Kath and Ken M

Kath and Ken M

Kath was born on 3 February 1928.  Ken was born on 27 April 1924.

They are being interviewed by Clare Keen on 16 November 2011.

Clare Keen: Ken was born in…

Ken M: 1924.

CK: 1924, right, and lived in…. Which part of Sheffield did you live in?

Ken: Fir Vale.

CK: Between 1945 and 1965?

Ken: 1945?

Kath: Yes, we went to live in rooms at one point about that time.

Ken:  … 1945. I thought you were going further back than that you know.

C : Oh right, no, I’m looking at 1945. So you were born in Fir Vale. And do you know how long you lived there?

Ken: We lived there for … oh till I was about 20 years odd.

CK:  Oh right, so yeh, we are looking at that time then. And where did you move to after that?

Ken:  Well, when we were married, we moved first to Ecclesall and then to, … here really.

CK:  Right.

Kath: We lived in Frecheville for a short period, in a corporation house over on the side of a hill. And then when Ken’s mother came to live with us ‘cos she was getting older and not able to do things we, …, bought a house here, just over the hill, sort of thing, you know.  So that was quite useful really, so we didn’t have to move away from a lot of friends and schools and so on.

CK: Yes, so you were married in Fir Vale?

Ken: Yes. In St Cuthbert’s Church.

[Both laugh.]

CK:  Right. So, Ken, did anybody read to you when you were young?  Anybody read books to you?

Ken:  I expect me mother and father read to me. But from a very early age I can remember getting books as presents. And everybody in the family read. And my sister, older than me, was an avid reader and, er, she sort of passed it on to me. And of course I read all the boys’ books that you would have. You know, tuppenny bloods and all that sort of thing, school stories and that, which were really funny. By today’s standards rather silly, I expect, but I used to think they were marvellous. And then Firth Park library opened when I was about ten, I should think. And, … I was first able to go and use a public library and the very first one I got was the thickest one I could find, called The Great Aeroplane Mystery by Percy F Westerman. Absolute rubbish, of course, but it was a thick book so, … You could only borrow one book a week then. It wasn’t till later that it got to change but of course books were always around.  I mean, from quite early on my sister would have quite … novels that my mother and father frowned on, you see, but that I used to read as well!

CK:  Can you remember what these novels were that your mother and father frowned on?

Ken: Istanbul Train [Stamboul Train] and all those stories … you know, harmless by today’s standards of course. But then – very risqué the books were. But apart from that we always had loads and loads of books and there was a tuppenny library down at Fir Vale shops that had a huge selection of stuff and of course that’s where you read all the humorous books. [to Kath] What was the woman you used to like?

Kath: Somebody Baker.  Mm, I can’t remember now.

Ken: All the popular novels.  Leslie Charteris – ‘The Saint’ books. All those sorts of things. Then of course there was all the technical reading to do at school, you see, Latin, French, things like that.

CK: Your school text books. Did you have books at home?

Ken: Yes, yes, tons of books.

C K: So your parents were readers?

Ken: My mother was quite an avid reader, wasn’t she? Those novels of the time, I’m trying to think of the woman’s name – she was a novelist of that period. Loads of them.  And Woman’s Weekly – all those sorts of papers.

CK:  Mm. So what were the first books that made you feel you were now reading really grown-up adult books? Can you remember?

Ken:  I expect it’s when I went to grammar school that I first got on to other things. An English master who was a brilliant man put me on to all sorts of good books. And he was a very opinionated bloke. He used to think that all the best writers were people like Lytton Strachey and all that lot. You know – the Bloomsbury outfit and all those people.  But also, Kath introduced me – and I met her very early on – to all Sholokhov’s books. Quiet Flows the Don and all those Russian novels.

Kath: And Chinese books. Famous Chinese novels.

Ken: And we were very serious then, weren’t we, about politics.

Kath: Revolutionaries, really. I think a bit that way anyway.

CK: Oh yes, very interesting.

