Mais où se trouve la bibliothèque?

Continuing website editor Val Hewson’s reading journey

In the late 1970s, I spent a year in France as part of my university course. I was the English assistant in a school, the Collège Jules Ferry, in the small town of Montluçon.

Montlucon and its château (Creative Commons)

If you look at a map of France, Montluçon is just about in the centre, near Vichy. It is at heart a medieval town, with a castle on the top of the hill, a 12th century church below and narrow streets twisting around. The castle was home to a hurdy-gurdy museum (the only one in the world, they told me). Around the historic centre is the newer town, with some beautiful 19th century houses, modern apartment buildings and, across the River Cher, a Dunlop factory. The school where I worked is based in a former convent near the centre. For a few weeks I lived there, before I moved to a tiny flat on the banks of the Cher.

Narrow streets twisting around (Free Art Licence)

Detail of the old town (Free Art Licence)

I must have taken books to France with me. I would never have gone so far away for so long without cramming as many as I could into my trunk. But I don’t remember titles. Fiction rather than non-fiction, I think, for relaxation. Catch 22 is a possibility, as I read and re-read it then. Loyalty oaths, the soldier in white and Major Major promoted by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Almost certainly I packed at least one of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels, as I was devoted to these long, intricate tales of a 16th century adventurer. Maybe there was a Georgette Heyer – Frederica, at a guess. Filled with good intentions, I might have put in set texts like Madame Bovary and Germinal. No, never Germinal, which I hated.

At all events, these books would not have lasted me long. Clearly I needed to find other sources of reading material. If there was a school library, I never found it. There was a bookshop in town, with lots of Gallimard, Garnier Flammarion and Livre de Poche paperbacks. I used to go to a newsagent, for the local newspaper, La Montagne, and for magazines like L’Express or the occasional Paris Match for celebrity news. I remember a story in Paris Match that the Duke of Edinburgh was mysteriously ill, and a teacher begged me to ask my mother if this was known about ‘chez vous, en Angleterre’. I also used to buy the International Herald Tribune, where I discovered Doonesbury.

Livres de Poche

Some books came through the radio. BBC Radio 4 on long wave gave me Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, read by Robert Powell. ‘Midnight Orgy at Number 10!’ and Agatha Runcible saying ‘too, too sick-making’ (a phrase I still use). And I learned the Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

At some point, I realised that Montluçon had a public library. I think I had to pay a small subscription. I embarrassed myself at the registration desk by using the verb ‘joindre’ [‘to attach’] than ‘s’inscrire’ [‘to enrol’], and was glared at by the librarian. In hindsight, ‘attach’ perhaps better describes my feeling about libraries. I suppose I did read some original French novels but mostly I borrowed English and American detective stories in translation. There was one about a woman being told that one of her aunts – she had seven? – had murdered her husband and trying to work out which one. I would love to know the title. Anyone?

Just before Christmas, the grumbling appendix I’d had for some years finally had enough and I ended up in the Centre Hospitalier, having an emergency operation for peritonitis. I spent the next ten days there. (As the first ever English patient, I was a sensation and staff came from all over to see if I was the same as the much more familiar French patient. One nurse looked at my freckles and informed me that I could probably have them surgically removed. Perhaps it was a joke.) Lots of my students, their parents and the teachers visited me. Most brought marrons glacées and the like, which was nice, but someone – one of the English teachers? the headmaster’s wife? – thoughtfully arrived with two books. She had bought, she said, the only English books in the local bookshop. This was, for someone twitchy if there was no book within a foot or so, the best thing she could have done.

The books were by Agatha Christie. There was her autobiography and a Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder. I remember Fontana paperbacks, with distinctive covers. I rationed them carefully, as I didn’t know where my next book would come from. Christie’s autobiography was, helpfully, very long, although it failed to explain her famous disappearance in 1926.  Sleeping Murder is the rather creepy story of a young woman who, visiting England for the first time, stays in a house she finds she remembers. I’m not a great Christie fan, but both books were wonderful distractions from stitches, glucose drips and the tea served in French hospitals.

