James Green’s reading journey

James was born on 27 April 1936 in Darnall, Sheffield. He is married to Barbara, whose interview is here.

As a boy, James enjoyed stories, excited and caught up in the adventure. As an adult, he looks back at the boy, half amused, half amazed, with the man’s knowledge and experience.james-green-3

James’ parents were readers, borrowing their books from a library, and he remembers:

… going with my mum and dad to the local library, and coming back with picture books, and they’d come back obviously with adult books. And even though I couldn’t really read at that stage, we used to sit on a Saturday night in particular when my dad was at home, they’d be reading books and I’d be pretending to be reading.

James thinks he ‘graduated in two to three years from sitting on a settee pretending to read with my mum and dad to actually reading’. When he was about seven years old, he got a book for Christmas. It was an omnibus of abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe, Little Women, Gulliver’s Travels and a couple of others.

… it was my own book, probably the first book I’d really owned, you could go through it and you could go through it again, and so it was with me for quite a long time.  And at that stage, I probably wasn’t all that good at reading, so it’d take me a long time, and it was quite a hefty book.

James is conscious that his younger self missed a lot. Robinson Crusoe can be seen, for example, as the march either of civilisation or of cultural imperialism but, James says, ‘… to a kid at seven on a desert island [it] is an adventure book, isn’t it really?’

James enjoyed popular adventure novels. He was a ‘big fan’ of Sherlock Holmes and ‘used to love’ Biggles, the intrepid air ace created by Captain W E Johns. He ‘read an article years and years later that he was actually a fascist, so…’. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Biggles books were often condemned by teachers and librarians.* But this was all beyond the James of the 1940s:

No no, it were just an adventure. Algie and Biggles and Ginger, very gung ho I suppose. Patriotic. Really patriotic weren’t he?

It was much the same with another popular hero of the period, Bulldog Drummond.

256px-Bulldog_Drummond_Poster

I read Bulldog Drummond … who were again a bit of a fascist, I found out later. In fact I only read the other day, it said Bulldog Drummond – it were talking about Sapper – it were a pseudonym for I can’t remember the name – he were a lieutenant colonel retired. So you can guess how he wrote. It was ‘Bulldog Drummond was six foot six (or something) in his stockinged feet, excellent shot … Extremely fit, a really good boxer, and as dim as a Toc-H lamp’ … Someone taking the mickey out of that type of writing, but when you were a kid, you just read it, don’t you, you know.

James wouldn’t read this type of book now, he thinks.

I’ve more insight – and not just because it’s a boy’s… It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there. … Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it.

Orwell, whom he first read when he was about 15 or 16, helped form James’ adult beliefs and attitudes.

George Orwell

George Orwell

Well – I think – I don’t know when it started, or when I were aware of it, but you started getting writers who condemned that outlook. George Orwell for instance. Very critical of a lot of what we were doing and what we did and critical of this country as a whole.

… through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very gung ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. ‘God is an Englishman.’

… But Orwell, Road to Wigan Pier – really opened my eyes, you know. Because living as we did, we were living as he were describing, the conditions he was born into. And the first dawnings in my mind were this ain’t right. We shouldn’t be living like this, and we’ve no need to live like this.

You can find James’ story in full here.

* There have been more recent calls for Biggles’ rehabilitation.

The Reading Journey of Doreen Gill

Doreen grew up in Darnall, before the Sheffield Blitz, a hillside of terraced houses which served the workers in the steel works on the eastern side of Sheffield. In December of 1940, when Doreen was six years old, the family was bombed out of their home and they moved down, nearer the great corridor of steelworks in the Don Valley to Brightside. This was the first of many relocations.

When she was nine, Doreen’s mother died. Her father was fighting in Africa and was left with three children and no one to care for them.

 They wouldn’t let him home, even for the funeral.

The three children were separated, Doreen going to live in a Children’s Home in Ripon, Yorkshire and her two brothers to one in Diss, Norfolk. When after three and a half years her father returned, with a Belgian wife, he gathered the family together again.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Throughout these early years, books were a constant. Doreen’s much younger brothers were twins so her mother did not have time to read to her but she “doesn’t ever remember not reading”. A great aunt lived near and her support for her mother enabled Doreen to find time to read. She thinks she might have read before she went to school because her father was a great reader and they did have books in the house.

