Tea and poetry (2020)

On 29 January 2020 Reading Sheffield invited our interviewees and their families, our interviewers, the readers from our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, and some old friends to a special reading by poet Eleanor Brown from her latest collection. Published in October 2019 by Bloodaxe Books, White Ink Stains is based in part on what our 60+ interviewees told us about their reading journeys.

About 25 of us met at The Art House, in the centre of the city, and over tea or coffee and scones, with jam and cream, we listened to Eleanor read a dozen or so poems and discuss how she writes. It was a particular pleasure to welcome our interviewees, Julia BanksShirley EllinsJim Green and Betty Newman.

Eleanor says that she has never looked at a transcript of our interviews. She has only listened, time and again over eighteen long months, to the voices, learning the rhythms, the sounds, the laughter and the sadness. And from this have come her poems. Here are some quotations:

From Appetite:

Book-hungry teenage girl, great ravenous

word-eating eyes, amazing stamina

for nothing but to lie in bed and read

omnivorous of print, devouring gaze

insatiable for all the big fat works,

yes all of Dickens, Eliot and James,

now Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Zola, Proust.

From Helpless with Laughter:

Mother would read me The House at Pooh Corner

When I was only so high

She in her big chair and I in my little

Straight-backed Mother and I

Once I remember us helpless with laughter

Both of us laughing so much

Neither could speak, and I fell off my chair

From The Dressmaker:

They asked us what we liked to do

My mother spoke for me

‘She likes to sew’ – ‘Then she should go

In the shirt factory.’

And I were furious! For that

I could nor would not bear.

Oh, I came home and angry-cried

‘I will not go in there.’

From Snatches of Old Lauds:

I found my Sunday School hymn book –

the Bible in another form, we used to say;

the poetry helps you remember.

But damp in the attic had got it.

What hadn’t mouldered away up there

disintegrated softly in my hands.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon all round. ‘The poems were wonderful,’ said one guest, ‘ with a very rich vein of humour throughout, as well as the touching/poignant ones.’ ‘I have always enjoyed reading poems,’ said another, ‘but never been particularly attracted to readings. Eleanor’s readings have converted me.’

Sheffield Hallam University’s Humanities Research Centre was kind enough to sponsor the event, and we thank the Head of the Centre, Professor Chris Hopkins, for his continuing enthusiasm and support.

And thanks too to The Art House for their excellent refreshments and for being so friendly.

Copies of White Ink Stains can be bought locally from Rhyme and Reason and Waterstones. You can read more about Eleanor’s poetry here.

The musical and reading adventures of the Hereford Street gang

By Mary Grover

Barbara Sorby has contributed a huge amount to Reading Sheffield. She worked in Sheffield Libraries for 47 years. You can find her story here. Barbara has also helped me understand the lure of the Chalet School stories which were popular with so many of our readers. But just before Christmas she took me in a different direction and introduced me to the memoir of her cousin, Ken Leary, whose Bombs over Bramall Lane (ACM Retro, 2011) tells the wartime story of the community of Highfield, much of which now lies beneath the dual carriageway separating Bramall Lane and the Moor.

Ken died about ten years ago. In his memoir he writes eloquently of the sheer energy of the boys he grew up with in the 1940s, often brought up by mothers whose husbands were away in the forces or working long hours in the steel industries upon which Britain’s war effort depended. Ken’s health was not always good. It is difficult to believe that a boy who led his friends into adventures all over the Peak District in the late forties spent more than a year in bed with bronchial pneumonia while the bombs were obliterating much of the neighbourhood around him. He was sent to Wales to recuperate and on his return developed a tubercular gland – treatment meant increased financial strain on his over-burdened mother. When he recovered Ken had to learn to walk again and was soon involving himself in the culture of the inner-city terraces in which he lived.

The Central Library was within walking distance of Ken’s home, a walk through and around the Moor which had once been a busy shopping centre. The boys colonised the cellars as soon as the shops above them had been bombed-out. Their explorations beneath the tottering structures above nearly came to an end when they realised they were sharing a recently revealed cavern with a pile of bodies. They ‘fled like scared rabbits’ into the rubble above to discover a fire engine hosing down mounds of smouldering tailors’ dummies. Few of our readers took such risks on their way to the Central Library.

Sheffield Central Library, which opened in 1934

Unlike his cousin Barbara, Ken preferred non-fiction. One book quite literally extended the horizons of himself and the rest of the Hereford Street Gang: ‘not a gang of hooligans – more like a gang straight out of a Just William book’.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

The Central Library was an important meeting place for the gang, particularly the Graves Art Gallery at the top of the building. They would spend their time ‘browsing and looking at the paintings and other objects on display’ especially during the winter ‘because it was somewhere to go that was warm and dry’.

