John D

John D

John D was born on 29th June 1927. He lived in Darnall until he was 7 years old and then Handsworth.
John is being interviewed by Mary Grover

[John’s account of his family is edited at his request.  Information relevant to his reading journey includes the facts that his family moved from Darnall to Hardsworth and then to Attercliffe. Bombed out of Attercliffe, they eventually found a house in Tinsley. John attended Firth Park Grammar School till he was 18. He got his Higher School Certificate in 1945. He was called up just as he was beginning his teacher training but returned to it after his National Service. This training equipped him to become a Junior School teacher.]

Mary Grover: John could you tell me where you lived in your childhood and teenage years and what took you about the different areas of Sheffield that you lived in?

John D: Yes, I was born at Darnall at about zero years of course!  I’d started the college about one month and then I got the call up papers and I was in the RAF where I remained then for three years. I got back more or less in the June or July and then I went to the college properly and did, in those days, it was a two year course.

MG: John, before we leave those school years, which primary school did you go to?

JD: Well of course I started off at Darnall. During the war that became an auxiliary fire station. I don’t think there were that many children. Then I went up to Handsworth, Handsworth Council School, of course they were all council schools in those days and then I went to Attercliffe Council School and that’s where I sat the scholarship it was called in those days, the eleven plus if you like. But that was bombed; it was set on fire on the same raid that you know … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I. By that time of course I was going to Firth Park so I continued at Firth Park until I was called up.

MG: So when you went to school did you feel that you got access to any books that interested you?

JD: At that time, to be quite honest, my only interest in books was for entertainment. In other words all the books I was reading were fiction so really and truly, up to going to school and needing books for information then of course, I was really into fiction. Now when we got to Firth Park there was a peculiar system in those days in that you paid an amount, it wasn’t a huge amount, although it was to my grandparents, I think it was about a pound or two pound or something a year, to hire the books from the school.

MG: Good heavens.

JD: Did you not know that?

MG: No.

JD: Oh, yes we had to hire our text books and back them and take care of them of course because you could be charged if they were damaged. I think when the Education Act came out later on of course it meant that the books then became free. It was the same with school dinners. When I first went, school dinners were seven pence a day, which doesn’t sound a lot today, but it was a lot in those days. When the government stepped in and said all children must have access to school meals because of rationing and of course not getting sufficient of the right kinds of foods at all because of the war, it actually went down to five pence because that was the standard charge throughout the country.

MG: That’s interesting. So this fiction that you read when you were very young, can you remember any of the books that you read?

JD: Dr Doolittle and Just William of course, yes. I wasn’t fussy on the really weighty novels, you know like the Dickens and stuff like that. I am sure the stories were splendid but they were buried in a lot of print and to me I wanted it quick and easy, something that I could do. I think I once told you the story on tape before where I had borrowed this book, it was, I think it was a Dr Doolittle book, I’m not sure now but it was a book of that nature. I got home and I’d read it in an hour of course so I took it back to the library and they told me, ‘Go home, you can’t have any more books You can only have one borrowing a day, you can’t go back’. I think at that time I only had one ticket anyway so it meant that although I’d walked several miles to the library, there and back, it meant that I was frustrated because I couldn’t borrow a book that I wanted.

MG: So did you go home and come back again?

JD: The next day, yes, but not that day.

MG: That’s a long walk from Tinsley to …

JD: No, you’ve mistaken me. I’m perhaps confusing you slightly because we were bombed out in Attercliffe, we moved up to Handsworth again, where relatives lived, and then the house that we’d lived in at Darnall, our next door neighbour, Her house was empty; she had gone away from Sheffield at the time I suppose because of the bombing, so she let us have her house until the Corporation provided us with the Tinsley house.

MG: I see, that’s interesting.

JD: So it was from Darnall, Thornville Road it’s called. From there down to Attercliffe library.

MG: So how old were you when you made that long journey, the few miles to borrow the Dr Doolittle and then come back? How old do you think you were when you took out Dr Doolittle?

