Alan B

Alan B

Alan was born in Rotherham on the 10th March 1944 in the Kimberworth area. Between 1945 and 1965 he lived in Clifton Park, in the Clifton area.

He is interviewed by Susan Roe on the 2nd May 2012.

SR: Did anybody read to you when you were young?

AB: I remember one of my aunts reading to me and I’m guessing that probably my sister and my mother might have done, read to me.

SR: How far back do your memories go?

AB: Probably just pre-school.

SR: And what was it? Bedtime stories or [inaudible]?

AB: I think probably things like children’s annuals, Rupert Bear annuals things like that. I remember the Rupert Bear annuals very fondly. I remember we had some fairy stories with sort of, you know, [inaudible] type drawings in which I found quite scary.

SR: Yes I can imagine.

AB: So I imagine we looked at that. And I know I never made any attempt to read myself. I think I was a bit lazy like that or they were too good to me! I remember I used to pass them on to read to me.

SR: So you did ask people to read to you?

AB: Yes.

SR: How long did that go on for, do you remember?

AB: I don’t exactly but I know, I remember being told, “Oh, you should be reading yourself now”. I know I didn’t really start reading to myself until I was in junior school.

SR: What books did you read when you were in junior school?

AB: I really can’t remember to be honest but I remember finding it very difficult to read. I was a very slow starter and then I had a couple of teachers, one who bullied me, in a nice way, to read. She taught me, I felt she taught me how to read. Another teacher who probably inspired me to want to read and get the knowledge and then I took off. I remember reading children’s comics.

SR: What sort of comics did you read?

AB: Dandy, Beano and then later on there’d be sort of Rover.

SR: Roy of the Rovers?

AB: Yes…[inaudible]. I was never a great Eagle fan but occasionally I read the Eagle.

SR: Do you remember what sort of books you read in junior school? [SR makes a suggestion but inaudible]

AB: I’m sorry I can’t. I really don’t remember reading very much at all in junior school. I just remember sort of like learning how to read and then slowly thinking, “Things are interesting”. I always had some feeling for books because something that has always stuck with me was when King George VI died we all were at school and we had to take out our hymn books, our Songs of Praise and we had to go to the National Anthem which was in the book and cross out the word King and write Queen. I remember being quite shocked that teachers were telling us to deface our hymn books.

SR: How funny.

AB: Yes. Funny how things stay with you.

SR: They stick in your mind. Do you remember any books, the first books that made you feel you were now reading grown up books? That you were leaving children’s books behind.

AB: I can remember when I was about probably at the end of junior school, reading G A Henty novels. I don’t know whether you would call those exactly grown up books but they were a bit more…

SR: It’s what you feel, whether you felt the nature a bit more grown up, you know, less childish.

AB: Um, yes well about the time I went to secondary school I seemed to have this sort of explosion, you know, I’d sort of discovered reading and I’d got a lot of time to make up and everything. I was probably, looking back, I probably didn’t understand them at all.

SR: Can you think of any examples at all?

AB: Well I started reading classic books like Charles Dickens and I remember trying to read Paradise Lost and finding it absolutely totally beyond me. Things like that and I can remember going to Rotherham City Library and saying I’d like to join the library and them trying to direct me to the children’s library. I wouldn’t have that, no I wanted these other books.

SR: How old were you?

AB: I’d have been about 11.

SR:  Is that when you went to secondary school?

AB: Yes and I started going to the library. I liked to read sort of light-hearted things. The easy things like G A Henty but I also knew that there were all these important books [chuckles] which I felt I ought to try and read as well. Sometimes I was unsuccessful but I remember I had no concept of what people would refer to as good books or lightweight books. So they were all the same to me and I remember my mother used to like to read Mills and Boon type stuff and her favourite author was Mazo de la Roche

SR: Oh yes.

AB: I’ve never heard of her for years but I know once when we were at school being asked , “Can you name of a famous author?” and when I’d said, “Oh Mazo de la Roche” and I was laughed at and I was scorned [both laugh] and I perhaps realised that perhaps all our authors aren’t equal!

SR: Where did you get your books from? Generally speaking when you started reading, like you said an explosion of reading?

AB: Well, as I say, I joined the local library and also I went to a local book shop which was just a sort of old fashioned type of book shop, you know, a rabbit warren of shelves. And I used to go to that and I seem to remember I got my G A Henty from there.

SR: Is that a bookshop in Rotherham?

AB: Yes, called Harpers.

SR: And did they give advice on what books or did you ask them what books you might read? Or did you just choose?

