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

Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

Mary was born in 1923. She has lived all her life in the suburbs to the west of Sheffield, far from the smoke of the factories in the east side of the city where her father worked as an industrial chemist. There were books in the house and it was her sister who read them to her before she could read herself.

Mother seemed to be too busy. Father would read after Sunday lunch until he fell asleep but my sister was the one who read to me. She was two and half years older and she would always read to me when I was little.

And this was despite being taunted by the tiny Mary when she was reading. ‘Reader reader!’ was the insult hurled to drag her sister back into her world to pay her some attention. She left her brother alone with his Beanos. Though reading was encouraged, the chores came first. Then the girls could retreat to their bedroom where Mary’s sister read to her.

Mary and her sister on Bridlington sands in 1927. Mary on the right.

Bedtime was reading-time for ‘the children’s books of the day’. First there were nursery rhyme books followed by Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and the stories of Mabel Lucie Attwell. As a school girl she treasured What Katy Did and the Girl’s Own annuals she was given at Christmas. None of these books was borrowed. All came into the house as gifts because the children were not taken to the library and were certainly not allowed to go on their own: ‘we weren’t allowed out of the end of the road you know’. But the family nevertheless encouraged reading. ‘Oh yes that was our main means of entertainment. Going to the cinema and reading’.

On Sunday we always had the roast lunch, Sunday lunch time and the fire would be [lit] … they were biggish houses down on Westwood Road. And we always read after Sunday lunch. We had lots of armchairs and that is where we always read. Mother, my sister and I – I don’t think my brother did.

One Christmas Mary’s father bought his two daughters the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, about 12 volumes.’That was our greatest source of delight. We learnt everything we knew.’ When Mary took her first independent steps to find books, it was on behalf of her mother. In 1939, having just left school, Mary was living at home and waiting to be called up.

So I used to go to the library for mother and she liked Mary Burchell, Ethel M Dell. And I used to go to the local Red Circle library … and I’d get some books for her when you paid tuppence a time to join and I would read very light romances. I always felt guilty because, you know, you didn’t read those kind of things then.

When an Ethel M Dell got a little ‘spicy’, Mary would read it hidden under the bedclothes by the light of her torch. Later on Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind would also be read by torchlight.

Mary went to a fee-paying convent school. The nuns were interested in poetry, ‘gentle things’. ‘Poetry was the great thing. Poetry, singing, music.’ So like the children at Sheffield’s elementary schools, Mary and her contemporaries learned a lot of poetry off by heart. But not much else. ‘They were the happiest years of my life but I didn’t learn much! But that’s me, a lot of them did’ so The Red Circle Library on the Moor was the institution from which she ‘graduated’ –  to the Central Library which was to become her ‘greatest delight’. Until she couldn’t walk, Mary went there every fortnight: ‘I loved it’.

Mary looks back in amusement at the thrills she and her mother got from the romantic novels of Ethel M Dell and E M Hull. ‘They got as far as the bedroom door, “and then the door closed”, and that was it.’ She also enjoyed the cowboy books of Zane Grey. ‘It was war days, very dull days and you escaped, as you do now. You escape into another world when you read.’

But her choices from the Central Library were more serious and ‘gritty’: Nevil Shute, Alan Sillitoe, A J Cronin, Howard Spring, H E Bates and John Braine. The novel by H E Bates she remembers is The Purple Plain, describing the survival of three men in Japanese-occupied Burma. Though Bates is more usually associated with his rural novels about the rollicking Larkin family, Mary preferred the ‘stronger’ war novel to the more ‘frivoty’ Darling Buds of May. She also became a serious reader of historical novels. She and her sister shared a taste for Anya Seton. ‘I realised that I liked history far more than I ever did when I was at school.’ When Sue, the history teacher who was interviewing Mary, commented that this didn’t say much for the teachers who taught her, Mary acknowledged this but defends them.

Nuns, you know – bless ‘em, they were lovely, it was a lovely school but I don’t think I learnt a lot. As I say, the war was coming up and it was a very bad time. I left in 1939 as the war started and it broke into anything you were going to do.

Mary was called to serve in the NAAFI shop in a detention camp ‘for the fliers who had flipped their tops a bit with their terrible job. And they were sent to us for three weeks and they used to pile into my shop. Quite an exciting time’, so there was not much reading.

When Mary became a mother, she was on her own with her first baby because her husband was away a lot. It was difficult to travel down to the Central Library with the baby so, in the early 1950s, Mary returned to using a twopenny library in a newsagent’s shop at the bottom of her road. Both this and another she used were simply a couple of shelves full of novels but the stock must have changed regularly because she always found something to read in the evenings when she had ‘got the baby down’.

She was quite discriminating about the degrees of seriousness she would go for. She was absorbed by Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild but was never attracted to adventure books. Though John Braine was depressing ,his books were well written. She never developed a taste for ‘Galsworthy – the heavier ones’. She definitely ruled out ‘these great novels where it starts with, “She’s the kitchen maid, terrible hard life…” You know very well she is going to marry the Lord of the Manor!’

While Mary is enthusiastic about the authors she loves, like P G Wodehouse, she is absolute in her condemnations too.

I did not [with emphasis] like American books. I still don’t. I think it is the language. . . .  It’s not so much the swearing, it’s the style.

Mary shared a love of reading with her husband but when the children were small, it was the cinema that was the greatest treat. It was a pleasure they shared but not in each other’s company.

Well when we lived down Carter Knowle Road, I mustn’t keep you but when Andrew was a baby I would get him washed or whatever and then run all the way to the Abbeydale and watch the first house and run all the way back and then David would have got Andrew to bed and then he would go to the second house.

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Mary is clearly open to any suggestion about what she might read. She described the taste that her husband had for Dickens and asked Sue whether or not we had found that Dickens is more of a man’s book.

Sue: I do like Dickens. He is my favourite.

Mary: Do you really? I should have given him a go, shouldn’t I? Given him a go. I think it is a bit too late now.

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