Chris F

Chris F

Chris was born in Whirlowdale, Sheffield in 1939.

He is being interviewed by Liz Hawkins on the 1st February 2012.

 Liz Hawkins: Chris was born in 1939, in the Whirlowdale area of Sheffield. So is that all right Chris?

Chris Farris: That’s fine.

LH: And you lived in Sheffield between 1945 and 1965 even though, as you say, you were in boarding school at the time.

CF: I was away for a lot of the time.

LH: Yes, so Sheffield was still your home.

CF: Oh, Sheffield was home, always was.

LH: So you qualify for our interviewee status. So first of all, in terms of reading, did anyone read to you when you were very young? Is that when your reading started?

CF: Do you know, I don’t remember being read to as a small boy, I’m sure I was.  But it was the usual Winnie the Pooh books from an early age they were going-; Allison Uttley was another name, little grey rabbit wasn’t it, Alison Uttley?

LH: Beatrix Potter?

CF: Beatrix Potter of course, yes. So the traditional books were always around.

LH: Yes. And who would have read to you, especially if you went to boarding school, presumably people didn’t read to you.

CF: Oh, no, they didn’t at school  … but at home. I have a sister who is quite a bit older and she used to read when I was, not when I was a baby but when I was a few years old.

LH: Yes, yes. That’s right. So, what were the first books, looking on a bit further now, what do you think the first books were that you began to read when you felt you were reading adult books for the first time?

CF: Mm… Enid Blyton certainly. Mm, yes I read a lot of Enid Blyton. The Fives books, and the Island of Adventure and that series of them which I remember from my school days.

LH: Yes so that was when you were still a child of course. So as you got a bit older ad began to feel that you were a bit more grown up, what kind of books did you begin read then?

CF: I suppose after that, mm … I would have … read Enid Blyton up to early teens. I say early teens, 11 or 12 maybe … Billy Bunter featured fairly strongly in my reading … so the, the, Frank, oh golly what was his surname? Senior moment! Frank Richards, Frank Richards, so I read a lot of Bunter books; and Tom Merry was the other one also written by Frank Richards but under a different name whose name also escapes me at the moment.

Mm …  about school boys so they would be teenagers. Apart from Billy Bunter and Tom Merry, Teddy Lester was another one, I can’t remember who the author was of that but Teddy Lester’s school days I do remember. So … that sort of book.

Funnily enough we used to get books as Christmas presents from quite an early age. One of my father’s business partners, I never met him in my life, used to send books to my brother and my sister and myself every Christmas and I got books that I would never have even thought of buying as a result of that.

LH: Right, so why did he send you … why did that person buy you presents …

CF: I don’t know, probably looking for business.

[Both laugh]

LH: Rather than the bottle of whiskey!

So what sort of books were they?

CF: Again … well … well they were obviously different ages, I was the youngest by quite a lot of the three kids so I always got the one for the youngest child. They were adventure books of one sort or another.

LH: Yes, yes. So you read those and looked forward to having them …

CF: I read those and looked at books the others had. I remember one of them that my sister got, she being the oldest, which I did read probably in my teens. It was the life of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury which I found very nice and gory at the time, I enjoyed it.

LH: So are you looking for something adventurous or gory were you?

CF: Yes.

LH: And when you became a young adult, it’s interesting that as children obviously people buy books for us but did you go to the library at the time when you were a child?

CF: I never recall actually going to a library because we had an enormous number of books at home.

LH: So your parents read?

CF: Which my parents had. I’m rather like my father, once you get a book you never throw it away. So I mean we have a dining room full of books, we have an upstairs full of books and I read really a lot of the books that we had there.

LH: Right.

CF: Detective stories in particular. Agatha Christie, I guess one starts on but then in to Ngaio Marsh and Carter Dickson and Dickson Carr and you know …

LH: Yeah, yeah. So they were the books that your parents will have been reading as well.

CF: Yeah, yeah. The one that I started reading, the author I started reading, not a detective one but who I think is probably my overall favourite author which I started reading having seen the film of A Town Like Alice –

LH: Ah yes, Nevil Shute.

CF: Nevil Shute, yes and I got all the books and I, oh about every five or six years I start again at the beginning. I re-read a lot of old favourites.

LH: Oh really?

CF: Yes.