AB: I’d just browse.

SR: Browse, yes.

AB: I mean I don’t know why I didn’t get the Henty books out of the library but I’m wondering if they didn’t have them because he became quite sort of unpopular didn’t he because he was an imperialist. So they may not have had them in the library.

SR: Did you get any books from school?

AB: Mm …we had one book a term. We had the set book and that was all and I don’t remember getting another book.

SR: Do you remember any of your set books?

AB: I think we did Jack London books, The Call of the Wild, White Fang.  Our first one was King of the Golden River by the art critic, I can’t remember his name now..[inaudible].

SR: Did you like the Jack London?

AB:  Yeah I think so, yeah, yeah.

SR: What was it? Was it the adventure?

AB: Yeah, the fast-moving adventure side of it.

SR: It was set in Canada.

AB: Canada, yeah.

SR: Was that appealing?

AB: Yeah I think so [sounds slightly doubtful]. I like adventure books. That’s my escapism in reading as it were.

SR: With any family members did you ask for books for presents or did people buy you books?

AB:  Yeah I think they did, yes. I know we had a friend who lived nearby and he was very keen on education. In fact he was the head of the local education committee. So if I ever mentioned a book in his presence he would get it for me.

SR: Did you swap books with friends or anything like that?

AB: I’ve no recollection of ever doing that.

SR: Where did you read? Did you have any particular place in the house where you read or did you read outside?

AB: Mmm …

SR: Did you read upstairs, in your room?

AB: … I don’t know.

SR: Not in particular?

AB: No, nowhere in particular, no but we got a…we were one of the families with a front room that was never used so I might ‘ave just gone in there if I  wanted a bit of peace and quiet.

SR: But everything happened in the back room?

AB: That’s it, yeah. So you, if you wanted to be quiet you could have gone to the front room as long as it wasn’t cold. We only lit the fire at Christmas!

SR: I know just what you mean!

AB: Yes.

SR: Any other books you read as a young adult, mid-teens that sort of thing, that made an impression on you? Can you think of any particular books that made an impression on you?

AB: Well as I got into adolescence I remember reading The Bright Day by J B Priestley. I found that really sort of useful in the sense that as an adolescent you had certain uncertainties and that is what he talked about. And knowing that other people had the same uncertainties, it’s not just you.

SR: You found that quite helpful then?

AB: Yes, yeah.

SR: Do you remember any others? Mid-teens that sort of time?

AB: Mmm.

SR: Teenager, young adult perhaps?

AB: None that made a profound impact on me.

SR: Impression…

AB: Impression on me. I mean as I got into school leaving age I realised I was interested in science and engineering so my reading switched a bit more into…

SR: Into that area?

AB: Into that area. I mean, I think, perhaps everyone is like this, but I think I am a person who uses reading rather than for its own sake, as it were. I like to see what it can do for me sort of thing.

SR: So you were into science and engineering so went to science and engineering type books?

AB: Yes.

SR: What kind of books do you really like, generally?

AB: I think I see different books for different jobs, you know, I mean. Like I went to the library yesterday and I got some factual books and I also got a novel which is pure…

SR: Light relief?

AB: Light reading and relaxation.

SR: And that was the same when you were younger?

AB: Yes I think so, yes.

SR: In your twenties, late teens, twenties?

AB: I think so yes.

SR: You said you liked adventure books. Do you still like those?

AB: Yeah I do, yeah.

SR: What sort of adventure books did you read apart from Jack London? Can you think of any others?

AB: Well there were all the standard ones, you know the Coral Island…

SR: Was that Stevenson or Ballantyne?

AB: Ballantyne. And Robert Louis Stevenson.

SR: Treasure Island?

AB: Treasure Island, that sort of thing. Then as you get older perhaps more slightly darker stuff, you know, war books and things like that.

SR: Can you remember any war books that you read?

AB: What from those days?

SR: Yes.

AB: Well mostly G A Henty books were based on wars – the British would thrash somebody [laughs]! Which is why they became rather unpopular! And then there were the C S Forrester, the Hornblower books. I read most of those.

SR: Any escape, Colditz type books?

AB: Oh I remember that was one of our set books at school. The Wooden Horse, which is a feel-good escape book. I am thinking of so many I had forgotten all about.

SR: Did you find that exciting?

AB: Yes although it’s more the building of tension there because there is not a lot of actual action except them slowly building the tunnel. I think it is quite well described. It is quite a good book, well written.

SR: Did you read any books about the First World War or anything like that?

