John D’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

John D was born in 1927 in Darnall and grew up on the north side of Sheffield. He served in the RAF in the Second World War and then trained and worked as a junior school teacher. 

John has never stopped learning and sharing what he has learned. Born in 1927, John had his education interrupted by military service in 1945 but he returned to Teacher Training College at the end of the forties and spent his teaching career in Woodhouse Junior School to the south of the industrial areas of east Sheffield where he grew up.

It was a struggle for his family to put him through the selective Firth Park Secondary School, later a Grammar School. The family, who had not got the tuppence needed to borrow John’s favourite adventure stories from Darnall Red Circle Library, had to find a pound or two for his grammar school text books: a week’s wages for a steel worker such as his grandfather. The seven pence a day for a school dinner also proved difficult to find. His uncles helped fund his delight in the cinema. There were four in Attercliffe. If one of his uncles was courting they would buy him a halfpenny seat. Where the happy couple went, he followed.

The Palace, Attercliffe (Courtesy Picture Sheffield)

John’s main source of entertainment was the municipal library. He found his way to Attercliffe Library on his own. He walked the several miles there and back weekly despite the bitter disappointment of his first expedition. Joining was no problem, nor was choosing a book. He chose the fattest he could find, a Doctor Dolittle book. It looked long but the print was big and every other page an illustration.

I’d read it in an hour of course so I took it back to the library and they told me, ‘Go home, you can’t have any more books, you can only have one borrowing a day, you can’t go back’. I think at that time I only had one ticket anyway so it meant that although I’d walked several miles to the library, there and back, it meant that I was frustrated because I couldn’t borrow a book that I wanted.

Attercliffe Library (Courtesy Picture Sheffield)

He plodded on, walking several miles a week for every book borrowed, Doctor Dolittle and another favourite, Just William.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

He grew to enjoy detective stories. Edgar Wallace too became a great favourite. His desert island book would be a collection of Wallace’s River stories.

Now they were a cut apart. Edgar Wallace was such a … he had to write fast because he incurred such debts in America, gambling. He needed a book a week to keep him afloat financially. I think he did it in a Dictaphone and then had it typed up. That would be the norm those days I suppose. I can remember in several stories he started off with the hero’s name as being Jones and by the end it had become Smith because he’d gone so fast he remembered it was a common name. So his crime books Four Just Men and things like that were flimflam but his River books, those were different because he’d been a reporter on one of the big London … and he’d been sent to Africa I think, Boer War and such like. From memory, I may be not remembering right, I think he’d gone into Africa, the Congo and that, perhaps as part of the British Colonial process and as a reporter writing, I’m not sure if it was The Times, it was one of the big heavies, the daily heavies in London. So his stories were authentic if you know what I mean. They were stories and they were fiction but the backgrounds and the people were authentic and I enjoyed that.

To supplement his supply John would go down to the centre of town to Boots. If he had had the money he would like to have used the library on the top floor of the store, an elegant environment and a hefty subscription, but he had another option.

Now Boots Bargain Basement was famous because all stuff that had been damaged on the way here, boxes damaged rather than the goods themselves, was downstairs, and similarly with books. When books became well, either unfashionable or even perhaps unreadable or perhaps not in a fit state to loan out, they went down to Bargain Basement and you could pick those up for a penny a time.

A particular treasure was an old Atlas of the World but this, like so many of the books he managed to acquire in the thirties was lost in the Sheffield Blitz of December 1940.Though the Luftwaffe did not manage to destroy Sheffield’s steelworks, they demolished many of the terraces that housed their workers, including the house belonging to John’s grandfather and Attercliffe Council School from where John had sat the scholarship examination in 1938.

That was bombed, it was set on fire on the same raid … in actual fact the wall at the end of our yard was the school yard. We were next to the school so we were both bombed out together, the school and I.

When John left his secondary school do to his military service, his reading stopped. He can remember no opportunities for reading but on one of his jobs he did strike lucky.

(reproduced under fair use)

I do remember we went to this American station to close it down and the things I went for were the records. The Americans at that time had a scheme called V Discs. You’ve never heard of V Discs? All artists like, well Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, all that sort of artist, they went into recording studios and recorded special V Discs for the forces which were then distributed to all the American stations. I think somewhere still in my loft I’ve still got some of these V Discs left and they were not the versions that were on sale to the public, they were especially recorded.

