Alma’s Reading Journey

Alma was born in Rotherham, near Sheffield, in 1928, and lived there until she married around 1950 and moved to Sheffield. She trained at an art school and then, fulfilling an ambition, went to teacher training college.  

We always ask our interviewees how reading changed their lives.  A question which some, including Alma, find difficult to answer.  In Alma’s case, it may in part be because reading has been such an important part of her life.  At first Alma says:

It hasn’t … changed? Now that’s a big question and I’m going to need time to think about that … I’ve just loved reading.  I’ve just loved reading and whatever book I read it becomes part of me really, I think.  But I can’t think of anything it has specifically changed.

Alma was born into a working-class family in Rotherham in 1928 and grew up in the town.  She cannot remember learning to read or being read to as a child, but her family set store by reading.  There were books in the house, along with comics, magazines and newspapers.

Well, I had this lovely aunty Alma who bought me a Peter Pan book … and I wanted to read it and I just read it!  So I must have been able to read.  And I can remember loving that book because of the tissue paper pictures.  So that was my very first book … I had another auntie, Rosie, who bought me another present but it was a Dickens book and I didn’t really like that one, I didn’t like that one.  But I loved Peter Pan, I remember that.

We had books in the house!  We had books in the house.  We had a bookcase! … Well there was a set of Wonderland of Knowledge books which we used to get down and look at those.  I can remember looking at those.  There was a bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays which I remember had sort of vellum covers, we looked at that. A book I did love, it was called A Century of Humour and that was full of short stories, short humorous stories.  I remember reading that, I do remember that.

Dad had a lot of political books.  They were all bound with brown paper, they were … we didn’t touch his books … Oh he [read them], yes, he was very politically-minded.

I had a Chips comic every week … which I must have read from cover to cover.  And we [had] a Picture Post every Friday and I used to sit on the settee, I remember looking at pictures – I loved the Picture Post we had on a Friday and there was a daily newspaper but I don’t remember reading that.  It was a News Chronicle.  So that was my reading at home.

When she was older, Alma turned to the local library.

So off I went to Rotherham Library which I loved going to.  It was like a cathedral.  It was all hushed and quiet and wooden floors and everything cleaning [sic] and polished and nobody spoke to you and all the books were still hard-backed books, you know, with the covers, no fancy covers like they are today.  And I loved it …

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

In those days Alma says she dreamed of being a librarian.  She easily recalls books she enjoyed, like Anne of Green Gables (‘I loved Anne of Green Gables’), the Pollyanna books and J B Priestley.  His novel The Good Companions was a particular favourite:

The best book, the best book which I read over and over again … I did love that.  In fact I read it so much that when I travelled to school on the bus I used to look at people on the bus and fit them into the characters.

Years later, Alma did the same with Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood: ‘that one would be that one, and that one would be that one’.

Given this habit of casting characters, it is perhaps not surprising that Alma enjoyed reading plays too – she mentions Priestley and George Bernard Shaw.  Later this led to performing. ‘I loved the plays and I was in a drama society that I acted in some plays. I love plays, yes.’  She even had a go at writing her own play based on Jane Eyre:

I can remember writing a play, the one where she made her stand on a chair because she went out in the rain walking around a yard or something.  I can’t remember it very well but I do remember that.

Education was a mixed experience for Alma.  From the age of nine, she went to Rotherham Central School (a ‘very good school’) and enjoyed it.  Her ‘really wonderful’ English teachers ‘introduced us to lots of poetry: Walter De La Mare, John Masefield’.  But Alma failed her 11+ exam and had to leave at the age of 14.  The usual option was a job but Alma chose – on impulse – to do something else:

There were three things you could do.  You could go and work in an office … Or you could go to be a nurse … and, as my aunties had all been nurses, they all thought I was going to be a nurse.  Or you could go and apply for an art school.  Now I’d got these three choices.  Now, as my best friend was going to an art school, I decided I would go to an art school so I went for the interview and I got accepted to go to art school for two years.  So from 14 to 16 I was at Rotherham Art School.

