The Reading Journey of Carolyn W

By Mary Grover

Carolyn was born in Sheffield in 1944. Twenty years later, while working as an analytic chemist, she married Bob whose reading journey is here.  

Unlike Bob, who found his own way to books and reading, Carolyn’s reading was always nurtured by her parents. Though she cannot remember being read to, she thinks she must have been because ‘of the books I remember, sort of nursery rhyme books and there were things like that’.

Hey diddle diddle

Throughout her childhood she was bought comics and annuals: School Friend and Girls’ Crystal. She particularly remembers a compendium:

a big one like the annuals but it was all old stories, not sort of the comic strip things and the quizzy things like they are now anyways.

This sounds like one of the Wonder books described by some of our other readers.

Walkley Library

She was soon enrolled by her mother at Walkley Library. Along with Hillsborough down the hill, this was one of the first two branch libraries with a separate and sizeable children’s section. While Carolyn was feeding her appetite for Enid Blytons at Walkley, Bob was finding his supply at Hillsborough. The first books that Carolyn can remember reading ‘all by myself’ were these Enid Blytons.

In the 1950s Carolyn and the family went on book-buying expeditions together.

The bookshop in town, Andrews, . . .we used to go there on a regular basis, all three of us. Mum, Dad and I. And they always used to . . . anything that you sort of, you know, that you wanted, we went there and got it. And that was the other thing. My dad was always into sort of encyclopaedias and things like that.

A few years younger than her husband, Carolyn largely escaped war and post-war austerity. Her father was a railway engineer, and as she grew up, an only child, there were more resources of all kinds available to her family. The support of both parents for their daughter’s school work was practical and constant.

If I needed a book for school at home, you know, because there would be some books where there weren’t enough for everybody to have one.  So that I could have it, they’d always buy me one so I could have it at home.

Her family must have been the only family in Sheffield to have bought a television to help their daughter prepare for an exam on The History of Mr Polly – set for O level in about 1960. (The BBC Genome project shows that it was broadcast in six episodes in autumn 1959.)

That was on the telly and we hadn’t got a telly.  . . . We found out it was on the telly. Anyway, Dad organised something with his well-off friend.  He got a new telly and we got their old telly.

She remembers the grandeur of the set itself.

You had to have the curtains closed. And it was one of these tellies with doors. It was this tiny little screen and it was a huge thing. And it had doors and this tiny little screen. And we managed to watch Mr Polly on it.  Yeah, but dad was tickled that he had managed to get this telly so that we could watch Mr Polly.

But it was her mother who was the strongest influence on what she read. When she was a teenager she shared many of her mother’s favourite authors: Dick Francis, Nevil Shute and Agatha Christie, a taste she shared with Bob.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Nevil Shute

Like Bob’s mother, Carolyn’s took the Women’s Weekly in preference to any other women’s magazine:

they were never quite as, I don’t know, Mills and Boony as other magazines, the serials in that. I did read those as well’.

When Carolyn got a place at grammar school, right over the other side of town and a tram journey of four to five miles, she was taught in her first two years by an inspirational English teacher.

And she was great, she was. And I think maybe then that’s when I started reading, as I say, more school sort of books.  I did end up going through all the ones girls were used to read in those days.  Like Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, all that sort of stuff.

When Carolyn was asked if she looked out for a difference between ‘popular’ and ‘quality’ writing she wasn’t sure that she did.

Well, I don’t know.  I suppose . . .  I read them and I had no idea of the quality of the writing that was in those books.  I just never liked the romancey sort of stuff.

Though she had the Arts and Books section of the Telegraph by her side when interviewed, Carolyn isn’t sure how much influence these reviews had on her reading choices. The only review she can remember having an effect on what she chose to read was one of Jilly Cooper. She read it and concluded that these novels were not for her.

Carolyn became an analytic chemist at a refractory works in the early 1960s (where she met her husband). She benefitted from the post-war increase in further education and training. Very few of our female readers coming to adulthood before the Second World War were offered on-the-job training. Though Carolyn was a reader and came to her firm with good science qualifications she had always found English Language examinations hard. It was while she was on day release that one of her lecturers pointed out to her that she could do an O level in English Language that was specially designed for scientists. By gaining a pass in that examination she was able to gain a licenceship in chemistry.

Even though I read a lot, I don’t think I’ve got that good an imagination to write … to make things up.  My imagination works in a different way.

