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.

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

A Reading Journey of Sorts

By Mike Peart

Guest contributor Mike Peart, born in 1944, has lived in Sheffield for many years. He is an independent researcher, specialising in railway history.

During my childhood in Heston, Middlesex, I can’t ever recall being taken to the local library there. There certainly was one when it was the Borough of Heston & Isleworth, but I’m not sure if I ever darkened its door. My mother was a member of the Boots Booklovers’ Library in Hounslow which was the nearest large shopping centre. She regularly read her way through their books with the shield bookmark and eyelets punched into the binding. I’m not sure what she read but I suspect that much of it would have been linked to the films of the day as she was also a keen cinema-goer, going most weeks with my godmother. Apart from Heston Library, there was also a library in Hounslow where an aunt of mine was librarian in the 1930s before she married. But my mother didn’t go there either. I wonder if she was suspicious of public libraries and their late 1940s preoccupation with infectious diseases and their effects on the book stocks. She had lost her firstborn in 1942 at the age of ten months to gastroenteritis and this affected her life and attitudes right up to her death in 1996. It may be that she thought the books at Boots were more hygienic, what with the Booklovers’ Library being consciously refined, not to mention the company being chemists and all that – but I don’t really know.

Boots Booklovers’ Library logo (Addedentry, Creative Commons Licence)

I have absolutely no recollection of either parent or any aunt or uncle reading to me. I think my mother helped me, although I don’t think it was from children’s books necessarily as we didn’t have any. It was just as likely that I had to read the Daily Express, the News Chronicle or even the Daily Mirror, all of which appeared in the house at some time or other during my childhood. On trips out I may well have read shop signs and the labels in places like David Greig’s grocery and MacFisheries. I did spend a lot of time listening to the radio (Home and Light programmes) so some stories might have come across that way. I think my mother told me I could read before I got to infant school in 1948/9. It was only later when some annuals appeared as birthday or Christmas presents, although they weren’t what you would call ‘quality reading’. The tales of Desperate Dan, Biffo the Bear and Korky the Cat were hardly improving literature.

There were very few books at home although there was a small dark oak bookcase used for other purposes. I can only recall an ancient edition of Pears’ Cyclopaedia and two hefty tomes, The Home Doctor and The Home Lawyer, all of which may have come from my paternal grandfather after he died in 1938. The only fiction was two prizes given to my father at school: Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith. I did try to read both, unsuccessfully I think, when I had scarlet fever at about the age of eight or nine.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911 (public domain)

Illustration by E Frere from The Vicar of Wakefield, showing perhaps why such a book failed to appeal to a young boy (public domain)

Otherwise, most of my reading at home started with the Dandy comic, then the Rupert Bear strip in, I think, the Daily Express. My parents were members of the Heston Ratepayers’ Association and received their monthly RAM magazine about local matters, which I also tried to read. (Almost 70 years later I write for RAM by the way!) Then there was my father’s collection of The Journal of the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers – the organisation seems to have been founded by George Stephenson. It contained learned articles, diagrams and photographs, some of which dealt with railways which has been an obsession ever since. There were also a few of my father’s engineering HND textbooks such as Strength of Materials and another dealing with workshop mathematics.

I suspect that I only read anything available when the weather was bad, otherwise I’d have been outside playing, gardening and messing about with small bikes and home-made ‘trolleys’ with friends.

When the 11-plus was approaching, I do recall my mother buying me books of exercises called Progress Papers to work through, as well as Angus Maciver’s First Aid in English. These may well have helped my pass in the 11-plus in 1956 and I was certainly an expert in collective nouns – a smuck of eels, a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks, a clowder of cats – and McIver’s other obsessions at a very early age.

The elephant is a bonny bird
It flits from bough to bough
It makes its nest in the rhubarb tree
And whistles like a cow.

