The Reading Journey of Bob W

By Mary Grover

Bob was born in Sheffield on 3 February 1940. He was interviewed with his wife Carolyn. They married when Bob was 24 and Carolyn was 20.

As they talk about their reading, it is clear that Bob and Carolyn have read alongside each other throughout their marriage, each prompting the other when the name of a title slips the mind. But this was not the pattern in Bob’s own family.

Bob grew up in the one of the biggest housing estates in Europe, Parson Cross, in the north of Sheffield. The Council began to build in 1938, two years before Bob was born, so the estate grew up with him. There were few books in the house: ‘there’d be a Bible and that would be about it’. Bob’s father read the Daily Herald in the week and the News of the World on Sunday. His mother read Women’s Weekly, but not ‘Mum’s Own – that was trash’. Bob cannot remember being read to but remembers one book from his childhood:

…that was just a little paperback thing, about a dozen pages, and it was nursery rhymes.  About that size.  And I remember reading these and learning every one off by heart.  And that was my precious book, you know.

Bob was early learning to read.

I knew I enjoyed reading and I knew that I wanted to learn to read. But no, my parents weren’t big readers at all.

Nor were Bob’s two older sisters. ‘So, everything I did was on my own bat, I think’. He dismisses the idea he might have found something to read in his primary school:

of course, you didn’t have books in school, so I used to go to the library.

Hillsborough Library, which Bob visited as a child

Although there had been pre-war plans, no permanent municipal library was built in the vast new estate for many years so it was two miles down the hill back towards town to the magnificent Hillsborough Library that Bob made his way by tram to find the books he sought. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly but would just pick up something he liked the look of: ‘it was probably short stories or something like that’.  He joined a second library to increase choice but Hillsborough’s children’s section was one of the best in the city, established in 1929, so it was there he tended to find the adventure stories he enjoyed. Though Enid Blyton was not a favourite author, he did borrow the Famous Five mysteries and ‘that sort of thing’.

Bob reflects that he ‘never grew into the adventure stories for adults’. He went to the cinema when he grew out of Enid Blyton to watch cowboy and war films but never wanted to read about war and fighting. Throughout his life he seems to have kept his reading and his cinema going separate, actively disliking adaptations.

When he could afford it, Bob would go down to the local newsagents, Hadfields at Wadsley Bridge and buy, not comics or magazines, but books.

I bought a series of Sexton Blake. Thin little books, Sexton Blake, yeah.

The first book Bob remembers that he felt was an adult book was Stevenson’s Treasure Island. When he passed the 11+ exam and went to grammar school, he began reading the classics. ‘You had your own books, which I had to read, you see?’ He remembers reading David Copperfield ‘on my own bat because I wanted to see what it was like.’ It was his favourite book. Though he enjoyed the thrill of adventure in a film, in a book he tended to look for interesting characters.

I had to be interested in people. I mean, you can’t get [a] more interesting character than David Copperfield, you see.

Original illustration from David Copperfield

He tried to find the same pleasure in other novels by Dickens but they never delivered. Once he had seen the film of Oliver Twist he lost interest in reading the book. He made it through Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby but as for Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘I couldn’t make it through that and [then] I gave up on Dickens’. Bob concludes that he still enjoys the classics but not ‘the difficult classics … I wouldn’t try Ivanhoe or some of the other 19th … 18th century authors, you know’. There was something about the language of Dickens that felt close to his own.

Beyond a certain point … I want to read easy and I found David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens on the whole, easy to read.  They were speaking my language, you know. Some of the older authors, more classical authors, were speaking not my language, you know, and I didn’t want to keep looking in dictionaries to see what the words were or anything like that, … so, I think, that’s it.

Bob is resistant to language that he fails to connect with. He can’t get on with the language of the past that needs a dictionary to unlock it but he ‘cant stand modern literature with modern words.’ Even though the world of work and his work mates introduced him to all these words, he doesn’t want to read them, happy to be called ‘fuddy-duddy’. ‘It’s not my style of talking’.

In fact Bob is very clear about what he likes and why he likes it. He likes description which adds to a story or makes a character real.

People criticise Agatha Christie[‘s], you know, style of writing as not very good and so on, but she’s very, very good at descriptions. You got into a book and immediately it hits you what the story was about, and you got engrossed in it.

