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.’

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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.

 

The reading journeys of Pat and Mary

Sisters Mary and Pat were happy to be interviewed for Reading Sheffield by Mary’s daughter, Ruth, although neither wanted to be recorded. The short, verbatim notes Ruth took give a strong sense of the sisters’ personalities and of the importance of books in their lives.

Three sisters in Colwyn Bay, 1946. Pat, aged 20 is on the left, Mary, aged 23, is in the middle and Jean, aged 17, is on the right.

Mary’s journey

Mary was born in the Sheffield suburb of Tinsley on 24 May 1923. She left school at the age of 14 and had a job in a sweetshop until she was about 20. She then worked for the Co-Op, in their offices in Tinsley. Mary was a devout Methodist and, through church, met her husband Jack, who worked on the railways. The couple had two children, David and Ruth. Mary always regretted being unable to continue her education, and did become a mature student, studying for a while at the Open University.

Nobody read to me when I was young. I don’t think it was something people did back then. There were so many jobs to do around the house. My mum took in washing.

The books that made me feel like a grown-up were mainly the classics. I was about 16 or 17 and started to read Jane Austen. I loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I also read Charlotte Bronte and Anne and Emily too, but my favourite was Charlotte. I loved Jane Eyre. I also read some Thomas Hardy but got bored with his descriptions sometimes. So, yes, Jane Eyre made a great impression on me, as did Anne of Green Gables. But I can’t for the life of me remember where I got them from. Probably the library but I couldn’t swear to it.

Come to think of it, I think I did get my books from the library and it must have been Tinsley Library. I can’t remember there being many books at school, though there must have been some.

My parents didn’t really value reading. My dad, who was a miner, sometimes read a newspaper. I can’t remember my mother reading at all. I think they were suspicious of books and novels, thinking we’d get ideas above our station or that we were filling our heads with fantasy. Work was what they valued and they didn’t really think education and school were worth much. I passed the exam to go to grammar school but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought the uniform was too expensive and, as I was the eldest of three sisters, they said that, if they sent me to grammar school, they would have to pay for my sisters to go too. But, as it happened, neither of them passed the exam for grammar school. I really wish I’d had a better education. I love literature and I’m in a book group now. I’m 88 years old.

I used to read in our living room and everyone told me that, when I was reading, I got totally lost in the story and never heard anyone if they spoke to me. I’d read after work in the evening and in bed too.

I don’t think I had any idea about highbrow or lowbrow until I was in my twenties. Then I thought there were good and bad books. Love stories I thought were bad but then Jane Eyre is a love story and so is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and some Georgette Heyer, which I don’t think is highbrow. Maybe the middlebrow section.

I’d re-read all the books I read as a young adult, including the Mary Webb collection I had, but I think they’ve been lost. I loved those books.

Without reading I would probably have gone mad! It’s a cheap but really rewarding pastime. I’ve learnt so much from books and I think it makes you understand the world better.

Gertrude and Ernest, the parents of Mary and Pat

Pat’s journey

Pat was born in Tinsley on 7 April 1926. She was christened Gertrude Ada, but disliked the names and called herself Pat when she was around 20. Her niece Ruth describes her as ‘quiet, beautiful and glamorous’. According to family legend, Pat had several proposals of marriage but declined them all. She stayed at home and was, Ruth says, devoted to her parents and younger sister, Jean.  

Nobody read to me when I was young. Like my sister Mary, I enjoyed the classics. I read Little Women and Jo’s Boys which made me feel that I was an adult, though I’m not sure that they are adult books, are they?

Pat, at her sister Mary’s wedding

I think I got my books from the library and from work. I worked as a wages clerk at Shefftex and me and some of the girls would swap books. I used to enjoy the Dimsie books[i] but I think they were aimed at teenagers though I still enjoy them now. I remember all the Dimsie books and they did affect me. I suppose I wanted to live the life Dimsie lived. It was all so exciting and adventurous.

