In October 2020, I gave a talk to the University Women’s Group about Sheffield readers and the novels of Charles Dickens. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my own relationship with Dickens. You can find the full talk, with slides, under our Research tab here.
Unlikely as it may seem, in the 1930s intellectuals and academics such as the influential Q D and F R Leavis often dismissed Charles Dickens as an author for the uneducated masses. That assessment was strengthened when popular newspapers, fighting a circulation war, offered their readers relatively inexpensive sets of Dickens in presentation bookcases, making his novels available to a vast number of people. My father, who lectured on English Literature, grew up in the 1930s, in a modest home with one of those – in his case, treasured – sets of Dickens.
In 1934 the Daily Herald got the ball rolling with the first subscription offer: eighteen volumes for eleven shillings, a saving of 69 shillings on the market price. Frank Burgin, who grew up in Mosborough in the Thirties, described the process.
A man came round to the house getting you to buy the Daily Herald. My father said, ‘We’ll never use that newspaper because we don’t agree with those politics’, but eventually, the man must have been good, because he signed up so I got the whole of Dickens’ works with that newspaper.
For all that he remembered acquiring the novels, Frank was no great fan. But many other Reading Sheffield interviewees loved Dickens. Dorothy, for example, who saw poverty as she grew up in working class Sheffield, responded powerfully to the story of Oliver Twist, ‘the way he was treated’. Betty Newman, who in general dismissed novels, thought Dickens ‘was the nearest I got to fiction’ and concluded, ‘I don’t think he really is fiction’. For Dorothy, Betty and others, Dickens dealt in harsh economic realities which they recognised. They learned history from him. ‘It gave you an insight into just how unfortunate some people were and how they lived,’ said Peter Mason.
For others, it was Dickens’ vivid characters, like Mr Micawber and Magwitch, that captured the imagination. The frequent dramatisations and readings on BBC radio programmes of the period reinforced this. In 1930, for example, Bransby Williams, ‘the Famous Portrayer of Dickens Characters’, led a musical extravaganza, ‘A Pickwick Party’, subtitled ‘A Dickens Dream Fantasy’ with a ‘Chorus of Dickens Dogs and Dainty Ducks’.
In time academics like the Leavises changed their minds about Dickens. He was deemed a worthy subject for study, much to my pleasure, as I was brought up surrounded by my father’s Daily Herald copies of the novels. For eighteen years Dickens was a constant physical companion and, in my teens, an imaginative one.
For my father and thousands like him Dickens made reading and rereading, affordable and pleasurable. And it was the pleasures he delivered that enabled many unschooled children to get the reading habit.
Poppy, who is 11 years old and lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger.Like many others these days, she’s thinking about her lockdown reading.
My book review is about the book A Pinch Of Magic, or as it says in full on the cover, Three Sisters, A Family Curse and A Pinch of Magic, written by Michelle Harrison.
This book is based around a
family who (years before) had been put under a curse. The curse meant that if
they left their town they would die by sunset. The main character (Betty) and
her sisters are determined to undo the curse.
Personally, I like the main
character Betty because she is adventurous, daring and mischievous!
Some parts of the book I find
very puzzling and scary! Puzzling because I didn’t know how it was possible
that they would break the curse, and scary because sunset was coming near which
would cause their death!
My favourite part of the book
was when Betty finally found her sisters, after they had been taken, by risking
her own life as well.
The reason I wanted to carry
on the book was because I had no idea how it was going to end. Also, this is a
book that is hard to stop reading.
A book I would recommend is Why The Whales Came by Michael Morpurgo. I would recommend this because it’s a short, interesting book set during the war.
I normally prefer to only read a book once but one I have read more than once is Katy by Jacqueline Wilson, because at points in the book it’s telling you the perspective of somebody in a wheelchair. It’s saying that when you’re in a wheelchair, everyone stares at you and treats you differently, which is something I find interesting.
Personally, a place I specially like to read is either in my bed. or in the garden on a nice sunny day! I read in my bed because I find it comfortable and gets me ready for a good night’s sleep. I like to read in the garden because it’s nice and relaxing with the sun shining above you.
Lily, who lives with her family in Sheffield, is our latest guest blogger.
During lockdown I have been enjoying the Harry Potter books very much. They are very intriguing and I can’t get to sleep until about 10pm because I can’t put them down. I am currently reading the sixth book and there have been lots of interesting things that have happened along the way. I like Ron because he is funny and gets in the way, not knowing what is going on around him. I don’t like Luna because she is very strange and doesn’t play a big part in the books.
