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

Val’s Reading Journey: Word Games

Another instalment of my reading journey, in which I confess my affection for dictionaries and grammar books.

Forty years ago, I was a student at the University of Leeds, studying Latin and French. I was, then as now, rarely without a book in my hand and a spare in my bag: set texts and academic studies for my courses and novels for fun. With all that, it intrigues me that I have very clear memories of the reference books I used. I even feel affection for them.

The Parkinson Building

On most Saturday mornings back then, I would be found in the Brotherton Library. I used to climb the white stone steps into the Parkinson Building, cross the court to the library entrance with its creaky turnstiles, and walk into the main reading room. Turning sharp left, I went upstairs to the gallery, where Classics was shelved. The main undergraduate library was then the South Library, long renamed the Edward Boyle. But I always preferred the Brotherton, opened in 1936 and since 1950 peacefully hidden behind the Parkinson.

hic haec hoc
hunc hanc hoc
huius huius huius
huic huic huic
hoc hac hoc

I came to the Brotherton to work on my Latin prose. Every Friday we got a passage of English to turn into Latin – something philosophical, a political speech or maybe military history. Burke, Locke, Gibbon, Macaulay are the names that come to mind. I think there may also have been occasional old leaders from the Times. Writings by women never featured. Whoever the author was, I would in theory have done a rough draft at home on the Friday afternoon. Saturday morning in the Brotherton was for polishing, looking up words and phrases in Lewis and Short, and checking out, say, the optative subjunctive in Bradley’s Arnold or, if I was desperate, in the small print of Gildersleeve and Lodge. These are, respectively, a Latin dictionary and two grammar books. I have my copies still, shelved about six feet away from the sofa where I am typing this.

Written in 1867 by the grandly named Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) and revised by him and Gonzalez Lodge (1863-1942) in 1895.

These books are always known not by their titles but by their authors. Our prose tutor never mentioned Bradley’s Arnold, quoting instead from Mountford. We were all mystified, and it was only by chance, halfway through the term, that we found out he meant Bradley’s Arnold all along. Theologian Thomas Kerchever Arnold (1800-1853) wrote it in 1839. Then, you see, George Granville Bradley (1821-1903), Master of Marlborough, later master of University College, Oxford and Dean of Westminster, revised it in 1885. Finally, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Liverpool, Sir James Mountford (1897-1979), revised it again in 1938. Impressive chaps.  

Mountford’s Bradley’s Arnold

Ut, Ne, Introducing a Noun Clause: One of the main difficulties in translating English into Latin is to know when to represent the English infinitive by a Latin infinitive, and when to use  a subordinate clause containing a finite verb. (Bradley’s Arnold, para. 117, p.83)

As well as these august publications, I found that I still relied on my school books: Latin Sentence and Idiom (1948) and Mentor (1938) by schoolmaster R A Colebourn. Comfortingly familiar, they were a gift from my Latin teacher when I left school. ‘In memoria temporum beatissimorum cum benigna tua magistra’ (‘remembering the happiest of times with your kind teacher’), she wrote inside the cover. Why I don’t have Civis Romanus, the companion book to Mentor, I just don’t understand. (Mem to self: check Abebooks).

Two more books on my shelves are Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (1888) and Meissner’s Latin Phrase Book. I never liked Kennedy much but it is the book perhaps most often associated with learning Latin. It turns out that it was not written by schoolmaster Benjamin Hall Kennedy (1804 – 1889) but by his daughters Marion and Julia and two of his former students. The Phrase Book is an English translation by H W Auden, a master at Fettes College, from the original German by Carl Meissner (1830-1900), and my battered copy dates from 1924. It helpfully runs from the philosophical to the practical.

Choice – Doubt – Scruple: unus mihi restat scrupulus (one thing still makes me hesitate) (p.83)

Victory – Triumph: victoria multo sanguine ac vulneribus stetit (the victory was very dearly bought) (p.269)

The king of all dictionaries was Lewis & Short, first published in 1879. I never knew until now that Short lived down to his name: he supplied only the letter A and Lewis did the other 25. At first I used one of the Brotherton’s copies but in 1981 I got my own. In a medieval Latin exam we were allowed to take in our dictionaries and, while the Latin of the Middle Ages is not difficult after you’ve done Cicero or Virgil, I carried in all 2.7 kg of my Lewis & Short, just for the pleasure of having it on the desk. ‘Really?’ said my Latin tutor, eyeing it up as we started. 

