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.

Rosalie Huzzard’s reading journey

Rosalie is not a native Sheffielder, moving to the city in 2003 to be near her family. She is therefore not part of the original Reading Sheffield group, but it’s great to welcome her as a guest contributor. She was interviewed by Alice Collins on 7 March 2019. Alice wrote up the notes with Rosalie’s agreement. There is no audio record.

I was born in Redruth, Cornwall on 7 August 1926. My father was a Methodist Minister who had an extensive collection of books. I was an early reader and I could read before I went to school aged five. I don’t remember who taught me to read but reading and education were encouraged in our family. I always had a bedtime story from my parents, tucked up in bed. My brother and I weren’t read to together. He was younger than me and had bronchial asthma. He had to rest a lot and wasn’t such a big reader as me anyway.

Rosalie around 1932, when she was 5 or 6 years old

Stories I remember were Beatrix Potter books: Jemima Puddle-duck; Jeremy Fisher; Peter Rabbit; Mrs Tiggy-Winkle; Flopsy Mopsy and Cotton Tail, The Little Red Hen. Our equivalent of modern day picture books. They were illustrated with animal characters and very popular. Anthropomorphic, I suppose.

When I was seven or eight, I borrowed books from my father’s bookshelves. I read classics like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Dombey and Son. I can’t say I always finished these books but I remember enjoying what I read. I realise now the social and racial injustices described in those books completely passed me by. I may have been attracted to the children/family names in the titles. It’s only by going back and re-reading these books have I realised what they were really about. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is set just before the outbreak of the American Civil War. It’s horrifying to think what the slaves went through. Re-reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin prompted me to use GoogIe to find out more about the conditions of the slaves. I don’t think I understood Dombey and Son. Re-reading that, I have got more out of it and realise it’s not a children’s book.

Uncle Tom and Little Eva (illustration by Hammat Billings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin)

However, trying to read these long classics didn’t put me off reading. I felt then I should have read more. I wanted to read Anna Karenina at that time but didn’t get round to it. I currently belong to the RNIB [Royal National Institute for the Blind] talking books service. Up until recently I went to a sight-impaired women’s reading group but my sight has deteriorated so now I listen to books on a Daisy Player. I’m still a bit daunted by Anna Karenina today.

As a child, I read at night, under the bed covers, with a torch. I was allowed to read in bed then at lights out I was expected to put my book away and go to sleep. Often I was enjoying my book too much to obey.

Later, I remember joining the public library. I enjoyed Georgette Heyer stories – Georgian and historical romances. There was lots of competition for my time then – school, reading school books. I remember reading and learning poetry by heart. It felt a bore at the time but now I’m glad I did as I can still remember some lines. I remember Cargoes by John Masefield.

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,

In 1936, when I was ten, my father got his first car. He didn’t have any lessons – just had a few tootles up and down the road – then we set off for a camping holiday to the West Country. I read some of my first paperbacks on that holiday. They probably included popular crime stories – I liked Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers.

When I was 13 I was evacuated to Redditch. I was living in Felixstowe with my parents at the start of the war, then Dunkirk happened. Fears of invasion prompted my parents to send myself and my brother to safer places. My brother had problems with his foot, so he went to a minor public school. I went, with a friend, to Redditch.

We continued our education there at a boys’ grammar school. They had to give up a classroom for us girls. We had half a day in the classroom; the other half of the day we were supposed to read school books. But I have memories of reading just what we wanted, sitting up in the trees in the sun. These were library books from the local library. I can remember liking PG Wodehouse around that time. There was a library in the local WH Smith shop as well.

I left school and matriculated at 15. I went to the Ipswich College of Art for two years. I loved art and wanted to be a dress designer. This was during the war years and many college lecturers had been called up. There were not many opportunities for dress designers in those times. I don’t remember reading; I was too busy doing other things.

I moved to Liverpool in 1945 and to London in 1946 to pursue my career in dress design. This was a long period of training to become a pattern cutter. I worked at C & A Modes in Islington and lived at YWCA in Highgate. Firms would take on designers for each new collection. I did design work for fashion houses, including Susan Small, and learnt drape cutting and tailoring there.

In 1952 I married Ron Huzzard. I’d met Ron at a London rambling club. He was an ardent trade unionist and member of the Labour Party, which he encouraged me to join. We had two children together. I left work when the children were born and went back when the younger was six years old. I joined the Society of Friends in the mid 1960s. I later became active in Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and campaigns for social justice and peace.

During this period I wasn’t reading much – I was too busy with work and looking after my family. My work life was changing – fashion became boring with the advent of the mini skirt. I felt there was little scope for design work so I changed tack and went to work as a political organiser for the Labour Party in Orpington. Typically, I worked 60 hours a week, as a campaign agent. I worked in the Greater London Council and the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), in Ken Livingstone’s office. It was an exciting time: socialism in practice.

I remember being in book groups in London, We read contemporary novels and some classics. I enjoyed Middlemarch.

Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Jensen Society, 1910)

I moved to Sheffield in 2003. My daughter lives here, my son in Sweden. I have two grand-daughters and the whole family keep in touch via Gran Facebook.

I’ve often had a feeling I’ve missed out on the classics. I’m trying to remedy that now by catching up on talking books on my Daisy wheel – I can get the whole book on one CD. I always have a book on the go – it’s how I spend my time these days. I’ve read Dickens and Austen and get a lot out of reading them now I’m older.

Looking back, my parents always encouraged me to read, which I’m pleased about. But I’ve always been a ‘doer’ in life, so sometimes I didn’t have time to read as much as I’d have liked to.

As told to Alice Collins by Rosalie Huzzard

Complaining about Firth Park Library (Part 2)

The old Firth Park Library building today

On Wednesday 3 September 1930, the Sheffield Telegraph printed a complaint about the new branch library at Firth Park. Signed by someone using the pseudonym ‘Liber’ (the Latin word for ‘book), the letter expressed dissatisfaction with the library’s books of literary criticism and also with its ‘third-rate thrillers’. ‘Surely,’ concluded Liber, ‘our Libraries Committee can do better than this’. (Here is the full letter.)

Presumably smarting under this attack, Alderman Alfred Barton, who chaired the Libraries Committee, replied the very next day. His letter in the Telegraph read:

FIRTH PARK LIBRARY BOOKS

Sir, —It is a new experience for the Sheffield Public Libraries to be criticised on the score of the quality of their book stocks, as they pride themselves on the catholicity of their selection. Liber, who criticises from an extremely narrow angle and an inadequate knowledge of the Firth Park stock, is apparently unaware of the problems to be faced in stocking a branch library.