John still smiles at the pleasure that booty gave him. Reflecting on the nature of his reading and musical tastes, John declares himself firmly as lowbrow.

JD: I am very lowbrow.
MG: You feel you are lowbrow?
JD: Oh yes.
MG: Do you really?
JD: Very much.
MG: What makes you say that?
JD: Well, because I like lowbrow things! My record collection was dance bands of the 30s and 40s and big bands. So in Britain you’d have Roy Fox, Ambrose, Lew Stone, Roy Fox, no I’ve said that haven’t I? Oh and that sort of thing.
MG: Great. So would the word highbrow for you be a word of criticism or just not your thing?
JD: My motto has always been ‘live and let live’. Let ‘em live with it if they want it, that’s them.

Running Up Eyre Street: Sheffield Reading and the Second World War

On 21 September 2018, Reading Sheffield’s chair, Mary Grover, gave a paper by her and Val Hewson at The Leeds Library’s conference to celebrate its 250th anniversary. Here is a summary of the paper, which you can read in full on our Research page.

 

The war impinged on the reading experiences of our interviewees in ways that often seem contradictory.

Access to books generally was limited by paper shortages, the lack of funds to buy new books, petrol rationing and the scarcity of new titles. In Sheffield too, children faced an extra barrier when, as a safety measure, the Council closed their libraries and moved the junior stock to suburban centres. Those away from home on active service were often forced to rely on the limited choice available through the NAAFI, described by our interviewee Peter as ‘all sorts of, what shall we say, blue books and very blue books’.

But in many ways the war enabled access to books previously unexplored and above all, sharpened intellectual curiosity as readers sought to understand the world that was breaking in upon them.

Take the case of Mary, aged 18 when the war started. Her record of all the books she read between 1936 and 1942 allows us to map both the transition from teenage to adult reading but also from reading for pleasure to a wider reading, often shaped by war. In 1936 and 1937, Mary indulged in P. G. Wodehouse, Beverley Nichols, Ian Hay and Edgar Wallace. By 1939, like many others, she is clearly reading to inform herself about the world beyond Sheffield and the war. Non-fiction like Deslisle Burns’ Democracy, its defects and advantages (1929) dominates her list.

For Mary and indeed most of our readers the quality and availability of public libraries were critical to their access to books. It was their good fortune that Sheffield Libraries were then in the guardianship of a remarkably gifted librarian. In wartime Joseph Lamb oversaw the opening of one branch library and 12 suburban ‘library centres’, and was able to acquire publishers’ stocks at nominal prices. His libraries supported not only the serious interest of borrowers like Mary in the war and the world beyond, but also the general need of Sheffield’s residents for distraction and entertainment in the home, with novels like Gone with the Wind and special guides on handicrafts and games. By the end of the war borrowing had risen to unprecedented heights.

The war seems to have isolated our readers but simultaneously to have increased their passion for books and the value they set upon their reading. As our reader Judith said:

I remember running up Eyre Street with Sheila Thompson so she could join the library. They gave you a little round ticket which you kept and slotted the book’s name … and my mother played pop with me because she didn’t know where we were.

Wartime: Barrage Balloons and the Library

Books for Balloon Barrage Men (Telegraph and Independent, Thursday 14 September 1939)

Sir. – At various points in and around the city the men who man the balloon barrage are working in small groups.  Their hours of duty are long, and their means of recreation limited.  The YMCA are providing games and other amenities, and I have been asked to help to arrange a supply of suitable books for them.

There must be many readers in Sheffield who would be willing to give books from their private libraries, and I should be very glad to receive them at the Central Library, the Libraries Committee having kindly given permission for books to be received, selected and issued there.  Light reading is most likely to be welcomed, and there should be a ready use for fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types.

May I appeal to all who have suitable books to spare to send them to the Central Library for this purpose?

Yours etc

J P LAMB

City Librarian

This letter from City Librarian Joseph Lamb, dated just a few days after the start of World War II and repeated in the Star, was probably the first of Sheffield’s wartime book drives.  That such an appeal should be issued so soon after the declaration of war suggests preparedness and foresight.

