Christine M

Christine M

Christine was born on 4th November 1940.

Christine is being interviewed by Peter Watson on 12th March 2013

[NB see pen portrait for important additional information about access to books and favourite books]

christine-markham-abbeydale-grange-school-age-14-years-

Peter Watson:  What I want to do to start is to ask about when you were a very small child. Did anyone read to you?

Christine M:  Not that I can remember. Not at all. My father would be away the entire time I grew up, in the army. And I can’t remember anyone ever reading to me.

Peter Watson:  Was your mother working?

Christine M:  No. She looked after me.

PW:  When did you actually start to read, then?

CM:  You’ve started with a difficult question here. The first thing I can remember was at school. Things like Enid Blyton and Treasure Island particularly. That was the first thing that really caught my eye.

PW:  Did you have any reading schemes [at school] at all?

CM:  No. It just happened!

PW:  So, Robert Louis Stevenson, Enid Blyton.

CM:  Yes, I suppose the first influence at this stage was teachers reading to us and getting us interested in books. Maybe I’m doing my mother a disservice. Maybe she did read to me; I just can’t remember it.

PW:  That’s interesting. So did you own any books at home?

CM:  Yes, yes. Again, I’ve been thinking about this and the only books we owned were in the bookcase that was full of my father’s books and they were of the ‘Great Short Stories’ type: Great Short Stories of the World and Dashiell – Dashiell Hammett. Things like that – they were in a bookcase. As I grew up, I was encouraged to read them, although I wasn’t reading them at the age of five or six. Those are the books I remember seeing in the house.

PW:  So a fair mix of books, then?

CM:  Oh, yes. The other thing I can remember. My sister was nine years older than me. I can remember a boyfriend of the time bringing me one of these annuals – Stories for Girls annuals.

PW:  Was this a Christmas gift?

CM:  I think he was trying to curry favour with my sister. It was just a gift. And it was secondhand!

PW:  Did it work?

CM:  No! [both laugh] We didn’t buy books at that stage. It was during the war, and just after.

PW:  Well they weren’t available, were they?

CM:  Presumably not, no. I can remember later when I was getting on a bit, about eight or nine, I won a school prize. The teacher gave me a book, but it was a secondhand book.  It was one of her books. The prize was a secondhand book! So you didn’t buy books then, well, not in my experience.

PW:  Were you using a library at that stage?

CM:  I did start going down to Central Children’s Library but I think I was older, I think it was when I wanted to be independent when I was eleven or twelve. In those days I don’t think my mother would have let me go into town on my own.

PW:  So which books made the most impression on you?

CM:  To start with, Enid Blyton.

So what was good about Enid Blyton?

CM: Exciting. Different. A different world.

PW: Yes, the pace is good, isn’t it?

CM: Yes, and then after that it must have been Anne of Green Gables. That was the prize. So the teacher must have been reading it to us, and that was in my final year at junior school, ten or eleven. Those were the books, yeah, at that sort of age.

PW: Did you read any non-fiction books?

CM: Not that I can remember. No. From that I went on to the Chalet School books. That was the stage at which we used to buy books. We used to go into Andrews and a treat would be for me to save my pocket money, so I did collect all the earlier Chalet School books.

PW: It must have taken you quite a while to save up. I think I got sixpence a week pocket money.

CM: Yes, oh yes. It wouldn’t have been much. I think I used to take my mum in and she used to help me out. So they were always considered a luxury. Well, perhaps they weren’t very well off, I don’t know. They certainly didn’t spend money on books.

PW: So what was her attitude to what you were reading? Did she direct you towards anything? Or …

CM: I can’t ever remember my mother having any direct influence on my reading at all. My father, yes. But not my mother.

PW: So your father was away during the war?

CM: Yes, he came back in ’45.

PW: So you must have hardly known him.

CM: Yes.

PW: It must have been quite a shock.

CM: Yes. More for him than me, I think!

PW: So, you were saying that he had an idea of what you should and shouldn’t read?

CM: He would push me towards these classics that were in the bookcase: the Wilkie Collins and that type of thing, which probably was a little bit old for my age group.

PW: Yes, thinking about ten or eleven – Wilkie Collins – some of the constructions would be quite difficult, and the themes – quite adult.

CM: Oh yes.

PW: So they weren’t worried about you reading adult books?

CM: No. My mother was very worried about me being top of the class at school. She didn’t really go further than that; that I can remember.

PW: So she didn’t make the connection between reading and being top of the class?

CM: No.

PW: Because obviously the more you read … So they had high expectations of you?

CM: Yes, yes, very much. To a limited degree, yes.

PW: Did you buy secondhand books as well as new ones?

