Shirley L’s reading journey

Shirley L, born in North Wales in 1944, is an artist. She and her husband lived abroad and around the UK because of his work, before retiring to Sheffield in 2004. She is a keen member of a book group.

I have always read to my children, and grandchildren, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but I do not remember myself being read to as a child.

Shirley at the age of four

My home did not have bookshelves full of books. Looking back, I don’t think I gave it a thought, or felt that I was missing out. It may sound strange but it never registered with me until I started to think about it now, for this reading journey. I do remember having one book for Christmas when I was quite young, and it was all about film stars. This was most probably due to the fact I loved going to the cinema with my friends.

I was always encouraged to do well at school, so of course there was a lot of reading then. Later on, when I was about 11 or 12, I read What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge’s book about the adventures of a young American, Katy Carr, and her brothers and sisters. A lovely red hardback if I remember correctly. I really enjoyed it. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven books too, I think when I was about nine or ten. Being an only child, friends were important in my life, so I loved reading about the children’s friendships and adventures.

Illustration, p. 8, What Katy Did, 1873, Addie Ledyard (public domain)

All this is a very long time ago, so please forgive me if I appear vague! I have little recollection where all these books came from, but I do know that I mainly read my books at home and that I did visit the library – Rhyl Library, on Wellington Road I think. It was actually within the Town Hall. The adult section was at the front and the children’s at the back. The building is still there but the library has been moved.

My friend Jill, who I’ve been talking to about our childhood reading, thinks that I most probably got the Enid Blytons from the library. This makes sense to me. Jill also says that when we started grammar school, aged 11, of course, for our first year we were told to read novels during the school holidays – three in the summer and obviously less during the smaller holidays. This was compulsory, hence my visits to the library. I was wondering if I had read Treasure Island and now I am sure I did.

Shirley in her school blazer, aged about 11
Shirley and her schoolfriends ‘goofing around’ at age 14.
Shirley is in the centre and her friend Jill is on the left.

Thinking about What Katy Did, I just feel it was my book, not the library’s, but I cannot be sure. It might have been a little present for passing the 11+ from someone or from Sunday School. My family wasn’t able to buy me books, any more than Jill’s could. Money was short in those days in our working-class homes.

As I’ve said, the cinema played a big part in my life. It was time spent with my friends, who were so important to me, and obviously a lot cheaper than buying books! When we returned home, we would act out what we had seen on screen. Books did not come into it. But writing this has reminded me that I did go to see Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s cartoon from 1940, and I have a feeling I read the book of the film. I was very young then so maybe I read the book later. I just don’t know.

As I’ve already said, I was always encouraged to do well at school. Reading to me was about enjoyment, but schoolbooks, especially when I went to grammar school, were there to give me a good education and hopefully a good future. I was never told reading was a waste of time. I never re-read books then, and I am not keen on it now, but there are no books I wouldn’t dream of not reading again.

I do still have one book, a Bible, from those days. It wasn’t new and had little pressed flowers in it, here and there. This was a present from our local grocer’s daughter for passing my 11+. Now the thing that has clicked in my head is this. Over the years, with my husband being in the RAF, we have moved a lot, overseas and around the UK. We have cleared our home out numerous times with each move, but I have the Bible, never lost, still by my bedside. I’ve never been an avid reader of it. I just pick it up now and again and open it up wherever, read a small amount and put it back. So for the last 57 years as we have travelled around, it’s always been there.

Shirley’s Bible

Have books changed my life? Looking back, growing up, books have played a big part in my life for lots of reasons. I have read fiction, non-fiction, all kinds of books. We can get lost in books – some make you laugh, cry, tell us things we never knew, things that help, make us think.

The joys of being read to – Margaret B’s reading journey

Margaret B, who was born in 1960, came to Sheffield in the mid-1990s because of her job. Reading has long been a love, and here, in the second post for our new Next Generation project, she reflects on being read to as a child.

Margaret and her twin brother in the back row, left and right respectively. Their younger brother and sister, also twins, sit in the front.

My parents read to us from when we were tiny. There were four of us children born within 27 months (two sets of twins!) and our bedtime ritual was always bath, story, prayers and bed. We loved having a story read to us even when we could read ourselves. We all had the same story as we shared a bedroom (two sets of bunks) and took it in turns to choose which book our parents should read.

The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, by Beatrix Potter. First edition (1905) (public domain)

I remember hearing all the Beatrix Potter books regularly in rotation. My brothers liked Jeremy Fisher and Peter Rabbit while I liked Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and my sister liked The Tale of Two Bad Mice. These were interspersed with the Thomas the Tank Engine books and again we had our own favourites. Both my parents were excellent readers (one was a literature teacher and the other a clergyman); they loved books and words. So they also read poetry and rhymes to us – When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six by A A Milne and soon we were reciting them. I can still recite many of them today, 60 years later, and have strong visual memories of the illustrations – especially Christopher Robin and Alice at Buckingham Palace.

