Ruth’s Reading Journey: ‘I read and read and read.’

By Ruth Owen

Ruth, who was born in Sheffield on 13 February 1954, is one of our original team of interviewers. She has been a teacher almost her whole career and is now a personal tutor for English and French GCSE and A Level. She is the daughter of Mary and niece of Pat, whose memories you can read here.

Just like so many of my generation, as children, I read and read and read. Frankly, there was little else to do. If the sun was shining and there were friends around, then we would all be outside, either playing on the street or in woodland. Games included hopscotch, French skipping, ordinary skipping, playing ‘two ball’ (throwing balls up against the wall) or riding our bikes.

But, when the rain came, or friends were away, or for some reason we had to stay at home, reading was always my first choice. I remember vividly hanging out of bed, reading by the landing light. My brother was rather more sophisticated in that he had a torch.

My parents were very different in their reading matter, but they both read. Dad was a newspaper man – cover to cover if he had the time between working at the railway for five and a half days a week and tackling all the DIY our house desperately needed.

Ruth’s mum and dad on their wedding day

Mum, on the other hand, was a voracious reader of fiction. Attempting to gain her attention when she was reading was quite a challenge. It would go something like this:

‘Mum. Mum. Mu-um.’ Louder now: ‘MU-UM!’

‘Yes love,’ she replied, paying little attention.

‘Can I go to Gillian’s?

‘Mmmm.’

‘Mum! Did you hear me? Can I?’

‘What’s that love?’

What she did hear was my dad coming home. She’d slam the book shut, stand up straight and pick up a duster. Dad had more than a bit of a temper. I’d give up and pick up a book.

So which books was I actually reading? I remember from a very young age reading Bible stories, especially the Christmas story. I was about four years old, was with my dad and was reading to him. I managed the word ‘suddenly’ which was the first word of the sentence telling of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. My dad was delighted. What influence his praise had on me to read further I cannot say, though it must have had some. His praise was very rare.

Other books I remember reading from childhood were Puppy Stories for Children – a book I loved and  still have. Every Christmas I was given by my aunt an annual called Princess – it’s worth noting that a princess was the last thing I aspired to be, but I did enjoy the annual. Somebody bought me The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies. I read that book from cover to cover about a hundred times. I could recognise and categorise every horse and the script that went with it.    

I have always loved animals and have read an awful lot about them. I am still horrified by the way humans treat them: factory farms, caged hens, the cruel dairy industry. This love of animals has also informed much of my reading, and still does. The question I asked as a child, ‘What have animals ever done to us that we treat them so abhorrently?’ No answer as yet.  

And then, in she came, the most popular children’s author of my generation and maybe all time: Enid Blyton. I read them all. Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Naughtiest Girl in the school and my all -time favourite, Malory Towers: every single one. All I wanted was to be in a boarding school with Darrell and her mates. Actually that’s not entirely true, as I was also reading Ruby Ferguson’s books about Jill and her love of horses. Jill’s Gymkhana was a firm favourite and there was its predecessor, A Pony for Jill. The nearest I got to my own pony was a stuffed sock with button eyes and a broom handle body. Despite its inanimate properties, I was still up at 6 am ‘to muck it out’ and feed it. Creeping down the stairs of our very small house, I’d hear my dad. ‘What the bloody hell is she doing going out to feed that stick horse? Can’t you stop her, Mary? She’s obsessed.’ In this instance, he was right.

I’m trying to recall where I got these books from. Several were bought for me by my parents. Astonishing really, as money was very tight. We were living in Darnall, but I have no memory of going to a local library. My dad believed absolutely in the power of education to transform lives. The books were regarded as an investment. A poor boy from Tinsley, a prisoner of war for three and a half years, he was determined that his children would have that which he had been denied.

To this end, we moved. We arrived in Beauchief and my brother and I became pupils at Abbey Lane County Primary school. The A stream had an excellent reputation for all its pupils passing the 11+.

Now 11 years old and the summer holidays stretching in front of me, I would go to the library almost every other day. Woodseats Library was about half a mile away and I was a devotee. We had to go over to my aunt’s in Tinsley during the holidays, as my mum was working – she had to – but on arrival home there was just enough time before the library closed, to succeed in a mad dash to the shelves.

Jane Eyre, for breakfast

Grammar school time arrived in the late sixties and reading was expected and enforced. Fine by me. Jane Eyre for breakfast, Persuasion for lunch and Tess of the d’Urbervilles for tea. Despite being made to walk across the desks as King Hamlet’s ghost, by my rather eccentric English teacher, I loved Shakespeare too. I would read anything and everything, and at A level developed a love for French Literature too. Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Zola’s L’Assomoir and Germinal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – superb.