I always liked historical novels and still do. I go to the library at Greenhill every Monday morning but I’m not in the reading group that Mary’s in. I don’t want to talk about what I’ve read. I might say the wrong thing.

Some of my books came back from Sunday School when I was a child but I can’t remember what the books were. I think they might have been Bible stories. Nobody encouraged me to read and I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. I knitted and did a bit of sewing but reading has always been my favourite occupation.

I never married and I never had children so I’ve been lucky having had free time to read.

I’ve read everywhere. I used to read at work if it was quiet. Nobody encouraged me to read. I just did. Maybe I copied my older sister Mary. I do watch TV but I read more than I watch TV.

In the years you’re talking about, we had poor lighting really and I was always told that I’d ruin my eyes. When I was younger, we had gas lamps which weren’t very good really.

I particularly liked Georgette Heyer, Mary Webb, Daphne du Maurier and Jean Plaidy but I can’t remember individual titles, apart from the classics. When I see the serializations of the classics, I’m nearly always disappointed. I think it spoils your imagination. You have an idea of what the characters look like and when you see famous actors taking those parts it spoils it for you.

Reading has been very important in my life. When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better.

Many thinks to Ruth for taking these notes.

[i] The Dimsie books, written by Dorita Fairlie Bruce between 1921 and 1941, told the story of Dimsie and her friends at boarding school and at home

Mais où se trouve la bibliothèque?

Continuing website editor Val Hewson’s reading journey

In the late 1970s, I spent a year in France as part of my university course. I was the English assistant in a school, the Collège Jules Ferry, in the small town of Montluçon.

Montlucon and its château (Creative Commons)

If you look at a map of France, Montluçon is just about in the centre, near Vichy. It is at heart a medieval town, with a castle on the top of the hill, a 12th century church below and narrow streets twisting around. The castle was home to a hurdy-gurdy museum (the only one in the world, they told me). Around the historic centre is the newer town, with some beautiful 19th century houses, modern apartment buildings and, across the River Cher, a Dunlop factory. The school where I worked is based in a former convent near the centre. For a few weeks I lived there, before I moved to a tiny flat on the banks of the Cher.

Narrow streets twisting around (Free Art Licence)

Detail of the old town (Free Art Licence)

I must have taken books to France with me. I would never have gone so far away for so long without cramming as many as I could into my trunk. But I don’t remember titles. Fiction rather than non-fiction, I think, for relaxation. Catch 22 is a possibility, as I read and re-read it then. Loyalty oaths, the soldier in white and Major Major promoted by an IBM machine with a sense of humour. Almost certainly I packed at least one of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond novels, as I was devoted to these long, intricate tales of a 16th century adventurer. Maybe there was a Georgette Heyer – Frederica, at a guess. Filled with good intentions, I might have put in set texts like Madame Bovary and Germinal. No, never Germinal, which I hated.

At all events, these books would not have lasted me long. Clearly I needed to find other sources of reading material. If there was a school library, I never found it. There was a bookshop in town, with lots of Gallimard, Garnier Flammarion and Livre de Poche paperbacks. I used to go to a newsagent, for the local newspaper, La Montagne, and for magazines like L’Express or the occasional Paris Match for celebrity news. I remember a story in Paris Match that the Duke of Edinburgh was mysteriously ill, and a teacher begged me to ask my mother if this was known about ‘chez vous, en Angleterre’. I also used to buy the International Herald Tribune, where I discovered Doonesbury.

Livres de Poche

Some books came through the radio. BBC Radio 4 on long wave gave me Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, read by Robert Powell. ‘Midnight Orgy at Number 10!’ and Agatha Runcible saying ‘too, too sick-making’ (a phrase I still use). And I learned the Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

At some point, I realised that Montluçon had a public library. I think I had to pay a small subscription. I embarrassed myself at the registration desk by using the verb ‘joindre’ [‘to attach’] than ‘s’inscrire’ [‘to enrol’], and was glared at by the librarian. In hindsight, ‘attach’ perhaps better describes my feeling about libraries. I suppose I did read some original French novels but mostly I borrowed English and American detective stories in translation. There was one about a woman being told that one of her aunts – she had seven? – had murdered her husband and trying to work out which one. I would love to know the title. Anyone?