JD: Well I was certainly at grammar school at that time. It might have not been Dr Doolittle, I know I read Dr Doolittle, it could have been some other because, with the disapproval I might add, of the librarians of the time, I started borrowing adult books. Edgar Wallace was my favourite but there were others, Agatha Christies and all the usual. So it could have been one of those that I’d read you know, because I was a quick reader. That’s my problem now, I’ve got macular degeneration in the left eye; my right eye is OK but it’s been spoiled by the left eye, if you know what I mean. I read so quickly that the ordinary magnifying glass is no good to me so at the moment I am exploring with the low vision unit, a way of getting a whole page magnifier.

MG: So these Edgar Wallace, you got them from a municipal library did you?

JD: Oh yes. In those days there were a very popular read.

MG: And what about Zane Grey, did you ever borrow them?

JD: I wasn’t a great fan. I know of Zane Grey, yes, cowboy books of course. I know of them but I wasn’t a great fan of cowboy books in those days. Nowadays I love ‘em! Mainly because they are short and they’re all more or less the same pattern, vey moral.

MG: Quite a few people have said they got their Zane Greys and Edgar Wallace and their sort of entertainment from Red Circle libraries. You didn’t use those?

JD: No, I didn’t. There were two … we weren’t rich enough to be quite honest. There were two, the nearest Red Circle library that I know about, there could have been others, was at Darnall and it was in a couple of shops that had been knocked through but if I’d wanted to borrow them privately rather than municipal, I would have gone to Boots in town because their top floor, half of the top floor was Boots library. But better still there was the top floor that was the library and I think there was photographic equipment and stuff like that. Then there was the main floor with the pharmaceuticals and other and then there was the basement. Now Boots Bargain Basement was famous because all stuff that had been damaged on the way here, boxes damaged rather than the goods themselves, was downstairs, and similarly with books. When books became well, either unfashionable or even perhaps unreadable or perhaps not in a fit state to loan out, they went down to Bargain Basement and you could pick those up for a penny a time.

MG: Could you?

JD: Oh yes.

MG: Can you remember any of the books you have bought?

JD: No I can’t. Except I do remember one and I’m a little bit miffed about that because it was an old Atlas of the World, New Zealand at that time was still Van Diemen’s’ Land or whatever. I took this home and thoroughly digested it; it was just a book of maps I suppose, or perhaps a gazetteer and probably when we were bombed it probably stayed in the house. It’s quite likely.

MG: Shame. But the Boots Bargain Basement was a really good source?

JD: That was the source.

[My uncle] used to give me a ha’penny to go down to one of the cinemas depending on what they wanted. The nearby one was called The Regal, at the bottom of Staniforth Road and then farther down Attercliffe Common as it was called there was The Adelphi, then The Globe and then I think The Pavilion. I think they all still in existence.

MG: Four?

JD: There were four, yes. Attercliffe was a very populous place. Don’t forget there were rows and rows of steelworkers’ houses, back-to-back in some cases. I remember when we started to get our Anderson shelter in the back yard of St. Charles Road, I’d often wonder why there were six houses in the yard, three at each side of the passage and there was a strip of two or three flags wide of flags and then the rest of the place was asphalt and then there were the outside toilets of course. Those we had to share. I think there were about three of four toilets for the whole yard. When we started to dig down through the asphalt to put the Anderson shelter in (when I say ‘we’ I mean my uncles, they discovered there was soil underneath and pigsties). So at that time in the middle of what is now a very, or was then, a very heavy industrialised place, had been smallholdings at one time.

MG: So you passed your Eleven Plus and you went to Firth Park.

JD: That’s right.

MG: And do you think you …

JD: When I was searching these out I found the actual letter that they sent from the Education Committee that told me that I’d been allocated to Firth Park Secondary School.  Don’t forget in those days, the ordinary school you know, not what we call grammar schools now, but the ordinary schools, there was infant, junior and senior. Secondary schools were what we now call grammar schools. So when I went in ’38 it was Firth Park Secondary School. I remember this Education Bill changed it to Grammar School and we had to go altering all the SS to GS.

MG: So when you got to that school do you feel you got at education that really equipped you for further study?

