Ted L, born in 1919, was one of our oldest interviewees. He lived in the Norfolk Park area of Sheffield most of his life, apart from his war service as a fitter and machinist in the Ordnance Corps. He took part in the retreat from Dunkirk (he and three others were stranded for six days, with only a pot of marmalade and some cubed beetroot to eat) and then was stationed in East Africa for two and a half years. In peacetime, he worked in engineering, and the ‘only one romance [he] was ever interested in’ was with his wife, Nellie, whom he met at work and married in 1948.
All sorts of pictures in there, not just ordinary paintings, some of them extraordinary … We went to look at Leonardo … it was only dull light and there was two whacking great pictures, best paintings I have ever seen.
This was Ted, talking about a visit to the National Gallery. For him, books meant art rather than anything else. His flat was full of books, and they were mostly about art, noted the interviewer, although he also enjoyed history, architecture and music. His neighbour Gillian, who sat in on the interview, described how Ted ‘devour[ed]’ all the book she lent him, and Ted himself said:
Oh yes, I used to go to the library and get books out, not reading books, technical books. I don’t read fiction books. Never have done … I have always been interested in a subject … I can learn something.
There were books in his childhood, with Ted’s mother going to the library every week to borrow, among other, P G Wodehouse, and his father (‘He wasn’t educated. He was a working class man, he was a plumber’) enjoying detective stories. And Ted himself did read fiction as a boy – ‘ripping yarns’ from authors like John Buchan and Rider Haggard, who were so popular in his youth. He remembers studying Buchan’s Prester John at Duchess Road School and also reading Blanket of the Dark, She, The Thirty-Nine Steps and King Solomon’s Mines:
… that’s a brilliant thing, that. They made a film of it. I read a lot of them … I don’t think I would ever have imagined I would have been in Africa when I read a Rider Haggard book.
At school, Ted was a clever boy, particularly interested in history and once coming ‘top in English’:
Always in the top of form. I wasn’t an idiot like some of them. … We had a good teacher called Mr Cross. He was a Londoner with a broad accent. I didn’t know what a Londoner was in those days. He had posters all over the place, Cunard Liners stuck round [and brought in books]. He was the best teacher we ever had, Mr Cross. He didn’t spare you, I liked him for all that.
As with many boys of his background, Ted’s formal education ended at the age of 14 when he became an engineering apprentice. But by then it had opened that important door to art, as for two days a week he used to go to the art school in the centre of the city.
This art school was close to the site of the new Central Library and Graves Art Gallery which opened in 1934. Ted had a ringside seat at the building:
Thursday and Friday I used to go to an art school. And when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … Then when I was at the art school and we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was. I was with that library right from the beginning.
Ted, who liked architecture as well as art, was interested in the new library, which he describes as a ‘fine building’.
Well, I think, [the old library] was an old music hall and there was a little chapel next to it … and then the other side was the art school. … The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath though I’ve never been in it.
Now, when he went to the public library, ‘I didn’t get reading [fiction] books. I used to get out books about art. ‘ He also enjoyed visiting the Graves:
I like the art gallery. I have been up there for all sorts of things. In fact there was a programme the other day about Lowry, the painter. Well he came there once, after it was built. I went one day and up in one of the galleries, there were lots of rows of little seats. There was a restaurant there and it was right next to that. … and I said to this girl, ‘What’s all this for?‘ She said, ‘It’s Mr Lowry coming to give a lecture for the children’. ‘Well I never stopped for that ‘cos I never knew when it was going to be, next morning I think. But that gallery next to it was full of his pictures. That was when I first got to know about Lowry, you know. I admired his work. There were these funny little characters in it. I think they’re fantastic. I’ve got one up there now. That’s Lowry up there [on the wall of his flat].
You can read and listen to Ted’s interview in full here.