Alan was born in Kimberworth, between Rotherham and Sheffield.
He was born in 1944.
Though never discouraged from reading, Alan says ‘I kept my reading to myself’. His mother was a reader of Mills and Boon romances. She and Alan’s aunt read to him: Rupert Bear annuals and fairy stories with scary drawings. He explored comics on his own, the Beano, Dandy, Roy of the Rovers but was never an Eagle fan. The family also had a complete set of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia. Though initially Alan didn’t find reading easy, when he got to junior school he found a teacher ‘who bullied me, in a nice way, to read’.
Then, at secondary school,
I seemed to have this sort of explosion, you know, I’d sort of discovered reading and I’d got a lot of time to make up and everything. I was probably, looking back, I probably didn’t understand them at all.
He thinks it may have been because he developed his reading confidence late that he felt that he had to make up for lost time, turning his back on what he regarded as childish:
Well I started reading classic books like Charles Dickens and I remember trying to read Paradise Lost and finding it absolutely totally beyond me … and I can remember going to Rotherham City Library and saying I’d like to join the library and them trying to direct me to the children’s library. I wouldn’t have that, no I wanted these other books.
Though Alan got huge pleasure from G A Henty’s boys’ adventure stories, he knew that there were other, ‘important’ books that he also wanted to explore. Identifying what were the important books took some doing and there were pitfalls in this voyage of discovery. When he was asked at secondary school to name a famous author, one of his mother’s favourites came to mind and he answered ‘Mazo de la Roche’ (who wrote the hugely popular and romantic Jalna series). ‘I was laughed at and … I perhaps realised that perhaps all our authors aren’t equal!’
Alan still remembers the books he read in class, one of the earliest being John Ruskin’s fable cum fairytale, The King of the Golden River or The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria.
I went to secondary modern school and there were very few books actually in school in those days. And the ones that were, I think they were trying to make us realise how good books were but they were so sort of reverential about books that, you know, I wouldn’t have dared go to the library and borrow one.
The reverence for the book as object was shaken when the same teachers who instilled this attitude commanded their pupils to strike out the word ‘King’ in the National Anthem and insert the word ‘Queen’ in 1953. ‘I remember being quite shocked that teachers were telling us to deface our hymn books’.
At about this time he was introduced in English lessons to Jack London’s adventures of life in the Canadian forests: Call of the Wild and White Fang; and the great escape story, The Wooden Horse. This taste for adventure stories was satisfied by many different kinds of author: John Buchan, John Masters, C S Forester, John Wyndham, Nevil Shute and Graham Greene. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin he enjoyed ‘in a sort of … disturbed way’. Alan bought many of these novels from the long-established Rotherham bookshop, Harpers, ‘a rabbit warren of shelves’. The municipal library was his chief source of books. Relatives and friends of the family also regularly gave him books as presents. A particular friend was the chair of the local education committee in Rotherham. ‘If I ever mentioned a book in his presence he would get it for me.’
As a teenager Alan found Bright Day by J B Priestley ‘useful’,
useful in the sense that as an adolescent you had certain uncertainties and that is what he talked about. And knowing that other people had the same uncertainties, it’s not just you.
So reading allied Alan to these unseen people who might ask the same questions. He never felt he was part of a group that were all readers though his family did have books in the home. He felt that in Rotherham ‘I was slightly unusual in that I was keen on reading and I did collect books.’ He built his own bookshelves to house his collection.
Alan left school to go to technical college and then, like his father, worked in the metal industry. His father had worked in the rolling mills and Alan joined a research laboratory. Alan was soon doing night classes, gaining a Higher National Certificate in physics and an Open University degree, all this balanced with family life.
Alan feels he is ‘fairly open to any genre as long as it is engaging, telling you something. So, I like a fast moving story and if you can get both together that’s wonderful’. He reflects on why books have been so important to him:
I think I am a person who uses reading rather than for its own sake, as it were. I like to see what it can do for me sort of thing.