Just before Christmas, the grumbling appendix I’d had for some years finally had enough and I ended up in the Centre Hospitalier, having an emergency operation for peritonitis. I spent the next ten days there. (As the first ever English patient, I was a sensation and staff came from all over to see if I was the same as the much more familiar French patient. One nurse looked at my freckles and informed me that I could probably have them surgically removed. Perhaps it was a joke.) Lots of my students, their parents and the teachers visited me. Most brought marrons glacées and the like, which was nice, but someone – one of the English teachers? the headmaster’s wife? – thoughtfully arrived with two books. She had bought, she said, the only English books in the local bookshop. This was, for someone twitchy if there was no book within a foot or so, the best thing she could have done.

The books were by Agatha Christie. There was her autobiography and a Miss Marple story, Sleeping Murder. I remember Fontana paperbacks, with distinctive covers. I rationed them carefully, as I didn’t know where my next book would come from. Christie’s autobiography was, helpfully, very long, although it failed to explain her famous disappearance in 1926.  Sleeping Murder is the rather creepy story of a young woman who, visiting England for the first time, stays in a house she finds she remembers. I’m not a great Christie fan, but both books were wonderful distractions from stitches, glucose drips and the tea served in French hospitals.

Still in France at Christmas, I was farmed out among various kind teachers, until I was strong enough to fly home. Wanting me to enjoy my first Noël, they gave me a hand-printed silk scarf and a book, Joachim a des Ennuis [Joachim in Trouble], by Goscinny and Sempé. I still have both scarf and book, and I still laugh at the story of Nicolas being pursued about the house by his visiting Mémé [grandmother]. ‘Un bisou! Viens encore me faire un bisou!’ [‘Come and give me another kiss!’]

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…

 

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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

‘A great wealth’: the reading journey of Julia Banks

Julia was born in Chesterfield in 1939 and moved to Woodhouse on the east of Sheffield in 1945. In later life she became a primary school teacher.

Though there were not many books in the house, Julia’s home always had a bookcase and ‘books around’. Julia  was read to by both her mother and her aunt. The local library was the family’s chief source of books: ‘I was always taken to the library with my mother.’ Her mother’s favourite was Naomi Jacob.  Books were Julia’s favourite presents – Enid Blyton, for example: ‘I could never wait to get the next one. Mmm … Valley of Adventure and the Malory Towers series.‘

Aunt Lil, on her father’s side ‘bought books from Boots library, in town, when they were selling them off.‘ She bought history books and read them ‘avidly’. ‘She could talk about Elizabeth the First as if she were a neighbour, you know.’

I’ve still got Black’s Elizabeth that she gave me that I used to queue for at school or use from the reference library.

As a teenager, it was non-fiction that inspired Julia too.

Because I was at that stage when I was learning anyway and there wasn’t really time for just fiction. There wasn’t a lot of spare time to do nothing. If you’re at school you’ve got homework and you’re quite busy. But I can remember using it as a tool, really, the library.

The first adult fiction book Julia remembers reading was a book she borrowed from Woodhouse Library, The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. It fascinated her because the life of the Chinese farming family was so alien but the feelings universal.

Pearl Buck

The library in Woodhouse was a great influence because they had a story hour for children in a lovely part of the building.

There was a fire place, benches and a carpet and you could sit there and listen to stories. That was in the children’s library … it was good to have something that could teach you something and lift you.

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children's Library

Story-telling corner at Woodhouse Children’s Library

A lot of Julia’s friends had homes in which there were no books. The presence of books in a home made her aware of ‘an outside … you were not just so concerned with the immediate’.  At some time she realised they were also a ‘ladder to social mobility’.

Julia went on to Bingley to train as a primary teacher. She and her friends tended to pass round books and share them. They studied ‘Anna Karenina, you know, Henry James, and you know all the … normal … things’.  She likes the fact that these books were not chosen by her.

