Frank Burgin’s reading journey

The only son of a miner and a onetime housemaid, Frank Burgin was born in 1938 in Mosborough, then a small pit village outside Sheffield.  After leaving school, he worked in engineering, a job interrupted by two years of National Service.  Later, when his work at Laycock Engineering became less satisfying, he worked as a technician at the University of Sheffield and, in time, taught in further and higher education in Sheffield.  In recent years,  Frank got his PhD. 

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The book was by Hemingway and Frank had not warmed to Hemingway, but it was no good.  He still had to stand up and talk about it.

You were given a book you had to read before you went and then as part of the course you’d got to talk about it to the rest of the group.

Frank was not, as you might suppose, a student of literature in a tutorial, but a teenage apprentice at the Sheffield firm of Laycock Engineering in the 1950s.  Laycocks is famous in automobile design for the Laycock de Normanville Overdrive, which Frank described as ‘what we had before they invented 5th gears in cars … quite a sophisticated piece of engineering’.

I started work at 15 as an apprentice at Laycock Engineering which of course is now Sainsbury’s at Millhouses.  I still get a funny feeling when I go in there, when I see a bit of wall… that was the fitters… That was the tool room where I used to work.  I still get the feeling that people must get when they walk down the street and find out that the house that they were born in has been knocked down… it’s become flats. You know, there’s a part of your life gone, and I’m a bit like that with Laycocks.

By the 1950s, the firm was part of the Birfield Industries group, and it seemed to be Birfield policy to bring together their apprentices at Goldicoates, a country house owned by the company.

It was a course.  You had to go and learn how to talk to Brummies and people like that without fighting!  It was all very posh catering, sort of thing, you went to breakfast with your jacket on.

And the Hemingway?  Frank couldn’t remember the title but:

I talked about it. I presented it, I can remember doing it.  I’m sure very, very hesitantly, and I wasn’t as articulate then as I am now but at least I didn’t sort of stand there tongue-tied and say aye, well it were crap, like some did.

Perhaps the reason Frank coped with the task was that he had long been a reader, enjoying ‘fairly escapist fiction … not particularly literary but they certainly had something’. (He still reads enthusiastically by the way – ‘bits of physics’ and sci fi and fantasy that is ‘totally and utterly zany’– and these days uses a Kindle.)  Frank’s parents, who had only an elementary school education, were ‘habitual readers’ and saw books as a way for their young son to avoid the hardship they’d known during the ‘terrible economic times of the 1930s’.

Oh, I used to get all the time – look, lad, you’ve got to have some book larnin else you’ll get nowhere.  He [Frank’s father] didn’t know what I’d got to learn, he knew that I’d got to be learning it from books … somewhere. And I was pushed and encouraged to do at well at school which I didn’t particularly.

In fact, Frank failed the important exam which in those days determined the type of secondary education he would get:

I failed part 1 of the 11 plus exam absolutely miserably of course, but nobody had ever done anything about preparing us for the 11 plus exam or even telling us that it was important.

This led, however, to his joining Laycocks, and one day finding himself talking about Hemingway to his fellow apprentices.  The incident seemed to have a big – perhaps even life-changing – impact on Frank.  Why, after all, did Birfield go to all the trouble?

… to get us away from the back page of the Star and things like that … No, it was all done to make us think.  Some of us did think.  It certainly woke up things in me that I didn’t know was [sic] there.  I think it also made me think that perhaps there might be life beyond knocking very precise spots off big lumps of metal which I’d gone into engineering to do and was quite happy doing.

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You can read and listen to Frank’s interview in full here.

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