Here is Carolyn’s interview in full.

The Reading Journey of Bob W

By Mary Grover

Bob was born in Sheffield on 3 February 1940. He was interviewed with his wife Carolyn. They married when Bob was 24 and Carolyn was 20.

As they talk about their reading, it is clear that Bob and Carolyn have read alongside each other throughout their marriage, each prompting the other when the name of a title slips the mind. But this was not the pattern in Bob’s own family.

Bob grew up in the one of the biggest housing estates in Europe, Parson Cross, in the north of Sheffield. The Council began to build in 1938, two years before Bob was born, so the estate grew up with him. There were few books in the house: ‘there’d be a Bible and that would be about it’. Bob’s father read the Daily Herald in the week and the News of the World on Sunday. His mother read Women’s Weekly, but not ‘Mum’s Own – that was trash’. Bob cannot remember being read to but remembers one book from his childhood:

…that was just a little paperback thing, about a dozen pages, and it was nursery rhymes.  About that size.  And I remember reading these and learning every one off by heart.  And that was my precious book, you know.

Bob was early learning to read.

I knew I enjoyed reading and I knew that I wanted to learn to read. But no, my parents weren’t big readers at all.

Nor were Bob’s two older sisters. ‘So, everything I did was on my own bat, I think’. He dismisses the idea he might have found something to read in his primary school:

of course, you didn’t have books in school, so I used to go to the library.

Hillsborough Library, which Bob visited as a child

Although there had been pre-war plans, no permanent municipal library was built in the vast new estate for many years so it was two miles down the hill back towards town to the magnificent Hillsborough Library that Bob made his way by tram to find the books he sought. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly but would just pick up something he liked the look of: ‘it was probably short stories or something like that’.  He joined a second library to increase choice but Hillsborough’s children’s section was one of the best in the city, established in 1929, so it was there he tended to find the adventure stories he enjoyed. Though Enid Blyton was not a favourite author, he did borrow the Famous Five mysteries and ‘that sort of thing’.

Bob reflects that he ‘never grew into the adventure stories for adults’. He went to the cinema when he grew out of Enid Blyton to watch cowboy and war films but never wanted to read about war and fighting. Throughout his life he seems to have kept his reading and his cinema going separate, actively disliking adaptations.

When he could afford it, Bob would go down to the local newsagents, Hadfields at Wadsley Bridge and buy, not comics or magazines, but books.

I bought a series of Sexton Blake. Thin little books, Sexton Blake, yeah.

The first book Bob remembers that he felt was an adult book was Stevenson’s Treasure Island. When he passed the 11+ exam and went to grammar school, he began reading the classics. ‘You had your own books, which I had to read, you see?’ He remembers reading David Copperfield ‘on my own bat because I wanted to see what it was like.’ It was his favourite book. Though he enjoyed the thrill of adventure in a film, in a book he tended to look for interesting characters.

I had to be interested in people. I mean, you can’t get [a] more interesting character than David Copperfield, you see.

Original illustration from David Copperfield

He tried to find the same pleasure in other novels by Dickens but they never delivered. Once he had seen the film of Oliver Twist he lost interest in reading the book. He made it through Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby but as for Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘I couldn’t make it through that and [then] I gave up on Dickens’. Bob concludes that he still enjoys the classics but not ‘the difficult classics … I wouldn’t try Ivanhoe or some of the other 19th … 18th century authors, you know’. There was something about the language of Dickens that felt close to his own.

Beyond a certain point … I want to read easy and I found David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens on the whole, easy to read.  They were speaking my language, you know. Some of the older authors, more classical authors, were speaking not my language, you know, and I didn’t want to keep looking in dictionaries to see what the words were or anything like that, … so, I think, that’s it.

Bob is resistant to language that he fails to connect with. He can’t get on with the language of the past that needs a dictionary to unlock it but he ‘cant stand modern literature with modern words.’ Even though the world of work and his work mates introduced him to all these words, he doesn’t want to read them, happy to be called ‘fuddy-duddy’. ‘It’s not my style of talking’.

In fact Bob is very clear about what he likes and why he likes it. He likes description which adds to a story or makes a character real.

People criticise Agatha Christie[‘s], you know, style of writing as not very good and so on, but she’s very, very good at descriptions. You got into a book and immediately it hits you what the story was about, and you got engrossed in it.

He found that Christie’s contemporaries had too much aimless description for his taste and looks to modern thrillers where description has a clear function.

