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?

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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.

 

 

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Pineapple Chunks and Sardines

By Val Hewson

On a school trip to London, when I was about 17, we stayed overnight in a boarding school. The dormitory was just as all the stories described: small cubicles, curtains to divide them, narrow beds and small lockers. We smuggled in, not food, but a bottle of wine. Well, we were pretty grown up, you know. Not so grown up, however, that we remembered a corkscrew. (Here’s a tip: you can dig out a cork with a nail file, but it’s a messy, slow business so don’t try it unless you have to.) The next morning, some of us smuggled the empty bottle out and disposed of it in a bin on the Underground, while others distracted our teacher. Looking back, I wonder if she knew all about it and was kind enough not to say anything.

This was the closest I ever got to a midnight feast. It has been fun to read about them again for Heritage Open Days 2021 and Edible England.

Food is often mentioned in the classic school story. Noisy dining rooms with teachers or prefects serving the meal from the head of the table; going out for lunch or a picnic with parents at half-term; tuckboxes filled with goodies; teashops in town on half-holiday; muffins toasted over the fire in your study; scrumptious teas with the visiting lacrosse team you’ve just thrashed; Frühstück, Mittagessen and Abendessen in the trilingual Chalet School; and of course midnight feasts.

Enid Blyton’s feasts are typical. Here is an example from her St Clare’s series (which I enjoyed reading for the first time in over fifty years for this blog):

‘Let’s have a midnight feast!’ said Pat, suddenly. ‘… I don’t know why food tastes so much nicer in the middle of the night than in the daytime, but it does!’ … ‘Each girl had better bring one thing – a cake – or ginger beer – or chocolate.’

The most lavish contribution was Kathleen’s! She brought a really marvellous cake, with almond icing all over it, and pink and yellow sugar roses on the top.

‘Golly! Pork pie and chocolate cake, sardines and Nestlé’s milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger beer!’ said Janet. ‘Talk about a feast!’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

The midnight feast in repeated in most of the novels in the St Clare’s series. Blyton varies the theme: sausages fried on an oil stove; a summer feast by the outdoor pool, with a swim first; theft from the cupboard where the goodies are stored; and the French teacher, Mam’zelle, encountering a sleepwalker, locking up three girls under the impression that they are burglars and failing completely to spot the actual feast.

Blyton clearly enjoys this: the girls contributing biscuits, cakes, sausages and at least one elaborate cake from a tuck-box or the baker’s in town; choosing a venue far away from any teachers’ rooms; secreting everything away in handy cupboards; setting the alarm clock and putting it under someone’s pillow; creeping around in the dark to avoid waking those who are not invited; narrow escapes from discovery and even being caught out.

The food the girls enjoy so much is always the same: sardines and tinned pineapple and biscuits and sausages and cakes frosted with sugar rosettes on top and pork pies and Nestlé’s milk and prawns and ginger beer and chocolate.

Feeling queasy? Well, dear reader, I wrote the list deliberately:

‘Look – take a bite of a sardine sandwich, and then a bite of a pork pie, and then a spoonful of Nestlé’s milk,’ said Pat. ‘It tastes gorgeous.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

Unsurprisingly, some of the girls feel ill the next day:

Matron had some most disgusting medicine. She dosed the girls generously and they groaned when she made them lick the spoon round. … ‘I know these symptoms,’ said Matron. ‘You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 9

The girls do not, however, learn this lesson at least. In The Second Form at St Clare’s (1944):

They ate everything. Carlotta even ate sardines and pineapple together. Alison tried prawns dipped in ginger beer, which Pat and Isabel said were ‘simply super’, but they made her feel sick taken that way. However, the others didn’t mind, and mixed all the food together with surprising results.

‘Nobody would dream that sardines pressed into gingerbread cake would taste so nice,’ said Janet.

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

When two girls are sent to Matron the next day for refusing breakfast and dinner, Matron is not fooled:

‘You are both suffering from Too-Much-To-Eat. A dose of medicine will soon put that right.’

