In October 2020, I gave a talk to the University Women’s Group about Sheffield readers and the novels of Charles Dickens. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own relationship with Dickens. You can find the full talk, with slides, under our Research tab here.
Unlikely as it may seem, in the 1930s intellectuals and academics such as the influential Q D and F R Leavis often dismissed Charles Dickens as an author for the uneducated masses. That assessment was strengthened when popular newspapers, fighting a circulation war, offered their readers relatively inexpensive sets of Dickens in presentation bookcases, making his novels available to a vast number of people. My father, who lectured on English Literature, grew up in the 1930s, in a modest home with one of those – in his case, treasured – sets of Dickens.
In 1934 the Daily Herald got the ball rolling with the first subscription offer: eighteen volumes for eleven shillings, a saving of 69 shillings on the market price. Frank Burgin, who grew up in Mosborough in the Thirties, described the process.
A man came round to the house getting you to buy the Daily Herald. My father said, ‘We’ll never use that newspaper because we don’t agree with those politics’, but eventually, the man must have been good, because he signed up so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.
For all that he remembered acquiring the novels, Frank was no great fan. But many other Reading Sheffield interviewees loved Dickens. Dorothy, for example, who saw poverty as she grew up in working class Sheffield, responded powerfully to the story of Oliver Twist, ‘the way he was treated’. Betty Newman, who in general dismissed novels, thought Dickens ‘was the nearest I got to fiction’ and concluded, ‘I don’t think he really is fiction’. For Dorothy, Betty and others, Dickens dealt in harsh economic realities which they recognised. They learned history from him. ‘It gave you an insight into just how unfortunate some people were and how they lived,’ said Peter Mason.
For others, it was Dickens’ vivid characters, like Mr Micawber and Magwitch, that captured the imagination. The frequent dramatisations and readings on BBC radio programmes of the period reinforced this. In 1930, for example, Bransby Williams, ‘the Famous Portrayer of Dickens Characters’, led a musical extravaganza, ‘A Pickwick Party’, subtitled ‘A Dickens Dream Fantasy’ with a ‘Chorus of Dickens Dogs and Dainty Ducks’.
In time academics like the Leavises changed their minds about Dickens. He was deemed a worthy subject for study, much to my pleasure, as I was brought up surrounded by my father’s Daily Herald copies of the novels. For eighteen years Dickens was a constant physical companion and, in my teens, an imaginative one.
For my father and thousands like him Dickens made reading and rereading, affordable and pleasurable. And it was the pleasures he delivered that enabled many unschooled children to get the reading habit.
Guest contributor Mike Peart, born in 1944, has lived in Sheffield for many years. He is an independent researcher, specialising in railway history.In March this year, Mike wrote A Reading Journey of Sorts. In the strange months since COVID arrived, he has expanded his original memories.
During my childhood in Heston, Middlesex, I don’t ever recall being taken to the local library. 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 at least once a week 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. Thinking back, I cannot remember my father ever reading any fiction – his reading was always related to his engineering profession.
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 cartoon strips or sections for children in 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. I think that most of my reading at home started with occasional copies of the Dandy comic, then the Rupert Bear strip in, I think, the Daily Express newspaper. A legacy of Rupert’s simple rhyming in cartoon strips is my tendency to produce some awful verse. On shopping trips with my mother, I may well have read shop and bus signs and the labels in places like David Greig’s grocery and MacFisheries: the word ‘eels’ always looked strange to me. I did spend a lot of time listening to the valve radio, BBC Home Service and Light Programme, and Listen with Mother from 1950, noted for its ‘Are you sitting comfortably?’ introduction. Some stories surely must have come across that way.