He has other tastes too. He likes whimsical books: the short stories of P G Wodehouse and the humour of Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t like depressing books. George Orwell and Nevil Shute are not for him. Nor are books that are full of unpleasant people.

I want to go into a different world and enjoy it and I have to like the people I’m reading about. If I don’t like them – not interested in them.

And Bob found lots of books that did interest him and which helped establish the writing skills that were essential to his job in a large Sheffield refractory firm. He met his wife Carolyn there: she was a chemist and he worked in Research and Development. In their interview she gives him an unsolicited testimonial: ‘Can I say he still writes very well?’ Bob had not only to conduct research projects but to communicate the findings of the research team effectively.

We had to interpret the project and put it forward, you see. So, you had to know how to get your points of view over and tell a story in that sense. So that and the work you did at … the essays you had to write at school, you see. They all helped, you know. You got a vocabulary that you could use and if you’d got a vocabulary, it was very good for you. If you hadn’t got a vocabulary, you were struggling, you know. So, that did help.

The feel that Bob developed over the years for a language that was his own clearly helped him develop an appropriate voice for communicating with other professional scientists and engineers. Sheffield’s industries, as so many of our readers show, depend on the communication skills born of a love of reading imaginative literature.

You can read Bob’s interview here.

Onder moeders paraplu. Or, Under Mother’s Umbrella

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. The illustration below is from the wall hanging which Julia made at the time.

Here is the Dutch original:

Onder moeders paraplu
Liepen eens twee kindjes,
Hanneke en Janneke,
Dat waren dikke vrindjes.
En hun klompjes gingen klik, klak, klik,
En de regen deed van tik, tak, tik,
Op moeders paraplu.

Toen kwam Jan de Wind erbij,
Die joeg eerst heel zoetjes,
Toen al hard en harder maar
De regen in hun snoetjes.
En Jan de Wind, die rukte en trok,
En op en neder ging de stok
Van moeders paraplu.

Maar Hanneke en Janneke
Dat waren flinke klantjes!
Die hielden stijf de paraplu
In allebei hun handjes.
En ze lachten blij van hi, ha, hi,
En ze riepen: Jan, jij krijgt hem nie!
‘t Is moeders paraplu!

Textile by Julia Banks

And here is Eleanor’s English version:

Under Mother’s umbrella two friends were walking,
Jack and Johnny, they were stout friends.
And their little clogs went click, clack, click,
And the rain went tick, tack, tick,
On Mother’s umbrella.

Then along came Jan-the-Wind, who – first of all quite sweetly,
But then harder and harder – drove the rain in their faces.
And Jan-the-Wind, he pulled and pushed,
And up and down went the stick
Of Mother’s umbrella.

Jack and Johnny, they were hefty customers.
They held tight to the umbrella in both their hands
And laughed merrily with ‘Hee, ha, hee!’
And shouted, ‘Jan, you won’t get it!
It’s Mother’s umbrella!’

Here are other Dutch nursery rhymes and Eleanor’s versions in English.

A, B, C, The Cat Comes with Me
In The Hague There Lives a Count
Sinterklaas

A Tale of Six Generations: The Reading Journey of Ruth Potts

By Mary Grover

Ruth was born in Sheffield in 1960. She grew up in Sheffield in the 1960 and 1970s and is the daughter of Sally and our interviewee David Flather. She has three sons and two grandchildren. You can find David’s interview here.   

Ruth has always loved books and always will.

As a teacher I used to use the books I loved as a child, such as A. A. Milne and Charlotte’s Web. The children liked it when I said, ‘This used to be mine when I was a child’.

There was a rich store of books in Ruth’s home for her to share with her pupils and her grandchildren. Both of her parents read to Ruth but David did her bedtime stories.

I remember him reading mostly small books, perhaps because they would finish quicker!

Ruth shows me a tiny book called Pussy-cat School.

A big favourite of mine and my father’s was A. A. Milne. I think my paternal grandfather knew Ernest Shepherd [who illustrated the Pooh books]. We had records of the musical versions of the poems and sheet music.

Not only was the house full of the adventures of Buchan and Haggard that David loved, but every week there would be a trip to the library for the detective stories and thrillers enjoyed by Sally. There were books everywhere and Ruth shared many of her father’s reading tastes, especially for Nevil Shute. They both responded to the Yorkshire world of the ‘Bronte girls’, as David called them. David’s involvement in Ruth’s reading contributed to their strong shared interest in maps. As a teacher Ruth specialised in geography, becoming very involved in the Geographical Association which is still based in Sheffield.