I didn’t choose them and I think that’s good. Through school or through college you’re given prescripted books. Otherwise you would never get the chance to read them would you? As with Shakespeare you need to be taught how to read it and you should be, in my opinion, because it’s a great wealth to have. So I’m glad that I did read them but I wouldn’t go to the library and pick up Tolstoy.

But her favourite reading was Bertrand Russell: ‘you know the really hard stuff. You think, “well yeah, I never thought about that before but yeah”. You know? It was that you were learning something new.’

In 1965, when her husband’s job took the family to Holland, Julia came across a completely new source of books: the British Women’s Club Library in the Hague which was filled with paperbacks.  She and her friends would run through series after series, author after author.

Mm … oh… the Poirot series, Agatha Christie, and I read through Agatha Christie like I’d read through Enid Blyton as I was a girl and loved it. And eventually you realise they’re all the same don’t you? So you’d go onto something else. One friend, she read, oh the historical one, Georgette Heyer. So we went through all those. You know, that sort of reading. Again, because we’d not got a television and because you did have time; you’re in at nights, you’ve got children

‘And so you read,’ says our interviewer.

The other legacy of her time in Holland was a knowledge of nursery rhymes in Dutch. She learned these to prepare her two children for nursery school. ‘My Dutch is based on nursery rhymes.’

During her years as a mother of young children reading time was in short supply. Julia snatched time whenever and wherever she could, as she still does.

So, I read in bed at night, I read on the bus if I go into town on the bus which I often do. I never drive into town, I go on the bus. I’ve always got a book in my handbag, that’s why the size is more important than the content.

Julia connects the experience of reading, the process of writing and the role of prayer.

Reading takes you into different situations; it puts different questions, scenarios before you. …  I think very often if you read, just as if you write something, if you have a problem and you write it down it helps you to sort it out. Which I think the role is that prayer has, if you put something before somebody else really it’s like writing it down, you’re seeing it for what it really is rather than from a subjective point of view in a way.

Nowadays, Julia is more selective than she used to be and some books fail the ‘Darnall test’.

If I’ve not got into a book by the time I’ve got to Handsworth Church I very often shut it. … It passed the test if it got me through Darnall. Very often I’ve said ‘no’ and closed it before I’ve got to Darnall.

Julia looks back with gratitude on the people and libraries that helped her find the books she loved.  But she concludes that, though she would have found some way of reading, because of the person she is, it would have been harder without her Aunt Lil and her wonderful books, without the trips to the library with her mother.

I would still have gone because I’m me, so I would still have gone to do my research from school and I would still have joined the reading group and got great joy from it. I would have still read and got the books from the British Women’s Club in the Hague. But perhaps a bit later on. I was lucky, you know, I had a family that gave me books and encouraged me to read. And I do think it’s a great wealth to be able to read and enjoy literature.

You can find Julia’s interview here.

Judith G’s reading journey

The third of five children, Judith was born in May 1939.   As a child, she lived off Ecclesall Road in Sheffield.  Although she passed the 11 plus, her parents could not afford grammar school, and so she went to Greystones Secondary School and left after O Levels.  Judith tells two stories in her interview: her own and her mother’s. Judith’s mother loved reading and shared this with her daughter.  ‘I just took to it because my mother read a lot.’ 

 

The first library in Judith’s life was the private Red Circle at the bottom of the Moor.  Her mum used to borrow ‘what they called “bodice-rippers”, romantic novels and stuff’ every week.  ‘I think it cost tuppence a week, or every time you took a book out or fourpence – something like that.’*  Then her mum joined the public library and Judith went along too, to the imposing Central Library in Surrey Street.  ‘I thought at first she wouldn’t be allowed in that one, you know, and then of course once she got there, there were more books than she could … and it was free as well.’  In those days, the public library service in Sheffield, under City Librarian Joseph Lamb, was rapidly becoming one of the best in the country, with a reputation for responding to the interests and needs of its members.

