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.

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Shirley L’s reading journey

Shirley L, born in North Wales in 1944, is an artist. She and her husband lived abroad and around the UK because of his work, before retiring to Sheffield in 2004. She is a keen member of a book group.

I have always read to my children, and grandchildren, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but I do not remember myself being read to as a child.

Shirley at the age of four

My home did not have bookshelves full of books. Looking back, I don’t think I gave it a thought, or felt that I was missing out. It may sound strange but it never registered with me until I started to think about it now, for this reading journey. I do remember having one book for Christmas when I was quite young, and it was all about film stars. This was most probably due to the fact I loved going to the cinema with my friends.

I was always encouraged to do well at school, so of course there was a lot of reading then. Later on, when I was about 11 or 12, I read What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge’s book about the adventures of a young American, Katy Carr, and her brothers and sisters. A lovely red hardback if I remember correctly. I really enjoyed it. I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven books too, I think when I was about nine or ten. Being an only child, friends were important in my life, so I loved reading about the children’s friendships and adventures.

Illustration, p. 8, What Katy Did, 1873, Addie Ledyard (public domain)

All this is a very long time ago, so please forgive me if I appear vague! I have little recollection where all these books came from, but I do know that I mainly read my books at home and that I did visit the library – Rhyl Library, on Wellington Road I think. It was actually within the Town Hall. The adult section was at the front and the children’s at the back. The building is still there but the library has been moved.

My friend Jill, who I’ve been talking to about our childhood reading, thinks that I most probably got the Enid Blytons from the library. This makes sense to me. Jill also says that when we started grammar school, aged 11, of course, for our first year we were told to read novels during the school holidays – three in the summer and obviously less during the smaller holidays. This was compulsory, hence my visits to the library. I was wondering if I had read Treasure Island and now I am sure I did.

Shirley in her school blazer, aged about 11
Shirley and her schoolfriends ‘goofing around’ at age 14.
Shirley is in the centre and her friend Jill is on the left.

Thinking about What Katy Did, I just feel it was my book, not the library’s, but I cannot be sure. It might have been a little present for passing the 11+ from someone or from Sunday School. My family wasn’t able to buy me books, any more than Jill’s could. Money was short in those days in our working-class homes.

As I’ve said, the cinema played a big part in my life. It was time spent with my friends, who were so important to me, and obviously a lot cheaper than buying books! When we returned home, we would act out what we had seen on screen. Books did not come into it. But writing this has reminded me that I did go to see Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s cartoon from 1940, and I have a feeling I read the book of the film. I was very young then so maybe I read the book later. I just don’t know.

As I’ve already said, I was always encouraged to do well at school. Reading to me was about enjoyment, but schoolbooks, especially when I went to grammar school, were there to give me a good education and hopefully a good future. I was never told reading was a waste of time. I never re-read books then, and I am not keen on it now, but there are no books I wouldn’t dream of not reading again.

I do still have one book, a Bible, from those days. It wasn’t new and had little pressed flowers in it, here and there. This was a present from our local grocer’s daughter for passing my 11+. Now the thing that has clicked in my head is this. Over the years, with my husband being in the RAF, we have moved a lot, overseas and around the UK. We have cleared our home out numerous times with each move, but I have the Bible, never lost, still by my bedside. I’ve never been an avid reader of it. I just pick it up now and again and open it up wherever, read a small amount and put it back. So for the last 57 years as we have travelled around, it’s always been there.

Shirley’s Bible

Have books changed my life? Looking back, growing up, books have played a big part in my life for lots of reasons. I have read fiction, non-fiction, all kinds of books. We can get lost in books – some make you laugh, cry, tell us things we never knew, things that help, make us think.

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