By Mary Grover
Born in that catastrophic year, 1939, Noel’s imagination was fired by the factual: Meccano magazines and stamp albums. Reading was a way of acquiring knowledge, especially historical knowledge.
I’ve always said oh, to hell with the computer, my knowledge came from reading, listening to the radio and collecting stamps. The history of stamps has geography, history and everything else.
Noel remembers spending his pocket money on stamps or Aeroplane and Flight magazines stamps rather than comics. He can’t remember being read to but explored Biggles and Gimlet when he became an independent reader. Both by W E. Johns, the Gimlet commando books were perhaps even more full of derring-do than the chronicles of the famous aviator.
But his mother was the greatest influence on the young boy’s reading. She was a Sheffield town councillor, a Conservative. It was her engagement in politics that led him to read the newspapers, political periodicals and history books often found in Hillsborough Library. Though he did well in literature at grammar school it was history that Noel loved.
I met Jock Hamilton, a dour Scot, he was a qualified barrister by his own efforts, but he taught history, he made history live. He didn’t just give you the facts, but what he did with it, he analysed the facts, and he made history come alive to me.
Noel’s school boy reading reflects that interest: Tale of Two Cities, Alexannder Dumas’ Marguerite de Valois and Kidnapped and unsurprisingly a history play, Richard II. More surprisingly perhaps, given the conservative commitments he shared with his mother, the history book that still grips his imagination is Eric Hobsbawn’s The Age of Revolution.
The Latin language made a great impression on Noel and upon the way he talked. Robert Bailey, the Latin master said to Noel, in his first year at High Storrs Grammar School,
‘The trouble with you, lad, is you’ve got to learn to speak English properly and also get your grammar correct, verb, subject, object.’
But there was the literature as well: ‘Sallust’s Cataline, which was marvellous – that made history live again. Oh, I read, yes, Livy going over the Alps’. In the 1950s Noel’s time in the National Service led him to discover a book, D J Holland’s The Dead, the Dying and the Damned which contained a fictionalised portrait of one of the soldiers Noel worked with in Aden. This period provoked an interest in thrillers with connections to political events – some of Fleming’s novels, and Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal.
Also remembered, and in a way treasured, was a book that Noel could never bring himself to finish.
A lady who lived in one of the cottages in the block where my grandmother was living gave me a very old edition of Dombey and Son, I mean old. I don’t think it was a first edition. And I got through, I think, the first chapter.
Because it was so old Noel held on to it and it only recently left the house. It joins the ranks of books that our readers treasured but did not read, books that find a place in the bookcase for all sorts of reasons: its giver, an inscription, its antiquity or because there was a story attached to rather than contained within it.