James Green

James Green

Jim was born on 27th April 1936 in Darnall, Sheffield.

He is being interviewed by Jean Gilmour.

james-green-3

Jean Gilmous: Okay Jim, thanks for doing this. So what I just want you do is just talk a little bit about your experience of reading, from your earliest memories of reading when you were a child, what kind of things you read etcetera. Do you remember the first books that you read when you were a child?

James Green:  Vaguely. I remember vividly going with my mum and dad to local library, and coming back with picture books, and they’d come back obviously with adult books. And even though I couldn’t really read at that stage, we used to sit on a Saturday night in particular when my dad was at home, they’d be reading books and I’d be pretending to be reading.

james green reading Sheffield outside Attercliffe Free library Sheffield

Jean G: [laughs] You were pretending to be reading because … you felt that’s what they expected of you?

JG: That’s what, yeah.

Jean G: But clearly it’s something that’s left quite a memory.

JG: Oh yeah, yeah.

Jean G: So books were very much a part of family life?

JG: We didn’t have bookshelves and loads and loads of books, but we did use the public library a lot. Which was quite close to us.

Jean G: So do you – were there certain times you went to the library? It was a regular outing to go to the local library?

JG: Yeah, reasonably regular, and I remember my mum used to use the Red Circle library at Darnall, which you actually paid, you know. It must have been a profit making organisation, because she used to pay tuppence or whatever. And she used to use that quite regular.

Jean G: Do you remember the first time that you actually read books that were more stories, rather than picture books?

JG: Oh yeah, yeah. The first book I can remember is someone at Christmas bought me an omnibus. Three of the books that were in this one book, that I can remember, were Robinson Crusoe, Little Women, the others are a bit vague … But I remember … Oh, Gulliver’s Travels. I can’t remember the other two.

Jean G: So why do you think you remember those particular ones?

JG: Because it was my own book, probably the first book I’d really owned You could go through it and you could go through it again, and so it was with me for quite a long time. And at that stage, I probably wasn’t all that good at reading, so it’d take me a long time, and it was quite a hefty book.

Jean G: And have you any idea how old you were, when you were reading these?

JG: I think I must be somewhere around seven.

Jean G:  Around seven.

JG: Hmmm.

Jean G:  So we’re talking about the early fifties aren’t we, ’53 …?

JG: No no, no no, I were seven, I were … 1943. Yeah. I’d be seven in ’43.

Jean G:  And do you remember whether they were the full book? Say, Robinson Crusoe – do you think it was the whole book? Or do you think it was a shortened version?

JG: I think it must’ve been an abridged version. I have read it since, again. But I think that particular time, it must’ve been abridged. Because I mean … I didn’t think at the time, when I were reading it, but thinking back, all the five books that were in this omnibus, on their own if you buy an unabridged copy, is quite hefty. The idea of a seven year old hefting five books around like that… no. So it must’ve been abridged, I think.

Jean G:  I was going to say to you, when do you feel you read your first adult book, but in fact they were pretty adult.

JG: They were pretty adult, yeah. But of course, Robinson Crusoe to a kid at seven on a desert island is an adventure book, isn’t it really?

Jean G: Yes, very much so.

JG: I mean that was a favourite of all the ones that were in it. I think Gulliver’s Travels at that time were a bit over the top of my head.

Jean G:  And you mentioned Little Women, were you reading … Do you think you were aware in those days of the distinction between what you may later have seen as boys’ stories and girls’ stories?

JG: Erm… no, not at the time. Not at the time I didn’t.

JeanG:  Hmm. Yes, that’s good, that’s really interesting. So when you … you seem to be quite a precocious reader at seven, to be reading  stories like that, so was there a time when you became aware that you were reading more as an adult, rather than as a child?