But perhaps Ruth’s most constant reading companion was her maternal grandmother, Kitty Walsh, who lived out in Derbyshire.

She was Scottish. I have got an oil painting that she did of the chair she used to read to me in in her house – it was covered in blue velvet. She read to me and bought me books: Ant and Bee books, Little Grey Rabbit and those Little Nutshell Library books.

Ruth showed me a beautifully produced little box set of very small books by Maurice Sendak in the Nutshell Library.

She bought me these and I have still got them. She used to write little ditties, one about herself beginning ‘’There was an old lady of Baslow’.

Sally’s grandmother lived in a nursing home in Sheffield. When the Flathers visited her on a Sunday, they always took her

two Fry’s chocolate creams, a Turkish delight and Sunday Post; she gave us the children’s section of the Sunday Post to read while we were there. Oor Wullie and The Broons were great favourites.

These links with her great grandmother’s childhood in Glasgow gave both the elderly woman and little girl great pleasure. Ruth still treasures the image of Oor Wullie pontificating from his upturned pail.

Oor Wullie

Ruth’s affection for her Baslow grandmother led her to treasure a book far older than any of her other children’s books she showed me. It was a hardback, undated but probably from the 1920s or earlier, with few illustrations. It is called Kitty and Harry or Disobedience by ‘Emma Gellibrand, author of J. Cole’. Ruth loved this book and reread it countless times. It is about a brother and sister who took a boat out on their own without permission. She thinks part of the reason she was so fond of it was the thrill of the disobedience at the heart of the story, but chiefly because Kitty was the name of her much loved grandmother.

Surrounded by adults who all regularly visited a library Ruth was inspired to found her own.

I had a window that was blocked up and shelves put there. The top shelf was full of ornaments because I couldn’t reach it. Beneath, the fiction books were arranged in alphabetical order then on the bottom shelf, not so many, was the non-fiction. Each book was numbered and I always put my name in books because that was what you did. I ticked when they were borrowed, sometimes by my dolls.

She hadn’t many dolls but they were all readers. So was her brother, Robert, but they never shared books. Robert became the manager of a bookbinding firm.

Ruth also had an unseen benefactor, her father’s aunt, ‘Phebe, without an o’. She had gone to Oxford University, married a doctor and gone to live in America.

Every single year, forever, she bought each member of our family a book-token for £5. Since most paperback children’s novels cost 2/6, I got a huge pile.  We used to go to the Sheffield bookseller Hartley Seed’s the first day after Christmas when the shop was open. We would go down and spend it. I used to love choosing the books. I used to buy the books my mum had read, like Angela Brazil, and then every one of the Enid Blyton series I liked, such Mr Galliano’s Circus and the Famous Five.

So the rest of the Christmas holiday was spent poring over this booty and the Beano annual always brought by Father Christmas.

Ruth on holiday

As Ruth grew up she continued to share her reading tastes with her grandmother. She still has her grandmother’s copy of Brideshead Revisited. The only time their tastes seriously diverged was when Kitty Walsh found the 17 year old Ruth reading a copy of Virginia Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic.

My grandmother said, ‘I don’t know why you are reading this’; it was only later that I realized that she can’t have liked the story because it describes a grandmother trying to kill her grandchildren with poisoned doughnuts!

The fact that by the end of our conversation Ruth and I were surrounded by the original copies of books read by herself, her parents and her grandmother shows how important a part of her life these books have been. Not only does she reread but she is constantly exploring new fictional and non-fictional worlds.

One that hit a chord is Pigeon English. It is about a Ghanaian boy who was killed in London. You only realise it is a true story at the end of the book.

Rebecca is my favourite book of all time. My father also loved du Maurier. Rebecca and Jane Eyre are my favourite books, both with strong female lead characters who get what they want in the end.

Much of Ruth’s life has been spent sharing her love of books. As a teenager she worked in a bookshop in Sheffield and volunteered in Sheffield Central Children’s Library: ‘I loved it, especially flicking through all the tickets’. Ruth now takes her grandchildren to the library and reads to them: a sixth generation with whom she is sharing her love of books.

Ruth and her brother in Trafalgar Square, London

Betty B’s reading journey

Betty was born in 1924 and grew up between Crookes and Walkley. She worked in the steel industry in Sheffield and served in the WAAF during World War Two.  