JD: It was an all boys’ school. I didn’t realise what a disadvantage that was going to place me at, at that time, but it did. Did it equip me? I was fast to learn, so I could say that, what shall we say, I enjoyed learning. I still do come to that. When I watch television at night, it’s very, very rare perhaps only once in an evening that I have a fiction thing on. Last night, was it last night? Or was it the night before? I had that school one on, what they call it? You know this one that has been moved up to Scotland? My memory plays me tricks. I’ve not lost it but I can’t recall instantly. This school, I watched that but it was fiction of course, and the rest of the night I was watching non-fiction. That is a typical night, yes.

MG: And when you were a teenager was that true as well?

JD: I was always interested in learning, yes.

MG: So which teachers, if any, really inspired you to learn?

JD: I can’t say that any teacher inspired me but I can say when I was in the Sixth Form one teacher annoyed me! He never seemed to teach us anything. He was on about logic and stuff like that, he was supposed to be teaching mathematics and I was interested to learn mathematics not logic. They might have been the same thing for all I knew and I actually remember at one time saying to him, ‘I’m sorry Mr. Gigg’, and that was his name, ‘I’m sorry that you are not teaching me anything, you are a rotten teacher.’ He grabbed hold of me by the scruff of the neck. This was an eighteen year old remember, or 17 getting on towards eighteen, and he carted me off to the Head Teacher who was a man called Mr. Padfield and he said, ‘Leave him with me’. He gave me a good talking to and said, ‘Now go and apologise’, which I had to of course. By the time I’d cooled down I did but we never felt the same about each other!

MG: But it didn’t put you off going into teaching which is what you did, isn’t it?

JD: Well there were lots of what I call good teachers. I mean he may have been a good teacher, I don’t know, but there were lots of what I call good teachers who I actually admired. One of them, he must have been very much ahead of his time, it was in 1938, he was teaching French by having French coins and stuff like that which was very, very unusual in those times. I remember when I moved into his room for French, of course we moved round in those days, the teacher had his own subject room and we moved to it, probably four times in the day. I remember going to the wall and looking at all these French coins that had been fastened to the wall and pictures and records and he actually taught us French songs. Now that in those days was extremely unusual in 1938. Later on he became the Deputy Head. I am not surprised really. A man called Wetherall.

MG: So you got enough education to enable you to go on where? Where did you go after the school? You went on to the college?

JD: The college, yes.

MG: But that was, first of all you went into the RAF after you left school.

JD: Yes, I started at college but I’d only been there a month and I was called up.

MG: So when you went into the RAF did your reading take a bit of a back seat or did you go on reading?

JD: Well [laughs], hmm yes, it’s a peculiar situation in that I was in the RAF, yes, but what had happened is that at that time they were demobbing everybody who had been in for a long period of time. With each batch of newcomers, you didn’t choose what you wanted to do in the RAF; they told you what they wanted to replace the people who were being demobbed out of there. I became a storekeeper. A storekeeper, yes. I suppose mathematics and reading all that came into it, yes it was. But for the first part of my training we were near Blackpool, then the storekeeper, I was transferred to another place again near to Blackpool, Wheaton, Warton, Freckleton, yes these names. I think, memory plays you tricks, especially after a time, we are talking about 60 years ago. I think I was due to go to Burma because the war hadn’t finished with Japan and they were still fighting the Japs in the Burmese jungle, yes. I’d never been vaccinated as a child so when they vaccinated me to go overseas, as indeed they did all the batch, I caught vaccine fever which put me in hospital. You see I wouldn’t have been in hospital in civilian life, I would have been in bed at home, but in the RAF you can’t stay in bed all day in the barrack so I was put in the hospital. At the end of that time I was given some leave and by the time I got back my batch had gone. So I was then a loose cannon if you like. So they put me on to a squad who went round closing RAF airfields and American ones too.

MG: So you were busy?

JD: Very busy, yes.

MG: So did you have time to read?

JD: I can’t ever remember reading while I was in the RAF. I honestly can’t, no I can’t. I probably read a paper, a newspaper, but I can’t even remember that. No, I can’t remember.

