Noel’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

 

Born in that catastrophic year, 1939, Noel’s imagination was fired by the factual: Meccano magazines and stamp albums. Reading was a way of acquiring knowledge, especially historical knowledge.

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I’ve always said oh, to hell with the computer, my knowledge came from reading, listening to the radio and collecting stamps. The history of stamps has geography, history and everything else.

Noel remembers spending his pocket money on stamps or Aeroplane and Flight magazines stamps rather than comics. He can’t remember being read to but explored Biggles and Gimlet when he became an independent reader. Both by W E. Johns, the Gimlet commando books were perhaps even more full of derring-do than the chronicles of the famous aviator.

But his mother was the greatest influence on the young boy’s reading. She was a Sheffield town councillor, a Conservative. It was her engagement in politics that led him to read the newspapers, political periodicals and history books often found in Hillsborough Library. Though he did well in literature at grammar school it was history that Noel loved.

I met Jock Hamilton, a dour Scot, he was a qualified barrister by his own efforts, but he taught history, he made history live.  He didn’t just give you the facts, but what he did with it, he analysed the facts, and he made history come alive to me.

Noel’s school boy reading reflects that interest: Tale of Two Cities, Alexannder Dumas’ Marguerite de Valois and Kidnapped and unsurprisingly a history play, Richard II. More surprisingly perhaps, given the conservative commitments he shared with his mother, the history book that still grips his imagination is Eric Hobsbawn’s The Age of Revolution.

The Latin language made a great impression on Noel and upon the way he talked. Robert Bailey, the Latin master said to Noel, in his first year at High Storrs Grammar School,

‘The trouble with you, lad, is you’ve got to learn to speak English properly and also get your grammar correct, verb, subject, object.’

But there was the literature as well: ‘Sallust’s Cataline, which was marvellous – that made history live again. Oh, I read, yes, Livy going over the Alps’.  In the 1950s Noel’s time in the National Service led him to discover a book, D J Holland’s The Dead, the Dying and the Damned which contained a fictionalised portrait of one of the soldiers Noel worked with in Aden. This period provoked an interest in thrillers with connections to political events – some of Fleming’s novels, and Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal.

Also remembered, and in a way treasured, was a book that Noel could never bring himself to finish.

A lady who lived in one of the cottages in the block where my grandmother was living gave me a very old edition of Dombey and Son, I mean old.  I don’t think it was a first edition.  And I got through, I think, the first chapter.

Because it was so old Noel held on to it and it only recently left the house. It joins the ranks of books that our readers treasured but did not read, books that find a place in the bookcase for all sorts of reasons: its giver, an inscription, its antiquity or because there was a story attached to rather than contained within it.

Access Noel’s transcript and audio here

 

Elsie Brownlee’s Reading Journey

Born  24th June 1925, died  31st January 2015.

Elsie became a regular reader because her father volunteered to find the runaway daughter of the landlady of the boarding house in Anglesey where he and his family were on holiday in the 1930s. He had a motorbike, being the under-manager of a small steel firm in Sheffield. This enabled him to scour the island, find the daughter, persuade her to return home and bring her back to her family.

Successfully found and restored to her family, Gwen from Anglesey became a nurse and fetched up in Sheffield where she lodged with Elsie’s family in Walkley, on a hill two miles away from the city centre. In 1934 the splendid Art Deco Central Library opened in Sheffield.

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Sheffield Central Library in 2009 by Lawrence Whiteley. (courtesy Sheffield Libraries)

Gwen was amazed that not only had Elsie’s family not discovered this library, they hadn’t used their local library either. So, she helped overcome Elsie’s father suspicion of the germs that might be spread by borrowed books and encouraged Elsie and her mother to enrol at the Central Library, a long trek for them as they hadn’t enough money to go down on the tram.

At about the age of eleven, Elsie became a fervent library user. Not only that, her dream was to work in a library. Elsie: ‘I thought, ‘I’d love to work in a place like this. I’d LOVE to work in a place like this.’

But her father thought otherwise. Because she had enjoyed playing with the typewriter in the steelworks she was destined to become a secretary. Though the next door neighbour’s daughter went to train as a teacher, Elsie’s father thought further education for girls a waste of time as they were bound to get married. Elsie didn’t get married and loathed her job as a secretary.  Her father died in 1952 which meant that Elsie took a second job, in the evening. Walking into town to work from 9 till 5, walking up the hill for her tea, and then walking out of town to the isolation hospital at Lodge Moor to look after sick babies 7-10 and back home for 11, Elsie had no time to go to the library or to read. She went on to nurse her sister and then her mother till they died. It was only in the last few years of her life that she was able to satisfy her passion for reading.

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Elsie showed me some of her most cherished books: one by Frances Parkinson Keyes bought from the Boots Library sale for 2/-; another, her Scrubby Bears Annual, given to her as a child and lastly the heirloom, unread by anyone in the family, The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music and Romance, dated [1849]. When I met her, Elsie was getting most of her books from jumble sales rather than libraries; Phillippa Gregory was a favourite. Her final home was only half a mile from the isolation hospital where she had done her cherished evening job and about four miles up the hills from the Central Library which ‘was warm, safe and gave you constant entertainment’.

Reading Journey by Mary Grover

Access Elsie’s transcript and audio here.