He found that Christie’s contemporaries had too much aimless description for his taste and looks to modern thrillers where description has a clear function.

He has other tastes too. He likes whimsical books: the short stories of P G Wodehouse and the humour of Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t like depressing books. George Orwell and Nevil Shute are not for him. Nor are books that are full of unpleasant people.

I want to go into a different world and enjoy it and I have to like the people I’m reading about. If I don’t like them – not interested in them.

And Bob found lots of books that did interest him and which helped establish the writing skills that were essential to his job in a large Sheffield refractory firm. He met his wife Carolyn there: she was a chemist and he worked in Research and Development. In their interview she gives him an unsolicited testimonial: ‘Can I say he still writes very well?’ Bob had not only to conduct research projects but to communicate the findings of the research team effectively.

We had to interpret the project and put it forward, you see. So, you had to know how to get your points of view over and tell a story in that sense. So that and the work you did at … the essays you had to write at school, you see. They all helped, you know. You got a vocabulary that you could use and if you’d got a vocabulary, it was very good for you. If you hadn’t got a vocabulary, you were struggling, you know. So, that did help.

The feel that Bob developed over the years for a language that was his own clearly helped him develop an appropriate voice for communicating with other professional scientists and engineers. Sheffield’s industries, as so many of our readers show, depend on the communication skills born of a love of reading imaginative literature.

You can read Bob’s interview here.

The Five Find-Outers by Enid Blyton

By Sue Roe

I remember as a child, on my visits to Park Library on Duke Street, Sheffield, being captivated by child detectives – Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the Famous Five and Secret Seven of Enid Blyton (1897-1968). Yet I have yet to meet anyone who remembers the other group of child detectives: the Five Find-Outers and a Dog. They were led initially by Larry but from the third book by ‘Fatty’: Frederick Algernon Trotteville, an only child with very relaxed parents and lots of pocket money for cakes and other treats which he shares with the others in the group. These are: Larry, his sister Daisy, Pip and his younger sister Bets, and Buster, Fatty’s Scottie dog, who eats biscuits with potted meat and nips the ankles of the local plodding policeman, Mr Goon.

All except Bets attend boarding school so the adventures happen in the school holidays. The children hunt for clues (or ‘glues’ as Bets calls them) and talk to witnesses. Fatty specialises in disguises: he has wigs, grease paints, false teeth, cheek pads which he uses to gain information and to outwit Mr Goon. The books very much reflect a particular mid-twentieth century village society with cooks, maids and valets, tramps, gypsies and fairground folk. There is an undercurrent of class difference: Fatty’s mother plays golf and bridge; Mr Goon’s nephew, Ern, who becomes an unofficial member of the group, eats with the cook, not with the other children.

The stories were set in the fictitious village of Peterswood, based on Bourne End, near Marlow in Buckinghamshire. At the start of the series Larry was 13; Fatty, Daisy and  Pip were 12, and Bets was eight. There were 15 adventures in total, published between 1943 and 1961, with titles like The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage (1943), The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat (1944) and The Mystery of the Vanished Prince (1951).

I remember being fascinated by their adventures and especially by Fatty’s exploits – the  disguises and deductions, his ability to ‘throw his voice’ at crucial points in the plot! He makes the series special and, for me, more interesting than Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, whose adventures had the advantage of more exciting venues like Kirrin Island and Smuggler’s Top.

I would be very interested to know if anyone else is familiar with them. Please leave a comment if you remember Fatty and his friends.

 

You can read more of Sue’s reading journey here.

The Reading Journey of Joan C

Joan was born in 1941 and lived, as a child, in Ecclesall, a western suburb of Sheffield, close to the moors. She used Ecclesall Library (which she calls Weetwood, after the original name of the library building) and in the 1950s she used the library of her grammar school, High Storrs. Her mother, Wynne, also shared her reading memories with Reading Sheffield. Joan now lives in Wetherby.

Joan was read to by her grandfather. She has no memories of her home without his companionship. He had been a miner and then a gardener. He spent hours sitting in the dining room under a grandmother clock they had on the wall, reading to the little girl on his knee.

