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.

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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.

Josie Hall’s Reading Journey

Born in 1942 Josie remembers her home as a place full of curiosity and knowledge about the world, but no books. ‘Because there couldn’t be. It was just after the war, and working class people, they just didn’t have books in the house. I don’t remember anybody, ever, reading to me.’

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After the war Josie’s father returned home from two years in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp and worked as a crane driver in the steel works. He had passed his 11+ and went to the grammar school ‘but he had to be fetched out because he was the eldest of six and he had to go to work … he was really cheated.’  A remarkably able man who never found a job to match his talents, he brought what reading matter he could into the house: Reader’s Digest magazines, and then, one day ‘a pile of second-hand comics, manna from heaven; I just used to fall on them. And it wasn’t particularly because it was the comics. It was the written word, I suppose.’

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The shelves of books surrounding Josie today are the legacy of her father’s encouragement of her reading and her own natural curiosity. She is open to every kind of book, fact and fiction.  The written word helped her get to know her husband because soon after she married at 18, he too was sent to the Far East, one of the last men to do their National Service. She remembers writing to him every day and receiving his letters as often as he could find an opportunity to post them.

The notebooks that record Josie’s reading show a great surge of reading in her early twenties, then in 1965, after her son was born, nothing. So when the twin girls came along in 1967 she said ‘they’re not doing that to me again’ and determined to keep reading which she did, as her notebook testifies.

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Diana Gabaldon books, Tess of the D’Urbeyvilles, biographies of Charles II and Martin Luther, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Doctor Zhivago, Tale of Two Cities, Forever Amber, Catherine Cookson, Howard’s End, Crime and Punishment, Dennis Wheatley’s science fiction, Gone with the Wind, George Orwell, Michael Bentine ‘oh and Utopia’s in there, Thomas More. I don’t know how I got my hands on all these.’

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She reflects that many were borrowed from Attercliffe library. A few were given as Christmas presents and Sunday School prizes.  Later Josie also bought paperbacks from second-hand stalls, newsagents and booksellers: they are all listed in her compendious notebooks. Only detective novels and horror fail to figure.

One book she particularly goes back to: Jane Eyre. ‘I can see Jane sat in the window seat hiding from her cousin, reading the book and I presume maybe I was a bit like that … hiding away, reading a book. Not wanting anybody to find you.’ This absorption in what she reads is sometimes overwhelming. She had to keep putting down Black Diamonds because she was so upset. ‘It took so much out of you.’ And  ‘Lady of Hey: that one spoilt a holiday for me.’ She left her companions playing Bingo downstairs in the hotel lounge and didn’t come down again till the next morning. Fortunately her husband shared her addiction so they could be anti-social together.

Josie has only recently realised that she doesn’t have to read all the books she is given. People just give her their books when they have finished with them, ‘piles and piles. So nowadays if anyone gives me a ton of Mills and Boon I just shove them to the Salvation Army. I don’t have to read them.’ This ability to leave a book unread has obviously been dearly bought. Josie’s instinct is to treasure every book. She was horrified to learn that someone she knew had burned her books when they moved house. ‘You do not burn books.’ So even ‘silly Mills and Boon’ would not be consigned to the flames.

When the children were older she did A levels and then a degree. For a while the scope of her reading narrowed so that she could focus on her studies. But now she has returned to her omnivorous habits and has a different book on the go in every room in the house.

‘Where other people have to have a cigarette, I have to have a book.’

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Josie’s transcript and audio here.