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

Jean W’s Reading Journey

Jean was born in 1933 and grew up in Sheffield. After leaving High Storrs School she married and had a family. Later on she trained as a teacher of English and French.

Jean’s recollection is that when she was small her parents were very busy and therefore didn’t read to her much. However, she still became an enthusiastic reader.

I learnt to read when I was… I think five, almost as soon as I started school, and got very bored because there wasn’t any stimulation in school.

So at the age of seven she joined the Children’s Library in Sheffield and from then on made weekly trips in search of suitable books. In addition her parents bought her Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, ‘all twelve volumes which I devoured.’Also from that time Jean remembers Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Anderson.

The library trip was very important. Jean and a friend would go into town for music lessons and then go to the library and also to Andrew’s, a shop in Holly Street which had a lot of children’s books. They saved their pocket money and bought books which they shared.

Jean Wolfendale at High Storrs School 1950

Jean Wolfendale at High Storrs School 1950

Once at High Storrs School she began to read classics like Walter Scott and Jane Austen as well as lighter books, such as The Forsyte Saga, Little Women, W.E Johns’ Biggles books and Malcolm Saville. She remembers getting from the library all Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels,

I absolutely loved them. I couldn’t wait to find the next one in the series from the library.mazo-de-la-roche-2

 

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She also read Hugh Walpole and some Dickens and began to move towards adult books. She recalls enjoying the novels of Frances Parkinson Keyes, ‘very meaty, very long novels’. Also Dornford Yates whose books she found ‘screamingly funny’.

I shouldn’t find them funny now but I did then…I used to annoy my parents by sitting in the corner and laughing at the books and they couldn’t understand why. They were fascinating.

Jean’s parents always encouraged her reading and as she puts it

The only other thing to do in the evenings,apart from school work,was to listen to the radio, which obviously we did as a family, but, yes reading was very much encouraged.

The Red Circle Library on Snig Hill,which Jean’s mother belonged to was another important source of books. This stocked popular fiction,such as crime fiction and westerns, not found in the public libraries. By contrast Jean described the latter as ‘very much more erudite’. She read widely and was aware of reading both high- and low-brow books. School was a

very, very strong influence and it was very much, ‘Children, girls, you must read uplifting books’..we were very much discouraged from having, for instance, comics or anything like that. I had something called Girl’s Crystal which was quite a decent comic but you couldn’t possibly have mentioned that in school because that wasn’t the done thing as it were.

She remembers Geoffrey Thorne for light reading and John Buchan, who was seen as ‘more approved of,much more literary’.She and her father shared a liking for Nevil Shute’s books. He also liked Denis Wheatley’s novels but didn’t think they were suitable for Jean; however, she read them on the quiet.

She enjoyed historical fiction, for example, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, D.K.Broster and Anya Seton.She tried Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy but didn’t particularly enjoy them.She has fond memories of A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, ‘That was one that absolutely fascinated me as an early teenager.’

But she devoured all kinds of literature. She belongs now to a group of ex-teachers who swap and talk about books. Of the importance of reading to her, she says,

I can’t imagine a life without it and in fact at the moment I’m beginning to have some trouble with my eyes and I can’t read for long and that is a real hurt, you know.

 

 

The Reading Journey of Alan B

Alan was born in Kimberworth, between Rotherham and Sheffield.

He was born in 1944.

Though never discouraged from reading, Alan says ‘I kept my reading to myself’. His mother was a reader of Mills and Boon romances. She and Alan’s aunt read to him: Rupert Bear annuals and fairy stories with scary drawings. He explored comics on his own, the Beano, Dandy, Roy of the Rovers but was never an Eagle fan. The family also had a complete set of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia. Though initially Alan didn’t find reading easy, when he got to junior school he found a teacher ‘who bullied me, in a nice way, to read’.

Then, at secondary school,

I seemed to have this sort of explosion, you know, I’d sort of discovered reading and I’d got a lot of time to make up and everything. I was probably, looking back, I probably didn’t understand them at all.

He thinks it may have been because he developed his reading confidence late that he felt that he had to make up for lost time, turning his back on what he regarded as childish:

Well I started reading classic books like Charles Dickens and I remember trying to read Paradise Lost and finding it absolutely totally beyond me … and I can remember going to Rotherham City Library and saying I’d like to join the library and them trying to direct me to the children’s library. I wouldn’t have that, no I wanted these other books.

Though Alan got huge pleasure from G A Henty’s boys’ adventure stories, he knew that there were other, ‘important’ books that he also wanted to explore. Identifying what were the important books took some doing and there were pitfalls in this voyage of discovery. When he was asked at secondary school to name a famous author, one of his mother’s favourites came to mind and he answered ‘Mazo de la Roche’ (who wrote the hugely popular and romantic Jalna series). ‘I was laughed at and … I perhaps realised that perhaps all our authors aren’t equal!’

Alan still remembers the books he read in class, one of the earliest being John Ruskin’s fable cum fairytale, The King of the Golden River or The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria.

Alan Bailey

I went to secondary modern school and there were very few books actually in school in those days. And the ones that were, I think they were trying to make us realise how good books were but they were so sort of reverential about books that, you know, I wouldn’t have dared go to the library and borrow one.

The reverence for the book as object was shaken when the same teachers who instilled this attitude commanded their pupils to strike out the word ‘King’ in the National Anthem and insert the word ‘Queen’ in 1953. ‘I remember being quite shocked that teachers were telling us to deface our hymn books’.

At about this time he was introduced in English lessons to Jack London’s adventures of life in the Canadian forests: Call of the Wild and White Fang; and the great escape story, The Wooden Horse. This taste for adventure stories was satisfied by many different kinds of author: John Buchan, John Masters, C S Forester, John Wyndham, Nevil Shute and Graham Greene. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin he enjoyed ‘in a sort of … disturbed way’. Alan bought many of these novels from the long-established Rotherham bookshop, Harpers, ‘a rabbit warren of shelves’. The municipal library was his chief source of books. Relatives and friends of the family also regularly gave him books as presents. A particular friend was the chair of the local education committee in Rotherham. ‘If I ever mentioned a book in his presence he would get it for me.’

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As a teenager Alan found Bright Day by J B Priestley ‘useful’,

useful in the sense that as an adolescent you had certain uncertainties and that is what he talked about. And knowing that other people had the same uncertainties, it’s not just you.

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So reading allied Alan to these unseen people who might ask the same questions. He never felt he was part of a group that were all readers though his family did have books in the home. He felt that in Rotherham ‘I was slightly unusual in that I was keen on reading and I did collect books.’ He built his own bookshelves to house his collection.

Alan left school to go to technical college and then, like his father, worked in the metal industry. His father had worked in the rolling mills and Alan joined a research laboratory. Alan was soon doing night classes, gaining a Higher National Certificate in physics and an Open University degree, all this balanced with family life.

Alan feels he is ‘fairly open to any genre as long as it is engaging, telling you something. So, I like a fast moving story and if you can get both together that’s wonderful’. He reflects on why books have been so important to him:

I think I am a person who uses reading rather than for its own sake, as it were. I like to see what it can do for me sort of thing.

 

Access Alan’s audio and transcript 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.