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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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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