Charles Williams: ‘no novels anywhere quite like them…’

Following our previous post about reading and religion, here is a reader’s encounter in the 1950s with the ‘Christian fantasy’ novels of Charles Williams.   

One of our readers, Madeleine Doherty, recalled the novels of Charles Williams (1886-1945) in her interview. They made a tremendous impression on the young Madeleine but she found it hard to describe them or to account for their impact.

Charles Williams is perhaps best remembered now as one of the Inklings, the Oxford literary group which included J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, with both of whom he has been compared. ‘What I owe to them all is incalculable,’ said Lewis. ‘Is there any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a good fire?’

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, known as the ‘Bird and Baby’, where the Inklings met (GNU Free Documentation License)

Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Williams was employed first as a proof-reader, then as an editor, at the Oxford University Press. He had been denied a university education (and therefore career) by his family’s financial difficulties, but was scholarly and in demand as a public speaker. He produced seven novels, as well as poetry, plays, theology, biography, literary criticism and reviews. His novels are strong stuff, featuring for example:

  • the discovery of the Holy Grail, which is then stolen by a black magician to aid his evil plans (War in Heaven, 1930)
  • the original and powerful deck of Tarot cards (The Greater Trumps, 1932)
  • succubi and doppelgangers (Descent into Hell, 1937)
  • a necromancer and ghosts (All Hallows’ Eve, 1945).

But the novels are not straightforward fantasy or horror. Instead of Narnia or Middle Earth, they are set in the Britain Williams knew, which has the effect of emphasising the stranger elements. More importantly, Williams used them as an instrument for examining the complex philosophical and religious ideas which gripped him. He saw, for example, no difference between the natural and the supernatural and thought it required only extra awareness to experience the supernatural. This review of The Place of the Lion (1931) from the Yorkshire Post of 23 September, 1931 sums it up well:

… one of the most remarkable [novels] I have read for a long time. Ecstasy and demonic power run through it like tongues of fire; the princes of heaven are abroad in the world and through the terrors of an earthly cataclysm we see ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory.’ And yet the apocalyptic vision is convincingly related to mundane cares.

Madeleine Doherty came across the novels through the church she went to in the 1950s, when she was in her late teens.

We had a curate at church who introduced me to some books that I have never yet found since, and they were not religious ones. They were … not spiritualist either, what’s the word I’m looking for? Word’s gone out of my mind, I can’t remember what I want to say. … Not science, oh what’s the word? Well they were fantasy in a way but that is not the word I would use to describe them. Oh dear, I can’t think of the word I want. …

It’s not magic either, it’s like magic but I don’t mean magic, I just can’t think of the word to describe, a bit Dracula type things … I suppose so they were weird, they were weird. Sometimes I used to frighten myself.

Madeleine was fascinated.

I think basically they were unpleasant things but once I started reading I was hooked, I’d take one back and bring another home … I would bring one and I would stay up, I can remember one night I woke. I was reading in bed and there was this spider and I’m terrified of spiders. I had been so absorbed reading this book, it was probably two in the morning or whatever and I thought, ‘I’ll have to stop, shut me book, there’s a spider hanging straight in front of me.’ It absolutely terrified me. I just couldn’t put them down.

She found it hard to describe what happened in the novels, although she remembered typical features like spirits, talismans and struggles between good and evil.

I just can’t even relate one of the stories really at all. All I know is that I was absolutely hooked on those books. So how old would I be? 17 or 18, something like that. I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that. I don’t know how many he wrote. You know, they’d have ghostly things in or they’d go to castles or houses and … I think there was a religious theme in it as well, kind of thing, in the background probably.

Williams’ novels[i] were never particularly popular, and there was of course criticism (J B Priestley, for example, described one novel as ‘painfully incredible’). But his adherents were warm in their praise. For C S Lewis, Williams showed the ‘everyday world … invaded by the marvellous’. T S Eliot, whose firm published one of his novels, said that there were:

…no novels anywhere quite like them … [Williams] makes our everyday world much more exciting because of the supernatural which he finds always active in it. … and seeing all persons and all events in the light of the divine, he shows us a significance, in human beings, human emotions, human events, to which we had been blind.

After Williams’ novels, it happened that Madeleine’s habits changed:

… after that I don’t think I read so much really. I think I seem to have, after I had been, started me teaching, me books sort of more or less went out the window. I didn’t sort of have time I suppose, to sit and read as much.

Madeleine (third from left, back row) as a student teacher

She was training as a teacher, and then she married and had a family. She had less time or energy to read. Perhaps this is one reason the extraordinary Charles Williams remains so vivid for Madeleine. He was the author she read at the time she left her girlhood for the world of adults.

 

This post is for Thecla Wilkinson (1956-2016) who sometimes wrote for Reading Sheffield. She enjoyed Charles Williams’ novels and had planned to write about them for us.

[i] You can read some recent reviews of Williams’ novels at our sister blog, Reading 1900-1950.

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!’]