MG: That’s interesting. Some men have mentioned that when they were in the army the novels of Hank Jansen were quite popular. You never came across those?

JD: No.

MG: No. So …

JD: I do remember we shut down an American … not a large number … about ten of fifteen in this group that went round stations closing. I do remember we went to this American station to close it down and the things I went for were the records. The Americans at that time had a scheme called V Discs. You’ve never heard of V Discs?  All artists like, well Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, all that sort of artist, they went into recording studios and recorded special V Discs for the forces which were then distributed to all the American stations. I think somewhere still in my loft I’ve still got some of these V Discs left and they were not the versions that were on sale to the public, they were especially recorded. Although sometimes, for instance with Dick Haymes, I used to like Dick Haymes, and one of his films was oh … memory again sorry. One of his films was about an Irish composer called Ball and Irish Eyes Are Smiling. You see I can remember it’s just a matter of not often, not … and I got this V Disc and it was all the songs from the film that had been recorded from the film soundtrack as they do commonly nowadays but in those days it was unusual. I mean a 78 record was nothing from a soundtrack.

MG: That’s interesting.

JD: Incidentally this isn’t strictly in your remit I know, but each 78 had a number on. Most of Bing Crosby’s were recorded in Los Angeles and the number was prefixed by LA and then suddenly for some reason, which I couldn’t fathom at the time, we were getting records with XYZ and a number on and I thought, ‘Where have these been recorded?’ Now what had happened is that the record company sent the Flying Fortresses that came over, flew over and landed in Freckleton, that was where I was stationed and they landed there before they were distributed to airfields throughout the country and the record company used to get the pilots or somebody to take over a record, or a matrix I should say, to stamp records from but very often they were shot down or something and the records never reached this country so they would borrow a record from a serviceman and make a master from that. So it wasn’t an original that had come from America as it should have been and that was why the XYZ was put on because it was made from these smuggled in records if you like, that the forces were bringing over with them. Also they were 78s and they were shellac and they broke, but some got through obviously.

MG: And it made a difference to you.

JD: Oh it made a difference to me. Yes, we got all the latest American just as today the teenagers do the same.

MG: So when you got back from the RAF and went back to college, what subject did you study there?

JD: On my Higher School Certificate there were three principal subjects which was mathematics, chemistry and physics but in those days the teachers were cute as I am sure they are today and they realised that you couldn’t get a school certificate unless you’d got these three subjects, principal subjects, unless if you got one of your subjects at less than pass they could do it as a secondary subject. So we had to take another secondary subject because two secondary subjects made up one principal. So I got maths, physics and chemistry and then I did applied maths so that if I’d failed in any of those three this applied maths added to the failure would have given me a pass.

MG: Yes. That’s a challenging group of subjects. So what did you then study at college?

JD: The same more or less. But don’t forget I had a three-year gap.

MG: So you came out of college at ’49?

JD: Well ’50. My first, I finished college in June or July whichever ’50 and my first teaching post was in ’50.

MG: Where did you teach?

JD: Woodhouse. Not grammar school of course but Woodhouse Council School as it was in those days. Woodhouse, yes Woodhouse. There is a second school called Woodhouse West which is at the other end of the village.

MG: Were you teaching maths or science?

JD:  No, I opted to teach juniors so I did maths but of course I did everything else as well.

MG: So you taught juniors and during your time in teaching at Woodhouse did you start to read again much for pleasure?

JD: Well I needed to didn’t I? A lot of the subjects that the children wanted to know about and were in the syllabus I was not exactly ignorant but I’d probably not been in touch with them for years. Yes.

MG: So it was mostly reading for your job?

JD: I would have said so, yes.

MG: What about newspapers or magazines?

JD: Ever since certainly since I’ve been married and probably before I’ve had a daily paper and it is only in the last couple of years that I have stopped that because I’ve never got time to read it. Some days it was never opened and of course my eyes …that’s a problem with newsprint.

MG: Yes, and what about books in the house John? I meant to ask you this earlier, did your family have books in the house much?