I also like the Famous Five books written by Enid Blyton. They
are great tales of four children and a dog called Timmy and together they find
criminals and solve mysteries. My favourite character is Anne because she makes
me feel like myself. I don’t like Julian because he is too serious. I recommend
you read them, because something new happens every time. There are 21 books in
the series and all of them are amazing, I would really recommend them. They are
old books but still great reads.
Another author I like is David Walliams. He has a really
good collection of funny stories with incredible illustrations by Tony Ross.
Some of my favourites are The Ice Monster, Gangsta Granny and Grandpa’s Great
Escape, but all of them are really good. David Walliams is really good at
writing about how children and adults interact, and the characters are great.
Lots of his books have been turned into films.
One book I often go back to is The Truth Pixie by Matt Haig. It’s about a pixie who is cursed to tell the truth which stops her getting any friends. In the end she finds a little girl who loves her and wants to keep her for who she is. I like to read it when I am scared or upset as it is comforting and stops me having nightmares.
Sometimes I enjoy to read fact books. At the moment I have been reading the Great Women books by Kate Pankhurst. She is the great-grand-daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst who I also enjoy reading about – I have a book called Suffragette: The Battle for Equality, by David Roberts, that I really enjoy reading. I got Greta Thunberg’s book for Christmas and it is great. Inside are all her speeches which are worth a look at. Me and my family also love the See Inside series of fact books. They are lift-the-flap books with hidden facts and there are lots of different ones, we’ve got Castles, Space and General Knowledge.
In lockdown I’ve been reading in the garden because it has been warm and sunny. I also read in bed where it is cosy and warm. I am looking forward to the libraries reopening so I can get some new reads.
We usually record the reading journeys of Sheffielders born in the first half of the 20th century. But we enjoy hearing from anyone who loves books. Here is our latest guest blogger, Mabel, born in the 21st century, talking about what she reads.
At the moment I’m reading The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson. It’s about a girl who goes to boarding school because of the war and joins a folk dancing class which goes to a competition in the kingdom of Bergania. But when they get there the king is shot and the girl rescues the orphaned prince from going to Colditz.
My favourite character is Tally because she is funny, brave and exciting. The book is sad because it’s set in the war so people die but it has a happy ending. It’s also quite mysterious because you don’t know who is the mother of Julia, another student at Tally’s school. My favourite bit is when they go to the dragonfly pool – it sounds beautiful – I’d like to go there. I need to keep reading the book because the prince has been taken away and I need to see if he comes back.
I would recommend The Dragonfly Pool to people who like
adventure and suspense. Other books I would recommend are:
Inkheart by Cornelia Funke – for a person who likes books, magical creatures and adventure
The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson – for someone who likes mystery, horses and happy endings!
I love to read all my books again and again because they feel like old friends and they’re still exciting even though I know what’s going to happen. The place I most like to read is the top of the attic stairs because it’s light and I’m not disturbed, unless Mum comes up to tell me not to sit on the stairs!
Here is a reading journey from local artist Jean Compton, who is one of the Reading Sheffield team.
Jean was born in London in 1948. She spent her childhood in Suffolk, where her family moved when she was a year old. Jean went to West Suffolk County Grammar School for Girls, studying for O levels and A levels. Moving to Sheffield in 1971, she studied at Scawsby College of Education, Doncaster, for her Teaching Certificate in Education, and then at Sheffield University for a B Ed in art and education. After teaching both in schools and adult education for eight years, Jean left Sheffield for a community arts job in Telford. She worked in community arts and traveller education until retirement when she returned to Sheffield in 2016 and joined Reading Sheffield.
I can’t really remember what I read when I was learning to read, but I had a lovely little peep-show book of the story of Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves. There are no words and the illustrations are by Ionicus. I have the book today, more or less intact though a bit scrawled on.
I could read by the time I went to school. I was lucky that my parents were both readers and we had a house full of books. My father often made up stories, mainly tales of his childhood embroidered to add drama and excitement but basically true. Sometimes he took us to visit a friend of his, Edmund Cooper, a science fiction writer, who also made up stories for us. We crowded around him, asking for a story, in some shadowy corner of the room where he held us captivated and sometimes a little shivery from the eerie nature of the tale.