I remember one book. I can see the front cover: it had a little girl on it. At the end a fairy had three wishes and she had to choose one. One was a purse that always had another penny in it, one was a book that when you got to the end always had another page to read – I can’t remember the third wish. I always chose the book (that never ended).

In 1949, when Jona was a little girl, Weetwood Hall, a large house near her home, became the local municipal library so books were easily available, despite the constraints of buying stock during the war years and post-war austerity. It was there she discovered Enid Blyton.

Joan’s father was also a reader. When she was a child, he was consuming westerns by authors such as Zane Grey but later, in the 1960s and ’70s he read books about the sea – Alexander Kent’s novels.

Joan did not remember finding her set books at grammar school inspiring. While she did not enjoy the works by Charles Dickens or Shakespeare that were on her syllabus, she thoroughly ‘hated’ Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering. H G Wells’ The Time Machine was a rare success.

However, nothing put her off reading. She always found a time and a place to read.

Well, I’ve always read in bed, from being 10 up to getting married.  I took seven books on honeymoon! … My husband liked reading and it was hot and we lay on the beach and read.

Like many other of our readers she read Lady Chatterley in the 1960s and found it disappointing: ‘It wasn’t very good.’

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Joan, her sister and her brother all visited their mother in Ecclesall regularly so that her mother received a visit every fortnight. Once Joan’s mother became unable to go out and get her regular supply of Mills and Boon, Joan and her sister became the source of their mother’s reading and gradually their mother’s tastes became closer to theirs. All three particularly enjoyed historical novels. Joan’s mother told her that she had learned more history from the novels her daughters had lent her than she ever did from history lessons at school. However, some authors did not meet Joan’s requirements.

I didn’t like Georgette Heyer, she was too frivolous and I could not get into Catherine Cookson at all. My mother-in-law kept giving me them to try. She said, “you’ll like this one”, but I never did. I read all Anya Seton.  I read Daughters of England – Philippa Carr – there is a series of 20-odd books. I enjoyed learning more about history – royalty.  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles started off writing about the Tudors and one mentioned round here, Wetherby, so that interested me.

Before her mother died, Joan, her sister and her mother formed a reading group of three and Joan still trusts and shares her sister’s tastes, persisting successfully with a novel by David Baldacci that her sister recommended. She knew that if her sister recommended it must have something about it, and it did.

Joan still delights in sharing her tastes. In Wetherby she has a 90 year-old neighbour to whom she lends books. When asked by her interviewer if reading mattered to her, Joan replied, ‘Oh, absolutely!’

 

Here are the notes from Joan’s interview.

Here are the links to her mother Wynne’s interview and reading journey.

 

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

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…

 

Generated by Carsales Image Server on 04:42.09 05/09/2015

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.

 

Sue’s reading journey

Here is another reading journey from one of the Reading Sheffield team, Sue Roe. 

Reading has been important to me from my earliest memories (I only remember from the age of about eight or nine). I was always a bookworm, always with my nose in a book, though these were almost invariably library books. I don’t remember many books in the house but my dad was interested in reading and used to buy second-hand ones from the ‘Rag & Tag’ open-air market in town and keep them in a small bookcase. I have distinct memories of a book on the Phoenicians – I can’t recall much about the content – just the glossy pages and the pictures. Aesop’s Fables is another one I remember: a yellow hardback with thick pages and rough edges.

One of my first memories of reading is sitting on a stool behind the door in a neighbour’s kitchen, reading comics like Beano and Dandy.  The neighbours had a wholesale newsagent’s in West Bar and didn’t mind me taking advantage of their spare copies.

Park Library

I progressed to Park Library on Duke Street: I used to nip over the waste ground beyond the ‘rec’ at the end of Boundary Road, Wybourn. This brought me out just above the library (where I also learned to swim: Park Baths was on the same site).

What did I read then?

One favourite when I was young was Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson, with its memorable cover.

It was a fairy story with clearly identifiable ‘goodies and baddies’. I have read it again as an adult and still enjoyed it.

I read the Nancy Drew mysteries, as well as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and her lesser-known Five Find-Outers stories with Fatty – Frederick Algernon Trotteville – as the leader. Fatty was a ventriloquist and master of disguise! Detective novels are still one of my favourite genres – a way to relax. I love a good detective story!