Ken:  And there were loads and loads of pamphlets, political pamphlets. They were all the rage then. And then the war started of course. And then my school closed down.  So I had to change my ideas and I went in the works as an apprentice and then as a draughtsman afterwards. But during the war that was all you could do, read books, with very little other entertainment. Certainly nothing like the radio or TV as there is now so you were thrown onto books and written material, newspapers.

Kath: Your Dad made the wireless, didn’t he? Did you help him when he did it?

Ken:  Oh yes, I remember our first radios. But the programmes were terrible. Apart from Children’s Hour which, again, was mostly made up of reading books. Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons and all those books. These we’ve all got upstairs.

Kath:  We re-read them every now and again. So entertaining.

CK:  Did Quiet Flows the Don have a big impression on you, do you remember?

Ken:  It did really, yes, cos it opened your eyes to how people lived in the Soviet Union, in Old Russia. Really suffered. A life that was so hard and tough. Dreadful. A life that is incomprehensible to us. And loads of other books we read. And Das Kapital.

Kath:  I don’t think I remember reading that.

Ken:  I do. I used to sit up in bed, ploughing my way through that.

CK:  And what did you think of that?

Ken: I thought it was brilliant. [Laughs]

CK:   Ah, you were revolutionaries.

Ken: Loads of quotations and things from it. Brilliant! But, …, we’ve always read all sorts of books. We’ve very catholic taste. We never were tied up to one set of things.

Kath:  Nowadays what we do is that books go round the family. My niece is an avid reader. She brings books that she’s bought for tuppence or fourpence or whatever from charity shops. And we end up then all swapping those, reading them and passing them on and giving them away to anyone that wants one. What was that one, Chocolat, was it called? I thought it was a lovely story. And the of course there was – was he Swedish? – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and all those. We read one after the other of those cos they were so intriguing. [pause] Is that too late?

CK:  Well, yes, but it’s still interesting.

Kath:  What else was there? Oh, all those Sharpe stories, of course. Sets of three.  Have you read them?

C K:  Tell me about them.

Ken:  Mostly in Spain. Wars of the Peninsula.

Kath:  They were very exciting books. Did he become a major? I think he did in the end.

Ken:  And we read a lot of science fiction – Asimov, you know, ‘Dune’. All those things.

CK:  You do have very catholic taste. What would you say is your favourite genre? You know, historical, political, science fiction…

Ken:  I don’t really know. In humour it’s P G Wodehouse, of course, and all his stories.  But, all the others … we’ve just read everything, haven’t we?

Kath:  Yes.

Ken:  Our son who lives with us, he’s got … his room is stacked up with books as well. He has all sorts of other books as well like Hamilton. So we’ll try them out – see what they’re like – and if we like them we’ll read them. If we don’t we just don’t bother.  But …

CK:  Right. So you’ll start something, see if you’ll enjoy it. Is there any book that stands out as having made an impression?

Ken:  Yes, a book by Philip Gibbs – before he was Sir Philip Gibbs. It was called European Journey. It was set in the 1920s just after the First World War. He’s an artist and a crowd of about six of them toured through France and Germany by car – typical better-off officer-class people. You’ve got to forget all that part of it – because he was a brilliant writer and he writes about Paris and all – really great – just how France is. I love France. He writes about France with real feeling. But it was when he was a comparatively young man. That’s a book I got by sheer chance, just by picking it up. It was old, of course; I’ve still got it upstairs. It’s a lovely book to dip into and just, … read all these bits and pieces now and again.

CK:  Did he inspire you to go to France? Or did you already know it?

Ken:  Oh no. I got it after I’d been to France. I went to France when I was a schoolboy. It was something I never forgot and never lost interest in. So we’ve been lots of times since, riding our bicycles.

[Kath laughs.]

Kath:  Even to a few years back all of us were riding you know. We had the whole family, grandchildren, you name it. It was great. I just wish I felt the same now.