But not children’s books of course, so consequently I picked everything up, whether it was suitable or whether it wasn’t!

Before her mother died she used the library at Attercliffe, walking up the hill on her own to Attercliffe Common.

I used to go there and just work me way along the shelves. Anything and everything. ‘Cept I’m not too keen on history.  I read anything else but.  I will read if I’m desperate.  I will read history but I’ve got to be desperate.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

No-one guided her choices.

They just left us to it, you know.  You were only allowed two books at a time then so I used to go to the library two or three times a week and change me books.

Milly, Molly, Mandy, Anne of Green Gables and Edgar Allen Poe come to mind (‘not at five, though’). Her main reading time was a Sunday when she and her brothers weren’t allowed to play out. She can’t remember sharing her reading pleasures but her father approved her habit. Not so her mother.

If I picked a book up to read she’d say, “Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so.  You’re wasting your time and my time”.  You know.  So she’d always find me a job to do.

So her bedroom became her reading space

I used to go to bed and read until it was really dark.  And me dad used to say, “Switch that light off”.  So I used to stand in front of the window and read as long as I could!

Doreen can’t remember reading in the children’s home but while she was there she started at Ripon Grammar School and they were very keen on reading. She loved the school and went on to City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield when she returned home. There she read Shakespeare and poetry, learning lots by heart. Wordsworth’s On Westminster Bridge and Milton’s ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ still echo in her mind.

She got her O levels but had to leave school when she was 15. She would like to have stayed on; instead she went to work at Firth Brown Steels and continued reading during her lunch hour: ‘Very unsociable but I used to do it’: Nevil Shute, Edgar Allen Poe and Terence Rattigan plays.

Sometimes her father would take his family to the Palace in Attercliffe.

I don’t know if you remember it. It was open then as a review place but on Saturdays they had things that were suitable for families, you know.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Once she won some tickets to go to the Empire, probably from entering a competition from The Gloops Club, run by the local papers, The Telegraph and Star.

The Gloops Club had a badge, a little teddy, fat teddy.  And, I used to belong to it.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

When Doreen got to City Grammar after the war, Sheffield Central Library was round the corner.

Well they used to have the Children’s down the stairs, you know.  I don’t know if you remember that.  There wasn’t quite as much choice as you might think.  But by the time I was twelve I was going upstairs anyway to the adults’ part, so I’d got as much choice as I wanted up there.

But she constantly returned to Anne of Green Gables, never owning a copy but repeatedly taking it out of the library.

I mean, you realise that there’s more than you orphaned; she was orphaned, and how good this lady was to her, you know, and how things work out.

Finding new authors she enjoyed was a matter of chance. Once she made a favourite, Dennis Wheatley, Shute or Allen Poe for example, she would read everything they wrote. Occasionally she would meet an author that seemed too difficult or too rubbishy but her instinct was to finish whatever she had started whether she liked the book or not.

Doreen’s church life has been thoroughly ecumenical. Her father was a Unitarian originally, her stepmother was a Catholic and Doreen was sent with her brothers to Attercliffe Methodist church on a Sunday. We recruited her to Reading Sheffield through an Anglican church on the south side of Sheffield. When I asked her if any of the books of the Bible was a favourite, she immediately replied.

Ruth, it’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?

Later on in her life Doreen’s reading life was shared, first with her children and now with a group of friends. The friends buy their books in charity shops and pass them round: Rebecca Tope, Danielle Steel, Josephine Cox and Maureen Lee are all current favourites.

Doreen age 19 on a day out at Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen age 19. A day out in Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen has always been quietly persistent in finding time to read and light to read by. Neither of her two mothers encouraged her but she accepted that and outflanked them. After I had finished recording her memories I mentioned that one of our Sheffield readers had told us that she stopped reading when she started dancing. I asked Doreen whether that had been her experience. “Oh no,” she said, “You can read AND dance.”

by Mary Grover

Access Doreen’s transcript and audio here