Still in France at Christmas, I was farmed out among various kind teachers, until I was strong enough to fly home. Wanting me to enjoy my first Noël, they gave me a hand-printed silk scarf and a book, Joachim a des Ennuis [Joachim in Trouble], by Goscinny and Sempé. I still have both scarf and book, and I still laugh at the story of Nicolas being pursued about the house by his visiting Mémé [grandmother]. ‘Un bisou! Viens encore me faire un bisou!’ [‘Come and give me another kiss!’]

Library ‘Books’ That Talk (Sheffield Daily Independent, Saturday 14 August, 1937)

In August 1937, a reporter on Sheffield’s Daily Independent asked the city’s blind residents about the books they were reading. Enquiring at the Council’s Workshops for the Blind on Sharrow Lane, the reporter wrote that they liked ‘thrillers and Western novels’ and, in particular, books by Agatha Christie, Zane Grey and Edgar Wallace. The article continued:

Just recently they have ‘read’ two of George Bernard Shaw’s books, ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’.

‘The Black Tulip,’ by Dumas, ‘I Was a Spy’ from which the film was made[i], ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and ‘Revolt in the Desert’ written by the late Aircraftsman Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) are only a few of the books they have ‘read’ and greatly enjoyed.

At the moment they are reading one of Zane Grey’s novels, ‘Riders of the Purple Sage.

Notice how the reporter used quotation marks around the word ‘read’ in the first sentence of the extract. That’s because the books being read by the blind people were talking books:

A novel library book service is at present in operation in Sheffield – the books being ‘talking’ ones consisting of from 10 to 15 single-sided gramophone records …

Talking books and the technology behind them were recent innovations in the 1930s, a time when there were, according to the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, around 68,000 registered blind people in England and Wales. The idea had come from a First World War soldier, Captain Ian Fraser (1897-1974). He was blinded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and learned Braille at St Dunstan’s, the charity set up in 1915 to support visually-impaired ex-servicemen. Fraser, who went on to serve as St Dunstan’s chairman for over 50 years, realised that recording books would enable people to read books through listening. It took St Dunstan’s years of experimentation, in partnership with the then National Institute for the Blind, but by 1935 talking books were becoming available.

Mat-weaving at St Dunstan’s (public domain, Project Gutenberg e-book Through St. Dunstan’s to Light, by James H. Rawlinson, circa 1919)

The Daily Independent article was perhaps prompted by a gift of £35,000 that month from the founder of Morris Motors, Lord Nuffield (1877-1963), to help develop talking books. Nuffield was a celebrated philanthropist, who gave money to a wide variety of causes. The donation was widely reported around the country, including in the Sheffield Daily Independent on Wednesday 11 August. The follow-up feature at the Sharrow Lane Workshops seems to have been an imaginative move by the newspaper, to provide some local colour.

As the Daily Independent noted, the first talking books were ‘records … of the 12 inch size’, would ‘revolve for 25 minutes’ and contained ‘about six times as much material as the ordinary record’. They required special equipment to play them at reduced speed:

A special machine has to be used, for a gramophone whose speed is about 78 revolutions a minute would render a ‘book’ unintelligible …

In other words, the talking books were among the first LPs, or long-playing records. There was one of the special machines at the Sharrow Lane Workshops:

Most of the records at the workshop in Sheffield are played during the dinner hour and the machine is operated and records changed by the listeners themselves – the titles and numbers being printed on the records in Braille.

Some blind people in Sheffield had their own special gramophones (the RNIB says there were about 1,000 machines across the country by this time) and there was an arrangement for the books to be shared around, to enable as many people as possible to enjoy them.

The first talking books were: Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Gospel According to St. John. As the Daily Independent article shows, plenty of books by popular and well-known authors were recorded and made available, although there were suggestions of censorship, with authors thought ‘unsuitable’ not being recorded.