AB: Mmm … I think I must have because  …I’m trying to think. I read John Masters wrote a lot of books but I think I read those a bit later in life. They were much, slightly darker than [inaudible].

SR: … [inaudible] you talked about the library didn’t you and said you went to a bookshop. Was it a new or a second hand bookshop or was it both?

AB: No it wasn’t. It was just a new bookshop. I can’t remember ever using a second hand bookshop until I was an adult. I don’t know whether it was stigma or perhaps they didn’t exist.

SR: As an adult did you go to second hand bookshops?

AB: Yes. I did.

SR: In Rotherham there were second hand bookshops?

AB: I don’t know actually. I don’t think it was ever famous for reading, Rotherham! I mean I get the impression that I was slightly unusual in that I was keen on reading and I did collect books.

SR: Did that get you into any difficulties in Rotherham?

AB: Not particularly no.

SR: So you weren’t bullied or anything for reading?

AB: No, no.

SR: Sometimes boys reading can be regarded by other boys as not so …that wasn’t an issue?

AB: No but thinking back it was something that you can keep quiet about isn’t it?

SR: Yes.

AB: You don’t have to be err…

SR: You can do it in the privacy of your own home can’t you?

AB: Yes. I don’t remember ever purposely hiding what I read.

SR: Was reading common in your family do you think?

AB: Well I saw my mother reading quite a lot and we did have few books in the house. You know, we had a book collection but I remember when I started reading I had to build a new … I made myself a set of bookshelves! [laughs]

SR: To keep them on.

AB: Yeah. But, you know, it wasn’t a great thing, you know, there weren’t as many books that we have now.

SR: What books were in your mum’s, your parents’ bookcase?

AB: A set of Mayo de la Roche books. Things like standard encyclopaedias. Later on they bought me a set of children’s, Arthur Mee children’s encyclopaedias, umm, which I very rarely used although it wasn’t until years later that I discovered there was an index! It was tucked somewhere in the middle so I didn’t find it until years after I got it.

SR: That cut down its use a bit!

AB: Which made it very difficult to use, yeah! Um, um, you know, not a vast array of books.

SR: And what sort of books did you have on your bookshelf?

AB: A very varied collection really. I think I had one or two books on astronomy. I think I had quite a lot of adventure books and one or two quite intellectual books which you know really I probably struggled with and never got brought out again.

SR: You said you read some Dickens, some classics. Can you remember any titles of those?

AB: David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, really the well-known ones.

SR: Did you enjoy them?

AB: Mmm…[long pause].I think I did probably but I probably found them hard work.

SR: Did anybody encourage you to read? At home or at school or beyond?

AB: I’ve no recollection of that. I went to secondary modern school and there were very few books actually in school in those days. And the ones that were, I think they were trying to make us realise how good books were but they were so sort of reverential about books that, you know, I wouldn’t have dared go to the library and borrow one.

SR: So it had the opposite effect.

AB: Yeah because the school library, we didn’t have a…

[Recording stops because of a technical hitch so the following section of the interview is reconstructed or in note form.]

SR: Did  anyone make you feel that reading was a waste of time?

AB: Not really; in Rotherham the boys went into steel works or a few into mines but I kept reading  to myself

[Parents not discouraging; saw mother reading – she read Mazo de la Roche/ Mills & Boon.]

SR: Where & when did you find time to read? (I was not sure about your response here)

AB: Parents had bookcase [remembers encyclopedias; he had own shelves for his own books.]

SR:  Were you ever made to feel embarrassed about what you read- a guilty pleasure? Or did you ever read anything because you thought it would improve you in anyway?

AB: Not really-

[In early teens A did read authors  like Dickens as knew they were supposed to be classics e.g. David Copperfield; Oliver Twist.; Paradise Lost( Milton) – found them hard going – didn’t finish P/Lost.]

SR: Which books did you read with pleasure when you were young that you wouldn’t dream of reading again? Why not?

AB: Obviously the annuals. Probably the Henty books – probably not PC; also superficial –characters good or bad / heroes & villains

SR: Do any of the following authors or books ring any bells with you?

AB: ‘Realistic’ [reading from list of categories]

[A had heard of H E Batesbut not sure if read any.

Arnold Bennett- the Clayhanger novels-enjoyed them as they were realistic; character not heroic

A.J. Cronin –read the medical ones

Thought Warwick Deeping was a place

Winifred Holtby: read several e.g. South Riding –interested as it was realistic & set locally. Saw ancient monument in graveyard where she was buried – likes to see links between what he’s read & the world around him

Somerset Maugham: not keen on his novels but liked short stories set in East

J.B. Priestley: read several- Good Companions?

