An Appetite to Read

By Mary Grover

We could not write about literary food without looking at our own Sheffield readers. Here from the interviews we recorded with Sheffielders born between 1920 and 1945…

When the Reading Sheffield team asked Sheffield readers what they liked to read, we often learned about what they liked to eat and how they combined eating and reading.

Comics, in particular, were described as a kind of food. Frank Burgin ‘ate comics’ and Josie Hall describes how her father ‘used to come home from work with a big pile of second-hand comics, and it was like manna from heaven: I just used to fall on them.’ 

For most of our readers, reading was an appetite, if not a craving.

Josie’s Mum had to wrest her book from her hand in order to get her to the lunch table: it was food or the book. Josie talks about reading as an addiction.

Oh yes, I’ve never smoked in my life but I know people who have and I actually do, I can, go into a panic if I haven’t got any reading material to hand or a book.  I have to take one everywhere, dentist’s, doctor’s, all waiting rooms and I can just blank off.  Even while the children have been playing on slot machines at the seaside I had to be in a corner, reading this book.  People must think I’m insane.  I panic if I haven’t got a book and I just think, “Yes, they’re your cigarettes”.  Where other people have to have a cigarette I have to have a book.  And I know which I’d rather choose. (Laughs) It’s a lot healthier.

Josie Hall

For a working woman or a mother with a day ahead full of housework and childcare, a solitary meal could be a precious opportunity to combine the compulsion to read with the necessity of eating. What Josie chose to eat for lunch was governed by whether it could be combined with holding a book:

I always have a sandwich at lunchtime and I know that the attraction of the sandwich is that I can read while I’m having lunch.

Doreen Gill who left school at fifteen to work as a cashier at Firth Brown’s used to read at her desk in the lunch hour: ‘Very unsociable but I used to do it’. The crumbs of her sandwich would creep in between the pages of Nevil Shute novel, a story by Edgar Allen Poe or a play by Terence Rattigan.

Doreen Gill

For the young servant in the vicarage of the Sheffield district of Park, the attraction of the lunch hour was that she used to have the house to herself while the housekeeper slumbered. ‘She was a proper giant to me’. Jessie Robinson at the age of 14 would tiptoe up to the study of the absent vicar and explore his copies of ‘the London papers’. When she was caught getting above her station in this way she was redirected by the giant herself to the vicar’s own copies of Dickens. 

St John’s Park Vicarage, Jessie’s grim workplace (reproduced by permission of Sheffield Libraries and Archives)

‘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.

So Dickens was suitable food for a working class girl while the London papers weren’t.

Perhaps the most remarkable way in which a meal provided an environment in which books could be accessed was the experience of the fifteen-year-old Frank Burgin who found himself in late 1940s eating dinner in a grand house near Stratford-upon-Avon and discussing his reactions to an Ernest Hemingway novel with his fellow apprentices.

Frank Burgin

‘A holiday was it?’ asked Loveday, his interviewer.

Oh God, no.  It was a course. You had to go and learn how to talk to Brummies and people like that without fighting!  It was all very posh catering, sort of thing, you went to breakfast with your jacket on.

A few weeks before the weekend away Frank got given an Ernest Hemingway, the title of which now escapes him, but the memory of that evening does not.

I talked about it. I presented it. I can remember doing it. I’m sure very very hesitantly, and I wasn’t as articulate then as I am now but at least I didn’t sort of stand there tongue-tied and say, ‘Aye, well it were crap’, like some did.

When Frank was asked why he thought the training officer had encouraged the boys to read, he replied,

It was to get us away from the back page of the ’Star’ and things like that. I mean they hadn’t invented page 3 then. No, it was all done to make us think. Some of us did think. It certainly woke up things in me that I didn’t know was there. I think it also made me think that perhaps there might be life beyond knocking very precise spots off big lumps of metal which I’d gone into engineering to do and was quite happy doing.

The posh catering, the discovery that he could talk in public about a novel he had read and the fact that a training officer thought it worth the boy’s while to read the novel changed the way Frank thought about reading and he became an avid reader. Somehow his tepid reaction to Hemingway prompted him to explore other pre-war writers and he came across the novels of Graham Greene, ‘who I did relate to’.

Frank, the boy who ‘ate comics’ became not only a wide reader but a student of physics. Having left school at 14 he was the only one of our readers to have gained a PhD.

Perhaps the most heartfelt appreciation of a set-text I have ever heard, was from a student who used a food metaphor. When I first started teaching the Sheffield Further Education College in the 1980s, I was lucky enough to have an English Literature class full of women who had returned to education after years of cooking, cleaning and caring for children. The GCSE set-text was J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls. When we had finished reading it through, one woman sighed appreciatively and announced, ‘Now that’s a right meat and potato pie of a book’. She knew what had ‘gone into’ that play and savoured the skills of the dramatist who had crafted it.

Here’s a recipe I found earlier: Meat and Potato Pie with a Chunky Suet Crust.

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