Jean Wolfendale

Jean Wolfendale

Jean was born on 7th March 1933.

She is being interviewed by Sahra Ajiba on 14th October 2011.

SA:  This is an interview conducted by Sahra Ajiba, S-A-H-R-A A-J-I-B-A. It is 14th October 2011. I am interviewing Jean Wolfendale, J-E-A-N W-O-L-F-E-N-D-A-L-E. She was born in 1933 on 7th March and lived in Meadowhead and Norton between 1945 and 1965.

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Jean in the entrance to High Storrs School 1950

So, Jean, to start, did anyone read to you when you were young? Or how did you … gain your keen interest in reading when you were younger?

JW: Mm, yes, I think my parents read to me a little but not a lot because they were both, er, very busy people. I learnt to read when I was … I think five, almost as soon as I started school and got very bored because … … there wasn’t any stimulation in school. So, …  my parents took me to the children’s library which was in, well, where it is now, in the middle of Sheffield and I was enrolled there as soon as I was seven.  I think you couldn’t join before you were 7, …, and after that it was a weekly trip to the library to get suitable books. Mm … but I’ve always just loved reading … mm … They also bought me Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia, all twelve volumes which I devoured, starting with the fiction and gradually got onto the more, erm … what’s the word … academic things, but the fiction and the poetry were the things that attracted me at that age. The trip to town became a very regular thing.  I had a close friend.  We went to music lessons in town and then from there we would go to … , the library and also to … a shop on Holly Street, Andrews, where they had the most wonderful display of children’s books, and we would save our pocket money and buy a book as often as we possibly could.  Then we’d share them. By ‘45, which is I think the time you’re wanting to talk about, I was at High Storrs School, I’d be a second year then, and of course we were very much encouraged to read the, sort of, [bimmer] [unclear word] classics.  I had Ivanhoe as a prize at one point.  So I read a lot of Walter Scott and a lot of Jane Austen.  Mm … for a sort of lighter reading there was Little Women and, er [long pause], let me think.  Oh, yes the Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy.  My friend and I ploughed through all seven volumes of that, which we thoroughly enjoyed.  Erm … what else? [long pause] Let me think [long pause]. For light relief, yes, there were Biggles books which were all about wartime exploits and, of course, it was in … well, it was the end of the war but we’d been brought up through the war so that was all very, very … mm … what’s the word again … oh dear, I do hate this.  It was in the top of our minds sort of thing so there were the Biggles books and also there was an author called Mal-Malcolm Saville who . . . one of his books was Mystery at Witchend and there were others which were sort of spy story-type things but not spy stories.  We also had the Hans Andersen and the Grimms’ Fairy Tales and so on but I think that must have been at a younger age than teenage.  Mazo de la Roche, yes, I ploughed through all the Jalna novels and I absolutely loved them.  I couldn’t wait to find the next one in the series from the library.  Hugh Walpole, a lot of his books I read.  Mm, what else have you got here? Dickens, at that age I would have been reading Christmas Carol and David Copperfield … , I think the other ones came later.

SA: Are there any books that stand out in your mind as being a transition from childhood to adulthood that you chose to read and that you think made you feel more adult?

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Jean (left) Bridlington 1947

JW: Yes, there was an author called Frances Parkinson Keyes. He [sic] wrote very meaty, very long novels.  I can’t remember a great deal … a particular title now but again it was … several of them were set in the American Deep South and, …, they were quite adult and I enjoyed those very much.

SA: So it was more the change of genre that made you feel more adult than one book?

JW: Yes, and then there was Dornford Yates who wrote the Berry books.  Which were screamingly funny and, … I shouldn’t find them funny now but I did then and again … I used to annoy my parents by sitting in the corner and laughing at the books and they couldn’t understand why.  They were, they were fascinating … as I say I probably wouldn’t enjoy them now, although I’d love to read one again just to try it [laughs].  Er, I can see Gone With the Wind.  I think I probably read that about that time and that again was a much more adult one.

Erm, [pause] yeah my father read … goodness I’m sorry, dreadful this, they’re all on the tip of my tongue and I can’t remember them.  I’ll come back to that, it doesn’t matter.

SA: Ok.

JW: Er, so what else was there?

SA: So you said that you got most of your books from the library or you went down to the little shops and saved your pocket money to get them.

JW: Yes.

SA: Did your parents, even though they didn’t read to you that much, when you were younger, did they encourage your reading?

JW: Oh, very much so.  Yes.  To be fair, there wasn’t an awful lot else to do.  The only other thing to do in the evenings, apart from school work, was, erm … er, listen to the radio, which obviously we did as a family but, er, yes reading was very much encouraged.