I also had an unlikely fondness for boarding school novels such as the Malory Towers series. I was attracted by the fun and excitement of this other world, though those who have actually been to boarding school are quick to disabuse me.

Anne of Green Gables was a favourite of mine, along with another, less well-known book, A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, set in the Limberlost Swamp, in Indiana.

I identified with both books, and especially the latter – its heroine, Elnora, was an awkward outsider, poor and finding it hard to fit in. That’s how I felt, especially when I changed schools at the age of ten, when we moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road. I was from a family of eight girls and we were not well-off! This feeling was even more pronounced when I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school.

When we moved, I also changed libraries. I now caught the bus to Highfields – a wonderful library with the children’s section upstairs. How I longed to be flicking through the tickets, stamping the books and filling the shelves. What with homework and reading for pleasure, my mum would often have to shout me downstairs to help with housework.

Highfield Branch Library

I read to escape into another world, a different, more exciting world. I read books set in the nineteenth century, in America: What Katy Did, What Katy Did Next, What Katy Did At School and, obviously, Little Women.

Little Women, the story of four sisters, appealed to me, the fifth of eight girls. Jo was always my favourite – she was a tomboy like Katy, but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t accept Laurie’s proposal or why she married the Professor!

I enjoyed stories from nineteenth century Britain too: I read and probably cried over Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Books as prizes

When I moved house at the age of ten, my new friend, Janet, was a Methodist. Every Sunday I went for tea at her house and then to church for the evening service. I also went to Sunday School and took the Scripture exam. To me, learning Bible stories for the exam was just like history, one of my favourite subjects at school. I remember getting 92 per cent and a prize: Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter.

At grammar school, the prizes given to top pupils for end-of-year exams were books chosen by pupils. I managed a prize twice, in Year 2 when I asked for the Bible and in the sixth form when I chose T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. My tastes had clearly evolved.

Set books

At grammar school, books were read as part of the English syllabus. I have clear memories of Dotheboys Hall, an abridgement of Nicholas Nickleby, which introduced the unforgettable character of Squeers. I cheered along with the boys when he got his thrashing.

Another book we read in class was one set in the South Seas. I had to research on the internet to re-discover this one. It was A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, set in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. I wanted to be a missionary for a while after reading it!

The Otterbury Incident, by Cecil Day-Lewis, was another set text but I can’t remember much of the plot. I do recall the drawings, by Edward Ardizzone, whom I encountered again when looking for picture books for my children.

Teenage books

As I got older, I did read some of the classics, often choosing to read several titles by authors like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. Far From the Madding Crowd and A Christmas Carol stick in my mind.

I enjoyed different genres, though I would not have used that word. There was science fiction: I particularly remember John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, set in a post-apocalyptic world where any type of mutant is killed or banished and telepathy is common. The front cover shows a key moment when a child steps in wet sand and leaves an imprint of a six-toed foot – a clear indication of a mutant!

My father was a big fan of Rider Haggard and would often mention King Solomon’s Mines, both as the book and a film. The 1936 version had Paul Robeson as Umbopa, and Robeson was one of my father’s singing heroes. Unsurprisingly, I read that book, as well as others by Haggard, including She and Allan Quatermain.

I didn’t really discuss my reading with my close friends. An exception was the Molesworth books. I still find them funny and can recall the memorable lines we used to quote to one another: ‘As any fule kno’ (a phrase which regularly pops up in some newspapers), ‘Hello clouds, hello sky’ and of course, with reference to the Head Boy, Grabber Ma, ‘head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. Strange that three girls could enjoy tales of Nigel Molesworth, the ‘curse of St Custard’s’, a boys’ boarding school, but some things are universal: the boredom of (some) lessons, the bullying, the fear of teachers!

I was, and am still, a lover of history, so I did enjoy historical novels. Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels with their period detail especially appealed to me. Anya Seton’s novels were also historical fiction and Katharine was my favourite. The intricacies of royal family trees which emerge in this novel were to appear again when I taught A level History, especially the Wars of the Roses.

Looking back, I can see how crucial public libraries were for me: not just somewhere to do school work, to revise for exams but a doorway to explore other worlds, past and present. This passion has never left me and informed my choice of degree and career. Even after 38 years of history teaching, I still love a good historical novel!

