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.
Joseph Percy Lamb (1891-1969) was Sheffield’s City
Librarian between 1927 and 1956. More than anyone, Lamb was responsible for the
success of the city’s library service in the mid-20th century, when
annual issues rose from under one to over four million and seven new libraries,
including the Central, were opened. As Reading Sheffield contributes a talk
about him to the 2019 Heritage Open Days festival, here is Joe Lamb himself in
October 1933, giving the presidential address to the Sheffield Literary Club.
Threatened by Mob Hysteria
Intellectual Freedom in Danger
Warning by Sheffield Librarian
Joe Lamb’s self-confidence shine out in the Sheffield Independent’s report on 13 October 1933 of his address to the Literary Club. We realise with surprise that here is, not a politician or pundit, but a local government officer. The speech has not survived but we are left in no doubt of the conviction behind it. The Independent characterises it as strong criticism of ‘the attitude of the present generation towards life in general and literature in particular’. Lamb had evidently been angered by the
recent ‘barbaric spectacle’ of German university students publicly burning books containing some of the finest flowerings of German thought.
This was a reference to the public burning of around 25,000 ‘un-German’
books by Nazi students which began on 10 May 1933. Hitler had become Chancellor
of Germany in January and the anti-Jewish Nuremburg Laws proclaimed in April
1933. There were bonfires across the country, and the works of writers such as
Berthold Brecht, Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque
and Ernest Hemingway were condemned as corrupt. In Berlin, around 40,000 people
heard propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels speak in support of censorship. This
story seems to be missing from the Sheffield press, and perhaps Lamb, as City
Librarian, felt that the threat to liberty and civilisation should have been better
reported. For, having denounced the situation in Germany, he posited that ‘even
in Britain there was growing up an attitude of conscious hostility to
intellectual freedom’. He went on, in the blunt way of his time:
It is, of course, true that literature has never been free from persecution at the hands of the mob, and that this mob has not always been confined to the depressed classes of the community. … The more subtle weapons of social ostracism and economic pressure, no less powerful and ruthless because they are carefully hidden from public view, are in force even now.
Lamb was not afraid to point out the gap he perceived between intellectual and everyday life (notwithstanding the fact that there must have been academics in his audience).
The preoccupation of scholars with the past, and the inevitable association between intellectual pursuits and the leisured security of university life have tended to isolate the idea of culture from contemporary thought and the ordinary scramble for existence. … I suggest that the time is coming when the whole structure of learning, buttressed up as it is by a great deal of make-belief, will be forced to discard many of these supports and re-build on foundations of intellectual honesty. Otherwise there is very serious danger of it being undermined by the forces of mob hysteria which our modern civilisation has called into being.
As if this wasn’t enough, Lamb also took a swipe at methods
We are not content to accept with simple thankfulness the works of writers of undoubted genius; we must forever be dissecting them on the operating slab and exhibiting their entrails to groups of shuddering students. … We even perpetrate the grisly joke of using the works of Shakespeare as a medium for the exercise of parsing and grammatical construction; and thousands of children who might conceivably grow up to a proper appreciation of literature are eternally damned by the macabre activities of the earnest educationists. Is it any wonder that so few survive?
(He was, of course, not unique in this particular criticism, and we know from his writing of his own unsatisfactory experiences learning literature at school.)
Lamb warned against the mediocre ‘in thought, language,
creative work’, which was all too easily accepted, he thought, by the
‘pseudo-cultured’. For him the answer was robust ‘individualism of thought’,
questioning rather than accepting.
Eighty years on, you wonder how the members of the Sheffield Literary Club responded to their president’s strong words. This club had been founded in 1923 as the Sheffield Poetry Club, and was often mentioned in the press (not least for its pseudo-medieval Christmas dinner, ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’, with the president as the ‘mayster of the feste’). Subjects discussed at its meetings included: Jane Austen, Mary Webb, Bryon, satire and early English novels. No doubt it seemed appropriate in this context to have the city’s chief librarian as president. That he was elected four years in a row suggests that they also valued him.
Joe Lamb was a self-made man from a working-class family in St Helens. Denied higher education (which seems to have rankled throughout his life), he became an assistant librarian, which was a secure, white collar job. He was an auto-didact, using the ample opportunity his profession gave him to explore literature, music, philosophy and science. He also took his professional exams and became Sheffield’s City Librarian in 1927, winning national and international renown for the service. Throughout his career, he wrote and spoke about public libraries, determinedly promoting Sheffield. He seemed always to relish argument, and even controversy, for example, stocking his branch libraries with popular fiction like Edgar Wallace at a time when professional librarians frowned on offering books for entertainment. All this meant that he could appear difficult and was sometimes disliked, but he was always respected. This is the man we see in the newspaper of October 1933. In essence, he sought out his own way, always demonstrating the ‘individualism of thought’ he advocated to the Literary Club.