Among my favourite books at the time were the Just William stories, but I generally enjoyed any boys’ adventure books like Biggles or books about football. I was particularly taken with the Out with Romany books. There were a series of books all about the countryside – the moors, the woods and fields, and the coasts around Britain. They were filled with descriptions of the flora and fauna, the birds and animals, the butterflies and insects that inhabit these islands. They really stirred-up my childhood imagination and I couldn’t wait to get out into this new and fascinating world that I had discovered – far away from the bombs and destruction we had recently witnessed in our everyday lives.

When he was ten or 11 Ken came across a small paperback, Across the Derbyshire Moors, published by the local Sheffield papers. The boys studied the ramblings mapped on those pages and discovered that many of the routes were within walking distance of Highfield or ‘at least a halfpenny tram-ride away’. ‘This book was definitely going to broaden our horizons and we couldn’t wait to get started’.

Ken exploring at speed

The local churches also introduced the Hereford Street Gang to all sorts of cultural activities and even enabled them to make a few pennies. At Christmas the boys would go round the local pubs, ‘mummering’, which in the way of those days meant singing carols with masks or blacked-up faces.

This was achieved by rubbing soot, from the back of the fire, on to our faces. Sometimes lard was applied first, and then the soot…. Where the hell we got this from I haven’t a clue.  Don’t remember anyone ever telling us about it and we certainly never saw anybody else do it. The mystery remains.

The pub crawl began at 8pm (‘You may ask: “What were your parents doing, allowing you to stay out till that time of night?”’). They were usually welcomed but they couldn’t count on getting into the Queen Adelaide which had its own concert room. Sometimes the landlord was reluctant to let them but the customers would shout to him: ‘Let them in you miserable sod.’ Those who had never heard the boys before were ‘in for a shock’ because the gang had hidden talents’.

The majority of us were choirboys, believe it or not, at St Mary’s Church on Matilda Lane. Complete with cassock and surplus, we sang at services on a Sunday morning for the princely sum of 3d a week, provided that we turned up for choir practice on a Wednesday night (we’d do anything to earn a crust). So you see, we…could also sing a bit.

Then just after the end of the war they discovered a side-door into the mighty Perpendicular-style church that still stands about two hundred yards from the famous football stadium in Bramall Lane. The church had been boarded up during the war so the gang was delighted at the new playground that awaited them inside. As they crowded into the doorway of the open church (‘as though butter wouldn’t melt in our mouth’), they stopped ‘in awe’ because at the organ, which had been silent for six years, sat a man ‘playing away just like Reginald Dixon’, the famous Blackpool Tower organist.

The front of the organ was lit up and the man suddenly turned round, spotted us, smiled, and carried on playing. On seeing that he was friendly we all timidly entered the dimly lit church and sat down on the dusty pews – not a word being spoken. What an odd sight we must have looked – a group of scruffy kids sitting in a dusty church lit only by the shafts of sunlight beaming in through holes in the boarded-up windows.’

They had other musical patrons. Though most of the boys went to Pomona Elementary School and were unable to go on to grammar school where there was usually more music on offer, Ken felt he had, on the whole, good teachers. One of his favourites was the music teacher, Mr Murray, who not only took his pupils to hear the Hallé Orchestra at the City Hall but had prepared them to recognise the instruments being played: ‘in fact I can still recall some of those classical pieces almost sixty years on.’ Mr Murray was also an excellent pianist.

Towards the end the lesson he would play a medley of popular songs of the day, all jumbled up and with some of the notes altered to disguise them. The person who wrote down the most correct titles was rewarded with a sixpence and the winners were always girls!

Unlike his much younger cousin, Barbara, Ken did not make his living from his love of reading. He became a joiner. This book testifies to how much his early encounters with books and with music meant to him. He owed a lot to the great cultural provision represented by Sheffield Libraries and the regular visits of the Hallé Orchestra. He also paid tribute to the dedication of his elementary school teachers. But, like so many of our readers, he was also a great entrepreneur. He would seize any chance that came his way and, acting on the leads given him, go tramping round the moorland that had been inaccessible until he borrowed the book of walks, or use his choir training to gather pennies from the drinkers around the streets that led off Bramall Lane.

Ken Leary’s Bombs over Bramall Lane (available here) is an inspirational book and I do recommend it.