I read many folk-tales and fairy-tales including some with wonderful illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The Children’s Treasury of Great Stories, from Daily Express Publications, was given to me around 1958 when I was ten, and the previous owner had been given it in 1933. Another favourite was the Arabian Nights published in 1913 by A & C Black Ltd. It has the most beautiful illustrations by Charles Folkard, which I remember staring at over and over again.
As time went
on I read Enid Blyton, much to my father’s disgust, and all Arthur Ransome’s Swallows
and Amazons series. I loved these as a child, but when I read them later to my
own children and realised the incredible danger the children got into, I found
it hard to read them aloud for a choking lump in my throat. I read Louisa M
Alcott’s Little Women series, identifying strongly with Jo, and enjoyed C S
Lewis’ Narnia books.
My younger sister Lizzie and I went through a phase of reading the Bible aloud when we were in bed and supposed to be going to sleep. We weren’t doing it for religious reasons or to be sacrilegious: we were fascinated by the sound and read out random texts and lists of names and ‘who begat whom’. We took it in turns and generally ended up laughing hysterically.
We also began pretending that we were George and Neville, two Suffolk farmers. It began as a sort of impromptu storytelling, which we later wrote down as individual scenes, such as reports on a day on the farm. Our father later recorded us. We made a good attempt at imitating the local Suffolk accent, which we didn’t really acquire ourselves, as the children of parents who kept their Scottish accents until the end of their lives, in spite of living in Suffolk for over 60 years.
fascinated by Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. As an adult I came
across The Stone Room which, being quite claustrophobic, I found difficult. However,
I persisted and it was worth it.
I loved to
identify with the animals in Charles G D Roberts’
stories. I immersed myself in the wonderfully detailed descriptions of the
landscapes in which these animals survived. Kings In Exile was one of my
favourites, alongside Ernest Thompson
Seton’s stories of wild animals in their natural habitat.
When I was about 11, I was given The Romany Rye by George Borrow about his encounters with the Romany people. It was published in 1857 and, reading it in 1959, the language seemed to me old-fashioned yet the lively style and fascinating content held me spellbound. I was thoroughly intrigued and went on to work as a traveller liaison teacher with gypsy traveller families for some years.
We took four
comics at home, the Eagle, the Girl, the Swift and the Robin. We were three
girls and one boy so I guess it was one each but in practice we all read them
all. Later on we had Look and Learn and the
Elizabethan which I devoured, especially all the reproductions of famous
paintings in Look and Learn. I do remember wet afternoons at the seaside with
our friends, in a coastguard cottage they were renting for the summer. We would
dive on a big pile of Beanos and lie around blissfully reading like crazy while
the rain sheeted down.
My primary school was not well supplied with interesting books. A large box of books was delivered regularly, but I quickly grew out of most of them, as I was reading more advanced language at home. The archive section of the lending service also sent artefacts, which I loved especially when they were used for our art lessons. Once at the County Grammar School, a new world opened up, with a lot more choice in the school library. I was now based in the small market town of Bury St Edmunds, where I soon joined the public library and enjoyed the quiet atmosphere for studying, and the wider choice of books. I also came into contact with the mobile library which came once a fortnight to our village. They did not carry a huge stock, but for my grandfather who lived with us it was a lifeline. He went to choose his books initially, but then as he got older he would ask one of us to go for him. ‘But what do you like to read?’ I would ask. The answer was always ‘Oh just get me a good western!’
As life went
on, I usually had a book on the go. Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby made me
weep and John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga gave me an insight into the Victorian
and Edwardian upper middle-class.
I developed an
interest in poetry early on, fostered by my father who had quite a collection
of poetry and used to read Gerard Manley Hopkins to us, among others. I read
any poetry I could find and moved from Andrew Marvell to Brian Patten to e e
cummings to Lorca without any difficulty.
Succinct lines can offer such illumination. Now I am enjoying Alice
Oswald, Pablo Neruda, Eleanor Brown,
Shamshad Khan and Seni Seniveratne.
as a teacher, I read various writers of the deschooling movement. I
benefited from the ideas of Everett Reimer, Paul Goodman, Neil Postman, Charles
Weingartner and Ivan Illich. I also found great rapport with the ideas of A S
Neill, John Holt and especially Robert McKenzie in his A Question of Living. They
all believed that a teacher should keep the idea of a child as an equal human
being at the forefront of any teaching practice.
In between all
the poetry and education books I travelled with Tolkien on his great
allegorical journeys against evil. I read Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series,
which improved my sense of historical chronology enormously.
