Julia Banks

Julia Banks

Julia was born in Chesterfield in August 1939,  growing up in Sheffield 1945-1965.

Julia is being interviewed by Liz Hawkins on the 15th of February 2012.  

 LH: This is an Interview conducted by Liz Hawkins, and I’m interviewing Julia Banks, . Julia was actually born in Chesterfield in August ’39 and then lived in the Woodhouse area of Sheffield between 1945 and 1965. Is that right Julia?

JB: Yes, that’s right, yes.

LH: Excellent. OK, so let’s go back really to when you were very young. Do you remember people reading to you when you were very young? When did your reading experience start?

JB: Well, my mum …mm and my aunt, my mum’s older sister, always read to me as a bed time story, that sort of thing, and then I was always taken to the library with my mother. My mother borrowed books from the library in the war, and, you know, afterwards as well. So I remember that.

LH: Right, so you were born into a reading family, really were you?

JB: Yes.

LH: Was it always something that happened as a natural thing in the family?

JB: Yes. There were always, not a lot of books, but always a book case and books around. And I had an elderly aunt on my father’s side who bought books from Boots library, in town. I think they were selling them off. They had a lending library and when they sold them off she bought and read avidly, history books. And she could talk about Elizabeth the First as if it was a neighbour, you know, read them, and remembered them.

LH: Fantastic, fantastic. Mm, so what were the first books that you read that made you feel as if you were becoming grown up?

JB: I don’t know about feeling grown up but I can remember having as birthday presents and Christmas presents Enid Blyton books.

juliabanksbooksship

LH: Right, right. So that was still as a child?

JB: Oh yes, I could never wait to get the next one. Mm …Valley of Adventure and the Malory Towers series.

LH: Do you think that a lot of people cut their teeth in reading on Enid Blyton? As children?

JB: Absolutely . It took you into something different, a different experience.

juliabanksbooks5

LH: Yeah. So fast-forward a stage then from childhood into young adulthood. Can you remember what sort of things you were reading then? What did you progress onto?

JB: Well as a teenager, of course, I was busy with school work. Do you mean, sort of, 12 to 18 really at school? And so it was a valuable source for research. Because I was at the local grammar school here and for essays you had to sign up for books that you wanted and they went out on rota, the books that were relevant to whichever essays. So if they’d got that book in the library you went and sat in the library and made your notes, or even my Aunt Lil might have the book. I’ve still got Black’s Elizabeth that she gave me that I used to queue for at school or use from the reference library.

LH: Right, so those are very much, mm, non-fiction books then?

JB: Yeah, yeah.

LH: So what sort of subject areas did you tend to read?

JB: I did English, History and Geography so those were the reference books that I used and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, anything that I needed to know. That was one of the first reference and they’d got the whole set.

LH: Really? So you could look up anything you needed to?

JB: Yes, it was brilliant.

LH: So, did you enjoy reading non-fiction? I mean, was that your bag?

JB: Mm, yes, yes. Because I was at that stage when I was learning anyway and there wasn’t really time for just fiction. There wasn’t a lot of spare time to do nothing. If you’re at school you’ve got homework and you’re quite busy. But I can remember using it as a tool, really, the library.

juliabankschristmas

LH: Right. So at that stage, perhaps, reading non-fiction, reading stories, might have been considered a bit of an indulgence do you think?

juliabanksbooksbirthday

JB: I don’t know. I don’t think there were as many fictional stories for young people as there are now. It tended, I think it tended to be, as I always read avidly the children’s books or adult fiction.

LH: Yes, the in-between sort of age.

JB: I think one of the first adult fiction books I read was The Good Earth, Pearl Buck. That was a library book. You tended not, well I tended not, my family tended not to buy books other than for birthday or Christmas but you borrowed books from the library.

LH: Yes, the library was a rich source.

JB: Woodhouse still has an excellent building, a very good library, and you know it was there that I went to use books.

LH: So it was none of the reading under the covers at night with a torch then for you?

JB: No, if I’d wanted to read in bed I would have read in bed. My mum wouldn’t have … she wouldn’t have minded I don’t think.

LH: So she would have said ‘good’.

[Both laugh]

JB: Yes, yeah.

LH: So as a … you leave school then, when you leave school. What happened next in terms of your reading.

JB: Well again at college I think it was all just guided by whatever course. I can’t think particularly of which fiction I would be reading.

