James was born on 27 April 1936 in Darnall, Sheffield. He is married to Barbara, whose interview is here.
James’ parents were readers, borrowing their books from a library, and he remembers:
… going with my mum and dad to the local library, and coming back with picture books, and they’d come back obviously with adult books. And even though I couldn’t really read at that stage, we used to sit on a Saturday night in particular when my dad was at home, they’d be reading books and I’d be pretending to be reading.
James thinks he ‘graduated in two to three years from sitting on a settee pretending to read with my mum and dad to actually reading’. When he was about seven years old, he got a book for Christmas. It was an omnibus of abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe, Little Women, Gulliver’s Travels and a couple of others.
… it was my own book, probably the first book I’d really owned, you could go through it and you could go through it again, and so it was with me for quite a long time. And at that stage, I probably wasn’t all that good at reading, so it’d take me a long time, and it was quite a hefty book.
James is conscious that his younger self missed a lot. Robinson Crusoe can be seen, for example, as the march either of civilisation or of cultural imperialism but, James says, ‘… to a kid at seven on a desert island [it] is an adventure book, isn’t it really?’
James enjoyed popular adventure novels. He was a ‘big fan’ of Sherlock Holmes and ‘used to love’ Biggles, the intrepid air ace created by Captain W E Johns. He ‘read an article years and years later that he was actually a fascist, so…’. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Biggles books were often condemned by teachers and librarians.* But this was all beyond the James of the 1940s:
No no, it were just an adventure. Algie and Biggles and Ginger, very gung ho I suppose. Patriotic. Really patriotic weren’t he?
It was much the same with another popular hero of the period, Bulldog Drummond.
I read Bulldog Drummond … who were again a bit of a fascist, I found out later. In fact I only read the other day, it said Bulldog Drummond – it were talking about Sapper – it were a pseudonym for I can’t remember the name – he were a lieutenant colonel retired. So you can guess how he wrote. It was ‘Bulldog Drummond was six foot six (or something) in his stockinged feet, excellent shot … Extremely fit, a really good boxer, and as dim as a Toc-H lamp’ … Someone taking the mickey out of that type of writing, but when you were a kid, you just read it, don’t you, you know.
James wouldn’t read this type of book now, he thinks.
I’ve more insight – and not just because it’s a boy’s… It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there. … Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it.
Orwell, whom he first read when he was about 15 or 16, helped form James’ adult beliefs and attitudes.
Well – I think – I don’t know when it started, or when I were aware of it, but you started getting writers who condemned that outlook. George Orwell for instance. Very critical of a lot of what we were doing and what we did and critical of this country as a whole.
… through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very gung ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. ‘God is an Englishman.’
… But Orwell, Road to Wigan Pier – really opened my eyes, you know. Because living as we did, we were living as he were describing, the conditions he was born into. And the first dawnings in my mind were this ain’t right. We shouldn’t be living like this, and we’ve no need to live like this.
You can find James’ story in full here.
* There have been more recent calls for Biggles’ rehabilitation.