Betty’s father was the great influence on her early reading. While her mother read only magazines, her father liked Edgar Wallace. There were books at home, she says, and ‘Father took me to the Walkley Library’. Betty had a library card from the age of six, which was probably about the earliest age children could join in those days, and she ‘lived in the library’. She was lucky: the Walkley branch was home to Sheffield’s first-ever library for children, which had opened in the year she was born.

Carnegie library at Walkley

It’s interesting that, while he was evidently happy for his daughter to benefit from the public library, Betty’s father didn’t use it himself. His books came from the newsagents on Heavygate Rd in nearby Crookes. He would have had to pay to borrow from this ‘tuppenny library’, but at the time he might have felt more likely to find his favourites outside the public library. (In fact, from about 1930, Sheffield’s chief librarian, J P Lamb, started stocking more popular fiction, including Edgar Wallace, in his branch libraries, a move that was frowned upon in some professional library circles.)

Caricature of Edgar Wallace by Low

Betty attended the Western Road school and did the 11+ there, but she felt that she ‘had no education’. If anything, she was ‘self-educated’, reading ‘A to Z classics at school and in the library’. She had to leave school at the age of 15, in 1939, just before the war broke out. Her parents died around then, and Betty lived with her older sister, a civil servant, in Crookes. She worked at first as a comptometer operator but found itlike factory work’, so she did a course and found a book-keeping job in a local steel works.

When she was 17, Betty joined the WAAF as a driver, and was stationed at seven or eight different camps. There was a great social life, including a lot of dancing, she remembers, and there was less time for reading, even though she was sent books, ‘mostly whodunnits’, from home. After the war, old habits reasserted themselves, and started reading again. She enjoyed sports books from the library, and also studied textbooks about book-keeping.

This must have paid off, for Betty recalls that her ‘career improved’. She worked for a company called Johnson’s, then the Sheffield Steel and Tool Corporation, in its head office on Church St, and then an agricultural tool business around Queens Road.

Over the years, Betty got engaged three times – and changed her mind three times. She never married.

Now long retired, Betty continues to read. Novelists like J B Priestley and Alan Sillitoe get nods, and the classic crime and thriller writers of her youth are favourites. There are the four ‘Queens of Crime’ – Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers – and also Raymond Chandler, Leslie Charteris, Dennis Wheatley and John Buchan. Eighty years after her father took her to Walkley Library, Betty still makes good use of the public library, through its service for housebound readers.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Dorothy L Sayers (Creative Commons licence, National Portrait Gallery)

 

Note: Betty was interviewed in 2012, but we have no audio or transcript, as the recorder was faulty. This reading journey is based on notes made by her interviewers, from which all the quotations are taken.

In The Hague There Lives A Count

Here is a second 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. The illustration below is from the wall hanging which Julia made at the time.

Textile by Julia Banks

In Den Haag daar woont een Graaf
En zijn zoon heet Jantje
Als je vraagt ‘Waar woont je Pa?’
Dan wijst hij met zijn Handje
Met vingertje en duim
Op zijn hoed draagt hij een Pluim
Aan zijn arm een Mandje……
Dag mijn lieve Jantje.

Statue in The Hague, by Ivo Coljé, 1976 (source: Steven Lek, Wikimedia Commons)

In The Hague there lives a Count
He has a son named Johnny
If you ask, ‘Where does your Daddy live?’
He points there with his little hand,
His little finger and his thumb.
On his hat he wears a plume,
On his arm a basket.
Good day to you, dear Johnny.

In Den Haag daar woont een graaf is a very well known Dutch nursery rhyme. Jantje – we would say Johnny in English – may be Jan I (John I) who became the Graafschap Holland (Count of the County of Holland) in 1296, when his father, Floris V, was assassinated. Jantje was only 13 years old, and after two years gave up his position to his cousin John II. Jantje died within the month. The Hague was traditionally the Graafschap’s residence, and in 1976, to celebrate its 750th anniversary, the City Council commissioned the statue shown here from sculptor Ivo Coljé.

It is possible that the rhyme is not about Jan I. Jan was a very common Dutch name, and it neatly rhymes with ‘Mandje’ (‘basket’) and ‘Handje’ (‘hand’).

Source: Local Heart, Global Soul

Here is Eleanor’s first nursery rhyme post.