256px-barrage_balloons_over_london_during_world_war_ii

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Air-raid defences, including barrage balloons, were being put in place around the UK during the late 1930s.  Sheffield had around 70 of the huge balloons.  They aimed to interfere with an aeroplane’s flight path and efforts to drop bombs.  They might even bring it down by catching it in the cables which secured them to winches on lorries.  The balloons were managed by crews who, day and night, manoeuvred them into place and raised and lowered them to protect suspected targets.  Wind and rain made the job more difficult.  The crews were often housed in schools and other public buildings, and their lives must have been a mixture of hard work, boredom and tension.

Hence the need for books and games for relaxation and diversion.  J P Lamb asked for ‘light reading … fiction, plays, travel, belles-lettres and similar types’.  This was a change from the usual calls of librarians of the period for their borrowers to read serious books.  (In fact, Joseph Lamb did not scorn light reading, stocking popular books ‘in the belief that having attracted novel readers … [libraries] are given the opportunity of leading them to better reading, or at least to informative books’.  He was criticised for this by other librarians.  Furthermore, in the lead-up to war, books which explained the international situation had been in demand from the library.)

Unfortunately, there are no records of how people responded to the appeal.  How many books were donated?  What were they?  The success of two book drives in 1943 and 1944, when over a million books were collected, suggests that this early appeal was probably successful.  And we do know that when crews moved on, they often left behind games and books for their successors; and that by October 1939 there was a library service for troops stationed in Sheffield.

In September 1939, the war was for newspapers the only story in town, and they were unsurprisingly patriotic and positive.  J P Lamb’s letter shared space with:

  • ‘Why Germany Has Invaded Poland’, a long article by Count Sforza, former Italian Foreign Minister
  • a leader, ‘Nazis’ Rage’, doubting the German war effort and mentioning the plight of Jews ‘treated … with such devilish inhumanity’
  • reviews of a book about British naval history and essays by historian Lewis Namier who was a Polish Jew by birth
  • discussion of blackout regulations and lighting restrictions as the long nights drew in.

But it was not all serious.  There was a column by the Rambling Naturalist and, by popular demand, a crossword (puzzles had been dropped to make way for war news).

Sheffield’s other main paper, the Star, was much the same: a leader entitled ‘Hitler’s War on Women’, an article by Beverley Baxter MP asking ‘Have German Plans Miscarried?’; and – lighter in tone – a snippet that research by Sheffield metallurgist Robert Hadfield had helped produce the newly essential tin hat.

Lamb’s letter was also an early indicator of his library’s important role in the wartime life of the city, for example, in public information and assistance services.  But this story is for another post.

Here are the pages from the Telegraph and Star.

14091939-barrage-balloons-daily-tel

14091939-barrage-balloons-star

 

Jean A’s reading journey

Sometimes we meet a Sheffield reader who has pin-bright memories of particular books, events, people.  Jean A, who was born in 1930, is one of those readers.  As she talks, we see the individual pictures painted with her words.

When she was very small, in the early 1930s, and lived in rural Lincolnshire, Jean went to a ‘dame school’, run by the wonderfully-named Mrs Storm:

My mother got tired of me sort of fidgeting about so she popped me in a pram and took me round to a kind of dame school.  Sat round the table, there were about eight of us, writing, spelling, dancing, arithmetic.

On family visits to Sheffield:

… this was my father’s home town.  Used to come up to Sheffield to see his father and all my aunts, and they read to me.  They were maiden aunts so they had the time to read to me.

Later, when the family moved to Sheffield, Jean’s schooling at Greystones Infants was disrupted by World War II:

… the roof was damaged so we had to have one or two lessons in the secondary modern school next door for a short time, then we did home service when we used to congregate in other people’s houses.  We had some children living in our attic, only a few of them … a family, if they could, they used to provide a room so we didn’t lose out on our teaching.  So my mum offered our attic.  It was a nice room up there, plenty of light. I think we had about four or five. … There would be different children in each house. … I could stay at home but we also had to go to the fishmonger’s up the road; he had a room to spare and I think Peak’s the Butcher’s had. So we didn’t just stay in my house.

There were Arthur Mee’s Children’s Newspaper and magazines every week:

Every Saturday we used to go to Greystones Rd. On [the] right hand side as you go up there are these fairly new houses. Well before they were built there was a little row of cottages. In one of them Mrs Dabbs, she used to sell papers and comics from a little house. I can remember getting Chick’s Own. Rainbow as well. She was a huge lady. She would sit on the table and it was covered with papers and comics and things. You had to pay for them of course. Oh Mrs Dabbs!