CM: No. It was always new. I didn’t even know there were secondhand bookshops.

CM: No. We had something called The Children’s Newspaper.

PW: Yes! Arthur Mee!

CM: Yes, that was again my father’s influence. I was interested in writing stories, so he encouraged me to enter competitions.

PW: So did you enter competitions in The Children’s Newspaper?

CM: Yes. It was a short story competition and I got an ‘honourable mention’.

PW: Obviously some parents didn’t think comics were a good idea, so I can see which direction of your father’s interest with The Children’s Newspaper. So your father thought, by implication, that reading was a good idea, because you’ll know, as a [former] librarian that some parents see reading as anti-social.

CM: My father and my mother were very different characters. My father was a musician, and always reading and doing crosswords and my mother thought that that was not a very good idea for a girl, maybe.

PW: Were there books that you read that you thought ‘oh, this is rubbish’?

CM: I struggled a bit with some of the classics that my father wanted me to read. Left to myself, I went through the entire Chalet School like a dose of salts. That’s the thing that really comes over to me – the Chalet School books.

PW: Looking at the authors we’ve got down here [in prompt notes], looking at the adventure stories, they all look like boys’ books. Edgar Rice Burroughs – did you ever read the Tarzan books?

CM: No.

PW: John Buchan?

CM: Yes, I must have read The Thirty-Nine Steps.

PW: Did you like thrillers? What sort of books did you move on to from school stories?

CM: I actually moved into war stories. The next influence, once I left junior school – I went to Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar School – and I can remember that we had a cupboard of books, a class library, and there were things in that like Kipps [by H G Wells], which stands out. The things I can remember were, well I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and I won form prizes and we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forrester’s The Good Shepherd. And then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader, but I’m still reading The Chalet School. Later on I remember someone saying to me ‘you read a lot of this bloodthirsty stuff!’

PW: Have you carried on reading war memoirs?

CM: Not really. I tend to read crime now. But that’s pretty bloodthirsty isn’t it?

PW: Thinking about books that have had a deeper effect on you. Can you think of any books you’ve read that have affected you politically, or what you’ve done in life?

CM: Oh, it’s the war stories. I’m a convinced pacifist. I think war is absolutely stupid.

PW: Had you family lost anyone in the First World War for instance?

CM: No. My uncle was in the First World War and he was deaf afterwards. I’ve started researching the history of what he was doing now but at the time he was just someone who was deaf and my father came back from the war and didn’t really talk about it.

PW: So what did he think about the books you were reading? And did he have the same sort of reaction?

CM: I think he thought I was a bit of a leftie because by the time I was eighteen-nineteen I’d already joined CND. Although he enjoyed his books he was, well he voted Conservative, so we diverged.

PW:Talking about CND, were there any books you read. Did you read any Bertrand Russell?

CM: Not that I can remember. By that time I was in libraries and taking the exams. I started when I was 16. The first professional exam was a four-part thing and one part was Literature, so again I had to read things like Charlotte Bronte. This was part of the librarianship thing. Again I was pushed into reading certain books. Again it was Victorian novelists. You’ve not got time to do anything else! That’s what I would be reading.

PW: Did your work in the library tend to influence what you were reading?

CM: Again I got hooked on light reading. Certainly Georgette Heyer. I got through all of those and I think Lucilla Andrews, who wrote about doctors and nurses and I got through those as well.

PW: They’re just a relaxation, aren’t they? Did you know anything about medicine?

CM: Oh, no. They’re very light. They don’t have any operations! But the background’s there.

PW: I suppose it’s like crime books – they vary tremendously in the depth as far as  procedure you get.

CM: Yes,

PW: Which do you prefer?

CM: I go more for the detective solving the crime. Some of them are too violent. The Scarpetta ones. They can be quite violent. Too gruesome.

PW: Yes, some of the Jo Nesbo’s are too depressing for words.

Peter Robinson?

CM: Yes, and Ian Rankin. I really rate him.

PW: John Harvey?

CM: No.

PW: Are you interested in the social aspects of crime?

CM: Not really, no. It’s trying to work out ‘whodunit’ and get there.

PW: Finding time to read. Have you never found that a problem?

CM: Well, because over the years I’ve studied [for] so many different exams and had to be tied in to what they wanted to read and had children. A full time job; two children and I was studying first for a degree in and then for a master’s, so I hadn’t really got much time.

PW: Open University?

CM: Open University. Six years Open University. Then two years’ day release up in Leeds studying for a master’s in librarianship. So I can’t remember picking up anything, although the Open University I did the novel course so obviously again I had to plough through Dickens and Hardy.

PW: So the entire history of the novel?

CM: Well, it was Victorian novels.