A, B, C, The Cat Comes With Me

By Eleanor Brown

Here is the first of an occasional series of posts, by poet Eleanor Brown, about the Dutch nursery rhymes which our reader Julia Banks (b. 1939) learned with her children when they lived in The Netherlands in the 1960s.

Later on, when I was married, I did have a lot of spare time. Because we moved to Holland in ’65 and we didn’t have a television. I spent a lot of time learning Dutch, because I’d got by then two young children who would go into nursery school, and I would need to be able to sing to them, nursery rhymes and so on. So my Dutch is based on nursery rhymes; I can’t discuss anything political, but I can sing you a nursery rhyme! And so a lot of my time there I went to the British Women’s Club Library…

With no YouTube to visit for colourful animations including a friendly ball bouncing along subtitled lyrics in time with the music; with no Babel Fish (RIP) or Google Translate to show texts side by side with their translations; with no smartphone language app encouragingly keeping score of learning tasks completed, Julia had to find her own way into Dutch. She must have had to learn tunes, pronunciation and intonations at toddler groups; perhaps at mother and baby sessions at the library. She must have had to do some guesswork and dictionary work at first, piecing together the meanings of (sometimes more or less nonsensical) texts with clues from the illustrations in books.

As in English, many Dutch early learning songs tell no very rational or sequential tale: bears buttering their sandwiches and snakes hanging out the washing are wonders to be met with in a world where beren rhymes with smeren and slangen rhymes with hangen.

In the absence of a television, Julia made her own visual aid: she coded her own and her children’s learning into a cross-stitch needlework textile wall hanging that illustrates 12 traditional Dutch nursery rhymes. The texts (together with audio and translations) of some of these can be found at Mama Lisa’s World: Children’s Songs and Nursery Rhymes From Around The World but if you make your own translations, you can enjoy finding equivalents for the flavour, rhythm or silliness of the original.

They range from the briefest summary of domestic animal whereabouts:

Textile by Julia Banks

A, B, C,                                           A, B, C,

De Kat gaat me,                          The cat comes with me,

De Hond blijft thuis.                   The dog stops at home.

‘Piep!’ zei de muis                        ‘Eek!’ says the mouse

In ‘t voorhuis.                                In the front of the house.

to a long, earnest account of (Everyboy) Jantje’s moral struggle as he gazes at the ripe plums his father has forbidden him to scrump. They include such recognisable childhood experiences as pulling your friend along in a little wagon, holding tight to mother’s umbrella in the wind and rain, and calling your sister stupid when you drop your cap in the mud.

Erica Jeremiah’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Erica Jeremiah was born in Totley in 1937, to comfortably-off parents. The family moved to Hathersage, where Erica grew up, coming into Sheffield regularly. She studied German at King’s College London and worked as a teacher. She lived in Mexico for several years, where her husband was working. Erica has children and grandchildren.

Erica

Erica’s father was an unusual man. He took the education of his daughter very seriously but Erica was six before anyone suggested that she learn to read. She had been sent to a progressive school which used the Montessori principles of education. The teachers fostered a child’s connection with the natural world through practical and imaginative play and books were only to be introduced when those connections were established. When the time came Erica learned quickly; she can still remember

the joy of learning to read. I think I remember the first book that I really read and enjoyed because it belonged to the maid we had in the house at the time. She came from Northumberland and brought a book of folk stories down with her which was called ‘Granny’s Wonderful Chair’ or something like that. I’ve got the copy because she gave it to me, … the first book that I read.

Erica still has a great admiration for the way she was taught at the progressive school her parents sent her to:

…remembering it being so stimulating. And we were read The Pilgrims Progress, which I remember, and The Cloister and The Hearth, when we were eight and nine. And they were so exciting and I do think that was formative. … We were read aloud to, yes, we didn’t have to read them ourselves, no we were read aloud to. And they had this system, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it: Narrating Back. At the end of the lesson the class retold the story that they’d heard. And I’m sure it was excellent.

While she was being read texts that many of her age would have found challenging she was also becoming an independent reader. Erica’s father gave her all the encouragement he could. He was a pearl button manufacturer in the centre of Sheffield, his factory just opposite the Central Library. Before he set off home he would collect ‘about eight books’ from the library then drive out to Hathersage in the Peak District to the west of Sheffield where they had moved at the end of the war.

Father brought me, from the library, the popular books, the easy books, the Elinor Brent-Dyer and Josephine Pullein-Thompson, and then there was Arthur Ransome, which was, for a country child, which was a great development really.

