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

Romer Wilson: Remembering Sheffield’s Forgotten Novelist

Part One

By Val Hewson

The writer Romer Wilson, born in Sheffield in 1891, is now almost forgotten. Her name appears in a few databases and blogs, and she has brief Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia entries. A novelist who also wrote short stories, verse and a play, and an anthologist of tales for children, she was generally well regarded in her lifetime. She seems, however, to have received almost no critical attention since her early death in 1930. We found her, by chance, through her father, Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909), whose name came up in our research into Sheffield Libraries.

Our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, has posted an article about Romer Wilson’s novel, Latterday Symphony (Nonesuch Press, London, 1927), here. We are researching her life, and while there is much to discover, we know enough to offer a good introduction to Sheffield’s forgotten novelist.    

The first thing to know is that ‘Romer Wilson’ is not her name. On official records, Romer Wilson is Florence Roma Muir Wilson, eldest child of Arnold and Amy Letitia Muir Wilson. On her marriage, she became Florence Roma Muir O’Brien. According to correspondence archived at Girton College, Cambridge, her friends called her, not Florence, a popular name of the time, but Roma. Why Roma we cannot know, but it is interesting that her parents visited Rome on their honeymoon. Romer and Roma, invented and real, pen-name and given name. Perhaps Roma felt that Romer, which could so easily be a man’s name, would be an advantage in her career. (Indeed, critics did occasionally assume that they were reviewing the work of a man.)

Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield, where Romer Wilson was born

‘A dark old manor house on the edge of the moors just outside Sheffield’ was Romer Wilson’s home for most of her childhood, until it was sold on the death of her father in 1909.[i] This was Whiteley Wood Hall, a 17th century house with Victorian additions, stables and extensive grounds, in Fulwood, a suburb in south-west Sheffield. Romer was born on Saturday 26 December 1891 in Parkholme, a much smaller suburban villa in Collegiate Crescent, in the desirable Broomhall area just outside the town centre.[ii] Her father, on the way up in the world, bought the Hall in 1893, when she was about two years old, for somewhere between £7,000 and £9,000 (a sum beyond the imaginings of most Sheffield residents at the time). The Hall had important historical associations: Thomas Boulsover (1705 – 1788), the inventor of Sheffield Plate, and Samuel Plimsoll MP (1824 – 1898), famous for the Plimsoll line on ships, had both lived there. The house was demolished in 1959, with the grounds and outbuildings becoming a Girlguiding outdoor activity centre. Today all around is park and common land, well-used and easily accessible. Its relative remoteness in Romer’s day perhaps contributed to her depictions of wild, even hostile moorland in her books, Greenlow (Collins, London, 1927) and All Alone: The Life and Private History of Emily Jane Bronte (Chatto & Windus, London, 1928), from where this quotation comes:

West and north and south the moors hang above the West Riding of Yorkshire. They rise up bleak and black and brooding, a thousand feet, two thousand feet above the valleys. Empty and silent, without trees or lakes, without wide rivers, without grand impressive mountains, they roll away from this world.

All Alone (Introduction to Haworth – A Journey from To-Day)

Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, built 1662 by Alexandra Ashton, demolished 1959. Stood in its own woods, commanding a view over the Porter Valley. Home of Thomas Boulsover, inventor of Sheffield Plate, who died here in 1788, and Samuel Plimsoll
Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, Fulwood, Sheffield. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield (www.picturesheffield.com). Ref no: y01697

Dark, remote and ancient Whiteley Wood Hall may have been, but Romer and her younger sister Natalie (born in 1893) and brother Leslie (born in 1899) had a privileged childhood. There were servants, parties and fetes, holidays abroad, chauffeur-driven motor cars, outings to the theatre, music lessons and private education.    

This comfortable life was due to the efforts of her father, Arnold Muir Wilson. A remarkably frank obituary said of him:

… at all times a theatrical personality. … Self-made, frank almost to the point of brutal bluntness to friend and foe, assertive and dauntless, relentless as a sleuthhound in business, with a boundless capacity for work and an astonishing capacity for turning unlikely circumstances to his own advantage. … a want of self-control, an almost reckless impulsiveness of action and a disregard … for the feelings of others. … one could never definitely conclude that Mr Muir Wilson had any clear creed or abstract principle, or that he was seriously in earnest … gossipy … in private he was a good fellow and an entertaining companion …

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Monday 4 October 1909
Councillor Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909)
Arnold Muir Wilson. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield (www.picturesheffield.com). Ref. no. y08151.

