Peter Mason

Peter Mason

Peter was born on the 29th September 1929.

He is being interviewed by Susan Roe on the 28th September 2011.

Susan Roe:  OK, this is an interview conducted by Susan Roe, R-O-E. It is the 28th of September 2011.  I’m interviewing Peter Mason, M-A-S-O-N. He was born in …

Peter Mason:  Believe it or not, the 29th of September 1929.

SR:  Oh, and whereabouts in Sheffield?  …  and where did you live between 1945 and 1965?

PM:  I lived, between 1945 and 1965, I spent just over a couple of years with the Army, in 1947 to the end of 1949, and then from 1949 I lived with my parents in Handsworth. And then in 1953 I got married and, ironically, I still lived in the Handsworth area with my wife.

SR:  OK.  I’m going to sort of ask you some questions about reading now, OK?  Did anyone read to you when you were young?  How, and when, and who?  Did anyone read to you when you were young?

PM:  Eh, yes,…, my parents read to me, and fortunately I had an aunt who had been a teacher until she married my uncle; and of course the rules in those days were, if you got married, you ceased to teach and she ceased to teach, but she was very helpful and, when I first started school and before, my parents were rather dubious about my ability to spell correctly and read, and so my aunt, my aunt Margaret, introduced me, believe it or not, at a very tender age, to crosswords; and from then onwards I had no trouble in spelling or, well, little or no trouble in spelling or in reading, and I more or less grew up as a rather avid reader as a child, because, in the ’30s, there was little or nothing else to do, other than listen to the radio, or read, and the libraries were handy, so, I read.

SR:  What kind of books did you read when you were young?

PM:  Well, well, the normal books that a child would read.  I, I cannot remember what books I read when I first started to read but I can remember, as a boy, I used to read the Adventure stories, the Beagle stories, and that sort of thing, that boys read in those days, and schoolboy stories, and Just William and all those sort of … books.

SR:  …., what were the first books you read that made you feel you were now reading adult books, grown-up books?

PM:  Well, I think that occurred when I went to grammar school and I started reading C S Forester, and various other books that were part of the curriculum anyway, but also I became rather addicted, one way or another, to William Shakespeare, and, erm, his plays, because, again, that was part of the English Literature course we were doing and it just grew from then – C S Forester, Shakespeare and,  … more or less contemporary authors of that ilk.

SR:  Where did you get your books from?

PM:  Well, I got the books either from the school library or basically from the public library which, as far as I was concerned, was, in Sheffield, was the Central Library in Sheffield on Surrey Street.  I would go there, and I don’t think I actually went to the children’s library there, I think I literally started in what was the adult library.

SR:  Did you get any books from friends or family members?

PM: Oh yes, … it’s, … it still is the same. I know I said my birthday is actually tomorrow and I know that from my son I’ve got two books. I don’t know what they are but they’ll be autobiographical and they’ll no doubt be on cricket or something like that, but always I’ve had books from my family and while I was in Forces, if they sent me anything, it was either a book or a magazine.

SR:  Can you talk about any of the books that you read as a young adult that made an impression on you?  Any particular books?

PM:  Well I think the books that I read as a young adult, … let me see. … I read all the, the normal sort of school books that were there; and also I think to a certain extent the books I read were the ones that were more or less attuned to the way of life at that time and I was, I was very eager to read as a boy about Yorkshire in particular, England in particular, or perhaps I ought to say the United Kingdom now.  But that’s the sort of books, historical books that gave me a background to the history; and I also, through my uncle, … read quite a lot of books regarding the International Labour Party, which was frowned upon by parents who were not particularly interested in the International Labour Party [chuckles] but it did give me a background as to where the troubles were etc etc.  And, of course, at the end of the war, it became very obvious that there was going to be a change in the way the political climate in this country was and I was interested, but unfortunately, in those days, you couldn’t vote ’til you were 21 so I, I, I mean, I didn’t do anything really but I was sort of getting a background as to what was happening.  And then, of course, when I did political history and admin and that sort of thing, I had to read all the books as to why basically the local government is as it is today and what the Victorian period and I was very interested in the Victorian period, because the Education Act came out in the late Victorian period and so did the Local Government Act and I think that, really, became the, shall we say, forerunner of local government and education as we know it today.

SR:  Do you remember any of those C S Forester books that you read?

PM:  Yeah, I can remember them but my memory, sort of, of titles is a bit vague these days but if somebody asked me what they were about, I could perhaps tell the, but titles tend to go and, as I’ve got older, I tend to remember the contents of something rather than the outside cover.

SR:  ‘Cos they were about … naval, were they, C S Forester?

PM:  Yes, they were naval, yes, they were about naval books.  I, like most schoolboys, I worshipped the heroes of yesteryear, especially the ones of the First World War my father used to tell me about, and then in the Second World War, with my brother being in the Air Force and being a pilot, I was interested in anything concerned with the Royal Air Force.

SR:  So that’s why it made an impression on you?

PM:  It made an impression on me, yes.

SR:  Because of what was happening.

PM:  Because of what was happening around, yes.

SR:  What, what kinds of books do you really like now?

PM:  Well, basically, I do read fiction but the majority of my books – and I’ve got an extensive library, I must admit, at home – my wife tells me that the back bedroom is full of nothing but my books which I’m sure she’s right – they’re basically on sport, politics, and autobiographies of well-known people from various walks of life, and biographies.

SR:  Why do you like those in particular, do you think?

PM:  I’ve always preferred fact over fiction.  Fiction is, in my opinion, very nice and you can lose yourself in fiction, but at the end of the day, you come back to fact and it’s nice to read about people who have started and had an influence on the world one way or another, whether they’re famous or not so famous.  I, I prefer that sort of book.

SR:  Any examples, can you think of …

PM:  Well, the examples I’ve got, I, I’ve just laboured through – and I’ve got to say that I use the word ‘labour’ in italics … – they, they are previous Prime Ministers, Tony Bla … Tony, what they call him …

SR:  Blair?

