Jean H

Jean H

Jean was born on the 3rd August 1926.

Jean is being interviewed by Mary Grover on 8th May 2012.

Mary Grover: Well Jean, I know you are a great reader. When did you start to read?

Jean H: I think it was when I was about five or six years old.

Mary Grover: So who started you reading? Was it school or parents?

Jean H: Both. My mum and dad and school.

MG:  So did you parents read to you?

JH: At night, before I went to bed. [Laughs.]

MG: And can you remember what they read to you at all?

JH: Not really.

MG: But it must have been fun.

JH: Yes.  Nursery rhymes, or little poems.

[Jean starts laughing because Mary has to sit on the floor to get the microphone nearer Jean.]

MG: Sorry, I have just had to sit on the floor which is a strange position to interview somebody from.  When you went to school, Jean, what did you read there?

JH: [Pause.] Do you know, I can’t recollect.

MG: Did you enjoy school?

JH: Yes, and as a matter of fact, English was one of my main subjects that I really loved, reading and reciting and reading plays.

MG: Was that at secondary school or …?

JH: No, just at normal school.

MG: And can you remember any of those plays you were in?

JH: No.

MG: But you enjoyed them?

JH: Yes, I enjoyed reading them, especially reading poetry.

MG: Has that stayed with you for the rest of your life?

JH: Really, but I can’t remember such a lot now.  My memory is just going.

MG: What school did you go to?

JH: I went to Hartley Brook Rd School in Shiregreen.

MG: And when did you leave?

JH: I left at fourteen.

MG: And what did you do then?

JH: First of all I worked at Shentalls. Do you remember? First of all, I worked in the office at Shentalls. First of all, when I was fourteen, you used to scrub floors, do the windows and then it was … do you remember dried milk? [MG: Yes.] There were stacks of different dried milk in the windows. I used to go out and bring peoples’ orders in. Write them all down when I was working in the office as well as on the counter.

MG: And did you have any time to read when you were working at Shentalls?

JH: I don’t think I did really. No, not really.

MG: So, when as an adult, did you get back into reading?

JH: When I was in the Forces.

MG: So 1939 onwards.

JH: 1944 to the 1950s.

MG: Where did you find your books when you were in the Forces?

JH: We had like libraries where you could go and read if you wished.

MG:  Were they pleasant places to be those libraries?

JH: Yes.

MG: Did you enjoy being in the library?

JH: Yes, I loved Dickens. They were the only books that stick in my mind somehow.

MG: Did you have a set of Dickens?

JH: I just borrowed them either from the library or wherever I could.

MG: Were any of those Dickens novels special?

JH: Yes, I used to love Christmas Carol. That’s the only one that sticks in my mind.

MG: Did your parents like Dickens?

JH: My mum and dad were quite clever. They only went to secondary school because that’s the only thing their parents could afford for them to do. They were both very clever.

MG: They never made you feel that reading was a waste of time?

JH: Oh no, never. Never. [Emphatically] Never. They used to go down to the library in Firth Park every week and on a Friday they used to have a story-teller which was really lovely and they used to collect the books. As I say, I used to like poetry as well as reading.

MG: Did you learn any by heart at school?

JH: Yes. I used to have to stand up in front of the class and read [Laughs.] and if we had visitors, I used to have to stand up. I remember having to do these different things and when the visitors came to school, I used to have to round with them.

MG: And that was because you were a good speaker, I imagine.

JH: Perhaps so, yes.

MG: So when you were in the Forces, you were obviously a keen reader.

JH: I didn’t have an awful lot of time. You were nearly always alert for the sirens going and being in London was a bit dicey.

MG: What was your job?

JH: I was in the Medical Corps. I was a sergeant at 19.

MG: So you must have been very tired in the evening.

JH: I was the youngest sergeant in the London District.

MG: Good heavens!

JH: It was very … you know, had to go out, any time.

MG: Very frightening.

JH:  As well as being in the RMC, I was [inaudible] at a kind of reception station for people who were very poorly.  You sorted them like going to the doctors.

MG: So were you a nurse or on the administrative side?

JH: No, I wasn’t a nurse, I was a medical orderly.

MG: Very interesting.

JH: It was very interesting, taking people to hospitals, especially when you’ve got soldiers who had come from the Far East, Middle East.

MG: Do you think those very interesting experiences led you to read different books than if you had stayed in Sheffield?

JH: No, I don’t think so.

MG: But you had access to the Forces library.

JH: It was NAAFI and they used to exchange books.

MG: Did you find that Joan? [Inaudible response from Joan.]

MG: So when you got back to Sheffield, what did you do then?

JH: First of all, I thought I’d love to be a nurse because when I was in the Forces they said that I was a born nurse, but I didn’t. I went to work in Shentalls, in the office there, would it have been … ? I’ve forgotten now.

MG: You got married.

JH: Yes, I got married.

MG: And did you read at all when you first got married?

JH: I don’t think I did.

MG: So when did you pick up books again? When did you find that you had time for reading?

JH: As I got older. But I more or less like to go to the theatre, plays, you know.

MG: Yes, so where did you go to them?

JH: Lyceum  …The Empire which used to have like …

MG: So theatre was a great love.

JH: I used to go.

MG: Was there one production which stands out as a very good evening out?

JG: No I don’t think so.

MG: So it was partly the fun of going out and being with friends?

JH: Well, I’ve never been very good at making friends but I’ve always gone to the theatre, to plays, on my own.

MG: So it meant that much to you?