JG: Well this was wartime, and [big pause] I must have been precocious, again – I never thought about it before, but I must’ve been pretty precocious, because my dad used to come home from work with that day’s paper, which obviously was always … The headlines was always how the war was going. And used to put maps in, like you see on Dad’s Army, where this arrow was going this way. And I can remember reading – and I was interested, I weren’t just reading for the sake of it – because I wanted to know. I didn’t realise how serious all this was, because I’ve never known really much else, except we were at war. But I used to read the Daily Express front page. Well the war ended in 1945, so I couldn’t have been – I mean I were nine then, but I must’ve been reading it at minimum an eight year old.

JeanG:  So you were also at that time reading adventure novels?

JG: Oh yeah, I’d started … I just to be a big fan of Sherlock Holmes, so reading Conan Doyle. And I used to love Just William books, Richmal Crompton… Biggles … I later read an article years and years later that he was actually a fascist, so… [Jim laughs]

Jean G:  But you didn’t know that..

JG: No no, it were just an adventure. Algie, and Biggles and Ginger, very Gung Ho I suppose. Patriotic. Really patriotic weren’t he?

Jean G: Yes. That sort of hit the spot for you as a child?

JG: As a child, yeah.

Jean G:  So where did these books come from during the war? Was this … was the library still active?

JG: Biggles was mainly library, and Richmal Crompton books were mainly out of the library. So that point of view, I must’ve graduated in two to three years from sitting on a settee pretending to read with my mum and dad to actually reading.

james-green-1

attercliff-library

Jean G: Interesting to hear that the libraries were still active, still open.

JG: Yeah, very active.

Jean G:  Yes, very good. So were there any other writers that you remember, particularly from that time?

JG: Erm … Robert Louis Stevenson. I don’t know when I really started reading him, but I went on to Robert Louis Stevenson, which I thought Treasure Island’s one of the best boys adventure stories every written. Kidnapped … I read Bulldog Drummond … who were again a bit of a fascist, I found out later. In fact I only read the other day, it said Bulldog Drummond – it were talking about Sapper – it were a pseudonym for I can’t remember the name – he were a lieutenant colonel retired. So you can guess how he wrote. It was ‘Bulldog Drummond was six foot six (or something) in his stockinged feet, excellent shot … extremely fit, a really good boxer, and as dim as a Toc-H lamp’ [Jim laughs] … Someone taking the mickey out of that type of writing, but when you were a kid, you just read it, don’t you, you know.

Jean G:  Ah, that’s wonderful. So you were reading a mixture of what would’ve been contemporary fiction at the time, and classics – Stevenson would’ve been a –

JG: Classic, yeah.

Jean G:  What about other members of the family? Were they reading similar books?

JG: No. My mum always used to read romances. And my dad’s two favourite authors which you very rarely hear anything about now were Rafael Sabatini, and Jeffery Farnol. And I think, if I remember right, they’re mainly historical novels about French revolution, and you know, that sort of thing.

Jean G:  That’s great. So then as you were getting older, you were getting obviously older, and your reading material probably changed a little bit.

JG: Yeah.

Jean G:  How did you progress from those books, or did you progress from those books?

JG: Yes I think, because I went on to –  I mean I had a great interest in history and I started reading a lot of history books. I also started reading sports literature. I’m talking about Neville Cardus and Parkinson. Parkinson weren’t really writing when I were that sort of age, but that type of writing.

Jean G:  This’ll be when you were at school?

JG: Oh, still at school. And obviously most cricketers, or top notch cricketers, they usually write an autobiography when they retire. So I used to read all those. Football, or soccer. I remember reading about … I mean I talk to my grandkids now and I mention footaballers that I used to look up to and they’ve never even heard of them. But I used to read all of those. So sports, history, biography – I’d started reading some biographies by then.

Jean G:  And how did you choose the biographies that you read? Were they people that you particularly admired?

JG: Admired, or … yeah.

Jean G:  Were you encouraged to read? You were clearly encouraged by your parents as a child, because they used to take you to the library. Was reading whilst you were at school – whether it were the classics, or war stories, or the biographies, the sporting books – were you encouraged by parents and teachers to read or did they feel that it was something that was perhaps – something that was very purely leisure time?