To Kindle or not to Kindle

Frank (b.1938): Oh no, no… I’ve always read for pleasure. I’ve done that the whole of my life. Still do… I’ve actually bought a Kindle now.

Books or Kindle? Kindle or books? The debate staggers on.[i] (I prefer the real thing, as a glance at my home would show you. But I’m very happy to go digital when travelling, whether on holiday or on a bus, and the Kindle is a good way of reading books I don’t want taking up precious shelf space.)

Here is what Reading Sheffield interviewees, born between 1923 and 1950, have to say. (Since we are interested in 20th century reading, we don’t generally ask about e-readers, but sometimes they come up.) This is not by the way a scientific survey on any terms.

Not everyone is open to the idea:

Anne (b. 1944): Ohh, I couldn’t be doing with that! … I don’t know. It’s electric, int it? I’m allergic to anything electric.

But those who’ve bought (or been given) a Kindle appreciate the convenience.

Christine (b. 1940): Yes. I’m afraid I’ve got a Kindle now as well because we go to France and I used to take ten books in the car – and now I get the Kindle, sit in the garden in France and bingo! … I still prefer a book. I only take the Kindle when we go away and when you’re in France it saves you, well you have to take books with you because it’s difficult to find English books in France.

For one interviewee the Kindle gives her family the chance to share and even to read books they may not choose for themselves:

Mavis (b. 1937): … there were five of us on one Kindle ownership and you can get five copies of a book, people can use the same book. So my son bought his three children, two of who are adults, and his father a Kindle. Mine’s not on that because I had mine first but those five have back copies of probably a 100-odd books now because every time any one of the five adds a book it’s available to all the others. … I pinch my husband’s [Kindle] and let him have mine on occasions because I don’t have access to these. I swap with my daughter who doesn’t have a Kindle as well… We tend to have, if not similar tastes, sufficiently similar for it to be things you wouldn’t have chosen yourself but when you pick it up and read it you think ‘Ah’. … my granddaughter came and said, ‘Ooh, can I have that after you?’ and I said ‘No, but you can have it after your aunt.’  So there’s quite a … five or six of us.

The Kindle (NotFromUtrecht) (Own work) (Creative Commons licence)

We ask if owning a Kindle changes reading habits.

Mavis: No.  I look for what I want.  Sometimes I don’t find it. It does mean that occasionally I’ll buy books…. I still tend, if something looks as if it will be of real interest, I still tend to buy a book, specially if I can get it when it’s just published.

E-readers can take some getting used to.

Mary (b. 1923): I tell you what I have got, I have got a Kindle. [The book I’m reading is] very strangely written and I can’t find out who’s written it because I don’t know quite how to go back and then go forwards. It’s my son’s partner, she gave [the Kindle] me. … I can get big print you see. It is small and that is as much as my eye will take. …

Chris (b. 1939): I was given a Kindle for Christmas, which I won’t say I’m struggling with, I’m quite enjoying so I suppose that counts as a book. It’s quite handy though I guess for taking on holiday. The one thing I’m not too keen on, you can’t, well I haven’t found a way of flipping from looking back 27 pages to find what went before. … I’m not very technological.

There’s the business of finding books you want:

Chris: Well I haven’t loaded it up because the ones that you get free are not necessarily the books that I want to read anyway. On the basis that I find looking for a specific author and I find they don’t come free.

Kindles or books, there’s still a lot of rubbish published.

Mary: You can get any book on that. Oh I tell you what the first one that was on it, I don’t recommend it to anybody, was the Hundred Shades of Grey or Fifty Shades of Grey? You have never read such tripe! I managed one, two chapters. It isn’t even well written. … I don’t mind sex if it’s well written!

For some people, the e-reader cannot compete. It’s all about the physical quality of books.

Judith (b. 1939): And I’ve always had this ingrained, you know, get-me-a-book kind of thing. I don’t even want to have a Kindle or anything, because I like the feel of a book…

Peter (b. 1930): No. I think, it sounds a bit smug this, I think the book trade is suffering from unfair competition particularly with these electronic books and whatever so I just do my little bit. If there’s a book I like, I buy it from the bookshop.

No, I’ve seen [Kindles]. I can sit for hours with a book in my hand. I find it very difficult to sit for more than about a quarter of an hour with a screen. That’s probably an age thing, I don’t know. … I like the feeling of a book.

Josie (b. 1942): I’ve got one. I won’t use it. I’ve inherited it from my husband and until I get too feeble to turn a book and my eyesight’s too bad that I can’t see there’s nothing like having a book in your hands. Seeing it and feeling it and turning the pages, looking how much you’ve got left to read … no, I’ve never touched it. I’ve no desire at all.  I can see when you go on holiday instead of taking twelve books with you if you’re flying, a Kindle would be handy.

I just don’t know [what it is about the actual physical feel of the book]. It’s just comforting, isn’t it?  It’s like you’re touching … I love it, I just love it. … It’s quite a phobia when you think about it.  I didn’t realise I was this bad.

Kindles may be light and slim but for our readers swiping lacks the pleasure of turning pages, and the faint plastic/metallic smell is not to be compared to the woodiness of paper. (I do know Kindle owners who love their actual devices, who are distressed if they have to change or send them away for repair.)