 

By Sue Roe

Anne’s Reading Journey

Anne was born in the north of Sheffield on 5 August 1944. Her parents owned a bakery in Hillsborough. Anne has been a keen reader from an early age and has remained so.  She trained as a Religious Education (RE) teacher at college in Leeds and was also involved in the Girl Guide movement for many years, as both a Guide and a Guider.  She has two daughters and grandchildren.

Here Anne remembers how she encountered that most notorious book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Anne read well from an early age: ‘I was away ahead,’ she says. At first it was fairy stories and nursery rhymes, and then books familiar to most people growing up in the mid-20th century.

I was well into Enid Blyton at a fairly young age and then as I got older I sort of went more on to the classics. I remember reading The Children of the New Forest when I was about 13 and that became one of my top favourites. … The Chalet books in my early teens were my passion and I owned practically every single one at some point. I’ve still got a lot of them up in the loft.

Of the classics, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre were the ones Anne liked best, but although she tried, Jane Austen wasn’t for her. ‘I just couldn’t stick it,’ she says.

Membership of the public library and her school and college studies kept Anne reading, although she doesn’t sound as if she needed much persuasion (‘I just read anything I could get my hands on’). She belonged to Sheffield Libraries from an early age, walking there alone and choosing her books without any help from the librarians.  When, at the age of 15, she transferred to the City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield, she joined the Central Library, encouraged by a friend, Kath.  Kath ‘was doing literature and so was very much more into proper books, adult books’.  Anne dates her transition to ‘grown-up novels’ from her friendship with Kath.  In those days Anne usually looked for books which had some relevance to her history and RE courses, such as Jean Plaidy’s books on the Tudors and novels like Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe.

No-one ever made Anne feel that reading was a waste of time. Both parents were busy with their business, but were happy for their daughter to read:

…Oh no, I mean [my mother] was an intelligent person, she knew the value of reading, she just didn’t do it.

Then our interviewer asked if Anne was ever made to feel embarrassed or guilty about reading.  Only when she came across D H Lawrence, Anne replied.  And the story came out.

I found my dad reading surreptitiously, which was totally…I mean it was when it was all in the papers about the …[laughing] I remember he pushed it under the pile of newspapers in the cupboard and I found it one day and I started doing the same thing and reading it surreptitiously. There was always a half hour part of the day, when I got in from school before they came back from work,  that I’d got to myself and I used to read it. I worked my way through it. That was the only time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it so I never let on. I don’t think my mother knows today that I ever read it.

Perhaps your father didn’t think he ought to be doing it either, suggests our interviewer. Probably not, Anne agrees, saying ‘he probably kept it out of sight from me’.

This happened around 1960, when Anne was a teenager. This was the time of the famous trial under the Obscene Publications Act, when Penguin Books re-published Lawrence’s novel (for the first time since its initial publication in 1928) and challenged the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute.  The book was a huge success, with copies selling out as soon as they arrived in bookshops.

The trial, that was why everybody read it! Everybody knew about it. I did some more D H Lawrence as well.

Anne, however, did not particularly like the Lawrence novels she read. ‘ I read them but I wouldn’t say I’d want to read them again.’ She was shocked by Lady Chatterley, she says, because she was ‘totally innocent in those days’.  But she

didn’t know what the fuss was about for most of it.

Here is Anne’s full interview.

The Reading Journey of Florence Cowood

Florence was born in Huddersfield in 1923 and moved to Sheffield when her father got an engineering job there.  Later her parents ran a greengrocer’s shop.  The family lived in the Abbey Lane area; initially she attended a private school and then Abbey Lane Primary when it opened.  She passed the eleven plus examination at the age of 10, and went to Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar School.  At sixteen, after passing the School Certificate in English and Botany, she went to the Commercial College on Psalter Lane.  In 1939 she left school aged 16 and got a job with the LNER, the London and North Eastern Railway.  At the end of the war she married and gave up work.

florence-cowood-wedding-

Florence was always passionate about reading:

In fact, if I was ever naughty and I was sent to my room, my mother always made sure I hadn’t got a book because she knew it was no punishment if I had a book.