Wilson was in many ways the classic Victorian success story. He was a prominent solicitor and a Conservative councillor for over 20 years, with Parliamentary ambitions. He had started in trade, helping out as a child in his father’s barber shop on Snig Hill in the town centre. The Wilsons evidently prospered, opening various new businesses, and in time Wilson switched from trade to profession, thus rising up a social class or two. We know little of his education (other than a period in Germany), but his professional training was through Clifford’s Inn, where he won prizes.[iii] He opened his own law firm and was much in demand. He had business interests too, owning property, land and a share in Sheffield’s newest theatre, the Lyceum. He even contrived an appointment as honorary consul for Serbia in 1898, which presumably appealed to both his vanity and his eye for an opportunity.

Around 1906, however, Wilson fell ill, consulting a ‘brain specialist’. His illness seemed to exacerbate an already volatile character. He attacked a magistrate in court, for which he had to issue a public apology. When a by-election was called in Attercliffe in 1909, dismayed not to be chosen as the Conservative candidate, he stood as an independent but lost and promptly took the official Conservative candidate to court, alleging assault and damage. The case was dismissed. After this, Wilson’s health declined further, and he went abroad, saying he would never return alive. He was right: he had a complete breakdown in Vancouver and died soon after in hospital. His body was brought back to Sheffield and quietly buried in the General Cemetery. ‘Never, probably, was a man who had played so prominent a part in public life buried in so private a manner,’ said the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Monday 25 October 1909). He left almost £50,000, mostly in trust for his family, and instructed that his property, including Whiteley Wood Hall, be sold. His wife and children evidently moved to a smaller property nearby.   

Around this time, Romer was coming to the end of her schooldays. She had been privately educated until she was 15, when she was sent to West Heath, a boarding school in Richmond on Thames, for four years.[iv] After that, in 1911 she went up to Girton College, Cambridge to read law.[v] Socially this was apparently a happy time, with Romer making many friends including the economic historian, Eileen Power (1889 – 1940), social reformer Margery Spring Rice (1887 – 1970) and the novelist Emily (‘Topsy’) Coursolles Jones (1883 – 1966), who seems as forgotten as Romer herself. Academically, she was less happy: she spoke of ‘considerable boredom’ and passed her exams ‘with mediocre honours’ in 1914. A tutor suggested she do some writing, and she started by producing ‘rubbish for a typewritten private magazine’.

This then was the beginning of Romer Wilson’s literary career. There’s a suggestion of the accidental about it: a young woman doing a little writing to occupy her time in between social activities. She did not need to work after all. Or did the tutor’s suggestion accord with a wish of her own? At all events, she was soon working feverishly on a novel, against the background of war.

Part Two of Romer Wilson’s story will follow shortly.


[i] Quoted, but not attributed, in the entry on Romer Wilson in the Dictionary of National Biography.  

[ii] Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, is now owned by Sheffield Hallam University.

[iii] Clifford’s Inn was one of the Inns of Chancery to which all solicitors belonged before the 20th century.

[iv] A more famous pupil, many years later, was Lady Diana Spencer.

[v] Law was an interesting choice. Was it a tribute to her father? No woman was allowed to practise law in the UK until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, five years after Romer finished her university course.

  1. How did your Nan cook Christmas dinner? 1 Reply
  2. Chris Hopkins’ Reading Journey, part 2: Milly-Molly-Mandy, a Giant Reading Cushion, and a Book Sale Leave a reply
  3. Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol 4 Replies
  4. An Appetite to Read Leave a reply
  5. Any Bread, Cake or Pie?: Walter Greenwood’s Hungry Thirties Leave a reply
  6. Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘the Period of Soya Beans and Basic English’(Part 2) 2 Replies
  7. Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘My Last Case of Claret’ (Part 1) Leave a reply
  8. Wodehouse Serves Up A Feast 2 Replies
  9. Pineapple Chunks and Sardines 3 Replies