In the end e-readers generate mixed feelings. There is uncertainty about the ability to make them work, but also interest in the convenience they offer. But for some of our readers, Kindles just don’t feel right.

Jude (b. 1950): Erm, not at the moment I wouldn’t [get a Kindle]. If I went travelling I would actually … I wanted a long read but at the moment, I quite like the pleasure of… A book, yes.

 

(With thanks to Reading Sheffield colleague Mary for gathering the information.)

[i] E-readers may already be yesterday’s technology. In 2015, in the USA, for example, 19 per cent of adults reported owning an e-reader, down from 32 per cent in early 2014. But of course many people read books on their smartphones or tablets.

Library ‘Books’ That Talk (Sheffield Daily Independent, Saturday 14 August, 1937)

In August 1937, a reporter on Sheffield’s Daily Independent asked the city’s blind residents about the books they were reading. Enquiring at the Council’s Workshops for the Blind on Sharrow Lane, the reporter wrote that they liked ‘thrillers and Western novels’ and, in particular, books by Agatha Christie, Zane Grey and Edgar Wallace. The article continued:

Just recently they have ‘read’ two of George Bernard Shaw’s books, ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’.

‘The Black Tulip,’ by Dumas, ‘I Was a Spy’ from which the film was made[i], ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ and ‘Revolt in the Desert’ written by the late Aircraftsman Shaw (Lawrence of Arabia) are only a few of the books they have ‘read’ and greatly enjoyed.

At the moment they are reading one of Zane Grey’s novels, ‘Riders of the Purple Sage.

Notice how the reporter used quotation marks around the word ‘read’ in the first sentence of the extract. That’s because the books being read by the blind people were talking books:

A novel library book service is at present in operation in Sheffield – the books being ‘talking’ ones consisting of from 10 to 15 single-sided gramophone records …

Talking books and the technology behind them were recent innovations in the 1930s, a time when there were, according to the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of the Blind, around 68,000 registered blind people in England and Wales. The idea had come from a First World War soldier, Captain Ian Fraser (1897-1974). He was blinded in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and learned Braille at St Dunstan’s, the charity set up in 1915 to support visually-impaired ex-servicemen. Fraser, who went on to serve as St Dunstan’s chairman for over 50 years, realised that recording books would enable people to read books through listening. It took St Dunstan’s years of experimentation, in partnership with the then National Institute for the Blind, but by 1935 talking books were becoming available.

Mat-weaving at St Dunstan’s (public domain, Project Gutenberg e-book Through St. Dunstan’s to Light, by James H. Rawlinson, circa 1919)

The Daily Independent article was perhaps prompted by a gift of £35,000 that month from the founder of Morris Motors, Lord Nuffield (1877-1963), to help develop talking books. Nuffield was a celebrated philanthropist, who gave money to a wide variety of causes. The donation was widely reported around the country, including in the Sheffield Daily Independent on Wednesday 11 August. The follow-up feature at the Sharrow Lane Workshops seems to have been an imaginative move by the newspaper, to provide some local colour.

As the Daily Independent noted, the first talking books were ‘records … of the 12 inch size’, would ‘revolve for 25 minutes’ and contained ‘about six times as much material as the ordinary record’. They required special equipment to play them at reduced speed:

A special machine has to be used, for a gramophone whose speed is about 78 revolutions a minute would render a ‘book’ unintelligible …

In other words, the talking books were among the first LPs, or long-playing records. There was one of the special machines at the Sharrow Lane Workshops:

Most of the records at the workshop in Sheffield are played during the dinner hour and the machine is operated and records changed by the listeners themselves – the titles and numbers being printed on the records in Braille.

Some blind people in Sheffield had their own special gramophones (the RNIB says there were about 1,000 machines across the country by this time) and there was an arrangement for the books to be shared around, to enable as many people as possible to enjoy them.

The first talking books were: Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Gospel According to St. John. As the Daily Independent article shows, plenty of books by popular and well-known authors were recorded and made available, although there were suggestions of censorship, with authors thought ‘unsuitable’ not being recorded.

In recent years, talking books, developed to help people with a disability, have become audiobooks, and are listened to by millions, sighted and visually impaired..

 

If you would like to know more about talking books, visit Matt Rubery’s blog, Audiobook History.

[i] I Was a Spy (1932) was written by Marthe Cnockaert, a Belgian who spied for the United Kingdom in World War One. This was filmed in 1933, with Madeleine Carroll.

Biggles – but for girls!

“We have come here to make a landing ground for British aeroplanes,” replied Worrals. …

Louis stared. He clicked his tongue. “Nom de Dieu. This is a mission dangereux. Why do the English send women on such work?”[i]

In the middle of the 20th century, there were schools for boys and schools for girls and, where schools were mixed, there were often boys’ entrances and girls’ entrances. There were toys for boys (guns, Meccano sets, model railways) and toys for girls (dolls and all their impedimenta). There were games for boys (Cowboys and Indians) and games for girls (‘let’s play house’). And there were books for boys and books for girls and even sometimes, to avoid confusion, separate shelving in libraries, with girls and boys admitted on alternate days.  .

