Chris F’s reading journey

Chris F was born in 1939, in the Whirlowdale area of Sheffield. He attended boarding school and Cambridge, where he read engineering.  He returned to Sheffield and worked there all his life.

But on the whole I have to say it’s the land of make-believe in most of my reading.

Chris is very clear that he reads, and always has read, for entertainment.  He usually relaxes, for example, with a book for half an hour or so before sleep, and says that most of his books ‘have been bought at airports’.  But if you think that books are not particularly important to him, or that he has not thought about their impact on his life, then you would be wrong.  As our interviewer said:

And clearly books have been so important in your life that you can’t imagine one without.

Chris’ introduction to reading was traditional.  The books he remembers from his childhood were staples: A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Allison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit and Beatrix Potter.  At school, he graduated to Enid Blyton and then to school stories like Billy Bunter. Thousands of schoolboys in the middle of the 20th century must have had a similar start.  Chris was one of those in whom the habit of reading was firmly set by authors who told a good tale.

It must also have helped that Chris grew up in a house filled with books.  He doesn’t remember being urged to read by his parents but ‘the means of doing it was there’.

I never recall actually going to a library because we had an enormous number of books at home … Which my parents had. I’m rather like my father, once you get a book you never throw it away.

He remembers lots of crime, with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and the less well-remembered Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr.  There was also some real-life crime:

… It was the life of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury which I found very nice and gory at the time, I enjoyed it.

It was around this time that Chris found Nevil Shute, ‘who I think is probably my overall favourite author, which I started reading having seen the film of A Town Like Alice’. Even now, years later, he still enjoys these novels, which he says are gentle and believable:

I got all the books and I, oh about every five or six years I start again at the beginning. I re-read a lot of old favourites.

Requiem for a Wren

In Chris’ teens lots of his books came through his joining the Companion Book Club:

… you didn’t get any choice in those days, you got the book that they sent you. I’ve still got them all. Five bob a month it was and you finished up with a novel you probably would never have read otherwise.

By now, Chris had developed a taste for adventure, so Alistair McLean’s HMS Ulysses, his first book from the Companion Book Club, was very welcome. McLean was followed by C S Forester, Dennis Wheatley and Dornford Yates.  Chris laughs as he recalls Dennis Wheatley:

… the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were, pages 27 and 28, and if you opened the book they were well-thumbed.

The interest in adventure – swashbuckling, espionage, war, arch criminals etc – remained constant from school, through university, into adulthood and working life.  Chris remembers, with pleasure still, the adventures of Simon Templar alias The Saint, James Bond alias 007 and Dr Syn alias the Scarecrow and Captain Clegg.

Chris has tried reading some of the books he enjoyed, like Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, to his grandsons, but with mixed results.

I’ve tried to get my grandsons involved but I have to say, modern boys are very difficult to get to read because they’ve all got their little widgets that they play with and watch television the whole t-time. It was books like Billy Bunter and like Enid Blyton that got me reading and I think got my generation reading.

He is concerned by what he sees as the declining interest in reading among children.  He accepts that they gain a lot through technology (he is learning to use his own Kindle) but fears the next generation will:

have a terribly limited outlook on life … I do despair a little because with the modern exam system and the way that kids don’t read in our days we shall finish up with children with very narrow horizons.

What about improving books then? Were you led to see [reading] as an improving thing? asks the interviewer.

Well, we had books that we were studying and that we had to read. And funnily enough I can remember well the … the books that at the age of about 13 when I went away to public school that we had to read and thinking ‘Oh God, these are heavy going’. But I’ve read them again since and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think there is a difference when you actually have to read them and be questioned on them…

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

These were books like Darkness at Noon (1940) by Arthur Koestler – the story of a Bolshevik who falls victim to Stalin during the purges of the 1930s.   Chris still occasionally reads books his teachers would have thought of as improving:

I’m half way through Great Expectations, I never really read Dickens. I had to do Dickens at schools but I read Nicholas Nickleby recently and I’m reading Great Expectations now.

But it is the authors like Dornford Yates, C S Forester and Nevil Shute, whom he found for himself, that he goes back to, happy to re-read them:

… to take you away into a land of make believe.

Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute

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