One of her earliest recollections is reading one of her grandmother’s books, Little Folks:

home-painting-copy

I read all sorts of bits out of it: school stories, adventure stories, little poems, letters from children who were stationed in India, letters to the editor.

Florence’s family encouraged her reading: her grandfather was a headmaster and bought her the books for grammar school.  Her godmother was a teacher and gave her books for Christmas presents: ‘she once gave me a whole lot of Enid Blyton’.

Her mother also loved reading:

mary-anerly-book

I’ve got some of my mother’s books that she had as a young woman … [Mary] Anerley, two volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Little Women and Good Wives, yes.  That was my mother’s book.

Gone With the Wind was a present from her mother for her nineteenth birthday.

As a result of family circumstances, Florence spent a lot of time in libraries as she got older, especially in the Central Library :

‘That’s why I used to go to the library and that, because I think I was rather a solitary child, in that your parents are busy working.  And I used, on a Saturday morning, I used to go down to the [Library].  Have a little trot around Woolworths by myself, get myself some sweeties.  And I used to go to Central Library, get my library books, go up to the Art Gallery.  I used to like to go up there to look at the pictures.  And then I used to go down to the Reading Room.  You could read all sorts of magazines down there, and I used to spend the whole day, you know, really, and then come home on the tram you know, and read my library books.

Probably another reason Florence spent so much time in libraries was that she did not see much of her school friends:

I had loads of friends, but in those days, when you went to a grammar school … People came from all over the city …So my best friend lived at  Pitsmoor … another one lived out in Grindleford.

Reading was a private thing – Florence didn’t discuss her choice of books with anyone.

At school she read the familiar titles: Anne of Green Gables (she liked the struggle of the little girl); What Katy Did; Black Beauty (she loved horses); but as she got older, she graduated to more adult books.  Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Country was a present for Christmas 1944 and Florence still has her copy, which she bought herself, of  Daphne du Maurier’s The King’s General.  Others she borrowed from the library, like A Tree Grew in Brooklyn and all Nevil Shute’s books (except Requiem for a Wren).

She read Jane Eyre but

some of the older books, you know, like Jane Eyre, they can be a bit fulsome, if you know what I mean.

Florence had what would be considered a modern view of education – not one recognisable to Mr Squeers or Mr Gradgrind!

Knowledge and education isn’t knowing a whole load of facts.  It’s knowing where to find the information you want.  And I think a book is, to open a book and you find things out that you never knew before.

She read for pleasure not for self-improvement or because she thought she ought to read them:

I’ve got a full set of Dickens, but I haven’t read much of him.  My godmother used to send me two or three every birthday, so I’ve got the full set.  I didn’t really appreciate it… quite frankly, a lot of them bore me to death.

After school, as a girl, her opportunities were limited:

Well, you had a choice.  You either went in a shop, or a hairdresser’s, or you went in an office.  No, there wasn’t this business about going to university and this, that and the other.

She wanted to be a reporter and got a job on the local newspaper :

I worked in the publicity department with Gloops* and all that sort, you know.  And then the war broke and … they closed the paper down …  And my father said, ‘You have to get a job’ and I went to work for the North Eastern Railway.

Florence stayed there throughout the war as it was a reserved occupation and then married in 1946.

I worked there until I got married.  And then I left, of course, when I got married.

However she still managed to keep on reading.

I did go on reading, but … I was occupied other ways then, you know, with cooking and all the rest of it you do when you’re married.

In some senses reading changed Florence’s life: she enjoyed reading about foreign places and travel which led to:

a love of wanting to explore, wanting to find out about things.  I’m always interested in people, how people live…

Different books stimulated interest in different parts of the world:

Green Dolphin Country, gave me a yen for Australia -…You know, the other side of the world.  I didn’t go to New Zealand, but I have been to Australia. … I used to like the Sundowners and all stories.

Her visit to South Africa was also stimulated by what she read.

The Valley of the Vines one gave me a yen for South Africa.  I eventually went to South Africa and saw the Valley of the Vines… I always was interested in [South Africa], in particular around the Cape, the Cape district, and of course I went there, but it’s a long time ago now. Well, Nelson Mandela was still on Robbin Island and there was still apartheid.  That was just after Sharpeville, I think

Florence was also a poet and painter – self-taught.

florence-cowood-higger-tor-

I went to the local art class … Well, my husband used to go fishing and I didn’t know what to do.  And I didn’t particularly want to knit, and I decided I’d try and paint a picture and it went from there.