Original advert for Germinal, one of Ruth’s favourites of French literature.

University was where I was able to study both French and English literature and was also where I developed a lifelong interest in literature from further afield too, particularly America, Russia and India.

Some friends of mine, six of us, about twenty-five years ago now, decided that we would form a book group and we are still going to this day. We take it in turns to choose the book which we discuss the following month. Several years back, it being my turn, I chose The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, in my opinion, a sublime writer. Sadly, this was not the opinion of the group, who really disliked what has come to be one of my very favourite books. It is so interesting to me how reading preferences vary. The fact that people with whom you have so much in common, educationally, socially and politically, can have such a wide variety of tastes in books, utterly astonishes me. But that’s how it is.

Right now, wherever I go, I have a book with me. Thrillers, serious tomes, studies of the English language itself; in short I have to have something to read. To have to wait in a queue, or wait for someone, or have my car break down or being unable to sleep – all of these irritations in life are soothed by the simple knowledge of having a book with me.

Christine’s reading journey

By Sue Roe

Christine was born in 1940 and her reading journey was inevitably influenced by World War Two, though her parents and her choice of career in librarianship were clearly also important factors.

Christine, aged 14, playing snowballs at school

Christine has difficulty remembering her first experiences of reading:

You’ve started with a difficult question here. The first thing I can remember was at school. Things like Enid Blyton and Treasure Island particularly. That was the first thing that caught my eye.

The war meant that fewer books were available. Christine read what and where she could:

I can remember a boyfriend [of Christine’s sister] of the time bringing me one of these annuals – Stories for Girls annuals… I think he was trying to curry favour with my sister. It was just a gift, and it was second-hand!

Clearly even schools seemed short of books:

[At] about eight or nine, I won a school prize. The teacher gave me a book, but it was a second-hand book. It was one of her [Christine’s teacher’s] books. The prize was a second-hand book! So you didn’t buy books then, well, not in my experience.

The prize seems to have been Anne of Green Gables, the children’s classic much loved by many of the Reading Sheffield interviewees. Christine was also reading Enid Blyton (whose books were ‘exciting. Different. A different world’) and books about life in girls’ boarding schools.

Left to myself, I went through the entire Chalet School [series] like a dose of salts. That’s the thing that really comes over to me – the Chalet School books.

It was at this stage that buying books became important, although she didn’t have much pocket money: 

We used to go into Andrews [a Sheffield bookseller] and a treat would be for me to save my pocket money, so I did collect all the earlier Chalet School books. I think I used to take my mum in and she used to help me out. So they were always considered a luxury.

Although he was away in the army for the duration of the war, Christine’s father played an important part in her reading. This was in contrast to her mother whom Christine ‘can’t ever remember … having any direct influence’. Christine still recalls her father’s collection of books:

The only books we owned were in the bookcase that was full of my father’s books and they were of the ‘Great Short Stories’ type: Great Short Stories of the World and Dashiell – Dashiell Hammett… As I grew up, I was encouraged to read them …

After the war, he would:

…push me towards these classics that were in the bookcase: the Wilkie Collins and that type of thing, which probably was a little bit old for my age group… I struggled a bit with some of the classics that my father wanted me to read.

He also encouraged her to enter competitions in the Children’s Newspaper which they had at home:

It was a short story competition and I got an ‘honourable mention’.

When she moved to the grammar school, Christine was able to take advantage of the class library – a cupboard of books such as H G Wells’ Kipps. At this point she started reading war stories:

I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and … we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd and then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader…

 

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These war stories had a profound effect:

I’m a convinced pacifist. I think war is absolutely stupid … I think he[her father] thought I was a bit of a leftie because by the time I was 18, 19, I’d already joined CND.

Libraries were an important stop on Christine’s reading journey from an early age:

I did start going down to Central Children’s Library but I think I was older, I think it was when I wanted to be independent when I was eleven or twelve.

When she was 16, Christine went to stay with a distant relation who was ‘deputy chief librarian for Tottenham libraries’. He gave her a ‘book list’ and brought books for her to read, including The Crowthers of Bankdam and Marjorie Morningstar. Christine herself started working in libraries around then. This influenced her reading in several ways:

I got hooked on light reading. Certainly Georgette Heyer. I got through all of those and I think Lucilla Andrews, who wrote about doctors and nurses and I got through those as well.

Christine took an Open University course and professional librarian exams over the years, with the support of her employers. This led to her reading particular sorts of books, not always to her taste:

The first professional exam was a four-part thing and one part was Literature, so again I had to read things like Charlotte Bronte. … Again I was pushed into reading certain books. Again it was Victorian novelists. You’ve not got time to do anything else.