Margaret C’s reading journey

Margaret was born in 1934 and grew up in Handsworth, Sheffield. She worked for Sheffield Libraries and told us what it was like to be a library assistant in the middle of the 20th century, a great time in the history of the city’s library service. But here we look at Margaret’s earlier years, at how she became a reader.  

By Mary Grover

Throughout the Second World War, Margaret would accompany her mother each week on the two-mile journey from their home in Handsworth to the Red Circle Library in Darnall. Her mother would negotiate the crowded premises of this tuppenny library, seeking the latest Mary Burchell or Berta Ruck perhaps. Margaret does not recall the authors of her mother’s romances but can remember the covers, ‘like books you used to see in magazines … like Women’s Weekly used to be and that sort of thing. Pretty covers, with attractive girls on them’.

Though her choices did not tempt the little girl, her mother’s passion for reading was infectious. Her mother used to read to her but there was no municipal library nearby in Margaret’s childhood so her main source of supply was her parents.

I used to read everything I could get my hand on and I still do. … When I was a little girl I loved Little Grey Rabbit, Alison Uttley and Milly Molly Mandy, and one book that really stuck out in my mind and that was Family from One End Street, and that was by Eve Garnett. Have you heard of it?

Margaret still has copies of the books she was given as Christmas and birthday presents. She shares them with her grandchildren: Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia that she got when she was seven, and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, inscribed 1947. Margaret’s father was a newspaper reader himself, with no taste for books. ‘He never read a book to my knowledge,’ she says. A clerk in the English Steel Corporation, he could just afford to indulge the passion of his only child.

Then, when she was ten, Margaret was allowed to travel on the bus to Sheffield Central Junior Library. She went on her own nearly every Saturday and remembers her first choices:

One was a book about George Washington and another, there was a series of books about great composers, one book per composer you know. There were a lot of them. I had one of them every week till I had read them all.

Music was, and remains, important: her mother came from a musical family, and Margaret herself played the piano. Over time Margaret, who says she has a ‘wide range of range of reading habits and [has] always read anything and everything’ explored the fiction and travel sections of the Junior Library, but never history or detective novels.

Margaret gained a place at Woodhouse Grammar School in the late 1940s. She passed her School Certificate ‘with flying colours’ but did not stay on at school beyond the age of 16 even though her school encouraged her to try for university. ‘Sometimes I regret it, but not usually.’  She was conscious that it had been financially difficult for her parents to support her through grammar school and felt that, if she went to university, she ‘might be a burden to them’. So she followed her dream of becoming a librarian (‘I had always loved books’), gaining a place as a junior at Firth Park Library, in the north of Sheffield. At last she had around her as many books as she could imagine. There was no longer the need to hunt for books because she ‘read everything that was around’.

The old Firth Park Library building today

At Firth Park she came across an unofficial library service.

When I started, 16 [in 1950] one lady came in and she used to bring books for three families and I can remember the names and she came in with this huge bag with at least twelve books in it and she’d put it on the counter – I can remember the names!

There seemed an overwhelming appetite in those post-war days for books Margaret herself had little taste for. ‘People who came in to borrow seemed always [to ask] “Have you any cowboy books? Or any detectives?”’ Then one day Margaret took to her bed with tonsillitis and her neighbour Fred came with a care package of whodunnits to see her through her convalescence ‘and one of them was Georges Simenon and I enjoyed that so I read them all’.

Margaret worked in Sheffield’s library service at a time when it was internationally admired. The 1956 film, Books in Hand, celebrates it. 

You can read Mary’s full interview here.

Johnny and the Plum Tree

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.

For Sheffield’s 2019 Off the Shelf Festival, on 21 October, Eleanor and Imtiaz Dharkar are reading from their latest collections of poems, published by Bloodaxe Books. Eleanor’s poems, White Ink Stains, draw in part on the Reading Sheffield interviews. Click here for more information.

Here is the Dutch original:

Jantje zag eens pruimen hangen
O! als eieren zo groot
‘t Scheen, dat Jantje wou gaan plukken
Schoon zijn vader ‘t hem verbood
Hier is, zei hij, noch mijn vader
Noch de tuinman, die het ziet
Aan een boom, zo vol geladen
Mist men vijf, zes pruimen niet
Maar ik wil gehoorzaam wezen
En niet plukken; ik loop heen
Zou ik om een hand vol pruimen
Ongehoorzaam wezen? Neen!
 