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From before she left junior school, Judith was allowed to go alone to the central children’s library.  She recalls joining with her friend Sheila:

… she wanted to join the library and we ran up all the way up there after school and my mother played pop with me because she didn’t know where we were. Her name was Sheila Thompson … and I said, “If you come with me, we can come and join.” … They gave you a little round ticket which you kept and slotted the book’s name in that, God, I remember that.

Judith spent a lot of time in the children’s library.  For her, it meant not only interesting books, but also warmth and peace ‘until they closed at five o’clock’:

I used to bring books home, but on a Saturday afternoon I’m afraid I spent a lot of time in that children’s library because you could sit there with any book you liked, encyclopaedias, because at home it was, you know, hustle and bustle, we didn’t have much because we had no money and there weren’t a television in those days, this is the ’50s, coming up to the ’50s, and I just used to go to the library for a bit of peace on my own.  Because there was four of us and my grandmother and father and mother all rattling round one house …

The children’s librarian was Mrs Scott, who sounds formidable.  Young borrowers’ behaviour was expected to meet the standards of the day.

She was really nice, you know, because in those days you couldn’t run around like they do nowadays, you had to sit reading quietly … she was quite stern, you know, you couldn’t racket round – mind you, nobody did in those days.

Having joined, Judith ‘read and read’.

I think it was my Aunty Marjorie, she used to say, “Doesn’t that child do anything? She’s always got her nose in a book.” And “What’s the matter with you, child, why don’t you go out to play?”

A book which made a lasting impression was Joey and the Greenwings#, ‘about this young boy and these things that came from outer space or something’. Almost 70 years later, the memory is strong:

Dear Lord, how your memory comes back! There was a little song in it about this little lost chick. What was it? Little lost chick sang cheep in the night, cheep in the night, and the moon stretched her arms out shiny and bright, to the little lost chick that sang cheep in the night!

In time Judith moved up to the adult library. ‘ … you’d go in there and think, you know, posh.’  Books by popular authors of the day like Georgette Heyer, Mazo de la Roche, Rider Haggard, Mary Webb, Conan Doyle and John Buchan drew her in, although she got into trouble with Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.  Her mum used to ‘keep an eye on what I read’ and ‘made me take it back – she thought it was a bit racy! And it wasn’t.’  (Judith has less happy memories, as many of us do, of her set texts, like Charles Reade’s The Cloister and the Hearth, ‘the most dreary book I’ve ever read’.)

Over 60 years later, Judith remains a keen member of the public library.  In this, she is like her mother, who in old age ‘used to come in with four or five books’ from Highfield Branch Library.  In her turn, Judith has influenced her daughter, Lindsey, who works in a bookshop and has #enough books to start a library’.  In fact, you can trace reading through four generations: from Lindsey, through Judith and her sister who talk together about books, to their mother and even their grandmother who was ‘always on about books and that, she’d been well educated’.

Two readers - Judith and her mum

Two readers – Judith and her mum

‘It’s interesting, isn’t it, how libraries are places where people feel comfortable,’ says our interviewer. Judith agrees.  These days she goes to the Ecclesall branch, but still occasionally visits the Central Library:

It still is the biggest library, isn’t it? And plus, the fact it has all the other things, you know, the reference library and the art gallery and whatnot. Because we used to go and have a cup of tea up there and look around the art things, and I used to think, “This is fantastic, it’s free, it’s a public library …” that was the whole point of going there.  And … when they have an open day, and I’ve been down in the bowels where all the old books are – you might find my Joey and the Greenwings down in that bottom bit!

Sheffield Central Library, opened in 1934, not long after the establishment of SINTO

* Tuppence (2d) and fourpence (4d) are roughly equivalent to 1p and 2p, but worth about £1 to £2 today.

# Joey and the Greenwings (1943), by Augustus Muir

Irene H’s Reading Journey

Irene was born in Grimesthorpe, Sheffield in 1921; she grew up there and later lived in Birley Edge. After school she worked in an office at Firth Brown’s steelworks and in 1943 married a draughtsman who also worked there. She and her husband left the company and set up a nursery business in Barnsley.