PM:  Yeah, I’ve read Bren, I’ve read Brown, I’ve read Dennis Healey and those sort of books, and it’s given me a background to why things happened and the way they happened and the in-fighting that sort of goes along in everybody.  I mean, Tony Blair’s book, for instance, which I found a bit heavy, but led me to believe that he is more of a Liberal than a Labour man.  But that’s just my opinion of reading what was going on and unfortunately you also read about how they stab one another in the back with [Susan laughs] careless abandon and call it politics.

SR:  Yeah, that’s certainly true.  What sort of books did you read when you were on your national service?  You said people sent you books …

PM:  Well, the books then tended to be more fictional and, erm, because they felt that I wanted to be taken away from the humdrum everyday life of being a soldier.  But, …, no, there were some autobiographical books and there were some fictional book[s] but they were mainly fictional in those days because, as I say, I was at a questionable years [sic] of my life – 18 to 21 – and it was only more or less after I finished my education and sort of was married and settled down that I took, I should say, a more mature outlook on life, both reading and everything I did.

SR:  Where did you get most of the books when you were reading as a teenager or a young adult?  Any particular sources?  You mentioned the library …

PM:  Well, the library, the school library and family and friends, you know.  Also I would go in the bookshops because those days books were very, very cheap and one could come across them quite easily.

SR:  Do you remember where these bookshops were?  Any of them?

PM:  Well, there was W H Smiths, which is obvious, and basically I think in those days I must have devoured the Penguin books by the bucket-load ‘cos they were the cheap ones.  They were also paperbacks and one could carry them about with you without lumbering yourself too much.

SR:  Did you go to any other bookshops in town?

PM:  I used to go to other bookshops.  I’m trying to think.  There used to be a bookshop up at the Sheffield University and I can take you to it now.  Well, I could if it was still there, but to what they called it, I don’t know.  But I have dealt with Waterstones and those sort of books over the years through my connection with the education service.

SR:  I’ve got a list here but I’m trying to find out where that would be in the university. [long pause] I can’t …

PM:  No, I think, basically, if my memory serves me correct, the bookshop that we used when we were at Sheffield was on, erm, let me get this right, West Street, almost opposite where the Royal Hospital used to be.

SR:  Oh yes, I know it.

PM:  It was on the corner.  I, I can’t remember the name of the road …

SR:  Is it, erm, Hartley Seed’s …

PM:  Yes, it was Hartley Seed’s.  Yes, it was opposite the Royal Hospital. And they were a bookshop that catered, I must admit, for students, but also they got a very wide background.   You name it, they got that sort of book and they could get it for you.

SR:  Did you ever get any books from newsagents, or anything like that, or Boots or anything?  Boots the chemist sometimes had …

PM:  Occasionally I would perhaps, if I saw a book in a, in a newsagent’s I would get it. But I tended mostly to go to bookshops for them and I was also, I must admit, I did like to  [go] around antiquarian bookshops and see what they’d got.  Old books used to fascinate me – if nothing else, the writing used to get me but, no, and I never kept any of those, I must admit.  I used to part with them.

SR:  Some newsagents had a circulating library, you know.  They lent out books …

PM:  Yes, yes, I didn’t, I didn’t use them, no.

SR:  Did anyone encourage you to read?

PM:  Well, as I say, I was encouraged by, well, ironically, my brother used to encourage me to read because he was six years older than I was so the books he finished he passed to me.  But my parents were avid readers and, as I say, my uncle and aunt, especially later on in life as my uncle was blind and my aunt used to have Braille books that she read to him, and I was encouraged when I saw him [sic] to read to him.  I would read the newspaper to him or something like that.

SR:  So you were encouraged to read.

PM:  I was encouraged to read because, er, I, I was led to believe rightly or wrongly that it widened my knowledge of life full stop.

SR:  Did anybody make you feel that reading was a waste of time?

PM:  No, I don’t think so.  Like all boys, there was a time when I thought I should be outside playing football or cricket rather than reading my homework or doing something, but no, I was never discouraged from reading.

SR:  What about in the Forces when you were, you know …

PM:  In the Forces, we read quite a lot in the Forces, but unfortunately a lot of the books I read I wouldn’t admit to reading today because they were all sorts of, what shall we say, blue books and very blue books etc.  But no, we had … not particularly libraries but in the NAAFI areas and quarters you could get paperbacks which were the modern, y’know, genre.  They were quite good but, as I said, I never appeared when I was in the Forces to have an awful lot of time to read because, when you finish work for the day or whenever it was, we tended to try and get out as fast as we could, y’know, and go and do something else and get some – something away from the camp.  They encouraged us to read and I must admit the army education corps ran courses for quite a number of illiterate soldiers, and I’ve got to say that, when I was called up, my first barracks were Pontefract and we were a mixed bag of 18 year-olds and the chap in the next bed to me was a boy that had been offered the army or six months inside and he’d chosen the army which, as he said afterwards, was his biggest mistake – he should have gone to prison [SR laughs.] – but his problem was that he was illiterate – he could neither read nor write – and I know I used to write home, I used to write his letters for him and I used to read his letters back for him and I did encourage him and I’ve got to say he did go to the army education people and he did learn to read and write, so at least something came out of his military service.

SR:  And, …  where and when did you find time to read over the years, not just when you were in the library, before and after?

PM:  Well, I tend to read on holiday. I tend to read a lot.  I devour newspapers, I used to read the, I used to take the Daily Telegraph and, as you know, there are more pages in the Daily Telegraph than there are in the dictionary at times and I used to devour them and on holiday, always on holiday with my wife and even with the children, I used to take a couple of books to read.  And if, when the children were playing, if they didn’t want Dad around, I would sit and read and I like nothing better than sitting in the sun reading, as I do now and, erm, that was the time I’ve always read in bed.  I, I can’t go to sleep without having spent half an hour with a book before I go lay down and, erm, I tend to read quite a lot.  I don’t, sometimes my wife … and I will go in the other room.  If she’s watching something on television, I will go in the lounge or in dining room, whichever room she’s not in, and I will read because I find that reading is a marvellous way of relaxing.

SR:  And was that the same when you were a young teenager?

PM:  It was the same when I was young.  I, I’ve always found reading relaxing and, as I’ve said, when I was at school, English literature and English grammar I thought were fabulous subject[s]. They were easy – I don’t know why anybody bothered teaching us – they were so easy.

SR:  Were you able to find time to read when you were a teenager?  Did your parents want you to do other things?