Ken:  We used to have a gîte, you know, a big gîte. Various places we’ve been to in France, exploring and messing around. And it’s been wonderful.

Kath:  I tell you what we missed – other books that we’ve put down like Jane Eyre and all those books. They’ve always been favourites of ours. And I think you can re-read them and find more things in.

Ken:  Pride and Prejudice and all that series, you know, Austen..

Kath:  P G Wodehouse, J B Priestley. All of those. ‘Cos he wrote quite a lot, didn’t he?

CK:  Indeed he did.

Kath: Thomasheen James.

Ken:  Oh yes. Maurice Walsh wrote that: The Man of No Work.

Kath:  It’s about an old Irishman isn’t it?

Ken:  Yes, it’s written in Ireland and it’s …

Kath:  He’s a gardener.

Ken:  A sort of ne’er-do-well gardener, an occasional jobbing gardener and he also gets involved with all sorts of humorous episodes.

Kath:  Oh, they were fun. Really funny. I must try and find another one, you know, get one from Ebay or something.

Ken:  I’ve made a few notes here. H G Wells and a book that he wrote called The Wheels of Chance.

CK:  I don’t know that one.

Kath:  It’s about cycling.

Ken:  Yes, way back in the old days when safety bicycles were just sort of on the go and it’s the story of a man who worked in a draper’s and he sets out and has this adventure on the roads. Oh, very good. Oh and Rider Haggard – all his books – Nada the Lily and all those things.

CK:  Have you got a favourite of his?

Ken:  Quiller Couch – he was great. According to my English master Quiller Couch – Sir Arthur Quiller Couch – was the greatest writer of English there had ever been. He was an essayist, you know, and a teacher. Wrote The Art of Writing and all that sort of business. Really good.

CK:  Would you agree with your teacher then? That he’s one of the greatest?

Ken:  Yeh. Hemingway. Oh, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Fantastic book, that.  Elegant writing, you know. Really. Stunning.

Kath:  We both like well-written books because, I think sometimes they…  You hear people speaking today – they don’t sort of pick up extra words – which we used to do.  At work when I was a young lass there was a woman who was a wonderful person.   She read everything. And everyday I could see her coming and she’d say a word and I’d have to memorise this word, a long word that‘d fit a certain subject. I can’t just think off the top of my head, you know. But it really taught me a lesson, to look, and then I’d get the dictionary out and start looking through for words that I’d baffle her with, you know, but … [laughs] I never did, like, but that was the idea behind it.

CK:  [Laughs.] So you did find that through reading you were educating yourself?

Kath:  Oh yes. Definitely. I must admit that Ken read much faster than I did.  If I don’t understand the first few lines I’ve to re-read them until it goes in here, you know.  And, … so you could speed-read really, couldn’t you, compared with us?

Ken: Well, I had to because I used to … I read so many technical books you see. And so it was a question of getting through them as much as possible and as quickly as possible. And – about that book that we both liked – Fame is the Spur. Howard Spring, isn’t it?

Kath:  Oh yes. That was one of my favourite books.

CK: What did you like about it, Kath?

Kath: Well, it was about people, real people then. You know, making all the mistakes that they did. ‘Cos he was an arrogant person who wouldn’t stop as a ‘nobody’ and became famous and he ended up – you know – being a disappointment. I thought it were true to life. ‘Cos that’s really how most things occur, isn’t it?  Really?

CK: Yes, I know.

Ken:  And the detective writer, Dorothy L Sayers. Absolute elegant writer. And stories like er.. oh, what’s that famous one?

Kath:  Lord Peter Wimsey.

Ken:  Yeh, those books. But there’s one called ‘Gaudy Night’ which is a fantastically written thing. Absolutely wonderful. And it tells you so much about that time when women first, you know, got to go down to Oxford and Cambridge. Well they’d just sort of been admitted to having degrees and what-not. So. But it was written about that time – all of the prejudices and things – snootiness and nastiness that was going on. But it’s an eye-opener. You know, I think a lot of people get put off by the fact that – you know – a  lot of these things are written about what they considered to be ‘toffs’ and people like that. But that’s not the point. You know, it’s the story that counts and the way it’s written. I thought she was a fantastic writer.