Voort ging Jantje, maar zijn vader
Die hem stil beluisterd had
Kwam hem in het lopen tegen
Vooraan op het middenpad
Kom mijn Jantje, zei de vader
Kom mijn kleine hartedief
Nu zal ik u pruimen plukken
Nu heeft vader Jantje lief
Daarop ging Papa aan ‘t schudden
Jantje raapte schielijk op
Jantje kreeg zijn hoed vol pruimen
En liep heen op een galop.

From the wall hanging which Julia made at the time

And here is Eleanor’s ‘mainly accurate translation’:

Johnny sees the ripe plums hanging
Oh! As big as eggs they are.
How he longs to grasp and pluck
The fruit forbidden by Papa!
“But,” he ponders, “neither Father
Nor the gardener’s here to see:
Who would miss just five or six
From such a heavy-laden tree?
Yet I want to be obedient…
Mustn’t pick them…better go.
Shall I, for a ripe sweet handful,
Disobey my father? No!”
 
Off goes Johnny: but his father,
Who has overheard it all,
Catches up as he walks homeward,
Stops him by the garden wall.
“Come, my Johnny,” says the father,
“Come, my darling little lad,
Now shall you have plums aplenty,
Now you’ve pleased your watchful Dad!”
Father gives the tree a shaking.
Followed, eavesdropped-on, policed,
Johnny fills his hat with plums,
And gallops off to have his feast.

Honesty or policy? Johnny’s under surveillance from a parent who rewards obedience with approval (and plums) – if he sees it for himself. That’s why Johnny does his moral cogitating aloud, in stage soliloquy. There’s no trust here.

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
Onder moeders paraplu. Or, Under Mother’s Umbrella

Julie’s reading journey: ‘Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me’

Our guest blogger Julie was born on the Manor estate in Sheffield in 1950. She attended St Theresa’s Primary School.  After graduating from Notre Dame High School, she left Sheffield for Newcastle-on-Tyne, to train as a teacher. She taught for two years in Liverpool before heading off on an adventurous journey to Sydney, Australia, where she still lives. She has spent her career in education – teaching, writing and lecturing. She was Head of Education at the Australian Museum and General Manager of the charity The Peer Support Foundation. She now writes fiction. Her novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and will be released by Pegasus later this year.

Manor Library and its garden today

By Julie Howard

My earliest memory of Manor Library is the Peter Pan and Wendy mural, which was painted on one of the glass partitions. Dressed in pale greens and blue they flew through the air, their eyes wide with astonishment. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was 1955 and the library was only a couple of years old. It was glorious. 

Manor Library in the 1950s, when Julie joined
The Manor entrance today, showing it has not changed so very much since the 1950s

In the children’s library, boys and girls whispered together as they searched the shelves. Occasionally a giggle would erupt only to be quelled by a glower from the librarian. Once we had chosen our book, we approached the counter. The librarian vigorously flicked through small brown envelopes until she found our card. There was a nerve-wracking moment as she scrutinised the chosen book before peering down into your face. Heaven help you, if you chose something unsuitable. I remember a Just William book being confiscated. With a burning face I went back to choose ‘something more suitable’ from the shelves, which was difficult because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I now think it was because I had chosen a ‘boy’s book’!

The imposing entrance through which the young Julie walked

I loved Manor Library from the first moment I stepped in there. At first, I was heartbroken to find I couldn’t borrow a book until I was six. It took me weeks of pleading before they let me join. It was years later I found out that the kind-hearted librarian had changed my birthdate. Nat the Cat was my first book. I read it in the morning and went back for more in the afternoon, only to be told that I could only have one book a day!

The library in the 1950s

Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me. After tea, mum would walk me up to ‘Reading Circle’. Children sat cross-legged on the floor and the librarians’ stories took us away from our everyday lives to Narnia and other exotic places. From that time on, mum often found me standing and staring hopefully at the back of my wardrobe. The librarians always left us, jaws hanging, at the most crucial part of the story. If we wanted to know the ending, we had to rise up to the challenge of finishing the book.

At Christmas time the drama group would put on plays and the whole family would attend. Of course, with my long blonde hair I was always an angel, but one year, I was lucky enough to get a singing part… Oh joy! 

It was a magical place to write. Storybook and pencil in hand I would walk up Prince of Wales Road, to the library, which always seem to be open. I’d sit at one of the tables and write my stories of fairies and goblins.

Julie and her classmates

I now divide my time between Sydney and Sheffield (Manly to the Manor) Of course an annual pilgrimage to Manor Library to say thank you, is essential. I am still reading and writing voraciously. My novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and draws on some of my childhood memories. I also work with refugees and others trying to get their stories into print. After all we all have a story to tell, don’t we?