JD: Well my grandfather, who, as I say I lived with.

MG: Your mother’s father?

JD: Yes, my mother’s father. He was a steelworker all his life. He was born in Rotherham and he moved out to Woodhouse Mill where there was a steel works at that time, I don’t know if it’s still there, as a labourer. My grandmother, she was a country girl in little village called Fence and her father was a winder at Fence Colliery. In those days there was a colliery there, only a small colliery but it was there. Of course they courted and married and that was it. They decided he would probably get a better job in Sheffield so they moved to Sheffield to Darnall and then he got a job in Sheffield and more or less lived with that job the rest of his life.

MG: So did they bring any books with them?

JD: No, I was going to tell you this. My grandfather I think, I’ve no proof of this, but I’m pretty sure that my grandfather was quite a brainbox. My grandmother, she was very nice and you know, we got on well and all of that sort of thing but she was very much a housewife. Of course my grandfather worked 12 hour shifts in those days, there weren’t eight hours and stuff like that, he liked to do intellectual things within his capacity and within his finance as well. They were never what you would call well off. He used to take a magazine called John Bull.

MG: Oh yes! Yes.

JD: And John Bull, they had loads of competitions in. There was something called ‘Bullets’, you know ‘Bull-ets’, John Bull and they started off a sentence and you had to finish it off and it was how you finished off that was the competition. In other words it wasn’t just a filling in squares or there was no actual solution, it was … I remember some of his ‘Bullets’ but some of them have gone. For instance one, he used to remember this one, because he won a prize with it. It was ‘Jazz…’ and then the rest of the thing was blank. He wrote after it, ‘Sir Henry wouldn’t’ – ‘Sir Henry Wood –n’t’.

MG: How nice. Yes.

JD: Yes, he was quite a clever man. I think that any brains that I have were via my mother.

MG: So she was an able woman as well as your grandfather?

JD: Oh yes, she was. She could have done a lot more than she ever did with her life but I don’t think she regretted it at all.

MG: That’s wonderful. So you are running this reading group now at Gleadless?

JD: No, we are not running a reading group, we are running a coffee morning with discussion encouraged. Not a reading group.

MG: I see. Not a reading group. So you don’t discuss books particularly in this reading group.

JD: No. It may just come into it. Somebody may say, ‘Oh I borrowed this book and it was OK’ or perhaps describe features of it but no. It’s a social occasion because a lot of the people nowadays we are getting a different kind of clientele who do things but when we first started this group it was for people who were old and not able to get about much. For instance across the road there is a lady called Elsie, I think she has gone into a home now, and her friend was called Vera, lived across the road, she had a 90th birthday and we give her a party in the library here. They just didn’t get out anymore. Their big occasion once a month at the Methodist Church at the end, they have a lunch on the first Saturday of the month and the big occasion was going to that lunch. So coming here was an extra, once a week if you like, rather than once a month.

MG: But when I was talking to you all a few months ago most of you were readers actually.

JD: Like I say, the clientele over time has changed. It’s not only the clientele that’s changed, the people have changed. People would have at one time just sat in the house and knitted or read a book or perhaps watched the television. They are now younger looking. They are not younger, they are still the same age, but they are now getting out on the free transport and get to town. Joan is a good case, if she doesn’t go out on a day then it’s a bad day for her.

MG: That’s excellent isn’t it? So going back to your reading during this life because you spent your whole working life as a teacher in Sheffield. What books in that adult life have you really enjoyed?

JD: Oh. I’ve always enjoyed crime books. Edgar Wallace of course was my favourite but I still read the Just William books. I’ve got some in my house and I still read the Edgar Wallace, especially the River books. Now they were a cut apart. Edgar Wallace was such a … he had to write fast because he incurred such debts in America, gambling. He needed a book a week to keep him afloat financially. I think he did it in a Dictaphone and then had it typed up. That would be the norm those days I suppose. I can remember in several stories he started off with the hero’s name as being Jones and by the end it had become Smith because he’d gone so fast he remembered it was a common name. So his crime books Four Just Men and things like that were flimflam but his River books, those were different because he’d been a reporter on one of the big London … and he’d been sent to Africa I think, Boer War and such like. From memory, I may be not remembering right, I think he’d gone into Africa, the Congo and that, perhaps as part of the British Colonial process and as a reporter writing, I’m not sure if it was The Times, it was one of the big heavies, the daily heavies in London. So his stories were authentic if you know what I mean. They were stories and they were fiction but the backgrounds and the people were authentic and I enjoyed that.

