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.

 

 

Recent Posts

In the year 1873

I’m researching the remarkable Walter Parsonson (1832-1873), who was Sheffield’s first chief librarian from 1855 to 1873. Here, by way of an introduction to the man, is an account of the public library during his last year in charge. It comes from the annual report of the Council’s Free Library Committee, as it appeared in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Monday 6 October 1873.[i] 

Walter Parsonson (copyright Sheffield City Council,
used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u04592)

In 1870, three years before Walter Parsonson died, the Midland Station opened in the valley below Norfolk Park. Sheffield would not become a city for another 20 years, but the new rail route to London, via Chesterfield, was a sign of the town changing fast. Sheffield’s population had trebled to 239,000 since Walter’s birth in 1832, although its area was smaller than today’s city, with districts like Hillsborough yet to be incorporated. Steelmaking and related industries were making fortunes for the few and keeping the many going. The town centre was being developed and new residential areas like Crookes being settled. Thousands of people still lived in slums, however, and public health was poor. Schools were expanding thanks to the Elementary Education Act 1870, and by the end of the decade steel baron Mark Firth would establish Firth College, the forerunner to the University of Sheffield.      

The public library, which opened in 1856, was a well-established part of mid-Victorian Sheffield. There were the central lending and reference libraries in the old Mechanics’ Institute in Surrey Street; and branch libraries in Upperthorpe and Brightside. These branches were recent innovations, with Walter Parsonson’s ‘valuable services…most cheerfully and unstintingly given’ to them, and the Council was proud of them, on civic and cultural grounds, as pledges for the future.

Brightside

Brightside was judged a success by the Committee, with 3,800 borrowers registered in a year:

The returns from the Brightside branch library are eminently satisfactory, and prove the wisdom of the course adopted by the Town Council in erecting a building specially adapted for its efficient working.

It opened, on Gower Street, in September 1872, at a cost of £2,000, with about £800 spent on a stock of over 5,000 books. There was a lending library, a ladies’ reading room and, upstairs, a public reading room (there was, you see, the public and then there were women). As Sheffield’s first building ‘erected with some consideration for the working of a library’, according to Alderman Fisher of the Free Library Committee, it was an experiment.[ii] The Sheffield Daily Telegraph said on Thursday 5 September 1872:

It is sufficient now to say that it is a neat if not handsome-looking edifice, and that the interior arrangements are the most appropriate character, surpassing in the matter of convenience the central institution.

Brightside Library, Gower Street (copyright Sheffield City Council, used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: u03145)

Neat on the outside, Brightside had on the inside state of the art Victorian technology, which was another sign of Council commitment to libraries:

… the handsome mahogany frames on each side of the lending counter, in which is arranged what known as the ‘Indicator System,’ whereby the reader may see at glance whether the book he wishes to borrow is available or not. The system is ingenious, yet so simple that all can understand it. The frames contain 72 columns … and each of these is divided by thin slips of japanned tin into 150 little shelves. (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Saturday 17 August 1872)

Each shelf was marked with the number of a book. Borrowers chose from a catalogue and then checked the indicator. If the allocated shelf was clear, their choice was available and library staff would retrieve it from behind the counter. But if the shelf showed red, the book was out on loan. The Brightside indicator, made locally, by Mr Cocking of Watson’s Walk in the town centre, worked ‘most usefully and satisfactorily’, said the Committee report.

Brightside was evidently well used: in 1872-3, ‘the issues have been 67,177 volumes, or a daily average of 248 volumes’, with fiction (46,435) easily the most popular. This was always the way, although some complained that libraries should only have ‘books of information’, frivolous novels being a waste of time and public money. There were 7,200 books on the Brightside shelves by 1873, and almost 40% were fiction. But there were also almost 2,000 books on history, biography and travel, and 800 on arts and sciences.

Brightside (with a later name change to Burngreave) remained a library until 1990. The building is still there, and is now the Al-Rahman Mosque.  

Upperthorpe

The branch had opened in 1869, in rooms rented by the Council in the Tabernacle Congregational Church on Albert Terrace Road. No doubt it had also been seen as an experiment. Its facilities were obviously poorer than Brightside, but the Committee felt that it too had performed well:

Its work during this time had been extremely satisfactory; the average daily issues which had fallen from 162, in 1870-71, to 150 in 1871-2, having this year increased to 183. The total issue for the year had been 49,640 books.