I think my mother told me I could read before I got to infant school in 1948/9, but I have no recollection of what reading and writing took place there under the kind, hatted and elderly Miss Farrah with her aura of eau-de-cologne and mothballs. The only thing I do recall from infant school is ‘music and movement’ to the accompaniment of a wind-up gramophone. It was only later in junior school years that some comic annuals started to appear 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 Kat were hardly improving literature. I was also given a small number of the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton, although only a small fraction of the 21 apparently available in the series. They were read repeatedly during bouts of scarlet fever, chickenpox and German measles.
Apart from my mother’s library books, there were very few books at home although there was a small dark oak bookcase which was used for other purposes. As to its contents I can only recall an ancient edition of Pears’ Cyclopaedia and two hefty tomes called The Home Doctor and The Family Lawyer, all of which may have come from my paternal grandfather after he died in 1938. This latter volume was about three inches thick and served as a useful stand upon which to place the potty for a growing boy when potty training was taking place! (Was this the way of developing into a barrack-room lawyer through a process of osmosis?) The only fiction books of ours that I can recall at home were both 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.
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 Chartered Mechanical Engineers which apart from learned articles contained diagrams and photographs, some of which dealt with railways which has been an obsession of mine ever since. Otherwise, there were a few of my father’s engineering HND textbooks such as Strength of Materials and others dealing with workshop mathematics, use of the slide rule and logarithm tables.
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. I think there was parental desperation to get me into the grammar school my father had attended and avoid the local senior school which didn’t have a good reputation and was home to the local bullies. I was also provided with Angus MacIver’s First Aid in English. These aids may well have helped my pass in the 11-plus in 1956 and I certainly became 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 such as proverbs and absurdities 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 and speaking foreign languages far more and at the time probably read more French including Voltaire than any English authors. A neighbour, a retired army captain, lent me his copy of Mein Kampf looted from Berlin although the German was a little beyond me. I was, though, introduced to the German double ‘S’ (ß – Eszett) and gothic script. Keen to better my French while still at school, I started subscribing to Paris Match magazine 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’. A French penfriend knowing of my interest in railways kept me regularly supplied with La Vie du Rail magazine.
I ‘resigned’ (no better word for it) from grammar school in 1962 after the first and utterly uninspiring ‘A’ level year of French, German and English Literature. Trying to get into the intricacies of Voltaire’s Candide and Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann during the summer holiday when there was so much else to do was the clincher. The only spark had been occasionally struck by the headteacher, G J P Courtney, who taught the ‘A’ level French students and had written several of his own French grammar books. We were taught to sing the Marseillaise, the words of which I still know better than the second verse of our National Anthem! Instead, 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 by letter regularly and he gave feedback whilst also trying 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, potential backer celebrities such as John Betjeman, exhibition organisers, sponsors and the railway press. I also started and produced the society’s first regular newsletter to members, which developed into a quarterly magazine now at edition number 230. Both were duplicated at first and, apart from typing the stencils, I also had to write most of the copy despite many appeals to others to contribute. A fellow committee member, a journalist on the Daily Telegraph, urged me to qualify in journalism so 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 and studying a lot of books dealing with railway operation and working through official texts for the Institute of Transport qualification. I did work for British Railways between September 1962 and October 1964 and this was when I discovered I couldn’t pursue my railway operating management 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 with central London and its suburbs as my universe.
My father retired in April 1965 and we immediately moved to Dulverton, Somerset. As I was available, 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, The Flight of the Phoenix by Elleston Trevor and A Kind of Loving by Stan Barstow. Faced with the need to find a new career, my next acquisitions were mainly Pelican 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 premature end of my railway career, I had paid for vocational guidance which had suggested following a career in either adult education, probation work, social work and, 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 organisation in 1994 that I started to write, and I have since completed one management book for Hodder & Stoughton, contributed chapters to others, and have written four more books with a fifth currently in production for the National Railway Museum, plus countless articles for eight different organisations’ journals.
Despite my unpromising start with libraries, I have been over the years an enthusiastic user of Sheffield Central Library, Totley Library, central libraries in Hull, Grimsby and Manchester, some London borough libraries, the onetime government library in Moorfoot, Sheffield and the National Railway Museum library.