A small survey of children’s reading, carried out by the public library in Sheffield in 1937-38, reported that girls read more than boys. They liked school, fairy and ‘domestic’ tales, while boys chose air travel, adventure, school and the sea. In non-fiction, boys read about machinery and engineering, science and ‘things to do’, while girls were ‘naturally less interested’ in these and enjoyed poetry and plays.[ii]

But there were exceptions to the gendered norms of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, just as now, when books are less obviously for boys or girls, but there is an awful lot of girly pink everywhere.

Worrals knew it would be a hazardous business to try to get out of the cave without a guide. (Picture by Stead)

One such exception in the world of books was Worrals, Flight Officer Joan Worralson or Worrals of the WAAF. Worrals was the creation of Captain W E Johns (1893-1968), author of the popular books about air ace and adventurer James Bigglesworth, aka Biggles. Johns was a pilot in World War One and was shot down and imprisoned in 1918. By the 1930s, he was an aviation correspondent for newspapers and writing books too, including the first Biggles story in 1932[iii]. It is hard now, when air travel is routine, to appreciate just how aviation held public attention then, with technological advances, international air races and pioneers like Charles Lindbergh. The Sheffield Library survey cited above reports that books about flying were easily the most popular with boys.

Peter:  Oh, I could read those again.  I could enjoy them again because in it a person can sort of lose himself and you can become Biggles for say half an hour and it’s great to read these stories.  But at the same time I used to like to read about the air aces of the First World War, the real ones, and I was always sorry when I came to when they were killed because invariably they were, but I used to think they’ve had a damn good life, they’ve enjoyed it, what they were doing, and that’s it and I do find that’s, shall we say? an example to the rest of us and, y’know, I don’t know, I suppose reading is my way of escape.

What about girls then?

‘…I remember I read all the Biggles books,’ said Erica.

In the early days of World War Two, to aid recruitment, the Air Ministry asked Captain Johns to write about women in the services (even if service life would never be as exciting as he would make it seem). Worrals duly appeared in 1940, wearing a flying suit and aged about 18, in a serial in the Girl’s Own Paper. As the Daily Mail said, there was ”Worrals” – a woman of wit, courage and resource – a worthy ‘sister’ to “Biggles”.

The first fifty yards was so bad that in her heart Worrals became convinced that it would take hours to get to the bottom. (Picture by Stead)

Worrals appeared in 11 books and three short stories between 1941 and 1950. In wartime, she effortlessly shot down enemy aircraft, routed and unmasked German spies, outwitted the Gestapo, escaped from countless traps and near-death incidents, carried out daring missions in France, Syria, Australia and various Pacific islands and rescued French Resistance fighters and British soldiers. After the war, her adventures continued. She rescued people from certain death, thwarted opal thieves in Australia and tracked down war criminals and gun runners.

‘… the older ones loved Biggles and Worrals …’ said Margaret, who worked in Sheffield’s school library service.

Like Biggles, Worrals had allies. There was her friend, Frecks, who was brave but not quite as resourceful as Worrals; Spitfire pilot Bill Ashton, who was sweet on Worrals but was firmly rejected as there was after all a war to be won;[iv] and superiors like Squadron Leader McNavish, who deplored her actions but respected her abilities. But there was never any doubt who was in charge. In Worrals of the WAAF it was her decision to chase and shoot down an enemy fighter.[v] Worrals on the War-Path showed her typically taking the initiative – she had the idea for a secret landing-strip in France and she argued successfully for the opportunity to establish it. In Worrals Goes Afoot (1949) she set up a fake drug deal to make contact with gun-runners.

How unusual was Worrals? From the mid-19th century onwards, unconventional girls like Jo March started to appear in fiction, although they were outnumbered by their obedient sisters. Later there were all those plucky schoolgirls rescuing each other, foiling jewel thieves and so on in books and comics. Books like the Sue Barton series, which started in 1936, described girls training for careers, albeit ones associated with women, like nursing and teaching. When they grew up, of course, many of these unconventional girls settled for matrimony and motherhood. Worrals, who never did settle, was not unique but she was extraordinary.

‘Mademoiselle is aware that the bulls are dangerous – ?’ (Picture by Stead)

This was a time when women’s lives were changing rapidly. They had taken on men’s roles in war (and been encouraged to return home in peacetime). Movements like the Guides gave girls new opportunities, although not the same ones afforded to Scouts. More women were going to university. More were getting the right to vote. All these developments might have had some unconscious influence on Captain Johns.

More important in the writing of Worrals were two pioneering women fliers. Amy Johnson (1903-41), the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia, was an icon in 1930s Britain. Pauline Gower (1910-47) established the women’s branch of the Air Transport Auxiliary, where Johnson was serving when she crashed to her death in 1941. Johns knew both of them. Worrals’ adventures are more ripping yarn than realistic but her skill, courage and determination were grounded in reality.