In recent years, talking books, developed to help people with a disability, have become audiobooks, and are listened to by millions, sighted and visually impaired..

 

If you would like to know more about talking books, visit Matt Rubery’s blog, Audiobook History.

[i] I Was a Spy (1932) was written by Marthe Cnockaert, a Belgian who spied for the United Kingdom in World War One. This was filmed in 1933, with Madeleine Carroll.

‘A great wealth’: the reading journey of Julia Banks

Julia was born in Chesterfield in 1939 and moved to Woodhouse on the east of Sheffield in 1945. In later life she became a primary school teacher.

Though there were not many books in the house, Julia’s home always had a bookcase and ‘books around’. Julia  was read to by both her mother and her aunt. The local library was the family’s chief source of books: ‘I was always taken to the library with my mother.’ Her mother’s favourite was Naomi Jacob.  Books were Julia’s favourite presents – Enid Blyton, for example: ‘I could never wait to get the next one. Mmm … Valley of Adventure and the Malory Towers series.‘

Aunt Lil, on her father’s side ‘bought books from Boots library, in town, when they were selling them off.‘ She bought history books and read them ‘avidly’. ‘She could talk about Elizabeth the First as if she were a neighbour, you know.’

I’ve still got Black’s Elizabeth that she gave me that I used to queue for at school or use from the reference library.

As a teenager, it was non-fiction that inspired Julia too.

Because I was at that stage when I was learning anyway and there wasn’t really time for just fiction. There wasn’t a lot of spare time to do nothing. If you’re at school you’ve got homework and you’re quite busy. But I can remember using it as a tool, really, the library.

The first adult fiction book Julia remembers reading was a book she borrowed from Woodhouse Library, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. It fascinated her because the life of the Chinese farming family was so alien but the feelings universal.

Pearl Buck

The library in Woodhouse was a great influence because they had a story hour for children in a lovely part of the building.

There was a fire place, benches and a carpet and you could sit there and listen to stories. That was in the children’s library … it was good to have something that could teach you something and lift you.

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children's Library

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children’s Library

A lot of Julia’s friends had homes in which there were no books. The presence of books in a home made her aware of ‘an outside … you were not just so concerned with the immediate’.  At some time she realised they were also a ‘ladder to social mobility’.

Julia went on to Bingley to train as a primary teacher. She and her friends tended to pass round books and share them. They studied ‘Anna Karenina, you know, Henry James, and you know all the … normal … things’.  She likes the fact that these books were not chosen by her.

I didn’t choose them and I think that’s good. Through school or through college you’re given prescripted books. Otherwise you would never get the chance to read them would you? As with Shakespeare you need to be taught how to read it and you should be, in my opinion, because it’s a great wealth to have. So I’m glad that I did read them but I wouldn’t go to the library and pick up Tolstoy.

But her favourite reading was Bertrand Russell: ‘you know the really hard stuff. You think, “well yeah, I never thought about that before but yeah”. You know? It was that you were learning something new.’

In 1965, when her husband’s job took the family to Holland, Julia came across a completely new source of books: the British Women’s Club Library in the Hague which was filled with paperbacks.  She and her friends would run through series after series, author after author.

Mm … oh… the Poirot series, Agatha Christie, and I read through Agatha Christie like I’d read through Enid Blyton as I was a girl and loved it. And eventually you realise they’re all the same don’t you? So you’d go onto something else. One friend, she read, oh the historical one, Georgette Heyer. So we went through all those. You know, that sort of reading. Again, because we’d not got a television and because you did have time; you’re in at nights, you’ve got children

‘And so you read,’ says our interviewer.

The other legacy of her time in Holland was a knowledge of nursery rhymes in Dutch. She learned these to prepare her two children for nursery school. ‘My Dutch is based on nursery rhymes.’