LH: What is it about Nevil Shute that you particularly like?

CF: Very gentle stories and … er… believable.

LH: Right, and set in believable contexts. Right, right fantastic.

CF: Yes.

LH: So did, well I mean, presumably you were encouraged to read as a, as a young boy.

CF: I can’t remember my parents actually saying ‘now then my boy you need to read’ but the means of doing it was there.

LH: Yes.

CF: And I always have read in bed. I don’t sit down and never did sit down in the middle of the day with a book very often. It tended to be reading for an hour or half an hour before going to sleep.

LH: Yes, yes. So do you remember being discouraged to read then? You say you didn’t read in the day, did it feel as if it was something that would have felt it was a waste of time perhaps?

CF: No, no. I certainly, no one has ever discouraged me from reading but I always enjoyed it. The other thing I did which I guess I did when I was about fifteen or sixteen, I joined a book club, a Companion Book Club. Which you got a book a month, you didn’t get any choice in those days, you got the book that they sent you. I’ve still got them all. Five bob a month it was and you finished up with a novel you probably would never have read otherwise.

LH: Right, and what kinds of books did come through the post.

CF: Oh there were a lot from popular authors, there was quite a lot of Alistair McLean. HMS Ulysses, I guess was the first one I ever bought, from the companion book club and that set me off on his books. I tend to find an author that I like and then go through those books.

LH: Right, so you particularly like adventure stories still?

CF: Yes, yes, I always have done. Mm, I like the swash-buckling sort as well, C S Forester, Hornblower. And I’ve got all the Alexander Kent books, but I mean I didn’t read those in those days because they weren’t written but the Hornblower was written I guess when I was younger. I used to enjoy those.

LH: Right, so you get very attached to an author by the sounds of it.

CF: I do actually yes. Says he, I, I smile at this because I’ve just found … what are they called … the book shop? Is it? the book shop? Online.

LH: Amazon you mean?

CF: Not Amazon, no its the book … oh, The Book People. The Book People, have you not found them?

LH: No …

CF: Oh go online, The Book People. I’ve just bought all the, the Morse books. What-not Dexter. Mm, I think there are fifteen books and they’re about fifteen quid for the whole lot.

LH: Good God, are they brand new?

CF: Brand new. Remarkable value.

LH: It’s interesting actually because all the way from five bob a week you wanted to latch into a source of books that were somehow a bit distant really. Did you go into book shops?

CF: Now and again. I have to say most of our books tend to have been bought at airports on the way to …

[Laughs]

CF: I can’t pass books without buying them but I don’t go into bookshops that often, no.

LH: So, as a teenager then, going back to the stuff that you read, it was mainly adventure; you said Nevil Shute. Did you read any of what would be considered the classics?

CF: Oh no. No I don’t think I did.

LH: Didn’t touch those?

CF: Although funnily enough I was looking at the Companion Book Clubs just to see who the authors were because, you know, memory fades after time. And there was one about the life of Elizabeth the First, so there was a little bit of culture there.

LH: Right.

[Laughs]

CF: But on the whole I have to say it’s the land of make-believe in most of my reading.

LH: Swash buckling make-believe!

CF: Yes. The other ones that I, in my teenage, that I read quite a lot of, Dennis Wheatley because the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were pages 27 and 28 and if you opened the book they were well-thumbed.

[Laughs]

The other one that I read and I have to say I still read, it really is the land of make-believe, Dornford Yates? Have you read Dornford Yates?

LH: Yes, I’ve not read any but …

CF: Oh right, yes well I always enjoyed his books. My father had a great collection and I sort of worked my way from one end to the other.

LH: Yes. On the … my colleague Mary has given us a list here of, of different sort of types and genres of books and in the adventure list here’s Dornford Yates in fact and Dennis Wheatley and Jack London. Did you ever read any …?

CF: Never read Jack London, no. The other one actually funnily enough I was looking through the book shelf this morning just to remind myself of what I read; Leslie Charteris was the same, was very popular in those days. I mean these are before the days of television when he was on the telly; it was when he was just an author. I enjoyed all those books.

LH: That’s fantastic. Do you think any of those authors or books made a particular impression on you? You sound as if Nevil Shute may have…

CF: Nevil Shute made a particular impression, I have to say C S Forester as well, Horn blower books.