LH: What did you do at college?

JB: Mm, I was at Bingley, primary, you know training as a teacher in primary. Taught in primary until I retired … but I can’t think of any fiction. I’m sure we would pass books around and share them. I didn’t belong to a library in Bingley but there was a college library. But that again was mainly for research.

LH: What sort of course books did you tend to read at the time?

JB: Well in literature we did Anna Karenina, you know, Henry James, and you know all the … normal … things.

LH: Yes. But that’s reading isn’t it?

JB: Oh yes. Absolutely. It wasn’t fiction that I had chosen to read, that was prescribed reading.

LH: But did you enjoy it? What books did you read that you enjoyed?

JB: Funnily enough I think the books that I enjoyed more were like Bertrand Russell, you know the really hard stuff. You think, ‘well yeah, I never thought about that before but yeah’. You know? It was that you were learning something new, new situations.

LH: Do you think for you then that’s what reading became? Something not just to pass the time perhaps but something where you wanted to learn? A bit like your aunty Lily?

JB: Yes, new situation. Probably. But I mean I do read fiction and get great joy from it.

LH: But it’s not just fiction that we’re interested in, in a way it’s actually what people found in books that gave them either interest or pleasure.

JB: Certainly yes, lots of pleasure.

LH: And, do you still feel that those books like Anna Karenina and so on, are still the best things to read? Or has your taste changed since then?

JB: Well I think …  didn’t choose them and I think that’s good. Through school or through college you’re given perscripted books. Otherwise you would never get the chance to read them would you? As with Shakespeare you need to be taught how to read it and you should be in my opinion because it’s a great wealth to have. So I’m glad that I did read them but I wouldn’t go to the library and pick up Tolstoy.

[Both laugh]

LH: So at the time you really felt the things that you were reading that was mainly because of the guided reading.

JB: Yes.

LH: And that was all right was it?

JB: Yeah. Later on, once I was married and I did have a lot of spare time when we lived abroad because we didn’t have a television. This was in ‘65 when we moved to Holland and we didn’t have a television. I spent a lot of time learning Dutch because by then I had two young children who would go into nursery school and I would need to be able to sing to them nursery rhymes and so on. So my Dutch is based on nursery rhymes, I can’t discuss with you anything political but I can sing you a nursery rhyme. So a lot of my time there I went to the British Women’s Club Library and picked up paperbacks. Mm … oh… the Poirot series, Agatha Christie, and I read through Agatha Christie like I’d read through Enid Blyton as I was a girl and loved it. You know, my friends would pass them around and, like, ‘Did you read this one?’ And eventually you realise they’re all the same don’t you? So you’d go onto something else. One friend, she read, oh the historical one, Georgette Heyer. So we went through all those. You know, that sort of reading. Again, because we’d not got a television and because you did have time; you’re in at nights, you’ve got children.

LH: Yes, so you read.

So from what you’re saying, it’s interesting actually, because there are kind of two parallel tracks of reading; there is sort of the Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer track which is, you give me the sense, I think light, pure enjoyment and then there’s the guided reading that you didn’t choose but you did quite willingly really and enjoyed them.

JB: Absolutely.

LH: So did you ever begin to choose those sorts of books for yourself as you…

JB: Well I’m back to the stage of not having a lot of time. So, I read in bed at night, I read on the bus if I go into town on the bus which I often do, I never drive into town, I go on the bus. I’ve always got a book in my handbag; that’s why the size is more important than the content.

[Laughs]

Erm, I belong to the reading group. So, yeah.

LH: Yeah. So do you feel that the roots of what you read now were set way back then? I mean do you remember books that you read as a young adult, for whatever reason, that really made an impression on you?

JB: The Good Earth.

LH: Ah, right, yes. It was quite poignant wasn’t it? What do you remember about that?

JB: Yes. Mmm, how basic it was and how precious; I think, she had, he gave her two pearls and took them away again. She had twins I think,; was that The Good Earth?

LH: Do you know I can’t remember it now.

JB: Pearl Buck. I think it’s this poor farmer and his wife and I mean they have many wives, as many wives as they need to till the land, you know, more children sort of thing. And it was so different and yet, you know, her feelings. It was a bit like Shakespeare, you know, it’s universal. It fits everybody doesn’t it? In very different circumstances but it’s a person.  I remember that. That kind of set me off. I enjoyed that.