CK:  But it was the times as well, wasn’t it? There was snobbery. A lot of class distinctions.

Ken:  Oh yes. Shocking really when you look at it by today’s standards. But if you can’t read a book because that puts you off, it deprives you of so much that’s been written, doesn’t it?

CK:  Yeh.

[Kath offers tea.]

CK:  So was there anybody that made you feel that reading was a waste of time?

Kath:  No. Nobody…

Ken:  Not really. I wouldn’t have taken any notice, anyway. [Laughs.]

Kath:  No, I honestly don’t think anybody we know would say a thing like that. They’d probably be more like us – read a lot, you know, a lot of books.

Ken:  Kath is an avid newspaper reader – The Guardian – aren’t you, dear? You read it cover to cover.

Kath:  [Laughs.] I’m miserable without a large paper with lots of articles in. I read it all day, you know. If I were sitting here not talking to you, I should be reading through the paper.

CK:  Is it the politics or the social comment or…?

Kath:  Oh, mostly the politics. And the social, yeh, mostly that. I get angry and … [Laughs.]

Ken:  It doesn’t matter what we think today, does it? [Laughs.] All our influence is gone for a burton. [Both laugh.]

CK:  I know. It’s all change. Did reading, do you feel, really change your life? How would your life be without reading?

Ken:  Oh, it’d be empty, wouldn’t it? I mean, just think of the things you wouldn’t know. Or opinions you wouldn’t have read. Or places you’d never have gone to because you’d never read about them. Or even imagine going to places.

Kath:  Oh, it would have been dreadful. Absolutely dreadful.

Ken:  I can’t think of life without reading.

Kath:  I can’t. Not at all.

Ken:  It’d be absolutely awful.

Kath:  I mean, my mother and dad – both my parents. Well, like his parents. They both read all the time. My dad was deaf so he couldn’t hear the wireless anyway when that was on. But he just read and read and read. And of course that got passed down to the family – you know, ‘cos there were seven, yes, seven kids.

CK:  Right. So where and when did you have time to read? Was it noisy in the house? Where did you read?

Kath:  Probably I’d just curl up on a chair or something and read and blot out the other people. ‘Cos I don’t ever remember going to bed and reading. My sister – she was a bit older than me – she used to tell me stories out of William books and things like that. And so I never learned to read until quite late for a child. You know, I must’ve been about five or six which, you know, most people could probably read by then, do you not think so Anyway, she used to read to me these stories and I used to then tell the kids at school the stories that I made up about the characters. [Laughs.] William stories I knew off by heart so I could juggle all the – you know – silly things he got up to in all the stories and … just stand there … and tell the rest of the class. And when I think about it now I shudder. You know, I must have been a provocative little girl!

CK:  Maybe you should have been a writer, Kath.

[All laugh.]

CK:  Have you heard Martin Jarvis reading the William stories? On tape?

Kath:  Oh yes. I think the William stories are really funny anyway, aren’t they? I know it’s dated but …

Ken:  Very dated, yeh.

Kath:  ‘Cos they’re ‘posh’.

CK:  But it’s very popular.

Kath:  Yes. It’s the way children behave, you know, They’re so … And you think they’re very daring to put things in other people’s … like worms … I wouldn’t have dared to do anything like that.

CK:  I just love it. Were you ever made to feel embarrassed about what you read? That it was a sort of guilty pleasure? It was a bit lowbrow or … it was too highbrow or … ?

Ken:  I used to be constantly in trouble for keeping the light on in my bedroom, reading. That’s about all. Nobody ever – apart from what we were reading, you know, er …  I think my mother and father thought that they should control what we read but of course they never could, you know, ‘cos we would always read what we really wanted to read.

CK:  [Laughs.] Where did you go to school?