The Firth Park Library contains 14,000 books for adults. There are actually 8,000 borrowers using this library. The book stock must cover the whole field of knowledge; it must also be selected to meet very heavy demands in certain popular lines of reading. The number of books in each subject is obviously conditioned by the number of people who will read them; further, regard must also be paid the stock carried in adjacent branches and the Central Library. The number of people who require what may be called specialised books at a branch library is very limited; a branch stock clearly must be of an introductory type. It would be uneconomic to stock heavy ranges of little-used books at a branch, where they would be largely ‘dead.’ The reader of wide range is catered for at the Central, and a system is now being whereby a reader who finds a branch stock insufficient for his needs can draw on the whole library service through his own branch. Perhaps Liber and others who have gone beyond branch library type books will make their wants known to the staff, who will gladly obtain any book not on stock at Firth Park from some other library. In fact, through any of our library units the service will obtain any book in print for any reader.

As regards Liber’s specific complaints, here are the answers. He complains:

There is no single recent book on the history of English drama

No complete set of Ibsen, and no works by Granville Barker.

There are only two books on the general history of the novel.

No works by George Moore.

Only two books go beyond the Victorian age in poetry.

My replies are:-

Brawley’s Short history of the English drama (1921) is in the library. The only other general work on this subject, by Nicoll, is in other libraries, and can be obtained on request.

A complete Ibsen does not circulate too well, even in the Central. It would be dead wood at a branch. There are fifteen plays by Ibsen in Firth Park. Barker is not stocked at any branch, merely because the demand does not justify it.

In addition to Phelps and Saintsbury, there are Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Drew’s Modern Novel, and Williams’s Some Great English Novels.

George Moore does not circulate if placed in branch libraries; further, few of his works are in print at reasonable prices.

Will Liber recommend through the Librarian any books on modern poetry which he knows to be good? The field is very limited, as he probably knows.

May I conclude by pointing out to Liber that a branch library cannot attempt to cater for specialised reading, such as he suggests should be provided for periods of the drama. Liber is one of many who would have his own subject heavily represented, without regard to the balance of demand in other classes. The librarian who has the unenviable job of selecting books on every subject to meet the diverse demands of 8,000 readers must undertake the task with wide views and sympathies, and it is not unreasonable to ask cultured readers to try to view the problem from a similar angle.

Will Liber help us to build up this library’s stock by using the machinery of book proposal? His assistance will be welcomed.—Yours, etc.,

A. Barton, Chairman, Libraries and Museums Committee

Alderman Barton would not have written the response himself. Without detailed knowledge of library stock, including specialised works, he would have referred the matter to the combative City Librarian, Joseph Lamb. I have read enough library records now to be sure that Lamb either drafted the reply himself or approved it and added some final touches. He was never backwards in coming forwards.

Liber, who criticises from an extremely narrow angle and an inadequate knowledge of the Firth Park stock, is apparently unaware of the problems to be faced in stocking a branch library.

A complete Ibsen … would be dead wood at a branch.

Lamb would have taken badly the criticism of the new library, the first to be opened under his leadership and to include his theories about design and operation.

A librarian who has looked at the correspondence says that Liber’s complaint is common enough, and that the lines of the response, if blunt, are absolutely right. (She also admires the neat closure, inviting Liber to suggest some new books.) A branch library would necessarily have had a smaller and more popular stock than a central library. That Firth Park had as many as 15 of Ibsen’s plays is surprising. No branch library could not – cannot – afford to carry books which few people would borrow, and, as Barton says, books could be borrowed from other libraries in the city and across the country.

Alderman Barton’s response ignores one point made by Liber: those ‘third-rate thrillers’. Public libraries were at this time generally wary of spending ratepayers’ money on popular fiction. In a local BBC talk in 1927, the then chief librarian, Richard Gordon, had said that:

In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.

But Gordon had also acknowledged the ‘value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading’. After he became chief librarian, Lamb decided to emphasise popular fiction in branches, in an experiment to increase borrowers. Firth Park had plentiful stocks of books by novelists like Edgar Wallace and Ethel M Dell, and publicised this. Lamb based his experiment on an analysis of borrowers, which concluded that, unless they were looking for something particular, people ‘read along mass lines’ and were drawn to ‘attractive’ books. When Liber complained, in September 1930, it was presumably too early to know the outcome of the experiment and so the point went unaddressed. But in time, Lamb reported ‘impressive’ results, with issues increasing by 300,000 over the year and borrowers by almost 12,000 across the city. (The story of Lamb’s experiment is here.)

Whatever Liber thought, Firth Park was already proving very popular. On the same day Barton’s letter appeared in the Telegraph, there was an article in the Sheffield Independent, perhaps planted by Lamb who was a canny publicist:

LITERARY FIRTH PARK. READS MORE THAN ANY OTHER PART OF CITY.

More books were issued from the new public library at Firth Park during last month than there were from the Central Lending Library in Sheffield; and the issues from the Central Library are amongst the highest in the country.

The Firth Park Library was opened only at the end of July. During August no fewer than 38,820 books were issued, whereas the issues from the Central Lending Library were 38,545.

The speed and firmness of Barton’s response, and the Independent article, may also have been intended to head off political criticism. There were local elections in November 1930 and the opposition had concerns about the ruling Labour Party’s spending, including on libraries:

…the speaker said “We have a mania for ‘super things’. Everything must be a show place for people to come to see. … we might have had a Central Library for somewhere round about £70,000, but instead of this we arc going to pay £90,000 for it. This is simply because we have not invited architects all over the country to plan it for us, but are going to pay the City Architect [a] £1,000 honorarium for one plan.” (Sheffield Telegraph, on an election meeting on 19 September 1930)

Liber never seems to have written to the papers again, at least using that pseudonym.

Complaining about Firth Park Library (Part 1)

A library cannot contain every book upon every subject…

‘What do you mean, you don’t have …?’ Library staff often hear grumbling like this, and presumably always have. Here is a complaint, printed in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Wednesday 3 September 1930, about the books available, or rather not available, in Firth Park Library, on the north side of the city.

Sir, —The Libraries Committee may justifiably take a pride in the new Firth Park Library, so far as furnishings and equipment go. In that respect it is excellently fitted up, and is probably one of the best for a great distance round. But reading desks and card indexes, do not make a library, and one cannot but feel that the Committee did not take as good advice in the choice of the books as in the matter of equipment. One realises, of course, that there are limitations, and that a library cannot contain every book upon every subject, but surely, however small the number of books, they should be widely representative and as up to date as possible.