As well as these stories of boarding school, pony shows and learning not to be a ‘duffer’ in a boat, Erica found in her grandparents’ house the Angela Brazil series that had belonged to her mother as a child. Her father’s parents had volumes of Walter Scott  ‘which I used to borrow one by one. … I think I was only nine or ten, because there was nothing else.’ She remembers choosing Peveril of the Peak because it was local. Her parents bought few books because times were hard for manufacturing after the war but Erica can remember the secondhand set of the Children’s Encyclopaedia, ‘a bit out-of-date’ but read and reread. The family had moved out of Sheffield after the war. Though the open spaces of the Peak District must have been a welcome relief from the dereliction left by the Blitz, it held social perils. Erica’s father had gone up to Cambridge to study engineering.

The only person he recognised as coming from his own part of the world was a miner from Ilkeston with a Yorkshire, er Derbyshire accent. And they became great friends. He was on a mining scholarship, and I think he introduced him to all these views and that was how he became interested in the left.

In the thirties the family bookshelves began to fill with volumes from the Left Book Club. Erica remembers their distinctive yellow covers which caused her mother great embarrassment when they moved to the Hope Valley. The family were the only household in the valley to subscribe to a Liberal newspaper and to distribute Liberal pamphlets. When the family inherited the grandparents’ library, Erica’s mother lined up the respectable books that she had just acquired in front of the left wing titles, to conceal the family’s socialist leanings from their Conservative neighbours.

Erica gained a lot from her father’s intellectual curiosity and openness to new ideas. He was an admirer of Arnold Freeman, a Fabian turned anthroposophist who ran The Little Theatre in the Sheffield suburb of Upperthorpe.

I remember going to a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream very vividly, and Faust I remember going to. I remember it was in the old Settlement but I forget where it was exactly. And it was a fascinating, completely fascinating. And Faust, I do remember. Arnold Freeman was very keen on Faust.

Erica shared this delight in Freeman’s theatrical productions with Winnie Lincoln whose Reading Journey you can find here. Arnold Freeman was the first person to make a survey of what Sheffielders read. His Equipment of the Workers (London: George Allen and Unwin 1919) is an edited version of the survey of the reading over 800 men and women which he organised before the First World War and published 1918.

Erica moved back and forwards from children to adult fiction and back in her teens.

I think as an introduction to adult books it was always Georgette Heyer and Margaret Irwin. Because there wasn’t any teen fiction, was there? You moved straight on from the school stories, Just William. I remember I read all the Biggles books. Perhaps I borrowed them from someone. But I remember particularly enjoying the fantasies; Beverley Nichols wrote some fantasies that I really enjoyed, which I suppose were the same as the fantasies the children enjoy now. And of course Enid Blyton.

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

Erica went on to study German at King’s College in London because the family business needed someone with European languages to help with exporting. In fact by the time she had graduated the business had gone and she became a teacher, got married and in the 1970s brought up her two young children in Mexico. There, getting to the library was an adventure.

I [used] the wonderful British Council library, which was in the heart of Mexico City and I actually I don’t know how I had the nerve to drive down there with the children. We used to go to films and borrow books. So The British Council was marvellous. And the library was good! It had everything that I needed.

Erica then became very reliant on a newspaper to keep a connection with home. She always had the Observer sent out.

Whether it arrived or not was a different matter. I remember it didn’t arrive for several weeks and I was getting worried. I said to someone I had to have this. And she said ‘Did you remember Postman’s Day’? And so I said ‘Postman’s Day’? And apparently one should’ve given the postman a tip on Postman’s Day and I hadn’t. So, as soon as that was put right the paper started arriving again!

In 1976 when the family returned to Sheffield, Erica joined what she thinks was one of the first book groups in Sheffield which was started in the Geography Department at Sheffield University. Erica has read a vast range of fiction of every sort and constantly returns to the support her father gave her and her sisters, helping them borrow books and, because of his interest in ideas, inviting all sorts of different kinds of people to their home in Hathersage. Moral Rearmament, Montessori education and Liberal Politics all helped inspire Erica’s interest in current affairs and current debates.

