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.
Everyone at the Venue in Stocksbridge on 31 May 2019 came to reading in different ways. For children growing up in Stocksbridge in the 1940s and ‘50s getting hold of books was not easy. Stocksbridge Library was not built till the 1960s. Before then, Marilyn remembers borrowing books from the British Hall on Hope St or winning them as Sunday School prizes. One of the prizes was the story of smugglers in the West Country: Lorna Doone, won for ‘Endeavour’.
Chapel and Sunday School played a big part in the reading of
many. Sunday School prizes were often the only books that children owned. The
Bible featured frequently in the memory of Stocksbridge residents. There were
chapels up and down the valley. Somebody described the pattern: pub, chapel,
pub, chapel right through the town and into the country.
Frank pointed out the fact that the word Bible simply means
‘book’ and this book itself is a compilation of a huge amount of stories. He
remembers Methodists in particular as reading the Bible out aloud, as a family.
Your religion could affect the books around you in the home. A copy of ‘the
Mass book’ was mentioned. Sometimes the only book in the house was the Bible.
If you or your parent was after light reading there was also
at least one twopenny library in Stocksbridge. Gloria remembers a twopenny
library where Lidl is now. She used to go and get love stories and Catherine
Cookson books for her mum who wouldn’t go near the place. ‘She didn’t like the
woman who ran it. She was abrupt, very sharp. All she wanted was your
Some readers from towns where there were public libraries
weren’t able to use them because they weren’t allowed out on their own and
their parents were too busy to take them. A few were given books as gifts or
saved up their pocket money to buy them.
Enid Blyton was a part of nearly everybody’s reading life
but each reader had her favourite series. One reader read and reread the poetic
The Faraway Tree. Just William books came a good second.
Like Blyton, Richmal Crompton delivered a long run of titles
to keep you reading until you moved on to something else: What Katy Did, Gerald
Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals or Arthur Ransome’s books about
children’s sailing adventures.
We were all struck by how middle class all the children’s
books we came across were. But all delivered something familiar, however remote
their setting: a sense of adventure and the ups and downs of getting on with
the rest of the family.
It is when our readers became adults that their reading
tastes began to differ quite a lot from their friends’ tastes. So much depended
on where you went on to live and work. Those, like Terry, who did National Service
in Germany came across the racy novels of Hank Janson. You were unlikely to
find these in Stocksbridge. Roger went into farming so during his twenties he
was keen to read about agriculture. Chris became an avid reader of science
fiction. He moved from H G Wells to Asimov. He joined a library in his
thirties. One book led to another: The Hobbit then Philip Pullman’s Dark
The journey from one author to another never ends. The number of books mentioned on that Friday morning at the drop-in session, seemed almost countless.
This was Reading Sheffield’s first visit to Stocksbridge. Huge thanks to David Owen and to the Stocksbridge readers who shared memories about how they became readers.
I met Jessie in 1997, still living in the Norfolk Park estate near the vicarage of St John’s Park where she had begun work at the age of 14 in 1920.
I visited her to interview her about her reading because I was writing about popular fiction in the 1930s. On every shelf in her tiny flat were pictures of her grandchildren, most of them in their graduation gowns. Yet Jessie herself never had any formal education.
Jessie was born in 1906 and in 1920 became a wage-earner. The story of how she came to love Dickens in the 1920s reveals how much the status of Dickens has changed from the interwar period to the present day: from ‘childlike’ popular entertainer to classic author. The Cambridge academic Q D Leavis asserted in 1932, in Fiction and the Reading Public (p 157), that Dickens’
originality is confined to recapturing a child’s outlook on the grown-up world, emotionally he is not only uneducated but also immature.
Mercifully Jessie never encountered this diatribe against her favourite author and the class of people who were seduced by him. But by chance it was a comparably low opinion of Dickens and his association with uneducated readers that enabled her to gain access to his complete works.
I used to read the Times when I was 14 because my first job was in a vicarage as a cleaner. Now the Canon Greenwood he was a Londoner. At 14 I went to the vicarage and it was an old house and it was dreadful, scrubbing . . . I stayed there till I was 19 but he used to take the Sunday papers and of course I had a field day with them because we used to have an hour for lunch and the housekeeper she used to go to sleep and of course she seemed to resent me reading the newspapers. I don’t know why. . . . He had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and she had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.
She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see. Anything on there of Dickens or Shakespeare I am there, but it was through her – even her resentment gave me a gift. And I love Dickens’ characters – she let me take them home.
She used to let me take the paper home if it was two or three days old but she used to resent that. Some of these people they resent poor people like we were, very poor, because my dad died when he was 47 and I was 14 and my mum was left to bring up three girls and she used to go out washing and cleaning.
[The housekeeper] was so possessive with everything he the Vicar had – she was a proper giant to me. She resented me probably it was because I wanted to know things and I knew things but she lent me the Dickens because she resented me reading the papers, the London papers.
In his book, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History, David Price makes the point that churches and chapels broadened the horizons of many who came into contact with them because their leaders had been educated outside Sheffield.[i] Her job at Canon Greenwood’s vicarage introduced Jessie to the London papers and the novels of Charles Dickens. Despite the drudgery she endured, the vicarage in which she spent the first five years of her working life made her aware of a world elsewhere.
[i] David Price, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History (2018), p 4.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 it ‘like 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.