Amy Johnson (public domain)

Pauline Gower (Women’s Engineering Society Archives. Creative Commons licence)

The greatest influence, however, was fictional: Biggles. Worrals was Biggles. Both were daring pilots, good shots, natural leaders. Both were uninterested in romance or family. Both were patriotic, clear-headed, decisive, even ruthless. Both were responsible for deaths, but felt little remorse. Captain Johns seemed to see no reason for changing his winning formula just because he was now dealing with the female sex (although it is interesting that he kept writing about Biggles until his death but gave up on Worrals 20 years before).

‘… I’ve not said Biggles, and Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, because I was reading those books as well. Those ‘Captain Johns’ and you know, the others, I would’ve sought out them in the central library,’ said Shirley.

Captain Johns’ prose can be purple (‘Deep night lay across the fair land of France, night as black as the soul of its Nazi conqueror.’[vi]), his plots formulaic and his characterisation superficial. There is little subtlety or depth in his writing. To the 21st century reader (both Biggles and Worrals are still in print), his attitudes can seem dated and occasionally offensive. Sheffield reader James Green reflects now:

… Well, Biggles, I think. … It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there. … ‘Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it. … through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very Gung Ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. ‘God is an Englishman.’

But Johns was successful because of his thrilling plots, vivid characters and ability to spin a yarn. Boys and girls in wartime, seeking excitement or reassurance or distraction, were caught up by the adventures of Biggles and Worrals. For boys, this was the norm but it must have been a relatively new experience for the girls. ‘The boys had the best of it with their air ace “Biggles” until “Worrals of the WAAF” came along,’ says the slogan on Worrals Flies Again (1942).

[i] Worrals on the Warpath (1943).

[ii] A J Jenkinson’s survey, What Do Boys and Girls Read? (Methuen, 1940), involving almost 3,000 children, reported similar results.

[iii] The first Biggles novel is The Camels are Coming. There are about 100 books in total.

[iv] In a 2007 graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, it is implied that Worrals and Frecks are more than friends.

[v] There were no women fighter pilots in the British or American armed forces until the 1990s. Russian women flew fighter planes in World War Two.

[vi] Worrals on the War-Path (1943).

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 walk through Park with Jean

Jean Mercer was born in Sheffield in 1925 and has lived in the city all her life. In 1950 she married local boy Malcolm who became a teacher. 

Above Sheffield Station lies an area called Park. Beyond it spreads the Manor Estate, built in the 1930s on the fields surrounding the Queen’s Tower, where the Earl of Shrewsbury guarded Mary Queen of Scots during her period of imprisonment in Sheffield. On the deer park of the castle was built in 1957 the austere Park Hill flats dominating the ridge above Sheffield station and ‘hailed universally in the technical press as a visually as well as socially satisfactory conception’ according to Nicholas Pevsner. As an architectural historian with a taste for modernist brutality, Pevsner admired the Council’s vision of a village in the air, but sadly, as he predicted, Park Hill soon became a slum.

Park Hill and Sheffield Station today

The partly-renovated Park Hill Flats today. Park Library is behind the flats, up the road on the left. (Creative Commons licence)

Jean and Malcolm Mercer have lived in this area all their lives. They grew up in the streets bulldozed to construct Park Hill. Then, after the Second World War they married and moved to the Manor Estate, then a thriving community when the working classes it housed were actually in work. When we interviewed them, they had moved off the estate and were living in a house in one of the Victorian terraces which are a remnant of the old Park district.

Since 1903, all the communities around Park have been served by a glorious complex of buildings which used to house public baths, a laundry, a swimming pool and a library, all heated by the furnace whose red brick chimney still rises against the hill behind it. The library has survived all this time, rather against the odds: in the 1930s it was almost closed because of its proximity to the splendid new Central Library; and now it is run, not by the Council, but by community volunteers.

Park Library now

Park Library then

Jean Mercer has been a member of Park Library since she was two years old. She remembers the delights on offer when she visited the library with her class from school.

When I was a girl they had story-time. We used to go from school. There was Miss Heywood. She was absolutely wonderful at telling stories. She would sit on the counter and tell these stories, and especially about Epanimondas. He was a little black boy and he was lovely. He never did anything right but Epanimondas was lovely. [Miss Heywood] she was wonderful at telling stories and I can still remember, I can see her sitting on the counter now, yes, it was lovely.

Though Jean passed the scholarship exam she was not able to take up a grammar school place. But there is no trace of bitterness or any sense of loss in the way she describes her secondary school education.

At Standhouse School and Prince Edward as well, I can remember the teachers now, and it was really a very good education – very good and reading was part of it and composition, it was composition then. If you could write a composition, it was absolutely wonderful and you were encouraged to and poetry was part of it.

Like many pupils from elementary schools, Jean treasures the poetry she learned by heart. Elementary schools seemed to set much more value on reading and reciting poetry than grammar schools. Elocution lessons were also part of Jean’s school experience.

Jean can’t remember a school library. Instead the children were marched down to Park Library and encouraged to use it regularly.