The Brotherton Library naturally had a set of Loebs, those blessed books with the Latin or Greek text and the English translation side by side. Red covers for Latin and green for Greek. The translations were often pedestrian but so very useful when you got stuck. The older editions of the naughtier poets are said to have passages translated into French, rather than English, presumably on the grounds that if you understand French, you must be pretty immoral anyway. 

Unbound – and hard to keep in good condition

Being happiest with dead languages, I also studied Old French and Old English. In Old French, it’s really the texts I remember: unbound and uncut editions of the Arthurian romances of Chrétien de Troyes from the French publisher Champion. ‘The idea,’ said my supervisor, ‘is that you get them bound yourself.’ A pause. ‘I always have my own books bound in episcopal purple.’

Cil qui fist d’Erec et d’Enide,
Et les comandements d’Ovide
Et l’art d’amors an roman mist
Et le mors de l’espaule fist
Del roi Marc et d’Yseut la blonde
Et de la hupe et de l’aronde
Et del rossignol la muance,
Un novel conte rancomance
(Cligès by Chrétien de Troyes, ll. 1-8)[i]

(I did have to look up a couple of words in my Larousse Dictionnaire d’Ancien Français to translate this quotation just now.)

For Old English, it’s all about Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer and his Anglo-Saxon Reader. Henry Sweet (1845-1912) was a philologist said to have been an inspiration for Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins.

Ælfred kyning hateð gretan Wǣrferð biscep his wordum luflice ond freondlice; ond ðe cyðan hate ðǣt me com swiðe oft on gemynd, hwelce wiotan iu wǣron giond Angelcynn, ǣgðer ge godcundra hada ge woruldcundra… (King Alfred, On the State of Learning in England, Anglo-Saxon Reader, p. 4)[ii]

I also have a little book, An Outline of Old English Grammar (1976), especially written for Leeds’ English students. ‘Old English is a fairly fully inflected language,’ it starts. Quite.

Eth, thorn and ash – letters lost between the Anglo-Saxons and us

I don’t know if Sweet, Kennedy, Bradley’s Arnold and the rest are still standard texts. Perhaps they are somewhere. Dead languages don’t change. But the way of teaching them may well have. Mountford, Sweet and the rest are, well, a little dry and can seem almost as old as the texts they teach. The books I relied on may therefore by now have been carried down into the Brotherton’s stacks. Forty years ago, for me they unlocked epics, romances, speeches, philosophy and histories.

A few years ago, when I needed access to a university library, I travelled back to Leeds, to the Brotherton, to get a graduate library membership. I walked from the railway station, along Park Row, across the Headrow, past the Town Hall and the Central Library on the left, and up Woodhouse Lane to the university. Then up the Parkinson steps, across the court and into the reading room. I could see many differences. In my day, there was usually a porter on duty at the turnstiles, and now of course there were computer terminals everywhere, and they seemed to have moved the Classics books. But much was as I remembered: the huge circular room with wooden tables radiating outwards like spokes, the dome supported by green marble columns and, at the centre, wonderful Art Deco lighting known, I learn, as an electrolier. As I arranged my ticket, I mentioned to the librarian that I used to do my Latin prose in the Brotherton most Saturday mornings. ‘Welcome home,’ she said to me, as she handed me my new ticket.

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[i] He who wrote of Erec and Enide, he who translated the commands of Ovid and the Art of Love, he who wrote of the shoulder bite. of King Mark and the fair Yseult and of the transformation of the hoopoe, the swallow and the nightingale, he is starting a new story…

[ii] King Alfred orders greetings to Bishop Waerferth with his words in love and friendship. I want you to know that very often I think what wise men there used to be throughout England, both in the church and out in the world…

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