By Mary Grover
Husband and wife Ken and Kath were interviewed together for Reading Sheffield. Their marriage includes a strong ‘reading partnership’, based on their shared political and local interests. We will post Kath’s reading journey after this.
Ken was born on 27 April 1924. For the first 20 years of his life he lived in Fir Vale, Sheffield, in a house where he was surrounded by ‘tons of books’. ‘Everybody in the family read.’ Ken got books as presents and his older sister handed down her favourites – some of them novels his mother and father would not have approved, ‘Istanbul Train and all those stories’.
And of course I read all the boys’ books that you would have. You know, tuppenny bloods and all that sort of thing, school stories and that, which were really funny. By today’s standards rather silly, I expect, but I used to think they were marvellous.
Though Ken didn’t think much of the radio programmes in the Thirties, he did enjoy the books read on Children’s Hour, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, and all are still with him. Down at Fir Vale shops was a tuppenny library, a rich source of popular books, Ken’s favourites being humorous books and The Saint books by Leslie Charteris.
And then, when he was about ten, a new municipal library opened in Firth Park. Ken’s main aim on his first visit was to get the thickest book possible because you were, in 1934, only able to borrow one book a week. So his first choice was The Great Aeroplane Mystery by Percy F Westerman[i]. ‘Absolute rubbish, of course,’ but thick.
It was when Ken gained a place at the Catholic grammar school, De La Salle, that his reading tastes expanded to include a whole range of authors that were new to him.
An English master who was a brilliant man put me onto all sorts of good books. And he was a very opinionated bloke. He used to think that all the best writers were people like Lytton Strachey and all that lot. You know – the Bloomsbury outfit and all those people.
We used to have an English room and there used to be favourite things pinned up on the wall. You know, things like The Land and all those famous poems. Things I’ve never forgotten. I mean all those dreadful poems you had to memorise like The Ancient Mariner and ‘Young Lochinvar has come out of the west / Through all the wide borders his steed was the best’. You know, that sort of stuff and all the classic things – Sohrab and Rustum and all those sorts of things. But it stamps what you’re going to do if you listen. And he was a very unusual person. I used to hang on his every word really, I expect. He never failed to be right in what he’d said. Well, I think so. I thought he was bang on the nail with everything.
During his school days Ken became a socialist, reading ‘loads and loads of pamphlets, political pamphlets. They were all the rage then’.
The outbreak of war led to the closure of Ken’s grammar school and the end to his formal schooling. At 15, he left school to go into ‘the works’, first as an apprentice and then as a draughtsman. But the war meant an increase in Ken’s reading.
During the war that was all you could do, read books, with very little other entertainment. Certainly nothing like the radio or TV as there is now so you were thrown onto books and written material, newspapers.
Towards the end of the war, just turned 20, Ken was lucky enough to marry Kath who shared his taste in books and politics. Kath introduced Ken to Sholokhov’s books, ‘Quiet Flows the Don and all those Russian novels’. ‘And Chinese books, famous Chinese novels,’ adds Kath. These books opened the couple’s eyes to the suffering in ‘Old Russia’ before the Revolution. Ken describes himself ‘ploughing his way through’ Das Kapital. He and Kath became communists and during the Cold War, they took their children to a children’s camp in East Germany. Their experience left them with a deep scepticism about the way East Germany was represented in Western spy stories.
A lot of them are a whole load of rubbish, you know. Weren’t they, Kath? Absolutely. We used to know this girl – East German girl who was a teacher there – and she used to go across the border every night to go and be entertained in West Berlin. They were supposed to be at daggers drawn and everything but it wasn’t like that a bit when we were there, was it? Not a bit. And it makes you wonder just how the news and everything has been manipulated in the past, you know? Shocking, shocking.
However, despite his firm political convictions, Ken describes his reading tastes as catholic: Quiller Couch, P G Wodehouse, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Just William, Ken has read and enjoyed them all. Indeed, when asked to pick out a favourite book, he chooses one written by the journalist and novelist, Philip Gibbs, who was no socialist.
It was called European Journey. It was set in the 1920s just after the First World War. He’s an artist and a crowd of about six of them toured through France and Germany by car – typical better-off officer-class people. You’ve got to forget all that part of it – because he was a brilliant writer and he writes about Paris and all – really great – just how France is. I love France. He writes about France with real feeling. But it was when he was a comparatively young man. That’s a book I got by sheer chance, just by picking it up. It was old, of course; I’ve still got it upstairs. It’s a lovely book to dip into and just, er, read all these bits and pieces now and again.
As Ken puts it, ‘We never were tied up to one set of things’.
You can find Ken’s full interview here.
[i] Although Percy F Westerman wrote over 150 books, none has the title The Great Aeroplane Mystery. He wrote The Secret Battleplane (1916) and Airship Golden Hind (1920). His son, John F C Westerman, also wrote adventure stories for boys, including A Mystery of the Air (1931). Another adventure writer, Captain Brereton, wrote The Great Aeroplane (1911) and The Great Airship (1914), John Westerman’s book seems the closest in title and date, but there is no way of knowing for certain which book Ken borrowed. The Westermans are discussed here.