Julie today

Manor Library serves the Manor ward in souh-east Sheffield. The area was rural until the 1930s, when Sheffield Council started building a large estate to relieve inner city crowding. The branch library was almost ready in 1939, when war broke out, and it could not be completed and opened until 1953. The design of the building was innovative in its day, and we plan to tell the story of Manor Library in a future post.

Ruth’s Reading Journey: ‘I read and read and read.’

By Ruth Owen

Ruth, who was born in Sheffield on 13 February 1954, is one of our original team of interviewers. She has been a teacher almost her whole career and is now a personal tutor for English and French GCSE and A Level. She is the daughter of Mary and niece of Pat, whose memories you can read here.

Just like so many of my generation, as children, I read and read and read. Frankly, there was little else to do. If the sun was shining and there were friends around, then we would all be outside, either playing on the street or in woodland. Games included hopscotch, French skipping, ordinary skipping, playing ‘two ball’ (throwing balls up against the wall) or riding our bikes.

But, when the rain came, or friends were away, or for some reason we had to stay at home, reading was always my first choice. I remember vividly hanging out of bed, reading by the landing light. My brother was rather more sophisticated in that he had a torch.

My parents were very different in their reading matter, but they both read. Dad was a newspaper man – cover to cover if he had the time between working at the railway for five and a half days a week and tackling all the DIY our house desperately needed.

Ruth’s mum and dad on their wedding day

Mum, on the other hand, was a voracious reader of fiction. Attempting to gain her attention when she was reading was quite a challenge. It would go something like this:

‘Mum. Mum. Mu-um.’ Louder now: ‘MU-UM!’

‘Yes love,’ she replied, paying little attention.

‘Can I go to Gillian’s?

‘Mmmm.’

‘Mum! Did you hear me? Can I?’

‘What’s that love?’

What she did hear was my dad coming home. She’d slam the book shut, stand up straight and pick up a duster. Dad had more than a bit of a temper. I’d give up and pick up a book.

So which books was I actually reading? I remember from a very young age reading Bible stories, especially the Christmas story. I was about four years old, was with my dad and was reading to him. I managed the word ‘suddenly’ which was the first word of the sentence telling of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. My dad was delighted. What influence his praise had on me to read further I cannot say, though it must have had some. His praise was very rare.

Other books I remember reading from childhood were Puppy Stories for Children – a book I loved and  still have. Every Christmas I was given by my aunt an annual called Princess – it’s worth noting that a princess was the last thing I aspired to be, but I did enjoy the annual. Somebody bought me The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies. I read that book from cover to cover about a hundred times. I could recognise and categorise every horse and the script that went with it.    

I have always loved animals and have read an awful lot about them. I am still horrified by the way humans treat them: factory farms, caged hens, the cruel dairy industry. This love of animals has also informed much of my reading, and still does. The question I asked as a child, ‘What have animals ever done to us that we treat them so abhorrently?’ No answer as yet.  

And then, in she came, the most popular children’s author of my generation and maybe all time: Enid Blyton. I read them all. Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Naughtiest Girl in the school and my all -time favourite, Malory Towers: every single one. All I wanted was to be in a boarding school with Darrell and her mates. Actually that’s not entirely true, as I was also reading Ruby Ferguson’s books about Jill and her love of horses. Jill’s Gymkhana was a firm favourite and there was its predecessor, A Pony for Jill. The nearest I got to my own pony was a stuffed sock with button eyes and a broom handle body. Despite its inanimate properties, I was still up at 6 am ‘to muck it out’ and feed it. Creeping down the stairs of our very small house, I’d hear my dad. ‘What the bloody hell is she doing going out to feed that stick horse? Can’t you stop her, Mary? She’s obsessed.’ In this instance, he was right.

I’m trying to recall where I got these books from. Several were bought for me by my parents. Astonishing really, as money was very tight. We were living in Darnall, but I have no memory of going to a local library. My dad believed absolutely in the power of education to transform lives. The books were regarded as an investment. A poor boy from Tinsley, a prisoner of war for three and a half years, he was determined that his children would have that which he had been denied.

To this end, we moved. We arrived in Beauchief and my brother and I became pupils at Abbey Lane County Primary school. The A stream had an excellent reputation for all its pupils passing the 11+.