My eyes were
opened by reading Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and
Wept – so powerfully expressed and emotional.
I delved into the writings of John Berger, which resonated with my politics and interest in art. Although other writers have since explored these ideas further, I learned to look at photography anew and saw it could only tell one part of any story.
In my childhood, our front garden had large currant bushes down the centre and a mat of grass under them. In the summer my favourite reading place was a blanket under the bushes, with the dappled light filtering through a ceiling of green, quiet, private and alone. My mother left me alone and free from boring tasks. I am still grateful for that and remember once telling her that one of my children did nothing but read. Her words come back frequently. ‘Let her read while she can. It will be harder to find the time later.’
On 29 January 2020 Reading Sheffield invited our interviewees and their families, our interviewers, the readers from our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, and some old friends to a special reading by poet Eleanor Brown from her latest collection. Published in October 2019 by Bloodaxe Books, White Ink Stains is based in part on what our 60+ interviewees told us about their reading journeys.
About 25 of us met at The Art House, in the centre of the city, and over tea or coffee and scones, with jam and cream, we listened to Eleanor read a dozen or so poems and discuss how she writes. It was a particular pleasure to welcome our interviewees, Julia Banks, Shirley Ellins, Jim Green and Betty Newman.
Eleanor says that she has never looked at a transcript of our interviews. She has only listened, time and again over eighteen long months, to the voices, learning the rhythms, the sounds, the laughter and the sadness. And from this have come her poems. Here are some quotations:
Book-hungry teenage girl, great ravenous
word-eating eyes, amazing stamina
for nothing but to lie in bed and read
omnivorous of print, devouring gaze
insatiable for all the big fat works,
yes all of Dickens, Eliot and James,
now Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Zola, Proust.
From Helpless with Laughter:
Mother would read me The House at Pooh Corner
When I was only so high
She in her big chair and I in my little
Straight-backed Mother and I
Once I remember us helpless with laughter
Both of us laughing so much
Neither could speak, and I fell off my chair
From The Dressmaker:
They asked us what we liked to do
My mother spoke for me
‘She likes to sew’ – ‘Then she should go
In the shirt factory.’
And I were furious! For that
I could nor would not bear.
Oh, I came home and angry-cried
‘I will not go in there.’
From Snatches of Old Lauds:
I found my Sunday School hymn book –
the Bible in another form, we used to say;
the poetry helps you remember.
But damp in the attic had got it.
What hadn’t mouldered away up there
disintegrated softly in my hands.
It was a very enjoyable afternoon all round. ‘The poems were wonderful,’ said one guest, ‘ with a very rich vein of humour throughout, as well as the touching/poignant ones.’ ‘I have always enjoyed reading poems,’ said another, ‘but never been particularly attracted to readings. Eleanor’s readings have converted me.’
Sheffield Hallam University’s Humanities Research Centre was kind enough to sponsor the event, and we thank the Head of the Centre, Professor Chris Hopkins, for his continuing enthusiasm and support.
And thanks too to The Art House for their excellent refreshments and for being so friendly.
Copies of White Ink Stains can be bought locally from Rhyme and Reason and Waterstones. You can read more about Eleanor’s poetry here.
Margaret was born in 1934 and grew up in Handsworth, Sheffield. She worked for Sheffield Libraries and told us what it was like to be a library assistant in the middle of the 20th century, a great time in the history of the city’s library service. But here we look at Margaret’s earlier years, at how she became a reader.
By Mary Grover
Throughout the Second World War, Margaret would accompany
her mother each week on the two-mile journey from their home in Handsworth to
the Red Circle Library in Darnall. Her mother would negotiate the crowded
premises of this tuppenny library, seeking the latest Mary Burchell or Berta
Ruck perhaps. Margaret does not recall the authors of her mother’s romances but
can remember the covers, ‘like books you used to see in magazines … like
Women’s Weekly used to be and that sort of thing. Pretty covers, with
attractive girls on them’.
Though her choices did not tempt the little girl, her mother’s passion for reading was infectious. Her mother used to read to her but there was no municipal library nearby in Margaret’s childhood so her main source of supply was her parents.
I used to read everything I could get my hand on and I still do. … When I was a little girl I loved Little Grey Rabbit, Alison Uttley and Milly Molly Mandy, and one book that really stuck out in my mind and that was Family from One End Street, and that was by Eve Garnett. Have you heard of it?
