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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Janice’s Reading Journey

Janice Maskort was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 2000 and 2010, and still lives in the city. She was born in Orkney and grew up in Kent. Janice worked for Kent County Libraries for several years, including in Maidstone, Rochester and Canterbury, until her move to Sheffield. Reading has been a pleasure, a mainstay, a need all her life.

Here Janice describes the beginning of her reading journey.  

Janice as a young child

I was reading long before school. I will never forget the moment when I realised that I could read. I was in church with my father and the hymn was All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I knew. Turning my hymn book round (I was holding it upside down), I realised that the black marks were the words! I was so excited I climbed on the pew and shouted, ‘Daddy, I can read!’ The Presbyterian congregation did not appreciate my joyful interruption, and I was smacked and went without pudding at lunch. I was so thrilled that I didn’t care and went round the house looking for print to practise on. As a librarian I was always moved when a child learned to read whilst in the library. It was like finding the key to a magic kingdom.

My parents were both serious readers and regular public library users. My mother was also a member of Boots Booklovers’ Library, which was in walking distance. Going to the ‘proper’ library entailed a long bus journey. Once my father bought a car, however, trips to the public library were easier.

There was a reasonable collection of books at home but very little children’s literature. I was always begging my many aunts and uncles for books as birthday or Christmas presents. As my mother was one of ten children and my father one of four, I did pretty well. In those days children often received postal orders as presents and if I could prevent my mother from appropriating the money for new shoes, I was able to buy a book. One Christmas my aunt in Canada sent me Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, but this was an edition all in pictures with truncated text. I adored it and was very disappointed when my father bought me the original version. I missed the illustrations.

The copy of Heidi bought by Janice’s father

I could not have survived without the library. I could always read at great speed; it is genetic and my daughter inherited the skill. Even then though the library was frustrating. We were only allowed three books at a time and I had read them all in the first 24 hours. Then a whole week before the next visit! Being able to read so fast was a blessing and a curse as my daughter also discovered. No teacher would believe me when I said I had finished the set book on the first day and I was always being surreptitiously tested. Eventually a new headmistress recognised my genuine distress at being accused of lying and told the staff that I could have access to all the books in the classroom. In later years I found myself trying to explain the ability to my daughter’s teachers.

My parents who were strict in some ways were remarkably liberal about reading and I was allowed to read anything. The only book my mother ever censored was a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. I still have no idea why. I have never subscribed to the theory that children should only read ‘age-appropriate’ material. I had browsed The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Kama Sutra before I was eleven. I only understood what I knew and ignored the rest. My mother asked me one day what the Kama Sutra was about. She had no idea what it was. I remember saying that it was very strange but had a chapter on flower arranging (as it has). Neither she nor I had any idea why my father laughed so much!

My father did get exasperated at my constant questions about unfamiliar words and introduced me to the dictionary. I found it helpful but also frustrating as each definition seemed to require another one and I often felt I was going round in circles. He gave me an atlas as well but when I couldn’t find Narnia, I decided it wasn’t very helpful. One day he arrived home with an old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. This kept me going for a whole summer. I read all the stories first, then history and mythology. I ignored most of the ‘informative’ sections but do remember lace-making in Nottingham, dress-making pins from Sheffield and shoes in Leicester.

As a child I suffered badly from bronchial asthma and in the winter, not helped by the awful fogs and coal fires of the period, I was often off school for weeks. This did little for my maths; I seemed to miss the introduction of long division or whatever. However I could read in bed. I preferred my mother’s choice of books from the library. She often took Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. My father brought The Last of the Mohicans and Wind in the Willows (which I never liked). But Dad also gave me David Copperfield, which began a lifelong love of Charles Dickens. There were lots of books for boys too, but I found all the stories of saving the empire and killing natives both boring and upsetting. I didn’t mind stories about animals as long as there were no killing sprees. My father, who often went abroad for work, did give me travel books and I adored Farley Mowat’s book about the Inuit people.

Rumpelstiltskin, from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (ca. 1889)

Original illustration from David Copperfield

Original illustration from David Copperfield

I was called an imaginative child, but in fact all children are. I lived my characters. If I was told off, I was Marie Antoinette in a tumbril or Mary Queen of Scots on the block. Like many children, I found comfort and solace in my literary companions.

When I was ten, I won a national painting competition. We had to paint ‘the most exciting place in the world.’ I was the only child to paint a library.  I won an enormous box of Reeves paints but was also allowed to choose a book. I opted for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and my father was disappointed, as he wanted me to pick something sensible like Woodworking Tips for Boys. I still have my prize book.

My sister Rebecca and I began classifying our own books early on. Well, I did, and she enjoyed stamping them out to our dolls. To this day I wonder why we classified Ballet Shoes as ‘E7’. It’s as incomprehensible as the Library of Congress classification scheme.

Not all of my large, extended family approved of my addiction to books. When I was diagnosed with severe myopia, at the age of ten, my poor mother often faced a chorus of ‘Well, we told you she would go blind’. I remember, in her defence, saying to one great aunt that sewing also made one go blind and told her about French nuns ruining their eyes making lace. She looked at me and said ‘Well, we don’t need to worry about your reaching that level of expertise.’ This was unfair because I can sew, but her embroidery was exquisite.

Orkney was an important influence. My mother was Orcadian, as am I, and in my childhood we went there every year. We visited lots of relatives and I was allowed access to all their books. There were a lot of Victorian ‘prize books’ and I read many moralistic tales in which daughters saved their fathers from intemperance and nursed dying siblings. Later on I did my dissertation on the impact of prize books as a major source of reading material in isolated and poor communities. This is probably where my love of Victorian and Edwardian literature began, although my mother’s admiration for Mrs Henry Wood might also have been a factor. She and I often intoned ‘Gone! And never called me mother!’[i]

Some of Janice’s collection of prize books

Orkney has a strong oral tradition so I experienced stories long before I could read. Language is powerful and its cadences and rhythms communicate so much. As a librarian I was passionate about telling or reading stories to children. For example, I have worked with children with severe learning difficulties and have never failed to engage with them through stories. And on another occasion, when I visited Africa for work, I followed a story-telling session. The children all knew and loved the story. I couldn’t understand a word but heard the build-up and the repetition of phrases. I was gripped. When we reached the denouement, I fell off my chair, which made the little ones laugh. While I didn’t understand the words, I felt the power of the story.

 

[i] This famous line is in fact not from Mrs Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, but from the stage adaptations.

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