As Jean was growing up, she recalls doing ‘more reading because, the dark nights, you couldn’t go out to play.  And no box.  We listened a lot to the radio. It was a family thing.’  A case in point was The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, read when she was about 15:

We went to the Children’s Library in the Central. I can remember going there … It was fine, lovely.  I was a great reader.  I can remember reading The Forsyte Saga when I was about 15, late at night.  I was engrossed in it. … Oh I did [enjoy it].  I didn’t enjoy the latter end of it, the 1920s.  I didn’t think it had the same gusto as the Victorian part.

 

When she left school, Jean wanted to do social work.  She worked for a year for Sheffield Council Social Service, visiting families all over the city.  Then she did a two-year social sciences course at the University of Sheffield.  After qualifying, she worked with older people.  In March 1953, Jean joined the Wrens, where she trained as a driver and ‘enjoyed the freedom’.  Later, she married, had two children and returned to Sheffield.

ansdell-portrait-

You can read and listen to Jean’s full interview here.

Ted L’s Reading Journey

Ted L, born in 1919, was one of our oldest interviewees.  He lived in the Norfolk Park area of Sheffield most of his life, apart from his war service as a fitter and machinist in the Ordnance Corps.  He took part in the retreat from Dunkirk (he and three others were stranded for six days, with only a pot of marmalade and some cubed beetroot to eat) and then was stationed in East Africa for two and a half years.  In peacetime, he worked in engineering, and the ‘only one romance [he] was ever interested in’ was with his wife, Nellie, whom he met at work and married in 1948.

All sorts of pictures in there, not just ordinary paintings, some of them extraordinary … We went to look at Leonardo … it was only dull light and there was two whacking great pictures, best paintings I have ever seen.

This was Ted, talking about a visit to the National Gallery.  For him, books meant art rather than anything else.  His flat was full of books, and they were mostly about art, noted the interviewer, although he also enjoyed history, architecture and music.  His neighbour Gillian, who sat in on the interview, described how Ted ‘devour[ed]’ all the book she lent him, and Ted himself said:

Oh yes, I used to go to the library and get books out, not reading books, technical books.  I don’t read fiction books.  Never have done … I have always been interested in a subject … I can learn something.

There were books in his childhood, with Ted’s mother going to the library every week to borrow, among other, P G Wodehouse, and his father (‘He wasn’t educated.  He was a working class man, he was a plumber’) enjoying detective stories.  And Ted himself did read fiction as a boy – ‘ripping yarns’ from authors like John Buchan and Rider Haggard, who were so popular in his youth.  He remembers studying Buchan’s Prester John at Duchess Road School and also reading Blanket of the Dark, She, The Thirty-Nine Steps and King Solomon’s Mines:

… that’s a brilliant thing, that. They made a film of it. I read a lot of them … I don’t think I would ever have imagined I would have been in Africa when I read a Rider Haggard book.

At school, Ted was a clever boy, particularly interested in history and once coming ‘top in English’:

Always in the top of form.  I wasn’t an idiot like some of them. … We had a good teacher called Mr Cross.  He was a Londoner with a broad accent.  I didn’t know what a Londoner was in those days.  He had posters all over the place, Cunard Liners stuck round [and brought in books].  He was the best teacher we ever had, Mr Cross.  He didn’t spare you, I liked him for all that.

As with many boys of his background, Ted’s formal education ended at the age of 14 when he became an engineering apprentice.  But by then it had opened that important door to art, as for two days a week he used to go to the art school in the centre of the city.

This art school was close to the site of the new Central Library and Graves Art Gallery which opened in 1934.  Ted had a ringside seat at the building:

Thursday and Friday I used to go to an art school.  And when we used to go out in the afternoon we used to watch them building the new library. … Then when I was at the art school and we used to watch the cranes, the big stones. Very interesting that was.  I was with that library right from the beginning.

 

Ted, who liked architecture as well as art, was interested in the new library, which he describes as a ‘fine building’.

Well, I think, [the old library] was an old music hall and there was a little chapel next to it … and then the other side was the art school. … The old one was cramped. There were smaller rooms and these lines of shelves up all close together. Quite a lot of people all mugged up sort of thing. When this new one opened everything was beautiful and spacious, art gallery upstairs, and I think they’ve got a theatre underneath though I’ve never been in it.