PW: You seem to have been constantly pushed in that direction.

CM: Yes, yes. I can’t say I always liked them, but yes.

PW: Reading habits. Do you tend to take books with you wherever you go?

CM: Yes. I’m afraid I’ve got a Kindle now as well because we go to France and I used to take ten books in the car – and now I get the Kindle, sit in the garden in France and bingo!

PW: So you’re a big fan?

CM: I still prefer a book. I only take the Kindle when we go away and when you’re in France it saves you, well you have to take books with you because it’s difficult to find English books in France. You run out. I know we shouldn’t use Amazon, but … and books in France are expensive. I can read French reasonably well and I’ve looked at buying French paperbacks but they were 16 Euros. Well, that’s ridiculous!

PW: Looking back, it seems to me that you had this interest in light literature and then you’re having to read and awful lot for these examinations. So you’d have been doing  examinations for about 20 years?

CM: We started the first professional when I was seventeen; then it went on to the registration. I did opt in and out to twenty-five. Then I had a gap: ’65 to ’75 where I had kids. And to be honest I couldn’t afford the Open University fees. From ’76 until way into the ’80s I was doing six years of the Open University and two years of master’s. So there was a big chunk out of my life there as well.

PW: So what were you reading when you were doing the MA?

CM: Absolutely nothing. It was full-on. I got day release. I was sponsored by Sheffield Libraries very, very good. It was one day which was a full day up in Leeds and then the first year you had one and a half modules to do and in the second year I pushed two modules into one year. It was just impossible to do anything else.

PW: Now that you’ve retired, what do you tend to read now? Apart from crime.

CM: Apart from crime – history.

PW: Local history?

CM: No. Well, I worked in a local history library. I worked all over the place!

PW: When you were working in the local history library, when you were shelving did you think ‘oh, I’d quite like to read that’?

CM: The one thing I did get involved with; I don’t know the author. You know – The First Day of the Somme.

PW: Martin Middlebrook?

CM: Somebody else wrote a novel. John Harris. He was a reporter on the Telegraph at one time.

PW: Oh yes, he was. He wrote the famous one about the war in the air in the First World War. You were helping him, were you?

CM: Oh no. I just found it in the stack.

PW: Going back to the history you read at the moment.

CM: I’m quite interested in Victorian painting. So I’ve read one or two books about that.

PM: The Rosettis, that sort of thing?

CM: Yes. And Paxman’s written some books about the Victorians. At the moment, believe it or not I’m reading something edited by Colin Firth, you know, the actor. Yes, it surprised me, and it surprised me about how left-wing he must be. He and some historians have collected the writings of people who fought against the establishment going way, way back. So anti-slavery and , er. So I’m half-way through that. It’s called Let The People Speak]. He did a stage production of it in 2010.

PW: My favourite book about [the history of] Sheffield is Sheffield Troublemakers. Do you know that?

CM: Oh, yes, yes. There’s someone I know called Mike West in that.

PW: Do you think that your own political views have been formed by what you like to read of history?

CM: Oh yes. Do you know John O’Farrell? Things Can Only Get Better? He stood as a [parliamentary] candidate in the recent election at Eastleigh [in Hampshire in 2013; the byelection triggered by Chris Huhne MP’s imprisonment; O’Farrell was the Labour candidate]. This was a book he wrote about the time when the Labour Party was in the wilderness, going up to getting back into power with Blair. It’s brilliant. Very good, that.

PW: We seem to have covered your reading pretty well. Is there anything else you think we should mention?

CM: The other thing we should mention is that after I left libraries I went to work in a children’s bookshop and I’ve only just retired from working in a children’s bookshop.

PW:  And how long did you spend in the children’s bookshop?

CM: Ten years. I saw this job, which just happened to be paid and thought ‘that’s my sort of thing’. It coincided with me getting my own grandchildren and I only worked two mornings a week. When I left work I said I would do something on a voluntary basis and I saw this job which actually happened to be paid.

One of my favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It’s an early Raymond Briggs. Do you know that?

PW: No. I suppose you’re familiar with Beatrix Potter. Is that the sort of thing you’d buy for your grandchildren?

CM: No. One of my favourites is The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. And Peepo!

PW: Oh, yes, the Ahlbergs!

CM: Again, it’s got a war theme in it. When you see the father, he’s wearing a uniform. That’s what I bought for my grandchildren. What I recommended to people – although I didn’t buy it for my grandchildren – was Helen Cooper’s Pumpkin Soup. It’s ideal for Halloween, it’s all orangey and pumpkinny.

PW: So you’ve had a tremendous amount to do with books from a professional side, as well as being a keen reader yourself.

CM: Yes, yes.

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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