MG: That sense of reality reflected in the novel.

JD: In the novel, yes.

MG: So did you read much actual history?

JD: History? Do you have a time for finishing?

MG: We’re fine for another ten minutes. Is that all right for you?

JD: Yes, yes. History was badly taught at school. It was all dates and battles and Kings and Queens. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I think that apart from Latin, history was I think just about my worst subject but when I came out and started with children we then talked about other things than dates. Of course they were younger children, juniors, and I got an interest then in history from a different viewpoint completely. This is why I enjoy archaeology.

MG: Is that another interest?

JD: Well I spend Saturday mornings glued to More4, the digital channel, where they keep repeating Time Teams ad infinitum. They get three or four in every Saturday morning and I get up and watch them all through Saturday morning unless I am doing something, you know,  that has to be done.

MG: Do you find historical novels interested you?

JD: Not particularly because again most historical novels deal with dates and battles and things and I’m not really interested in that but I am interested in other countries. All these television programmes, I love them. This new series that’s been repeated on the Tudors.

MG: Excellent.

JD: On BBC4. Yes, excellent.

MG: Absolutely. So a classic question is if you only had one, perhaps two books, to take away with you what they be?

JD: On a desert island. [Laughing] It wouldn’t be the Bible. I have never been a great one for religion. I don’t know really. I know this sounds stupid but one of them would probably be what they call several books together in one volume.

MG: A compendium?

JD: No, not a compendium. Come on, tha’ knows lass!

MG: A trilogy?

JD: No. Not a trilogy. It’s got a name. Anyway several books together and I would like one of those with all the River stories in.  That would be one and the second book would surprise you, it surprises me but it’s true. I would love to have a gramophone catalogue going back to the early days. I would sit and read it and go over it again and again and again. It would last me a lot longer than any book.

MG: How interesting. So do you have a big gramophone collection of your own?

JD: Yes I do.

MG: Do you? 78s?

JD: 78s yes, but now mainly CDs of course and DVDs.

MG: So are you a musician yourself?

JD: No.

MG: No, but you just love listening to music?

JD: I just like listening to music, yes.

MG: How interesting.

JD: I was listening to a programme today on Radio 4 at half past 12, half past 11 sorry. It was about music and I agreed with everything the man said about it you know. It’s an experience, it’s not … I’ve forgotten a lot of what, well I’ve not forgotten it but I would need time to recall it. Yes, music. I love it. Listening. But of course most of the critics can’t play either.

MG: One of the things we often ask is do the words highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow mean anything to you?

JD: I am very lowbrow.

MG: You feel you are lowbrow?

JD: Oh yes.

MG: Do you really?

JD: Very much.

MG: What makes you say that?

JD: Well, because I like lowbrow things! My record collection was dance bands of the 30s and 40s and big bands. So in Britain you’d have Roy Fox, Ambrose, Lew Stone, Roy Fox, no I’ve said that haven’t I? Oh and that sort of thing.

MG: Great. So would the word highbrow for you be a word of criticism or just not your thing?

JD: My motto has always been ‘live and let live’. Let ‘em live with it if they want it, that’s them.

MG: Absolutely. So are there any books that you read with pleasure when you were younger that you wouldn’t read now?

JD: I can’t remember the ones that I did read except Dr Doolittle and Agatha Christies. I think you see Agatha Christie was my … I could borrow her books there were so many of them. I could borrow them and I could reread them. They were good of their time but they are very dated now. I don’t know who the script writer is who scripts these Poirot things but he … I think he picks out modern things rather than just slavishly copies the book.