During her years as a mother of young children reading time was in short supply. Julia snatched time whenever and wherever she could, as she still does.

So, I read in bed at night, I read on the bus if I go into town on the bus which I often do. I never drive into town, I go on the bus. I’ve always got a book in my handbag, that’s why the size is more important than the content.

Julia connects the experience of reading, the process of writing and the role of prayer.

Reading takes you into different situations; it puts different questions, scenarios before you. …  I think very often if you read, just as if you write something, if you have a problem and you write it down it helps you to sort it out. Which I think the role is that prayer has, if you put something before somebody else really it’s like writing it down, you’re seeing it for what it really is rather than from a subjective point of view in a way.

Nowadays, Julia is more selective than she used to be and some books fail the ‘Darnall test’.

If I’ve not got into a book by the time I’ve got to Handsworth Church I very often shut it. … It passed the test if it got me through Darnall. Very often I’ve said ‘no’ and closed it before I’ve got to Darnall.

Julia looks back with gratitude on the people and libraries that helped her find the books she loved.  But she concludes that, though she would have found some way of reading, because of the person she is, it would have been harder without her Aunt Lil and her wonderful books, without the trips to the library with her mother.

I would still have gone because I’m me, so I would still have gone to do my research from school and I would still have joined the reading group and got great joy from it. I would have still read and got the books from the British Women’s Club in the Hague. But perhaps a bit later on. I was lucky, you know, I had a family that gave me books and encouraged me to read. And I do think it’s a great wealth to be able to read and enjoy literature.

You can find Julia’s interview here.

Pat Cymbal’s Reading Journey

Image

By Thecla Wilkinson

Pat was born in Sheffield in 1926. Her father was Russian and originally a master furrier. She went to Abbeydale Grammar School, leaving at sixteen to go to art college. She worked in fashion, becoming a buyer for J.Walsh and then Debenhams. In her forties she left Debenhams to train as a teacher and taught in London and at the High School in Sheffield.

pat-age-2-furs-2

Pat’s parents were both great readers. Her mother read her fairy stories such as those by the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson and also Alice in Wonderland. Her father didn’t read her children’s stories but told her tales from the Greek myths and read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King over and over to her so that, as Pat says

When I went to grammar school, we started to do Tennyson and I could recite whole wads of it off by heart, you know, before we started. I still can to this very day.

Pat doesn’t remember reading any children’s books as such apart from a small set of hardbacks called Swiss Stories, one of which was Heidi. She says that she was encouraged to read by example rather than directly,

To me it was just normal to read.

Books came from the library mainly. Not many were bought, although her father would sometimes buy books which the library was selling off. In her teens Pat read the books her father got from the library; from this time she remembers Rider Haggard, P.G.Wodehouse, Damon Runyon, Jerome K. Jerome and Sanders of the River by Edgar Wallace.

pat-cymbal-rider-haggard

Then she began to get books from the library herself and mentions The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. She borrowed this after seeing the film of The Picture of Dorian Gray which had a quotation from it at the beginning.

From this time she remembers working her way through Agatha Christie and then Ngaio Marsh, Erle Stanley Gardener and Raymond Chandler. She also read and still reads a lot of history and biography, from the Roman emperors to the autobiographies of Peter Mandelson and Alistair Darling.

She also enjoyed books which made her laugh such as How to be an Alien by George Mikes, The Education of Hyman Kaplan by Leo Rosten and 1066 and all That by Sellars and Yeatman which she still goes back to sometimes.

If ever I feel downhearted, I go and get that off the shelf. I mean, in no time I’m laughing.

Pat doesn’t think that the war affected her reading. Because her father had a Russian passport, none of the family was allowed to join up. Pat moved from school to art college and continued to read. There was no television, of course, but even later television didn’t stop Pat reading.