Ken: Down at De La Salle, Sheffield.  Scott Road.

CK: Yes, you said you had a very good English teacher.  He encouraged you to read books?

Ken: Oh, absolutely. Stunning. I mean, we used to have an English room and there used to be favourite things pinned up on the wall.  You know, things like The Land  and all those famous poems.  Things I’ve never forgotten.  I mean all those dreadful poems you had to memorise like The Ancient Mariner  and “Young Lochinvar has come out of the west/Through all the wide borders his steed was the best”.  You know, that sort of stuff and all the classic things – Sohrab and Rustum and all those sorts of things.   But it stamps what you’re going to do if you listen.  And he was a very unusual person. I used to hang on his every word really, I expect.  He never failed to be right in what he’d said.  Well, I think so.  I thought he was bang on the nail with everything.

CK: Do you still read poems sometimes?

Ken: Yes, yes, I like poetry.

Kath: I like some poetry but not all poetry ‘cos it seems sometimes you have a job understanding it.

CK:  Mmm, oh yes.

Kath: You learn poetry at school, don’t you.  And then if it’s a good poem you  memorise it but if it isn’t, well, you forget all about it – like everything else.

Ken: Do kids still do the mechanical part of things at school?  You know, parsing stuff?  And doing all that analysing of poems and all that sort of thing?

CK: Yeh, they will study poetry.  I don’t think they will do grammar parsing like we did.

[Ken laughs]

CK: It is important do you think to learn such things at school?   Did you go to the theatre much?  Or cinema?

Kath: Cinema we probably went to once every two or three weeks but not theatres.  We could never afford it.  We never had the money, did we, to go to see things at the theatre?

Ken:  We used to see quite a bit of amateur theatre which was … I don’t know whether it was er nourishment or punishment!  [laughs] But er lots of people, when I was a kid, lots of people like my parents and my sister and all my friends were all in amateur dramatics, whether belonging to the church or the chapel or whatever it was they were mixed up with. So you always used to be going to see these things but they were pretty rubbish, you know.  They enjoyed doing it so I expect that is really what it was all about.

CK: Did it inspire you to read the play or the book sometimes?

Ken: Sometimes.  I remember going to St Cuthbert’s and watching the start of Hamlet being done. [Kath laughs]  I was doing the curtains you see. And also acting as a prompt.  And I’m pulling the curtains and they came in; they said the first three words and this bloke got up and walked out. [laughs] I’ve never forgotten it.  This bloke right at the front.  He was sort of incredulous.  He got up and walked straight out. [both laugh]

CK: [laughs] That’s pretty quick!

Kath: I mean, nowadays on telly they do plays, don’t they, Shakespeare, and it’s magic.  But, you know, somebody who’s in amateur theatricals – usually they don’t have the right sort of voices for the job.

Ken: I’ve seen plays, you know, Ibsen and all that sort of stuff but it seems very depressing really, miserable stuff, so I never really cared for that much.

CK: Mm.  And what about..  Well, you talked about the library, the Firth Park library.  Were there other libraries that you used? Or bookshops?

Ken: When I worked in town I used the Central Library a lot.  It was a place you could get the more unusual books.   Though Firth Park Library was a good place, wasn’t it Kath?

Kath: Yes.  We used to go down the ‘backwacks’ to it from Shiregreen ‘cos it was ever such a long way and the nearest one was Beck Road School apparently.  (So my sister said, ‘cos she remembers more about the area where we lived then.  I was only a young kid).  But we used to walk all through Concord Park and down all the ‘backwacks’ there.   So we must have ben going soon after it opened up.  But somebody told me it had closed now.

Ken: It has, yes.

Kath: Dreadful, isn’t it. You should never shut any of those places at all.  I think it’s diabolical.

CK:  Mm. Did people choose books for you or did you always choose your own?