Now, when he went to the public library, ‘I didn’t get reading [fiction] books. I used to get out books about art. ‘ He also enjoyed visiting the Graves:

I like the art gallery. I have been up there for all sorts of things. In fact there was a programme the other day about Lowry, the painter. Well he came there once, after it was built.  I went one day and up in one of the galleries, there were lots of rows of little seats. There was a restaurant there and it was right next to that. … and I said to this girl, ‘What’s all this for?‘ She said, ‘It’s Mr Lowry coming to give a lecture for the children’. ‘Well I never stopped for that ‘cos I never knew when it was going to be, next morning I think. But that gallery next to it was full of his pictures. That was when I first got to know about Lowry, you know. I admired his work. There were these funny little characters in it. I think they’re fantastic. I’ve got one up there now.  That’s Lowry up there [on the wall of his flat].

You can read and listen to Ted’s interview in full here.

Crisis reading: Sheffield Libraries in 1938-39

In 1938-39, the book most requested in Sheffield Libraries was Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Seventy-five years on, this comes as a surprise.  But in the context of the time and the role of a public library it makes sense: people turned to their local library to learn about, to understand, the awful international situation.

Mein Kampf

Mein Kampf (public domain)

Events in 1938 and 1939

In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria.  Then, prompted by Hitler, the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia began agitating for self-government and in September, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, a third of Czech territory.  On 30 September the Treaty of Munich was signed by Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain, forcing Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory to Germany.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was hailed as peacemaker by many on his return from Germany, appearing with the King and Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony.  But he was condemned by others as an appeaser – the reputation he still has.  On 1 October Germany annexed the Sudetenland.  Next, on 9 November, came the violence of Kristallnacht, with hundreds of Jews killed, thousands more imprisoned and their property damaged or destroyed.  Soon Jews in the Third Reich were forced to wear the Star of David and their civil rights were removed.

During 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and made territorial demands on Lithuania and Poland.  Hitler’s attacks on the Jews continued.  On 31 March, Britain and France, which had abandoned Czechoslovakia the year before, agreed to defend Poland in the case of invasion.  In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

Books in Demand

Sheffield Libraries’ 82nd annual report, for 1938-39, discussed people’s response to the international situation.

  • Mein Kampf ‘topped the list of reserves in every library’. Next came Guns or Butter (1938) by  diplomat and journalist Robert Bruce Lockhart, which had as a subtitle ‘War Countries and Peace Countries of Europe Revisited’; and Insanity Fair (1938) by Douglas Reed, who was anti-Semitic but said to be wary of Hitler.  Also in demand were: Inside Europe (1936) by John Gunther, Kurt Ludecke’s I Knew Hitler (1937) and Madeleine Kent’s I Married a German.  Gunther was a US foreign correspondent based in Europe and Ludecke, a Nazi supporter who had fallen out with Hitler.  I cannot discover much about Madeleine Kent, but the title of her book sounds rather sensationalist.
  • Sheffield Libraries routinely recorded non-fiction borrowed by category. The annual report speculated that the sharp increases in the categories of politics, travel and history* were due to the international situation.  Almost 10,000 more books were read on politics, from 47,614 in 1937-38 to 57,094 in 1938-39 – an increase of nearly 20 per cent; and travel and history were each up by about 4,000.  The total issue that year was, by the way, 2.7 million and it was estimated that 18 per cent of the Sheffield population had library tickets.

Apparently it did not prove easy to meet readers’ demands:

The demand for ‘crisis’ books has, in fact, been rather embarrassing. The pace of events makes such books quickly out of date, and the sum available for new books does not allow of their being bought in the quantity necessary to satisfy more than a fraction of the demand for them during their life of immediate appeal.  Moreover, it is a library’s function to select those of merit, and it is not easy to separate these quickly from the hurried ‘pot-boilers’ which have appeared on the market.