JG: They didn’t push me, my parents, to read. It were just a natural thing. Teachers encouraged you, I mean, they’d probably try and steer you to whatever they thought you ought to be reading at that time. So yeah, I were encouraged at school to read. And best things they ever said to me at school was, ‘right – we’ve got a spare half hour where if you’ve got something to read, read.’ Perfect.

Jean G:  Were there any books that you were reading at that time that could be described as a guilty pleasure? Something that you felt that was perhaps not as … as important as the other books that you were reading? Any pulp fiction kind of books?

JG: Oh I remember at that time, what would I be – coming 13 / 14? – Hank Janson was great … books that you shouldn’t really read, because there was a sex … not sex like, it were really tame, but at that time they were classed as dirty books. And some of the lads used to bring them from home and – ‘oh, look at this! Look at this!’ you know, ‘she slunk in and he caught a glimpse of her thigh’, that sort of stuff. And Hank Janson was a detective who was a bit Mickey Spillane type. And they were considered very very racy. In fact, the teacher would take it off you if he caught you reading one of those.

Jean G: You enjoyed those?

JG: Well actually I don’t know if I did Jean because I don’t they were very well written.

Jean G:  Right. So, where and when would you read at that time? Where would you do your reading and when would you do it?

JG: Any opportunity, really. I’m one of those guys that will read a sauce bottle if there’s nothing else available. Which I get into trouble for even now, for reading at the table.

Jean G:  Were you ever – growing up particularly – were you ever made to feel embarrassed by your reading? That could cover whether you were reading things that perhaps your parents didn’t think you should, or teachers, or maybe you were reading things that your mates thought…

JG: I think some of my mates thought I were a bit weird. Slightly weird. And it followed me through into work because a lot of me workmates thought I were weird, because they used to come in with Daily Mirror, Sun, and I used to come in with Guardian. They thought that were weird.

Jean G:  But you used to come in with books too, with novels?

JG: Oh yeah, yeah.

Jean G:  Biographies, and things like that. Would you feel a bit different to other people?

JG: I did a little bit, yeah.

Jean G: This would be in the steelworks? Working in the Sheffield steelworks.

JG: Sheffield’s steelworks.

Jean G:  And so it wouldn’t be the norm to come in with your lunch and a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson or something?

JG: No, that’d be definitely not normal.

Jean G:  Are there any books that you read when you were young that you wouldn’t dream of reading now, that you look back and think ‘never return to reading that writer’?

JG: Well, Biggles, I think. I’ve more insight – and not just because its a boys… It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there.

Jean G:  Yes.

JG: Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it.

JeanG:  So you look back on those books through a very different lens now.

JG: Yeah, you do.

JeanG: You wouldn’t be recommending those to your grandchildren?

JG: Well – I think – I don’t know when it started, or when I were aware of it, but you started getting writers who condemned that outlook. George Orwell for instance. Very critical of a lot of what we were doing and what we did and critical of this country as a whole.

Jean G:  So do you feel that it was writers such as George Orwell who influenced you into the way that you saw the older books – did it change your politics and the way that you read books in some way?

JG: Well yeah. Erm, I can’t remember all the writers but through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very Gung Ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. God is an Englishman.

Jean G:  Yes. And a lot of that came through your reading as a child?

JG: Yeah

Jean G:  Yes, that’s interesting. Who are the writers who you feel’ve had the greatest influence? Who’ve you admired the most throughout your life?

JG: I like George Orwell. Yeah, I really like George Orwell. Charles Dickens. [Big Pause] Yeah, I think those two stand out for me.

Jean G:  And they’re writers you’ll read again, you’ll re-read, enjoy-

JG: I have re-read them, yes. I’ve read most of their stuff, there’s just a couple of Dickens I haven’t read I think. But Orwell, Road to Wigan Pier – really opened my eyes, you know. Because living as we did, we were living as he were describing, the conditions he was born into. And the first dawnings in my mind were this ain’t right. We shouldn’t be living like this, and we’ve no need to live like this.

Jean G:  And how old would you’ve been when you read Road to Wigan Pier for the first time?