Park Library – all that it is left of the spiral stairs which used to lead to the first floor children’s library

Her parents also encouraged her reading. They were chapel-goers. Jean’s father’s health had been damaged in the First World War so he was found a job in the fruit market by his uncle. Though this was a physically Iess strenuous than a job in a steel mill, it did mean a very early start. So he would get home from work early and spend the early evening reading. She can remember him reading westerns by Zane Grey and then The Man in the Iron Mask.

As for her mother,

she did more crocheting but she loved to write. She loved recipes. I’ve got some of her books that she wrote recipes and poems in, didn’t she? She was always doing something like that, but Father loved reading.

The passion for reading that Jean shared with her parents prepared her for a life-time of supporting Malcolm while he wrote books of his own. Jean would field the phone calls and the children while Malcolm prepared his lessons, researched and wrote his histories of Sheffield schools. Like her mother, Jean took delight in the margins, always finding time to explore new novels and read to her own children.

Jean never bought the novels she read because Park Library was so handy.

And if there wasn’t a book if you wanted one, they soon found it for you. Well they are now, aren’t they? If you ask they’re still very helpful.

 

‘Thmile, thmile, thmile!’ Sheffield’s Gloops Club

By Sue Roe

The GLOOPS CLUB was mentioned by several of our interviewees – Florence Cowood, Mary S and Doreen Gill – and they had fond memories of it.

Gloops was a cartoon character created by an employee of the Sheffield Star in 1928. The Gloops Club was launched in 1929, when the Sheffield Star started a children’s section to the Saturday supplement and continued until war broke out in 1939. The Club was run by children’s columnist ‘Aunty Edith’, and allowed members aged up to 14. Lists of members with their names and addresses were published regularly in the newspaper with an update on numbers.

There was also a membership card outlining the rules of the Gloops Club. Every junior Glooper was given a number and a badge (see above. Doreen Gill remembered ‘a little teddy, fat teddy’, while Mary S thought of a ‘cartoon cat’). In return they had to perform at least one act of kindness every day. We can see from the rules the values the club was promoting: friendship, equality, compassion. Members also had to donate money from their savings or pocket money to help children less fortunate than themselves. Gloops members could earn medals for: heroism, scholastic and athletic success, school records, acts of kindness and self-sacrifice. For example a Silver Disc was awarded to children who attended school or Sunday School for three years with no absence, and a Silver Star for life-saving acts or acts of bravery

The Gloops Club was hugely successful. By 1939, it had 365,000* children as members and by 1957 it had raised more than £25,000 for charity. In 1928, a Gloops Holiday Home was opened in Skegness, which could accommodate 60 sick children each week, and there is evidence of another home opening in 1931 in Mablethorpe. In addition, the Club funded 12 hospital beds in the Sheffield area. Members sent chocolates, toys and comics to children in hospital.

There were other Gloops clubs in other newspapers, including the Evening Chronicle on Tyneside (the mother of website editor Val Hewson was a member in 1930s Newcastle). The Gloops character was revived after the Second World War and continued into the 1950s and possibly even the 1960s. In 1972, in another revival, and in a new costume created by the Crucible Theatre, Gloops switched on the Sheffield’s Christmas lights. In 1984, Gloops Superstar did everything from skydiving to escaping from a mock fire. Gloops then toured Sheffield in a vintage Star van to entertain children at summer parties and fetes.

In the 1980s, The Star asked readers to share their memories. Patricia Ellis said:

Gloops has very special memories for me. As a little girl I spent many happy hours touring round with the Gloops concert party. The climax of the concerts was the Gloopers’ Motto, which I still sing today if I’m feeling downhearted:

Smile, Smile, that’s the Gloopers’ motto

Always happy, always gay

Always smiling all the day

Never be downhearted

It isn’t worth your while

So be like Gloops and smile, smile, smile.

The Star reported that ‘smile’ was pronounced ‘thmile’, until Sheffield Council suggested changing it because children were copying the incorrect pronunciation.

 

* This figure must be a national one. The total population of Sheffield at this time was between 560,000 and 570,000. At any rate, 365,000 children is an enormous number.

Gillian Applegate’s Reading Journey

Gillian Applegate was born on 27 October 1941, in Frecheville which was then in Derbyshire but is now part of Sheffield. Gillian worked first in banking but later became a college librarian. She married in 1964, and her husband, Norman, died suddenly, at the relatively young age of 63. Gillian has one daughter, Jane, and a grandson.     

 

For Gillian, books have brought not only passing pleasure but also lasting fulfilment and content.

When Gillian retrained as a librarian, she qualified with distinctions and merits and her husband Norman said: ‘Oh, I knew you’d pass. It’s as if you were rehearsing all your life.’ He meant of course that books had always been part of Gillian’s life. Her parents encouraged her from the first as they wanted their daughters ‘to read and be educated’.

I remember at school – I don’t know whether they do it now – but on a Friday afternoon, always the teachers read you a story – Milly Molly Mandy, Worzel Gummidge – and I absolutely adored it and I think that from when I could read, I’ve always had a book in my hand.