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.
So, after such an unpromising and almost lifelong relationship with reading fiction, I now write mainly to entertain and inform others. A brief flirtation with journalism has helped me to produce copy quickly – never mind the quality, feel the width – and it was the positive encouragement of my great uncle which, I think, mainly set me on this path.
In the spring of 1936 Sheffield Libraries mounted an
exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’ in the Central Library, to mark the centenary of
Charles Dickens’ novel, The Pickwick Papers. The celebrations, wrote the
Sheffield Independent enthusiastically, ‘touch us all with a sense of remembered
delights and living entrancement’.
The Central Library, only a couple of years old, had been
designed with space for exhibitions and displays, in contrast to the previous buildings,
and the chief librarian, J P Lamb, took advantage of this over the years.
Our reader Jessie (b. 1906) was a great fan of Charles Dickens, whose novels she came to through her job as a cleaner for the vicar of St John’s Park in Sheffield in the 1920s. Seventy years later, she recalled that her employer:
… had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and [the housekeeper] had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.
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.
Although we cannot know if she saw it, no doubt Jessie would
have been interested in Sheffield Libraries’ exhibition of ‘Dickensiana’. It
was one of many events around the country marking the centenary. Pickwick, Dickens’
first novel, had been an immediate success, and remained very popular.
The press around the country also made much of the centenary.
The Sheffield Independent, for example, covered it several times. On Tuesday 24
March 1936, its columnist, ‘Big Ben’, wrote about events organised by the Dickens Fellowship in London:
On Friday next the Pickwick Centenary celebrations begin in real earnest when, at the Caxton Hall, Westminster, there will be a reception of delegates from 76 branches of the Dickens Fellowship. On the following morning the annual conference will be held. Meanwhile, rehearsals are being held daily in connection with the centenary matinee which is to take place at the London Palladium tomorrow week. …
Sir Ben Greet’s company is playing a portion of the version of Bleak House … and, of course, Mr Bransby Williams will make some appearances, first as Mr Pickwick himself, then as Charles Dickens …
On Sunday evening next a special centenary service will be held in Westminster Abbey, and on Monday the original Pickwick coach will leave Charing Cross for Rochester, driven by Mr Bertram Mills.
After the matinee tomorrow week a banquet will be held at Grosvenor House, when Sir John Martin Harvey will propose the immortal memory.[i]
The Sheffield branch of the Dickens Fellowship held its own
celebration, a ‘Pickwick supper’, on Saturday 21 March. The Independent
reported on the following Monday that over 70 Fellowship members ‘enjoyed
hearty 19th century fare’ at Stephenson’s Restaurant in Castle Street.
The meal was followed by a ‘musical evening provided on Dickensian lines’
including a contribution from ‘sweet-voiced Jimmie Fletcher, Sheffield’s own
famous boy vocalist.[ii]
The Independent continued its coverage the next Wednesday,
25 March, in Big Ben’s ‘Talk of London’ column, reminding readers of Dickens’
visit to Sheffield in 1852.[iii]
Dickens gave many public readings of his novels and also acted in plays. Big
Ben reported seeing, in a display in a London bookshop, a playbill for a ‘performance
by the Guild of Literature and Art’ at the ‘Music Hall, Sheffield’, on Surrey
Street. The cast included: Dickens himself; fellow author Wilkie Collins; Mark
Lemon, the founding editor of Punch and The Field; and John Tenniel, who would
later illustrate Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
It must have been a busy evening for all concerned, for it was one of those three-decker shows which were so popular a century ago. And as Dickens figures as the manager and the producer of all three, as part author of one, and a player in all three it would appear that he loomed nearly as large in that night’s entertainment as Charlie Chaplin does in Modern Times. …
I wonder if the Sheffielders of that day realised how honoured they were in having such famous writers on the stage of the music hall.