If you would like to learn more about Joe Lamb and Sheffield Libraries, our talk is on 17 September, at 10.30 am, in the Central Library, Surrey Street, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The talk is free but places can be booked here.
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.
On Wednesday 3 September 1930, the Sheffield Telegraph printed a complaint about the new branch library at Firth Park. Signed by someone using the pseudonym ‘Liber’ (the Latin word for ‘book), the letter expressed dissatisfaction with the library’s books of literary criticism and also with its ‘third-rate thrillers’. ‘Surely,’ concluded Liber, ‘our Libraries Committee can do better than this’. (Here is the full letter.)
Presumably smarting under this attack, Alderman Alfred Barton, who chaired the Libraries Committee, replied the very next day. His letter in the Telegraph read:
FIRTH PARK LIBRARY BOOKS
Sir, —It is a new experience for the Sheffield Public Libraries to be criticised on the score of the quality of their book stocks, as they pride themselves on the catholicity of their selection. Liber, who criticises from an extremely narrow angle and an inadequate knowledge of the Firth Park stock, is apparently unaware of the problems to be faced in stocking a branch library.
The Firth Park Library contains 14,000 books for adults. There are actually 8,000 borrowers using this library. The book stock must cover the whole field of knowledge; it must also be selected to meet very heavy demands in certain popular lines of reading. The number of books in each subject is obviously conditioned by the number of people who will read them; further, regard must also be paid the stock carried in adjacent branches and the Central Library. The number of people who require what may be called specialised books at a branch library is very limited; a branch stock clearly must be of an introductory type. It would be uneconomic to stock heavy ranges of little-used books at a branch, where they would be largely ‘dead.’ The reader of wide range is catered for at the Central, and a system is now being whereby a reader who finds a branch stock insufficient for his needs can draw on the whole library service through his own branch. Perhaps Liber and others who have gone beyond branch library type books will make their wants known to the staff, who will gladly obtain any book not on stock at Firth Park from some other library. In fact, through any of our library units the service will obtain any book in print for any reader.
As regards Liber’s specific complaints, here are the answers. He complains:
There is no single recent book on the history of English drama
No complete set of Ibsen, and no works by Granville Barker.
There are only two books on the general history of the novel.
No works by George Moore.
Only two books go beyond the Victorian age in poetry.
My replies are:-
Brawley’s Short history of the English drama (1921) is in the library. The only other general work on this subject, by Nicoll, is in other libraries, and can be obtained on request.
A complete Ibsen does not circulate too well, even in the Central. It would be dead wood at a branch. There are fifteen plays by Ibsen in Firth Park. Barker is not stocked at any branch, merely because the demand does not justify it.
In addition to Phelps and Saintsbury, there are Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Drew’s Modern Novel, and Williams’s Some Great English Novels.
George Moore does not circulate if placed in branch libraries; further, few of his works are in print at reasonable prices.
Will Liber recommend through the Librarian any books on modern poetry which he knows to be good? The field is very limited, as he probably knows.
May I conclude by pointing out to Liber that a branch library cannot attempt to cater for specialised reading, such as he suggests should be provided for periods of the drama. Liber is one of many who would have his own subject heavily represented, without regard to the balance of demand in other classes. The librarian who has the unenviable job of selecting books on every subject to meet the diverse demands of 8,000 readers must undertake the task with wide views and sympathies, and it is not unreasonable to ask cultured readers to try to view the problem from a similar angle.
Will Liber help us to build up this library’s stock by using the machinery of book proposal? His assistance will be welcomed.—Yours, etc.,
A. Barton, Chairman, Libraries and Museums Committee
Alderman Barton would not have written the response himself. Without detailed knowledge of library stock, including specialised works, he would have referred the matter to the combative City Librarian, Joseph Lamb. I have read enough library records now to be sure that Lamb either drafted the reply himself or approved it and added some final touches. He was never backwards in coming forwards.
Liber, who criticises from an extremely narrow angle and an inadequate knowledge of the Firth Park stock, is apparently unaware of the problems to be faced in stocking a branch library.
A complete Ibsen … would be dead wood at a branch.
Lamb would have taken badly the criticism of the new library, the first to be opened under his leadership and to include his theories about design and operation.
