By Mary Grover
Shelagh Dixon tells us how reading has shaped her life from childhood onwards.
I was introduced to Shelagh by Kathryn Austin whose mother, Winnie Lincoln, was interviewed for the Reading Sheffield project. Shelagh, like Kathryn, has worked to improve literacy among Sheffield adults so it was no surprise to hear how important reading has been to her from a very young age.
Shelagh was born in 1954 and grew up in Upper Walkley, a suburb of Sheffield. She loved the view from her bedroom, looking down into two valleys, to the confluence of the Rivelin and the Loxley rivers. In 1875 John Ruskin had chosen Upper Walkley to establish St George’s Museum, his collection of natural objects and art designed to lift the artistic sensibilities of the skilled metal workers toiling in the polluted valleys below. The objects are now to be found in the centre of Sheffield but Shelagh used to play in the gardens of what had been Ruskin’s museum.
Shelagh feels that Walkley was a transitional place. Lower and Upper were rather different. Upper Walkley was only developed after the tannery was closed, in the middle of the 19th century. Walkley Tan Yard originally lay between Walkley Bank Rd and Bell Hagg Rd and was at one time the property of the resident of Walkley Old Hall. At the beginning of the 19th century it had been the dominant industry on the hillside, its foul smell deterring residents. We can still find a few of the early 19th century farms scattered among the terraces of Upper Walkley. It was when the air was cleaner that John Ruskin established his museum.
Shelagh remembers the community as very diverse. Most people were connected with manufacturing or retail work and were well paid enough to rent or own a Victorian terrace house, or a 1930s semi. There was little council housing in 1950s Walkley.
Shelagh went to Bole Hill County School, like her mother and grandfather before her. In the 1930s amd 1940s, before she met Shelagh’s father at English Steels, Shelagh’s mother had worked in an upmarket department store on the Moor, learning to abandon her Sheffield accent when she tended to her wealthy clients. She familiarised Shelagh with this kind of speech.
Shelagh herself was able to mix with everyone, knowing when to use ‘teeming’ and when ‘pouring’. A friend commented that ‘We had our own language in Upper Walkley.’ The colour mauve was ‘morve’. But Shelagh’s mother always corrected her when she used traditional local grammar. Teachers did the same. Shelagh remembers a friend telling the teacher ‘There i’n’t no green cotton left’ and being firmly corrected: ‘There isn’t any green cotton.’ ‘Mum made sure we didn’t speak like many of the local children.’
Once Shelagh learnt to read, between the ages of four-and-a-half and five, she acquired a new set of words. When she tried to use them in conversation, she found that some were understood by nobody but herself. She gradually learnt that there were no such words as ‘grot-es-cue’ or ‘ank-cious’. Because she was partly self-taught her phonics were not great.
Shelagh would probably not have become a great reader if she hadn’t been so ill as a child. She had flu when she was three, a very bad attack of measles when she was five, with maybe a touch of encephalitis, then recurring tonsilitis. She missed many of her early years of infant school but by five she was reading most things that came her way.
When she was able to go to school, Shelagh had a wonderful reception teacher who would hold up flash cards to the children on the coconut matting in front of her. She soon allowed Shelagh to read whole books. The little girl was enchanted by Janet and John books – the kittens and the little dog and the lovely garden. ‘But I never realised there were actually children who had a life that was actually like that. I thought of it like Alice in Wonderland – fantasy.’ It was only later that she realised they were depicting a real world. Shelagh didn’t have many children’s books but she got some from an aunt who was a primary school teacher in Doncaster. Two of them she never forgot. The Little Lorry was a basic early reader but Little Redwing was even more thrilling. It was in colour, in big print and about a little Native American boy. She read it over and over again, entranced by the boat he journeyed in, the little ‘canó’.
The school didn’t have a library but it did have a little library bookcase in each junior classroom. When Shelagh had gone through all the ‘girls’ books’, she moved on to the boys’ section, to books like The Gorilla Hunters. The children were meant to write a review when they had finished a book from the library shelf but Shelagh never did because she always wanted to move on and read the next title. Shelagh learnt to use the local Walkley Library, funded in part by the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. The whole family ‘read library books like anything.’ When she was five she was reading Enid Blyton.
And there were always her parents’ books on motherhood and marriage. ‘All my sex education, initially, came from that.’ And she was much better informed about the facts of life than her friends.
She did, however, struggle with the Walter Scott on her parents’ shelves.
Shelagh was bought copies of the Collins children’s classics: Black Beauty, Little Women and The Children of the New Forest. ‘Before that, someone had given me a copy of Alice in Wonderland but I couldn’t get past the caucus race because there were so many hard words. I have an abiding memory of the day when I got past the caucus race.‘
Shelagh read all the time, even when she shouldn’t have. When she had measles, she was not allowed to read with the curtains drawn back or by electric light in case she went blind. She got into trouble when she tried to read under the bedclothes. The fluorescent toy sea creatures that were given away through her cereal box (a common marketing ploy at the time) provided her with light. She powered them up under the electric light and they cast a gentle light in the cave under the bedclothes.
Shelagh read books by daylight as she walked back and forward between home and school. She was in a class of about 45 children so could always get away with opening the lid of her desk unnoticed and reading the book inside it. Sometimes the book was perched on her knee. One day, having found herself comfortably tucked away at the back of the classroom and engrossed in an illicit book, she was dismayed to find that the headmaster had entered and had stopped behind her. But instead of telling her off, he just smiled and passed on. Shelagh thinks her obsession with reading made her friends think she ‘was a bit of a freak’ but because she was so bad at maths, they ‘let her off.’
The headmaster helped Shelagh a lot. He knew she was very good at subjects requiring reading and writing but her (as yet undiagnosed) dyscalculia was a barrier to passing the 11+. She later learnt that he had been her advocate at the meeting of teachers which followed the exam. It was he who pitched her case, helping her gain a place at High Storrs Grammar School. He was committed to fostering social mobility.
Many years later, in the 1970s, when Shelagh was training to be a primary school teacher, she was dismayed to visit one particular school. The headteacher had been there for many years and said ‘not much could be expected from these children, academically.’ So the school focused on fostering good manners. Shelagh said, ‘I was very glad I had not been sent to that school.’ It is that kind of attitude that makes Shelagh in favour of SATs which, in her opinion, force teachers to be ambitious for their pupils.
Shelagh feels she was lucky to get a good education both at her primary and grammar school. She went on to do a degree in education, with English as her second subject. In spite of her difficulties with maths she liked science and got a biology ‘A’ level.
Shelagh continues to read. When I asked her what books made an impression on her in her adulthood, she was unable to list them, because ‘there were so many.’
Shelagh’s reading journey is based on our notes of her interview. There is no verbatim transcript or audio recording.