Peter Mason was born on the 29th September, 1929 and grew up in Handsworth, on the east side of Sheffield. He spent his adult life as an educational administrator. He went to High Storrs Grammar School and Sheffield University where he studied politics and administration. He did two years National Service between 1947 and 1949. His father was a mining engineer who had worked in India in the early 1920s.
Peter’s reading was, from the very beginning, a family affair:
My brother used to encourage me to read because he was six years older than I was so the books he finished he passed to me, but my parents were avid readers … and my uncle and aunt. … Later on in life as my uncle was blind and my aunt used to have Braille books that she read to him. I was encouraged to read to him; I would read the newspaper to him or something like that.
Once he got going, Peter quickly graduated from Enid Blyton, Just William and Biggles to C.S. Forester’s naval adventures and Rider Haggard’s African fantasies.
During the Blitz, in 1941, many of Sheffield’s schools were closed for a time and pupils were sent to a teacher’s home to learn. Pupils were given books to take away and read on their own. Though this only lasted a few months it helped Peter become a confident and independent reader.
During the war, while Peter was at High Storrs Grammar School, he was using the school library as well as the Central Library intown. He studied Joseph Conrad and G. B. Shaw at school, read most of Charles Dickens and particularly enjoyed Thomas Hardy. His aunt supplied some of the twentieth century bestsellers, including James Hilton’s Lost Horizon and A.E.W. Mason’s cautionary tale about manliness The Four Feathers.
As a teenager Peter read partly to understand his place in the world: first, books about Yorkshire in particular, followed by histories of the United Kingdom then, encouraged by his uncle, books connected with the International Labour Party, frowned on by his parents. In his teens his interest in the current political situation was obviously fuelled by the fact that his country was at war. Peter still seeks to understand the world through reading histories, biographies and political autobiographies.
Many of the volumes in Peter’s extensive library were given to him as presents. During his two years in the forces, he was sent books and magazines, chosen to distract him from rather than engage him with the present. No doubt the ‘rather blue’ novels that circulated in the NAAFI served the same purpose. While Peter was on his military service in his late teens, he found many of his fellow conscripts could neither read nor write. One young man had been faced with a choice of prison or military service; Peter helped him write letters home and read the replies. Peter was full of praise for the military education service.
The forces not only introduced Peter to men for whom books were unavailable; it also introduced him to a new kind of recreational fiction: American genre fiction by Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Eric Williams’ The Wooden Horse was a great favourite with his fellow soldiers. After the war he admired The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat. He links the satisfaction such stories give him, the sense that good will triumph over evil, to his religious faith. However, Peter’s curiosity compels him to keep looking for a book that will overturn his expectations: ‘I’ve always been waiting to read a really good book where evil triumphs over good but I’ve not got that far yet.’
He is sensitive to the unsettling qualities he perceives in Jane Austen’s novels:
I thought she was great, but to me there was always a darkness about Jane Austen. In a way, I was being drawn into her world, which was fair enough and what she should do as an author, but I wasn’t happy about it if you know what I mean. There was a bit of misery attached to her work but, don’t get me wrong, she was a great author.
But Peter’s first choice has always been fact rather than fiction. Both his father and his uncle urged him to read newspapers, which he still ‘devours’ and which offer him models for his own writing. Reading is what he does to relax: on holiday, in bed and while his wife watched television he would move to another room to concentrate on his book (sometimes one of his wife’s Georgette Heyers that he ‘sneaked’ a look at).
Peter’s reading has made him ‘an inveterate letter writer’. ‘The only way you can write correctly is if you are expressing your feelings.’ It has also made him an inveterate book buyer: Penguin books ‘by the bucket-load’ from W.H. Smith, a few from newsagents
I did like to go around antiquarian bookshops and see what they’d got. Old books used to fascinate me; if nothing else the writing used to get me but I never kept any of those I must admit, I used to part with them.
Though Peter describes himself ‘disappearing into a book’, whether it be detective novels or P. G. Wodehouse’s comedies about that ‘lovable idiot’, it is clear that he also reads to connect with others (his grandchildren for example) and with new developments in the world (computer technology being a recent interest). ‘I like to read about the new things that are coming on the block’.
I like to read about life in general because I think it’s important that I know how the other half live, whether it’s the other half that are extremely wealthy or the other which are extremely poor, because I think it’s part of my duty to know exactly where they are.
Though Peter usually reads for a purpose he is adamant that he never reads a book because someone tells him that he should.
I’m not led. I’m not led by convention. I read what I want to read. If somebody tells me I’ve got to read it then my instant attitude is, ‘No, I don’t want to read it’. I want to read because I want to read and I choose what I want to read. I don’t now read anything because I consider that it’s not my views because I feel that I should embrace everybody’s views so I know what they’re thinking as well as what I’m thinking.
You can read and listen to Peter’s interview in full here.