Alma

Alma

Alma was born in 1928

She is being interviewd by Liz Hawkins.

LH:  Alma was born in Sheffield on …

A:  I was born in Rotherham.

LH:  In Rotherham, sorry, on …

A:  In 1928.

LH:  In 1928.  And lived in the Rotherham area of Sheffield or in Sheffield as well?

A:  The Rotherham area until I married and then I went into Sheffield in 1921 … when I was 21.  Sorry.

LH:  Oh right.  So which area of Sheffield did you live in then, Alma?

A:  Pitsmoor.

LH:  Pitsmoor, great, brilliant. Well, thank you very much for agreeing to take part in our Reading Sheffield interviews and what we are really interested in is really your reading history so it is a question of looking back into your life and finding out what you were reading when you were a young adult. But first of all, thinking back to childhood, did anybody read to you when you were young, can you remember?

A:  Funnily enough, no, I can’t remember anything like that.  We were a working class family and my father was an engine driver and my mother did not work, in those days, but I honestly cannot remember anybody reading to me at bedtime or reading me a story.

LH:  It wasn’t the done thing in working class families?

A:  But I had some aunties who gradually got me reading and bought me books, yes.

LH:  And what were the first books that you read, in that case, that made you feel that you were now kind of reading proper books?

A:  When I was reading?  I can’t remember learning to read, I can’t remember at all.  I’ve been thinking about this; I can’t remember learning to read at all.  I went to school, obviously, and I must have learnt to read … but I can’t remember, I just can’t remember.

LH:  Moving a bit further on then, when your aunties bought you books, what kinds of books did they buy you?

A:  Well, I had this lovely aunty Alma who bought me a Peter Pan book which had a picture and tissue paper from this bookshop and I wanted to read it and I just read it!  So I must have been able to read.  And I can remember loving that book because of the tissue paper pictures.  So that was my very first book.

LH:  So you can still feel it almost, fantastic!  So where do you think she got the books from?  Would your aunts have bought them?

A:  Oh she bought it!  It was for a present. I had another auntie, Rosie, who bought me another present but it was a Dickens book and I didn’t really like that one, I didn’t like that one. But I loved Peter Pan, I remember that. We had books in the house!  We had books in the house. We had a bookcase!

LH:  What kinds of books did you have on the bookcase?

A:  Well there was a set of Wonderland of Knowledge books which we used to get down and look at those. I can remember looking at those. There was a bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays which I remember had sort of vellum covers, we looked at that. A book I did love, it was called A Century of Humour and that was full of short stories, short humorous stories. I remember reading that, I do remember that. Dad had a lot of political books. They were all bound with brown paper, they were … we didn’t touch his books. [Laughs.]

LH:  Did he read those books?

A:  Oh he did, yes, he was very politically-minded. I had a Chips comic every week, Chips comic which I must have read from cover to cover. And we [had] a Picture Post every Friday and I used to sit on the settee, I remember looking at pictures – I loved the Picture Post we had on a Friday and there was a daily newspaper but I don’t remember reading that. It was a News Chronicle. So that was my reading at home.

LH:  Oh fantastic. So moving on a bit then, when you were becoming a young adult, what kinds of books do you remember reading at that stage?

A:  Well that was the time when I got the ticket for the local library and I remember Dad saying, ‘You must never let a library book go overdue. Don’t forget that – you must always take them back before they are overdue’. So off I went to Rotherham Library which I loved going to. It was like a cathedral.  It was all hushed and quiet and wooden floors and everything cleaning [sic] and polished and nobody spoke to you and all the books were still hard-backed books, you know, with the covers, no fancy covers like they are today.  And I loved it and I liked …

LH: Did it smell of polish?

A:  It smelled of polish. [Laughs.]  And I really did want to be a librarian. I really did want to work in a library when I was that age. That was my ambition.  However, the books I liked, very much, were Anne of Green Gables. I loved Anne of Green Gables.  And the Pollyanna books which, of course, were another thing. I liked plays and I read a lot of J B Priestley’s plays.  And I’d always go to the section because everything was alphabetical – the Ps – to find J B. Priestley.  I read all his plays and loved them.  I did like plays.