A few days ago I visited the Firth Park branch in search of information on English literature. To my surprise I found that there was not a single recent book on the history of English drama. The modern period was represented by two books, and the Elizabethan by two; on other periods of drama there was nothing whatever. The selection of modern plays, one must admit, is on the whole good, though there is no complete set of Ibsen, and not a single work of so important a dramatist as Granville Barker.

The state of literature on the novel is about as bad as that on drama. There are two books only on the general history of the novel, and neither can be called modern. Several good books have been written on the subject of late years, yet we are denied the privilege of consulting them in an up-to-date library. One book only deals with the present-day novel, and there is one on the theory and technique of novel writing, and as for the novels themselves, surely there is something wrong with a library system which admits shelves full of third-rate thrillers, and yet excludes the best works of George Moore.

But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all is in the literature upon poetry. Of the eight books on the subject only two go beyond the Victorian age. Modern day poetry, apparently, is not worth reading about. On subjects other than literature I am not qualified to speak, but I should not be at all surprised to learn that they are catered for as efficiently. Surely our Libraries Committee can do better than this. It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.— Yours, etc., LIBER

The old Firth Park Library building today

Firth Park Library was, as the writer says, new. It had opened six weeks earlier, on Thursday 24 July, with a stock of 15,000 books. It was the first new library in the city for 24 years and the first-ever in the area. It was purpose-built, incorporating the latest ideas about design, operation and service. There were separate junior and adult libraries, which was then an innovation. Firth Park was an important step in the plan to reform and develop the city’s public library service. The Sheffield Telegraph was unequivocal:

There is no institution which has such a marked influence on the culture of the general community as the public library, and it is a healthy sign when a Corporation finds itself obliged to build more. Sheffield is in that happy position… (Friday 25 July, 1930)

Liber’s complaint about the availability of books must therefore have been disappointing for the Council and the library staff, particularly since the writer chose the local press as medium, rather than a quiet word over the counter. It’s impossible to say at this distance if Liber was a serial complainer, well-known to the librarians. Nor can we be sure of the writer’s gender or profession.

What is clear, even after 90 years, is Liber’s determination to establish impressive intellectual credentials. There’s also a more than a suggestion of pomposity. The choice of pseudonym – Liber, meaning ‘book’ in Latin – is a hint, and the style of the letter is, well, superior:

To my surprise I found…

…yet we are denied the privilege…

But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all…

It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.

Liber condemns the ‘third-rate thrillers’ to be found on the library shelves, and demands the controversial and avant-garde: Ibsen (1828-1906), Granville Barker (1877-1946), George Moore (1852-1933) and ‘modern poetry’. The poetry probably meant the work of W H Auden, Stephen Spender, T S Eliot, Samuel Beckett and others. Ibsen, Granville Barker and Moore were hardly the latest thing (Ibsen was long dead, and the other two were elderly), but their work had often challenged the status quo. None of these writers could have been described as popular in the Sheffield of the 1930s.

Leaving aside literary considerations, there may just have been something political behind the letter. Local elections were due in November 1930, with the opposition keen to unseat the ruling Labour Party and accusing it of wasting money, including on libraries. But Liber doesn’t mention money, and likes the library’s appearance. His or her concern seems solely to be about the apparently inadequate selection of books.

The Council’s response was swift and decided. You can read it in Part 2 of this post, to be published shortly.

We’ll also be looking soon at the controversy surrounding the ‘socialist clique’ invited to the opening ceremony for Firth Park.

Janice’s Reading Journey

Janice Maskort was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 2000 and 2010, and still lives in the city. She was born in Orkney and grew up in Kent. Janice worked for Kent County Libraries for several years, including in Maidstone, Rochester and Canterbury, until her move to Sheffield. Reading has been a pleasure, a mainstay, a need all her life.

Here Janice describes the beginning of her reading journey.  

Janice as a young child

I was reading long before school. I will never forget the moment when I realised that I could read. I was in church with my father and the hymn was All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I knew. Turning my hymn book round (I was holding it upside down), I realised that the black marks were the words! I was so excited I climbed on the pew and shouted, ‘Daddy, I can read!’ The Presbyterian congregation did not appreciate my joyful interruption, and I was smacked and went without pudding at lunch. I was so thrilled that I didn’t care and went round the house looking for print to practise on. As a librarian I was always moved when a child learned to read whilst in the library. It was like finding the key to a magic kingdom.

My parents were both serious readers and regular public library users. My mother was also a member of Boots Booklovers’ Library, which was in walking distance. Going to the ‘proper’ library entailed a long bus journey. Once my father bought a car, however, trips to the public library were easier.

There was a reasonable collection of books at home but very little children’s literature. I was always begging my many aunts and uncles for books as birthday or Christmas presents. As my mother was one of ten children and my father one of four, I did pretty well. In those days children often received postal orders as presents and if I could prevent my mother from appropriating the money for new shoes, I was able to buy a book. One Christmas my aunt in Canada sent me Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, but this was an edition all in pictures with truncated text. I adored it and was very disappointed when my father bought me the original version. I missed the illustrations.

The copy of Heidi bought by Janice’s father

I could not have survived without the library. I could always read at great speed; it is genetic and my daughter inherited the skill. Even then though the library was frustrating. We were only allowed three books at a time and I had read them all in the first 24 hours. Then a whole week before the next visit! Being able to read so fast was a blessing and a curse as my daughter also discovered. No teacher would believe me when I said I had finished the set book on the first day and I was always being surreptitiously tested. Eventually a new headmistress recognised my genuine distress at being accused of lying and told the staff that I could have access to all the books in the classroom. In later years I found myself trying to explain the ability to my daughter’s teachers.

My parents who were strict in some ways were remarkably liberal about reading and I was allowed to read anything. The only book my mother ever censored was a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. I still have no idea why. I have never subscribed to the theory that children should only read ‘age-appropriate’ material. I had browsed The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Kama Sutra before I was eleven. I only understood what I knew and ignored the rest. My mother asked me one day what the Kama Sutra was about. She had no idea what it was. I remember saying that it was very strange but had a chapter on flower arranging (as it has). Neither she nor I had any idea why my father laughed so much!