English at grammar school consisted of learning ‘rules’ by rote and being forced to work laboriously through Shakespeare – Twelfth Night in my case. I can recall my father having an unresolved argument and subsequent correspondence with my English teacher about the way the subject was being taught, and I really didn’t enjoy it at all, despite passing both English Language and English Literature at ‘O’ level. I enjoyed learning foreign languages far more and probably read more Voltaire and Thomas Mann than any English authors. While still at school, I started subscribing to Paris Match and I went to Librarie Hachette in London to buy a decent-sized French dictionary. The assistants spoke French and I had to say something like ‘Où se trouvent les dictionnaires?’ to which the reply was ‘En bas’.

I ‘resigned’ from grammar school in 1962 after the first and utterly uninspiring ‘A’ level year of French, German and English Literature. The only spark had been occasionally struck by the headteacher, G J P Courtney, who taught the ‘A’ level students and had written his own French grammar book. We were taught to sing the Marseillaise, the words of which I still know better than the second verse of our National Anthem! Instead of school, my great uncle who had been Director of Education for Winchester City and Hampshire and, reputedly, the founder of that county’s first girls’ grammar school, encouraged me to write. I corresponded with him regularly and he gave feedback. He also tried to persuade me to learn Esperanto. As a county president of the Rotary Club he saw Esperanto as a good way of improving international relations in the tense post-war years and he had several books in the language at his home in Winchester.

At the same time, I was by then Honorary Secretary of a railway preservation society and had to do a lot of typewritten correspondence with members, British Railways (BR), potential backer celebrities such as John Betjeman, exhibition organisers and the railway press. I also started and produced the society’s first regular newsletter to members, which developed into a quarterly magazine (still going and now at edition number 224). Both were duplicated and, apart from typing the stencils, I had to write most of the copy despite many appeals to others to contribute. I also started, but never finished, a correspondence course with the London School of Journalism. So far as books went, I was certainly by this time buying a lot of books dealing with railways and working through official texts for the Institute of Transport qualification. I did work for the BR organisation between September 1962 and October 1964 when I discovered I couldn’t pursue this career because of defective colour vision. I had also asked about a two-year short service commission in the Army but they, too, needed perfect colour vision. Up to this point I had been based at home in Heston, Middlesex.

Some of Mike’s railway collection

My father retired in April 1965 and we immediately moved to Dulverton, Somerset. I spent the first nine months helping my parents renovate a very run-down Georgian house which was their retirement home. Although I made numerous friends around Exmoor, I did find time to read and I bought several J B Priestley novels and something by Stan Barstow but mainly text books dealing with psychology and criminology. I also acquired a large collection of grammar books, style guides and dictionaries from Foyles, as well as the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Byron and other English poets.

After the end of the railway career, I had paid for vocational guidance which had suggested a career in adult education, probation work, social work or, due to the highest ‘interest’ marks the Vocational Guidance Association had ever seen in their psychometric tests, striving to become a professional musician! I was a very bad self-taught pianist at the time and I realised that there was no way this occupation would earn me a living and the playing tailed off. Hence, the civil service beckoned after it was suggested by the Department of Employment’s Professional & Executive Register that I should join that very department: I did. It was only after retiring from the successor to that wretched organisation in 1994 that I started to write, and I have since completed one book for Hodder & Stoughton, and three more with a fourth currently in production for the National Railway Museum, plus countless articles for eight different organisations’ journals.

Even now in my seventies I do not buy, borrow or read fiction. I write surrounded by well over a thousand books – all of them works of reference, histories, geographic guides and technical books mainly dealing with railways. That said, I will happily watch television and film dramatisations of novels old and new. I do, though, feel that it’s cheating – much like absorbing the classics from the Classics Illustrated comics that I recall from the 1950s and 1960s. I will occasionally resort to radio dramatisations as well – creating the pictures for oneself is a pleasurable part of using that medium.

Despite my unpromising start with libraries, I have been over the years an enthusiastic user of Sheffield Central Library, Totley Library, the central libraries at Hull, Grimsby and Manchester, some London borough libraries, the onetime government library in Moorfoot, Sheffield, and the National Railway Museum library.

