By Mike Peart
Guest contributor Mike Peart, born in 1944, has lived in Sheffield for many years. He is an independent researcher, specialising in railway history.
During my childhood in Heston, Middlesex, I can’t ever recall being taken to the local library there. There certainly was one when it was the Borough of Heston & Isleworth, but I’m not sure if I ever darkened its door. My mother was a member of the Boots Booklovers’ Library in Hounslow which was the nearest large shopping centre. She regularly read her way through their books with the shield bookmark and eyelets punched into the binding. I’m not sure what she read but I suspect that much of it would have been linked to the films of the day as she was also a keen cinema-goer, going most weeks with my godmother. Apart from Heston Library, there was also a library in Hounslow where an aunt of mine was librarian in the 1930s before she married. But my mother didn’t go there either. I wonder if she was suspicious of public libraries and their late 1940s preoccupation with infectious diseases and their effects on the book stocks. She had lost her firstborn in 1942 at the age of ten months to gastroenteritis and this affected her life and attitudes right up to her death in 1996. It may be that she thought the books at Boots were more hygienic, what with the Booklovers’ Library being consciously refined, not to mention the company being chemists and all that – but I don’t really know.
I have absolutely no recollection of either parent or any aunt or uncle reading to me. I think my mother helped me, although I don’t think it was from children’s books necessarily as we didn’t have any. It was just as likely that I had to read the Daily Express, the News Chronicle or even the Daily Mirror, all of which appeared in the house at some time or other during my childhood. On trips out I may well have read shop signs and the labels in places like David Greig’s grocery and MacFisheries. I did spend a lot of time listening to the radio (Home and Light programmes) so some stories might have come across that way. I think my mother told me I could read before I got to infant school in 1948/9. It was only later when some annuals appeared as birthday or Christmas presents, although they weren’t what you would call ‘quality reading’. The tales of Desperate Dan, Biffo the Bear and Korky the Cat were hardly improving literature.
There were very few books at home although there was a small dark oak bookcase used for other purposes. I can only recall an ancient edition of Pears’ Cyclopaedia and two hefty tomes, The Home Doctor and The Home Lawyer, all of which may have come from my paternal grandfather after he died in 1938. The only fiction was two prizes given to my father at school: Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) by Oliver Goldsmith. I did try to read both, unsuccessfully I think, when I had scarlet fever at about the age of eight or nine.
Otherwise, most of my reading at home started with the Dandy comic, then the Rupert Bear strip in, I think, the Daily Express. My parents were members of the Heston Ratepayers’ Association and received their monthly RAM magazine about local matters, which I also tried to read. (Almost 70 years later I write for RAM by the way!) Then there was my father’s collection of The Journal of the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers – the organisation seems to have been founded by George Stephenson. It contained learned articles, diagrams and photographs, some of which dealt with railways which has been an obsession ever since. There were also a few of my father’s engineering HND textbooks such as Strength of Materials and another dealing with workshop mathematics.
I suspect that I only read anything available when the weather was bad, otherwise I’d have been outside playing, gardening and messing about with small bikes and home-made ‘trolleys’ with friends.
When the 11-plus was approaching, I do recall my mother buying me books of exercises called Progress Papers to work through, as well as Angus Maciver’s First Aid in English. These may well have helped my pass in the 11-plus in 1956 and I was certainly an expert in collective nouns – a smuck of eels, a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks, a clowder of cats – and McIver’s other obsessions at a very early age.
The elephant is a bonny bird
It flits from bough to bough
It makes its nest in the rhubarb tree
And whistles like a cow.
English at grammar school consisted of learning ‘rules’ by rote and being forced to work laboriously through Shakespeare – Twelfth Night in my case. I can recall my father having an unresolved argument and subsequent correspondence with my English teacher about the way the subject was being taught, and I really didn’t enjoy it at all, despite passing both English Language and English Literature at ‘O’ level. I enjoyed learning foreign languages far more and probably read more Voltaire and Thomas Mann than any English authors. While still at school, I started subscribing to Paris Match and I went to Librarie Hachette in London to buy a decent-sized French dictionary. The assistants spoke French and I had to say something like ‘Où se trouvent les dictionnaires?’ to which the reply was ‘En bas’.
I ‘resigned’ from grammar school in 1962 after the first and utterly uninspiring ‘A’ level year of French, German and English Literature. The only spark had been occasionally struck by the headteacher, G J P Courtney, who taught the ‘A’ level students and had written his own French grammar book. We were taught to sing the Marseillaise, the words of which I still know better than the second verse of our National Anthem! Instead of school, my great uncle who had been Director of Education for Winchester City and Hampshire and, reputedly, the founder of that county’s first girls’ grammar school, encouraged me to write. I corresponded with him regularly and he gave feedback. He also tried to persuade me to learn Esperanto. As a county president of the Rotary Club he saw Esperanto as a good way of improving international relations in the tense post-war years and he had several books in the language at his home in Winchester.
At the same time, I was by then Honorary Secretary of a railway preservation society and had to do a lot of typewritten correspondence with members, British Railways (BR), potential backer celebrities such as John Betjeman, exhibition organisers and the railway press. I also started and produced the society’s first regular newsletter to members, which developed into a quarterly magazine (still going and now at edition number 224). Both were duplicated and, apart from typing the stencils, I had to write most of the copy despite many appeals to others to contribute. I also started, but never finished, a correspondence course with the London School of Journalism. So far as books went, I was certainly by this time buying a lot of books dealing with railways and working through official texts for the Institute of Transport qualification. I did work for the BR organisation between September 1962 and October 1964 when I discovered I couldn’t pursue this career because of defective colour vision. I had also asked about a two-year short service commission in the Army but they, too, needed perfect colour vision. Up to this point I had been based at home in Heston, Middlesex.
My father retired in April 1965 and we immediately moved to Dulverton, Somerset. I spent the first nine months helping my parents renovate a very run-down Georgian house which was their retirement home. Although I made numerous friends around Exmoor, I did find time to read and I bought several J B Priestley novels and something by Stan Barstow but mainly text books dealing with psychology and criminology. I also acquired a large collection of grammar books, style guides and dictionaries from Foyles, as well as the collected works of Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Shakespeare, Robert Burns, Byron and other English poets.
After the end of the railway career, I had paid for vocational guidance which had suggested a career in adult education, probation work, social work or, due to the highest ‘interest’ marks the Vocational Guidance Association had ever seen in their psychometric tests, striving to become a professional musician! I was a very bad self-taught pianist at the time and I realised that there was no way this occupation would earn me a living and the playing tailed off. Hence, the civil service beckoned after it was suggested by the Department of Employment’s Professional & Executive Register that I should join that very department: I did. It was only after retiring from the successor to that wretched organisation in 1994 that I started to write, and I have since completed one book for Hodder & Stoughton, and three more with a fourth currently in production for the National Railway Museum, plus countless articles for eight different organisations’ journals.
Even now in my seventies I do not buy, borrow or read fiction. I write surrounded by well over a thousand books – all of them works of reference, histories, geographic guides and technical books mainly dealing with railways. That said, I will happily watch television and film dramatisations of novels old and new. I do, though, feel that it’s cheating – much like absorbing the classics from the Classics Illustrated comics that I recall from the 1950s and 1960s. I will occasionally resort to radio dramatisations as well – creating the pictures for oneself is a pleasurable part of using that medium.
Despite my unpromising start with libraries, I have been over the years an enthusiastic user of Sheffield Central Library, Totley Library, the central libraries at Hull, Grimsby and Manchester, some London borough libraries, the onetime government library in Moorfoot, Sheffield, and the National Railway Museum library.