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene and her brother,Jack

Irene grew up in a home where reading wasn’t regarded as important,

I could read quite early. I was never stopped from reading but my mother didn’t read and my father read a paper and that was it……I sometimes got shouted at because I should have been doing something else.

Occasionally her mother would read a Playbox comic to her on a Saturday morning but otherwise her earliest memory of being read to dates from when she first went to school at the age of five and the teacher read ‘How the Elephant got his Trunk’ from Kipling’s Just So Stories to the class.

Irene read widely; early reading matter included Pip and Squeak annuals sent to her by an old friend of her mother’s and Schoolgirls’ Own annuals. hailstone-flyleaf-signed-

She got books from quite a range of sources. At about ten or eleven she benefited from this special offer,

A man came to the door getting you to buy the Daily Herald…..my father signed up and so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.

She occasionally bought sixpenny novelettes from the newsagent at the bottom of their street. She was given books by aunts and by her paternal grandmother; when older she would sometimes ask for a specific book as a birthday or Christmas present.irene-hailstone-fondest-love-

She used Firth Park Library and later on the Central Library. As well as the municipal libraries, she sometimes used the Red Circle Library on Snig Hill.

From secondary school (Southey Green) she remembers reading Kidnapped and The Black Arrow by R. L. Stevenson and also potted biographies of famous people.

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene, Jack and their mother

Irene’s parents had an account with Weston’s, a wholesale stationers in Change Alley; this meant that sometimes she could get books at a discount. She also read magazines and bought Woman almost from the start.

During the 40s she belonged to a national book club and recalls getting novels by Howard Spring and Anya Seton from there.She also bought books from bookshops such as Smith’s and bookstalls, both new and secondhand. She used the bookstalls in the Norfolk Market Hall on Haymarket and, later on when working in Barnsley, in Barnsley market. Her husband used to buy westerns from a market stall: if you took them back, you got money off the next one. Irene didn’t like westerns particularly but would sometimes read one,

Well, it was just something to read. If there was nothing to read, I would read anything.

The mark of a true reader. The war and marriage reduced her time for reading, ‘I was working and running a house but I still always found a bit of time.’

Irene doesn’t remember other people recommending books nor did she tend to read novels because people were talking about them or because they might be improving in some way. She has a special fondness for historical fiction and biographies of historical characters; she likes them to have proper research behind them. She mentions Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy and Baroness Orczy. She sometimes read crime fiction and liked Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Sayers, though found Agatha Christie ‘a bit obvious’. She read romantic fiction too, such as Ruby M. Ayres, Ethel M. Dell and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Among later writers, she read Catherine Cookson: ‘Somebody always has to be illegitimate’.

Irene couldn’t identify any way in which reading had changed her life but she was always a reader: ‘No real encouragement, I just enjoyed it’. She still reads, getting her books now from Hillsborough Library, Waterstones and sometimes Amazon.

Sheila Edwards’ Reading Journey  

Sheila was born in 1937.

She was interviewed by Alice Seed.

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Sheila age 16 years.

Sheila cannot remember being read to and says her family had little interest in reading.  She puts down her own love of reading to her position in the family.

It was company for me because my sister was quite a lot younger than me so she wasn’t really a companion … Perhaps  I was a little bit of a loner anyway you know, so I just used to wrap myself up in books.

Sheila’s family had a subscription to Boots Library in the centre of town (‘there were a lot to choose from’) only a few hundred yards from the magnificent new Central Library which contained, as it still does, a vast Children’s Library in the basement.

So every Saturday she travelled down from the hills of Sheffield’s western suburbs to explore both libraries in the centre of town.

 … in those days you used to go down on the bus and spend all Saturday there.  I don’t remember Boots Library having tables where you could sit down but the Children’s Library did, so you know, it was somewhere to go and thoroughly enjoyable.

Sheila borrowed novels by Noel Streatfeild and Kathleen Fidler but has no memory of getting adult books from the Boots library so thinks that her subscription probably finished when she got to about fifteen years old.

