Betty’s Reading Journey

Betty’s reading journey begins with the savour of the words Aesop’s Fables on her tongue and the beauty of its pictures as her mother read to her from the book.  There were singing and nursery rhymes too, and the gorgeous colours of the pictures in an illustrated Stories from the Bible, and the remembered motion of being lifted onto her mother’s knee.

Betty’s experience of her early reading seems a sensory delight which flooded her play and her early education – she took her baby sister from her pram and put her in her garden irises in imitation of Moses, and practised beautiful curls on her letters, helped by her older cousin.

At her first school her teacher read from a lectern to the class at the end of lessons, and in this way Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island (who frightened her) entered her life.  Her mother supplemented the school stories with Mowgli and more Anne of Green Gables, her childhood favourite.

Born in 1925, Betty says there wasn’t much money for books in her house, although ‘we used to always get a book at Christmas’.

… we didn’t have a lot of choice. We wanted books. ‘There is a new book for you.’  You’d always want it.

As a teenager at school she read Dickens, who she didn’t like, but loved Wuthering Heights, a story so vivid for her that she relived it on a family walk on the moors.

And I can remember … we went on the moors, my Paula and Cecily, mum and dad and myself and … there was a stone where you sat and I said, ‘I’m going to walk up further up, keep turning and when you can’t see me, turn round and come back.’ I went running up, and I crouched behind something, I don’t know what it was, and I was calling to Heathcliff, I was calling ‘Heathcliff, Cathy’, and two people were walking past as I was calling, and ran down past my mother and father and they said, ‘There’s voices up there! We’re so frightened.’ And my father said, ‘No, I think I know who is making the noises,’ and my father came up and I was crouched down and he said, ‘Betty!’ He grabbed me like this.

Betty remembers the 12 volumes of encyclopaedias the family owned, their purchase financed by a friend of the family.

All sorts of information you could find, and I can remember everybody from the village used to be coming up, ‘Can we look in your encyclopaedias?’

With the coming of the Second World War – ‘you couldn’t really buy books in the wartime’ – the Paper Salvage scheme took some of Betty’s store of books for paper recycling.

A lot of these things you had to give to the war effort, and they wanted paper.  Paper was in great demand. I can remember mum and dad … thinking which books should go. They said, ‘That is for Betty, Paula and Cecily to decide. If they want them they won’t go, they should decide, but we’ll tell them it’s needed for the country.’

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And when she started her training at the Royal Hospital the nursing books she bought were ‘very small and on roughish paper’.  These were supplemented by books borrowed from the patients’ library, organised by Toc H, a Christian charitable organisation.  From the Toc H trolley she picked The Snow Goose, now her favourite book which she has read many times.  She also borrowed from wealthier nurses who ‘could afford to buy books and share’.  When her training finished and she finally got a salary, she bought The History of the English Speaking Peoples – ‘you got one book at a time. I got one book as a present … you went to the shop and bought each one.’

During her career Betty came to read books she had ‘never read at home – Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Dylan Thomas.  In the hospital where Betty nursed for the greater part of her working life – the Royal Hospital Annexe, a specialist burns and plastic surgery unit – she remembers reading Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy, which recounts his experiences as a Spitfire pilot who suffered terrible burns in 1940 and endured months of plastic surgery.  ‘The medical staff would discuss things and what they read in the paper that was interesting. They included you and they had their books and they’d let you borrow if you wanted.’  She also read Anna Karenina and War and Peace – ‘That took a lot of time, you read little things‘ – Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in brown paper covers), Daughter of Time, books on Field Marshal Montgomery and Mary Queen of Scots.

Later, in her retirement, Betty has continued with her reading in another lively community of older friends, and latterly, as an avid reader from the city’s mobile library:

I don’t pick, I let them decide and they get me some good books. One about Marco Polo, I couldn’t put it down!

She is still as enthusiastic and engaged a reader as ever.

by Loveday Herridge

Access Betty’s transcript and audio here.

Margaret’s Reading Journey

Margaret was born in Sheffield in 1936 and grew up during the Second World War and the late 1940s.  She became a librarian in the town, married John and had three children.

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The men in Margaret’s early life were both readers. During the Second World War, with her father in Egypt, Margaret and her mother moved in with her father’s parents in Walkley, a hillside of terraced houses that largely escaped the bombing of Sheffield city centre below.