A librarian who has looked at the correspondence says that Liber’s complaint is common enough, and that the lines of the response, if blunt, are absolutely right. (She also admires the neat closure, inviting Liber to suggest some new books.) A branch library would necessarily have had a smaller and more popular stock than a central library. That Firth Park had as many as 15 of Ibsen’s plays is surprising. No branch library could not – cannot – afford to carry books which few people would borrow, and, as Barton says, books could be borrowed from other libraries in the city and across the country.
Alderman Barton’s response ignores one point made by Liber: those ‘third-rate thrillers’. Public libraries were at this time generally wary of spending ratepayers’ money on popular fiction. In a local BBC talk in 1927, the then chief librarian, Richard Gordon, had said that:
In general the libraries do not provide, as new, the ordinary novel. They do not have the money for the purpose, even supposing the ordinary novel was worth its price.
But Gordon had also acknowledged the ‘value to the people of the library’s service in providing recreational reading’. After he became chief librarian, Lamb decided to emphasise popular fiction in branches, in an experiment to increase borrowers. Firth Park had plentiful stocks of books by novelists like Edgar Wallace and Ethel M Dell, and publicised this. Lamb based his experiment on an analysis of borrowers, which concluded that, unless they were looking for something particular, people ‘read along mass lines’ and were drawn to ‘attractive’ books. When Liber complained, in September 1930, it was presumably too early to know the outcome of the experiment and so the point went unaddressed. But in time, Lamb reported ‘impressive’ results, with issues increasing by 300,000 over the year and borrowers by almost 12,000 across the city. (The story of Lamb’s experiment is here.)
Whatever Liber thought, Firth Park was already proving very popular. On the same day Barton’s letter appeared in the Telegraph, there was an article in the Sheffield Independent, perhaps planted by Lamb who was a canny publicist:
LITERARY FIRTH PARK. READS MORE THAN ANY OTHER PART OF CITY.
More books were issued from the new public library at Firth Park during last month than there were from the Central Lending Library in Sheffield; and the issues from the Central Library are amongst the highest in the country.
The Firth Park Library was opened only at the end of July. During August no fewer than 38,820 books were issued, whereas the issues from the Central Lending Library were 38,545.
The speed and firmness of Barton’s response, and the Independent article, may also have been intended to head off political criticism. There were local elections in November 1930 and the opposition had concerns about the ruling Labour Party’s spending, including on libraries:
…the speaker said “We have a mania for ‘super things’. Everything must be a show place for people to come to see. … we might have had a Central Library for somewhere round about £70,000, but instead of this we arc going to pay £90,000 for it. This is simply because we have not invited architects all over the country to plan it for us, but are going to pay the City Architect [a] £1,000 honorarium for one plan.” (Sheffield Telegraph, on an election meeting on 19 September 1930)
Liber never seems to have written to the papers again, at least using that pseudonym.
A library cannot contain every book upon every subject…
‘What do you mean, you don’t have …?’ Library staff often hear grumbling like this, and presumably always have. Here is a complaint, printed in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph on Wednesday 3 September 1930, about the books available, or rather not available, in Firth Park Library, on the north side of the city.
Sir, —The Libraries Committee may justifiably take a pride in the new Firth Park Library, so far as furnishings and equipment go. In that respect it is excellently fitted up, and is probably one of the best for a great distance round. But reading desks and card indexes, do not make a library, and one cannot but feel that the Committee did not take as good advice in the choice of the books as in the matter of equipment. One realises, of course, that there are limitations, and that a library cannot contain every book upon every subject, but surely, however small the number of books, they should be widely representative and as up to date as possible.
A few days ago I visited the Firth Park branch in search of information on English literature. To my surprise I found that there was not a single recent book on the history of English drama. The modern period was represented by two books, and the Elizabethan by two; on other periods of drama there was nothing whatever. The selection of modern plays, one must admit, is on the whole good, though there is no complete set of Ibsen, and not a single work of so important a dramatist as Granville Barker.
The state of literature on the novel is about as bad as that on drama. There are two books only on the general history of the novel, and neither can be called modern. Several good books have been written on the subject of late years, yet we are denied the privilege of consulting them in an up-to-date library. One book only deals with the present-day novel, and there is one on the theory and technique of novel writing, and as for the novels themselves, surely there is something wrong with a library system which admits shelves full of third-rate thrillers, and yet excludes the best works of George Moore.