LH: That’s quite unusual.

A:  The best book, the best book which I read over and over again was his book called The Good Companions and I did love that. In fact I read it so much that when I travelled to school on the bus I used to look at people on the bus and fit them into the characters.

LH: Who was the author?

A:  J B Priestley, J B Priestley.

LH: Oh I see what you mean.

A:  Yes, that was good.  I read Pygmalion, Shaw’s Pygmalion, I remember that.  Frances Brett Young was another writer that  I liked in those days.  Somerset Maugham that I didn’t really quite understand. [Laughs.]  Can I tell you a funny story? There was a word in the book and it was spelled G-I-G-O-L-O.

LH:  G-I …

A:  G-I-G-O-L-O.  And I used to read it as ‘gig-ola’. I knew what it meant, sort of, I never dared … But ‘gig-ola’ and as I read it. it was ‘gig-ola’ and it was years and years and years later when somebody said ‘gigolo’ and I thought, ‘That’s what it was’. And then there was another one. We all read the Angela Brazil books, of course, which were about schools and things which we knew nothing about. There was this girl called ‘Penny-lope’. [Laughs.]  I always read her as ‘Penny-lope’ and it was only years later that I realised it was ‘Penelope’.  [Laughs.]  I guess nobody – nobody was called Penelope where I lived.

I loved my teachers at school.  My English teachers really were wonderful when I think back – they really were wonderful – they introduced us to lots of poetry: Walter De La Mare, John Masefield.  That was very interesting.

LH:  How old were you when you left school?

A:  When I left school … er … I left … I went to Rotherham Central School and I left when I was 14.

LH:  Right, right.  And was that the age to leave school in those days?

A:  Well, I unfortunately did not pass the 11+, to everybody’s horror, and so I did go from when I was nine to Rotherham Central School, which was a very good school, and I loved it really but you did leave at 14 and they did try to help you get a career, they did, they were very good at that and so …  Do you really want to know all this?  It’s not about reading really.

LH:  Well yes, no, that’s true but it sort of fits into another picture of your life really.

A:  Fits into another picture. Well, it does really because it made a lot of difference to me. There were three things you could do.  You could go and work in an office so that was good.  Or you could go to be a nurse, you could go and work in a hospital and, as my aunties had all been nurses, they all thought I was going to be a nurse.  Or you could go and apply for an art school.  Now I’d got these three choices.  Now, as my best friend was going to an art school, I decided I would go to an art school so I went for the interview and I got accepted to go to art school for two years.  So from 14 to 16 I was at Rotherham Art School.

LH:  Fantastic.

A:  Which was fantastic.Not that I as particularly good at drawing but I was learning and I loved it and that was when I went to the library a lot because it was just down the road from the college and it was lovely. So I had two lovely years there.  So at the end of those two years they said they were going to find you a job and I remember going to the office to Mr Thomas [?] and he said, ‘What do you want to do, Alma?’ and I said, ‘Well really I want to be a teacher.’  I’d always wanted to be a teacher and the fact that I had failed my 11+ and I hadn’t got to high school and I hadn’t been able to do my school certificate or anything. I thought that had gone. I said, ‘I really always wanted to be a teacher,’ and to my surprise he said, ‘But you still can.’  And it was just as if a light had gone in my world; I thought it was wonderful!  Wow, I could be a teacher!  ‘How?’ I said. ‘How?’  And so he said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘You’ll have to transfer from here to Rotherham High School’  which is where I would have gone if I’d passed my 11+.  ‘What will I do there?’ I said  ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘You’ll have to work very hard because you will have to get your School Certificate in a year.’

LH:  Wow.