My father did get exasperated at my constant questions about unfamiliar words and introduced me to the dictionary. I found it helpful but also frustrating as each definition seemed to require another one and I often felt I was going round in circles. He gave me an atlas as well but when I couldn’t find Narnia, I decided it wasn’t very helpful. One day he arrived home with an old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. This kept me going for a whole summer. I read all the stories first, then history and mythology. I ignored most of the ‘informative’ sections but do remember lace-making in Nottingham, dress-making pins from Sheffield and shoes in Leicester.

As a child I suffered badly from bronchial asthma and in the winter, not helped by the awful fogs and coal fires of the period, I was often off school for weeks. This did little for my maths; I seemed to miss the introduction of long division or whatever. However I could read in bed. I preferred my mother’s choice of books from the library. She often took Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. My father brought The Last of the Mohicans and Wind in the Willows (which I never liked). But Dad also gave me David Copperfield, which began a lifelong love of Charles Dickens. There were lots of books for boys too, but I found all the stories of saving the empire and killing natives both boring and upsetting. I didn’t mind stories about animals as long as there were no killing sprees. My father, who often went abroad for work, did give me travel books and I adored Farley Mowat’s book about the Inuit people.

Rumpelstiltskin, from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (ca. 1889)

Original illustration from David Copperfield

Original illustration from David Copperfield

I was called an imaginative child, but in fact all children are. I lived my characters. If I was told off, I was Marie Antoinette in a tumbril or Mary Queen of Scots on the block. Like many children, I found comfort and solace in my literary companions.

When I was ten, I won a national painting competition. We had to paint ‘the most exciting place in the world.’ I was the only child to paint a library.  I won an enormous box of Reeves paints but was also allowed to choose a book. I opted for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and my father was disappointed, as he wanted me to pick something sensible like Woodworking Tips for Boys. I still have my prize book.

My sister Rebecca and I began classifying our own books early on. Well, I did, and she enjoyed stamping them out to our dolls. To this day I wonder why we classified Ballet Shoes as ‘E7’. It’s as incomprehensible as the Library of Congress classification scheme.

Not all of my large, extended family approved of my addiction to books. When I was diagnosed with severe myopia, at the age of ten, my poor mother often faced a chorus of ‘Well, we told you she would go blind’. I remember, in her defence, saying to one great aunt that sewing also made one go blind and told her about French nuns ruining their eyes making lace. She looked at me and said ‘Well, we don’t need to worry about your reaching that level of expertise.’ This was unfair because I can sew, but her embroidery was exquisite.

Orkney was an important influence. My mother was Orcadian, as am I, and in my childhood we went there every year. We visited lots of relatives and I was allowed access to all their books. There were a lot of Victorian ‘prize books’ and I read many moralistic tales in which daughters saved their fathers from intemperance and nursed dying siblings. Later on I did my dissertation on the impact of prize books as a major source of reading material in isolated and poor communities. This is probably where my love of Victorian and Edwardian literature began, although my mother’s admiration for Mrs Henry Wood might also have been a factor. She and I often intoned ‘Gone! And never called me mother!’[i]

Some of Janice’s collection of prize books

Orkney has a strong oral tradition so I experienced stories long before I could read. Language is powerful and its cadences and rhythms communicate so much. As a librarian I was passionate about telling or reading stories to children. For example, I have worked with children with severe learning difficulties and have never failed to engage with them through stories. And on another occasion, when I visited Africa for work, I followed a story-telling session. The children all knew and loved the story. I couldn’t understand a word but heard the build-up and the repetition of phrases. I was gripped. When we reached the denouement, I fell off my chair, which made the little ones laugh. While I didn’t understand the words, I felt the power of the story.

 

[i] This famous line is in fact not from Mrs Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, but from the stage adaptations.

Nicholas Monsarrat, now and then

By Chris Hopkins, Professor of English Studies and Head of the Humanities Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University

Nicholas Monsarrat, his naval books are extremely good … Oh yes, yes, one could get the impression with them that you were there.  He expressed the feeling and he kind of gave graphic descriptions of the way the sea rules, whoever’s on the sea, no matter whether you’re a little skiff or a big destroyer or a battleship of whatever it is, the sea at the end of the day is in charge and you get that impression with Monsarrat that whilst we, and his men, did very well, the sea inevitably won.

Peter Mason (b. 1929)

In May 2019 the reading groups from our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, read popular authors or books read by our Sheffield interviewees years earlier and still remembered by them. We wanted to discuss ‘then and now’ – why an author or book was popular in the mid-20th century and why he or it remains well-known today, or has been forgotten. Here, in the first of a short series of posts, is guest blogger Chris Hopkins, writing about Nicholas Monsarrat.

Monsarrat was born in Liverpool in 1910. He studied law but decided early on to become a writer. In World War II he served in the Royal Navy, and drew on his experiences for his books. After the war, he continued to write, and also became a diplomat. Many of his books are in print, but he is not well-known today.

Plaque commemorating Nicholas Monsarrat at his birthplace, 11 Rodney Street, Liverpool. (image by Rodhullandemu, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979) and his novels are referred to quite often in the Reading Sheffield interviews (in fact by nine readers, three male and six female).[i] His most famous novel is The Cruel Sea (Cassell, 1951), a best-seller in its own right, the popularity of which was further magnified by a successful film (made at Ealing Studios and directed by Charles Freund, 1953). The film made stars of a number of the actors in its cast, including Jack Hawkins, Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, and Stanley Baker. Monsarrat had published a number of novels before the war, but it was his post-war naval novel which first made him a best-seller. He went on to have a very successful writing career, publishing novels on quite a broad variety of topics (not all maritime).

During the war, Monsarrat had been commissioned directly into the RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve) solely on the basis of pre-war yachting experience, which gave him sufficient navigational skills. He earned steady promotion from postings on relatively small ships carrying out hazardous convoy escort work, rising from the rank of sub-lieutenant to lieutenant-commander by 1945. During the war he published with Cassell a number of short and more-or-less documentary accounts of his experiences. These included HM Corvette (1943), East Coast Corvette (1943), Corvette Command (1944) and HM Frigate (1946). The three corvette books were reissued in one volume as Three Corvettes in 1945. Monsarrat then revisited this material and worked it up into a fully novelistic form (with many additions) to create The Cruel Sea.

I had read all these books over the last few years, so for this reading group I decided to buy another post-war Monsarrat which I hadn’t read: HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour (1947). This turned out to be not a full-length novel, but three long short stories, which had originally been published under the title Depends What You Mean by Love (the title was amended to the title of the first story in 1956 – which I suspect will have more effectively attracted Monsarrat fans than the less naval and less informative original title).

HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour

The three short stories are called HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour, Leave Cancelled and Heavy Rescue. I enjoyed the HMS Marlborough story best and will mainly focus on it as it seems most typical of Monsarrat’s work of the nineteen-forties, but will also report on the two accompanying stories. Marlborough is a sloop – a small ship class from early in the war intended for escort duties, and later reclassified as corvettes. Returning from Atlantic escort duty independently (that is, alone), she is a day or so away from her British port. The very first sentence of the story reports that she is hit by a torpedo and severely damaged. The captain (I don’t think he is ever named) and the bridge-crew try to assess the damage, establish casualty numbers and bring some order. It becomes clear that many men below deck are dead or missing, that the hull is holed in the bow, and that the ship is so far off an even keel that the screws are out of the water. Soon more men below decks drown as they try to shore up a collapsing bulkhead. The captain knows that the ship is likely to sink and without power, it is adrift and at the mercy of enemy ships, and perhaps immediately threatened by the undetected U-boat which fired the fatal torpedo. The captain also knows that he should give the order to abandon ship since though very risky, it is probably safer than staying aboard.

But here a factor kicks in which the captain fully knows is not really part of his naval training and experience: he feels such affection and attachment for Marlborough that he simply does not want to abandon her and cannot quite believe she will not bring him and the surviving crew home (hence the story being included in the original Depends What You Mean by Love volume). He sets about leading the crew and the surviving chief engineering officer in an attempt to keep the ship afloat, get the bows up and the stern down, and to get one of the engines working. If they can succeed in all of these tasks then they may be able to make it back to a British port. The entire remaining narrative is about the heroic efforts captain and crew make to see if they can achieve this quest … (I won’t spoil the ending). It is, from my point of view, entirely gripping until the end.

I think readers of this post can probably detect the kind of enjoyment this novel is offering me from the way I’m writing about it. It allows some access to a world of dogged (and I guess ‘masculine’) heroism, but in an authentic and perhaps plausible setting. This is a story based in recent history, against the back-drop of the Battle of the Atlantic – the only campaign which post-war Churchill said he thought might lead to a British defeat. That history is linked to several underpinning myths about British national identity and a moment of (final?) greatness in World War Two. The story also offers access to a world of specialised knowledge – of ships, of the sea, of navigation, of engine rooms, of warfare, of sailors – command of which may ensure personal and, in the larger picture, national survival. I may have spent a certain proportion of my life teaching high modernism and post-modernism, but have, it seems, not entirely lost my earlier childhood satisfactions in narratives from a somewhat boy’s own adventure tradition. I suspect that Reading Sheffield readers may have derived similar reading pleasures to these (and some may have been much closer to these experiences than I am, of course), though I note that equally a number of female readers refer to Monsarrat or The Cruel Sea, so perhaps my sense of a specifically gendered reading pleasure is far from adequate.

The Cruel Sea has remained continuously in print in edition after edition, and is now in a Penguin World War Two collection series, so neither it nor Monsarrat have been forgotten. If you like that kind of thing (and many clearly do), it is still very much a good read. HMS Marlborough Will Enter Harbour went through quite a number of editions in the Panther paperback edition in the nineteen-fifties, but then went out of print, though there is now an edition on sale again. It is in many ways a miniature version of The Cruel Sea, offering similar reading pleasures.

The Other Two Stories

Neither of these seem so characteristic of Monsarrat – which is perhaps merely to say that I associate him so strongly with Royal Navy stories that I am surprised to find he used other settings during the nineteen-forties. Maybe that association also pre-determines the following judgement: I do not think these two stories are of the same quality as the HMS Marlborough one, though both do have virtues.

Leave Cancelled concerns a wartime army officer and his wife (who is also in the services, but which service is disappointingly unspecified). It takes the form of a highly personal first-person reflection addressed to his wife by the unnamed officer. They had married at the beginning of the war, but their honeymoon was prevented by their having to report for duty urgently. Both have long been anticipating a period of three weeks’ leave when they can put this war-time interruption to their lives right. The story begins with the male character waiting in a hotel foyer for his wife to arrive from her posting. But he has just had bad news: due to wartime exigencies his three weeks’ leave has been cut to twenty-four hours’ leave – hence the story’s title. He breaks this news to his wife when she arrives, and though both are disappointed they decide to make the best of the twenty-four hours they do have available. This generates the story’s main content – which is of course about how they can best enjoy sex and love given the artificial pressure of this time-constraint. This must, of course, have been quite a common experience of the war, producing high expectations, but also clearly potentially uncomfortable pressures in intimate relationships.

Monsarrat’s publishers, Cassell, were unwilling to publish the story as a self-contained piece in 1947, arguing that it might damage their and his reputation. Their view prevailed, though they did publish the three stories together a little later. I should be clear that there is absolutely nothing sexually explicit in the story, either by nineteen-forties or contemporary standards. It is much more about emotions and the difficulty of talking about sex in a way which recognises its importance within love, than it is about sex itself. Nevertheless, the story is in a sense wholly centred on sex (and an American newspaper review was titled Briton Slave To Sex, quoted in the author’s foreword). I think Monsarrat has set himself a serious and sincere writing task in taking this on, but I find the story pretty embarrassing and also lacking in variety or tension. I think the problem is that in the end the story tries to share an intimacy the value of which is usually preserved precisely by it being privately shared rather than publicly expressed. However, this is a very different Monsarrat from the one we usually expect (indeed, for his male characters love of ships often trumps love of women). What would Reading Sheffield readers have made of this story? I speculate that though they might have read it with a certain interest, many might have preferred Monsarrat’s more usual naval concerns.

I liked Heavy Rescue more than Leave Cancelled. It is set in the first two years of the Second World War and its central character is George. He had been a private in the trenches in Flanders in World War One and was awarded a medal for bravery. But the post-war world has not been kind to him: he has been unemployed for much of the time and consequently his wife and teenage daughter look down on him and treat him with complete disregard since he does not supply they income they would like (they are one-dimensionally selfish – picking up a strand of misogyny which surfaces from time to time in Monsarrat’s novels). George has lost his self-respect and at times he wonders why the country which was apparently so grateful to him and fellow-servicemen in 1918 has done so little for them in the peace-time crisis of the Depression. George, though not in top condition because of his recent living conditions, is powerfully built, and when he has been able to get work, he has often been employed as a navvy. When war is declared again in 1939 he sees a call for volunteers for Civil Defence work and immediately joins the relevant queue at the town-hall. There is a choice of roles – stretcher bearers, first aid, light rescue and heavy rescue. Without really knowing what the words actually mean George feels that he may be cut out for heavy rescue and is very pleased to be accepted.