LH: Right, yeah. And it’s interesting that you say that you now re-read books because one of the things we’re interested in is are there books that you read then that you wouldn’t dream of going back to now or do you think they are still all open season for you?

CF: I think they are mainly open season…

LH: Right, not the Billy Bunters?

CF: I’ve read them to my grandson. I’ve tried to get my grandsons involved but I have to say, modern boys are very difficult to get to read because they’ve all got their little widgets that they play with and watch television the whole time. It was books like Billy Bunter and like Enid Blyton that got me reading and I think got my generation reading. And in fact my kids’ generation, they read a lot more than their children do.

LH: Yes, like this generation, yes. Maybe they will find their own things that they’ll, that will latch them into reading.

CF: I hope so because … mm … they will finish up as thickies if they don’t read.

[laugh]

CF: They will, they have a terribly limited outlook on life.

LH: They will be able to use play stations though and do all sorts of technological things instead perhaps.

CF: No, I do despair a little because with the modern exam system and the way that kids don’t read in our days we shall finish up with children with very narrow horizons.

LH: Mmm, because as you say you have rooms full of books and there are still endless books out there that you still have to read. … You were talking about the kind of salacious kind of aspect of the Dennis Wheatley books. Was reading ever a sort of guilty pleasure that you read under the sheets at night so that your parents wouldn’t know what you were reading?

CF: I don’t think we had anything kind of sufficiently salacious. All the books that I read were out of book shelves at home.

LH: Ah right, yes. It was only when you went to school.

CF: Its only when one goes away to school that you er…

LH: You find the Dennis Wheatleys and so on … [Laughs]

So I suppose did you ever feel that you were being encouraged by maybe teachers at school to read as an improvement, to improve yourself. In a way the point you were making about your grandchildren and that perhaps you won’t be improved in that way, did you see it as a, were you led to see it as an improving thing?

CF: Well, we had books that we were studying and that we had to read. And funnily enough I can remember well the … the books that at the age of about 13 when I went away to public school that we had to read and thinking ‘Oh God these are heavy going’. But I’ve read them again since and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think there is a difference when you actually have to read them and be questioned on them…

LH: Like what?

CF: Oh Golly, erm.

LH: Like Jane Austen or Dickens?

CF: Oh no, no, no. Golly, senior moment. …  Darkness at Noon was one, Arthur Koestler.

LH: Oh yes, Arthur Koestler.

CF: Was one, which … I was probably about 14 when we did that. And there was another one about Scotland, the Scottish wars … whose name escapes me now but I’ve read since and thoroughly enjoyed.

LH: You thoroughly enjoyed that, yes. So really the improving ones were the books that came from school and coursework at school. Actually they do say that some authors don’t like to be on course lists because they feel that could be the death of their book, you know. Which I think is probably the case isn’t it really? Yes.

So what age were you when you left school then Chris?

CF: I was 18.

LH: Right so you did A Levels separately at the school and went onto university. Which university did you go to?

CF: Cambridge.

LH: Oh right, so you did engineering there did you? Then came back and …

CF: Came back and settled down to working life after that.

LH: In Sheffield [laughs]. Yes.

And you carried on, you carried on reading then by the sounds of it.

CF: Oh yes. In …mm … books that we bought after we got married because I didn’t inherit a whole lot of books until my father died so that was quite a lot later. But we always had quite a big library of our own because we both enjoyed reading and we bought, you know if we saw a book we liked the look of we bought it. I mean all the James Bond ones, the Wilbur Smiths came along, Jackie [not clear what is meant]  and …  all the sort of post war authors.

LH: Yes. So what other ones have you got on your list there?

CF: Who else have I got on my list? Jackie, …who haven’t we…Hammond Innes, I’ve mentioned him already haven’t I?

LH: I don’t think you have actually Hammond Innes …

CF: Oh I said H M S Ulysses, he was the first of the book club ones.

LH: Oh yes you did.

CF: So I got all his. Mm … Russell Thorndike, have you come across him?

LH: No I haven’t.

CF: Dr. Syn. S-Y-N that is. Who is a vicar, it’s sort of 1700s and a vicar comes, sort of brigand you know, his alter ego is a smuggler and all sorts. Fascinating book. Nicholas Monsarrat is another one I enjoy reading again; we’ve got several of his.

