had scarlet fever at about the age of eight or nine.
My parents were members of the Heston Ratepayers’ Association and received their monthly RAM magazine about local matters which I also tried to read. (Almost 70 years later I write for RAM by the way!) Then there was my father’s collection of The Journal of the Proceedings of the Institution of Chartered Mechanical Engineers which apart from learned articles contained diagrams and photographs, some of which dealt with railways which has been an obsession of mine ever since. Otherwise, there were a few of my father’s engineering HND textbooks such as Strength of Materials and others dealing with workshop mathematics, use of the slide rule and logarithm tables.
I suspect that I only read anything available when the weather was bad, otherwise I’d have been outside playing, gardening and messing about with small bikes and home-made ‘trolleys’ with friends.
When the 11-plus was approaching, I do recall my mother buying me books of exercises called Progress Papers to work through. I think there was parental desperation to get me into the grammar school my father had attended and avoid the local senior school which didn’t have a good reputation and was home to the local bullies. I was also provided with Angus MacIver’s First Aid in English. These aids may well have helped my pass in the 11-plus in 1956 and I certainly became an expert in collective nouns – a smuck of eels, a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks, a clowder of cats – and McIver’s other obsessions such as proverbs and absurdities at a very early age.
The elephant is a bonny bird It flits from bough to bough It makes its nest in the rhubarb tree And whistles like a cow.
English at grammar school consisted of learning ‘rules’ by rote and being forced to work laboriously through Shakespeare – Twelfth Night in my case. I can recall my father having an unresolved argument and subsequent correspondence with my English teacher about the way the subject was being taught, and I really didn’t enjoy it at all, despite passing both English Language and English Literature at ‘O’ level. I enjoyed learning and speaking foreign languages far more and at the time probably read more French including Voltaire than any English authors. A neighbour, a retired army captain, lent me his copy of Mein Kampf looted from Berlin although the German was a little beyond me. I was, though, introduced to the German double ‘S’ (ß – Eszett) and gothic script. Keen to better my French while still at school, I started subscribing to Paris Match magazine and I went to Librarie Hachette in London to buy a decent-sized French dictionary. The assistants spoke French and I had to say something like ‘Où se trouvent les dictionnaires?’ to which the reply was ‘En bas’. A French penfriend knowing of my interest in railways kept me regularly supplied with La Vie du Rail magazine.
I ‘resigned’ (no better word for it) from grammar school in 1962 after the first and utterly uninspiring ‘A’ level year of French, German and English Literature. Trying to get into the intricacies of Voltaire’s Candide and Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann during the summer holiday when there was so much else to do was the clincher. The only spark had been occasionally struck by the headteacher, G J P Courtney, who taught the ‘A’ level French students and had written several of his own French grammar books. We were taught to sing the Marseillaise, the words of which I still know better than the second verse of our National Anthem! Instead, my great uncle who had been Director of Education for Winchester City and Hampshire and, reputedly, the founder of that county’s first girls’ grammar school, encouraged me to write. I corresponded with him by letter regularly and he gave feedback whilst also trying to persuade me to learn Esperanto. As a county president of the Rotary Club he saw Esperanto as a good way of improving international relations in the tense post-war years and he had several books in the language at his home in Winchester.
At the same time, I was by then Honorary Secretary of a railway preservation society and had to do a lot of typewritten correspondence with members, British Railways, potential backer celebrities such as John Betjeman, exhibition organisers, sponsors and the railway press. I also started and produced the society’s first regular newsletter to members, which developed into a quarterly magazine now at edition number 230. Both were duplicated at first and, apart from typing the stencils, I also had to write most of the copy despite many appeals to others to contribute. A fellow committee member, a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, urged me to qualify in journalism so I also started, but never finished, a correspondence course with the London School of Journalism. So far as books went, I was certainly by this time buying and studying a lot of books dealing with railway operation and working through official texts for the Institute of Transport qualification. I did work for British Railways between September 1962 and October 1964 and this was when I discovered I couldn’t pursue my railway operating management career because of defective colour vision. I had also asked about a two-year short service commission in the Army but they, too, needed perfect colour vision. Up to this point I had been based at home in Heston, Middlesex with central London and its suburbs as my universe.
My father retired in April 1965 and we immediately moved to Dulverton, Somerset. As I was available, I spent the first nine months helping my parents renovate a very run-down Georgian house which was their retirement home. Although I made numerous friends around Exmoor, I did find time to read and I bought several J B Priestley novels, The Flight of the Phoenix by Elleston Trevor and A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow. Faced with the need to find a new career, my next acquisitions were mainly Pelican text books dealing with psychology and criminology. I also acquired a large collection of grammar books, style guides and dictionaries from Foyles, as well as the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Byron and other English poets.
After the premature end of my railway career, I had paid for vocational guidance which had suggested following a career in either adult education, probation work, social work and, due to the highest ‘interest’ marks the Vocational Guidance Association had ever seen in their psychometric tests, striving to become a professional musician! I was a very bad self-taught pianist at the time and I realised that there was no way this occupation would earn me a living and the playing tailed off. Hence, the civil service beckoned after it was suggested by the Department of Employment’s Professional & Executive Register that I should join that very department: I did. It was only after retiring from the successor to that organisation in 1994 that I started to write, and I have since completed one management book for Hodder & Stoughton, contributed chapters to others, and have written four more books with a fifth currently in production for the National Railway Museum, plus countless articles for eight different organisations’ journals.
Despite my unpromising start with libraries, I have been over the years an enthusiastic user of Sheffield Central Library, Totley Library, central libraries in Hull, Grimsby and Manchester, some London borough libraries, the onetime government library in Moorfoot, Sheffield and the National Railway Museum library.
Even now in my seventies I do not buy, borrow or read fiction. I write surrounded by well over a thousand books – all of them works of reference, histories, geographic guides and technical books mainly dealing with railways. That said, I will happily watch television and film dramatisations of novels old and new. I do, though, feel that it’s cheating – much like absorbing the classics from the Classics Illustrated comics that I recall from the 1950s and 1960s. I will occasionally resort to radio dramatisations as well – creating the pictures for oneself is a pleasurable part of using that medium.
So, after such an unpromising and almost lifelong relationship with reading fiction, I now write mainly to entertain and inform others. A brief flirtation with journalism has helped me to produce copy quickly – never mind the quality, feel the width – and it was the positive encouragement of my great uncle which, I think, mainly set me on this path.