JG: I’d be around 15, 16 I think.

Jean G:  Right, so a very impressionable age.

JG: A very impressionable age, yeah.

Jean G:  Well, I was going to ask – and I think I know the answer to this question – was going to ask you has reading changed your life in some way?

JG: Oh yeah, definitely.

Jean G:  So how would you express that, in what ways would you say it has changed your life?

JG: Well I was such a voracious reader, I read a tremendous – I never stuck onto one type of book. So it gave me a really good general knowledge of everything, and it made me look at things in different ways, and in some respects I think my schooling let me down. Because I think if I’d’ve been taught better, I’d’ve been channelled into the right, you know, ‘try going this way’. But I didn’t – I were just – okay, I could read and write, but I were just like a kid with a big bag of sweets, so I’d be digging in and I’d pull something out and I’d read it – and it might be History of the English Speaking Peoples … I’ve read that, all the way through, about seven volumes!

Jean G: How old were you when you read that?

JG: I were still at school. And that were library. It was a series of books that didn’t get took out a lot…

Jean G: You do surprise me.

JG: In Attercliffe.

Jean G: This was in Attercliffe?

JG: Yeah, Attercliffe. In Attercliffe library. I could go in and I could read volume 1 and 2, and when I devoured them I’d take them back and I’d get volume 3 and 4. I think there were about 7 volumes. That were propaganda, because Winston Churchill was a great believer in the empire. But he … I didn’t like his politics, but as a writer – I don’t think he was a brilliant writer, but he could have a very colourful turn of phrase, his speeches prove.

Jean G:  Yes.

JG: He could use the English language really well. So it really – as a fifteen year old, fourteen year old, it really got your attention.

Jean G: Did you get a few raised eyebrows? I’m thinking about the librarians, this fifteen year old working class lad, in Attercliffe library, coming and reading all these amazing books.

JG: Yeah.

Jean G: Did they?

JG: Well the thing was, they used to turn a blind eye to me, ‘cause at that time, you had a juvenile ticket, you weren’t supposed to go into the adult section, ‘cause there might be some racy books in there that you could pick up. But they used to turn a blind eye. With people like me, who turned up practically every week. I used to actually really look forward to going to the library. And it were a tremendous library, it were a big library. They’ve got loads and loads of stuff in, it weren’t a little… It were a branch library, but even branch libraries in those days were tremendous and if they hadn’t got anything you wanted they’d get it you. They’d say, ‘oh well I’ll order it, and I’ll get it down for next week for you’.

Jean G: And it was well used?

JG: And it was well used, yeah.

Jean G: So did you think it was more the norm for people not only to go to libraries but to read a range of books in those days, do you think it’s just that people buy books more than borrow them from libraries now or is it that they read more in those days?

JG: I think we read more in those days. No television. Radio. But radio, you could only usually listen to radio if everybody wanted to listen to the radio, but even with radio, if your family were listening to music you can read. If you get something that gets your attention, you can read. The radio’s background and television’s sort of in your face so I think that’s one of the reasons that I think we read more. I think I sound a little egotistical here, I think I were an exception. I think I was above and beyond most of the lads. I mean they used to read sort of Biggles, and stuff like that, but History of the English Speaking Peoples? No. [Jim Laughs]. As I said they used to think I were a bit weird.

Jean G: And did you think it was weird yourself?

JG: I could see from about thirteen that I were… [big pause]… I were on a different planet to them somehow.

Jean G: And that was about books?

JG: Books. Oh, not about anything else, just about books. And writing. I used to get pulled out sometimes, which used to make me very embarrassed. Teacher would say, ‘Read that composition Green – that you’ve just handed in’. I suppose I was the swot of the class. Which isn’t a very comfortable position to be in. But I weren’t a swot, I mean a swot to me is somebody who just really gets down to it … it were just something I loved doing.

Jean G: Yes. Jim thank you, that’s been so interesting.

JG: Oh good, I’m glad.

Jean G: Really interesting, thank you very much indeed.

 

 

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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.

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