It sometimes made me read. For instance, I was watching Wallender, which I think is marvellous, so I have now ordered from the library some of the books.

pat-cymbal-age-27-2

When Pat was working as a buyer and travelling a lot for work, she used to buy paperbacks to read on the train. The Day of the Triffids is one she recalls vividly,

I sat down to read and all of a sudden we were in London….It really gripped me from the beginning.

pat-cymbal-modelling-age-40's-5Pat had read some of the classics, for example, Jane Austen, when younger but it was when she started teacher training that she read George Eliot and the Brontes.

wuthering-heights-wordsShe also became interested in Greek plays, particularly those of Euripides because he writes about strong women.

Pat likes to re-read favourite books especially if there has been a new film or television version,

I re-read it to make sure I’m not daft and they are.

But there are books which she has gone back to only to find them unreadable, such as Rider Haggard and Agatha Christie, saying of the latter, ‘Poirot, for instance, what an abominable little man he was in her books’.

Pat has been a great reader from childhood and still reads widely.

I read in bed. I wake very early and I read for a couple of hours every morning before I get up.

Does Pat think that reading changed her life?

For one thing it’s changed it for the better because I’ve always enjoyed reading and anything you enjoy and is educational can’t be bad, can it?

 

Pat-89

Delia’s Reading Journey

Delia was born on 5 October 1942 in Stannington, near Sheffield, where she grew up.  She was educated at Stannington County Primary School and, after the 11-plus, at Ecclesfield Grammar. She married and moved to Rotherham, where she had her children.  Later she went to night school to study literature. 

I just used to live in the books, you know, I was always reading, well, as I am now.

Early on in her interview, Delia comments on the impact of books – of fiction – on a child’s imagination.   As she talks, book after book, author after author, come back to her, often not thought of in years but now vivid and clear, like set pieces.

‘About the first book [Delia] can remember’ was a Christmas present about a ‘pig called Toby Twirl, and his friend, I think, was a penguin’.  Delia is right.  In these 1940s and ‘50s picture books by Sheila Hodgetts, Toby was a pig who looked rather like Rupert the Bear and had a penguin friend called Pete.

After Toby Delia learned to read.  She particularly enjoyed books set in the countryside, all handed down from her elder sister:

The Twins at Hillside Farm …  It was lovely, that.  It was about two children, twins, living on a farm in some country place and it would tell things about milk separators and things like that.  And there was one called Ranch on the Plain, which was about cowboys.  And The Girl from Golden [sic].  Oh, and another one that I really liked they called it A Pair of Red Polls, and it was about two red-headed children who lived on a farm.  But I couldn’t tell you any of the authors.  But that was between … I’d say I read those between five and seven years old.

Delia says she ‘used to like these books about children who lived on farms for some reason’.  Perhaps this was because the countryside was all she herself knew and so a lasting connection was made:

No, it was really countrified around Stannington in those days. I mean, not like it is now. It was very much … It seemed miles away from Sheffield, miles.  You had to go on one bus to Malin Bridge, and then catch a tram into Sheffield town centre.  So I think I must have been about five before I even went into the town centre.

And the interest in the countryside stayed with her.  In her early 20s, Delia started reading Thomas Hardy, whom she still loves: ‘I read all his books because I liked the Dorset theme to them.’

As a teenager, Delia read a book called The Secret Shore, by Lillie Le Pla.  Why she remembers this so well she doesn’t say, but 60 years later she can describe it in detail.  The images or characters in some books simply take up permanent residence.

Oh, and I remember reading one by a lady called Lillie Le Pla and it was called The Secret Shore and I think it was probably about the Channel Islands, which is somewhere that I love now.  I remember reading that one, it just came to me, it had a blue cloth back.  And it was about some … It was about a girl who would … I’m not sure if her dad had died, but they lived in this house and she found this tunnel through the cliff and there was a gate in it.  And that led up to this man’s house, and she used to go straight on and it led down to the secret shore.  And I remember this man, I think he must’ve been some connection of her mother’s because he bought her a lovely watch for her birthday.  I just remembered.  And then I think in the end there was a happy ending where they got married, where he married her mother.  I can’t remember all the circumstances, but it was about this shore that she used to go down to and be on her own and find shells and things, you know.