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Sheila read constantly and sought variety. She cannot remember returning to a favourite or re-reading with pleasure.

I had these certain authors and I used to wade through everything that they’d written and if I couldn’t find it on the library shelves then I would order it.

Enid Blyton and the magazine, Sunny Stories, were superseded by Georgette Heyer when Sheila was in her teens. Lately she did try reading Georgette Heyer but found they had lost their charm.

Sheila’s family also subscribed to a book club where she thinks she may have found the Nevil Shutes she remembers. Though Sheila has a sense of herself as the only passionate reader in the house, her family must have valued access to books by joining a book club and accepting the fact that on Saturdays their child found her way to two libraries that were not that near home.

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Her taste is mainly for fiction and once she has exhausted an author goes on to another.

I do write down what I read now ‘cause, you know I’ve read so many, sometimes I forget how much I’ve read so I have a quick look through to see if I’ve read it before, so I’ve got a little book which I take out when I go to the library [just to prompt me] .

For much of her life reading was a solitary activity. It is still associated with delight, privacy and comfort. Bed is a natural place to read. Books give

hours of pleasure, puts me to sleep sometimes. I’m reading and I’ll suddenly find the book starts going down and I’ve nodded off, but yeah it’s good.

But once Sheila had her three children she and her husband, Geoff, created their own reading community.

There were three of them and [they] all had to have separate stories read every night so we started with the youngest and worked up, and then of course since then, I’ve had grandchildren and I get a lot of pleasure out of reading to them – there’s something very special I think about reading to children, … they all love books now probably because, you know, we started off like that. … I got rather disappointed when they began to get older and they used to say they would read the stories. I lost my job.

 

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Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Sheila’s transcript and audio here.

Jocelyn’s Reading Journey

Jocelyn Wilson was born in Sheffield in 1926.  She was educated, in wartime, at boarding school in Kent and was evacuated to Cornwall.  In 1948 Jocelyn married and in time had children.  In the 1970s and ‘80s she was a social worker.   

‘Did your parents ever say, “Don’t waste your time reading a novel”?’ ‘Oh no, never.  Nobody ever said that.’

How do we choose books?  How do we decide what to read?  And how do we judge our choices?

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Looking at her interview, you feel that Jocelyn W, who read widely and had excellent recall, was confident in her opinions and happy to defend them.  The quality of books, her own and others’ perceptions and the value of reading all lie just beneath the surface of her story.

Jocelyn was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in Sheffield in 1926.  Her first books were typical for that background and period – Alice in Wonderland, The Enchanted Forest, Cecily M Barker’s Flower Fairies and other fairy stories.  Predictably, they were chosen by her mother and a ‘very dear nanny who was into reading herself’.  Later, Jocelyn’s older sister helped her find books too.  Nanny and Jocelyn’s parents all read aloud to the children.  Jocelyn didn’t say so directly, but her first books seemed to have all the impact any parent could have hoped for: Jocelyn described them as stories ‘that made your imagination race’ and remembered them clearly 80 years later.  The Flower Fairies for example, she said, were ‘part of one’s history’.

After this promising start, things went less well.  Books were in short supply in Jocelyn’s life.  At first this was because her family lived ‘on the fringes’ of Sheffield and ‘it was quite a journey to go anywhere where there were books to be lent’.  Then World War II intervened and Jocelyn, by now at boarding school, found herself being evacuated to remote Cornwall.

And I remember after a birthday having a book token and having great difficulty in going to a bookshop in Newquay, Cornwall, to find something to buy.  And in the end The Heir of Redclyffe.  I can’t remember who wrote it but it was a pretty frantic book, I remember.  But there was so little choice.  And I think that’s one of the things we forget now ‘cos there are so many books of every kind, good and bad.  And then there were very, very few.

This early experience seems to have had a lasting effect.  Jocelyn said:

But of course it’s difficult for people nowadays to realise how few books came out and they were rare beasts and you waited for your birthday to get a copy.  Now there’s so much; you go to a bookshop and I’m overwhelmed.  I can hardly ever choose anything ‘cos there’s too much to choose from and it’s difficult to find what you really want.

