Irene H’s Reading Journey

Irene was born in Grimesthorpe, Sheffield in 1921; she grew up there and later lived in Birley Edge. After school she worked in an office at Firth Brown’s steelworks and in 1943 married a draughtsman who also worked there. She and her husband left the company and set up a nursery business in Barnsley.

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene grew up in a home where reading wasn’t regarded as important,

I could read quite early. I was never stopped from reading but my mother didn’t read and my father read a paper and that was it……I sometimes got shouted at because I should have been doing something else.

Occasionally her mother would read a Playbox comic to her on a Saturday morning but otherwise her earliest memory of being read to dates from when she first went to school at the age of five and the teacher read ‘How the Elephant got his Trunk’ from Kipling’s Just So Stories to the class.

Irene read widely; early reading matter included Pip and Squeak annuals sent to her by an old friend of her mother’s and Schoolgirls’ Own annuals. hailstone-flyleaf-signed-

She got books from quite a range of sources. At about ten or eleven she benefited from this special offer,

A man came to the door getting you to buy the Daily Herald…..my father signed up and so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

She occasionally bought sixpenny novelettes from the newsagent at the bottom of their street. She was given books by aunts and by her paternal grandmother; when older she would sometimes ask for a specific book as a birthday or Christmas present.irene-hailstone-fondest-love-

She used Firth Park Library and later on the Central Library. As well as the municipal libraries, she sometimes used the Red Circle Library on Snig Hill.

From secondary school (Southey Green) she remembers reading Kidnapped and The Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson and also potted biographies of famous people.

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene’s parents had an account with Weston’s, a wholesale stationers in Change Alley; this meant that sometimes she could get books at a discount. She also read magazines and bought Woman almost from the start.

During the 40s she belonged to a national book club and recalls getting novels by Howard Spring and Anya Seton from there.She also bought books from bookshops such as Smith’s and bookstalls, both new and secondhand. She used the bookstalls in the Norfolk Market Hall on Haymarket and, later on when working in Barnsley, in Barnsley market. Her husband used to buy westerns from a market stall: if you took them back, you got money off the next one. Irene didn’t like westerns particularly but would sometimes read one,

Well, it was just something to read. If there was nothing to read, I would read anything.

The mark of a true reader. The war and marriage reduced her time for reading, ‘I was working and running a house but I still always found a bit of time.’

Irene doesn’t remember other people recommending books nor did she tend to read novels because people were talking about them or because they might be improving in some way. She has a special fondness for historical fiction and biographies of historical characters; she likes them to have proper research behind them. She mentions Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Baroness Orczy. She sometimes read crime fiction and liked Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers, though found Agatha Christie ‘a bit obvious’. She read romantic fiction too, such as Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Among later writers, she read Catherine Cookson: ‘Somebody always has to be illegitimate’.

Irene couldn’t identify any way in which reading had changed her life but she was always a reader: ‘No real encouragement, I just enjoyed it’. She still reads, getting her books now from Hillsborough Library, Waterstones and sometimes Amazon.

Jocelyn’s Reading Journey

Jocelyn Wilson was born in Sheffield in 1926.  She was educated, in wartime, at boarding school in Kent and was evacuated to Cornwall.  In 1948 Jocelyn married and in time had children.  In the 1970s and ‘80s she was a social worker.   

‘Did your parents ever say, “Don’t waste your time reading a novel”?’ ‘Oh no, never.  Nobody ever said that.’

How do we choose books?  How do we decide what to read?  And how do we judge our choices?

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Looking at her interview, you feel that Jocelyn W, who read widely and had excellent recall, was confident in her opinions and happy to defend them.  The quality of books, her own and others’ perceptions and the value of reading all lie just beneath the surface of her story.

Jocelyn was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in Sheffield in 1926.  Her first books were typical for that background and period – Alice in Wonderland, The Enchanted Forest, Cecily M Barker’s Flower Fairies and other fairy stories.  Predictably, they were chosen by her mother and a ‘very dear nanny who was into reading herself’.  Later, Jocelyn’s older sister helped her find books too.  Nanny and Jocelyn’s parents all read aloud to the children.  Jocelyn didn’t say so directly, but her first books seemed to have all the impact any parent could have hoped for: Jocelyn described them as stories ‘that made your imagination race’ and remembered them clearly 80 years later.  The Flower Fairies for example, she said, were ‘part of one’s history’.

