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.

The Reading Journey of Carolyn W

By Mary Grover

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

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

Hey diddle diddle

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

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

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

Walkley Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She remembers the grandeur of the set itself.

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

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

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Nevil Shute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Carolyn’s interview in full.

The Reading Journey of Bob W

By Mary Grover

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

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

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

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

Bob was early learning to read.

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

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

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

Hillsborough Library, which Bob visited as a child

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original illustration from David Copperfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read Bob’s interview here.

Onder moeders paraplu. Or, Under Mother’s Umbrella

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

Here is the Dutch original:

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

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

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

Textile by Julia Banks

And here is Eleanor’s English version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Mary Grover

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

Ruth has always loved books and always will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oor Wullie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth on holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth and her brother in Trafalgar Square, London

A Reading Journey of Sorts

By Mike Peart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of Mike’s railway collection

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

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

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

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

 

Betty B’s reading journey

Betty was born in 1924 and grew up between Crookes and Walkley. She worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and served in the WAAF during World War Two.  

Betty’s father was the great influence on her early reading. While her mother read only magazines, her father liked Edgar Wallace. There were books at home, she says, and ‘Father took me to the Walkley Library’. Betty had a library card from the age of six, which was probably about the earliest age children could join in those days, and she ‘lived in the library’. She was lucky: the Walkley branch was home to Sheffield’s first-ever library for children, which had opened in the year she was born.

Carnegie library at Walkley

It’s interesting that, while he was evidently happy for his daughter to benefit from the public library, Betty’s father didn’t use it himself. His books came from the newsagents on Heavygate Rd in nearby Crookes. He would have had to pay to borrow from this ‘tuppenny library’, but at the time he might have felt more likely to find his favourites outside the public library. (In fact, from about 1930, Sheffield’s chief librarian, J P Lamb, started stocking more popular fiction, including Edgar Wallace, in his branch libraries, a move that was frowned upon in some professional library circles.)

Caricature of Edgar Wallace by Low

Betty attended the Western Road school and did the 11+ there, but she felt that she ‘had no education’. If anything, she was ‘self-educated’, reading ‘A to Z classics at school and in the library’. She had to leave school at the age of 15, in 1939, just before the war broke out. Her parents died around then, and Betty lived with her older sister, a civil servant, in Crookes. She worked at first as a comptometer operator but found itlike factory work’, so she did a course and found a book-keeping job in a local steel works.

When she was 17, Betty joined the WAAF as a driver, and was stationed at seven or eight different camps. There was a great social life, including a lot of dancing, she remembers, and there was less time for reading, even though she was sent books, ‘mostly whodunnits’, from home. After the war, old habits reasserted themselves, and started reading again. She enjoyed sports books from the library, and also studied textbooks about book-keeping.

This must have paid off, for Betty recalls that her ‘career improved’. She worked for a company called Johnson’s, then the Sheffield Steel and Tool Corporation, in its head office on Church St, and then an agricultural tool business around Queens Road.

Over the years, Betty got engaged three times – and changed her mind three times. She never married.

Now long retired, Betty continues to read. Novelists like J B Priestley and Alan Sillitoe get nods, and the classic crime and thriller writers of her youth are favourites. There are the four ‘Queens of Crime’ – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers – and also Raymond Chandler, Leslie Charteris, Dennis Wheatley and John Buchan. Eighty years after her father took her to Walkley Library, Betty still makes good use of the public library, through its service for housebound readers.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Dorothy L Sayers (Creative Commons licence, National Portrait Gallery)

 

Note: Betty was interviewed in 2012, but we have no audio or transcript, as the recorder was faulty. This reading journey is based on notes made by her interviewers, from which all the quotations are taken.

Looking back on 2018

Here is our Christmas card for 2018, drawing its inspiration from Girls’ Crystal and other comics which our readers loved as children. You can read here about on our activities over the year and learn about what we plan for 2019.

Reading Sheffield Christmas card 2018

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our readers!