A:  Right.  ‘Do you think you can do that?’  ‘Yes, of course I can!’  I said, and I did.  It was wonderful.  And I ran home.  I remember running home to my parents and saying. ‘I can go.  I can be a teacher!  I can go to the high school!’  ‘Wow,’ they said. Oh yes, they were hundred per cent behind me because they had always been a bit disappointed because I hadn’t passed this flipping 11+.  So, erm, there we were, so I went to Rotherham High School and I was the only girl in the whole school who hadn’t got a uniform.  Of course, it didn’t matter.  I did have to go for an interview and I did have to do an English test and a maths test but, because the art school used to do maths one morning and English one morning, I was okay with that and so I got in.  So I was in with all these very clever girls, feeling very, very much the odd one out but taking in every word and writing everything and learning like goodness-knows-what and, when we did have the exam, I passed with flying colours. I did. I got a distinction in everything.  I don’t know why but I did.

LH:  Oh, it was just your time, wasn’t it?

A:  This was, this was, like … Well, this was wonderful.  So that was my passport into training college.

LH:  Well, that’s absolutely brilliant.  What … er … you know, you are obviously quite a conscientious sort of person.  When did you find time to read?  What were the slots in your life that you chose to put reading into?

A:  Ah, yes.  Well, when I was at home, I can remember reading in bed a lot.  I read in bed a lot.  I used to go to bed early and read and I used to read in the morning, early in the morning.  I used to read a lot in bed – yes, I did.

LH:  And was that encouraged in your family?  Because you said they weren’t really readers.

A:  Oh yes, yes, oh yes.  They were one hundred per cent behind me, my family.  Oh, yes they were.

LH:  So they didn’t make you feel that reading was a waste of time?

A:  Not at all.  No, not at all.  No, I think they were glad and they were delighted for me when I got this second chance to do what I really wanted to do.  And they backed me a hundred per cent because they hadn’t a lot of money and I needed a lot of things to go to teacher training college and I know it was a hardship, because they send you a list from college of all the books you need, no matter what course you were going to take, there’s a history and everything that you are going to take so I got all these books.

LH:  So did you … the books that you have been talking about up till now have been largely fiction and plays as well.  Did you read non-fiction at all?  Or was that just because you were doing courses at college?

A:  No, no, they were all – light reading we’d call it, wouldn’t we?

LH:  Right.  I don’t know that J B Priestley’s plays would be considered light …

A:  Oh, yes, the plays, yes.  I loved the plays and I was in a drama society that I acted in some plays. I love plays, yes.

LH:  So you didn’t read non-fiction apart from your courses at college?

A:  No, at college, yes I think I was on the courses – yes.  I did read a book which made a big impression on me and it was called I Bought a Mountain and it was by Esmé and Thomas Somebody and I can’t remember who they were.  And this couple had bought a farm in Wales and, you know, set about it and made it work, and it was a sheep farm, of course.  It was lovely.  Years later, after I was married and we did a lot of camping, we actually went to camp on their grounds and I met Esmé and Thomas, and told them that as a teenager I had read their book.  And by that time they were, you know, quite grizzled people.  Yes, it was, that was fantastic.  So that was a book that really made a …

LH:  Do you feel that you read for inspiration in some cases?

A:  I wanted inspiration?

LH:  Yeah, did you read in order to get inspiration?

A:  Not particularly, no. But if I did read a book that I liked, I did like it. It was another thing. I read Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood at that point and I can remember, again, looking for the characters as I walked about and ‘that one would be that one, and that one would be that one’.

LH:  You’re obviously an observer of people.

A:  I loved that, yes.

LH:  So can you think about books that you read as you were becoming an adult?  Was there anything that you felt, you know, guilty pleasure in reading and thought, ‘Oh!’  I’m thinking about the gigolo, for example?

A:  Well that’s right!  I was amazed when I thought about it because Somerset Maugham is an adult writer, for adult people, but I do remember liking that.

LH:  So you didn’t feel that you had to hide your books from your parents or anything?

A:  No, I never, no. I wasn’t that sort of a reader.

LH:  Not under the covers.