Eva G’s Reading Journey

By Sue Roe

Eva was born on 24 December 1925 and lived first in the Pitsmoor area of Sheffield, moving about ten miles to Bramley in 1962. Her father was an engineer before and during the First World War when he lost a leg. On his return he worked in the offices of Edgar Allen steelworks at Tinsley. Her mother worked in the warehouse of a cutlery firm until she was married and gave it up. Eva passed the 11+ to go to Greystones Intermediate School but her parents were not interested in education for girls:

. . . they didn’t bother with the girls then, you know. Boys could have anything, but …You get married, you don’t need to. That’s the attitude then. So it didn’t get you anywhere.

She started her reading journey at school: she learned to read there. At the age of seven she started to read Dickens, unabridged: ‘I read David Copperfield; that was my favourite.’

Dickens made a great impression on her:

I liked the characters. I mean, they were really interesting characters, weren’t they? True to life,  in a way, but funny as well. I loved David Copperfield. I think he went through a lot. I know Oliver Twist is a similar sort of thing, isn’t it, what happened to them when they were younger, but I liked the characters. I liked Peggotty.

Her parents did have books at home, and both were readers:

I used to get them from the library, mostly. We had got, luckily, at home, we had got here, you know, volumes of them. . . . he [her father] used to be like army books and war books.. and  she [her mum]  used to read love stories, you know . . .

When, much later, her mum lived with Eva in Bramley, she read in bed:

She used to go to bed in the afternoon. … Because she was elderly …  she was 38 when she had me …  I used to give her all sorts of books, she used to read them upstairs and then she used to have a little nap and then come down for tea.

As a child, Eva did not get many books as presents; she went to Burngreave Branch Library which was just down the road though she never got any help with choosing books:

I used to go regularly, yes, and pick my books, choose my books. … I used to read downstairs. If I started reading, it went over my head when everybody was talking, if I got really interested in a book.

Eva went to Burngreave Secondary School which she enjoyed.

I loved school. And our head teacher was Scottish, and she came from Carbrook School. She was always a miss – she never got married.

She was Scottish and tall. She used to have her hair trimmed short, and she used to always wear tweeds and suits. … But she was very interested in music, so we got that drummed into us. I’ll always remember her for that … and speech training, we had speech training. Elocution.

… when I was at secondary school, we had elocution lessons. They didn’t in most places, but we did. It was just like having proper elocution lessons, so we did a lot of Shakespeare, you know, so you learnt that off by heart, that sort of thing …  Hamlet … to be or not to be, that is …  I learnt that off by heart, that speech, but I can’t remember it all now.

Libraries continued to be important for Eva even after she married and had a family. Initially she used Handsworth Library but that was pulled down:

[we] had to either go down to Darnall, or go up to Manor Top. We often used to go there when the girls were young; we used to catch the bus. Or we used to walk it, and then we’d got the books … well, we got the bus coming back, because it was a nicer library, you know.

As she got older she read more widely: ‘I liked mysteries. I like murder mysteries.’

[Agatha Christie] : I used to read her books, yes. But once you’ve read one of her books …  I used to like them, but they seemed to be all … when you look at them closely, they all seem to be the same, don’t they?

Eva enjoyed Dorothy L Sayers and P D James as well as adventure stories like Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and John Buchan’s Thirty Nine Steps. She also liked comedies: ‘Not silly, but funny.’

Cold Comfort Farm: I read that, yes. I’ve got it actually.

I’ve read Anita Loos, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Compton Mackenzie … I like his books [like] Whisky Galore

Like several of our interviewees, Eva read books which were seen as shocking at the time:

Lady Chatterley’s Lover … I’ve read that, that’s neither here nor there. … I’ve read  Edna O’ Brien – I like Edna O’Brien.

When asked if she was shocked by them, she replied, ‘Not really.’

Eva still reads, though the venue has changed over the years:

Now, of course, I only read in bed. If I wake up early I read, I have a little read at night. But I don’t read like I used to do, I don’t read downstairs. And I got into that habit when the girls were young and you couldn’t concentrate, and they were all there, so that’s when I used to read when I went to bed.

I often used to go to bed early when I was married because I was short-sighted, so it was handy for me. Because I had to have my glasses on, I could lie down in bed… he often used to find me in bed [asleep] with my glasses on, and he used to just take my glasses off!

Her husband didn’t object because he was a reader as well.

Eva enjoys reading well-loved books again.

I often read books that I am very fond of again, it doesn’t bother me. Revise myself on them. … Gone with the Wind, I’ve got that, naturally. Oh, I’ve read it two or three times. I keep coming back to it.

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.