PM:  Oh yes, my parents always encouraged me to read and my dad always encouraged me to read the newspapers because he said that was how we got to know what was happening in the world around us before the days of instant television and the radio – … reading about tragedies and things like that.  OK, we were about four days late reading about them but at least we read about them and I found that the, … also reading the newspaper, some of the reporters, or the reports were composed [sic], helped me in my English because they could express, the way they were expressing things I found very interesting  … ‘cos I feel seriously that I, if you’re writing something, the only way you can write correctly is if you are expressing your feelings, and I find that it’s one of the best ways and I have always been a rather inveterate letter writer.

SR:  Yes, it’s a shame, isn’t it?  The email’s replacing letters unfortunately.

PM:  Well, emails.  I, I do email, I must admit, but I find emails – they annoy me: the language, well, the mis-spellings and the misquotes.  I know what they’re saying and I know that that’s the way they do it, but I prefer to see English written as English was supposed to be written.

SR:  Were you ever made to feel embarrassed about what you read, a guilty pleasure?

PM:  Er, no, no, no, no, it’s, … I’ve never felt guilty about reading.  I’ve been told, and I must admit I think they were right, at times I’ve been very rude as I’ve been reading when perhaps I should have been listening more [SR laughs.], but give me a book and I can disappear into it.

SR:  Did you ever read anything because it might improve you – y’know, ‘cos you thought you ought to read it?

PM:  Oh yes, yes.  I mean, apart from the various courses that I’ve had to do, I’ve also read in regard to computers.  I mean, I read as much as I could about computers because I knew that, even though I’ve been retired a long time now, before I retired I had to become a computer-buff because that was the way we were working, and that sort of thing I read about.  I like to read about the new things that are coming out on the block and, mm, y’know, if there’s, what shall we say, … a new car out or anything like that, I like to read about them and I like to read about life in general because I think it’s important that I know how the other half live, whether it’s the other half that are extremely wealthy or the other which are extremely poor, because I think it’s part of my duty to know exactly where they are.

SR:  I mean, you read for your course.  Was it economic history?

PM:  I read for my course and I found that interesting and I also found it very interesting when my son and my daughters were studying.  I found that it was important that I kept up with their studying.  They left my behind in maths, I’ve got to say, because when they got on advanced maths, I thought that’s time I packed in but, no, the rest of the subjects they did I liked to read.  I don’t profess to be an expert in them but I felt at least I could help them and I’ve always encouraged them to read and, again, both of them are inveterate readers and I think we’ve passed it onto our grandchildren ‘cos they read quite a lot as well.  But I do feel that reading does help.

SR:  Are there any books that you read because you thought you ought to read them, because they were sort of highbrow?

PM:  No, I’m not led, I’m not led by convention.  I read what I want to read.  …If somebody tells me, I’ve got to read it then my instant attitude is, no I don’t want to read it.  I want to read because I want to read it and I choose what I want to read.  I don’t not read anything ‘cos I consider that it’s not my views, because I feel that I should embrace everybody’s views so I know what they’re thinking as well as what I’m thinking.

SR:  Are there any books that you read with pleasure when you were young, which you wouldn’t dream of reading again now?

PM:  Well, it’s funny you should say that but I was watching a television programme – As Time Goes By – with Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer in it, and he was, and they were in bed, and he was reading.  She said, ‘What are you reading that for?’ and he said ‘Well, it’s a book I thought I’d read but I don’t think I have read but I want to read it again.’ Now I find that there are a lot of books that at the back of my mind I would like to read again because they brought me pleasure when I was a child and that sort of thing, and I have read one of two books that I must have read years ago and I’ve often wondered why I found them interesting then but, at my age, I’ve got to think, well, I was 60 years younger and therefore had a different attitude.  I believed more and perhaps I was easier to make believe.  I’m afraid that I got more cynical as I grew older.

SR:  So things like Biggles and C S Forester.  Would you read those again?

PM:  Oh, I could read those again.  I could enjoy them again because in it a person can sort of lose himself and you can become Biggles for say half an hour and it’s great to read these stories.  But at the same time I used to like to read about the air aces of the First World War, the real ones, and I was always sorry when I came to when they were killed because invariably they were, but I used to think they’ve had a damn good life, they’ve enjoyed it, what they were doing, and that’s it and I do find that’s, shall we say, an example to the rest of us and, y’know, I don’t know, I suppose reading is my way of escape.

SR:  So things like Biggles, you read them with pleasure.  You might still enjoy them not … but you wouldn’t necessarily turn to them?

PM:  Well I’ve got a, what shall we say, a geriatric view towards them now. [SR laughs] don’t think I could fancy myself being Biggles or Ginger or any of his crew.  But, no, Enid Blyton, I used to like Enid Blyton’s books …

SR:  When did you read those?

PM:  When I was a youngster, yeah, y’know, it’s just one of the things.  It was another example of my aunt telling me you should read those because they’re well-written, and it wasn’t so much that it was Enid Blyton that I was reading, or whatever they were doing, the kids – it was the fact that it was well-written and explanatory, and she said that’s why we should write.

SR: The Enid Blytons – was it Noddy, or the Secret Seven type ones, the Famous Five?

PM:  Oh yes, I, I, all the ones that were, y’know, getting around at the time and, I must admit, at the time I was reading them, I wouldn’t have told my pals that I was reading Enid Blyton because they would have laughed, thinking I should have been out playing football or something else but, no, I found them interesting.  I found Just William books interesting.  I found that a heck of a lot of the books of that period were aimed at the youth of that time.  I find now when I go in the bookshops and I look at the books for children today, as much as when I watch a children’s television programme, I think well I just can’t understand that, it’s not my idea of entertainment or learning, however times have changed.

SR:  I’ve got a list here.  OK, do any of these ring a bell, these adventure ones?

PM:  Oh yes, yes. Edgar Burroughs’ Tarzan books, John Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps, Jeffery Farnol I’ve read …

SR:  Any of his that you remember?