LH: Right so you … it’s interesting that the trend you set up for yourself is that you don’t just read one book from the author but once you read one book by the author you wanted to read the …

CF: If I find an author I like. It’s not just reading one from the author, if I find a book I like I’ll latch on and keep going.

LH: Right. So would you say, it’s kind of almost a biggish question to end up with really. Would you say that reading has changed your life?

[Pause]

CF: Mm, well I suppose if reading … the fact that one reads books gets your used to reading newspapers and periodicals and other bits of information. Then obviously it widens one’s horizons, you know, so that in terms of being in quiz teams, you know one has a reasonable breadth of knowledge.

LH: [Laughs] A chance of winning the bottle of beer at the end.

CF: A chance of winning something. I like to think that as a result of reading we’re reasonably knowledgeable about a lot of things.

LH: And so, conversely, is that why you might be worried that young people today might not be reading enough?

CF: I think young people today have much narrower horizons in terms of what goes on around them.

LH: Right, you don’t think technology has replaced some of that knowledge?

[Pause]

CF: Er … I don’t know. It’s brought other areas of knowledge and I think the sort of little bits of information that we pick up about everything and anything they may not pick up in the same way?

LH: Right. And clearly books have been so important in your life that you can’t imagine one without.

CF: Oh I can’t. No. I was given a Kindle for Christmas, which I won’t say I’m struggling with. I’m quite enjoying so I suppose that counts as a book.

LH: [Laughs] That counts as a thousand books I think.

CF: [Laughs] Well I haven’t loaded it up because the ones that you get free are not necessarily the books that I want to read anyway. On the basis that I find looking for a specific author and I find they don’t come free. It’s quite handy though I guess for taking on holiday. The one thing I’m not too keen on, you can’t, well I haven’t found a way of flipping from looking back 27 pages to find what went before.

LH: There will be a way.

CF: I’m sure there will.

LH: There will be.

CF: I’m not very technological.

LH: I have a friend who just also got a kindle and took it on holiday with her and thought it was marvellous. A particular facility she liked is that if you come across a word where you think ‘Now what does that exactly mean?’ you can look it up. On Screen, you can click on it and it comes up with a thesaurus explanation.

CF: Oh right, I better read the instructions. [Laughs]

LH: [Laughs] Yes, that is a good place to start.

CF: If all else fails then read the instructions.

LH: Well thank you very much for that. I don’t know if there is anything you want to add but I feel like I’ve got a very full picture of your…

CF: I don’t think so. I haven’t read much that is erm … very erudite. It’s reading for entertainment. I’ve read the occasional biography but not very often.

LH: No. And reading for entertainment is the way it started off before the entertainment of the other stuff like television and technology and so it wasn’t to become clever, it was to enjoy. And would you say that is what it was for you…

CF: Um, to take you away into a land of make believe.

LH: Even if it’s the Dennis Wheatley land of make believe.

CF: Oh yeah. The Dornford Yates one is much more my cup of tea.

LH: Oh is it? [Laughs] Your favourite.

CF: Well with Rolls Royces and servants you know. A land to which I aspire.

LH: Your haven’t mentioned P G Woodhouse.

CF: I never read much P G Woodhouse. We had a great length of them and I regret it and unfortunately when my father died my sister nicked all the P G  Woodhouse. So I, I have a few and have enjoyed them.

LH: So that’s the first of the uploading onto your kindle then? [Laughs]

CF: Do you know now there’s a thought, yes, because I was wondering who should I upload and …

LH: Well, there’s a start then.

CF: I’m half way through Great Expectations. I never really read Dickens. I had to do Dickens at schools but I read Nicholas Nickleby  recently and I’m reading Great Expectations now.

LH: So you’re becoming erudite in later years.

CF: I don’t know, no. I’m getting to the stage where I can’t remember what I’ve read before, one book will do me through the rest of my life if I’m not careful.

LH: You’d just keep re-reading and never know the difference.

So all in all which is your absolute favourite then, do you think? Which author would you say?

CF: Oh I think Nevil Shute has to be.

LH: Right. And on that note I will say thank you very much and turn my machine off.

 

Recent Posts

In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.

Brightside

Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  

Upperthorpe

The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   

Conclusion

I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.


[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

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