LePlaSecretShore

In her later teens, in the early 1960s, Delia was working her way through popular authors like Elizabeth Goudge, Anya Seton and Agatha Christie.

Anya Seton, it was Katherine, she wrote.  Yes.  I remember reading that and The Herb of Grace, Elizabeth Goudge.  And Agatha Christie of course, I used to read all the detective books.  I used to love detective books.

The mention of Anya Seton sparks something:

… Dragonwyck, that was another Anya Seton one.  Have you heard of that one?  It was a film as well, an old film.  Foxfire, that was another one.  And My Theodosia, that was another one.  Yes.

Now that she was older, Delia started getting her books from the Central Library in Sheffield, going there with a friend after work.  It was amazing, she agrees, to have that much choice after small school libraries and the like, and so she started with the familiar.

I made for the authors that I knew. I started with Elizabeth Goudge and Anya Seton in the school library and I sort of went for those books again when I went to the main library.  And then with Agatha Christie as well, they’d always got the latest one.  And I can remember one that I never read but was advertised in Sheffield Library.  It was Frank Yerby – The Old Gods Laugh.  And I used to see it advertised on the counter and, you know, I never borrowed that book and I still don’t know what it was about.

YerbyOldGodsLaugh

Asked about Frank Yerby, Delia admits she knows nothing about him.  But the image of his book  – Sheffield Libraries always did lots of displays – has for some reason stayed with her, buried deep in her memory, and has been retrieved during the interview.  ‘Came back to me when I was talking to you, you know, about Sheffield Library. I just remember that one.’  For the record, Frank Yerby (1916-1991) was the first African-American writer to become a millionaire and the first to have a book, The Foxes of Harrow, made into a movie.  Here is a review of The Old Gods Laugh, which is not encouraging.  Perhaps it is best that Delia never read it.

A little later, reading came to mean respite, with Delia borrowing books from the library in Rotherham where she now lived:

No, I’ve never dropped off reading because in 1963 I got married and immediately became pregnant with my first child and books were a wonderful escape from housework and crying babies.

The urge to read became an urge to study.  When she had had all her children, Delia ‘went to night school for English Literature’ and has now read widely among classics and older novels.  ‘Yes, I’ve read most of those classic ones.’  She readily lists: Charles Dickens (‘I liked David Copperfield’), Mrs Henry Wood (‘Victorian melodrama-type thing’), Tolstoy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Gaskell, Evelyn Waugh (‘Oh, Evelyn Waugh, I love those’), Iris Murdoch (‘I can’t get on with [her]’), Gustave Flaubert, Anthony Trollope, Arnold Bennett, the Brontës (‘I liked Jane Eyre’) and Jane Austen.

But – another impression – school almost destroyed Jane Austen for Delia (as it has other authors for other people).

Pride and Prejudice we had to do at school … We did it for O level.  And, uh, the way you do it at school, you’re bored to tears by it, absolutely bored to tears by it. … Yes, we had to go back and forth over it and I got fed up with it.  But I’ve read it since and enjoyed it.  I’ve read all the others as well.

Pride and Prejudice: Mr Collins proposes

Pride and Prejudice: Mr Collins proposes

At one point in the interview, Delia is asked:

‘Were you what they describe as a bookworm?  Did you immediately take to it?’

‘Oh yes, yes,’ she replies, ‘I was one of the first in the class to do what they called silent reading.  So once I’d mastered silent reading, I just never stopped.’

Chris F’s reading journey

Chris F was born in 1939, in the Whirlowdale area of Sheffield. He attended boarding school and Cambridge, where he read engineering.  He returned to Sheffield and worked there all his life.

But on the whole I have to say it’s the land of make-believe in most of my reading.