Margaret still has copies of the books she was given as Christmas and birthday presents. She shares them with her grandchildren: Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia that she got when she was seven, and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, inscribed 1947. Margaret’s father was a newspaper reader himself, with no taste for books. ‘He never read a book to my knowledge,’ she says. A clerk in the English Steel Corporation, he could just afford to indulge the passion of his only child.
Then, when she was ten, Margaret was allowed to travel on
the bus to Sheffield Central Junior Library. She went on her own nearly every
Saturday and remembers her first choices:
One was a book about George Washington and another, there was a series of books about great composers, one book per composer you know. There were a lot of them. I had one of them every week till I had read them all.
Music was, and remains, important: her mother came from a
musical family, and Margaret herself played the piano. Over time Margaret, who
says she has a ‘wide range of range of reading habits and [has] always read
anything and everything’ explored the fiction and travel sections of the Junior
Library, but never history or detective novels.
Margaret gained a place at Woodhouse Grammar School in the late 1940s. She passed her School Certificate ‘with flying colours’ but did not stay on at school beyond the age of 16 even though her school encouraged her to try for university. ‘Sometimes I regret it, but not usually.’ She was conscious that it had been financially difficult for her parents to support her through grammar school and felt that, if she went to university, she ‘might be a burden to them’. So she followed her dream of becoming a librarian (‘I had always loved books’), gaining a place as a junior at Firth Park Library, in the north of Sheffield. At last she had around her as many books as she could imagine. There was no longer the need to hunt for books because she ‘read everything that was around’.
At Firth Park she came across an unofficial library service.
When I started, 16 [in 1950] one lady came in and she used to bring books for three families and I can remember the names and she came in with this huge bag with at least twelve books in it and she’d put it on the counter – I can remember the names!
There seemed an overwhelming appetite in those post-war days for books Margaret herself had little taste for. ‘People who came in to borrow seemed always [to ask] “Have you any cowboy books? Or any detectives?”’ Then one day Margaret took to her bed with tonsillitis and her neighbour Fred came with a care package of whodunnits to see her through her convalescence ‘and one of them was Georges Simenon and I enjoyed that so I read them all’.
Margaret worked in Sheffield’s library service at a time when it was internationally admired. The 1956 film, Books in Hand, celebrates it.
Here is another post, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children in The Netherlands in the 1960s.
For Sheffield’s 2019 Off the Shelf Festival, on 21 October, Eleanor and Imtiaz Dharkar are reading from their latest collections of poems, published by Bloodaxe Books. Eleanor’s poems, White Ink Stains, draw in part on the Reading Sheffield interviews. Click here for more information.
Here is the Dutch original:
Jantje zag eens pruimen hangen O! als eieren zo groot ‘t Scheen, dat Jantje wou gaan plukken Schoon zijn vader ‘t hem verbood Hier is, zei hij, noch mijn vader Noch de tuinman, die het ziet Aan een boom, zo vol geladen Mist men vijf, zes pruimen niet Maar ik wil gehoorzaam wezen En niet plukken; ik loop heen Zou ik om een hand vol pruimen Ongehoorzaam wezen? Neen!
Voort ging Jantje, maar zijn vader Die hem stil beluisterd had Kwam hem in het lopen tegen Vooraan op het middenpad Kom mijn Jantje, zei de vader Kom mijn kleine hartedief Nu zal ik u pruimen plukken Nu heeft vader Jantje lief Daarop ging Papa aan ‘t schudden Jantje raapte schielijk op Jantje kreeg zijn hoed vol pruimen En liep heen op een galop.
And here is Eleanor’s ‘mainly accurate translation’:
Johnny sees the ripe plums hanging Oh! As big as eggs they are. How he longs to grasp and pluck The fruit forbidden by Papa! “But,” he ponders, “neither Father Nor the gardener’s here to see: Who would miss just five or six From such a heavy-laden tree? Yet I want to be obedient… Mustn’t pick them…better go. Shall I, for a ripe sweet handful, Disobey my father? No!”
Off goes Johnny: but his father, Who has overheard it all, Catches up as he walks homeward, Stops him by the garden wall. “Come, my Johnny,” says the father, “Come, my darling little lad, Now shall you have plums aplenty, Now you’ve pleased your watchful Dad!” Father gives the tree a shaking. Followed, eavesdropped-on, policed, Johnny fills his hat with plums, And gallops off to have his feast.