But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all is in the literature upon poetry. Of the eight books on the subject only two go beyond the Victorian age. Modern day poetry, apparently, is not worth reading about. On subjects other than literature I am not qualified to speak, but I should not be at all surprised to learn that they are catered for as efficiently. Surely our Libraries Committee can do better than this. It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.— Yours, etc., LIBER
The old Firth Park Library building today
Firth Park Library was, as the writer says, new. It had opened six weeks earlier, on Thursday 24 July, with a stock of 15,000 books. It was the first new library in the city for 24 years and the first-ever in the area. It was purpose-built, incorporating the latest ideas about design, operation and service. There were separate junior and adult libraries, which was then an innovation. Firth Park was an important step in the plan to reform and develop the city’s public library service. The Sheffield Telegraph was unequivocal:
There is no institution which has such a marked influence on the culture of the general community as the public library, and it is a healthy sign when a Corporation finds itself obliged to build more. Sheffield is in that happy position… (Friday 25 July, 1930)
Liber’s complaint about the availability of books must therefore have been disappointing for the Council and the library staff, particularly since the writer chose the local press as medium, rather than a quiet word over the counter. It’s impossible to say at this distance if Liber was a serial complainer, well-known to the librarians. Nor can we be sure of the writer’s gender or profession.
What is clear, even after 90 years, is Liber’s determination to establish impressive intellectual credentials. There’s also a more than a suggestion of pomposity. The choice of pseudonym – Liber, meaning ‘book’ in Latin – is a hint, and the style of the letter is, well, superior:
To my surprise I found…
…yet we are denied the privilege…
But perhaps the most startling deficiency of all…
It is a queer mentality which prefers up-to-rate [sic] equipment and furniture to up-to-date information.
Liber condemns the ‘third-rate thrillers’ to be found on the library shelves, and demands the controversial and avant-garde: Ibsen (1828-1906), Granville Barker (1877-1946), George Moore (1852-1933) and ‘modern poetry’. The poetry probably meant the work of W H Auden, Stephen Spender, T S Eliot, Samuel Beckett and others. Ibsen, Granville Barker and Moore were hardly the latest thing (Ibsen was long dead, and the other two were elderly), but their work had often challenged the status quo. None of these writers could have been described as popular in the Sheffield of the 1930s.
Leaving aside literary considerations, there may just have been something political behind the letter. Local elections were due in November 1930, with the opposition keen to unseat the ruling Labour Party and accusing it of wasting money, including on libraries. But Liber doesn’t mention money, and likes the library’s appearance. His or her concern seems solely to be about the apparently inadequate selection of books.
The Council’s response was swift and decided. You can read it in Part 2 of this post, to be published shortly.
We’ll also be looking soon at the controversy surrounding the ‘socialist clique’ invited to the opening ceremony for Firth Park.
Janice Maskort was Sheffield’s City Librarian between 2000 and 2010, and still lives in the city. She was born in Orkney and grew up in Kent. Janice worked for Kent County Libraries for several years, including in Maidstone, Rochester and Canterbury, until her move to Sheffield. Reading has been a pleasure, a mainstay, a need all her life.
Here Janice describes the beginning of her reading journey.
I was reading long before school. I will never forget the moment when I realised that I could read. I was in church with my father and the hymn was All Things Bright and Beautiful, which I knew. Turning my hymn book round (I was holding it upside down), I realised that the black marks were the words! I was so excited I climbed on the pew and shouted, ‘Daddy, I can read!’ The Presbyterian congregation did not appreciate my joyful interruption, and I was smacked and went without pudding at lunch. I was so thrilled that I didn’t care and went round the house looking for print to practise on. As a librarian I was always moved when a child learned to read whilst in the library. It was like finding the key to a magic kingdom.
My parents were both serious readers and regular public library users. My mother was also a member of Boots Booklovers’ Library, which was in walking distance. Going to the ‘proper’ library entailed a long bus journey. Once my father bought a car, however, trips to the public library were easier.
There was a reasonable collection of books at home but very little children’s literature. I was always begging my many aunts and uncles for books as birthday or Christmas presents. As my mother was one of ten children and my father one of four, I did pretty well. In those days children often received postal orders as presents and if I could prevent my mother from appropriating the money for new shoes, I was able to buy a book. One Christmas my aunt in Canada sent me Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, but this was an edition all in pictures with truncated text. I adored it and was very disappointed when my father bought me the original version. I missed the illustrations.
The copy of Heidi bought by Janice’s father
I could not have survived without the library. I could always read at great speed; it is genetic and my daughter inherited the skill. Even then though the library was frustrating. We were only allowed three books at a time and I had read them all in the first 24 hours. Then a whole week before the next visit! Being able to read so fast was a blessing and a curse as my daughter also discovered. No teacher would believe me when I said I had finished the set book on the first day and I was always being surreptitiously tested. Eventually a new headmistress recognised my genuine distress at being accused of lying and told the staff that I could have access to all the books in the classroom. In later years I found myself trying to explain the ability to my daughter’s teachers.