MG: I agree, yes. It’s interesting you go for these writers who have written a lot. So do you like that getting an author who you enjoy and reading lots of that author?

JD: Oh yes, yes I do.

MG: I’m trying to think of another one who wrote …

JD: Hamish Macbeth?

MG: Oh yes, yes. Absolutely.

JD: That one from New Zealand. I never knew how to say her name.

MG: Ngaio Marsh.

JD: Ngaio Marsh.

MG: She’s interesting isn’t she? A lot of those thirties novelists, crime novelists are really interesting to reread aren’t they? They give you a picture of the period.

JD: When you think about novels today, not just crime novels, but social novels as well, most of the writers are women. Have you noticed that?

MG: They are a lot of them, aren’t they? It’s true.

JD: Yes. I don’t know if it’s because they have more time than men.

MG: I don’t know.

JD: They marry a rich man and they can write novels the rest of their life or something or whether they just enjoy doing it, I don’t know.

MG: Did you read Dorothy Sayers?

JD: I did read Dorothy Sayers, yes.

MG: Did you like her stuff?

JD: All right, yes.

MG: Not much?

JD: Not as good as some of the others.

MG: Margery Allingham?

JD: Yes, I liked hers.

MG: Well it’s wonderful to hear your reading story John. Thank you ever so much. The one last question is do you think there are any ways in which reading has changed your life?

JD: I wouldn’t say it had changed my life, that would be wrong. I think I have done what I wanted to do, reading or not, but I would say it has made life more pleasant.

MG: Absolutely. So you read for pleasure?

JD: Yes. At the moment, as I say, I’ve got this what-you-call-it in my eye …

MG: Macular degeneration.

JD: Yes. See my memory plays me tricks, my short term memory. Very much so. Macular, macular, you see it comes to me after a few seconds, macular. This causes me that I can’t read a newspaper without a magnifying glass which frustrates me because I will be like that if it’s too much. My one fear is that it could come in the other eye and I wouldn’t be able to read. That would be a tragedy. I would give up then I think, yes.

MG: Thank you very much John and very good to talk to you.

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Off to Brid in 1927

Mary was born in 1923. She has lived all her life in the suburbs to the west of Sheffield, far from the smoke of the factories in the east side of the city where her father worked as an industrial chemist. There were books in the house and it was her sister who read them to her before she could read herself.

Mother seemed to be too busy. Father would read after Sunday lunch until he fell asleep but my sister was the one who read to me. She was two and half years older and she would always read to me when I was little.

And this was despite being taunted by the tiny Mary when she was reading. ‘Reader reader!’ was the insult hurled to drag her sister back into her world to pay her some attention. She left her brother alone with his Beanos. Though reading was encouraged, the chores came first. Then the girls could retreat to their bedroom where Mary’s sister read to her.

Mary and her sister on Bridlington sands in 1927. Mary on the right.

Bedtime was reading-time for ‘the children’s books of the day’. First there were nursery rhyme books followed by Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and the stories of Mabel Lucie Attwell. As a school girl she treasured What Katy Did and the Girl’s Own annuals she was given at Christmas. None of these books was borrowed. All came into the house as gifts because the children were not taken to the library and were certainly not allowed to go on their own: ‘we weren’t allowed out of the end of the road you know’. But the family nevertheless encouraged reading. ‘Oh yes that was our main means of entertainment. Going to the cinema and reading’.

On Sunday we always had the roast lunch, Sunday lunch time and the fire would be [lit] … they were biggish houses down on Westwood Road. And we always read after Sunday lunch. We had lots of armchairs and that is where we always read. Mother, my sister and I – I don’t think my brother did.

One Christmas Mary’s father bought his two daughters the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, about 12 volumes.’That was our greatest source of delight. We learnt everything we knew.’ When Mary took her first independent steps to find books, it was on behalf of her mother. In 1939, having just left school, Mary was living at home and waiting to be called up.

So I used to go to the library for mother and she liked Mary Burchell, Ethel M Dell. And I used to go to the local Red Circle library … and I’d get some books for her when you paid tuppence a time to join and I would read very light romances. I always felt guilty because, you know, you didn’t read those kind of things then.

