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.

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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.

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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

 

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.

 

 

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.  

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.

priestly

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.

 

Chris F’s reading journey

Chris F was born in 1939, in the Whirlowdale area of Sheffield. He attended boarding school and Cambridge, where he read engineering.  He returned to Sheffield and worked there all his life.

But on the whole I have to say it’s the land of make-believe in most of my reading.

Chris is very clear that he reads, and always has read, for entertainment.  He usually relaxes, for example, with a book for half an hour or so before sleep, and says that most of his books ‘have been bought at airports’.  But if you think that books are not particularly important to him, or that he has not thought about their impact on his life, then you would be wrong.  As our interviewer said:

And clearly books have been so important in your life that you can’t imagine one without.

Chris’ introduction to reading was traditional.  The books he remembers from his childhood were staples: A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Allison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit and Beatrix Potter.  At school, he graduated to Enid Blyton and then to school stories like Billy Bunter. Thousands of schoolboys in the middle of the 20th century must have had a similar start.  Chris was one of those in whom the habit of reading was firmly set by authors who told a good tale.

It must also have helped that Chris grew up in a house filled with books.  He doesn’t remember being urged to read by his parents but ‘the means of doing it was there’.

I never recall actually going to a library because we had an enormous number of books at home … Which my parents had. I’m rather like my father, once you get a book you never throw it away.

He remembers lots of crime, with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and the less well-remembered Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr.  There was also some real-life crime:

… It was the life of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury which I found very nice and gory at the time, I enjoyed it.

It was around this time that Chris found Nevil Shute, ‘who I think is probably my overall favourite author, which I started reading having seen the film of A Town Like Alice’. Even now, years later, he still enjoys these novels, which he says are gentle and believable:

I got all the books and I, oh about every five or six years I start again at the beginning. I re-read a lot of old favourites.

Requiem for a Wren

In Chris’ teens lots of his books came through his joining the Companion Book Club:

… you didn’t get any choice in those days, you got the book that they sent you. I’ve still got them all. Five bob a month it was and you finished up with a novel you probably would never have read otherwise.

By now, Chris had developed a taste for adventure, so Alistair McLean’s HMS Ulysses, his first book from the Companion Book Club, was very welcome. McLean was followed by C S Forester, Dennis Wheatley and Dornford Yates.  Chris laughs as he recalls Dennis Wheatley:

… the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were, pages 27 and 28, and if you opened the book they were well-thumbed.

The interest in adventure – swashbuckling, espionage, war, arch criminals etc – remained constant from school, through university, into adulthood and working life.  Chris remembers, with pleasure still, the adventures of Simon Templar alias The Saint, James Bond alias 007 and Dr Syn alias the Scarecrow and Captain Clegg.

Chris has tried reading some of the books he enjoyed, like Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, to his grandsons, but with mixed results.

I’ve tried to get my grandsons involved but I have to say, modern boys are very difficult to get to read because they’ve all got their little widgets that they play with and watch television the whole t-time. It was books like Billy Bunter and like Enid Blyton that got me reading and I think got my generation reading.

He is concerned by what he sees as the declining interest in reading among children.  He accepts that they gain a lot through technology (he is learning to use his own Kindle) but fears the next generation will:

have a terribly limited outlook on life … I do despair a little because with the modern exam system and the way that kids don’t read in our days we shall finish up with children with very narrow horizons.

What about improving books then? Were you led to see [reading] as an improving thing? asks the interviewer.

Well, we had books that we were studying and that we had to read. And funnily enough I can remember well the … the books that at the age of about 13 when I went away to public school that we had to read and thinking ‘Oh God, these are heavy going’. But I’ve read them again since and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think there is a difference when you actually have to read them and be questioned on them…

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

These were books like Darkness at Noon (1940) by Arthur Koestler – the story of a Bolshevik who falls victim to Stalin during the purges of the 1930s.   Chris still occasionally reads books his teachers would have thought of as improving:

I’m half way through Great Expectations, I never really read Dickens. I had to do Dickens at schools but I read Nicholas Nickleby recently and I’m reading Great Expectations now.

But it is the authors like Dornford Yates, C S Forester and Nevil Shute, whom he found for himself, that he goes back to, happy to re-read them:

… to take you away into a land of make believe.

Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute

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.

 

sheila-book-shelf-2

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.