Nevil Shute: really liked him, both his novels & his scientific books- he was an aircraft designer/builder  in 1920/30s. Reflects own interest in science & engineering books, like those of Jules Verne, based on good science

Historical

Read Georgette Heyer/Jean Plaidy – quite likes historical novels  but prefers history books/biographies – grounded in facts/reality

Adventure

Edgar Rice Burroughs: Tarzan- did read some of these

John Buchan: liked these e.g. The 39 Steps; very black & white- goodies & baddies

Erskine Childers: read The Riddle of the Sands

Rider Haggard: read several e.g. King Solomon’s Mines- not sure how accurate they were.]

[The second  recording picks up at the point of the next writer. Sue and A are looking at a list of popular fiction and sometimes refer to it. The second interview begins with mention of High Wind in Jamaica by  Richard Hughes]

SR: We were talking about the library and …

AB:I don’t think it was particularly well researched in that respect. I read Richard Hughes, High Wind in Jamaica. That’s quite a difficult book because I think it is supposed to have hidden, a deeper meaning. I found that a bit difficult [chuckles] so I am not quite sure, [pause], what that was about. I mean another book like that was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Someone told me it was an allegory of life [laughs] and I thought it was a story about some boys on an island!

So, Victor Hugo…

SR: You say Les Miserables, have you read any others?

AB:  Of William…?

SR: Of Victor Hugo?

AB: No, I don’t think I have. Jack London we have talked about.

SR: Yes, you said, yes.

AB: Denis Wheatley, yes, he was popular which I would have read probably in my teenage years. Some good adventure stories. I did read that.

SR: Beau Geste.

AB: Beau Geste.

SR: You said you had read some war stories. Did you read The Wooden Horse?

AB: Yes. The Wooden Horse was a very good one.

SR: That’s another escape.

AB: Yes, an escape from a prisoner of war camp and I have a feeling that was a set book at school.

SR: Oh yes.

AB: But it is the sort of thing I would have read anyway. It was good.

SR: A ripping yarn! As they say.

AB: Yes, that’s it.

SR: What about thrillers? Do you like thrillers?

AB: Yes I do. Graham Greene. I have read a few of those. I read Prisoner of Zenda. Nicholas Montserrat was quite a one.

SR: Was that The Cruel Sea?

AB: The Cruel Sea, The Mariner, things like that.

SR: Sort of war or adventure or up against hard situations?

AB: That’s right, yes. Dennis Wheatley there again, yes.

SR: Do you like crime fiction at all, British or American?

AB: I don’t dislike it, yes. I’m fairly, I’m fairly open to any genre as long as it is engaging, telling you something. So, I like a fast moving story and if you can get both together that’s wonderful. So I’ve read, you know, Conan Doyle.

SR: Sherlock Holmes?

AB: Sherlock Holmes. I’ve also read some of his more science fiction stuff, Lost World.

SR: Oh yes, yes. Do you like a sort of puzzle that you have with a thriller, that sort of puzzle.

AB: I do yes.

SR: So you can work out whodunit?

AB: Yeah. At the moment I am reading books by C J Sansom.

SR: Tudor.

AB: A Tudor crime.

SR: Henry VIII isn’t it?

AB: Yeah, Tudor crimes.

SR: That’s a combination there of history and thriller.

AB: Yeah, yes and he puts in some quite interesting historical observations as well.

SR: So you feel he has researched it?

AB: Yes I think he is a proper historian and he’s also been a solicitor so he knows a little bit about the criminal side as well. So you have got two things together and it’s a good yarn as well.

SR: What about comedy? Comedy books?

AB: Mmm.

SR: Benson, all these, G K Chesterton?

AB: Yeah, I have read G K Chesterton but I can’t remember what I’ve read…oh Father Brown.

SR: Father Brown.

AB: Which again is more to the detective side.

SR: The detective side.

AB: I think I have read one or two Compton Mackensies.

SR: Do you like the sort of comic, comedy books at all? Like P G Wodehouse?

AB: Yes. I do. I’ve read quite a few of the Wooster and Jeeves.

SR: Yes. That’s set in, is it the twenties and thirties is it? I think it is.

AB: Yes, it is yes, between the two world wars. Saki, I have read one or two of his short stories.

SR: Do you prefer novels or short stories or are you not bothered?

AB: No, no.