[With] the Open University I did the novel course so obviously again I had to plough through Dickens and Hardy.

Her love of books continued after retiring from the library service. She worked part-time in a children’s bookshop and had her favourites there too:

One of my favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It’s an early Raymond Briggs… [Also]  The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. And Peepo! Again, it’s got a war theme in it. When you see the father, he’s wearing a uniform.

Nowadays Christine enjoys crime rather than war stories:

I go more for the detective solving the crime… It’s trying to work out ‘whodunit’ and get there.

It is amazing Christine managed to fit in so much reading:

Well, because over the years I’ve studied [for] so many different exams and had to be tied in to what they wanted to read and had children. A full-time job; two children and I was studying first for a degree in and then for a master’s, so I hadn’t really got much time.

 

You can read Christine’s full interview or listen to the audio here.

 

Lizz’s recollections of reading 1950-65

My dad was an agronomist and when I was very young we lived in farms and agricultural colleges.  My first recollections of a book as an object were pictures in a board book of farmyard animals, which I still have.

favourite-animals-

Every Christmas I received a book from my Aunty Mary.  She was the Principal of Leicester Teacher Training College so I expect that the books she chose were to be educational as well enjoyable.  My dad read to me every night before I went to sleep, and Aunty Mary’s books formed the core of my book collection.  This is a period when books were chosen for me – for example, John Masefield (The Box of Delights), Hugh Lofting (the Dr Dolittle series) Grimms’ Fairy Tales, C S Lewis (the Narnia series), T H White (The Sword in the Stone), Andrew Lang’s Blue and Green Fairy Books, Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), Rosemary Sutcliff (The Eagle of the Ninth), A Wonder Book by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  My favourites?  Dr Dolittle, The Magician’s Nephew, The Box of Delights and The Secret Garden.

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One of Aunty Mary’s last Christmas present books was The Hobbit, but I did not read Lord of the Rings until I was at university.

I became horse-mad around the age of six, and from then until about the age of ten  horses dominated my reading.  I had a huge volume called Horses, Horses, Horses that I read over and over again.  Books by the three Pullein-Thompson sisters ring a bell; Black Beauty of course; a series about Romney Marsh; plus books on anatomy, riding, drawing and breeds of horses.  As a family we often used the library at Impington Village College, where my dad ran a film club.  I used to design and make the posters for the film screenings.  My parents still directed my reading to some extent – for example, I was not allowed to read ‘trashy comics’.  I got round this by devouring huge piles of the Beano and the Dandy. They were stored in a cupboard with gas masks and a tin helmet at a friend’s house.  We also did not have a television, because it might interfere with our reading.  Sounds crazy now.

The telly arrived when I was 11, and I increasingly selected my own reading.  I was indirectly influenced because my parents just left their books about and I would pick them up.  Women authors dominated my mum’s reading.  She was a great fan of Jane Austen, and Emily and Charlotte Bronte.  I had to read Pride and Prejudice for ‘O’ level English Lit but never really got on with Jane Austen.  But I did enjoy Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.  The Loving Spirit by Daphne du Maurier was one of mum’s favourites.  Among the authors that I read due to her influence were: Edna O’Brien; Anita Brookner; Winifred Holtby; Rebecca West; A S Byatt; Katherine Whitehorn; Doris Lessing; Muriel Spark; Iris Murdoch.

My dad in contrast read contemporary fiction.  Through him I read: John Updike; Salinger; John Braine; J P Donleavy; Thomas Pynchon; D H Lawrence; Hermann Hesse; and Kerouac.

Other authors I remember reading between 11 and 17 were: H G Wells; John Masters; John Wyndham; Lynne Reid Banks (The L Shaped Room); Jean Rhys; Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano); Patrick White; Saul Bellow; Zola; William Golding.  I waded through The Herries Chronicles (Hugh Walpole) and attempted to read Lorna Doone but found the dialect tedious.  However I quite liked Chaucer which, along with Shakespeare and a considerable amount of poetry (largely forgotten), was on the school syllabus.

Then there were the forbidden books – The Story of O by Pauline Réage, and the Kama Sutra.  (Titles were passed pupil to pupil.)

I had six large factual books that I looked at repeatedly and which, looking back, have influenced the science and art that I did later.

  • Lionel Wendt’s Ceylon.  My mum was a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment during WW2 and was stationed in Trincomalee.  This was one of her books.  It’s full of large black and white photographs.
  • The Sculptures of Michelangelo – again a book of large black and white photographs, which most likely belonged to my dad.  I can remember being especially impressed by the slaves freeing themselves from the rock.
  • The World’s Greatest Paintings: Selected Masterpieces of Famous Art Galleries edited by T Leman Hare.  Three muddy brown volumes probably inherited from my grandfather and a collection of coloured plates of what were then considered significant paintings from famous western galleries.  It’s purely visual, with no information other than title and artist.