As it turns out, both kinds of rescue squad are charged with digging survivors out of the ruins of bombed buildings, and are distinguished not by the physical strength of their crews, but by the gauge of the equipment they use (mainly shoring and lifting gear). Nevertheless, George feels he is meeting a kind of destiny – at last someone needs him and he has the right skills and personal characteristics to serve his country. Not only that, but he is even to be paid – the welcome sum of three pounds a week (his wife and daughter remain unimpressed). However, the phoney war of September 1939 to May 1940 undermines morale in Civil Defence as they wait and wait with nothing in fact to do. For George, heavy rescue has indeed rescued his life and he retains his faith in the necessity of standing by and constant training and is eventually vindicated by the blitz on London in September 1940. He shows extreme courage, along with the rest of his squad, in tunnelling into a cellar beneath a collapsed building to save a child and her grandmother. However, his refusal to leave the probably already dead grandfather leads to George’s own death: he has over-fulfilled his sense of destiny. The story is interesting in picking up Monsarrat’s interwar interests in social inequality and the possible solutions of state intervention – something not always so obvious in his naval stories which see things very much from the officerly perspective of the bridge. I was however disappointed by George’s unnecessary death – I was not sure that the narrative logic or the story’s clear context in ‘the people’s war’ did necessarily demand that his commitment be seen as morbidly excessive.

Conclusion

I can certainly see what attracted some Reading Sheffield readers to Monsarrat’s novels. While his work as a whole is quite varied in focus, the reinforcement of particular kinds of British (masculine?) national identities in the post-war period, as well as the narrative pleasures of his naval novels, provided understandable reading satisfaction.

[i] Peter Mason, Christine W, Diane Howell, Judith G, David Flather, Chris F, Dorothy Latham, Dorothy H, Irene H.

The Reading Journey of Carolyn W

By Mary Grover

Carolyn was born in Sheffield in 1944. Twenty years later, while working as an analytic chemist, she married Bob whose reading journey is here.  

Unlike Bob, who found his own way to books and reading, Carolyn’s reading was always nurtured by her parents. Though she cannot remember being read to, she thinks she must have been because ‘of the books I remember, sort of nursery rhyme books and there were things like that’.

Hey diddle diddle

Throughout her childhood she was bought comics and annuals: School Friend and Girls’ Crystal. She particularly remembers a compendium:

a big one like the annuals but it was all old stories, not sort of the comic strip things and the quizzy things like they are now anyways.

This sounds like one of the Wonder books described by some of our other readers.

Walkley Library

She was soon enrolled by her mother at Walkley Library. Along with Hillsborough down the hill, this was one of the first two branch libraries with a separate and sizeable children’s section. While Carolyn was feeding her appetite for Enid Blytons at Walkley, Bob was finding his supply at Hillsborough. The first books that Carolyn can remember reading ‘all by myself’ were these Enid Blytons.

In the 1950s Carolyn and the family went on book-buying expeditions together.

The bookshop in town, Andrews, . . .we used to go there on a regular basis, all three of us. Mum, Dad and I. And they always used to . . . anything that you sort of, you know, that you wanted, we went there and got it. And that was the other thing. My dad was always into sort of encyclopaedias and things like that.

A few years younger than her husband, Carolyn largely escaped war and post-war austerity. Her father was a railway engineer, and as she grew up, an only child, there were more resources of all kinds available to her family. The support of both parents for their daughter’s school work was practical and constant.

If I needed a book for school at home, you know, because there would be some books where there weren’t enough for everybody to have one.  So that I could have it, they’d always buy me one so I could have it at home.

Her family must have been the only family in Sheffield to have bought a television to help their daughter prepare for an exam on The History of Mr Polly – set for O level in about 1960. (The BBC Genome project shows that it was broadcast in six episodes in autumn 1959.)

That was on the telly and we hadn’t got a telly.  . . . We found out it was on the telly. Anyway, Dad organised something with his well-off friend.  He got a new telly and we got their old telly.

She remembers the grandeur of the set itself.

You had to have the curtains closed. And it was one of these tellies with doors. It was this tiny little screen and it was a huge thing. And it had doors and this tiny little screen. And we managed to watch Mr Polly on it.  Yeah, but dad was tickled that he had managed to get this telly so that we could watch Mr Polly.

But it was her mother who was the strongest influence on what she read. When she was a teenager she shared many of her mother’s favourite authors: Dick Francis, Nevil Shute and Agatha Christie, a taste she shared with Bob.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Nevil Shute

Like Bob’s mother, Carolyn’s took the Women’s Weekly in preference to any other women’s magazine:

they were never quite as, I don’t know, Mills and Boony as other magazines, the serials in that. I did read those as well’.

When Carolyn got a place at grammar school, right over the other side of town and a tram journey of four to five miles, she was taught in her first two years by an inspirational English teacher.

And she was great, she was. And I think maybe then that’s when I started reading, as I say, more school sort of books.  I did end up going through all the ones girls were used to read in those days.  Like Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, all that sort of stuff.

When Carolyn was asked if she looked out for a difference between ‘popular’ and ‘quality’ writing she wasn’t sure that she did.

Well, I don’t know.  I suppose . . .  I read them and I had no idea of the quality of the writing that was in those books.  I just never liked the romancey sort of stuff.

Though she had the Arts and Books section of the Telegraph by her side when interviewed, Carolyn isn’t sure how much influence these reviews had on her reading choices. The only review she can remember having an effect on what she chose to read was one of Jilly Cooper. She read it and concluded that these novels were not for her.

Carolyn became an analytic chemist at a refractory works in the early 1960s (where she met her husband). She benefitted from the post-war increase in further education and training. Very few of our female readers coming to adulthood before the Second World War were offered on-the-job training. Though Carolyn was a reader and came to her firm with good science qualifications she had always found English Language examinations hard. It was while she was on day release that one of her lecturers pointed out to her that she could do an O level in English Language that was specially designed for scientists. By gaining a pass in that examination she was able to gain a licenceship in chemistry.

Even though I read a lot, I don’t think I’ve got that good an imagination to write … to make things up.  My imagination works in a different way.

Here is Carolyn’s interview in full.

