‘A great wealth’: the reading journey of Julia Banks

Julia was born in Chesterfield in 1939 and moved to Woodhouse on the east of Sheffield in 1945. In later life she became a primary school teacher.

Though there were not many books in the house, Julia’s home always had a bookcase and ‘books around’. Julia  was read to by both her mother and her aunt. The local library was the family’s chief source of books: ‘I was always taken to the library with my mother.’ Her mother’s favourite was Naomi Jacob.  Books were Julia’s favourite presents – Enid Blyton, for example: ‘I could never wait to get the next one. Mmm … Valley of Adventure and the Malory Towers series.‘

Aunt Lil, on her father’s side ‘bought books from Boots library, in town, when they were selling them off.‘ She bought history books and read them ‘avidly’. ‘She could talk about Elizabeth the First as if she were a neighbour, you know.’

I’ve still got Black’s Elizabeth that she gave me that I used to queue for at school or use from the reference library.

As a teenager, it was non-fiction that inspired Julia too.

Because I was at that stage when I was learning anyway and there wasn’t really time for just fiction. There wasn’t a lot of spare time to do nothing. If you’re at school you’ve got homework and you’re quite busy. But I can remember using it as a tool, really, the library.

The first adult fiction book Julia remembers reading was a book she borrowed from Woodhouse Library, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. It fascinated her because the life of the Chinese farming family was so alien but the feelings universal.

Pearl Buck

The library in Woodhouse was a great influence because they had a story hour for children in a lovely part of the building.

There was a fire place, benches and a carpet and you could sit there and listen to stories. That was in the children’s library … it was good to have something that could teach you something and lift you.

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children's Library

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children’s Library

A lot of Julia’s friends had homes in which there were no books. The presence of books in a home made her aware of ‘an outside … you were not just so concerned with the immediate’.  At some time she realised they were also a ‘ladder to social mobility’.

Julia went on to Bingley to train as a primary teacher. She and her friends tended to pass round books and share them. They studied ‘Anna Karenina, you know, Henry James, and you know all the … normal … things’.  She likes the fact that these books were not chosen by her.

I didn’t choose them and I think that’s good. Through school or through college you’re given prescripted books. Otherwise you would never get the chance to read them would you? As with Shakespeare you need to be taught how to read it and you should be, in my opinion, because it’s a great wealth to have. So I’m glad that I did read them but I wouldn’t go to the library and pick up Tolstoy.

But her favourite reading was Bertrand Russell: ‘you know the really hard stuff. You think, “well yeah, I never thought about that before but yeah”. You know? It was that you were learning something new.’

In 1965, when her husband’s job took the family to Holland, Julia came across a completely new source of books: the British Women’s Club Library in the Hague which was filled with paperbacks.  She and her friends would run through series after series, author after author.

Mm … oh… the Poirot series, Agatha Christie, and I read through Agatha Christie like I’d read through Enid Blyton as I was a girl and loved it. And eventually you realise they’re all the same don’t you? So you’d go onto something else. One friend, she read, oh the historical one, Georgette Heyer. So we went through all those. You know, that sort of reading. Again, because we’d not got a television and because you did have time; you’re in at nights, you’ve got children

‘And so you read,’ says our interviewer.

The other legacy of her time in Holland was a knowledge of nursery rhymes in Dutch. She learned these to prepare her two children for nursery school. ‘My Dutch is based on nursery rhymes.’

During her years as a mother of young children reading time was in short supply. Julia snatched time whenever and wherever she could, as she still does.

So, I read in bed at night, I read on the bus if I go into town on the bus which I often do. I never drive into town, I go on the bus. I’ve always got a book in my handbag, that’s why the size is more important than the content.

Julia connects the experience of reading, the process of writing and the role of prayer.

Reading takes you into different situations; it puts different questions, scenarios before you. …  I think very often if you read, just as if you write something, if you have a problem and you write it down it helps you to sort it out. Which I think the role is that prayer has, if you put something before somebody else really it’s like writing it down, you’re seeing it for what it really is rather than from a subjective point of view in a way.

Nowadays, Julia is more selective than she used to be and some books fail the ‘Darnall test’.

If I’ve not got into a book by the time I’ve got to Handsworth Church I very often shut it. … It passed the test if it got me through Darnall. Very often I’ve said ‘no’ and closed it before I’ve got to Darnall.

Julia looks back with gratitude on the people and libraries that helped her find the books she loved.  But she concludes that, though she would have found some way of reading, because of the person she is, it would have been harder without her Aunt Lil and her wonderful books, without the trips to the library with her mother.

I would still have gone because I’m me, so I would still have gone to do my research from school and I would still have joined the reading group and got great joy from it. I would have still read and got the books from the British Women’s Club in the Hague. But perhaps a bit later on. I was lucky, you know, I had a family that gave me books and encouraged me to read. And I do think it’s a great wealth to be able to read and enjoy literature.

You can find Julia’s interview here.

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