Hazel’s Reading Journey

Hazel was born in Sheffield in 1929, one of four children.  Her father died when Hazel was very young and her mother brought the family up.  Hazel worked as a seamstress at a shirtmaker’s.  She married in the 1950s and had two daughters. 

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Hazel has no memories of being read to and certainly had no books in the house. ‘There were no books, no. No money for anything.’ Hazel’s father had died when Hazel was two leaving her mother with two young children and another on the way.  Her mother struggled to feed the four of them so there were no extras. The generosity of two relatives in particular kept the family fed. ‘But we had a good childhood, friendly, good neighbours; they weren’t intrusive at all.’

School too was a happy experience. At the Junior School there was Enid Blyton in abundance. ‘We loved school. It wasn’t a bit strict and things like that, it was lovely. Everybody wanted to go to school.’

Hazel’s older sister, Cynthia, probably helped Hazel find her way down from Wadsley to Hillsborough Library, but after she was eight Hazel made her way there herself. Hillsborough is one of the most elegant of Sheffield’s Libraries, a late eighteenth century house set in parkland. In his autobiography, A Yorkshire Boyhood, the MP, Roy Hattersley, who also grew up in the Hillsborough area in the 1930s, described it as ‘our constant joy. It was part of our lives, a home from home’,

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During her teens the one book that Hazel recalls as a constant favourite was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind – not the film because the family had no money to go to films, but the book. But by the time Hazel was a teenager her mother had enough money to buy a few books.

Somebody came round to the door and she ordered these books and she paid for ‘em weekly. She did do well ’cus she didn’t have cash in them days. We had these books and there was a collection.

Hazel obviously admired her mother’s ambition for her family and her success in supporting them, alone. However she wasn’t so keen when her mother mapped out her future when she was 14.

We had an interview at school and they asked us what we liked doing and of course I was shy and didn’t like saying anything. So mum chipped in. She always did because I were always backward at coming forward. “Well she likes sewing”. So they said, “Oh well, they want somebody at the shirt factory.” Well I came home furious. I didn’t want to make shirts! Oh I came home and I were angry, you know, “I’m not going there”.

However Hazel soon started work in a dressmaker’s in the affluent suburb of Broomhill, the workshop having being bombed out of the centre of town, and she never regretted the trade her mother had chosen for her.

With dressmaking came dancing which left little time for reading. Though Hazel read to her own children, personal reading became a pleasant memory rather than a present resource. However, the words that have remained her for ever are the poems that she learned at her secondary school, Wisewood. I met Hazel at the Wadsley exercise club, Slightly Sprightly, and interviewed a group of women from the club who had all been to Wisewood School. As children they had all lived within walking distance of Wadsley Common, still known for the richness of its dawn chorus and the wildness of the undergrowth that only half conceals the spoils from the ganister mines worked there until the 1940s.  Independently of Hazel, her three contemporaries did exactly the what Hazel did when I asked them if they had read any poetry at school. ‘Meg Merrilies,’ they exclaimed and embarked on a word-perfect performance of Keats’ poem.

Old Meg she was a gipsy;
And liv’d upon the moors:
Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was out of doors.

Her apples were swart blackberries,
Her currants, pods o’ broom;
Her wine was dew of the wild white rose,
Her book a church-yard tomb.

Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees;
Alone with her great family
She liv’d as she did please.

No breakfast had she many a morn,
No dinner many a noon,
And ‘stead of supper she would stare
Full hard against the moon.

But every morn, of woodbine fresh
She made her garlanding,
And every night the dark glen yew
She wove, and she would sing.

And with her fingers old and brown
She plaited mats o’ rushes,
And gave them to the cottagers
She met among the bushes.

Old Meg was brave as Margaret Queen,
And tall as Amazon:
An old red blanket cloak she wore,
A chip hat had she on.
God rest her aged bones somewhere–
She died full long agone!

 

By Mary Grover

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