She was interested in books about shipwrecks and painted the wreck of the Royal Charter ‘… and that is mentioned in Dickens, in Uncommercial Traveler’.  She used books for  reference for both her painting and gardening.

florence-cowood-the-golden-wreck-

florence-cowood-Golden-Wreck-at-Anglesea

The following is a fitting tribute to the power of books and to the zest for life which Florence showed so clearly:

This is my own bit of things, and I found it, I saw it in the library van once.

I’ve travelled the world twice over,

And met the famous saints and sinners,

Poets and artists, kings and queens,

All stars and hopeful beginners.

I’ve been where no one’s been before,

Drawn secrets from writers and cooks,

Always with a library ticket

To the wonderful world of books.

 

I would like to say that books have been me life, all me life, and without them, my life would be nothing like as good as it has been.  Because books have been there.

 

  • Gloops was a cartoon cat who appeared from 1928 until the 1980s in the Sheffield Star.  There was a Gloops club for children.  Gloops was hugely popular.

Written by Sue Roe

Access Florence’s audio and transcript here

 

Library memories from the Sheffield Forum (Part Two)

Here are more memories of local libraries from the online Sheffield Forum.

L recalls:

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

When I worked at Brown Bayley’s on Leeds road, Attercliffe in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, I used Attercliffe library all the time. I remember on one occasion I wanted to reserve a book called “Sir you *******”. Feeling a little awkward at asking for the book, I whispered the title and author to the librarian. Unknown to me the librarian was a little bit hard of hearing and asked me to repeat the title again. I raised my voice a little and repeated the request, again she asked me to repeat the title of the book. I did so in a slightly higher voice ( but still quite low). She suddenly realised what I had said and almost shouted back at me ” Sir you *******” yes we do have it but it is out at the moment so do you want to reserve it?. The library was quite busy at the time and everyone turned round to see who was ordering a book with such a title.

If you still haven’t read the book, replies someone else, it’s available via Abebooks.

B remembers the library’s own reading clubs:

I remember Hillsborough Junior Library in the late 40s.  They had a reading club.Which I seem to remember was run outside normal opening hours. The perk of this was that you could get first chance of reading any new books that had arrived. Which was a rare event at that time. The downside was you could only read them in the library, not allowed to take them home.

Yes, in the 1950s it was on Wednesday evenings – I think it was called the “Reader’s Circle”. (says H)

Hillsborough Library

Hillsborough Library, with the children’s library extension

TW went to Walkley Library:

Walkley Library

Walkley Library

Whilst at St Mary’s School, Walkley, in the mid 1960s, we used to gather in pairs just after lunch with the oldest at the front (add the year group of each child in the pair), and then be walked along South Road, past all the shops, until we reached Walkley Library on the end. We then had to replace our library books from the children’s section. Sometimes it was difficult to choose a new one in the time. I remember liking: the Cherrys (by William Matthew Scott), the Adventure Series (by Enid Blyton); Secret Seven (by Enid Blyton); Famous Five (by Enid Blyton); Jennings (by Anthony Buckeridge); Just William (by Richmal Crompton), Biggles (by W. E. Johns) and probably many more. At least one time we spent longer in the library (I think it was also over several weeks) and researched a topic. I chose (or was given) “History of Railways” as I thought at that time that my great great great grandfather (who was called Rockett) drove Stephenson’s Rocket when it won the Rainhill Trials. I remember taking great care to colour in a picture that I had drawn of the Rocket.

KK remembers fun at Firth Park Library:

Oh dear! I might be lowering the tone, but…I lived on Firth Park Avenue from 1960 age 5 to 10, don’t recall what age I was but, I loved to go in Firth Park library and play hide and seek around the great big bookcases, spent what seemed like hours in there and had lots of shushing and tutting from the librarians and stiffling the giggles made it even funnier. At age 60, I still immediately see the hide and seek potential in most big or ornate buildings I go into, before I see the architectural beauty of the place!!