Another effect of this shortage was that Jocelyn ended up reading what was available – the books on the family bookshelves – just because they were there.  She considered herself lucky.  ‘I think people forget now that it was like that.  You could be in a situation where you hadn’t anything new to read.  It seems incredible now, doesn’t it?’

Jocelyn’s family continued to influence her choices and judgments.  Her mother was ‘interested in books.  And so there was a good wide variety of classics’.  Jocelyn remembered reading, for example, Precious Bane and Mary Webb’s other novels.  ‘My mother was very sensible; she never said, ‘Don’t’.  She was very good; she was highly intelligent and we valued what she thought.’  (Jocelyn’s father tried too, but was rather less successful: suggestions like G A Henty were rejected as ‘boy’s own stuff’.)

School was the next big influence on Jocelyn, and it was there that her own judgment began to emerge.

… I did a project on keeping a notebook of all the things I’d read … I know that it was criticised by the person who taught English at school, saying, ‘I can’t think why you read all this rubbish when you’re capable of reading something so much better.’  You see, it had gone through the whole range.  But that was important in order to learn what was rubbish and what wasn’t.

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What was this ‘whole range’ that formed Jocelyn’s taste?  Over the years, there were:

  • classics like Jane Austen (‘she writes with such a deft touch’)
  • literary fiction, as we might say today, with authors like Marghanita Laski (Little Boy Lost ‘tore everybody’s heart to pieces’) and Rumer Godden (‘very delicate in her writing, sensitive and she touched one’s heart’)
  • popular, middlebrow authors of the day: Nevil Shute (‘wonderfully good stories’); Daphne du Maurier (‘anything she wrote was grist to the mill’); Queens of Crime like Dorothy L Sayers and adventure writers like John Buchan; Mazo de la Roche (whose Jalna books were the ‘original soap opera’)
  • ‘rubbish’ like ‘Oh Baroness Orczy and that sort of thing, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Oh good old rubbish, that’.

Rubbish was not, however, as clear-cut as it might seem.  For one thing, Jocelyn was becoming confident enough to reject other people’s opinions:

Oh yes, but I don’t count [Georgette Heyer] as rubbish … Of course she was a great storyteller, wasn’t she?  And of course historically very accurate.  There were things to praise about her.  Even though the stories were romantic fiction in the very highest level.

And sometimes rubbish could be the thing: ‘And if you’re not feeling very well, rubbish is what you want!’  If it was what you needed, could it be rubbish?

What Jocelyn would not accept was the badly or carelessly written.

I think that now I can only read things that aren’t badly written.  Sloppiness is what really gets me; and I think a lot of writers nowadays are very sloppy; they don’t do their research properly.

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So Jocelyn developed her approach: reading widely; making her own assessments but open to influence; seeking out high quality but understanding the worth and pleasure in lower quality.  This seemed to stand Jocelyn in good stead throughout her life.

… I didn’t read George Eliot until much later on; I came to ‘Middlemarch’ as a grown-up person.  It’s a wonderful book, isn’t it?  They’re very raw, some of those books by George Eliot.

…I still can read Arthur Ransome books.  When I was laid low with a back injury two years ago. the thing I chose to read was Winter Holiday and I loved it and it took me back.  It’s well-written and that’s the key, isn’t it?

I [chose Dracula for book group] and the men sort of withdrew in horror.  A lot of them wouldn’t read it.  It was quite interesting.  The women mostly did.  But I think it’s a marvelous book.  I keep turning the pages to find out what’s next.  I can’t believe it … It’s not even particularly well-written; it’s a most ridiculous story.  So why are we fascinated with Dracula?  I’m jolly glad I read it.  [But the men] weren’t going to waste their time reading ‘rubbish’ … I said, ‘I know it’s rubbish.’

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by Val Hewson

Read or listen to Jocelyn’s interview in full here.