My parents who were strict in some ways were remarkably liberal about reading and I was allowed to read anything. The only book my mother ever censored was a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. I still have no idea why. I have never subscribed to the theory that children should only read ‘age-appropriate’ material. I had browsed The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and the Kama Sutra before I was eleven. I only understood what I knew and ignored the rest. My mother asked me one day what the Kama Sutra was about. She had no idea what it was. I remember saying that it was very strange but had a chapter on flower arranging (as it has). Neither she nor I had any idea why my father laughed so much!
My father did get exasperated at my constant questions about unfamiliar words and introduced me to the dictionary. I found it helpful but also frustrating as each definition seemed to require another one and I often felt I was going round in circles. He gave me an atlas as well but when I couldn’t find Narnia, I decided it wasn’t very helpful. One day he arrived home with an old set of Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. This kept me going for a whole summer. I read all the stories first, then history and mythology. I ignored most of the ‘informative’ sections but do remember lace-making in Nottingham, dress-making pins from Sheffield and shoes in Leicester.
As a child I suffered badly from bronchial asthma and in the winter, not helped by the awful fogs and coal fires of the period, I was often off school for weeks. This did little for my maths; I seemed to miss the introduction of long division or whatever. However I could read in bed. I preferred my mother’s choice of books from the library. She often took Andrew Lang’s fairy tales. My father brought The Last of the Mohicans and Wind in the Willows (which I never liked). But Dad also gave me David Copperfield, which began a lifelong love of Charles Dickens. There were lots of books for boys too, but I found all the stories of saving the empire and killing natives both boring and upsetting. I didn’t mind stories about animals as long as there were no killing sprees. My father, who often went abroad for work, did give me travel books and I adored Farley Mowat’s book about the Inuit people.
Rumpelstiltskin, from Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book (ca. 1889)
Original illustration from David Copperfield
I was called an imaginative child, but in fact all children are. I lived my characters. If I was told off, I was Marie Antoinette in a tumbril or Mary Queen of Scots on the block. Like many children, I found comfort and solace in my literary companions.
When I was ten, I won a national painting competition. We had to paint ‘the most exciting place in the world.’ I was the only child to paint a library. I won an enormous box of Reeves paints but was also allowed to choose a book. I opted for Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild and my father was disappointed, as he wanted me to pick something sensible like Woodworking Tips for Boys. I still have my prize book.
My sister Rebecca and I began classifying our own books early on. Well, I did, and she enjoyed stamping them out to our dolls. To this day I wonder why we classified Ballet Shoes as ‘E7’. It’s as incomprehensible as the Library of Congress classification scheme.
Not all of my large, extended family approved of my addiction to books. When I was diagnosed with severe myopia, at the age of ten, my poor mother often faced a chorus of ‘Well, we told you she would go blind’. I remember, in her defence, saying to one great aunt that sewing also made one go blind and told her about French nuns ruining their eyes making lace. She looked at me and said ‘Well, we don’t need to worry about your reaching that level of expertise.’ This was unfair because I can sew, but her embroidery was exquisite.
Orkney was an important influence. My mother was Orcadian, as am I, and in my childhood we went there every year. We visited lots of relatives and I was allowed access to all their books. There were a lot of Victorian ‘prize books’ and I read many moralistic tales in which daughters saved their fathers from intemperance and nursed dying siblings. Later on I did my dissertation on the impact of prize books as a major source of reading material in isolated and poor communities. This is probably where my love of Victorian and Edwardian literature began, although my mother’s admiration for Mrs Henry Wood might also have been a factor. She and I often intoned ‘Gone! And never called me mother!’[i]
Some of Janice’s collection of prize books
Orkney has a strong oral tradition so I experienced stories long before I could read. Language is powerful and its cadences and rhythms communicate so much. As a librarian I was passionate about telling or reading stories to children. For example, I have worked with children with severe learning difficulties and have never failed to engage with them through stories. And on another occasion, when I visited Africa for work, I followed a story-telling session. The children all knew and loved the story. I couldn’t understand a word but heard the build-up and the repetition of phrases. I was gripped. When we reached the denouement, I fell off my chair, which made the little ones laugh. While I didn’t understand the words, I felt the power of the story.
[i] This famous line is in fact not from Mrs Henry Wood’s novel, East Lynne, but from the stage adaptations.
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.