Gillian Applegate was born on 27 October 1941, in Frecheville which was then in Derbyshire but is now part of Sheffield. Gillian worked first in banking but later became a college librarian. She married in 1964, and her husband, Norman, died suddenly, at the relatively young age of 63. Gillian has one daughter, Jane, and a grandson.
For Gillian, books have brought not only passing pleasure but also lasting fulfilment and content.
When Gillian retrained as a librarian, she qualified with distinctions and merits and her husband Norman said: ‘Oh, I knew you’d pass. It’s as if you were rehearsing all your life.’ He meant of course that books had always been part of Gillian’s life. Her parents encouraged her from the first as they wanted their daughters ‘to read and be educated’.
I remember at school – I don’t know whether they do it now – but on a Friday afternoon, always the teachers read you a story – Milly Molly Mandy, Worzel Gummidge – and I absolutely adored it and I think that from when I could read, I’ve always had a book in my hand.
I got into libraries later in life. I worked at Castle College as a cashier … and I … was offered a job in the library which I adored. I’d found where I belonged, I think.
The time came when Gillian was very grateful for books. Gillian’s husband, who ‘had rheumatic fever as a child [and] was left with a murmur in his heart’, died suddenly and left her grieving. But books, says the interviewer, ‘seem to have opened the door to social activities.’ They came to the rescue, both socially and for comfort.
I’ve always had books and sort of read at home but not a lot. But I think it really came back when I was widowed ten years ago. He’d gone out walking, my husband, and had a massive heart attack. At least I didn’t see him ill, but it was such a shock and devastating.
When I was older, when I was widowed, a friend invited me to go to a book club. My sister … said “I think you should, because you always had a book in your hand.” And it saved me really, in bereavement.
If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d got a book on the go, rather than get upset, just switch the light on and read the book.
‘Everybody was so kind,’ Gillian says, ‘and asked me to go to things and I went to everything.’ This included two book clubs: Sundays at Waterstone’s Sheffield bookshop and Wednesdays at the City Library. One of the first books Gillian read this way was Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring:
[It] was a bit tedious and everything but then a lady said, ‘There’s a film and they’re having it at the Anvil [a Sheffield cinema]’ and about six or seven of us went to the film and it sort of got me into circulation again after I’d been bereaved because this little nucleus started going to exhibitions. We read a book about the plague, I’d never been there and we went to Eyam,* and it sort of started life beginning again, shall we say.
In time, Gillian found a new partner (‘I’m certainly lucky to have met my partner. … And we do have fun together, laugh a lot’) and so resigned from these book groups. But she found herself starting and running another group:
… for three years I’ve been running the book club for the Oddfellows. … We meet at Crucible Corner: it was buzzing with the snooker and we’re again using the libraries: we borrow them at the libraries, so it can only be ten members because they only lend you ten books.
Oddfellows is a national social and support group. Gillian joined through a friend.
[Oddfellows] evolved from the guilds when everybody bound together and helped each other. They helped if you were ill and everything like that. … So when we meet it is really to help people meet people, meet together and have holidays. … They’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We help each other and do different things.
The Oddfellows book club was Gillian’s own idea:
… I just thought ‘They haven’t got a book club’ because we had walks, different things, and I said to the secretary, ‘Can I start a book club?’ and he said, ‘By all means, it’s in the diary’. It was quite slow at first and then people, it wasn’t what they wanted and they dropped out. It’s all women, unfortunately. We’ve had men but it’s all women. We’ve got a lovely nucleus of nice ladies and we meet there and he supports us very much.
The members choose books in turn, ‘so we’ve all sorts’. At the time of her interview, Gillian had just got from the library copies of Julie Buxbaum’s The Opposite of Love (2009), a modern romance, but the group has also read: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (‘that was hard going and a lot of violence. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite book’); and Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth (‘we’d actually read that before it came on television.’)
The book group also has occasional outings, linked to the books being read, and entertained visiting authors:
… we’ve had Bryony Doran who wrote The China Bird (2011), and she came and that was lovely. And one our members is Marjorie Dunn. Again, my love, she writes historical novels, so she’s come and visited us.
The book club helps Gillian indulge her lifelong love of history. She mentions enjoying Hilary Mantel, Helen Dunmore, Catherine Bailey and, in her youth, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Mitchell. ‘I’ve always had a love of history. Even now, if we’re in quizzes, I’m pretty on the ball if they ask historic questions.’ Her teachers hoped that she would study it at university, but her mother, ‘a very strong woman’, put a stop to this:
Silly now, but she said girls don’t need an education. You’ll get married – which you’re not forced to, are you? – you know, or you could get married and lose your husband in various ways, or never get married but at the time I think she actually got me my first job, in the bank, because she was a legal cashier and paid in and asked if they’d got any vacancies. So I went to what was the National Provincial Bank and became the National Westminster Bank near the Cathedral.
We were all so busy, we were young. It was actually a good time, although it wasn’t the job of my dreams I did enjoy it.
When the interviewer wonders ‘if reading comes into people’s lives very often when there aren’t other things to grab them’, Gillian agrees:
Yes, I think so, but now I shan’t let it go, now I’m back to it.
* Eyam is a small village in Derbyshire, not far from Sheffield. In 1665 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague and the villagers quarantined themselves to prevent the disease spreading. They were shut away for 14 months and only 83 residents survived, out of about 350. The book Gillian read may have been Year of Wonders (2011), by Geraldine Brooks.