 

Gill Warren’s reading journey

Gill Warren, who was born in New Zealand, is Reading Sheffield’s first international blogger, and we are delighted to welcome her. 

I went to St Heliers Bay Primary School in Auckland when I was five years old, and stayed there for Primers 1 to 4, as infant classes are known in New Zealand. It was a public school, meaning free. I am not sure how I got there. Perhaps Mum took me as it was a 20 minute walk, and collected me again at the end of the half-day. I must have read books at home as there were plenty of books about – I had five elder siblings.

St Heliers, Auckland

When they were small, the elder children lived behind the hall door in their own nursery. They all had an English nanny and had their meals with her until they could converse and use cutlery properly. The eldest was born in 1940 and went to boarding school at nine years old. But Nanny had gone by the time Mum realised she was pregnant with me. Some of the older girls were at boarding school when I was born. Perhaps they read to me when home from holiday – I don’t remember Mother ever having time.

On Saturday and Sunday 6 – 7 am on the radio were stories for kids (where was the radio? I wonder now). There were stories like Jack and the Beanstalk, Sparkie, Peter and the Wolf and the Madeline series. And This is London, This is San Francisco and This is Athens – perhaps they gave me the travel bug. There was Noddy and Big Ears but never Dr Seuss – way too modern! I remember I had books like Tales from India, with pictures of fine-looking elephants and tigers, and A Bear called Paddington and Winnie the Pooh. I got Winnie muddled up with Winston Churchill as they seemed to be the same shape.

I then attended a private school (meaning fee-paying with uniform, a 20 minute walk to the bus, a half-hour bus ride and then uniform checks at the gate for hats and gloves). It was St Cuthbert’s College for Girls, and I was there from Standard One at age seven through to Standard Five at age 11. We had exams each term time from the age of five years.

Glover Park, St Heliers, Auckland

I remember going to the public library with Father on Friday evenings to choose books for the week. The five elder children had also done this with him.

Later I read the Secret Seven and Famous Five books. I wanted so badly to be in that group, with a wee boat and limitless adventures.

We were not allowed comics. (‘They are COM or common, dear.’) When the TV arrived in our house (I think I was about ten or so), I did not know what animation was and I think it was the Jetsons or some such thing on the box. In black and white of course! Then colour came – red, blue and green striped bands applied to the screen to give the illusion of colour.

At age 11 I was sent to boarding school 500 kilometres away from home. My father’s sisters had gone there and as we girls were said to be ‘unspectacular in the brain department,’ Mother hoped for ‘nice’ girls. It was Nga Tawa Diocesan for Girls – Forms 1 to 6 for 11 to 16 year-olds. We had a school library and reading in the ‘silent time,’ after lunch on Saturdays and Sundays for one hour, was obligatory. If caught talking, you had to stand for the rest of the hour. If you talked at night when lights were out, again you had to stand in the cold corridor for an hour or so.

At some stage the nursery at home was re-modelled into a TV room, where my Mother ironed while watching TV. (There was no TV in the drawing room – only reading and music.) There were window seats for the toys and one wall of books: Time Life, hard-covered picture books, numerous piles of National Geographic magazines (good for cutting up for school projects), novels plus maps of NZ and the world. The book I was fascinated by was a massive book about World Wars One and Two. There were pencil drawings of life in the tube stations in London and of the trenches – very scary. Lots of black and white images.

I went to Hawaii aged 14 with my parents. They could not believe I would not look out of the window as I was deep into Gone with the Wind.

When I was 19, I went overseas to Thailand and Kathmandu, then overland to UK. I took books out of the St Heliers library to plan for the trip and Mother was most disappointed when she saw them on the sofa table, and realised they were for me, not her and Dad!

The Auckland City Council now has multiple libraries and we can go to any of them but I think that, when I was growing up, you could only go to the one in your suburb. We lived in Cairns in Queensland for a while and there we could for the first time go to multiple libraries on the one card. I now mainly read or listen to stories online from the Auckland Library for free. I listen and read on my i-pad.