Here is a reading journey from local artist Jean Compton, who is one of the Reading Sheffield team.
Jean was born in London in 1948. She spent her childhood in Suffolk, where her family moved when she was a year old. Jean went to West Suffolk County Grammar School for Girls, studying for O levels and A levels. Moving to Sheffield in 1971, she studied at Scawsby College of Education, Doncaster, for her Teaching Certificate in Education, and then at Sheffield University for a B Ed in art and education. After teaching both in schools and adult education for eight years, Jean left Sheffield for a community arts job in Telford. She worked in community arts and traveller education until retirement when she returned to Sheffield in 2016 and joined Reading Sheffield.
I can’t really remember what I read when I was learning to read, but I had a lovely little peep-show book of the story of Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves. There are no words and the illustrations are by Ionicus. I have the book today, more or less intact though a bit scrawled on.
I could read by the time I went to school. I was lucky that my parents were both readers and we had a house full of books. My father often made up stories, mainly tales of his childhood embroidered to add drama and excitement but basically true. Sometimes he took us to visit a friend of his, Edmund Cooper, a science fiction writer, who also made up stories for us. We crowded around him, asking for a story, in some shadowy corner of the room where he held us captivated and sometimes a little shivery from the eerie nature of the tale.
I read many folk-tales and fairy-tales including some with wonderful illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The Children’s Treasury of Great Stories, from Daily Express Publications, was given to me around 1958 when I was ten, and the previous owner had been given it in 1933. Another favourite was the Arabian Nights published in 1913 by A & C Black Ltd. It has the most beautiful illustrations by Charles Folkard, which I remember staring at over and over again.
As time went on I read Enid Blyton, much to my father’s disgust, and all Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series. I loved these as a child, but when I read them later to my own children and realised the incredible danger the children got into, I found it hard to read them aloud for a choking lump in my throat. I read Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women series, identifying strongly with Jo, and enjoyed C S Lewis’ Narnia books.
My younger sister Lizzie and I went through a phase of reading the Bible aloud when we were in bed and supposed to be going to sleep. We weren’t doing it for religious reasons or to be sacrilegious: we were fascinated by the sound and read out random texts and lists of names and ‘who begat whom’. We took it in turns and generally ended up laughing hysterically.
We also began pretending that we were George and Neville, two Suffolk farmers. It began as a sort of impromptu storytelling, which we later wrote down as individual scenes, such as reports on a day on the farm. Our father later recorded us. We made a good attempt at imitating the local Suffolk accent, which we didn’t really acquire ourselves, as the children of parents who kept their Scottish accents until the end of their lives, in spite of living in Suffolk for over 60 years.
I was fascinated by Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. As an adult I came across The Stone Room which, being quite claustrophobic, I found difficult. However, I persisted and it was worth it.
I loved to identify with the animals in Charles G D Roberts’ stories. I immersed myself in the wonderfully detailed descriptions of the landscapes in which these animals survived. Kings In Exile was one of my favourites, alongside Ernest Thompson Seton’s stories of wild animals in their natural habitat.
When I was about 11, I was given The Romany Rye by George Borrow about his encounters with the Romany people. It was published in 1857 and, reading it in 1959, the language seemed to me old-fashioned yet the lively style and fascinating content held me spellbound. I was thoroughly intrigued and went on to work as a traveller liaison teacher with gypsy traveller families for some years.
We took four comics at home, the Eagle, the Girl, the Swift and the Robin. We were three girls and one boy so I guess it was one each but in practice we all read them all. Later on we had Look and Learn and the Elizabethan which I devoured, especially all the reproductions of famous paintings in Look and Learn. I do remember wet afternoons at the seaside with our friends, in a coastguard cottage they were renting for the summer. We would dive on a big pile of Beanos and lie around blissfully reading like crazy while the rain sheeted down.
My primary school was not well supplied with interesting books. A large box of books was delivered regularly, but I quickly grew out of most of them, as I was reading more advanced language at home. The archive section of the lending service also sent artefacts, which I loved especially when they were used for our art lessons. Once at the County Grammar School, a new world opened up, with a lot more choice in the school library. I was now based in the small market town of Bury St Edmunds, where I soon joined the public library and enjoyed the quiet atmosphere for studying, and the wider choice of books. I also came into contact with the mobile library which came once a fortnight to our village. They did not carry a huge stock, but for my grandfather who lived with us it was a lifeline. He went to choose his books initially, but then as he got older he would ask one of us to go for him. ‘But what do you like to read?’ I would ask. The answer was always ‘Oh just get me a good western!’
As life went on, I usually had a book on the go. Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby made me weep and John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga gave me an insight into the Victorian and Edwardian upper middle-class.
I developed an interest in poetry early on, fostered by my father who had quite a collection of poetry and used to read Gerard Manley Hopkins to us, among others. I read any poetry I could find and moved from Andrew Marvell to Brian Patten to e e cummings to Lorca without any difficulty. Succinct lines can offer such illumination. Now I am enjoying Alice Oswald, Pablo Neruda, Eleanor Brown, Shamshad Khan and Seni Seniveratne.
While training as a teacher, I read various writers of the deschooling movement. I benefited from the ideas of Everett Reimer, Paul Goodman, Neil Postman, Charles Weingartner and Ivan Illich. I also found great rapport with the ideas of A S Neill, John Holt and especially Robert McKenzie in his A Question of Living. They all believed that a teacher should keep the idea of a child as an equal human being at the forefront of any teaching practice.
In between all the poetry and education books I travelled with Tolkien on his great allegorical journeys against evil. I read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series, which improved my sense of historical chronology enormously.
My eyes were opened by reading Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – so powerfully expressed and emotional.
I delved into the writings of John Berger, which resonated with my politics and interest in art. Although other writers have since explored these ideas further, I learned to look at photography anew and saw it could only tell one part of any story.
In my childhood, our front garden had large currant bushes down the centre and a mat of grass under them. In the summer my favourite reading place was a blanket under the bushes, with the dappled light filtering through a ceiling of green, quiet, private and alone. My mother left me alone and free from boring tasks. I am still grateful for that and remember once telling her that one of my children did nothing but read. Her words come back frequently. ‘Let her read while she can. It will be harder to find the time later.’