Alma says that she was not particularly good at drawing but she was learning and loved it, and she was able to continue her reading in the nearby library.  After two ‘lovely’ years, it was time to leave again.  A teacher asked Alma what she wanted to do.

‘Well really I want to be a teacher.’  I’d always wanted to be a teacher and the fact [was] that I had failed my 11+ and I hadn’t got to high school and I hadn’t been able to do my School Certificate or anything.  I thought that had gone.  I said, ‘I really always wanted to be a teacher,’ and to my surprise he said, ‘But you still can.’  And it was just as if a light had gone in my world; I thought it was wonderful! Wow, I could be a teacher!

Alma could transfer to Rotherham High School, but she would have to get her School Certificate in a year.  ‘And I ran home.  I remember running home to my parents and saying, “I can go.  I can be a teacher!  I can go to the high school!”’

The new school was daunting at first, but Alma seems to have relished the challenge.

I was the only girl in the whole school who hadn’t got a uniform.  Of course, it didn’t matter.  I did have to go for an interview and I did have to do an English test and a maths test but, because the art school used to do maths one morning and English one morning, I was ok with that and so I got in.  So I was in with all these very clever girls, feeling very, very much the odd one out but taking in every word and writing everything and learning like goodness-knows-what and, when we did have the exam, I passed with flying colours.  I did.  I got a distinction in everything. I don’t know why but I did.

When Alma wonders why she succeeded, is it fanciful to think that, alongside good teaching and her own determination, her reading habit had helped?  Here surely is proof of the power of libraries.

So Alma went to teacher training college, with the enthusiastic support of her family (‘they backed me a hundred per cent … and I know it was a hardship’).

Despite the demands of college, reading for pleasure continued.  ‘When I was at home, I can remember reading in bed a lot.’  All this seems to have helped Alma set standards without realising it:

What I can remember is going to my Grandma’s and seeing a little magazine called Peg’s Paper and it was a gaudy cover of a girl hiding behind a door or something and I thought, ‘What’s that?’ and I started reading it, little short stories, and I thought, ‘This is rubbish’.  I never looked at it again, I don’t know who got it, who was having this Peg’s Paper.  I thought I’m not wasting my time reading that rubbish.

Authors she enjoyed include: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Jerome K Jerome, Dylan Thomas, T S Eliot and Francis Brett Young.  Of these, Jerome K Jerome still has a special place in her affections: ‘I still like Three Men in a Boat and, if I’m feeling a bit miserable, I read Three Men in a Boat.’

Jerome Klapka Jerome, published by Ogden's. Cigarette card, published circa 1894-1907. 2 1/4 in. x 1 3/8 in. (56 mm x 36 mm) overall. Given by Terence Pepper, 2012. Photographs Collection NPG x136534

Jerome Klapka Jerome, published by Ogden’s. Cigarette card, published circa 1894-1907. 2 1/4 in. x 1 3/8 in. (56 mm x 36 mm) overall. Given by Terence Pepper, 2012. Photographs Collection NPG x136534

Marriage in 1950 changed Alma’s reading habits.  At first, she read less, as she was living with her in-laws who were not readers, and the move to Sheffield meant starting anew in a new library (‘it was very big and I didn’t like it so I didn’t go’).  But when they got their own house in 1952, Alma and her husband both read.  Alma started reading real-life adventure like Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki because her husband liked them, and she also remembers biographies, books about ballet which interested her, and classic detective fiction by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham.

And so to the question about reading changing lives.

It hasn’t … changed? Now that’s a big question and I’m going to need time to think about that … I’ve just loved reading.  I’ve just loved reading and whatever book I read it becomes part of me really, I think.  But I can’t think of anything it has specifically changed.

But perhaps it fed your imagination, suggests the interviewer.  And Alma nails it.

It has fed my imagination, yes.  I know very well that I couldn’t live without books.   That’s a dead cert.  I need books, yes.

by Val Hewson

Access Alma’s transcript and audio here.

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