The exhibition in the Central Library was described in the Independent on 23 March.
Rare Dickens Books
Pickwick Centenary Exhibition
To celebrate the Pickwick Centenary, the Sheffield City Librarian (Mr J P Lamb) has arranged a special exhibition of Dickensiana in the Central Library, Surrey street.
A valuable collection of rare books has been assembled, including many first editions, and several with bibliographical peculiarities of singular interest.
Some of the books belong to the Central Reference Library, but the main part of the display has been lent by Mr. W. Slinn, whose fame as a bookbinder extends much further than Sheffield.
Considerable interest is also attached to a water-colour of Dickens (lent by Mr. Daniel Evans), giving one of his famous readings at St. James’s Hall, London, in 1870. A few of our older readers may remember his visits to the old Music Hall in Surrey street, which was later used as a Central Lending Library until its demolition in 1932.
In any Dickens exhibition pride of place is generally given to the Pickwick Papers. To-day it is still one of the most popular books.
The exhibition can show you a copy of the first edition printed in volume form. Other editions on show include Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son and the first octavo edition of Oliver Twist.
The exhibition begins to-day and will continue for a few weeks.
Later, on Thursday 26 March, Big Ben reported that the City
Librarian, J P Lamb (never one to miss an opportunity for publicising the
library), had rung to tell him that:
another copy of the playbill and a smaller bill are on view at the exhibition of Dickensiana at the Central Library in honour of the Pickwick Centenary, [along with] an actual ticket of admission to the show mentioned.
The newspaper reproduced the playbill to illustrate the article.
The Pickwick Centenary celebrations this week touch us all with a sense of remembered delights and living entrancement. Nothing new in literature, no new fashions or coteries can affect the universal popularity of Pickwick. If only some of the intellectual snobs and pseudo-intellectual cynics could produce anything with a hundredth part of the vitality, humanity and humour which characterised the art of Charles Dickens we could forgive them much of their pretentious nonsense.
Think of the gallery of rich characters, of the kindly satire, of the human understanding that this man produced. Mr. Pickwick was always surprised by the perversity of the world and by the assaults it made on his ingeniousness. He was – he is – so English. He has lived long. He will go on living. This centenary will give him new vitality and will do our hearts a power of good at a time in our history and in the history the world when so much is being done that Pickwick could never have understood and would certainly have hated.
Jessie, you feel, would have cheered.
Bransby Williams (1870 – 1961) and Sir John Martin-Hervey (1863 – 1944) were
actors who had considerable success interpreting Dickens. Sir Ben Greet
(1857-1936) was an actor-manager well-known for his touring Shakespearian
[iii] Dickens is known to have visited Sheffield four times, in 1852 to act and in 1853, 1858 and 1869 to give readings. He may also have visited in 1839, to report on local Chartist meetings, but there is no definitive evidence of this.
Poppy, who is 11 years old and lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger.Like many others these days, she’s thinking about her lockdown reading.
My book review is about the book A Pinch Of Magic, or as it says in full on the cover, Three Sisters, A Family Curse and A Pinch of Magic, written by Michelle Harrison.
This book is based around a
family who (years before) had been put under a curse. The curse meant that if
they left their town they would die by sunset. The main character (Betty) and
her sisters are determined to undo the curse.
Personally, I like the main
character Betty because she is adventurous, daring and mischievous!
Some parts of the book I find
very puzzling and scary! Puzzling because I didn’t know how it was possible
that they would break the curse, and scary because sunset was coming near which
would cause their death!
My favourite part of the book
was when Betty finally found her sisters, after they had been taken, by risking
her own life as well.
The reason I wanted to carry
on the book was because I had no idea how it was going to end. Also, this is a
book that is hard to stop reading.
A book I would recommend is Why The Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo. I would recommend this because it’s a short, interesting book set during the war.