There was a particular problem with Mein Kampf, and the resolution shows how responsibly  Sheffield Libraries took the business of meeting readers’ needs.  The German edition was available in the Central Library but there was at first no full English translation.  There was an abridged version and ‘an attempt was made to supplement [this with pamphlets from the Friends of Europe] summarising and commenting on the main points of the full German edition’.  A note was inserted in this short version explaining that it did ‘not give an adequate representation of Hitler’s views … It is, however, useful as a guide to some of his ideas’.  The Sheffield annual report, probably written by the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, comments drily:

The shorter English edition is still on service, as readers may prefer to read this, in conjunction with the pamphlets, rather than attempt the 560 pages of the full translation, which is a formidable task to a reader with a clear mind – not merely because of its length.

We do not know how great the demand for ‘crisis books’ was, although it must have been significant to be noted for the annual report.  Other than the borrowing figures by non-fiction category, there is no indication of how many people reserved these books and we know nothing about who they were.  It is interesting that the annual report goes on to note:

But the third place in lending library records of reserves was held by Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue, which last year topped the list.  Next were Evens’s Out with Romany Again, Mackenzie’s Windsor Tapestry, Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Haldane’s A.R.P.

Out with Romany Again

The Stamp Catalogue was probably a standard in lists of reserves.  Windsor Tapestry (1938) was a study of the new Duke of Windsor by novelist Compton Mackenzie.  In 1938, Edward VIII must still have been of great interest, as perhaps was T E Lawrence, who had been killed in 1935.  Out with Romany Again (1938) was the latest book from GB Evens, aka Romany, a popular broadcaster on the countryside.  Haldane’s ARP [Air Raid Precautions] was an analysis of stress based on his experience of air raids during the Spanish Civil War, and interest in it might perhaps be linked to the developing crisis.

Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind (public domain)

Fiction was, of course, also in demand.  Most of the books popular in 1938-39 are solidly middlebrow and they and/or their authors are almost all remembered by our Reading Sheffield interviewees. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) was still the book to be seen with, not least with all the excitement about the casting of Scarlett O’Hara for the December 1939 movie.  Also sought after were: A J Cronin’s The Citadel; Winifred Holtby’s South Riding; Francis Brett Young’s Dr Bradley Remembers; Kenneth Roberts’s North-West Passage; Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; Leonora Thornber’s Portrait in Steel; Howard Spring’s O, Absolom!; Philip Gibbs’s This Nettle, Danger; Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth; and Cronin’s The Stars Look Down.

The interest in Les Misérables, the annual report speculates, was because of the BBC’s 1939 serialization, while Portrait in Steel was ‘undoubtedly due to the book’s local associations … referred to in the local press’.  It was set in Stelborough, a thinly disguised Sheffield.  South Riding had local associations too.  Sheffield Libraries might also have noted that: films of The Citadel and South Riding were released in 1938 and The Good Earth in 1937#; and that Pearl S Buck won the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The resulting publicity no doubt influenced these choices too.

Sir Philip Gibbs’ book, This Nettle, Danger, takes us back to international problems.  Perhaps the City Librarian had not read it or he might have included it in his crisis list too, as it is a fictionalized account of Munich.  The title, from Henry V, was famously quoted by Chamberlain on return from Germany.  Gibbs apparently felt that Chamberlain had been right in 1938, but also that the Munich settlement was probably only temporary.

Today’s crises

Do we turn to libraries today, to understand international crises?  Are people asking for books now about Syria and ISIS?  Library memberships are falling, while books are cheaper and more available (including online) than in the ‘30s.  And we have: rolling news, with instant updates and expert analysis; politicians who are (generally) gifted communicators never far from a microphone; and social media and even citizen journalism.  So the answer is: perhaps yes, we still look to libraries – but not to anything like the same extent as in 1938.

* In full, these categories were: politics, economics and social science; travel and description; and history.

# North West Passage, Rebecca and The Stars Look Down were all filmed in 1940.

Margaret’s Reading Journey

Margaret was born in Sheffield in 1936 and grew up during the Second World War and the late 1940s.  She became a librarian in the town, married John and had three children.

Meg-Young-1955--ok

The men in Margaret’s early life were both readers. During the Second World War, with her father in Egypt, Margaret and her mother moved in with her father’s parents in Walkley, a hillside of terraced houses that largely escaped the bombing of Sheffield city centre below.