More serious response to your question…I do remember paying the fine for late return and it going into the triangle shaped collection box on the high counter. I used to feel like a mini criminal. Also the sound of the date stamping in the book and the flicking through of the cards to put your library ticket into the index system. Hide and seek anyone? Lol

What are your memories of libraries in Sheffield? Use the Comments box to let us know.

A very local library

When she sat in on the interview of her aunt Wynne Wilson, Diane Haswell contributed an interesting story about an unusual private library in Sheffield in the 1950s.  You can read Wynne’s story here.

Diane Haswell was born in 1947.  As a small child she lived off Rustlings Road near Endcliffe Park in Sheffield.  She remembers unusual competition for the public library service – a very local library run by a man called Smith, from a back room in his house which was, she thought, somewhere around Louth, Peveril or Ranby Roads.

Well, I can remember … going to a man’s house and I think he was called Mr Smith and in one back room there was a treasure trove of books and I could pick three books as a young child and my mother picked three books and she also picked three books for her husband, my father.

And he stocked all the Enid Blyton books and things like that. I think that was why it was so popular in the ‘50s so we had that for about ten years so we didn’t go to another library apart from school.

Diane’s memory is pretty good.  Kelly’s Directories between 1951 and 1965 record ‘Frederick R. Smith, library’, based at 30 Blair Athol Road, near Rustlings Road.

Here is the house from which Mr Smith ran his library.

Here is the house from which Mr Smith ran his library.

How did Frederick R Smith’s enterprising library work?  Although Diane doesn’t remember money changing hands, she thinks there was a subscription fee – ‘my mother must have paid’.  The loan period was a fortnight.  Subscribers had their own codes which were written in the front of each book they borrowed, with the result that there was a record of what they had read.  Even though it is over 60 years ago, Diane still remembers that her family code was 33 S, because they lived at 33 Stainton Road.  Presumably the ‘librarian’ kept a list of who had borrowed what and when.  Reading this, you wonder how often, and with what, Mr Smith refreshed his stock.

At all events, the library was well-used for years.

… we sometimes had to stand in a queue before we got to the living room, taking the old books back and pick[ing] up the new and sometime there were queues of people outside the front door so it must have been a popular venue and a source of books.

Just like the public library, Mr Smith developed his own mobile service.  When Diane’s family moved seven miles away to the Handsworth district in 1952, Mr Smith’s son, Eric, used to come round in a small van, ‘which [Diane] can picture now’. He would open this up to reveal a selection of books.  Despite the change of address, the family kept their 33 S code, which Diane ‘thought was strange’.  Soon the library ‘took off in [our] little neighbourhood and [my] mother’s neighbours used to borrow these books’.

Mr Smith’s home-made library seems to have been popular despite Ecclesall branch library and the Central Library, both of which were nearby and free to use.  Ecclesall had opened in October 1949 at the bottom of Knowle Lane (about a mile away from Diane’s childhood home) and became one of the busiest branches.  The Central Library was less than three miles away in Surrey Street, on a good tram route.  Of course, at this remove, we have no notion of the scale of Mr Smith’s library, but perhaps it was popular because it was so very local and therefore easy for busy families.  Maybe its casual nature was also attractive, although Sheffield Libraries was informal in terms of layout, rules etc, especially in its children’s libraries.

Sheffield Central Library, Junior Library

Sheffield Central Library, Junior Library

In fact, in time, Diane did use the Central Library with its comparatively vast resources:

As soon as I was eight, I was allowed to catch a bus into town and go to the Central Library which I thought was wonderful, just to have a thousand books rather than perhaps fifty to choose from. But I think that it was significant, the Central Library in Sheffield. I know a lot of people went to that rather than a local library.

But the start of Diane’s reading journey was in a small, private enterprise patronised by her whole family:

… in one back room there was a treasure trove of books and I could pick three books as a young child … those three books were so important to me.

[Mr Smith’s library] really did set me and my parents on the path to avid reading.  If my father read authors such as Nevil Shute and Nicholas Monsarrat then so did I and I was still at primary school.  But then of course my father and I could discuss the stories afterwards, which I loved.

Perhaps this sort of amateur library will come back into being, as public libraries are forced to close, or at best reduce their opening hours.

Does anyone else remember Mr Smith’s library, or anything similar?  Please let us know.