Chris F’s reading journey

Chris F was born in 1939, in the Whirlowdale area of Sheffield. He attended boarding school and Cambridge, where he read engineering.  He returned to Sheffield and worked there all his life.

But on the whole I have to say it’s the land of make-believe in most of my reading.

Chris is very clear that he reads, and always has read, for entertainment.  He usually relaxes, for example, with a book for half an hour or so before sleep, and says that most of his books ‘have been bought at airports’.  But if you think that books are not particularly important to him, or that he has not thought about their impact on his life, then you would be wrong.  As our interviewer said:

And clearly books have been so important in your life that you can’t imagine one without.

Chris’ introduction to reading was traditional.  The books he remembers from his childhood were staples: A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Allison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit and Beatrix Potter.  At school, he graduated to Enid Blyton and then to school stories like Billy Bunter. Thousands of schoolboys in the middle of the 20th century must have had a similar start.  Chris was one of those in whom the habit of reading was firmly set by authors who told a good tale.

It must also have helped that Chris grew up in a house filled with books.  He doesn’t remember being urged to read by his parents but ‘the means of doing it was there’.

I never recall actually going to a library because we had an enormous number of books at home … Which my parents had. I’m rather like my father, once you get a book you never throw it away.

He remembers lots of crime, with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and the less well-remembered Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr.  There was also some real-life crime:

… It was the life of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury which I found very nice and gory at the time, I enjoyed it.

It was around this time that Chris found Nevil Shute, ‘who I think is probably my overall favourite author, which I started reading having seen the film of A Town Like Alice’. Even now, years later, he still enjoys these novels, which he says are gentle and believable:

I got all the books and I, oh about every five or six years I start again at the beginning. I re-read a lot of old favourites.

Requiem for a Wren

In Chris’ teens lots of his books came through his joining the Companion Book Club:

… you didn’t get any choice in those days, you got the book that they sent you. I’ve still got them all. Five bob a month it was and you finished up with a novel you probably would never have read otherwise.

By now, Chris had developed a taste for adventure, so Alistair McLean’s HMS Ulysses, his first book from the Companion Book Club, was very welcome. McLean was followed by C S Forester, Dennis Wheatley and Dornford Yates.  Chris laughs as he recalls Dennis Wheatley:

… the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were, pages 27 and 28, and if you opened the book they were well-thumbed.

The interest in adventure – swashbuckling, espionage, war, arch criminals etc – remained constant from school, through university, into adulthood and working life.  Chris remembers, with pleasure still, the adventures of Simon Templar alias The Saint, James Bond alias 007 and Dr Syn alias the Scarecrow and Captain Clegg.

Chris has tried reading some of the books he enjoyed, like Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, to his grandsons, but with mixed results.

I’ve tried to get my grandsons involved but I have to say, modern boys are very difficult to get to read because they’ve all got their little widgets that they play with and watch television the whole t-time. It was books like Billy Bunter and like Enid Blyton that got me reading and I think got my generation reading.

He is concerned by what he sees as the declining interest in reading among children.  He accepts that they gain a lot through technology (he is learning to use his own Kindle) but fears the next generation will:

have a terribly limited outlook on life … I do despair a little because with the modern exam system and the way that kids don’t read in our days we shall finish up with children with very narrow horizons.

What about improving books then? Were you led to see [reading] as an improving thing? asks the interviewer.

Well, we had books that we were studying and that we had to read. And funnily enough I can remember well the … the books that at the age of about 13 when I went away to public school that we had to read and thinking ‘Oh God, these are heavy going’. But I’ve read them again since and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think there is a difference when you actually have to read them and be questioned on them…

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

These were books like Darkness at Noon (1940) by Arthur Koestler – the story of a Bolshevik who falls victim to Stalin during the purges of the 1930s.   Chris still occasionally reads books his teachers would have thought of as improving:

I’m half way through Great Expectations, I never really read Dickens. I had to do Dickens at schools but I read Nicholas Nickleby recently and I’m reading Great Expectations now.

But it is the authors like Dornford Yates, C S Forester and Nevil Shute, whom he found for himself, that he goes back to, happy to re-read them:

… to take you away into a land of make believe.

Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute

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