When we lived with grandma and granddad, it was mainly granddad who encouraged me to read. He was an avid reader and anything that was printed, he always asked me to [read] even before I started school. Grandma also read books and granny had a collection of bound – you know, the classics …Dickens and so on. And he took the Daily Express and I was encouraged to read all the headlines to do with the war, you know, the advance of the Eighth Army and so on. Yes, at a young age I knew more names of towns in Egypt than in this country!

Margaret’s grandfather had had a variety of occupations.

He joined the army at a young age and he was a professional soldier. I think he was really self-educated all round. He was a professional musician; he played in the army band. And he was also a [fitness] instructor in the army. But he was always reading, and he had loads of books. The Conan Doyle books I went through, again, by the age of nine I’d read Sherlock Holmes and so on. And he had a couple of encyclopaedias, which absolutely I loved, and I still love to this day encyclopaedias and the knowledge you can get from them.

The desire to understand the unknown world of her absent father had a strong influence on the little girl.

I remember in the encyclopaedias there was a section on Arabic, writing the alphabet and so on, which I thought might come in useful with my father being out in Egypt and the Middle East. Of course, I didn’t see him from the age of four until he came back in 1946. And I can remember trying to teach myself to write Arabic. I guess I would have only about eight or nine, I think.

The encyclopaedias and the Conan Doyles were perhaps all the more important because during the war only one new book came into the house. But before and after the war Margaret got books as Sunday School prizes, for birthdays and at Christmas: for example, Milly, Molly, Mandy and Richmal Compton’s Just William – ‘I could laugh out loud with those’. A special visit would be from Margaret’s father’s sister to Walkley from Sheffield.  ‘She was a maiden aunt and she encouraged reading.’

20150718_151958

Margaret probably ran through Enid Blyton from Walkley Library, the only municipal library in Sheffield endowed by the Carnegie Foundation (Tinsley Library was also a Carnegie library, but was opened before Tinsley became part of Sheffield).

And we were allowed a comic each, my brother – I had a younger brother – and I. My brother had either the Beano or the Dandy and I had either Film Fun or Radio Fun. And when we finished with comics we used to swap them with friends and get something different.

When her father came home from Egypt, the family were rehoused in a house of their own but the library provision was a bit of a comedown.

When we moved onto the new estate at Parson Cross [a new Sheffield housing estate], there was nothing except houses. We had no shops, no schools. And eventually, when the school was built, we had – they opened a couple of evenings a week, I think – a couple of cupboards in the school room. And as far as I can remember, there were only adult books there.

However those adult books included copies of her father’s favourite, Zane Grey. Together she and her father devoured these tales of derring-do in the Wild West and Margaret went through ‘every possible Zane Grey book printed, at the age of eleven’.

When Margaret got a place at Ecclesfield Grammar School, she looked forward to new authors to explore but the school library always seemed to be locked.

There was a library, but for some reason we were never allowed in it! Only for occasional English lessons. So I still had to rely on the locked-up cupboards and the Zane Greys.

At school Margaret did come across Winifred Holtby and J B Priestley who both reflected a Yorkshire she recognised.

I think the two of them were sort of life as I knew it in Yorkshire at that time. A gritty existence, I think, true to life, realists.

Margaret became a librarian, one of the first at the state-of-the-art library opened in 1953 on the edge of another one of Sheffield’s enormous new council estates, the Manor. She had found her vocation.

I think in the branch library it was more of a family. … We were very, very efficient, we were well-taught and we were all very proud of what we did.

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Librarianship, like her own personal reading, was all about discovery and opening doors to new worlds for other people to enter.

I think during the ‘50s I read things I would not read again. It’s like the Jacques Cousteau underwater books – I can’t even swim. But of course, in those days it was like going into space, it was something – the world under the sea was something all new and those fascinated me. I’ve never read romance books and historical novels and I still don’t read them, I’ve no interest in them.

When she and husband John had their family, they passed on their version of space travel. When their two sons were small, they bought them a secondhand set of Encyclopaedia Britannicas.

And we had to pay on a weekly subscription for these, we couldn’t afford to pay them outright. And my son, who’s now aged fifty, our second son, still has these Britannicas, [in a] proud place in his home, in his own library at home.

When I asked Margaret whether she ever tried to set limits on her sons’ reading, to steer them away from certain books, she quickly replied that nothing was off-limits.

No, because I believe you should make your own opinions on things and if you haven’t got the knowledge, how can you form an opinion on something?

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Margaret’s transcript and audio here