Now 11 years old and the summer holidays stretching in front of me, I would go to the library almost every other day. Woodseats Library was about half a mile away and I was a devotee. We had to go over to my aunt’s in Tinsley during the holidays, as my mum was working – she had to – but on arrival home there was just enough time before the library closed, to succeed in a mad dash to the shelves.

Jane Eyre, for breakfast

Grammar school time arrived in the late sixties and reading was expected and enforced. Fine by me. Jane Eyre for breakfast, Persuasion for lunch and Tess of the d’Urbervilles for tea. Despite being made to walk across the desks as King Hamlet’s ghost, by my rather eccentric English teacher, I loved Shakespeare too. I would read anything and everything, and at A level developed a love for French Literature too. Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Zola’s L’Assomoir and Germinal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – superb.

Original advert for Germinal, one of Ruth’s favourites of French literature.

University was where I was able to study both French and English literature and was also where I developed a lifelong interest in literature from further afield too, particularly America, Russia and India.

Some friends of mine, six of us, about twenty-five years ago now, decided that we would form a book group and we are still going to this day. We take it in turns to choose the book which we discuss the following month. Several years back, it being my turn, I chose The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, in my opinion, a sublime writer. Sadly, this was not the opinion of the group, who really disliked what has come to be one of my very favourite books. It is so interesting to me how reading preferences vary. The fact that people with whom you have so much in common, educationally, socially and politically, can have such a wide variety of tastes in books, utterly astonishes me. But that’s how it is.

Right now, wherever I go, I have a book with me. Thrillers, serious tomes, studies of the English language itself; in short I have to have something to read. To have to wait in a queue, or wait for someone, or have my car break down or being unable to sleep – all of these irritations in life are soothed by the simple knowledge of having a book with me.

A Short Story of Readers in Stocksbridge

By Mary Grover and Sue Roe

Everyone at the Venue in Stocksbridge on 31 May 2019 came to reading in different ways. For children growing up in Stocksbridge in the 1940s and ‘50s getting hold of books was not easy. Stocksbridge Library was not built till the 1960s. Before then, Marilyn remembers borrowing books from the British Hall on Hope St or winning them as Sunday School prizes. One of the prizes was the story of smugglers in the West Country: Lorna Doone, won for ‘Endeavour’.

Chapel and Sunday School played a big part in the reading of many. Sunday School prizes were often the only books that children owned. The Bible featured frequently in the memory of Stocksbridge residents. There were chapels up and down the valley. Somebody described the pattern: pub, chapel, pub, chapel right through the town and into the country.

Frank pointed out the fact that the word Bible simply means ‘book’ and this book itself is a compilation of a huge amount of stories. He remembers Methodists in particular as reading the Bible out aloud, as a family. Your religion could affect the books around you in the home. A copy of ‘the Mass book’ was mentioned. Sometimes the only book in the house was the Bible.

If you or your parent was after light reading there was also at least one twopenny library in Stocksbridge. Gloria remembers a twopenny library where Lidl is now. She used to go and get love stories and Catherine Cookson books for her mum who wouldn’t go near the place. ‘She didn’t like the woman who ran it. She was abrupt, very sharp. All she wanted was your tuppence.’

Some readers from towns where there were public libraries weren’t able to use them because they weren’t allowed out on their own and their parents were too busy to take them. A few were given books as gifts or saved up their pocket money to buy them.

Enid Blyton was a part of nearly everybody’s reading life but each reader had her favourite series. One reader read and reread the poetic The Faraway Tree. Just William books came a good second.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

Like Blyton, Richmal Crompton delivered a long run of titles to keep you reading until you moved on to something else: What Katy Did, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals or Arthur Ransome’s books about children’s sailing adventures.

We were all struck by how middle class all the children’s books we came across were. But all delivered something familiar, however remote their setting: a sense of adventure and the ups and downs of getting on with the rest of the family.

It is when our readers became adults that their reading tastes began to differ quite a lot from their friends’ tastes. So much depended on where you went on to live and work. Those, like Terry, who did National Service in Germany came across the racy novels of Hank Janson. You were unlikely to find these in Stocksbridge. Roger went into farming so during his twenties he was keen to read about agriculture. Chris became an avid reader of science fiction. He moved from H G Wells to Asimov. He joined a library in his thirties. One book led to another: The Hobbit then Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy.

The journey from one author to another never ends. The number of books mentioned on that Friday morning at the drop-in session, seemed almost countless.

This was Reading Sheffield’s first visit to Stocksbridge. Huge thanks to David Owen and to the Stocksbridge readers who shared memories about how they became readers.

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

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.