After this promising start, things went less well.  Books were in short supply in Jocelyn’s life.  At first this was because her family lived ‘on the fringes’ of Sheffield and ‘it was quite a journey to go anywhere where there were books to be lent’.  Then World War II intervened and Jocelyn, by now at boarding school, found herself being evacuated to remote Cornwall.

And I remember after a birthday having a book token and having great difficulty in going to a bookshop in Newquay, Cornwall, to find something to buy.  And in the end The Heir of Redclyffe.  I can’t remember who wrote it but it was a pretty frantic book, I remember.  But there was so little choice.  And I think that’s one of the things we forget now ‘cos there are so many books of every kind, good and bad.  And then there were very, very few.

This early experience seems to have had a lasting effect.  Jocelyn said:

But of course it’s difficult for people nowadays to realise how few books came out and they were rare beasts and you waited for your birthday to get a copy.  Now there’s so much; you go to a bookshop and I’m overwhelmed.  I can hardly ever choose anything ‘cos there’s too much to choose from and it’s difficult to find what you really want.

Another effect of this shortage was that Jocelyn ended up reading what was available – the books on the family bookshelves – just because they were there.  She considered herself lucky.  ‘I think people forget now that it was like that.  You could be in a situation where you hadn’t anything new to read.  It seems incredible now, doesn’t it?’

Jocelyn’s family continued to influence her choices and judgments.  Her mother was ‘interested in books.  And so there was a good wide variety of classics’.  Jocelyn remembered reading, for example, Precious Bane and Mary Webb’s other novels.  ‘My mother was very sensible; she never said, ‘Don’t’.  She was very good; she was highly intelligent and we valued what she thought.’  (Jocelyn’s father tried too, but was rather less successful: suggestions like G A Henty were rejected as ‘boy’s own stuff’.)

School was the next big influence on Jocelyn, and it was there that her own judgment began to emerge.

… I did a project on keeping a notebook of all the things I’d read … I know that it was criticised by the person who taught English at school, saying, ‘I can’t think why you read all this rubbish when you’re capable of reading something so much better.’  You see, it had gone through the whole range.  But that was important in order to learn what was rubbish and what wasn’t.

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What was this ‘whole range’ that formed Jocelyn’s taste?  Over the years, there were:

  • classics like Jane Austen (‘she writes with such a deft touch’)
  • literary fiction, as we might say today, with authors like Marghanita Laski (Little Boy Lost ‘tore everybody’s heart to pieces’) and Rumer Godden (‘very delicate in her writing, sensitive and she touched one’s heart’)
  • popular, middlebrow authors of the day: Nevil Shute (‘wonderfully good stories’); Daphne du Maurier (‘anything she wrote was grist to the mill’); Queens of Crime like Dorothy L Sayers and adventure writers like John Buchan; Mazo de la Roche (whose Jalna books were the ‘original soap opera’)
  • ‘rubbish’ like ‘Oh Baroness Orczy and that sort of thing, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Oh good old rubbish, that’.

Rubbish was not, however, as clear-cut as it might seem.  For one thing, Jocelyn was becoming confident enough to reject other people’s opinions:

Oh yes, but I don’t count [Georgette Heyer] as rubbish … Of course she was a great storyteller, wasn’t she?  And of course historically very accurate.  There were things to praise about her.  Even though the stories were romantic fiction in the very highest level.

And sometimes rubbish could be the thing: ‘And if you’re not feeling very well, rubbish is what you want!’  If it was what you needed, could it be rubbish?

What Jocelyn would not accept was the badly or carelessly written.

I think that now I can only read things that aren’t badly written.  Sloppiness is what really gets me; and I think a lot of writers nowadays are very sloppy; they don’t do their research properly.