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

The food all seems typical of the period and place (mid-20th century Britain): tinned fruit, tinned fish, fruit cake with icing and ‘lashings of ginger beer’, as Blyton’s Famous Five would put it. It makes the adult stomach curdle but it is one of Blyton’s favourite jokes, calculated to make schoolgirls of the time long for a midnight feast and groan in sympathy at the visit to Matron the next day. 

It’s not, however, just about indigestible combinations of favourite foods. For some poorer readers, the quantity and range of the food described must have been unimaginable. And there is no reference to rationing, even though the St Clare’s series was written and published during World War Two. Perhaps Enid Blyton chose to shield her readers, or was reminding them of happier times (unlike Elinor M Brent-Dyer with her Chalet School in the Austrian Tyrol). In reality, when the twins arrived at St Clare’s, sugar, meat, fats, bacon, and some tinned foods were all rationed and a wartime midnight feast would have been a poor thing.

Leaving aside the fun, midnight feasts are one of the ways in which the girls’ characters are formed in Blyton’s books, along with games, lessons, exams, classroom tricks, plays and concerts, parental visits and more. Her St Clare’s is a ‘sensible,’ single-sex boarding school, priding itself on bringing out the best in its girls. The series starts with the arrival of Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, aged about 13, and follows them and their class from the first form to the fifth (that is, from the age of 13 to 17, or so). The sequence is incomplete, however, with three books set in the first form, and one each in the second, fourth and fifth. What happened, you wonder, to the third and sixth forms? After Fifth Formers of St Clare’s (1945), we hear no more of Pat, Isabel and their friends. Enid Blyton starts the similar but arguably more polished, 6-book Malory Towers series (1946-51). Its main character, Darrell Rivers, is a stronger, more convincing character than the two-dimensional and often absent from the action Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan.

The St Clare’s novels follow the familiar path of school stories. They start at the beginning of the term or year, with old friends re-uniting and a few new girls, or maybe a teacher, to generate plot. The newcomers have difficulty adjusting, or an established pupil gets into trouble. By the end of the term, some girls will have settled, accepted by the school community, while others will not come up to the St Clare’s standard and leave. (In a way, it’s survival of the fittest.) Mischief is accepted:

‘…at some time or another most schoolgirls attend a midnight feast! Do not take too serious a view of it!’

‘In my school days such a thing was not even thought of!’ said Mam’zelle. ‘Ah, we knew how to work, we French girls!’

‘But did you know how to play, Mam’zelle?’ said Miss Theobald softly.

Enid Blyton, The O’Sullivan Twins (1942), chapter 6.

Cheating, stealing, not owning up, pride, malice, bullying, silliness and excessive interest in one’s appearance, however, are generally condemned, by both staff and girls. Being straightforward, honest and honourable are the St Clare’s way. (Foreign students, of course, find this difficult – the French girl, Claudine, is sceptical of the English sense of honour:

‘You English girls, you are so serious and solemn and so very, very honourable. The good Miss Theobald, she said to me this morning that one thing I must take back to France with me , one only – the sense of honour.’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 30.

By the fifth form, however, Claudine is beginning to respect the code. To the adult and/or the 21st century reader, the school’s judgements on failure to live up to expectations seem harsh but Blyton’s is a strict moral universe.

‘You are a hard and spiteful woman,’ went on Miss Theobald’s solemn voice [to a temporary Matron who has been unkind to her own children]. ‘This boy and girl need help and comfort, but they would never get it from you!’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 22.

‘[Prudence] has a lot of lessons to learn in life,’ said Miss Roberts, seriously. ‘She has been taught a very big one here, and has learnt for the first time to see herself as she really is – and for two or three weeks she has to undergo the ordeal of knowing that others see her as she is, too. Ah, well – I don’t know how she will turn out. She’s a problem – and I’m glad I haven’t got to solve it!’

Enid Blyton, Summer Term at St Clare’s (1943), chapter 20.

The people I know who went to boarding schools generally hated them, and have memories of poor food, strict discipline and even a sub-standard education. Pineapple chunks and sardines are just a lovely dream.

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