JH: Yes, I just loved going. And I loved going to the opera more than anything when the operas used to come to Sheffield.

MG: They don’t come as much now.

JH: Yes. [Inaudible.]

MG: I am afraid so. Leeds is the nearest now for opera. So the cinema – did that figure?

JH: I’m not all that keen on cinema.

MG: Well, thank you so much, Jean.

Recent Posts

City Librarian Speaks Out

Joseph Percy Lamb (1891-1969) was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 1927 and 1956. More than anyone, Lamb was responsible for the success of the city’s library service in the mid-20th century, when annual issues rose from under one to over four million and seven new libraries, including the Central, were opened. As Reading Sheffield contributes a talk about him to the 2019 Heritage Open Days festival, here is Joe Lamb himself in October 1933, giving the presidential address to the Sheffield Literary Club.

Joe Lamb (image: SCC)

Threatened by Mob Hysteria

Intellectual Freedom in Danger

Warning by Sheffield Librarian

Nazi Example

Joe Lamb’s self-confidence shine out in the Sheffield Independent’s report on 13 October 1933 of his address to the Literary Club. We realise with surprise that here is, not a politician or pundit, but a local government officer. The speech has not survived but we are left in no doubt of the conviction behind it. The Independent characterises it as strong criticism of ‘the attitude of the present generation towards life in general and literature in particular’. Lamb had evidently been angered by the

recent ‘barbaric spectacle’ of German university students publicly burning books containing some of the finest flowerings of German thought.

A Nazi throws confiscated ‘un-German’ books into the bonfire on the Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933 (image: public domain).

This was a reference to the public burning of around 25,000 ‘un-German’ books by Nazi students which began on 10 May 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany in January and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws proclaimed in April 1933. There were bonfires across the country, and the works of writers such as Berthold Brecht, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway were condemned as corrupt. In Berlin, around 40,000 people heard propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels speak in support of censorship. This story seems to be missing from the Sheffield press, and perhaps Lamb, as City Librarian, felt that the threat to liberty and civilisation should have been better reported. For, having denounced the situation in Germany, he posited that ‘even in Britain there was growing up an attitude of conscious hostility to intellectual freedom’. He went on, in the blunt way of his time:

It is, of course, true that literature has never been free from persecution at the hands of the mob, and that this mob has not always been confined to the depressed classes of the community. … The more subtle weapons of social ostracism and economic pressure, no less powerful and ruthless because they are carefully hidden from public view, are in force even now.

Lamb was not afraid to point out the gap he perceived between intellectual and everyday life (notwithstanding the fact that there must have been academics in his audience).   

The preoccupation of scholars with the past, and the inevitable association between intellectual pursuits and the leisured security of university life have tended to isolate the idea of culture from contemporary thought and the ordinary scramble for existence. … I suggest that the time is coming when the whole structure of learning, buttressed up as it is by a great deal of make-belief, will be forced to discard many of these supports and re-build on foundations of intellectual honesty. Otherwise there is very serious danger of it being undermined by the forces of mob hysteria which our modern civilisation has called into being. 

As if this wasn’t enough, Lamb also took a swipe at methods of teaching.

We are not content to accept with simple thankfulness the works of writers of undoubted genius; we must forever be dissecting them on the operating slab and exhibiting their entrails to groups of shuddering students. … We even perpetrate the grisly joke of using the works of Shakespeare as a medium for the exercise of parsing and grammatical construction; and thousands of children who might conceivably grow up to a proper appreciation of literature are eternally damned by the macabre activities of the earnest educationists. Is it any wonder that so few survive?

(He was, of course, not unique in this particular criticism, and we know from his writing of his own unsatisfactory experiences learning literature at school.)

Lamb warned against the mediocre ‘in thought, language, creative work’, which was all too easily accepted, he thought, by the ‘pseudo-cultured’. For him the answer was robust ‘individualism of thought’, questioning rather than accepting.

Eighty years on, you wonder how the members of the Sheffield Literary Club responded to their president’s strong words. This club had been founded in 1923 as the Sheffield Poetry Club, and was often mentioned in the press (not least for its pseudo-medieval Christmas dinner, ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’, with the president as the ‘mayster of the feste’). Subjects discussed at its meetings included: Jane Austen, Mary Webb, Bryon, satire and early English novels. No doubt it seemed appropriate in this context to have the city’s chief librarian as president. That he was elected four years in a row suggests that they also valued him.

The Sheffield Literary Club, with Lamb third from the left, front row (image: Sheffield Newspapers)

Joe Lamb was a self-made man from a working-class family in St Helens. Denied higher education (which seems to have rankled throughout his life), he became an assistant librarian, which was a secure, white collar job. He was an auto-didact, using the ample opportunity his profession gave him to explore literature, music, philosophy and science. He also took his professional exams and became Sheffield’s City Librarian in 1927, winning national and international renown for the service. Throughout his career, he wrote and spoke about public libraries, determinedly promoting Sheffield. He seemed always to relish argument, and even controversy, for example, stocking his branch libraries with popular fiction like Edgar Wallace at a time when professional librarians frowned on offering books for entertainment. All this meant that he could appear difficult and was sometimes disliked, but he was always respected. This is the man we see in the newspaper of October 1933. In essence, he sought out his own way, always demonstrating the ‘individualism of thought’ he advocated to the Literary Club.

If you would like to learn more about Joe Lamb and Sheffield Libraries, our talk is on 17 September, at 10.30 am, in the Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The talk is free but places can be booked here.

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