Josie Hall’s Reading Journey

Born in 1942 Josie remembers her home as a place full of curiosity and knowledge about the world, but no books. ‘Because there couldn’t be. It was just after the war, and working class people, they just didn’t have books in the house. I don’t remember anybody, ever, reading to me.’

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After the war Josie’s father returned home from two years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp and worked as a crane driver in the steel works. He had passed his 11+ and went to the grammar school ‘but he had to be fetched out because he was the eldest of six and he had to go to work … he was really cheated.’  A remarkably able man who never found a job to match his talents, he brought what reading matter he could into the house: Reader’s Digest magazines, and then, one day ‘a pile of second-hand comics, manna from heaven; I just used to fall on them. And it wasn’t particularly because it was the comics. It was the written word, I suppose.’

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The shelves of books surrounding Josie today are the legacy of her father’s encouragement of her reading and her own natural curiosity. She is open to every kind of book, fact and fiction.  The written word helped her get to know her husband because soon after she married at 18, he too was sent to the Far East, one of the last men to do their National Service. She remembers writing to him every day and receiving his letters as often as he could find an opportunity to post them.

The notebooks that record Josie’s reading show a great surge of reading in her early twenties, then in 1965, after her son was born, nothing. So when the twin girls came along in 1967 she said ‘they’re not doing that to me again’ and determined to keep reading which she did, as her notebook testifies.

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Diana Gabaldon books, Tess of the D’Urbeyvilles, biographies of Charles II and Martin Luther, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Doctor Zhivago, Tale of Two Cities, Forever Amber, Catherine Cookson, Howard’s End, Crime and Punishment, Dennis Wheatley’s science fiction, Gone with the Wind, George Orwell, Michael Bentine ‘oh and Utopia’s in there, Thomas More. I don’t know how I got my hands on all these.’

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She reflects that many were borrowed from Attercliffe library. A few were given as Christmas presents and Sunday School prizes.  Later Josie also bought paperbacks from second-hand stalls, newsagents and booksellers: they are all listed in her compendious notebooks. Only detective novels and horror fail to figure.

One book she particularly goes back to: Jane Eyre. ‘I can see Jane sat in the window seat hiding from her cousin, reading the book and I presume maybe I was a bit like that … hiding away, reading a book. Not wanting anybody to find you.’ This absorption in what she reads is sometimes overwhelming. She had to keep putting down Black Diamonds because she was so upset. ‘It took so much out of you.’ And  ‘Lady of Hey: that one spoilt a holiday for me.’ She left her companions playing Bingo downstairs in the hotel lounge and didn’t come down again till the next morning. Fortunately her husband shared her addiction so they could be anti-social together.

Josie has only recently realised that she doesn’t have to read all the books she is given. People just give her their books when they have finished with them, ‘piles and piles. So nowadays if anyone gives me a ton of Mills and Boon I just shove them to the Salvation Army. I don’t have to read them.’ This ability to leave a book unread has obviously been dearly bought. Josie’s instinct is to treasure every book. She was horrified to learn that someone she knew had burned her books when they moved house. ‘You do not burn books.’ So even ‘silly Mills and Boon’ would not be consigned to the flames.

When the children were older she did A levels and then a degree. For a while the scope of her reading narrowed so that she could focus on her studies. But now she has returned to her omnivorous habits and has a different book on the go in every room in the house.

‘Where other people have to have a cigarette, I have to have a book.’

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Josie’s transcript and audio here.

 

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