Your supervisor was asking me about the, the little libraries that there were in Sheffield and I told her that my father through my mother belonged to one of these.  I told her it was, I forget the name, but anyway I’ve remembered it, it was the Red Circle library and it was on, I think, Angel Street, although it might have been on Haymarket.  Er, and erm, they stocked sort of popular fiction. He liked crime and cowboys and detective novels and so on and she could get those for him from there.  The public libraries didn’t have that sort of thing in those days – it was very much more erudite. You know, you were supposed to be educated if you went to the library rather than just amused.  Er, Nevil Shute, Dad and I both enjoyed those, that was something we shared together … because they were very well written, they were lovely.  [Long pause]  What else?  [pause].  Tarka the Otter, yes, I remember reading that but I think that was much later.  I don’t think he was writing when I was that age.  I seem to remember Tarka the Otter, probably in the late ‘50s, probably ‘60s, I’m not sure about the date on that.

SA: OK.  So your family was a positive influence on reading.  Is there anyone that made you feel like reading was a waste of time or that just didn’t encourage you to read?

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Jean and family in Scarborough 1948

JW: No, no.

SA: So everyone was happy – ?

JW: Everyone encouraged me to read, yes. Yes, definitely.

SA: So you said you used to sit in the corner and laugh and you don’t quite know why you would do that now.  Have you ever read a book that’s kind of a guilty pleasure or that you feel embarrassed about?  Anything like that?

JW: [long pause] Yes, let me think. Who was it? Which one was it? Oh gosh there was a famous one. Well, Lady Chatterley – when we were at school, of course, everyone wanted to get their hands on Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It was many years later before I did actually read it but we were all trying to read it at that time. There was another one … oh dear … I can’t remember its name but there was another, sort of, well I suppose it would be quite mild these days but it was considered very sexy in those days. All the girls in school were trying to get hold of copies of this but I can’t remember its name.

SA: So you noticed a difference between what was high-brow and what was low-brow?

JW: Definitely.  Yes.

SA: But did you read a mixture of both?

JW: Yes.  Yes, er, yes.  I think so.  Definitely.  As I say these Dornford Yates ones, you’d call them ‘pulp fiction’, I suppose, but they were, they were ok.  Erm, school was a very, very strong influence and it was very much: ‘Children, girls, you must read.  Uplifting books.’  Erm, we were very much discouraged from having, for instance, comics or anything like that.  I had something called Girl’s Crystal but . . . which was a … quite a decent comic but you couldn’t possibly have mentioned that in school because that wasn’t the done thing as it were.

SA: So reading was encouraged but only a certain type of reading?

JW: Yes. Yes … Geoffrey Thorne (Sp?).  Oh, that’s another one.  He would be considered light reading but we used to read those.  I’ve read most of those in my time.  John Buchan, he was more approved of … erm … much more literary.  I still enjoy reading him.  I’d quite like to see a Geoffrey Thorne again but I don’t know where you would get one now.  Hammond Innes.  I’ve read those but again I can’t remember what stage.  That’s probably pushing towards late teens rather than early teens.

SA: Yeah, that’s fine. We’re looking at how-how your reading developed as you get into adulthood so you can talk about anything you like.

JW: Yes. Oh, gosh, right, it’s something that stays with you for life.  I – I belong to a little group of ex-teachers and, when we meet, we swap books and we talk books all the time and I mean, you know, it’s still there.  Antony [sic] Hope, The Prisoner of Zenda, I’ve got that on the shelf, just over there.  That again was an early teenage one. Dennis Wheatley.  That was the one I was trying to remember that my father . . . my father had these and he didn’t think they were suitable for me, but I used to read them on the quiet.

SA: So, as you grew up and as you became older, did you streamline the kind of book that you read to a certain genre or did you have favourite authors or did you just continue to, like, devour, like lots of different types of literature?

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On the way to Mam Tor

JW: Devoured really, I suppose.  Yes, I don’t think I particularly … I suppose it was historical fiction in many ways that I used to go for.  I hadn’t realised that but I supposed it was.  To a certain extent ,anyway.  I don’t remember reading much Georgette Heyer. I tried her and didn’t like it but I read D K Broster and Baroness Orczy.  For some reason I never took to Jean Plaidy.  Anya Seton was another one that I really enjoyed.  There was … now what was her name?  A Traveller in Time by … Alison … Uttley.  That’s right. That was … erm, one that absolutely fascinated me as an early teenager I think, and that set me onto Mary Queen of Scots and all that sort of thing.

jean-wolfendale-mam-tor

SA: You said that you were a teacher.  Do you think that your love of reading either influenced becoming a teacher or was influenced by becoming a teacher?

JW: [pause] It influenced my becoming a teacher.  I … gave up on a chance to go to university and got married and had children so I didn’t become a teacher till I’d had my family and … when I went to college I specialised in English and French and that was obviously as a result of my – my reading and so on.  I did English at Higher School Certificate so I’d got a background of English.  So reading obviously played a tremendous part in my life, it still does.

SA: OK. That’s because one of the questions is: ‘Do you think reading has or how has reading changed your life?’  So you think it has?

JW: [pause] I can’t say it changed it because it’s always been there … mm … but I can’t imagine a life without it and in fact at the moment I’m beginning to have some trouble with my eyes and I can’t read for long and that is a real … er … hurt, you know, I have to do something else and I’d prefer to read [sounds sad].

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Bridlington 1947

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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