PM:  I can’t remember them but I know I’ve read them.  Rider Haggard’s – obviously the most famous one of his …

SR:  And, was it, King Solomon’s Mines did you read?  And …

PM:  Yeah, Victor Hugo I did read but I always found that Victor Hugo was a bit heavy really.  Jack London, his books were quite good, but on occasion they got to be heavy. Dennis Wheatley I found was quite fun to read because you knew for a fact they were out of this world y’know and that was it.  Beau Geste, I read Beau Geste, I must admit, because I read it after I saw the film and I was very young when I saw the film so that was it.

SR:  Have you heard of him?

PM:  Dornford, yes, I, I think I may have read one of two of his over the years but it’s not been a normal author of mine.

SR:  These are a couple of war novels, y’know, like …

PM:  Well, Eric Williams, The Wooden Horse.  That was, shall we say, when I was with the Army and the TA, it was sort of one of the books that everybody read.  Y’know, that was it, that was how we should be.

SR:  Did you read any thrillers like these?

PM:  Oh yes, erm, let’s see.  Eric Ambler, Victor Canning, Lesley Charteris – the ‘Saint’ novels.  Again I tended to read some of those and they were a bit out of this world.  The Prisoner of Zenda I found was a very good book, and Nicholas Monsarrat, his naval books are extremely good …

SR:  Oh, did he write The Cruel Sea?

PM: He wrote Midshipman Easy and those sort of books.  Edgar Wallace, he is like Dennis Wheatley.  They were sort of the thrillers that you knew were interesting and sort of thrilling to read but you knew that they were purely make-believe.

SR:  Do you remember any titles of these?

PM:  Not really, no.

SR:  These are more realistic fiction, ‘cos you seem to have read quite a lot of books.

PM:  Yeah, John Braine, that was Room at the Top.  Yeah, I read that.  Cronin’s books, The Stars Look Round [sic], I read that.  Warwick Deeping, Sorrell and Son.  I seem to remember having had that, erm  [pause]. John Galsworthy, yes, he was in the library at the time.  Naomi Jacobs, not really, as I always thought she wrote ladies’ books. Somerset Maugham, yes, I’ve read one or two of his short stories.  J B Priestley, I read.  I found J B Priestley, again, a bit heavy because they were a bit dark, his stories – sadness seemed to prevail.  Nevil Shute was of course famous for his end-of-war stories and that sort of thing.  Alan Sillitoe was one of the, what shall we say? ‘kitchen sink time’ and they were quite popular and, I must admit, reading those, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Saturday …  Was it Saturday Afternoon? I’ve forgotten what they called it now, Sunday Morning, Saturday Afternoon or something. H G Wells of course, War of the Worlds.  That was a necessity for all our kids, all us boys read that ‘cos that was completely out of this world, y’know.

SR:  Did you read anything like Jules Verne?

PM:  Jules Verne, yeah, The Prisoner of Zenda and all those sort of books.  They were very popular with my age group.

SR:  So when you were younger, a young teenager? Because there was War of the Worlds, certainly Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and that sort of thing.  And these were sort of more …

PM:  Of the rural ones, the one I can remember there is Tarka the Otter.  And it was brought back to me recently because on Countryfile, or one of those programmes, they actually visited where it was written.  Not the chap that’d written it, but the chap that’d helped to write it and helped to bring him along …

SR:  Did you read any historical novels?

PM: Georgette Heyer.  I’ve read one or two of hers but they’ve basically been my wife’s books and I’ve sneaked a look at them.  Baroness Orczy, I’ve read one of hers, I think …

SR:  Was it Scarlet Pimpernel?

PM:  Yeah.

SR:  Was it Scaramouche?

PM:  No, I’ve not read Scaramouche.  I’ve seen it a number of times

SR:  With Stewart Granger, is it?

PM:  Anya Seton, I’ve read some of her books.  The American books down here, well, he was obvious, Raymond Chandler – they were the paperbacks – and Dashiell Hammett – they were the sort of paperbacks we read when we were in the Forces.

SR:  Like The Maltese Falcon, and Lady of the Lake, I think, is Raymond Chandler?  Did you read any British crime fiction?

PM:  Dorothy Sayers, yes.  Agatha Christie, obviously …

SR:  Did you read much of Agatha Christie?

PM:  Yes, I read quite a number of her books, and Arthur Conan Doyle, I’ve read quite a number of his.  Michael Innes, I’ve read some of his books but I can’t remember which ones.  Margery Allingham, yes, I’m trying to remember which book I’ve read of hers …

SR:  Tiger in the Smoke?

PM:  Yes, possibly.

SR:  Are there any particular ones that you remember and you remember why you liked them?

PM:  Well again, when I get a book, I like it because of its content and the fact that if it’s fiction it takes me away and for a short space of time I could actually believe it was happening.  The non-fiction books are definitely more important to me because they give me a background in what is happening and what has happened.

SR:  And you said about these, you said you read in the Forces …

PM:  Yeah, they were popular, and also Chandler and Hammett were originally in paperback as far as the British public was concerned and they were handy.  I can remember Raymond Chandler, the books I read there, I can’t remember the titles now, but they were so well read ‘cos I imagine that everyone in the regiment would have read it by the time, you know they just used to pass it round.

SR:  You know some of them, it’s the plot, and with the adventure, is it the excitement?

PM:  It’s the excitement, yeah. And the thing with most of the stories is that good triumphs over evil in the end.  I’ve always been waiting to read a really good book where evil triumphs over good but I’ve not got that far yet.

SR:  Do you like it that good triumphs over evil? Does that matter to you?

PM:  Well, it matters to me in so much as the fact that at the end of the day, with my religious beliefs and various other things, I think at the end of the day that good has to triumph over evil.  I’m not a religious fanatic by any means but I do have a belief, I have a faith because I’m of an age and of an era and I’m a firm believer that, without a faith, you can’t live.  I say that, because I can remember when I was in the military hospital, there were people in there who were really badly hurt.  I know the war was over but they were badly hurt, and it was funny, the two people that they cried for was God and mother.  You’d get the toughest soldier in agony in bed crying, ‘Oh my God, help me!’ and I’d think that perhaps he doesn’t believe in Him but at the end of the day he’s asking for His help.  And I think that good definitely will prevail in the end.  Sometimes I wonder what is good and what is evil.  It’s in the mind, I suppose.

SR:  You said you read these books like Rider Haggard.  Did it matter if they were set in exotic places like Africa?