SR:  No particular preference?

AB: No.

SR: Ah, now we come to sagas. You did read some of them?

AB: No, I’ve never read any of them!

SR: Oh no, you didn’t read them!

AB: No. My mother read them but I read that Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole.

SR: Interesting?

AB: Hmm…I have a feeling I read one of the series and never bothered with any others so perhaps it wasn’t…I think it is set in the Lake District.

SR: Yes [inaudible].

AB: I think … is that a book of poems, Diary of a Super-Tramp?.

SR: I am not sure what that one is.

AB: No, I’m not sure. I’ve heard of that but I don’t think I have ever read it.

SR: Was romance anything that you were interested in? The Four Feathers possibly?

AB: Yes I have read that and again I possibly read that at school. Gone with the Wind I have read but late,  in more recent times.

SR: They were a bit more action rather than just the romance aren’t they?

AB: Yes.

SR: And you don’t bother with Mills and Boon?

AB: I don’t, no sorry.

SR: That’s all right! Any westerns? Like Zane Grey?

AB: I don’t think I have ever read any of his but I have read western stories, but again a western can also be quite a good thriller can’t it? It is just a vehicle for it.

SR: It’s the setting isn’t it? Now we talked about Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the sort of shocking books of the period. I don’t know if you’ve read any of those?

AB: Mmm …

SR: Or any other books that you thought might have been a bit shocking [inaudible]?

AB: Well this wasn’t in the period you are talking about but when I was in my twenties I did an Open University degree and one of the subjects, we did quite a lot on D H Lawrence, and I [inaudible]…The Rainbow.

SR:  What was your reaction to this?

AB: Mmm.

SR: Did you enjoy the books?

AB: I didn’t disenjoy them. Is there such a word … disenjoy? I didn’t not enjoy them but I preferred some of his poems actually because he is one of these people who makes some very insightful…

SR: Observations?

AB: Observations on life but you have got to read through a lot of stuff to get to them [chuckles] whereas his poems are more punchy.

SR: Yes. What about the classics? You certainly said Jane Austen.

AB: Joseph Conrad, yes. I read a few of his, Nostromo; his short stories are good.  I enjoyed those. Charles Dickens. E M Forster, I’ve read A Passage to India. Again in more recent times. Thomas Hardy, I’ve read a few of his books.

SR: Like?

AB: Woodlanders, Return…

SR: Return of the Native.

AB: Return of the Native, Mayor of Casterbridge.

SR: Did you like those?

AB: Yes I do actually. I think it latches on to a sort of way of life that’s maybe disappeared now.

SR: They are not all happy endings of course?

AB: No he sort of touches life in the raw on occasions. James Joyce – I think I have read little bits of him but I found them very difficult. I thought he might be up there actually [laughs].

SR: Some of these…[inaudible]

AB: Lucky Jim, I’ve read that.

SR: Did you enjoy that?

AB: Yes I did, yes, about the….

SR:  University.

AB: Yes, that’s the university one and I’ve mixed it up with another one about trade unions. I would have….[inaudible].

SR: Did you read…?

AB: Brave New World

SR: Was that interesting to you?

AB: Yes it was.

SR: It was science fiction but not…

AB: It’s science fiction but strong on the social side of it.

SR: And it’s not unbelievable?

AB: No, no. The science isn’t important, it’s the people side and how society would be organised. Christopher Isherwood, I’ve read those.

SR: Which did you read?

AB: Goodbye to Berlin.

SR: That might have been in that section as well [chuckles]!

AB: Yes.

SR: What did you think to that?

AB: Well I enjoyed it in a sort of … disturbed way. Nevil Shute, George Orwell. I read 1984. I think that’s about all I have read of his.

SR: Did you read Animal Farm?

AB: Oh yes I read that! I probably read Animal Farm when I was at school.

SR: Yes, yes.

AB: Again I struggled with that because everyone said it was about the communist system and I thought it was about a farm! I might have tried to read George Bernard Shaw but it left no impression on me whatsoever. C P Snow, I know the name but I don’t know what he wrote [another sentence but inaudible]

SR: [inaudible]

AB: Virginia Woolf, I think again I tried to read but I didn’t get very far with it.

SR: There’s H G Wells again and John Wyndham of course we could have had…

AB: Yes. He was the Triffids man.

SR: And the Kraken Wakes.

AB: Yes. I’ve read all of them.

SR:  Do you like those?

AB: Yes. I think they are really good, well written and very good stories.