Honesty or policy? Johnny’s under surveillance from a parent who rewards obedience with approval (and plums) – if he sees it for himself. That’s why Johnny does his moral cogitating aloud, in stage soliloquy. There’s no trust here.
Here are other Dutch nursery
rhymes and Eleanor’s versions in English.
Our guest blogger Julie was born on the Manor estate in Sheffield in 1950. She attended St Theresa’s Primary School. After graduating from Notre Dame High School, she left Sheffield for Newcastle-on-Tyne, to train as a teacher. She taught for two years in Liverpool before heading off on an adventurous journey to Sydney, Australia, where she still lives. She has spent her career in education – teaching, writing and lecturing. She was Head of Education at the Australian Museum and General Manager of the charity The Peer Support Foundation. She now writes fiction. Her novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and will be released by Pegasus later this year.
By Julie Howard
My earliest memory of Manor Library is the Peter Pan and Wendy mural, which was painted on one of the glass partitions. Dressed in pale greens and blue they flew through the air, their eyes wide with astonishment. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was 1955 and the library was only a couple of years old. It was glorious.
In the children’s library, boys and girls whispered
together as they searched the shelves. Occasionally a giggle would erupt only
to be quelled by a glower from the librarian. Once we had chosen our book, we
approached the counter. The librarian vigorously flicked through small brown
envelopes until she found our card. There was a nerve-wracking moment as she scrutinised
the chosen book before peering down into your face. Heaven help you, if you
chose something unsuitable. I remember a Just
William book being confiscated. With a burning face I went back to
choose ‘something more suitable’ from the shelves, which was difficult because
I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. I now think it was because I had chosen a ‘boy’s
I loved Manor Library from the first moment I stepped
in there. At first, I was heartbroken to find I couldn’t borrow a book until I
was six. It took me weeks of pleading before they let me join. It was years
later I found out that the kind-hearted librarian had changed my birthdate. Nat the Cat was my first book. I read
it in the morning and went back for more in the afternoon, only to be told that
I could only have one book a day!
Manor Library was a daily lifesaver for me. After tea,
mum would walk me up to ‘Reading Circle’. Children sat cross-legged on the
floor and the librarians’ stories took us away from our everyday lives to Narnia and other exotic places. From
that time on, mum often found me standing and staring hopefully at the back of
my wardrobe. The librarians always left us, jaws hanging, at the most crucial
part of the story. If we wanted to know the ending, we had to rise up to the
challenge of finishing the book.
At Christmas time the drama group would put on plays
and the whole family would attend. Of course, with my long blonde hair I was
always an angel, but one year, I was lucky enough to get a singing part… Oh joy!
It was a magical place to write. Storybook and pencil
in hand I would walk up Prince of Wales Road, to the library, which always seem
to be open. I’d sit at one of the tables and write my stories of fairies and
I now divide my time between Sydney and Sheffield (Manly to the Manor) Of course an annual pilgrimage to Manor Library to say thank you, is essential. I am still reading and writing voraciously. My novel Nowt But Drippin’ is set in Sheffield and draws on some of my childhood memories. I also work with refugees and others trying to get their stories into print. After all we all have a story to tell, don’t we?
Manor Library serves the Manor ward in souh-east Sheffield. The area was rural until the 1930s, when Sheffield Council started building a large estate to relieve inner city crowding. The branch library was almost ready in 1939, when war broke out, and it could not be completed and opened until 1953. The design of the building was innovative in its day, and we plan to tell the story of Manor Library in a future post.
Ruth, who was born in Sheffield on 13 February 1954, is one of our original team of interviewers. She has been a teacher almost her whole career and is now a personal tutor for English and French GCSE and A Level. She is the daughter of Mary and niece of Pat, whose memories you can read here.
Just like so many of
my generation, as children, I read and read and read. Frankly, there was little
else to do. If the sun was shining and there were friends around, then we would
all be outside, either playing on the street or in woodland. Games included
hopscotch, French skipping, ordinary skipping, playing ‘two ball’ (throwing
balls up against the wall) or riding our bikes.
But, when the rain
came, or friends were away, or for some reason we had to stay at home, reading
was always my first choice. I remember vividly hanging out of bed, reading by
the landing light. My brother was rather more sophisticated in that he had a
My parents were very different in their reading matter, but they both read. Dad was a newspaper man – cover to cover if he had the time between working at the railway for five and a half days a week and tackling all the DIY our house desperately needed.