They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace –
Christopher Robin went down with Alice.
Alice is marrying one of the guard.
‘A soldier’s life is terrible hard,’
Says Alice.

Buckingham Palace, by A A Milne

When I was about three my mother taught my twin and me to recite the whole of the ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech from Macbeth to keep us entertained. I hadn’t a clue what it was about but the rhythm and the words were wonderful.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Macbeth by William Shakespeare (Act V, scene 5, lines 16-27)

Even once we could read, the bedtime story was still a family ritual. We progressed to many other books including Swallows and Amazons and the Narnia books.

Two of the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome (image by Reading Sheffield)

As a family, we were given some beautifully illustrated books as presents. It was the 1960s so they were often quite ‘modern’ illustrations. I remember a stunning, huge, hardback book of Greek and Roman myths with wonderful stylised illustrations of the gods. Double joy – great stories being read to us and a wonderful picture on every page to look at. I also remember the Oxford Illustrated Book of Nursery Rhymes – no cute pictures but vibrant semi-abstract paintings. I am sure that is why I have always loved modern art. I also remember the colourful if more traditional illustrations of Kathleen Hale’s Orlando the Marmalade Cat. This was my sister’s book and I was very jealous of it.

Listen with Mother on the radio was a must-listen every lunchtime and then when we got a bit older, we raced home from school to watch Jackanory. This BBC TV programme, which ran from the 1960s to the 1990s, introduced me to so many wonderful books which I went on to borrow from the library and read myself. It is hard to imagine these days, that they would make a whole TV programme with someone just reading a story from a book with the occasional illustration if there were any in the book. So many memorable books: Michael Bond’s Paddington series, The Owl Service by Alan Garner, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and the Mary Plain books by Gwynedd Rae, to mention just a few of the ones I remember so fondly. We also always watched the BBC classic serial on a Sunday afternoon which introduced me to the classics. I can still recall so many scenes from Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield. And when I was older I avidly watched both The Pallisers and the Barchester Towers chronicles. I did go on to read a couple of Trollope books after that but much preferred the TV version.

And of course we had books read to us every afternoon all the way through primary school. They were undoubtedly my favourite times at school, sitting quietly while being read to from excellent books. The stories read to us at school often overlapped with Jackanory books but I didn’t mind hearing them again. Two I remember very clearly from our later years in primary school were The Weird Stone of Brisingamen, also by Alan Garner, and The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe. One male teacher read us She by H Rider Haggard, which I found exciting if somewhat terrifying.

When I was eight, we moved house and no longer all shared a bedroom so my parents stopped reading to us every night and we all read our own books. But whenever we went on holiday, my parents would read to us again in the evenings. Holidays were always in a tent and I have such strong memories of us four being wrapped up safe and warm in our sleeping bags top to tail (to stop us from squabbling) while my parents took it in turn to read under the popping Calor Gas light, often to the sounds of wind and rain outside! This would be for about an hour every evening and they would always stop just before the ten o’clock news on the radio. We would doze off to the sound of Big Ben striking. I remember all of the Borrowers series by Mary Norton and as teenagers we got through the R L Stevenson books and Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. Eventually we graduated to Moby Dick by Herman Melville, though I don’t think we ever finished it!

When family camping holidays stopped, we still occasionally read aloud, this time taking it in turns to read a chapter. I discovered that I also enjoyed reading aloud as well as being read to. There was a memorable holiday in France with three generations of our family and we took it in turns to read from Great Expectations. Even my 12 year-old son took his turn and read his chapter fluently which surprised his proud mother! Dickens is a great author to read out loud.

Pip’s first encounter with Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Illustration by John McLenan (public domain)

It was when I stood before her, avoiding her eyes, that I took note of the surrounding objects in detail, and saw that her watch had stopped at twenty minutes to nine, and that a clock in the room had stopped at twenty minutes to nine. ‘Look at me,’ said Miss Havisham. ‘You are not afraid of a woman who has never seen the sun since you were born?’

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (chapter 8)

For many years, my mother would read to her friend Jo who had severe cerebral palsy and could not physically hold a book or turn the pages. But Jo loved literature so my mother would read classics and Booker prize winners to her every week. Around Christmas, my mother would invite Jo, her husband, my partner and me for dinner followed by a communal book reading. One year we read A Christmas Carol by Dickens and the next year we all took different parts in Twelfth Night.

The title page from the first edition of A Christmas Carol (1843)

Surprisingly, I am now not that keen on audiobooks or TV and film adaptations. I do listen to or watch them occasionally but I usually prefer to read them myself. Maybe it’s because I tend to listen to an audiobook while I’m doing housework, cooking or clearing my email inbox. But I also wonder if it is because, as a child, being read to was a communal activity with my parents, brothers and sister or classmates. We enjoyed the stories together and could talk about them afterwards. It was also a legitimate time in our days when we were allowed and indeed encouraged, to stop doing anything else, to sit down as a family or class and listen to wonderful stories instead of worrying about the to-do list and the undone laundry!