In June 2023, Liverpool University Press published Steel City Readers: Reading for Pleasure in Sheffield, 1925-1955 by Mary Grover, who founded the Reading Sheffield project. On 12 July, a special event to launch the book was held at the Central Library in Sheffield. The 90 or so guests included some of the 65 people whose interviews are at the heart of the book, along with their families and Mary’s own family, friends and colleagues.
Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, who has supported Reading Sheffield and Mary’s work from the very beginning, welcomed everyone to the event.
Mary described the experience of researching and writing Steel City Readers:
Writing is almost always a lonely process. Whatever you are writing, however supportive your colleagues and companions, you are alone with the next sentence. But, however confused or doubtful, I have never been involved in a writing project in which I have felt less alone. Never have so many people contributed to a book I have produced. … When I was, as a friend put it, ‘becalmed’, I would reread stories like Kath and Judith’s, and their energy and resourcefulness were an inspiration.
The stories Mary and her colleagues drew out of the 65 readers featured in Steel City Readers are fascinating accounts of the wonder of reading. The interviews ‘helped our readers create their own narrative structures and become eloquent narrators of their own lives’ – something they had rarely, if ever, known before.
Irene had gained a place at grammar school and was reading A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, but it was the annuals given to her at Christmas that helped establish her reading fluency. The reason why she cherished these annuals till the end of her life and the reason why my listeners lit up when they held one in their hands again after 70 years, is the part that annuals played in the narrative of their lives. Like no other book, an annual is a precise marker of development. We know the year, the month, the day when we read it, Christmas Day 1931 in the case of Irene’s Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. Its physical presence is associated with those who surrounded us when we read it and those who gave it to us, at some expense. Its inscription brings back the memory of a loved relative or friend, often an unmarried aunt.
Here is Mary’s talk in full.
Chris then introduced Professor Dame Karin Barber, a friend of Mary’s. Karin, an anthropologist, spoke about reading the book in draft:
… I was totally gripped by it. It transported me into mid-twentieth century Sheffield – not just into the place, distinctive as it is, and the time, before and after the Second World War, but also – most importantly – the people: the 65 participants in the project talking about their memories of books and reading, their enjoyment of all kinds of literature, their practical strategies for getting hold of books to read.
Steel City Readers, she continued, was ‘a highly original and valuable contribution to social history’.
Oral history, done like this, reaches parts of the past that no other research can. It preserves and re-activates historical memories that would otherwise be lost – but which illuminate big themes of social change, class, cultural history, with unique vividness. The Reading Sheffield project – and the book that came out of it – are pioneers. It’s to be hoped that they will have started a movement and that more projects as exciting as this one will follow.
Here is Karin’s talk in full.
Reading Sheffield celebrated the publication of Steel City Readers by presenting copies to all the interviewees or their families. This was made possible by the generosity of those who donated to the project, including Sheffield-based Gripple and The James Neill Trust Fund, the broadcaster, Robin Ince, who did two fundraisers, and many individual supporters.
Mary Grover and the Reading Sheffield committee would like to thank Sheffield Libraries – in particular, Library Manager Alexis Filby – for hosting the launch in the Central Library. Given the importance of public libraries in Steel City Readers, this was the perfect venue.
Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman and Val Hewson for the photos of the launch, and to Karin and Mary for permission to include their speeches.
The paperback of Steel City Readers is available from all good booksellers. The e-book can be downloaded free from Liverpool University Press.