SR: About non-fiction. You said you read a fair bit of non fiction didn’t you? Something for your studies and also you might…other…[inaudible]

AB: Yes. I am interested in science books, history books, yeah and biographies and political social history.

SR:  Any travel books you like? Or is that not your bag as people would say?

AB: Occasionally I would read a travel book but really a good travel book brings in history and social…

SR:  [inaudible – sounds of moving tape machine] – It’s making me nervous now. Have you ever read a book which is …[inaudible]?

AB: I am sure I have but I can’t think of an example.

SR: Are there any books or any way in which you think reading has changed your life at all? I know that sounds a bit grand.

AB: Yes. Well I am sure it has in the sense it that it’s helped me to sort out my ideas on my life and how I want to live it by a) giving me facts to explain things and b) encouraging me to question my ideas, beliefs or absence of beliefs.

SR: In order to give it some background is it OK if I just ask you a short biographical question?

AB: Yes go on.

SR: When were you born again, March?

AB: 10th March 1944.

SR: You were born in Rotherham?

AB: Yes.

SR: How did your family come to be in Rotherham?

AB: Mmm….well Rotherham was a major industrial centre and all my family have been employed in industry.

SR: So you’ve got long roots in Rotherham?

AB: Well relatively long, yes.

SR: They worked in the steelworks?

AB: My father’s family worked in the steelworks for several generations and my mother’s family moved to Rotherham from Birmingham to work in the brass industry.

SR: Oh I didn’t know there was a brass industry in Rotherham.

AB: Well I don’t want to bore you.

SR: No, no I’m interested in that.

AB: A man in Rotherham invented the tap, you know, the screw tap, which was a major step forward because it meant basically every home could have its own water supply.

SR: You could turn on and off, yes.

AB: Before the modern tap it was possible but only rich people could [inaudible] but they needed to manufacture the taps in large quantities and for that you needed brass casting. My mother’s family came to Rotherham from Birmingham to set up the brass tap making business and they were said to be the first people to make a brass tap.

SR: Oh that is interesting. So your mother’s family came from Birmingham but your father’s family is from Rotherham?

AB: But we’ve been in Rotherham as far back as I know. That is one of my hobbies actually, family trees.

SR: And where did you live since childhood? You lived in Rotherham, did you always live there?

AB: Yes.

SR: And so you married?

AB: Yes, that’s right.

SR: You lived in Kimberworth was it?

AB: No, I was born there. I lived in Clifton.

SR: Clifton. What sort of area was that, Clifton?

AB: It was pleasant. I suppose you would call it…I’m not sure what you’d call it…just a suburb really. It was fairly modest houses but, you know, had nice big gardens and the house had been built about 1900 so had a generous garden. It was quite close to Clifton Park so it was really quite a pleasant setting.

SR: How did World War II affect your family? If you remember, you were born in 1944 weren’t you?

AB: Yeah, I think fairly positively in the sense that my father was born in 1903, so he was too old to be…

SR:  Conscripted.

AB: Because he’d probably be in a reserved occupation and he’d suffered quite a lot of unemployment in the 1930s so actually his skills were in demand.

SR: Because the war boosted steel production.

AB: Steel production, yes in fact during the war he moved his job and they had to get special permission to. You couldn’t just move.

SR: Did your mother work during the war?

AB: I don’t think so, no.

SR: They did conscript female labour, but possibly younger.

AB: But she had two … my brother and sister are older than me so she’d have two young children and then obviously I came along. So as far as I know she never did any war work.

SR: Did they experience the Blitz in Rotherham?

AB: They had a minor brush with the Blitz because in the park they had these ‘Holidays at Home’ where they put up marquees and things and I think they looked like an army camp and the park was bombed.

SR: Oh no, gosh.

AB: My father told me this story about how they dropped incendiary bombs and he had to rush out with dustbin lids from all the houses…

SR: And put them out?

AB: …cover them all up.

SR: What school did you go to?

AB: It was called Southgrove Secondary Modern

SR: And you left at 15?

AB: 15.

SR: Did you go into work?

AB: No, I went to a technical college because I realised if I wanted to pursue science and engineering I’d have to get GC…

SR: Yes, get your qualifications.

AB: We were part of the bulge.

SR: The baby bulge.

AB: The baby bulge or boom or whatever it was and so I always felt that some of us who went to the secondary modern, in other years we might have got into the grammar school because there wouldn’t have been so many.

SR: So you left school at what year was that?

AB: I finally left the technical college in ’61.

SR: Did you do any other qualifications apart from O levels?