The Reading Journey of Bob W

By Mary Grover

Bob was born in Sheffield on 3 February 1940. He was interviewed with his wife Carolyn. They married when Bob was 24 and Carolyn was 20.

As they talk about their reading, it is clear that Bob and Carolyn have read alongside each other throughout their marriage, each prompting the other when the name of a title slips the mind. But this was not the pattern in Bob’s own family.

Bob grew up in the one of the biggest housing estates in Europe, Parson Cross, in the north of Sheffield. The Council began to build in 1938, two years before Bob was born, so the estate grew up with him. There were few books in the house: ‘there’d be a Bible and that would be about it’. Bob’s father read the Daily Herald in the week and the News of the World on Sunday. His mother read Women’s Weekly, but not ‘Mum’s Own – that was trash’. Bob cannot remember being read to but remembers one book from his childhood:

…that was just a little paperback thing, about a dozen pages, and it was nursery rhymes.  About that size.  And I remember reading these and learning every one off by heart.  And that was my precious book, you know.

Bob was early learning to read.

I knew I enjoyed reading and I knew that I wanted to learn to read. But no, my parents weren’t big readers at all.

Nor were Bob’s two older sisters. ‘So, everything I did was on my own bat, I think’. He dismisses the idea he might have found something to read in his primary school:

of course, you didn’t have books in school, so I used to go to the library.

Hillsborough Library, which Bob visited as a child

Although there had been pre-war plans, no permanent municipal library was built in the vast new estate for many years so it was two miles down the hill back towards town to the magnificent Hillsborough Library that Bob made his way by tram to find the books he sought. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly but would just pick up something he liked the look of: ‘it was probably short stories or something like that’.  He joined a second library to increase choice but Hillsborough’s children’s section was one of the best in the city, established in 1929, so it was there he tended to find the adventure stories he enjoyed. Though Enid Blyton was not a favourite author, he did borrow the Famous Five mysteries and ‘that sort of thing’.

Bob reflects that he ‘never grew into the adventure stories for adults’. He went to the cinema when he grew out of Enid Blyton to watch cowboy and war films but never wanted to read about war and fighting. Throughout his life he seems to have kept his reading and his cinema going separate, actively disliking adaptations.

When he could afford it, Bob would go down to the local newsagents, Hadfields at Wadsley Bridge and buy, not comics or magazines, but books.

I bought a series of Sexton Blake. Thin little books, Sexton Blake, yeah.

The first book Bob remembers that he felt was an adult book was Stevenson’s Treasure Island. When he passed the 11+ exam and went to grammar school, he began reading the classics. ‘You had your own books, which I had to read, you see?’ He remembers reading David Copperfield ‘on my own bat because I wanted to see what it was like.’ It was his favourite book. Though he enjoyed the thrill of adventure in a film, in a book he tended to look for interesting characters.

I had to be interested in people. I mean, you can’t get [a] more interesting character than David Copperfield, you see.

Original illustration from David Copperfield

He tried to find the same pleasure in other novels by Dickens but they never delivered. Once he had seen the film of Oliver Twist he lost interest in reading the book. He made it through Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby but as for Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘I couldn’t make it through that and [then] I gave up on Dickens’. Bob concludes that he still enjoys the classics but not ‘the difficult classics … I wouldn’t try Ivanhoe or some of the other 19th … 18th century authors, you know’. There was something about the language of Dickens that felt close to his own.

Beyond a certain point … I want to read easy and I found David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens on the whole, easy to read.  They were speaking my language, you know. Some of the older authors, more classical authors, were speaking not my language, you know, and I didn’t want to keep looking in dictionaries to see what the words were or anything like that, … so, I think, that’s it.

Bob is resistant to language that he fails to connect with. He can’t get on with the language of the past that needs a dictionary to unlock it but he ‘cant stand modern literature with modern words.’ Even though the world of work and his work mates introduced him to all these words, he doesn’t want to read them, happy to be called ‘fuddy-duddy’. ‘It’s not my style of talking’.

In fact Bob is very clear about what he likes and why he likes it. He likes description which adds to a story or makes a character real.

People criticise Agatha Christie[‘s], you know, style of writing as not very good and so on, but she’s very, very good at descriptions. You got into a book and immediately it hits you what the story was about, and you got engrossed in it.

He found that Christie’s contemporaries had too much aimless description for his taste and looks to modern thrillers where description has a clear function.

He has other tastes too. He likes whimsical books: the short stories of P G Wodehouse and the humour of Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t like depressing books. George Orwell and Nevil Shute are not for him. Nor are books that are full of unpleasant people.

I want to go into a different world and enjoy it and I have to like the people I’m reading about. If I don’t like them – not interested in them.

And Bob found lots of books that did interest him and which helped establish the writing skills that were essential to his job in a large Sheffield refractory firm. He met his wife Carolyn there: she was a chemist and he worked in Research and Development. In their interview she gives him an unsolicited testimonial: ‘Can I say he still writes very well?’ Bob had not only to conduct research projects but to communicate the findings of the research team effectively.

We had to interpret the project and put it forward, you see. So, you had to know how to get your points of view over and tell a story in that sense. So that and the work you did at … the essays you had to write at school, you see. They all helped, you know. You got a vocabulary that you could use and if you’d got a vocabulary, it was very good for you. If you hadn’t got a vocabulary, you were struggling, you know. So, that did help.

The feel that Bob developed over the years for a language that was his own clearly helped him develop an appropriate voice for communicating with other professional scientists and engineers. Sheffield’s industries, as so many of our readers show, depend on the communication skills born of a love of reading imaginative literature.

You can read Bob’s interview here.

Onder moeders paraplu. Or, Under Mother’s Umbrella

Here is another post, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s. The illustration below is from the wall hanging which Julia made at the time.

Here is the Dutch original:

Onder moeders paraplu
Liepen eens twee kindjes,
Hanneke en Janneke,
Dat waren dikke vrindjes.
En hun klompjes gingen klik, klak, klik,
En de regen deed van tik, tak, tik,
Op moeders paraplu.

Toen kwam Jan de Wind erbij,
Die joeg eerst heel zoetjes,
Toen al hard en harder maar
De regen in hun snoetjes.
En Jan de Wind, die rukte en trok,
En op en neder ging de stok
Van moeders paraplu.

Maar Hanneke en Janneke
Dat waren flinke klantjes!
Die hielden stijf de paraplu
In allebei hun handjes.
En ze lachten blij van hi, ha, hi,
En ze riepen: Jan, jij krijgt hem nie!
‘t Is moeders paraplu!