LH: Were there any other Pearl Buck? Did you read…

JB: The Bondmaid, and again that was aunt Lil’s. I can see the book now but the sticker in it said ‘Boots Lending Library’ with a line through it, you know, sixpence or something. [Pause]

LH: She was quite an influence on you then really, wasn’t she? So, you didn’t ever feel that people discouraged you from reading?

JB: Oh no.

LH: Did they positively encourage you?

JB: Yeah. But the library in Woodhouse was a great influence because they had a story hour for children in a lovely part of the building; there was a fire place, benches and a carpet and you could sit there and listen to stories. That was in the children’s library. And… that… I probably shouldn’t say, I found that quite middle class. And it was good to have something that could teach you something and lift you.

LH: Right, so did you see books as having that role…do you think?

JB: A lot of my friends didn’t have books.

LH: Right. So for you books had that role of perhaps lifting you as you say. From what do you think? Were you conscious of that feeling?

JB: I think homes with books in them had a different feel.

LH: Right. What was there feeling do you think? What was that difference?

JB: I think, for me you were aware of an outside. Erm, not just so concerned with the immediate.

LH: Right so books took you, took people somewhere else; outside of your own lives you think?

JB: Yeah.

LH: Broaden people’s scope?

JB: Yeah. One of the ladders for social mobility.

LH: Yes. Did your mother use books for that reason as well do you think?

JB: She enjoyed reading. She used to choose, I don’t think I ever read any, she used to choose books by Naomi Jacobs.

LH: Right, and you didn’t choose to read her books then did you?

JB: No. But thinking about it now I can remember my mum asking ‘Have you got any more Naomi Jacobs?’ Funnily enough our youngest daughter is Naomi, we called her Naomi. I don’t think there’s any connection; I just realised that.

LH: So you didn’t read any Naomi Jacobs?

JB: No, I don’t think I ever read any but I might have a look now. See what she was reading, yes.

[Both laugh]

LH: So it’s interesting actually, listening to what you say because reading is an entertainment but it’s also something else. For you it was very much an education as well wasn’t it?

JB: Yes, yeah.

LH: Giving another aspect of, of the world really. So, in terms of your reading back then, do you think that it’s given you any different view of the world? Has it, had reading changed you in any way?

JB: I think it makes you aware, doesn’t it? Reading, mm, takes you into different situations; it puts different questions, scenarios before you. I also think it’s good for empathy with other people. I think very often if you read, just as if you write something, if you have a problem and you write it down it helps you to sort it out. Which I think the role is that prayer has, if you put something  before somebody else really it’s like writing it down, you’re seeing it for what it really is rather than from a subjective point of view in a way.

LH: Right, and are books like that?

JB: Yes. I think if you read of other people’s situations you can see your situations alongside. And it’s just learning isn’t it? … Not just fact but also emotionally as well. And I very often now close a book and think ‘I don’t want to read that’. If I’ve not got into a book by the time I’ve got to Handsworth church I very often shut it.

[Both Laugh]

And if it’s for the reading group I’ll say ‘Well I got to page 16’. You know, because I don’t want to know about… whatever it is they’re doing.  So I am a selective reader.

[Laugh]

LH: You are – ultimate choice to close it.

JB: It passed the test, it got me through Darnall. You know, we get on the 52 bus route so you’re always well off reading really. Very often I’ve said ‘no’ and closed it before I’ve got to Darnall.

[Both laugh]

LH: Darnall is your acid test.

JB: I’d rather get through, you know watch [didn’t hear]

[Both laugh]

LH: So, I suppose finally then, do you think you would have been a different person if you hadn’t read? How has reading … influenced and changed your life?

JB: I think because of the person I am I would have found some way of reading. It would have been harder. So, if my aunt Lil hadn’t had all those wonderful books, and some of them are in there today. And if my mum hadn’t taken me to the library as a little girl, while she was choosing her books, you know. I would still have gone because I’m me, so I would still have gone to do my research from school and I would still have joined the reading group and got great joy from it. I would have still read and got the books from the British Women’s Club in the Hague. But perhaps a bit later on. I was lucky, you know, I had a family that gave me books and encouraged me to read. And I do think it’s a great wealth to be able to read and enjoy literature.

LH: Indeed. That’s a fantastic place to finish, I think. That reading is a ‘great wealth’.

JB: It is, it is.

LH: That’s brilliant. Thank you very much. Thank you for that Julia.

 

 

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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