PM:  Oh no, no, but it added to the spice of the whole thing.  Rider Haggard, I don’t think, if he’d’ve set it within the West Riding or the Dales, I don’t think it would have been the same.  There are certain authors who can set their books in the Dales, certain detective stories that you get – someone called Robinson’s been writing some recently, DCI Banks, and I think they’re televising them now – they are definitely Yorkshire, and they’re good. Again they wouldn’t be good if he was setting them in Hong Kong.  You’ve got to know.  If Rider Haggard didn’t know about his background,  he wouldn’t have been able to do it.

SR:  Yes, he knew about Africa, didn’t he?  And the sea ones – Nicholas Monsarrat – did that convince you?

PM:  Oh yes, yes, one could get the impression with them that you were there.  He expressed the feeling and he kind of gave graphic descriptions of the way the sea rules, whoever’s on the sea, no matter whether you’re a little skiff or a big destroyer or a battleship of whatever it is, the sea at the end of the day is in charge and you get that impression with Montserrat that whilst we, and his men, did very well, the sea inevitably won.

SR:  With the crime fiction like Agatha Christie, what did you enjoy about those?

PM:  I suppose it was this feeling that at the end of the day, the baddie gets his comeuppance. But I like that you get so involved so that, without reading the back page first, you have no idea what’s going to happen.  I think with a thriller that’s the main part – they’ve got to hold you in thrall, so that you can’t put the book down.  There are certain thrillers that I must admit I’ve read into the wee hours of the morning because I just couldn’t put it down, because I wanted to know what happened.

SR:  Some of these are set in the ‘20s or 30’s.  Did that matter to you?

PM:  No, that didn’t matter to me because, when all’s said and done, each decade has a different ambience and, OK, you watch the Poirot on television and they’re back in the ‘20s and ‘30s and I find there’s certain, you know, enjoyment in looking what people were like in those days and it’s the same when I watch some of the other films.  I like to see Hobson’s Choice and those sort of things, how poor people were living.  It’s how we’ve evolved since then; the changes since I’ve know in my life, since the ‘30s to the present day, the changes are unbelievable.  I can remember, before Dad died, it was when the first man flew and landed on the moon.  My father said to me, ‘You know, when I was born, you couldn’t even fly.  There were no aeroplanes, and now there’s someone on the moon.  In my life they’re gone from bicycles and cars with a red flag in front to someone being on the Moon.’  That’s why I feel, reading brings all that to you.  I’ve read some of the books by the astronauts and it’s quite interesting to appreciate not only the work they put into it but how they felt when they were doing it …

SR:  And being in space and looking down on Earth?  That must be really amazing.  Did you read any romances at all?

PM:  Well, it depends.  Sometimes I’d read romance if it was, shall we say … I’ve read that James Hilton because The Lost Horizon and Random Harvest, my aunt passed me those books well before the war and I do remember that they made old films of them and I remember reading those.  But I’m not much of a romantic type in that respect, although that’s another romance that I read, The Four Feathers, A E W Mason.  I picked that up basically I thought because of my surname.  I thought I better read someone who writes in the family.  Now Mills and Boon, that would leave me cold, that is romance and whatever it is, no thank you.

SR:  Any comedies?

PM:  I tell you who I’ve read, Compton Mackenzie – I think he’s good – and P G Wodehouse.  As a boy I read most of his Jeeves books.

SR:  What did you like about those?

PM:  Well, again, what I liked about them was the fact that it was a silly ass who made complete mistakes but, with the help of Jeeves, always came out on top, with a smile. He was a loveable rogue, a loveable idiot, if I can put it that way.

SR:  Did you read any sagas?

PM:  No, I’ve not read many of those.

SR:  People tramping around the countryside …

PM:  Well, I’ve read a lot of books like that but the ones that stick in my mind were the Wainwright books.  I’ve read a lot of those because, apart from loving sport, I also love walking. I can read those and enjoy them.

SR:  These are books that shocked at the time.  I don’t know if you read any of those?

PM:  Well, I can remember D H Lawrence because we weren’t meant to read his books so we read it and, looking at it now, I don’t know what all the fuss was about, because you see more about it on the TV and the news these days.

SR:  Was that Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

PM:  Yes, I think it was the fact it became famous because they banned it, I don’t think it would have… The Ginger Man, that was a good book at the time.  I can remember that but I didn’t particularly enjoy that, I don’t know why.

SR:  Why did you read it?  Is it because somebody … ?

PM:  I read it because it was [a] book I picked up and I thought I’ve heard so much about it I’ll read it but I didn’t get into it as much as I should have done.

SR:  Did you read any classics, like Dickens?

PM:  Well, Joseph Conrad was part of my English Literature course at grammar school.  Jane Austen I’ve read.  Charles Dickens, I read.  I’ve not read all his stuff, but I’ve read about 90 per cent of his stuff.  Thomas Hardy, I thought was great.

SR:  Did you enjoy these classics?

PM:  I enjoyed … Jane Austen, from a grammatical point of view, I thought, was great, but to me there was always a darkness about Jane Austen.  In a way I was being drawn into her world, which was fair enough, and what she should be doing as an author, but I wasn’t happy about it, if you know what I mean.  There was a bit of misery attached to her work but, don’t get me wrong, she was a great author.  Joseph Conrad of course wrote adventure stories, classic adventures.  Charles Dickens, obviously …

SR:  What did you like about those?

PM:  Well I thought they covered the period very well.  Dickens in particular covered all facets of the Victorian period very well and it gave you an insight into just how unfortunate some people were and how they lived.  You get Oliver Twist, you get all the books.  The class distinctions are very clear in those books and I think it’s great that they brought them round.  James Joyce writes very good books but again he’s more – I wasn’t really one of his fans.  Thomas Hardy I liked because I liked his school stories and his books about Dorset and various other parts of the world.

SR:  Is that why you liked it, because it was about Dorset?

PM:  Well, it was about that part of the world.  It was a part of the world that I didn’t really know myself but it gave you a background and it was also a classic.  It was how someone survived and achieved something over various hardships and whatever was thrown at them.

SR:  Like Far from the Madding Crowd?