A:  No.  What I can remember is going to my Grandma’s and seeing a little magazine called Peg’s Paper and it was a gaudy cover of a girl hiding behind a door or something and I thought, ‘What’s that?’ and I started reading it, little short stories, and I thought, ‘This is rubbish’.  I never looked at it again, I don’t know who got it, who was having this Peg’s Paper. I thought I’m not wasting my time reading that rubbish.

LH:  Do you think there were things around that was [sic] light reading for people, like magazine sort of stories?

A:  Erm, magazines.  No, I can’t think of magazines.

LH:  Proper books.

A:  We used to have proper books.  I know I always had three books on the go.  I used to get three books from the library. John Halifax … I can give you a list of some of those that I read.  I liked Three Men in a Boat and I still like Three Men in a Boat and, if I’m feeling a bit miserable, I read Three Men in a Boat.  I loved that.  I read Oliver Twist.  Francis Brett Young, I read all of his.  I used to find an author and sort of read all their books you see.  I love poetry; I read lots of poetry books.  I read Pride and Prejudice at that point, yes I did, and Under Milk Wood.  I liked that one.  School books were pretty grim.  I read a book called Althan that was a task book, and we did Merchant of Venice which I loved. So that was our exam book.

LH:  So it was quite a range then, from fantastic through to comedy.

A:  Yes I suppose so. T S Elliot’s Cats – I loved those poems. It is hard to remember actually.

LH:  Well I think you have remembered a lot.  Are there books that you can remember reading then that you enjoyed but wouldn’t dream of reading now?  In terms of tastes changing.

A:  Yes, certainly, I don’t think I would read Somerset Maugham anymore or Francis Brett Young anymore.  No I don’t think so.  Oh at that point I read Jane Eyre, and writing [sic] a play about Jane Eyre.

L:  Really, just yourself?

A:  Yes, because it was wartime and I used to do lots of things at home.  And I can remember writing a play, the one where she made her stand on a chair because she went out in the rain walking around a yard or something.  I can’t remember it very well but I do remember that.

LH:  Did the war have any other effects on you?  Because you must have been a young teenager during the war.

A:  Yes, well, we lived in Rotherham which was near Sheffield and we did have one very bad air raid the night they came over Sheffield and we did actually get a bomb in the field behind our house. I can remember being in the air raid shelter and we knew it was a bad night because it was really bad and all the family were there.  There was this horrendous thump and the whole of the air raid shelter seemed to leap up in the air!  So we had got an aunty – it was Aunty Kate – who started to say the Lord’s Prayer, and we all started to say the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father which art in Heaven…’ and there was things falling down in the shelter.  It stopped and we looked at each other and we were still there; everything was tipped down off the shelves and everywhere but we were all right and we were safe. When it was safe Dad went out to have a look ‘cos it was pitch dark and it was still busy so he came back in and said it was alright.  Anyway in the morning everybody wanted to know what had happened and we found out that … our shelter was sort of in the bank of this field at the top of the garden and so there was a field higher up, and so I didn’t go but I can remember my brother and my dad went to have a look and they found this crater with a bomb in it.  An incendiary bomb or something.  So that was exciting.

LH:  So you were saying in the war that people did more things at home so in fact there was more opportunity to read, was there?

A:  Not really, no, you’re right there, you’re right there.  Because we couldn’t go to school at that point and we had to do things at home, I can remember writing essays and finding facts at home, on the table.  I can remember doing a lot of work at home because we only went to school two days a week so we had to do things at home.  And we did a lot at home.  We played games around the table, we played cards a lot.  Yes, we were a very close family.  My cousin from London came up, for safety – Theo, they called him – and I got my brother and myself, so I was the eldest of the two boys and they did exactly what I told them to do and I was a real bossy boots.  We did all sorts of things, we made things and cut things out and models and yes, yes, when I think about it, the evenings were lovely, we didn’t have television but I don’t remember reading that much.

LH:  That’s interesting.  Perhaps you did start your reading career as you became an adult.

A:  Yes.

LH:  Well you’ve told me loads, Alma.  I don’t know whether there is anything else in your notes that you want to mention.

A:  Yes, oh I’m sorry about this.  We’ve gone off the point.  I’m sorry about this.