The Reading Journey of Doreen Gill

Doreen grew up in Darnall, before the Sheffield Blitz, a hillside of terraced houses which served the workers in the steel works on the eastern side of Sheffield. In December of 1940, when Doreen was six years old, the family was bombed out of their home and they moved down, nearer the great corridor of steelworks in the Don Valley to Brightside. This was the first of many relocations.

When she was nine, Doreen’s mother died. Her father was fighting in Africa and was left with three children and no one to care for them.

 They wouldn’t let him home, even for the funeral.

The three children were separated, Doreen going to live in a Children’s Home in Ripon, Yorkshire and her two brothers to one in Diss, Norfolk. When after three and a half years her father returned, with a Belgian wife, he gathered the family together again.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Throughout these early years, books were a constant. Doreen’s much younger brothers were twins so her mother did not have time to read to her but she “doesn’t ever remember not reading”. A great aunt lived near and her support for her mother enabled Doreen to find time to read. She thinks she might have read before she went to school because her father was a great reader and they did have books in the house.

But not children’s books of course, so consequently I picked everything up, whether it was suitable or whether it wasn’t!

Before her mother died she used the library at Attercliffe, walking up the hill on her own to Attercliffe Common.

I used to go there and just work me way along the shelves. Anything and everything. ‘Cept I’m not too keen on history.  I read anything else but.  I will read if I’m desperate.  I will read history but I’ve got to be desperate.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

No-one guided her choices.

They just left us to it, you know.  You were only allowed two books at a time then so I used to go to the library two or three times a week and change me books.

Milly, Molly, Mandy, Anne of Green Gables and Edgar Allen Poe come to mind (‘not at five, though’). Her main reading time was a Sunday when she and her brothers weren’t allowed to play out. She can’t remember sharing her reading pleasures but her father approved her habit. Not so her mother.

If I picked a book up to read she’d say, “Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so.  You’re wasting your time and my time”.  You know.  So she’d always find me a job to do.

So her bedroom became her reading space

I used to go to bed and read until it was really dark.  And me dad used to say, “Switch that light off”.  So I used to stand in front of the window and read as long as I could!

Doreen can’t remember reading in the children’s home but while she was there she started at Ripon Grammar School and they were very keen on reading. She loved the school and went on to City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield when she returned home. There she read Shakespeare and poetry, learning lots by heart. Wordsworth’s On Westminster Bridge and Milton’s ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ still echo in her mind.

She got her O levels but had to leave school when she was 15. She would like to have stayed on; instead she went to work at Firth Brown Steels and continued reading during her lunch hour: ‘Very unsociable but I used to do it’: Nevil Shute, Edgar Allen Poe and Terence Rattigan plays.

Sometimes her father would take his family to the Palace in Attercliffe.

I don’t know if you remember it. It was open then as a review place but on Saturdays they had things that were suitable for families, you know.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Once she won some tickets to go to the Empire, probably from entering a competition from The Gloops Club, run by the local papers, The Telegraph and Star.

The Gloops Club had a badge, a little teddy, fat teddy.  And, I used to belong to it.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

When Doreen got to City Grammar after the war, Sheffield Central Library was round the corner.

Well they used to have the Children’s down the stairs, you know.  I don’t know if you remember that.  There wasn’t quite as much choice as you might think.  But by the time I was twelve I was going upstairs anyway to the adults’ part, so I’d got as much choice as I wanted up there.

But she constantly returned to Anne of Green Gables, never owning a copy but repeatedly taking it out of the library.

I mean, you realise that there’s more than you orphaned; she was orphaned, and how good this lady was to her, you know, and how things work out.

Finding new authors she enjoyed was a matter of chance. Once she made a favourite, Dennis Wheatley, Shute or Allen Poe for example, she would read everything they wrote. Occasionally she would meet an author that seemed too difficult or too rubbishy but her instinct was to finish whatever she had started whether she liked the book or not.

Doreen’s church life has been thoroughly ecumenical. Her father was a Unitarian originally, her stepmother was a Catholic and Doreen was sent with her brothers to Attercliffe Methodist church on a Sunday. We recruited her to Reading Sheffield through an Anglican church on the south side of Sheffield. When I asked her if any of the books of the Bible was a favourite, she immediately replied.

Ruth, it’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?

Later on in her life Doreen’s reading life was shared, first with her children and now with a group of friends. The friends buy their books in charity shops and pass them round: Rebecca Tope, Danielle Steel, Josephine Cox and Maureen Lee are all current favourites.