I got into libraries later in life. I worked at Castle College as a cashier … and I … was offered a job in the library which I adored.  I’d found where I belonged, I think.

The time came when Gillian was very grateful for books. Gillian’s husband, who ‘had rheumatic fever as a child [and] was left with a murmur in his heart’, died suddenly and left her grieving. But books, says the interviewer, ‘seem to have opened the door to social activities.’ They came to the rescue, both socially and for comfort.

I’ve always had books and sort of read at home but not a lot. But I think it really came back when I was widowed ten years ago. He’d gone out walking, my husband, and had a massive heart attack. At least I didn’t see him ill, but it was such a shock and devastating.

When I was older, when I was widowed, a friend invited me to go to a book club. My sister … said “I think you should, because you always had a book in your hand.” And it saved me really, in bereavement.

If I woke up in the middle of the night, I’d got a book on the go, rather than get upset, just switch the light on and read the book.

‘Everybody was so kind,’ Gillian says, ‘and asked me to go to things and I went to everything.’ This included two book clubs: Sundays at Waterstone’s Sheffield bookshop and Wednesdays at the City Library. One of the first books Gillian read this way was Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring:

[It] was a bit tedious and everything but then a lady said, ‘There’s a film and they’re having it at the Anvil [a Sheffield cinema]’ and about six or seven of us went to the film and it sort of got me into circulation again after I’d been bereaved because this little nucleus started going to exhibitions. We read a book about the plague, I’d never been there and we went to Eyam,* and it sort of started life beginning again, shall we say.

In time, Gillian found a new partner (‘I’m certainly lucky to have met my partner. … And we do have fun together, laugh a lot’) and so resigned from these book groups. But she found herself starting and running another group:

… for three years I’ve been running the book club for the Oddfellows. … We meet at Crucible Corner: it was buzzing with the snooker and we’re again using the libraries: we borrow them at the libraries, so it can only be ten members because they only lend you ten books.

Oddfellows is a national social and support group. Gillian joined through a friend.

[Oddfellows] evolved from the guilds when everybody bound together and helped each other. They helped if you were ill and everything like that. … So when we meet it is really to help people meet people, meet together and have holidays. … They’re some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. We help each other and do different things.

The Oddfellows book club was Gillian’s own idea:

… I just thought ‘They haven’t got a book club’ because we had walks, different things, and I said to the secretary, ‘Can I start a book club?’ and he said, ‘By all means, it’s in the diary’. It was quite slow at first and then people, it wasn’t what they wanted and they dropped out. It’s all women, unfortunately. We’ve had men but it’s all women. We’ve got a lovely nucleus of nice ladies and we meet there and he supports us very much.

The members choose books in turn, ‘so we’ve all sorts’. At the time of her interview, Gillian had just got from the library copies of Julie Buxbaum’s The Opposite of Love (2009), a modern romance, but the group has also read: David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (‘that was hard going and a lot of violence. I wouldn’t say it was my favourite book’); and Call the Midwife, by Jennifer Worth (‘we’d actually read that before it came on television.’)

The book group also has occasional outings, linked to the books being read, and entertained visiting authors:

… we’ve had Bryony Doran who wrote The China Bird (2011), and she came and that was lovely.  And one our members is Marjorie Dunn. Again, my love, she writes historical novels, so she’s come and visited us.

The book club helps Gillian indulge her lifelong love of history. She mentions enjoying Hilary Mantel, Helen Dunmore, Catherine Bailey and, in her youth, Jean Plaidy and Margaret Mitchell. ‘I’ve always had a love of history. Even now, if we’re in quizzes, I’m pretty on the ball if they ask historic questions.’ Her teachers hoped that she would study it at university, but her mother, ‘a very strong woman’, put a stop to this:

Silly now, but she said girls don’t need an education. You’ll get married – which you’re not forced to, are you? – you know, or you could get married and lose your husband in various ways, or never get married but at the time I think she actually got me my first job, in the bank, because she was a legal cashier and paid in and asked if they’d got any vacancies. So I went to what was the National Provincial Bank and became the National Westminster Bank near the Cathedral.

We were all so busy, we were young. It was actually a good time, although it wasn’t the job of my dreams I did enjoy it.

When the interviewer wonders ‘if reading comes into people’s lives very often when there aren’t other things to grab them’, Gillian agrees:

Yes, I think so, but now I shan’t let it go, now I’m back to it.

 

* Eyam is a small village in Derbyshire, not far from Sheffield. In 1665 there was an outbreak of bubonic plague and the villagers quarantined themselves to prevent the disease spreading. They were shut away for 14 months and only 83 residents survived, out of about 350.  The book Gillian read may have been Year of Wonders (2011), by Geraldine Brooks.