PM:  Yes.  I must admit for years I used to say it wrong.  I didn’t realise it was “‘madding crowd” and I used to call it “maddening crowd’, but I think I was right – they were maddening.  Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim – I remember reading that, and since then I think his son’s done something, yeah, Martin, he’s done some follow-ups.  H E Bates was quite … Pearl Buck, the only reason I know about Pearl Buck is because my mother used to read them and I didn’t.  Catherine Cookson – again some of her books I find quite interesting as long as she stays away from the romantic side of it.

SR:  Is it the sort of historical elements you like?

PM:  Yes, the historical element.  Christopher Isherwood, Cabaret and those books about Germany in the ‘30s, they were very good.

SR:  Did you enjoy that?  It was a bit racy, I think you might say?

PM:  I thought it was like that, yes.  I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, so much so that I didn’t even go and see the film.  I thought, well, I won’t enjoy it.  Nevil Shute, I can see him dying on the beach now.  George Orwell, he’s not my idea of a book that I would particularly want to read but I can appreciate what’s behind it.

SR:  1984?

PM:  Yeah.  Naomi Jacob, yes I think I’ve seen … George Bernard Shaw, yes, I read him because that was part of our reading anyway at school, and Major Barbara is the one that sticks in my mind more than anyone else.  I saw that film but I haven’t read him.  C P Snow, I think I’ve read one of his books, I’m not sure.  Virginia Woolf I’ve not read.  Evelyn Waugh, I’ve read a couple of his books.  Now he’s again, he brings back the ‘20s and ‘30s, the empire and more or less the upper-middle class, their parties and things and it’s interesting to see how they formed.

SR:  Is that how the other half lives?

PM:  Yes, without having to work very hard.  Science fiction.  I have read H G Wells, but I have to say I’ve never been very bothered about science fiction books because I thought they were a bit over the top.  But I must admit the science fiction books that I didn’t read as a child have mostly come to pass, like landing on the Moon and flying round in space. So perhaps I was wrong, perhaps I should have read them.

SR:  Do you think there are any ways in which reading has changed your life at all?

PM:  Well, it’s not changed my life but it’s helped me to appreciate more because the written word is a necessity in life.  It’s helped me when I’ve been in hospital and it’s helped me to take my mind off any problems. I think I’ve got until you look around and realise that everyone else is far worse that you are, but it helps.  I’ve always found that I’ve met people through books, through book club and lunch readings when we’ve had authors there.  It’s been very interesting to meet these people.

SR:  Any particular ones?

PM:  Well, the last one I met that I particularly enjoyed, believe it or not, was Jeffrey Archer.  We had him at a luncheon a couple of months ago now.  He really was an interesting speaker, irrespective of what he’d done wrong in his political life which he’d paid the price for.  His talk was very interesting; he explained how he gets down to writing, so much so that his last book I gather is not part of a trilogy but one of five, so he’s assuming that he’s going to live long enough to write five.  That was good.  We’ve had one or two luncheons.  We had Shirley Williams – I read her book which is her life story.  I found that interesting, with background of politics etc, that was very interesting.  What was the other one, the MP that went dancing but couldn’t dance, what did they call them?

SR:  Anne Widdecombe.

PM:  Anne Widdecombe.  Funnily enough we had her at a luncheon and she was [an] absolute marvellous person because she spoke about life in general and her books, and I found her very, very interesting – very much maligned she is, but she bounces back, basically because she couldn’t give a damn about anybody.

SR:  Reading influenced your career?

PM:  Oh it did.  I think without reading my life would have been empty.  I’m not going to say that through reading I met my wife and that sort of thing but both my wife and I do read and I think it’s helped us and it’s given me something to fall back on.  I love reading and I can’t wait, as I say, I’ve two books for my birthday tomorrow, and I can’t wait to open them and see what they are.  One will be on sport and one will be on politics, I’m sure, but that’s it. Fortunately, I can pass them around my family.  It’s great.

SR:  Was it important that you were a reader when you came back from the national service and went into, what was it, university?

PM:  Oh yes, reading’s important because at the end of the day in those days more so than now there was only the radio so you had to read newspapers, magazines, articles, to find out what was happening.  I think that was great, and I think that’s one of the drawbacks of today – you’ve got the instant television on 24 hours a day, you’ve got your emails and mobile phones, and the two things I’ve found that have gone out of orbit these days are reading and speaking to people. I found that reading helped me to speak to people.  You found you’d got something in common so you could chat away.

SR:  Did you do much reading presumably when you were studying at university?

PM:  Yeah I did.  Let’s put it this way.  I did all the reading I should do and perhaps I read a lot of things that I shouldn’t have done, but reading’s never been a problem.  I was brought up to read.  I think we were a typical middle, upper-working class family, I don’t know, but we were connected with.  Now since one of my sons [has] done the family trees, one of the interesting things I’ve found out was that my great grandfather owned the Rotherham Advertiser, and so did his brother before him, and I often wonder if that’s where I got my reading habits from because it’s been in the family somewhere.  The genes have perhaps been passed down.  But no, I’ve always enjoyed reading.

SR:  Were you in any book clubs, like, you know, Reader’s Digest?

PM:  I’ve been in the Reader’s Digest.  In fact, I still am tentatively, partly, in the Reader’s Digest. I don’t have many of their books now, but they’re always writing to me telling me I’ve won £50,000, but I never bother.  I look through their books lists and if there’s anything I fancy I get them.

SR:  Did you ever read a book because you’d seen a film or vice versa?

PM:  No, the reason being I’ve read books and I’ve seen the film of the book and I’ve been disappointed, because again, if you’re reading, your mind puts you in the book – it puts you in the place, the location whatever it is, and you imagine what’s there.  When you see it on television, you think, no, it wasn’t like that.  Also I find that a 400 page book when they televise it is something like an hour and a half’s television and it’s not the same.  I prefer to read than watch.

SR:  Can I ask you now a few biographical details?  But before I start that, is there anything else you want to say about reading or books that you’ve not covered?