LH:  No, it is all really interesting.

[…]

A:  No I haven’t … do you want to know about when we were married in 1950.  Has that gone too far?

LH:  No, we are still in the period of time there.

A:  Because my husband liked adventure stories and so I got sort of into that as well.

LH:  What sort of adventure stories?

A:  Kon-Tiki and things like that.

LH:  Did you read Rider Haggard?

A:  Yes I did.  Perhaps if you mention some people I can remember.

LH: John Buchan?  Did you read any Jack London?  Dennis Wheatley?

A:  None of those.

LH:  Well perhaps he found his own.  Who was the author of Kon-Tiki?

A:  Oh, Agatha Christie, I read a lot of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham. Yes I read a lot of those, yes, yes.

LH:  Lovely, so during married life … Did you carry on reading after you were married?

A:  Not for a while, because we lived with Raymond’s mum and dad while we were saving up and they didn’t have any books at all.  They used to read the paper from cover to cover but no books.  I don’t remember doing a lot of reading then.  I remember going to Sheffield Library and being a bit overwhelmed by Sheffield Library, it was very big and I didn’t like it so I didn’t go.  So I didn’t get access to books you see at that point.  So it was only when we actually moved to our first house in 1952 that I began to read again.

LH:  Yes, you could do what you wanted then.

A:  Yes, I wanted to go to the library then, yes, and then I read; I liked biographies, Dame Laura Knight and … and ballet, I liked ballet books, all about ballet and dancing.  I loved books like that.

LH:  Really?  Fantastic!  So you’ve got a wide range of tastes.

A:  Yes, well I’ll read anything.  Raymond used to like Wilbur Smith.  He liked that, he liked adventure.

LH: Right.

A: In fact he used to have two books on his side of the bed and I used to have four!

[Both laugh.]

LH:  Keeping track of four is quite something.

A: Yes, because I still read in bed.  I used to like reading in bed.

LH:  Well, that’s fascinating.

A:  How are we doing?  I’ve gone over the time now, haven’t I?

LH:  Well, from my point of view, if you would like to say anything else about the authors there. you can, but you’ve given me a really good impression of the books that you were reading and I suppose my final question to you would be: do you think there are any ways that reading has changed your life?

A:  It hasn’t … changed? Now that’s a big question and I’m going to need time to think about that … I’ve just loved reading.  I’ve just loved reading and whatever book I read it becomes part of me really, I think.  But I can’t think of anything it has specifically changed.

LH:  It has fed your imagination.

A:  It has fed my imagination, yes.  I know very well that I couldn’t live without books.   That’s a dead cert.  I need books, yes.

LH:  I think that is a good place to end our interview.  Thank you very much indeed.

[As Liz was switching the machine off, Alma said that she can’t get to the library now and sounded sad but the machine was turned off.]

Access Alma’s reading journey here.

 

Recent Posts

City Librarian Speaks Out

Joseph Percy Lamb (1891-1969) was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 1927 and 1956. More than anyone, Lamb was responsible for the success of the city’s library service in the mid-20th century, when annual issues rose from under one to over four million and seven new libraries, including the Central, were opened. As Reading Sheffield contributes a talk about him to the 2019 Heritage Open Days festival, here is Joe Lamb himself in October 1933, giving the presidential address to the Sheffield Literary Club.

Joe Lamb (image: SCC)

Threatened by Mob Hysteria

Intellectual Freedom in Danger

Warning by Sheffield Librarian

Nazi Example

Joe Lamb’s self-confidence shine out in the Sheffield Independent’s report on 13 October 1933 of his address to the Literary Club. We realise with surprise that here is, not a politician or pundit, but a local government officer. The speech has not survived but we are left in no doubt of the conviction behind it. The Independent characterises it as strong criticism of ‘the attitude of the present generation towards life in general and literature in particular’. Lamb had evidently been angered by the

recent ‘barbaric spectacle’ of German university students publicly burning books containing some of the finest flowerings of German thought.