Mum, on the other
hand, was a voracious reader of fiction. Attempting to gain her attention when
she was reading was quite a challenge. It would go something like this:
‘Mum. Mum. Mu-um.’
Louder now: ‘MU-UM!’
‘Yes love,’ she
replied, paying little attention.
‘Can I go to
‘Mum! Did you hear me?
‘What’s that love?’
What she did hear was my dad coming home. She’d slam the book shut, stand up straight and pick up a duster. Dad had more than a bit of a temper. I’d give up and pick up a book.
So which books was I
actually reading? I remember from a very young age reading Bible stories,
especially the Christmas story. I was about four years old, was with my dad and
was reading to him. I managed the word ‘suddenly’ which was the first word of
the sentence telling of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. My dad was
delighted. What influence his praise had on me to read further I cannot say,
though it must have had some. His praise was very rare.
Other books I remember reading from childhood were Puppy Stories for Children – a book I loved and still have. Every Christmas I was given by my aunt an annual called Princess – it’s worth noting that a princess was the last thing I aspired to be, but I did enjoy the annual. Somebody bought me The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies. I read that book from cover to cover about a hundred times. I could recognise and categorise every horse and the script that went with it.
I have always loved animals and have read an awful lot about them. I am still horrified by the way humans treat them: factory farms, caged hens, the cruel dairy industry. This love of animals has also informed much of my reading, and still does. The question I asked as a child, ‘What have animals ever done to us that we treat them so abhorrently?’ No answer as yet.
And then, in she came, the most popular children’s author of my generation and maybe all time: Enid Blyton. I read them all. Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Naughtiest Girl in the school and my all -time favourite, Malory Towers: every single one. All I wanted was to be in a boarding school with Darrell and her mates. Actually that’s not entirely true, as I was also reading Ruby Ferguson’s books about Jill and her love of horses. Jill’s Gymkhana was a firm favourite and there was its predecessor, A Pony for Jill. The nearest I got to my own pony was a stuffed sock with button eyes and a broom handle body. Despite its inanimate properties, I was still up at 6 am ‘to muck it out’ and feed it. Creeping down the stairs of our very small house, I’d hear my dad. ‘What the bloody hell is she doing going out to feed that stick horse? Can’t you stop her, Mary? She’s obsessed.’ In this instance, he was right.
I’m trying to recall where I got these books from. Several were bought for me by my parents. Astonishing really, as money was very tight. We were living in Darnall, but I have no memory of going to a local library. My dad believed absolutely in the power of education to transform lives. The books were regarded as an investment. A poor boy from Tinsley, a prisoner of war for three and a half years, he was determined that his children would have that which he had been denied.
To this end, we moved.
We arrived in Beauchief and my brother and I became pupils at Abbey Lane County
Primary school. The A stream had an excellent reputation for all its pupils
passing the 11+.
Now 11 years old and
the summer holidays stretching in front of me, I would go to the library almost
every other day. Woodseats Library was about half a mile away and I was a
devotee. We had to go over to my aunt’s in Tinsley during the holidays, as my
mum was working – she had to – but on arrival home there was just enough time
before the library closed, to succeed in a mad dash to the shelves.
Grammar school time arrived in the late sixties and reading was expected and enforced. Fine by me. Jane Eyre for breakfast, Persuasion for lunch and Tess of the d’Urbervilles for tea. Despite being made to walk across the desks as King Hamlet’s ghost, by my rather eccentric English teacher, I loved Shakespeare too. I would read anything and everything, and at A level developed a love for French Literature too. Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Zola’s L’Assomoir and Germinal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – superb.
University was where I
was able to study both French and English literature and was also where I
developed a lifelong interest in literature from further afield too,
particularly America, Russia and India.
Some friends of mine, six of us, about twenty-five years ago now, decided that we would form a book group and we are still going to this day. We take it in turns to choose the book which we discuss the following month. Several years back, it being my turn, I chose The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, in my opinion, a sublime writer. Sadly, this was not the opinion of the group, who really disliked what has come to be one of my very favourite books. It is so interesting to me how reading preferences vary. The fact that people with whom you have so much in common, educationally, socially and politically, can have such a wide variety of tastes in books, utterly astonishes me. But that’s how it is.
Right now, wherever I go, I have a book with me. Thrillers, serious tomes, studies of the English language itself; in short I have to have something to read. To have to wait in a queue, or wait for someone, or have my car break down or being unable to sleep – all of these irritations in life are soothed by the simple knowledge of having a book with me.