When we lived with grandma and granddad, it was mainly granddad who encouraged me to read. He was an avid reader and anything that was printed, he always asked me to [read] even before I started school. Grandma also read books and granny had a collection of bound – you know, the classics …Dickens and so on. And he took the Daily Express and I was encouraged to read all the headlines to do with the war, you know, the advance of the Eighth Army and so on. Yes, at a young age I knew more names of towns in Egypt than in this country!

Margaret’s grandfather had had a variety of occupations.

He joined the army at a young age and he was a professional soldier. I think he was really self-educated all round. He was a professional musician; he played in the army band. And he was also a [fitness] instructor in the army. But he was always reading, and he had loads of books. The Conan Doyle books I went through, again, by the age of nine I’d read Sherlock Holmes and so on. And he had a couple of encyclopaedias, which absolutely I loved, and I still love to this day encyclopaedias and the knowledge you can get from them.

The desire to understand the unknown world of her absent father had a strong influence on the little girl.

I remember in the encyclopaedias there was a section on Arabic, writing the alphabet and so on, which I thought might come in useful with my father being out in Egypt and the Middle East. Of course, I didn’t see him from the age of four until he came back in 1946. And I can remember trying to teach myself to write Arabic. I guess I would have only about eight or nine, I think.

The encyclopaedias and the Conan Doyles were perhaps all the more important because during the war only one new book came into the house. But before and after the war Margaret got books as Sunday School prizes, for birthdays and at Christmas: for example, Milly, Molly, Mandy and Richmal Compton’s Just William – ‘I could laugh out loud with those’. A special visit would be from Margaret’s father’s sister to Walkley from Sheffield.  ‘She was a maiden aunt and she encouraged reading.’

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Margaret probably ran through Enid Blyton from Walkley Library, the only municipal library in Sheffield endowed by the Carnegie Foundation (Tinsley Library was also a Carnegie library, but was opened before Tinsley became part of Sheffield).

And we were allowed a comic each, my brother – I had a younger brother – and I. My brother had either the Beano or the Dandy and I had either Film Fun or Radio Fun. And when we finished with comics we used to swap them with friends and get something different.

When her father came home from Egypt, the family were rehoused in a house of their own but the library provision was a bit of a comedown.

When we moved onto the new estate at Parson Cross [a new Sheffield housing estate], there was nothing except houses. We had no shops, no schools. And eventually, when the school was built, we had – they opened a couple of evenings a week, I think – a couple of cupboards in the school room. And as far as I can remember, there were only adult books there.

However those adult books included copies of her father’s favourite, Zane Grey. Together she and her father devoured these tales of derring-do in the Wild West and Margaret went through ‘every possible Zane Grey book printed, at the age of eleven’.

When Margaret got a place at Ecclesfield Grammar School, she looked forward to new authors to explore but the school library always seemed to be locked.

There was a library, but for some reason we were never allowed in it! Only for occasional English lessons. So I still had to rely on the locked-up cupboards and the Zane Greys.

At school Margaret did come across Winifred Holtby and J B Priestley who both reflected a Yorkshire she recognised.

I think the two of them were sort of life as I knew it in Yorkshire at that time. A gritty existence, I think, true to life, realists.

Margaret became a librarian, one of the first at the state-of-the-art library opened in 1953 on the edge of another one of Sheffield’s enormous new council estates, the Manor. She had found her vocation.

I think in the branch library it was more of a family. … We were very, very efficient, we were well-taught and we were all very proud of what we did.

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Librarianship, like her own personal reading, was all about discovery and opening doors to new worlds for other people to enter.

I think during the ‘50s I read things I would not read again. It’s like the Jacques Cousteau underwater books – I can’t even swim. But of course, in those days it was like going into space, it was something – the world under the sea was something all new and those fascinated me. I’ve never read romance books and historical novels and I still don’t read them, I’ve no interest in them.

When she and husband John had their family, they passed on their version of space travel. When their two sons were small, they bought them a secondhand set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas.

And we had to pay on a weekly subscription for these, we couldn’t afford to pay them outright. And my son, who’s now aged fifty, our second son, still has these Britannicas, [in a] proud place in his home, in his own library at home.

When I asked Margaret whether she ever tried to set limits on her sons’ reading, to steer them away from certain books, she quickly replied that nothing was off-limits.

No, because I believe you should make your own opinions on things and if you haven’t got the knowledge, how can you form an opinion on something?

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Margaret’s transcript and audio here