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.

 

 

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Janice’s Reading Journey

Janice Maskort was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 2000 and 2010, and still lives in the city. She was born in Orkney and grew up in Kent. Janice worked for Kent County Libraries for several years, including in Maidstone, Rochester and Canterbury, until her move to Sheffield. Reading has been a pleasure, a mainstay, a need all her life.

Here Janice describes the beginning of her reading journey.  

Janice as a young child

I was reading long before school. I will never forget the moment when I realised that I could read. I was in church with my father and the hymn was All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I knew. Turning my hymn book round (I was holding it upside down), I realised that the black marks were the words! I was so excited I climbed on the pew and shouted, ‘Daddy, I can read!’ The Presbyterian congregation did not appreciate my joyful interruption, and I was smacked and went without pudding at lunch. I was so thrilled that I didn’t care and went round the house looking for print to practise on. As a librarian I was always moved when a child learned to read whilst in the library. It was like finding the key to a magic kingdom.

My parents were both serious readers and regular public library users. My mother was also a member of Boots Booklovers’ Library, which was in walking distance. Going to the ‘proper’ library entailed a long bus journey. Once my father bought a car, however, trips to the public library were easier.

There was a reasonable collection of books at home but very little children’s literature. I was always begging my many aunts and uncles for books as birthday or Christmas presents. As my mother was one of ten children and my father one of four, I did pretty well. In those days children often received postal orders as presents and if I could prevent my mother from appropriating the money for new shoes, I was able to buy a book. One Christmas my aunt in Canada sent me Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, but this was an edition all in pictures with truncated text. I adored it and was very disappointed when my father bought me the original version. I missed the illustrations.

The copy of Heidi bought by Janice’s father

I could not have survived without the library. I could always read at great speed; it is genetic and my daughter inherited the skill. Even then though the library was frustrating. We were only allowed three books at a time and I had read them all in the first 24 hours. Then a whole week before the next visit! Being able to read so fast was a blessing and a curse as my daughter also discovered. No teacher would believe me when I said I had finished the set book on the first day and I was always being surreptitiously tested. Eventually a new headmistress recognised my genuine distress at being accused of lying and told the staff that I could have access to all the books in the classroom. In later years I found myself trying to explain the ability to my daughter’s teachers.

My parents who were strict in some ways were remarkably liberal about reading and I was allowed to read anything. The only book my mother ever censored was a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. I still have no idea why. I have never subscribed to the theory that children should only read ‘age-appropriate’ material. I had browsed The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Kama Sutra before I was eleven. I only understood what I knew and ignored the rest. My mother asked me one day what the Kama Sutra was about. She had no idea what it was. I remember saying that it was very strange but had a chapter on flower arranging (as it has). Neither she nor I had any idea why my father laughed so much!

My father did get exasperated at my constant questions about unfamiliar words and introduced me to the dictionary. I found it helpful but also frustrating as each definition seemed to require another one and I often felt I was going round in circles. He gave me an atlas as well but when I couldn’t find Narnia, I decided it wasn’t very helpful. One day he arrived home with an old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. This kept me going for a whole summer. I read all the stories first, then history and mythology. I ignored most of the ‘informative’ sections but do remember lace-making in Nottingham, dress-making pins from Sheffield and shoes in Leicester.

As a child I suffered badly from bronchial asthma and in the winter, not helped by the awful fogs and coal fires of the period, I was often off school for weeks. This did little for my maths; I seemed to miss the introduction of long division or whatever. However I could read in bed. I preferred my mother’s choice of books from the library. She often took Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. My father brought The Last of the Mohicans and Wind in the Willows (which I never liked). But Dad also gave me David Copperfield, which began a lifelong love of Charles Dickens. There were lots of books for boys too, but I found all the stories of saving the empire and killing natives both boring and upsetting. I didn’t mind stories about animals as long as there were no killing sprees. My father, who often went abroad for work, did give me travel books and I adored Farley Mowat’s book about the Inuit people.

Rumpelstiltskin, from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (ca. 1889)

Original illustration from David Copperfield

Original illustration from David Copperfield

I was called an imaginative child, but in fact all children are. I lived my characters. If I was told off, I was Marie Antoinette in a tumbril or Mary Queen of Scots on the block. Like many children, I found comfort and solace in my literary companions.

When I was ten, I won a national painting competition. We had to paint ‘the most exciting place in the world.’ I was the only child to paint a library.  I won an enormous box of Reeves paints but was also allowed to choose a book. I opted for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and my father was disappointed, as he wanted me to pick something sensible like Woodworking Tips for Boys. I still have my prize book.

My sister Rebecca and I began classifying our own books early on. Well, I did, and she enjoyed stamping them out to our dolls. To this day I wonder why we classified Ballet Shoes as ‘E7’. It’s as incomprehensible as the Library of Congress classification scheme.

Not all of my large, extended family approved of my addiction to books. When I was diagnosed with severe myopia, at the age of ten, my poor mother often faced a chorus of ‘Well, we told you she would go blind’. I remember, in her defence, saying to one great aunt that sewing also made one go blind and told her about French nuns ruining their eyes making lace. She looked at me and said ‘Well, we don’t need to worry about your reaching that level of expertise.’ This was unfair because I can sew, but her embroidery was exquisite.

Orkney was an important influence. My mother was Orcadian, as am I, and in my childhood we went there every year. We visited lots of relatives and I was allowed access to all their books. There were a lot of Victorian ‘prize books’ and I read many moralistic tales in which daughters saved their fathers from intemperance and nursed dying siblings. Later on I did my dissertation on the impact of prize books as a major source of reading material in isolated and poor communities. This is probably where my love of Victorian and Edwardian literature began, although my mother’s admiration for Mrs Henry Wood might also have been a factor. She and I often intoned ‘Gone! And never called me mother!’[i]

Some of Janice’s collection of prize books

Orkney has a strong oral tradition so I experienced stories long before I could read. Language is powerful and its cadences and rhythms communicate so much. As a librarian I was passionate about telling or reading stories to children. For example, I have worked with children with severe learning difficulties and have never failed to engage with them through stories. And on another occasion, when I visited Africa for work, I followed a story-telling session. The children all knew and loved the story. I couldn’t understand a word but heard the build-up and the repetition of phrases. I was gripped. When we reached the denouement, I fell off my chair, which made the little ones laugh. While I didn’t understand the words, I felt the power of the story.

 

[i] This famous line is in fact not from Mrs Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, but from the stage adaptations.

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