AB: When I started work I had this day release.

SR: Of course, yes.

AB: I did a Higher National Certificate.

SR: What was that in?

AB: In physics.

SR: In physics.

AB: Then in later years I did an Open University degree.

SR: So you went from Rotherham Technical College into work?

AB: Yes.

SR: And where was that again?

AB: It was called the United Steel Company which later became part of British Steel. They had a research laboratory in Rotherham and that is where I worked.

SR: Did you say you went to university after that?

AB: I did Open University.

SR: Yes. That’s quite arduous in its own right and then when you are working …

AB: Mm…it is in the sense that you’ve got all your family commitments as well but it is something that I enjoyed doing.

SR: How long did it take you to complete?

AB: I think it was six years. I only put so much effort into it, sort of thing, because you have to ration your time don’t you?

SR: Balance your life.

AB: Balance your life.

SR: You say your father was in the steelworks. What did he do?

AB: He was a roll turner which is, you know, how they basically make a big lump of steel and they push it through rolls and if they want a specific shape to come out of it and size the rolls have to be cut.

SR: They have got to be in a particular shape as well.

AB: And size, to produce that shape and in my father’s day that was done by a person cutting the rolls, turning them. It is all done by computer today.

SR: That sounds like hard work …[inaudible]

AB: Well it’s quite skilful work, yeah. You’ve got to be able to…

SR: It’s quite precision work.

AB: Yes, precision. They say it’s all done by computer’s today, computer-controlled machinery but in his day it was all done by measurement.

SR: Did your mother work at all?

AB: I think before she was married, I think she had one or two jobs [unclear] but I don’t think girls were encouraged to think about careers. They were just jobs.

SR: And very often if you did have a career you had to stop work when you married anyway in those days.

AB: Yes.

SR: So what was your job exactly?

AB: Mine?

SR: Yes.

AB: When I left school?

SR: Yes and subsequently?

AB: Subsequently. Yes I was referred to as a metallurgical apprentice and I worked there for a year or two and then I eventually moved to what became the Health and Safety Executive, who had their, in those days, they had a laboratory in the centre of Sheffield and I stayed with that until I retired.

SR: When did you get married again?

AB: 1968.

SR: Is there anything else that you think is relevant or you think might be interesting to talk about? It doesn’t matter but we like to make sure we’ve covered bases

AB: I think these new electronic books coming out, although they don’t particularly appeal to me personally, I think in the end they might be quite good in the sense that it’s making reading much more accessible. When I was at school the library facilities were so off- putting, treated with such reverence, that I didn’t feel that I could use them sort of thing.

SR: It’s making it more accessible?

AB: Well I get the impression that young people now, it’s an electronic device, they are experts at it!

SR: It appeals to them.

AB: It would appeal to them and not be seen as something that is perhaps only for other people.

SR: It’s more cool.

AB: Well yes, yes, maybe.

SR: Whether they have got the attention span is another issue! OK well thanks a lot Alan.

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Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

Mary was born in 1923. She has lived all her life in the suburbs to the west of Sheffield, far from the smoke of the factories in the east side of the city where her father worked as an industrial chemist. There were books in the house and it was her sister who read them to her before she could read herself.

Mother seemed to be too busy. Father would read after Sunday lunch until he fell asleep but my sister was the one who read to me. She was two and half years older and she would always read to me when I was little.

And this was despite being taunted by the tiny Mary when she was reading. ‘Reader reader!’ was the insult hurled to drag her sister back into her world to pay her some attention. She left her brother alone with his Beanos. Though reading was encouraged, the chores came first. Then the girls could retreat to their bedroom where Mary’s sister read to her.

Mary and her sister on Bridlington sands in 1927. Mary on the right.

Bedtime was reading-time for ‘the children’s books of the day’. First there were nursery rhyme books followed by Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and the stories of Mabel Lucie Attwell. As a school girl she treasured What Katy Did and the Girl’s Own annuals she was given at Christmas. None of these books was borrowed. All came into the house as gifts because the children were not taken to the library and were certainly not allowed to go on their own: ‘we weren’t allowed out of the end of the road you know’. But the family nevertheless encouraged reading. ‘Oh yes that was our main means of entertainment. Going to the cinema and reading’.

On Sunday we always had the roast lunch, Sunday lunch time and the fire would be [lit] … they were biggish houses down on Westwood Road. And we always read after Sunday lunch. We had lots of armchairs and that is where we always read. Mother, my sister and I – I don’t think my brother did.