Tabernacle Congregational Church, Albert Terrace Road, Upperthorpe (used by permission of Picture Sheffield. Ref: s22751)

Once again, fiction comes top: ‘5,289 had been history, biography, and travels; 4,446 arts and sciences, 680 theology and philosophy; 410 politics, 1,680 poetry, 30,508 fiction, and 6,627 miscellanies’. Just one book had been lost, of the 7,138 books in stock, and at 13s it must have been one of the more expensive.

The demand for books in Upperthorpe and the success of the specially-designed building in Brightside led the Council to invest in two prestige projects in 1876 – a new library building for Upperthorpe and its twin at Highfield on the other side of the town. These were fine buildings,  designed by one of the town’s premier architects and fitted with up-to-date indicator devices, at an overall cost of about £6,000 each. One hundred and forty-four years later, Highfield is still a Council-run library, and Upperthorpe an associate library.     

Central Library

The Central Library was less satisfactory. Issues were down:

IssuesReferenceLendingTotal
1872-313,470128,032141,502
1871-215,162134,086149,248

The Committee thought that the decrease was due ‘partly to the extremely good state of trade during the past year’ (which is an original suggestion. Did people stop reading if there was business to be done?) and ‘also partly to the extensive and excellent collections’ in the two branch libraries. It pointed out too that the total for the three libraries together was in fact rising: 178,155 volumes, or 754 per day, in 1871-2 and 244,849, or 890 per day, in 1872-3. This was clearly entirely satisfactory.    

There was, however, a problem. The reference library issues had been falling steadily since the late 1860s, from 19,384 in 1869-70 to 13,470 in 1872-3. The Committee begged the full Council to take action:

It is true that the reference library is in extent scarcely worthy of the town; but it possesses many rare and valuable works, and it is much to be regretted that quieter and more spacious accommodation for their use should not be provided. Until that is done and a safer place of deposit furnished, it appears unlikely that future committees will expend much in the extension of this valuable department, or that owners of scarce works will present them for public use. The decreased issues … appear to prove that the discomfort and offensiveness of a heated, overcrowded room are too much for the zeal after knowledge to overcome. Since the opening of the reference library in 1856, private enterprise has abundantly provided our largely increased population with commensurate accommodation for drinking, dancing, and other amusements, whilst the accommodation for the nobler tastes which would bring our population to consult the learned and artistic works which are accumulated and accumulating in your reference library (which, from their rarity and value, cannot be lent out) is scarcely at all improved and extended.

The Mechanics’ Institute – home of Sheffield’s first public library

The Mechanics’ Institute building was now wholly owned by the Council, and housed the debating chamber and various offices. The ground-floor library had long outgrown its allocated space – there was no room for an indicator system there. While the Council did invest over the years in branch libraries, it failed to look after the heart of the service. The Committee’s plea in 1873 was simply an early iteration of the case its successors and its librarians would make for the next 56 years, as the situation worsened. Sheffield needed a modern, properly equipped central library.   

Conclusion

I’ll finish where the Council’s report starts – with a tribute to Walter Parsonson, about whom I plan to write more. The Committee’s report was tabled just a month after his death, and he perhaps had helped to draft it.

At the outset the Committee state that they have first to deplore the loss by death of the late chief librarian, Mr. Walter Parsonson, FRAS. Mr. Parsonson had filled the office of chief librarian with great ability since the establishment of what is now the central library in February, 1856, and the later portion of this time his valuable services were most cheerfully and unstintingly given towards the establishment and opening of the Upperthorpe and Brightside branches. Mr. Parsonson’s diligence, urbanity, integrity, and rare devotion to all the duties of his important office during this long period of service, appear to require this brief record of the melancholy reason why his name no longer appears in the ‘list of officers’ prefixed to their report.

I will be writing more about Walter Parsonson here. I’ve also recorded a podcast about Walter with Sheffield Libraries which is here. Many thanks to Picture Sheffield for allowing the use of images.


[i] Unless otherwise stated, all quotations come from this article.

[ii] Quoted in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph’s report of the opening ceremony, published on 5 September 1872.

  1. The Day The Library Closed Leave a reply
  2. A ‘Brilliant Throng’ at the Town Hall Leave a reply
  3. Dickens Comes to Sheffield Leave a reply
  4. Lockdown reading Leave a reply
  5. The books along the way… Leave a reply
  6. The top of the attic stairs Leave a reply
  7. ‘Young woman, 22, not a reader, joins library’ 3 Replies
  8. Wybourn in the 1950s Leave a reply
  9. Jean Compton’s Reading Journey 3 Replies