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So Jocelyn developed her approach: reading widely; making her own assessments but open to influence; seeking out high quality but understanding the worth and pleasure in lower quality.  This seemed to stand Jocelyn in good stead throughout her life.

… I didn’t read George Eliot until much later on; I came to ‘Middlemarch’ as a grown-up person.  It’s a wonderful book, isn’t it?  They’re very raw, some of those books by George Eliot.

…I still can read Arthur Ransome books.  When I was laid low with a back injury two years ago. the thing I chose to read was Winter Holiday and I loved it and it took me back.  It’s well-written and that’s the key, isn’t it?

I [chose Dracula for book group] and the men sort of withdrew in horror.  A lot of them wouldn’t read it.  It was quite interesting.  The women mostly did.  But I think it’s a marvelous book.  I keep turning the pages to find out what’s next.  I can’t believe it … It’s not even particularly well-written; it’s a most ridiculous story.  So why are we fascinated with Dracula?  I’m jolly glad I read it.  [But the men] weren’t going to waste their time reading ‘rubbish’ … I said, ‘I know it’s rubbish.’

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by Val Hewson

Read or listen to Jocelyn’s interview in full here.

Shirley Ellins’ Reading Journey

One of Shirley’s first memories of books begins at floor level – with the small, wooden bookshelf in the dining room which contained her mother’s library books.  There were just 4 or 5 novels, whose titles she spelled out when she had learned to read (before she was 6 in 1942), but whose contents she ignored.  These library books ‘came and went’, and Shirley didn’t open them.  Much more to her taste was The House at Pooh Corner which she remembers – again from the floor – where she fell, helpless with laughter, from her miniature chair as her mother read to her.

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But there are many bookshelves in Shirley’s reading journey.  The three shelves of the bookcase in the family living room contained books belonging to both her parents, ‘our personal books’, some of which she read – reference works like Arthur Mee’s Thousand Heroes, biography like Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson, Charles Kingsley’s Water-Babies, her mother’s complete Shakespeare, won from Crookesmoor School for ‘Progress’, and her parents’ tune books from the Methodist church.  As she grew older, her own books – given to her by family and friends at birthdays and Christmas – were added to these shelves, for reading was a downstairs activity, not allowed in her bedroom, which was for sleeping – ‘lights off’.

‘Half a recollection of a bookshelf in a classroom’ in Shirley’s junior school reveals The Pigeons of Leyden, a historical novel about the siege of Leiden, a book which inspired her at a very young age to become a history teacher.  Then there were trips every Saturday by the ‘ladies of the household’ – Shirley, her mother and grandmother – to Sheffield’s Central Library, where the children’s and adult libraries provided Shirley with shelves of Biggles, Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, and the historical novels of G. K. Henty, D. K. Broster, and the huge output of Baroness Orczy.

At the same time, a whole room of bookshelves gave her pleasure at her secondary school – High Storrs School – where she would go to the school library and ‘sit and read there, a bit for pleasure, before I had to go down to the classroom’.  There she read the Greek myths, and pursued an interest in poetry, Kipling in particular.   Her taste was shaped by exposure to the school’s set texts, some of which she ‘mercifully seem[s] to have forgotten’, while some, like Paradise Lost, offered her rewards she would have missed had they not been required reading.  But also chance played its part in moulding her preferences – catching chicken pox, for example, meant she had the leisure to read ‘the whole of Jane Austen, one after the other, to take my mind off the itching’.

At Bedford College, where Shirley read History, she managed to keep borrowing novels from the library and buying poetry – Donne, Kipling and Betjeman were favourites.  And as a teacher of history, she filled her bookshelves with history books, and also history and guidebooks related to the holidays abroad she started to take now she could afford it.

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Later, Shirley’s marriage was ‘a marriage of two minds and the marriage of two libraries too when we got together’.  So her bookshelves, like those of her parents,  continued to tell the story of interests pursued, preferences arrived at, and choices made. And there will be many of her students, in Sheffield and elsewhere, whose own bookshelves now bear the imprint and influence of Shirley’s voracious reading and her generous life as a teacher.

by Loveday Herridge