A Nazi throws confiscated ‘un-German’ books into the bonfire on the Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933 (image: public domain).

This was a reference to the public burning of around 25,000 ‘un-German’ books by Nazi students which began on 10 May 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in January and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws proclaimed in April 1933. There were bonfires across the country, and the works of writers such as Berthold Brecht, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway were condemned as corrupt. In Berlin, around 40,000 people heard propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels speak in support of censorship. This story seems to be missing from the Sheffield press, and perhaps Lamb, as City Librarian, felt that the threat to liberty and civilisation should have been better reported. For, having denounced the situation in Germany, he posited that ‘even in Britain there was growing up an attitude of conscious hostility to intellectual freedom’. He went on, in the blunt way of his time:

It is, of course, true that literature has never been free from persecution at the hands of the mob, and that this mob has not always been confined to the depressed classes of the community. … The more subtle weapons of social ostracism and economic pressure, no less powerful and ruthless because they are carefully hidden from public view, are in force even now.

Lamb was not afraid to point out the gap he perceived between intellectual and everyday life (notwithstanding the fact that there must have been academics in his audience).   

The preoccupation of scholars with the past, and the inevitable association between intellectual pursuits and the leisured security of university life have tended to isolate the idea of culture from contemporary thought and the ordinary scramble for existence. … I suggest that the time is coming when the whole structure of learning, buttressed up as it is by a great deal of make-belief, will be forced to discard many of these supports and re-build on foundations of intellectual honesty. Otherwise there is very serious danger of it being undermined by the forces of mob hysteria which our modern civilisation has called into being. 

As if this wasn’t enough, Lamb also took a swipe at methods of teaching.

We are not content to accept with simple thankfulness the works of writers of undoubted genius; we must forever be dissecting them on the operating slab and exhibiting their entrails to groups of shuddering students. … We even perpetrate the grisly joke of using the works of Shakespeare as a medium for the exercise of parsing and grammatical construction; and thousands of children who might conceivably grow up to a proper appreciation of literature are eternally damned by the macabre activities of the earnest educationists. Is it any wonder that so few survive?

(He was, of course, not unique in this particular criticism, and we know from his writing of his own unsatisfactory experiences learning literature at school.)

Lamb warned against the mediocre ‘in thought, language, creative work’, which was all too easily accepted, he thought, by the ‘pseudo-cultured’. For him the answer was robust ‘individualism of thought’, questioning rather than accepting.

Eighty years on, you wonder how the members of the Sheffield Literary Club responded to their president’s strong words. This club had been founded in 1923 as the Sheffield Poetry Club, and was often mentioned in the press (not least for its pseudo-medieval Christmas dinner, ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’, with the president as the ‘mayster of the feste’). Subjects discussed at its meetings included: Jane Austen, Mary Webb, Bryon, satire and early English novels. No doubt it seemed appropriate in this context to have the city’s chief librarian as president. That he was elected four years in a row suggests that they also valued him.

The Sheffield Literary Club, with Lamb third from the left, front row (image: Sheffield Newspapers)

Joe Lamb was a self-made man from a working-class family in St Helens. Denied higher education (which seems to have rankled throughout his life), he became an assistant librarian, which was a secure, white collar job. He was an auto-didact, using the ample opportunity his profession gave him to explore literature, music, philosophy and science. He also took his professional exams and became Sheffield’s City Librarian in 1927, winning national and international renown for the service. Throughout his career, he wrote and spoke about public libraries, determinedly promoting Sheffield. He seemed always to relish argument, and even controversy, for example, stocking his branch libraries with popular fiction like Edgar Wallace at a time when professional librarians frowned on offering books for entertainment. All this meant that he could appear difficult and was sometimes disliked, but he was always respected. This is the man we see in the newspaper of October 1933. In essence, he sought out his own way, always demonstrating the ‘individualism of thought’ he advocated to the Literary Club.

If you would like to learn more about Joe Lamb and Sheffield Libraries, our talk is on 17 September, at 10.30 am, in the Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The talk is free but places can be booked here.

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