When an Ethel M Dell got a little ‘spicy’, Mary would read it hidden under the bedclothes by the light of her torch. Later on Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind would also be read by torchlight.

Mary went to a fee-paying convent school. The nuns were interested in poetry, ‘gentle things’. ‘Poetry was the great thing. Poetry, singing, music.’ So like the children at Sheffield’s elementary schools, Mary and her contemporaries learned a lot of poetry off by heart. But not much else. ‘They were the happiest years of my life but I didn’t learn much! But that’s me, a lot of them did’ so The Red Circle Library on the Moor was the institution from which she ‘graduated’ –  to the Central Library which was to become her ‘greatest delight’. Until she couldn’t walk, Mary went there every fortnight: ‘I loved it’.

Mary looks back in amusement at the thrills she and her mother got from the romantic novels of Ethel M Dell and E M Hull. ‘They got as far as the bedroom door, “and then the door closed”, and that was it.’ She also enjoyed the cowboy books of Zane Grey. ‘It was war days, very dull days and you escaped, as you do now. You escape into another world when you read.’

But her choices from the Central Library were more serious and ‘gritty’: Nevil Shute, Alan Sillitoe, A J Cronin, Howard Spring, H E Bates and John Braine. The novel by H E Bates she remembers is The Purple Plain, describing the survival of three men in Japanese-occupied Burma. Though Bates is more usually associated with his rural novels about the rollicking Larkin family, Mary preferred the ‘stronger’ war novel to the more ‘frivoty’ Darling Buds of May. She also became a serious reader of historical novels. She and her sister shared a taste for Anya Seton. ‘I realised that I liked history far more than I ever did when I was at school.’ When Sue, the history teacher who was interviewing Mary, commented that this didn’t say much for the teachers who taught her, Mary acknowledged this but defends them.

Nuns, you know – bless ‘em, they were lovely, it was a lovely school but I don’t think I learnt a lot. As I say, the war was coming up and it was a very bad time. I left in 1939 as the war started and it broke into anything you were going to do.

Mary was called to serve in the NAAFI shop in a detention camp ‘for the fliers who had flipped their tops a bit with their terrible job. And they were sent to us for three weeks and they used to pile into my shop. Quite an exciting time’, so there was not much reading.

When Mary became a mother, she was on her own with her first baby because her husband was away a lot. It was difficult to travel down to the Central Library with the baby so, in the early 1950s, Mary returned to using a twopenny library in a newsagent’s shop at the bottom of her road. Both this and another she used were simply a couple of shelves full of novels but the stock must have changed regularly because she always found something to read in the evenings when she had ‘got the baby down’.

She was quite discriminating about the degrees of seriousness she would go for. She was absorbed by Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild but was never attracted to adventure books. Though John Braine was depressing ,his books were well written. She never developed a taste for ‘Galsworthy – the heavier ones’. She definitely ruled out ‘these great novels where it starts with, “She’s the kitchen maid, terrible hard life…” You know very well she is going to marry the Lord of the Manor!’

While Mary is enthusiastic about the authors she loves, like P G Wodehouse, she is absolute in her condemnations too.

I did not [with emphasis] like American books. I still don’t. I think it is the language. . . .  It’s not so much the swearing, it’s the style.

Mary shared a love of reading with her husband but when the children were small, it was the cinema that was the greatest treat. It was a pleasure they shared but not in each other’s company.

Well when we lived down Carter Knowle Road, I mustn’t keep you but when Andrew was a baby I would get him washed or whatever and then run all the way to the Abbeydale and watch the first house and run all the way back and then David would have got Andrew to bed and then he would go to the second house.

File:Abbeydale Cinema - Abbeydale Road 26-03-06.jpg

Mary is clearly open to any suggestion about what she might read. She described the taste that her husband had for Dickens and asked Sue whether or not we had found that Dickens is more of a man’s book.

Sue: I do like Dickens. He is my favourite.

Mary: Do you really? I should have given him a go, shouldn’t I? Given him a go. I think it is a bit too late now.

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