The large black and white photographs of Ceylon and the sculptures of Michelangelo have directly influenced my own photography and, although The World’s Greatest Paintings ends at the Pre-Raphaelites, it introduced me to Art History.

  • And lastly The Science of Life by H G Wells, Julian Huxley and G P Wells.

My version of The Science of Life was published by Cassell & Company in 1931 and included some dubious and speculative science.  My favourite picture remains that of the medium ‘Margery’ extruding ‘teleplasm’ from her nose and mouth.

ectoplasm--copy

And here is an example of more conventional, but equally fascinating, science.

science-of-life--copy

Lizz Tuckerman is a freelance multimedia artist based in Sheffield.  She was previously a research scientist working in genetics and reproduction.  Lizz designed this website and has produced artworks inspired by the Reading Sheffield interviews.  She was born near Ironbridge in Shropshire and her early childhood was spent in Penrith and Kilve (Somerset). When her father began work at The National Institute of Agricultural Botany, the family moved to first to Histon, a small village in Cambridgeshire and then to the market town of Saffron Walden in Essex. Lizz has lived in Sheffield for 26 years.

Ladybird, Ladybird (Sheffield Central Library, 2015)

It may be slightly beyond our Reading Sheffield remit, but I cannot resist blogging about the Ladybird, Ladybird exhibit recently on show at the Central Library during Off the Shelf, Sheffield’s annual literary festival.  The work is by artist Andrew Malone.  As a whole, the exhibit has the look to me of a delicate 1950s fabric, suggesting the work of Mondrian.   Closer up, you see the way Andrew Malone has cut into the pages to make the drawings of animals, planes, trees etc pop up and out.  This is inspired, although I also find the idea of cutting into books disturbing.

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None of our Reading Sheffield interviewees mention Ladybird books but I’m confident that most would remember them, either from their own schooldays or their children’s.  For so many people, Ladybirds were the first books they learned to read, practising their skills on the beautifully designed and carefully scripted pocket-sized books.  Whole generations of children across the world were brought up with them – the books have been translated into over 60 languages.  Even now, as I look at them, I feel a sense of security, even serenity, reminding me of my own schooldays in the mid-60s.  But of course I also recognise now that some of them portrayed an idealised, middle-class world where Mummy always did the housework, Daddy went out to work and everyone seemed to be white.

According to the Ladybird Books website, the first Ladybird books appeared in 1914, marketed as ‘pure and healthy literature’ for children and published by the printing firm of Wills and Hepworth.  Henry Wills had started with a bookshop in Loughborough in 1867.  He was joined in 1904 by William Hepworth and the company focused on printing guidebooks and catalogues.  Their Ladybird range was developed by editorial director Douglas Keen to include the Key Words Reading Scheme (better known as the hugely popular Peter and Jane stories) and the Nature, How It Works, Learnabout and What to Look For series seen in Andrew Malone’s art.  The company policy was to commission experts to write the text and quality artists to illustrate them.

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The Guardian’s 2008 obituary for Douglas Keen described the creative development process:

In 1948, using the kitchen table as his desk, Keen devised the first factual Ladybird. He made a mock-up of a book of British birds, with watercolours by his mother-in-law, drawings by his wife and text by himself, and took it to his boss, Jim Clegg. The resulting Nature books were to be the longest-running of the Ladybird series. Clegg and Keen now steered the company towards the educational publishing for which Ladybird was to become world-renowned.

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For a whole generation the price of a Ladybird book was maintained at 2/6 – 12.5p now, half a crown then, which meant that you could buy eight for £1.  This low price resulted from the production process which used a single (large) sheet of paper for each book.

Wills and Hepworth was taken over by Pearson in the 1970s and then merged into Penguin Books in 1998.  The long-established Loughborough printing works was closed down around this time (I used to travel through the town by train and remember a big sign at the station welcoming people to the ‘home of Ladybird Books’).  Ladybird has continued to thrive, with new titles and series, including e-books and apps.

Ladybird’s new directions include their first books for adults, which started appearing in 2015.  The tongue-in-cheek titles include: Mindfulness, The Shed, Dating and The Hangover, and the books have the traditional look.  I admit to mixed feelings about this development.  On the one hand, it’s quite a good joke, but on the other, I think it’s rather a pity to trespass on my childhood memories.  I suppose the fact that Ladybird can think of doing such a thing speaks to the strength of the brand.

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