Doreen age 19 on a day out at Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen age 19. A day out in Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen has always been quietly persistent in finding time to read and light to read by. Neither of her two mothers encouraged her but she accepted that and outflanked them. After I had finished recording her memories I mentioned that one of our Sheffield readers had told us that she stopped reading when she started dancing. I asked Doreen whether that had been her experience. “Oh no,” she said, “You can read AND dance.”

by Mary Grover

Access Doreen’s transcript and audio here

Madeleine Doherty’s Reading Journey

Madeleine was born in Sheffield in 1940 and grew up near the Botanical Gardens. She lived with her parents and her brother, who was four years older. Her father was an engineer. Her mother was French and Madeleine’s French grandmother also lived with them. After leaving school, Madeleine trained as a teacher. She married and had a family; her husband taught engineering.

madeleine-treeby-1952-.okMadeleine says of the house she grew up in:

…it was a house full of books,..a lot of them were my father’s engineering books, then there’d be my mother’s French books, and then there were my brother’s books.

Her early memories of books are of being read to but by the time she was eleven she was choosing books and reading them. From this time she remembers the Milly Molly Mandy stories, a French book called Les Malheurs de Sophie about a naughty girl, a weekly comic called Sunny Stories which came out on a Friday and a series of books, The Twins, about twins in different countries. Her favourite book was a beautifully illustrated edition of The Water Babies, which was a present from her father’s mother. Although she understood French and had French books read to her, she didn’t read any herself.

She used to go to the Children’s Library in Sheffield, first with her mother and later with her brother. He would also take her to the Saturday morning film shows at the Library Theatre. When she was a bit older, she would sometimes get the tram to Ecclesall Library but she always preferred the Central Library. She loved Enid Blyton and probably read them all. She read some of her brother’s books, for example, historical stories by G.A. Henty.

Later on school became important for Madeleine’s development as a reader. She went to grammar school and when she was about 14 had a form teacher who was also Head of English. She had a cupboard full of books which anyone could borrow. Madeleine identifies this as the point at which she became an avid reader.

I used to stay up reading half the night, you know. I’d not turn my light out but I read them too fast…

She read many classic novels at this time: Thackeray, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell. She read what was there and didn’t necessarily seek out other books by writers she liked; in fact she thinks that even now there are Dickens’ novels she hasn’t read. She remembers C.S. Forester and E.M. Forster from that time as well.

Another powerful memory for Madeleine comes from when she was about 17 or 18 and she was introduced to the novels of Charles Williams by the curate at her church. He ran a youth club after church on a Sunday evening which she went to with friends, though she was the only one who borrowed books. Madeleine doesn’t recall the titles of these books but she remembers clearly their compelling quality. She has sometimes looked for them since but has never found them.

…I was absolutely hooked on those books…I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that.

Madeleine talks more about Williams than about any other writer and his books clearly had a great impact on her. He was one of the Inklings group of writers, along with Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. His novels are very difficult to categorize but are usually described as religious or supernatural thrillers. Each one features a conflict between good and evil, with powerfully drawn characters on either side. This conflict is played out in a world where the boundary between the everyday world and the spiritual world is porous, with certain characters able to move between the two. The atmosphere of the novels is uncanny and quite unmistakable.

During the 1950s, Madeleine’s family didn’t have a television though she used to watch it at friends’ houses. She remembers seeing Quatermass at a schoolfriend’s and thinking that she wanted to read it. Later on she got the book.

Madeleine went to Notts County Teacher Training College in Retford. She used to come home at weekends and collect books to read. She mentions 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World and also the novels of Nevil Shute. Madeleine’s husband wasn’t a reader and after she was married and had children, she read less. Television had a big effect. She thinks that having one meant she read less, although sometimes it would lead her to read something, as with Quatermass. Watching a television version of a book is different from reading,

…television actually spoilt people’s reading. I still believe it now. I watch things and that’s giving you a picture…and it might not be what you would have thought if you had read it yourself.

Or if you have read the book first, ‘I watch it and I think, “That’s not what I read”.’

Madeleine also enjoyed reading poetry and ‘years and years ago’ had a hardback book into which she used to copy poems. She also learned some off by heart.

She does read more now, mostly books given to her by her daughter.

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

Note: reviews of three of Charles Williams’ novels can be found on Reading 1900-1950 and further information about his life and work from the Charles Williams Society.

Access Madeline’s transcript and audio here