PM:  No, I think, as I say, I got lost now with my grandchildren’s text books because they are more advanced that I ever got.  But the interesting thing I do find about them is that my granddaughter when she was taking her O levels in history, said, “You can help me with this, Grandpa, because you were living then”, and I suddenly realised, “Oh my goodness, oh dear”. Anyway, it’s one of those things.  But I do think that without reading I would have had a less interesting life, a less rewarding life because reading had helped me to appreciate things.  When I’ve been travelling around on holiday or wherever I’ve been, through reading originally I’ve thought, “Oh that was around here.  Let’s go and have a look”.  You know, when I went up to Haworth; like everybody I went up to see Jane Austen’s birthplace and that sort of thing; when I got to Dorset, I think of Thomas Hardy; when I read historical novels, I think, “Well, I’ve been there, I’ve done that”.  I read a book the other month about the castles of this country and I thought, “Well, I’ve lived in that one.” That was Dover Castle.  And I think if I hadn’t read about them I wouldn’t know.

SR:  Can I ask you some biographical details if that’s OK? [PM: Yes] When were you born?

PM:  ’29.  That’s 82 years ago tomorrow.

SR:  Where?  You were born in Sheffield, yes? [PM: Yes].  And how did your family come to be in Sheffield, do you know?

PM:  Well, as far as I was aware, they were Sheffielders, but on the Mason side, in the middle of the Victorian period, my son seems to have lost track of them somewhat.  My father’s mother, her father was a Liberal councillor for Sheffield, so I know they were there for quite some time in the Victorian time.  My grandfather, my father’s father, I never knew because ironically he died the week before the First World War started so he’d been dead a long time before I was born.  My other grandparents, on my mother’s side, were as I say ‘Rotherham Advertisers’ so basically they were all Garnetts and all Rotherham people, until I found out that they all actually lived in Sheffield even though they ran Rotherham.  My grandmother on my mother’s side, her family came from Ireland – the Clanceys, going back a couple of generations, I think.  They were Irish immigrants or whatever.

SR:  Have you always lived in Handsworth?

PM:  No, I used to live in Dore.

SR:  Then you moved to Handsworth with your family?

PM:  Yes, we moved for various reasons, business and various other reasons.  And that was it.  I married a girl from that area so I stayed there.

SR:  So you lived in Hansdworth since childhood?

PM:  No, since I was an adult.

SR:  How did the Second World War affect your family?

PM:  Well, I suppose it affected it gravely because my brother was killed, but that was at the end of the war.  During the war, interestingly, I was 14 and when I was 14, believe it or not, my mother was called up.  She was offered munitions, the services or the fire service, so she became a ‘firelady’, fireman or whatever they were called, and she was in the national fire service then from about 1942 until the end of the war.  She didn’t fight fires but she was in the fire service.  My father’s contribution in the war, because he was in the Flying Corps in the First World War. I think he was a fire watcher.  He sat in town and waiting for them to set fire to the place.  I remember the 1940 blitz because quite a lot of the places near us were bombed anyway.  That was another time when I started to read quite a lot, because after the Blitz, in 1941, they closed a lot of the schools and you had what they called Home Service and you went to a teacher’s home to learn, and you were given books to read – I suppose more than anything because they didn’t have many facilities there.  It only lasted a couple of months but that was that.  That’s what I remember about the war.  I remember we did leave Dore during the war because we lived on the Norwood estate.  And I remember after D-Day, Norwood Road was full of military ambulances going to the, what was the City General Hospital, it’s now the Northern General, and they were going to take the wounded there.  I can remember that and I can remember thinking, with a bit of luck if it would have lasted a few more years, I would have been able to go.  Foolish, but that’s the way boys thought in those days.

SR:  Which school did you go to?

PM:  I went to High Storrs Grammar School.

SR:  Primary school – was that Handsworth?

PM:  No, I went to Longley Primary School, I don’t know why.  We must have moved to Norwood Road then. I started at [pause] Broomhill County Primary School, which is over a hundred years old now, because we were living at my grandparents.  That was it –  my parents, when my dad came back from India, they were in business but I think the business failed in the Depression and we moved to live with my grandparents for a time until we got somewhere else.

SR:  So you went to High Storrs.  How many years of schooling did you have there?

PM:  Five and a half.  I went into the sixth form and then I went into the Army.

SR:  So you left during the sixth form …

PM:  I left during the sixth form, yes, I decided that I wanted to do other things.  They got me down, believe it or not, to take up medicine – I don’t know why.  Admittedly, my son is a doctor –  it might have missed a generation.  But I decided that I wanted to leave school and it was basically when my brother was killed – I didn’t want to stay at school any longer so I left.  I actually went into the Town Hall for a few months and then I was called up.

SR:  So you did your School Certificate presumably?

PM:  Oh yes, I passed all that.

SR:  And then you went into the sixth form and then you left.

PM:  And then I went into the Town Hall, then I went into the army, and then I was seconded, I was put on a, I managed to wangle a part-time course at the university, so I was at the university, I think, three days a week and I was meant to work the other two, I think.

SR:  Was this after you’d finished your army service? [PM: Yes] And that was in the, what was it. early ‘50s? [PM: Yes] And what were you studying?

PM:  I was studying economics, political history, central government and administration and law.

SR:  And your parents, they were in India.  Your father had been in India as a mining engineer, yes? [PM: Yes] And then he came back to England …

PM:  Yes, he came back to England, of course, with Mum saying he couldn’t go down the mines; he wasn’t a mining engineer.  They started their own business, that failed, and then he went as an engineer in one of the big steel firms.

SR:  Did your mum ever work?

PM:  Apart from the fire service in the war … She did work originally because that’s how she met my father because she went to work as a [siscal] [not clear].  My mother went to Notre Dame High School. In fact, my grandmother went to Notre Dame, my mother went to Notre Dame and my wife went to Notre Dame.  So they’ve all been educated at the same school.

SR:  And your wife was … what did she do?

PM:  She worked in the Town Hall.  She was an accountant.

SR:  And that’s where you met. [PM: Yes.] And you worked in education after you’d finished.PM:  Yes, we’d been married 58 years last year.

SR:  So what would that be, June …

PM:  1953.  It was just after the Coronation because when we went to London all the flags were up and they said that was for us.

SR:  [Laughs] That was good.  So have you got anything else you’d like to ask?

PM:  No, no, I’ve enjoyed talking to you.  In fact, my wife will tell you that I talk too much anyway.

