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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On the Centenary of the Armistice

Privates John Charles Hobson and John Sydney Abey have lain in the soil of northern France for over a hundred years. Of the 5,000 men Sheffield lost in the First World War, they are the only library workers, and their names appear on the Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour.

John Abey

Before the war John Abey was the junior assistant in the branch library in Highfield, just outside the city centre.

Highfield Branch Library

This was a good job for a young man – white collar, secure and with the prospect of progression – but John would have earned his money. The hours were long: 09.00-13.30 and 17.30-21.00 in the week, with a half-day on Thursday, and all day Saturday, with staff working shifts. The library operated the physically demanding ‘closed access’ system, with books shelved on steep racks behind a counter and staff climbing up ladders to retrieve borrowers’ choices. Highfield was one of Sheffield’s first branch libraries, state of the art when it opened in 1876, in a building designed by a leading local architect, Edward Mitchell Gibbs.[i] But by the war years, the library service was neglected and Highfield was described by one employee as ‘very gloomy’. Before he joined up, John was probably one of two assistants to the branch librarian, and there would have been several boys employed in the evenings to help shelve books. The library may well have been gloomy, but there was also fun. ‘We often used to have a kickabout with a small ball behind the indicator,’ said the same employee, ‘the librarian never bothered.’ (The ‘Cotgreave indicator’ was 19th century technology: a huge wooden screen showing whether books were available or on loan.)

32 Witney Street, Highfield today. The Abey family lived here.

St Barnabas Church, Highfield today. John Abey and his family worshipped here.

The Highfield area seems to have been the centre of John Abey’s life. Not only did he work there but he lived at 32 Witney Street, near the library, with his parents, his elder sister, Ethel, and younger brothers, Arnold and Stanley. The family attended St Barnabas Church next to the library, and John sang in the choir. His mother Margaret is mentioned in newspaper reports as helping at church fetes, and her children joined in:

Oriental Bazaar at Heeley

The successful Oriental bazaar held in conjunction with Wesley Chapel, Heeley, was reopened for the last time yesterday by a band of 45 prettily-attired children of the Sunday School. There was a large and interested audience to witness the ceremony. … (Sheffield Independent, 24 April 1908)

The ‘prettily-attired’ children are all carefully named, including ‘Miss Ethel Mary Abey’ and ‘Master Jack Sydney Abey’.

John – Jack – was killed, seven months before the Armistice, on 15 April 1918. His regiment was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (1/4th Battalion, a volunteer contingent) and he had the exposed job of signaller, responsible for unit communications. Between 13 and 15 April 1918, the battalion took part in the Battle of Bailleul, and its war diary notes intense shelling and the Germans managing to penetrate the frontline on occasion. The battalion was relieved and sent to rest on 15 April, but this came too late for Signaller Abey. On 20 April the Sheffield Independent reported that he had ‘died in hospital at Boulogne, having been wounded the same morning’. His war gratuity of £10 11s 11d was paid to his father, Herbert, and his record notes the usual award of the British War and Victory Medals. Jack is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (VIII. I. 196). He was 19 years old.

John Hobson

Percy, John and Horace Hobson

John Hobson grins out at the camera, his cap at a cheeky angle. His younger brothers, Percy on the left and Horace on the right, look more guarded. We don’t know when this photo was taken, or by whom, but it was printed in the Sheffield Telegraph on 24 July 1916.

Three weeks earlier, Percy had been killed, one of 19,000 to die on 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for three square miles of territory. His body was never recovered, and his name is incised on the Thiepval Memorial along with 72,000 others with no known grave. John and Horace were both ‘severely wounded’, says the newspaper. Within the year, John too would be dead. Horace alone survived the war.

Before the war, John Hobson had worked at Hillsborough Branch Library, in a job similar to John Abey’s on the other side of the city.[ii] Hillsborough was a large and busy suburb, and the branch library seems to have been well used. It opened in 1906, in a converted, 18th century gentleman’s residence, which must have brought problems as well as charms.

Hillsborough Library

John was born in 1892, between Hillsborough and Upperthorpe, the eldest of three brothers and a sister. His father, John Henry, was a greengrocer and then a ‘car conductor’ on the city trams. John’s middle name, Charles, probably came from his paternal grandfather, Charles Hobson (1845-1923), a prominent union leader. Charles was elected to the town council, and prospered until 1903 when he was convicted of corruption. He served three months in prison. Despite this, he remained popular and influential, making speeches and writing for the papers.

It was perhaps inevitable that John and his brothers would volunteer as their grandfather was a member of the Territorial Force Council. He said in 1909:

I am essentially a man of peace. At the same time I disagree with those who preach ‘Peace at any price.’ I would never provoke a fight, and would suffer wrong rather than resort to extreme measures. Nevertheless, circumstances might arise when to remain passive, or inactive, would prove one either imbecile, coward, or void of all manly instincts. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1909)

The three brothers joined the Sheffield City Battalion, the 12th battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment. Its men were ‘pals’ – brothers, friends, workmates, schoolfellows etc who enlisted together, to stay together and to fight together. This gave the soldiers loyalty and fellow-feeling, but meant that in a major engagement a village, say, might lose most of its young men all at once. This happened to the Sheffield Pals at the Somme on 1 July 1916, when half the battalion were cut down by relentless machine gun fire and 250 men, including Percy Hobson, died.

John and Horace were invalided back to England, to recover from their wounds, and John was well enough to return to France in January 1917. He was wounded again and died at a casualty clearing station at Bethune on 19 April 1917. He is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery (VI. D. 39), about 50 miles from where John Abey lies. His war gratuity of £8 10s was paid to his wife, Mary, whom he had married in 1915.

A letter home from John’s brother, Percy, was published in the Sheffield Telegraph when he died in July 1916. It perhaps speaks not just for Percy but for his brothers too:

We are having a fairly good time here considering everything … Tons of work; in fact, more work out of the trenches than we get in – though sometimes this does not hold good. All the chaps are in excellent spirits. In the hearts of our men lurks the feeling that with foresight this war could have been prevented. We try not to look at the dull side of things. We are in one of the finest battalions in the present army, and I am proud to be a member of it. I should like to tell you many things about the battalion, but we are not allowed to. I had another fortunate escape on my birthday night. I was the only survivor of a small company. The trench was levelled to the ground—but it was Hobson’s choice—they would not kill me.

——

Sheffield Libraries Roll of Honour

The Libraries Roll, bright with flags, bells and laurel leaves, marks the service of 20 men who survived as well as John Abey and John Hobson. At least seven of them returned to libraries in Sheffield after the war: Benjamin Belch, Arthur Cressey, James Gomersall (Park Branch), H Valentine (Highfield Branch), F Broadhurst (Walkley Branch), F Kellington (Highfield Branch) and H W Marr (Central Library).

John Abey and John Hobson are also remembered, along with 140 other librarians, on the national Library Association Great War Memorial, now mounted in the staff entrance at the British Library in London.

Library Association memorial at the British Library

 

If anyone reading this is related to anyone listed on the Roll of Honour, we would like to hear from you. Please leave a comment below. 

 

[i]  Highfield is still a library, run by the City Council. The building is Grade II-listed, which the Pevsner Architectural Guide for Sheffield (Yale University Press, 2004) describes as ‘Florentine Renaissance’.

[ii]  Like Highfield, Hillsborough remains a Council-run branch library.

 

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