A whistle-stop tour of my bookshelves

by Stephen McClarence

Journalist Stephen McClarence’s articles in the Sheffield Telegraph and Yorkshire Post helped promote our original oral history project over a decade ago. We are delighted that, with his reading journey, we are launching a follow-up: Steel City Readers – the Next Generation, 1955-1975. We are collecting new reading journeys based on experiences of reading in Sheffield starting in the years 1955 to 1975. If you’d like to contribute a reading journey, you’ll find more information here. And many thanks to Stephen.

On my first morning as a journalist – more than 40 years ago, when newspapers were still thriving – the news editor of the Yorkshire paper I’d joined as a ‘graduate trainee’ handed me a book. He reckoned it had ‘local interest’.

‘Do me a 250-word review of this,’ he said, and went back to his desk to allocate reporters to cover police conference, magistrates court and the day’s quota of Golden Weddings.

Fresh from ‘uni’, as no-one then called it, I set about reading the book. It was pretty dull, but I ploughed on. Half an hour later, the news editor came over again, looking puzzled. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘Reading the book, like you told me to,’ I said.

‘I didn’t tell you to read it,’ he said tetchily. ‘I told you to review it.’

So that put reading into perspective.

The young Stephen already with a book in his hands

I grew up in Sheffield in the 1950s and 1960s. The front room of our terraced house in Sharrow had a bookcase featuring a blue-bound set of Odhams editions of Dickens. Below it was a shelf of popular Book Club issues – Nevil Shute, H B Kaye, Stella Gibbons – with their sometimes surreal dust-jacket illustrations and proud boast that they published books for 2/6d (13p) that would otherwise cost up to 12/6d (63p).

From the family bookshelves

Across the room was a bureau whose glass-fronted bookcase housed several feet of World Books, an imprint with more serious literary ambitions than the Book Club – Graham Greene, Winifred Holtby, Somerset Maugham – and more sober dust-jackets.

I’m not sure how much my parents had read these books but, well, as Anthony Powell puts in his epic A Dance to the Music of Time, ‘Books do furnish a room.’

As a child, I naturally ignored this adult fare and read the regular children’s (actually boys’) books: Just William, Bunter, Jennings, all inhabiting a world remote from my own working-class experience. We didn’t, for instance, have ‘beaks’ at my grammar school.

The book that most resonated with my own upbringing was The Family from One End Street, Eve Garnett’s enchanting depiction of the working-class life of the Ruggles family. And every Christmas brought another Rupert Bear annual. All these years later, the illustrations seem almost psychedelically weird: just what was that little bear on?

All these books – apart from Rupert Bear – were available just down the road, shelves of them, in Highfield library.

What a wonder this imposing Victorian building was, what a massive ‘enabler’. Year after year, I climbed its stone steps up to a doorway topped by a quotation from Thomas Carlyle: ‘That there should be one man die ignorant who had capacity for knowledge, this I call a tragedy.’

Highfield Library today

Inside, in an atmosphere of sepulchral silence, were sturdy, highly polished tables where retired men in gabardine macs read the newspapers. A flight of alarmingly steep stairs led to the children’s library, with its seemingly endless shelves of Collins Classics and True Books (I longed for Untrue Books), all protected from careless young hands by sturdy transparent plastic jackets.

In school holidays, particularly on rainy days when there was no incentive to ‘play out’, I would sometimes visit the library twice a day: in the morning to choose a couple of books to last me until the afternoon, when I went back to exchange them for a couple more.

The newsagent across the road from us sold me comics (Beano, Dandy, Beezer, Topper). Plus the wonderfully engaging and informative Look and Learn. I duly looked and learned – about Arthur and Excalibur, The Story of a Seed and The History of the A4 (the road not the paper size).

Later, doing A Levels and grappling with Chaucer, Molière and the Thirty Years War, I had plenty of ‘free periods’ in the afternoons. Suddenly enthused by classical music, I regularly took a bus into the city centre to sit for hours reading The Stereo Record Guide in the Central Library. On reflection this seems a curious way to have spent my late adolescence.

Years before, my parents had bought me The Book of Knowledge, eight heavy red-and-cream-bound volumes (A to Bon, announced the spines, Boo to Cro, Crue to Gera…). Published ‘to provide the inquiring mind with accurate information told in an interesting style’, the series ranged wide.

The photographs on one double-page spread offered not merely a ‘Model of a Proposed German Monorail System’ but also ‘Haddock, Relation of the Cod’ (as though that was the haddock’s only claim to fame).

I’ve just flicked through one of the volumes (still on my shelves) and recognised many of the illustrations – ‘Humming birds on the wing’ on the left-hand page, ‘Hull Docks and wharves seen from the air’ on the right.

And there was Walt Disney’s Worlds of Nature, with its saturatedly coloured photographs of ‘the alert, intelligent raccoon’, a few pages after a gladiatorial photograph showing how ‘two queen bees, piping shrilly, battle fiercely to the death’ and the invaluable tip that ‘the bullfrog’s voice is the biggest part of him’.

On the flyleaf, I see I wrote my name rather hesitantly in ballpoint pen on my eighth birthday. And I’m afraid I subsequently committed my old news editor’s cardinal sin: I read the book.