SR:  Well, it’s important that you talk.  Otherwise we wouldn’t get anything done.

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Pam Gibson’s reading journey

Pam was born in 1952 and has lived in Sheffield for 51 years. She was a teacher.  

Reading has always been extremely important to me, although I cannot remember how I got started or recall having stories read to me. I have vague recollections of Joyce Brisley Lankester’s Milly Molly Mandy and Noddy and Big Ears from Enid Blyton, but my clearest memories of reading and being read to come from school at the age of nine, when I had obviously become a very keen independent reader. Reading times were part of the school day (I remember reading Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did and finding it hard when I had to stop!) and we were read stories which I found gripping e.g. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis, and Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi from The Jungle Book.

Pam at the age of ten

Reading was encouraged at home; my mother was a great reader although she can’t have had much time when we were all little. I don’t remember possessing many books. I did have a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses which I loved, and Sunday School prizes were books of Bible stories. I had my own bookcase in my bedroom so it must have housed some books!  

From the age of seven I joined the local library – Wennington Road, Southport – and from nine was allowed to go on my own. I would be there most days during the holidays, having read my allocation of three books very quickly. I loved all Enid Blyton’s books (except The Secret Seven), the American Bobbsey Twins from Laura Lee Hope, and Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School. I’d read into the night with a torch under the covers. We all had a weekly comic, mine was the Judy, eventually moving on to Jackie. Disaster struck on one occasion when we were all suffering from chicken pox: somehow the librarian got wind of this and we were banned from the library for three weeks! I remember being devastated and extremely bored – we didn’t have a television and we were confined to bed; mother having been a nurse, she treated us like patients in a hospital! 

I’m not sure how much my reading was directed, apart from negatively. Certain books were considered ‘not suitable’ e.g. James Bond, and we were not allowed to use the adult section of the library (I can’t remember when that restriction was lifted). Needless to say, adult literature, especially if it contained sex scenes, became very attractive, and I remember taking paperbacks off the shelf in Woolworths and reading the juicy bits! I also read a lot of stories about young women in different careers – all very romantic of course! My ambition was to be an air hostess for a long while. Encyclopedia Britannica introduced me to non-fiction, and we also had the monthly Reader’s Digest at home. Mum’s medical books were a fascinating read and I remember spending ages poring over diagrams of the human body. I was also influenced by Bible classes and read a lot of Christian literature by authors like C S Lewis, David Shepherd and Richard Wurmbrand.

In my middle to late teens I read Mills and Boon stories obsessively! Mary Stewart, L M Montgomery and the Anne books, Georgette Heyer were great favourites. You can see that my taste in reading material was pretty lightweight and romantic! I don’t remember reading anything particularly weighty or classical except through school, for O Level and A Level English Literature, which I very much enjoyed. There was reading for pleasure (escapism) and serious reading (study).

At university I eventually decided to give up reading Mills and Boon books as I was virtually addicted to them and living in a world of unreality!  More variety was needed! However I’m struggling to remember what took their place! Maybe that’s when I discovered Mary Stewart – slightly better literature! I remember reading Lord of the Rings around this time, all three volumes in less than a week (once I’d got through the first 50 pages). There was a period when I read a lot of adventure and fantasy fiction/adventure books by eg Alistair MacLean,  Raymond Feist, gritty, daring, exciting reading. But I was frustrated that female characters were few and far between, and fairly insignificant. Were exciting women writers in short supply in the ‘70s and ‘80s? I was introduced to Winston Graham and Poldark in 1986 when I was on maternity leave, and was hooked. 

Since moving to Sheffield in the early ‘70s I’ve always used the local library. I first joined Walkley Library in 1973, moving to Broomhill a few years later, and now I mostly use Woodseats Library. When teaching I used the Schools Library Service regularly – what a fantastic resource that was! I have also made use of the Library’s Book Group loan service in the past. 

Walkley library
Broomhill Library
Woodseats Library (courtesy of Sheffield City Council/Picture Sheffield. Ref: a06117)

It was fortunate that my husband Alan also loved reading, so it was a companiable pastime for us both. In fact in those days, before digital readers, holiday reading books formed a very large (and heavy) part of our luggage. The thought of running out of reading material while we were away was horrifying! 

I’m happy to say that I managed to pass on a love of reading to both my children, who continue to spend time reading as adults. My daughter and I visited Prince Edward Island a few years ago, visited Green Gables and went to see Anne the Musical. Of course I re-read all the Anne books and appreciated L M Montgomery’s creation all over again, especially Rilla of Ingleside, a very powerful portrayal of the effect of WW1 on women, something I hadn’t appreciated on my first reading. 

The real Green Gables (© Pam Gibson)
Bedroom at Green Gables (© Pam Gibson)

I’m wary of watching screen versions of contemporary novels I’ve really enjoyed, especially if my imagination has been very fired; for me they rarely match up to the intensity or quality of the written word. I prefer to stick with the version created in my own head. There are of course exceptions: Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Where Eagles Dare by Alistair MacLean and Brokeback Mountain from Annie Proulx, all of which worked really well for me. And interestingly I enjoy screen versions of the classics – Sunday afternoon serials formed part of my adolescence. However with e.g. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger) or Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens), I couldn’t take the risk! I am more likely to be inspired to read the book after having seen the screen version. I expect there to be so much more depth to the text.

About 25 years ago I decided to keep a record of the books I read in order to pursue further works by authors I had enjoyed.  I also joined a reading group in 1999 which was instrumental in widening my reading material. It is also very interesting, challenging and informative. Talking with other people who have read the same book but who may have a very different understanding of it is fascinating and has added another dimension to my reading journey. 

Here and below pages from Pam’s reading journal

These days I continue to read widely and mostly for pleasure. I love losing myself in a good book, and always have a book on the go. Reading in bed is a huge pleasure! I enjoy crime fiction and have my favourite writers and investigators. I still read romantic fiction for a bit of escapism and every now and again re-read a Georgette Heyer. In addition to the monthly book group choice I will read an average of five or six books a month. I’ve also begun to re-read some of the classics, such as the Hugh Walpole Herries series, The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, and Jane Austen’s Emma. I find I read these much more carefully now, in order to appreciate the text.

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