One Christmas Mary’s father bought his two daughters the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, about 12 volumes.’That was our greatest source of delight. We learnt everything we knew.’ When Mary took her first independent steps to find books, it was on behalf of her mother. In 1939, having just left school, Mary was living at home and waiting to be called up.

So I used to go to the library for mother and she liked Mary Burchell, Ethel M Dell. And I used to go to the local Red Circle library … and I’d get some books for her when you paid tuppence a time to join and I would read very light romances. I always felt guilty because, you know, you didn’t read those kind of things then.

When an Ethel M Dell got a little ‘spicy’, Mary would read it hidden under the bedclothes by the light of her torch. Later on Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind would also be read by torchlight.

Mary went to a fee-paying convent school. The nuns were interested in poetry, ‘gentle things’. ‘Poetry was the great thing. Poetry, singing, music.’ So like the children at Sheffield’s elementary schools, Mary and her contemporaries learned a lot of poetry off by heart. But not much else. ‘They were the happiest years of my life but I didn’t learn much! But that’s me, a lot of them did’ so The Red Circle Library on the Moor was the institution from which she ‘graduated’ –  to the Central Library which was to become her ‘greatest delight’. Until she couldn’t walk, Mary went there every fortnight: ‘I loved it’.

Mary looks back in amusement at the thrills she and her mother got from the romantic novels of Ethel M Dell and E M Hull. ‘They got as far as the bedroom door, “and then the door closed”, and that was it.’ She also enjoyed the cowboy books of Zane Grey. ‘It was war days, very dull days and you escaped, as you do now. You escape into another world when you read.’

But her choices from the Central Library were more serious and ‘gritty’: Nevil Shute, Alan Sillitoe, A J Cronin, Howard Spring, H E Bates and John Braine. The novel by H E Bates she remembers is The Purple Plain, describing the survival of three men in Japanese-occupied Burma. Though Bates is more usually associated with his rural novels about the rollicking Larkin family, Mary preferred the ‘stronger’ war novel to the more ‘frivoty’ Darling Buds of May. She also became a serious reader of historical novels. She and her sister shared a taste for Anya Seton. ‘I realised that I liked history far more than I ever did when I was at school.’ When Sue, the history teacher who was interviewing Mary, commented that this didn’t say much for the teachers who taught her, Mary acknowledged this but defends them.

Nuns, you know – bless ‘em, they were lovely, it was a lovely school but I don’t think I learnt a lot. As I say, the war was coming up and it was a very bad time. I left in 1939 as the war started and it broke into anything you were going to do.

Mary was called to serve in the NAAFI shop in a detention camp ‘for the fliers who had flipped their tops a bit with their terrible job. And they were sent to us for three weeks and they used to pile into my shop. Quite an exciting time’, so there was not much reading.

When Mary became a mother, she was on her own with her first baby because her husband was away a lot. It was difficult to travel down to the Central Library with the baby so, in the early 1950s, Mary returned to using a twopenny library in a newsagent’s shop at the bottom of her road. Both this and another she used were simply a couple of shelves full of novels but the stock must have changed regularly because she always found something to read in the evenings when she had ‘got the baby down’.

She was quite discriminating about the degrees of seriousness she would go for. She was absorbed by Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild but was never attracted to adventure books. Though John Braine was depressing ,his books were well written. She never developed a taste for ‘Galsworthy – the heavier ones’. She definitely ruled out ‘these great novels where it starts with, “She’s the kitchen maid, terrible hard life…” You know very well she is going to marry the Lord of the Manor!’

While Mary is enthusiastic about the authors she loves, like P G Wodehouse, she is absolute in her condemnations too.

I did not [with emphasis] like American books. I still don’t. I think it is the language. . . .  It’s not so much the swearing, it’s the style.

Mary shared a love of reading with her husband but when the children were small, it was the cinema that was the greatest treat. It was a pleasure they shared but not in each other’s company.

Well when we lived down Carter Knowle Road, I mustn’t keep you but when Andrew was a baby I would get him washed or whatever and then run all the way to the Abbeydale and watch the first house and run all the way back and then David would have got Andrew to bed and then he would go to the second house.

File:Abbeydale Cinema - Abbeydale Road 26-03-06.jpg

Mary is clearly open to any suggestion about what she might read. She described the taste that her husband had for Dickens and asked Sue whether or not we had found that Dickens is more of a man’s book.

Sue: I do like Dickens. He is my favourite.

Mary: Do you really? I should have given him a go, shouldn’t I? Given him a go. I think it is a bit too late now.

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