 

Harry Brearley’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

As a Christmas treat, we would like to introduce the reading journey of one of Sheffield’s most illustrious steel pioneers, Harry Brearley, who invented the process of manufacturing stainless steel.  As we contemplate the possibility of the destruction of central library provision in this city, this is a story to reflect on.  Brearley did not become one of the world’s pioneers by accident.  He was able to satisfy his curiosity and his appetite to acquire skills because he was mentored by a man who lent him books.  He came from a background which made the acquisition of formal qualifications and the purchase of books an impossibility.  However this mentor and a library gave the boy the confidence to use whatever opportunities came his way.

brearley

Harry Brearley was born in 1871 and died in 1948.  He was too frail to attend more than a few years of school, broken up by ill-health.  His father, a steel worker, was uninterested in teaching him the practical skills that would have helped him make his way in any metal working industry.  Yet throughout his childhood Harry read.

I have no idea of how I learned to read.  My father and mother and elder brothers were readers of novelettes and blood and thunder stories.  But there were no books at home, absolutely none.  There was a ballad in a paper cover stitched at the back with worsted.  It was called ‘The Story of an Unravelled Stocking’.  I knew this story before I could read.  I knew a few other stories learned from my elder brothers and sisters who had probably learned them, from my mother, when they were children. I was the eighth child and my mother was too throng to tell stories by the time I was born.

When he was eleven Harry entered the world of work.  He ricocheted from job to job, always outspoken but always observant, until he found himself, at the age of twelve, working in the Laboratory of Norfolk Works.  He came under the supervision of James Taylor, a metallurgist who recognised the boy’s intelligence and fostered it.  Harry was in awe of Taylor’s skills as a metallurgist and would do anything that he was told to do.

Taylor seemed to be a magician.  During the second week Taylor asked me what I read and I said the ‘Boys of England’, the ‘Boys Comic Journal’ and ‘Jack Harkaway’. He appeared not to have heard of any of these papers and I noticed no smile of recognition or approval when I produced copies for his inspection.  He offered me a copy of Roscoe’s Chemistry which I honestly tried to read but with a total absence of either pleasure or understanding.

Despite his apparent lack of connection with Roscoe’s Chemistry, Harry was lent numerous books by Taylor, such as The Irish National Arithmetic.  Then in 1885 Taylor bought his fourteen year-old assistant Todhunter’s Agebra, ‘a large book of 600 pages, which cost 7/6d’.

I was touched that anyone should think it worth while to give me a book costing so much money.  I can see myself proudly taking it home and showing it to my mother who was swilling down the pavement after a load of coal had been delivered.  Except the rather shabby looking arithmetic book, this was the first book I possessed, decently bound and gilt lettered on the back.  I have it still.

In 1892 the boy suffered a double blow.  James Taylor left England to work in Australia and at about the same time his mother died.  Aged 21, Harry identified with typical good judgement the girl he was to marry.  He also found another mentor.

After Harry and his much-loved elder brother had moved out of the family home, they found lodging with a man called Dacey.

He was a railway guard but had been a bandsman in the Royal Navy, and afterwards a newspaper reporter.  He was well read, he talked well, he wrote without apparent effort and he had a very good memory.  He made me a reader of ‘The Clarion’, the first number of which had just been issued, and introduced me to the writings of Carlyle, Ruskin and Morris.  He had a small library of books of which I made use.  He had visitors who cared about literature and politics … particularly labour politics.

I attended a bible class at the Sunday School.  It was one means of meeting Nellie but it had other attractions. Some of the young men were very wide-awake.  They read and talked of strange books.  They were interested in talking and a few of them talked well.  There was a mutual improvement class on Saturday evening where good speeches would sometimes be made.  I used to think Harry Harper, a brainy young man of feeble physique was an orator.  He was a very sensible, well educated chap and a good linguist.  Many of the youths wrote shorthand and so I learned it.  After a couple of months effort, well enough to report a speech.

I was so much attracted by some of Ruskin’s books, after Taylor left England, that I neglected everything else to read them and to read some of the less intelligible Carlyle. Ruskin’s ‘Unto this Last’ was a revelation.  It was a Library copy I read.  I dare not steal it and could not afford to buy it so I copied it out in my most careful hand-writing and bound it in cloth boards with leather back and corners.  Bookbinding was one of the things I learned by watching professionals bind accounts and then begging enough of their material to see me through a few trial.  My copy of Ruskin’s ‘Analytical Economics’ (‘Unto this Last’) and Todhunter’s Algebra are the two books I prize above all others.

images

This excursion into literature excited an appetite which will never be satisfied.  But I saw no living in it and I was really equally greedy to understand more of my daily work from whose interests I had temporarily separated myself.  There was some prospect of becoming an analyst which I could not afford to neglect. …. At night school in addition to mathematics and physics I had attended classes in German, Latin and literary subjects.  I had attended lectures on the English language and literature with a moulder who had a decidedly original mind.  This moulder took no man’s word for gospel and he had a disconcerting knack of asking awkward questions and putting an unconventional view.  He also was one of my teachers to whom no fees were paid to whom grateful thanks are due.

Quotations are from Harry Brearley’s autobiographical notes, Stainless Pioneer, published by British Steel Stainless in conjunction with The Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Sheffield 1989.