Kath: Oh we always choosed our own. [laughs]  But I like books where you make things. You know, I was always wanting to be knitting or sewing or making or doing. So possibly I didn’t read as I got a bit older cos I wouldn’t have the time you know. I knitted for my son and daughter and her daughter and child and so – you know – I never got round to reading in great numbers as I had done in the past.

Ken: Well that’s reminded me, what you just said, ‘cos when I was a kid one of my presents at Christmas – I’d be about nine or ten probably – was the Children’s Encyclopaedia, all ten volumes, by Arthur Mee. You know the ones I mean?

CK: I do.

Ken: I used to gobble those up because they had things in each volume (which must have been that thick I should think) things to make and do.   Things every boy can make.  [Kath laughs]  And none of them I could!  {laughter]  ‘Cos it used to say things like, “Go to your friendly optician and ask for two lenses, a concave and a convex one.  And make your own telescope out of them with cardboard tubes”.   “Go to your grocer, your friendly grocer…”  And I used to think ‘local? ‘friendly’?  They  must live in a friendly place!’  [laughter]  And I used to know Mr Salt, the optician, but I daren’t have asked him for any lenses to make a telescope!

CK: [laughter] Oh dear. How wonderful!

Kath: What age groups did you say you were doing?  End of the war to now?

CK: Well, it’s really the post-war period that they’re interested in most. But …

Kath:  Oh, I see.

CK: I’ve got a list of piles of authors and types of books here.  We’ve got realistic fiction, rural, historical, political..

Kath: You liked rural stories didn’t you?  Who was that chap who used to lie on the ground and study insects and things?

Ken: That’s Fabre, the French entymologist who discovered the Pine Processional Beetle [caterpillars in fact] and all those things.

Kath: They are technical books really, aren’t they?

Ken: I expect so, yes.

Kath: So his love of books really goes over and above, beyond the main, I think.

CK: Mm.  So when you talk about technical books, what kind of work?   Were you doing technical work?

Ken: Yes, yes. Mostly maths and things like that, you know, engineering principles and all that sort of business.  And also I used to do quite a lot of radio so I used to read quite a lot of radio – not magazines – but you know, instruction books and things because I used to build my own television and things like that.  Do you remember that television I built?

Kath: I do, yes.

CK: Really!

Ken: Goodness me!

CK: Well maybe Arthur Mee is to be credited for that!

[All laugh.]

Ken: I used to take it to pieces every week to clean.

Kath: Are they the books people have read, on that list?

CK: These are some, yes, some prompts about people of the time.  So I’ve got H E Bates, Arnold Bennett, John Braine, Warwick Deeping…

Ken: Yes.

CK: John Galsworthy, Rosamund Lehmann …. er  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist.

Ken: Yes, we’ve got that somewhere.

CK: I thought you might. [All laugh.]

Ken: That Evelyn Waugh, all Evelyn Waugh’s books, you know, Vile Bodies and all that business. All those.

Kath: Red Star Over China.

Ken: Howard Spring, that.

Kath: Brilliant, that.  No, it wasn’t Howard Spring.  It was a Chinese bloke.

Ken: I think it was.  It was written by an American, Howard Spring.  He went there as a reporter and he was the first one to meet the Red Chinese and go with them on the Long March.

Kath: I remember about the Long March as there were terrific privations then.

Ken: Mao Tse Tung and all those people. We went to East Germany before the wall was down you know.  We took the children to a children’s camp there and when we were there it was an amazing thing.  All these stories that were written and all these – you know – spy stories written about East Germany and the border and all that?  A lot of them are a whole load of rubbish, you know.  Weren’t they, Kath?  Absolutely.  We used to know this girl – East German girl who was a teacher there – and she used to go across the border every night to go and be entertained in West Berlin.  They were supposed to be at daggers drawn and everything but it wasn’t like that a bit when we were there, was it?  Not a bit.  And it makes you wonder just how the news and everything has been manipulated in the past, you know?  Shocking, shocking.

CK: You wonder, don’t you.

Ken: But there we are.

CK:  [Ken, Kath] Thank you so much.

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Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

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.

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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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