I normally prefer to only read a book once but one I have read more than once is Katy by Jacqueline Wilson, because at points in the book it’s telling you the perspective of somebody in a wheelchair. It’s saying that when you’re in a wheelchair, everyone stares at you and treats you differently, which is something I find interesting.
Personally, a place I specially like to read is either in my bed. or in the garden on a nice sunny day! I read in my bed because I find it comfortable and gets me ready for a good night’s sleep. I like to read in the garden because it’s nice and relaxing with the sun shining above you.
Lily, who lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger.
During lockdown I have been enjoying the Harry Potter books very much. They are very intriguing and I can’t get to sleep until about 10pm because I can’t put them down. I am currently reading the sixth book and there have been lots of interesting things that have happened along the way. I like Ron because he is funny and gets in the way, not knowing what is going on around him. I don’t like Luna because she is very strange and doesn’t play a big part in the books.
I also like the Famous Five books written by Enid Blyton. They
are great tales of four children and a dog called Timmy and together they find
criminals and solve mysteries. My favourite character is Anne because she makes
me feel like myself. I don’t like Julian because he is too serious. I recommend
you read them, because something new happens every time. There are 21 books in
the series and all of them are amazing, I would really recommend them. They are
old books but still great reads.
Another author I like is David Walliams. He has a really
good collection of funny stories with incredible illustrations by Tony Ross.
Some of my favourites are The Ice Monster, Gangsta Granny and Grandpa’s Great
Escape, but all of them are really good. David Walliams is really good at
writing about how children and adults interact, and the characters are great.
Lots of his books have been turned into films.
One book I often go back to is The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig. It’s about a pixie who is cursed to tell the truth which stops her getting any friends. In the end she finds a little girl who loves her and wants to keep her for who she is. I like to read it when I am scared or upset as it is comforting and stops me having nightmares.
Sometimes I enjoy to read fact books. At the moment I have been reading the Great Women books by Kate Pankhurst. She is the great-grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who I also enjoy reading about – I have a book called Suffragette: The Battle for Equality, by David Roberts, that I really enjoy reading. I got Greta Thunberg’s book for Christmas and it is great. Inside are all her speeches which are worth a look at. Me and my family also love the See Inside series of fact books. They are lift-the-flap books with hidden facts and there are lots of different ones, we’ve got Castles, Space and General Knowledge.
In lockdown I’ve been reading in the garden because it has been warm and sunny. I also read in bed where it is cosy and warm. I am looking forward to the libraries reopening so I can get some new reads.
We usually record the reading journeys of Sheffielders born in the first half of the 20th century. But we enjoy hearing from anyone who loves books. Here is our latest guest blogger, Mabel, born in the 21st century, talking about what she reads.
At the moment I’m reading The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. It’s about a girl who goes to boarding school because of the war and joins a folk dancing class which goes to a competition in the kingdom of Bergania. But when they get there the king is shot and the girl rescues the orphaned prince from going to Colditz.
My favourite character is Tally because she is funny, brave and exciting. The book is sad because it’s set in the war so people die but it has a happy ending. It’s also quite mysterious because you don’t know who is the mother of Julia, another student at Tally’s school. My favourite bit is when they go to the dragonfly pool – it sounds beautiful – I’d like to go there. I need to keep reading the book because the prince has been taken away and I need to see if he comes back.
I would recommend The Dragonfly Pool to people who like
adventure and suspense. Other books I would recommend are:
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke – for a person who likes books, magical creatures and adventure
The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson – for someone who likes mystery, horses and happy endings!
I love to read all my books again and again because they feel like old friends and they’re still exciting even though I know what’s going to happen. The place I most like to read is the top of the attic stairs because it’s light and I’m not disturbed, unless Mum comes up to tell me not to sit on the stairs!
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 Banks, Shirley Ellins, Jim 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:
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.
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.
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’.
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’.
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.
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.’
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
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 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’.
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.
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.
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.