Textile by Julia Banks

And here is Eleanor’s English version:

Under Mother’s umbrella two friends were walking,
Jack and Johnny, they were stout friends.
And their little clogs went click, clack, click,
And the rain went tick, tack, tick,
On Mother’s umbrella.

Then along came Jan-the-Wind, who – first of all quite sweetly,
But then harder and harder – drove the rain in their faces.
And Jan-the-Wind, he pulled and pushed,
And up and down went the stick
Of Mother’s umbrella.

Jack and Johnny, they were hefty customers.
They held tight to the umbrella in both their hands
And laughed merrily with ‘Hee, ha, hee!’
And shouted, ‘Jan, you won’t get it!
It’s Mother’s umbrella!’

Here are other Dutch nursery rhymes and Eleanor’s versions in English.

A, B, C, The Cat Comes with Me
In The Hague There Lives a Count
Sinterklaas

A Tale of Six Generations: The Reading Journey of Ruth Potts

By Mary Grover

Ruth was born in Sheffield in 1960. She grew up in Sheffield in the 1960 and 1970s and is the daughter of Sally and our interviewee David Flather. She has three sons and two grandchildren. You can find David’s interview here.   

Ruth has always loved books and always will.

As a teacher I used to use the books I loved as a child, such as A. A. Milne and Charlotte’s Web. The children liked it when I said, ‘This used to be mine when I was a child’.

There was a rich store of books in Ruth’s home for her to share with her pupils and her grandchildren. Both of her parents read to Ruth but David did her bedtime stories.

I remember him reading mostly small books, perhaps because they would finish quicker!

Ruth shows me a tiny book called Pussy-cat School.

A big favourite of mine and my father’s was A. A. Milne. I think my paternal grandfather knew Ernest Shepherd [who illustrated the Pooh books]. We had records of the musical versions of the poems and sheet music.

Not only was the house full of the adventures of Buchan and Haggard that David loved, but every week there would be a trip to the library for the detective stories and thrillers enjoyed by Sally. There were books everywhere and Ruth shared many of her father’s reading tastes, especially for Nevil Shute. They both responded to the Yorkshire world of the ‘Bronte girls’, as David called them. David’s involvement in Ruth’s reading contributed to their strong shared interest in maps. As a teacher Ruth specialised in geography, becoming very involved in the Geographical Association which is still based in Sheffield.

But perhaps Ruth’s most constant reading companion was her maternal grandmother, Kitty Walsh, who lived out in Derbyshire.

She was Scottish. I have got an oil painting that she did of the chair she used to read to me in in her house – it was covered in blue velvet. She read to me and bought me books: Ant and Bee books, Little Grey Rabbit and those Little Nutshell Library books.

Ruth showed me a beautifully produced little box set of very small books by Maurice Sendak in the Nutshell Library.

She bought me these and I have still got them. She used to write little ditties, one about herself beginning ‘’There was an old lady of Baslow’.

Sally’s grandmother lived in a nursing home in Sheffield. When the Flathers visited her on a Sunday, they always took her

two Fry’s chocolate creams, a Turkish delight and Sunday Post; she gave us the children’s section of the Sunday Post to read while we were there. Oor Wullie and The Broons were great favourites.

These links with her great grandmother’s childhood in Glasgow gave both the elderly woman and little girl great pleasure. Ruth still treasures the image of Oor Wullie pontificating from his upturned pail.

Oor Wullie

Ruth’s affection for her Baslow grandmother led her to treasure a book far older than any of her other children’s books she showed me. It was a hardback, undated but probably from the 1920s or earlier, with few illustrations. It is called Kitty and Harry or Disobedience by ‘Emma Gellibrand, author of J. Cole’. Ruth loved this book and reread it countless times. It is about a brother and sister who took a boat out on their own without permission. She thinks part of the reason she was so fond of it was the thrill of the disobedience at the heart of the story, but chiefly because Kitty was the name of her much loved grandmother.

Surrounded by adults who all regularly visited a library Ruth was inspired to found her own.

I had a window that was blocked up and shelves put there. The top shelf was full of ornaments because I couldn’t reach it. Beneath, the fiction books were arranged in alphabetical order then on the bottom shelf, not so many, was the non-fiction. Each book was numbered and I always put my name in books because that was what you did. I ticked when they were borrowed, sometimes by my dolls.

She hadn’t many dolls but they were all readers. So was her brother, Robert, but they never shared books. Robert became the manager of a bookbinding firm.

Ruth also had an unseen benefactor, her father’s aunt, ‘Phebe, without an o’. She had gone to Oxford University, married a doctor and gone to live in America.

Every single year, forever, she bought each member of our family a book-token for £5. Since most paperback children’s novels cost 2/6, I got a huge pile.  We used to go to the Sheffield bookseller Hartley Seed’s the first day after Christmas when the shop was open. We would go down and spend it. I used to love choosing the books. I used to buy the books my mum had read, like Angela Brazil, and then every one of the Enid Blyton series I liked, such Mr Galliano’s Circus and the Famous Five.

So the rest of the Christmas holiday was spent poring over this booty and the Beano annual always brought by Father Christmas.

Ruth on holiday

As Ruth grew up she continued to share her reading tastes with her grandmother. She still has her grandmother’s copy of Brideshead Revisited. The only time their tastes seriously diverged was when Kitty Walsh found the 17 year old Ruth reading a copy of Virginia Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic.

My grandmother said, ‘I don’t know why you are reading this’; it was only later that I realized that she can’t have liked the story because it describes a grandmother trying to kill her grandchildren with poisoned doughnuts!

The fact that by the end of our conversation Ruth and I were surrounded by the original copies of books read by herself, her parents and her grandmother shows how important a part of her life these books have been. Not only does she reread but she is constantly exploring new fictional and non-fictional worlds.

One that hit a chord is Pigeon English. It is about a Ghanaian boy who was killed in London. You only realise it is a true story at the end of the book.

Rebecca is my favourite book of all time. My father also loved du Maurier. Rebecca and Jane Eyre are my favourite books, both with strong female lead characters who get what they want in the end.

Much of Ruth’s life has been spent sharing her love of books. As a teenager she worked in a bookshop in Sheffield and volunteered in Sheffield Central Children’s Library: ‘I loved it, especially flicking through all the tickets’. Ruth now takes her grandchildren to the library and reads to them: a sixth generation with whom she is sharing her love of books.

Ruth and her brother in Trafalgar Square, London