Chris is very clear that he reads, and always has read, for entertainment.  He usually relaxes, for example, with a book for half an hour or so before sleep, and says that most of his books ‘have been bought at airports’.  But if you think that books are not particularly important to him, or that he has not thought about their impact on his life, then you would be wrong.  As our interviewer said:

And clearly books have been so important in your life that you can’t imagine one without.

Chris’ introduction to reading was traditional.  The books he remembers from his childhood were staples: A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Allison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit and Beatrix Potter.  At school, he graduated to Enid Blyton and then to school stories like Billy Bunter. Thousands of schoolboys in the middle of the 20th century must have had a similar start.  Chris was one of those in whom the habit of reading was firmly set by authors who told a good tale.

It must also have helped that Chris grew up in a house filled with books.  He doesn’t remember being urged to read by his parents but ‘the means of doing it was there’.

I never recall actually going to a library because we had an enormous number of books at home … Which my parents had. I’m rather like my father, once you get a book you never throw it away.

He remembers lots of crime, with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and the less well-remembered Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr.  There was also some real-life crime:

… It was the life of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury which I found very nice and gory at the time, I enjoyed it.

It was around this time that Chris found Nevil Shute, ‘who I think is probably my overall favourite author, which I started reading having seen the film of A Town Like Alice’. Even now, years later, he still enjoys these novels, which he says are gentle and believable:

I got all the books and I, oh about every five or six years I start again at the beginning. I re-read a lot of old favourites.

Requiem for a Wren

In Chris’ teens lots of his books came through his joining the Companion Book Club:

… you didn’t get any choice in those days, you got the book that they sent you. I’ve still got them all. Five bob a month it was and you finished up with a novel you probably would never have read otherwise.

By now, Chris had developed a taste for adventure, so Alistair McLean’s HMS Ulysses, his first book from the Companion Book Club, was very welcome. McLean was followed by C S Forester, Dennis Wheatley and Dornford Yates.  Chris laughs as he recalls Dennis Wheatley:

… the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were, pages 27 and 28, and if you opened the book they were well-thumbed.

The interest in adventure – swashbuckling, espionage, war, arch criminals etc – remained constant from school, through university, into adulthood and working life.  Chris remembers, with pleasure still, the adventures of Simon Templar alias The Saint, James Bond alias 007 and Dr Syn alias the Scarecrow and Captain Clegg.

Chris has tried reading some of the books he enjoyed, like Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, to his grandsons, but with mixed results.

I’ve tried to get my grandsons involved but I have to say, modern boys are very difficult to get to read because they’ve all got their little widgets that they play with and watch television the whole t-time. It was books like Billy Bunter and like Enid Blyton that got me reading and I think got my generation reading.

He is concerned by what he sees as the declining interest in reading among children.  He accepts that they gain a lot through technology (he is learning to use his own Kindle) but fears the next generation will:

have a terribly limited outlook on life … I do despair a little because with the modern exam system and the way that kids don’t read in our days we shall finish up with children with very narrow horizons.

What about improving books then? Were you led to see [reading] as an improving thing? asks the interviewer.

Well, we had books that we were studying and that we had to read. And funnily enough I can remember well the … the books that at the age of about 13 when I went away to public school that we had to read and thinking ‘Oh God, these are heavy going’. But I’ve read them again since and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think there is a difference when you actually have to read them and be questioned on them…

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

These were books like Darkness at Noon (1940) by Arthur Koestler – the story of a Bolshevik who falls victim to Stalin during the purges of the 1930s.   Chris still occasionally reads books his teachers would have thought of as improving:

I’m half way through Great Expectations, I never really read Dickens. I had to do Dickens at schools but I read Nicholas Nickleby recently and I’m reading Great Expectations now.

But it is the authors like Dornford Yates, C S Forester and Nevil Shute, whom he found for himself, that he goes back to, happy to re-read them:

… to take you away into a land of make believe.

Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute