Wynne’s reading journey

Wynne was born in 1919, making her one of our oldest interviewees. She lived all her life around Sheffield’s Ecclesall Road area.  She married a man from Newcastle and they had two daughters, Joan and Anne, and a son, Richard.  With the exception of Richard, who was ‘more for enjoying the outdoor life’, everyone in the family loved books.   

Wynne’s niece Diane Haswell, who sat in on the interview, said later:

[Auntie Wynne] says throughout the interview how little she could remember especially of authors’ names and titles, which is to be expected. However, as my dear godmother, she never missed a birthday or Christmas gift for me, and it was always books or book tokens and [she] always wanted to know what the books had been about and discuss them with me. Hugely supportive too when I was a student and started teaching in the ‘60s. She was very interested to know what I’d been reading to the children and later to my own.

Wynne, interviewed at the age of 92, had forgotten lots of the books and authors she had read.  But it didn’t bother her.  What she did remember was the pleasure reading had given, and was still giving, her (by 2011, she had taken happily to reading in bed).  ‘Oh I always say I’d hate to go blind and can’t read,’ she said.

Wynne supposed that she learned to read at school, but had no clear memory of that, or of anyone reading aloud to her.  But no-one ever seemed to suggest that reading was a waste of time and so somehow the habit developed, and got stronger over time. The first type of material that came to mind during the interview was not in fact a book, but a popular magazine.  The stalwart People’s Friend was a favourite for both its ‘proper stories’ and its strong roots in Scotland, in which Wynne was interested. Wynne recalled enjoying the serials and short stories in such magazines in the early years of her marriage, reading them at the table, which was ‘naughty’:

I think probably it might have been a case of enjoying that more because they were short stories, not a full story or book.

The People's Friend today, not so very different from the days when Wynne enjoyed it.

The People’s Friend today, not so very different from the days when Wynne enjoyed it.

Is this evidence of how much work was involved in looking after a home and young children when washer-driers, dishwashers and ready meals were pretty much unknown?  Perhaps.

Wynne used to take her children to the Ecclesall branch library, then called Weetwood, when they were small, ‘because both Joan and Anne loved reading, wanted to read all the time’.  She didn’t remember getting books for herself, but the library building made a lasting impression on her, as it did on others.  It was a rather grand house in beautiful gardens, which had been sold to the Council and converted to library use in 1949, as part of a major post-war programme to extend library services in Sheffield.

This early investment in Joan’s and Anne’s reading paid long-term benefits.  In time, they came to support their mother’s reading, just as she had supported theirs.

It might have been my daughters who eventually said, “We’ve been reading a book, you might enjoy it. We’ll give it you and if you like it fair enough and if you don’t, don’t bother.”

Joan would take charge of Wynne’s birthday and Christmas lists, ensuring that she got presents of books she would like, and Wynne, Joan and Anne shared books and chatted about them:

No, more or less we have the same [taste in books], apart from Anne … I can’t think of the author, there’s one book and she says, ‘I don’t read hers’ but Joan and I love them and Anne says, ‘Oh, I can’t read hers,’ and I can’t think of who it is.

One result of this little family book group was that Wynne’s tastes developed. She recalled a series of books about early settlers in Australia, where she had relatives, and another book about the horrors of workhouses:

[At school] I hated history, but since reading some of these books which are historical so there [is] a bit of truth in a lot [of] them, I have really enjoyed them and enjoyed historical things more.

Books beat television, in Wynne’s opinion:

… television’s all right but it seems to have taken over with the children. Sit them in a chair and put in front of the television. I don’t agree with a lot of that.  I mean I know you say, ‘You can’t stop progress,’ but a lot of it’s not for the good.

Whereas reading:

sinks more, sinks more in my mind. The only problem is that after a while I forget even it. But I can’t do anything about that.

By way of example, there was Jung Chang’s 1991 memoir, Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China:

I can’t remember the years when it happened but when I read it, I said, ‘But this was in my lifetime and I don’t remember a thing about that happening’ – this book just astounded me. … I still think about it, that book.

Wild Swans

You can read Wynne’s full interview or listen to it here.

Mavis’s Reading Journey

Mavis, born 18 January 1937.

Mavis is well travelled. From the age of five she walked, on her own, three quarters of a mile to school, sometimes getting a lift on one of the coal lorries as it left the weigh station where her father was manager. The weigh station was deliberately set apart from Tinsley colliery to guard against pilfering. Mavis could have taken the bus to school but because of her father’s job she was thought of as ‘posh’ and walked to avoid the bullying.

When Mavis got to nursery school at three or four she could already read. Yet, her parents being more on the maths side probably didn’t read to her much and they didn’t have any books in the house.

Well, they had three: the Bible; a book called Vigil which I thought was Virgil till I thought he couldn’t have been that bad and it turned out to be a book of prayers; and a Dorothy L Sayers murder mystery, and those were the only three books, with a dictionary, that they had in the house.

But a friend of the family, Auntie Vera, was a primary school teacher. She borrowed books from the school library for Mavis and left them with her for the week. The girl soon learned to decipher the words with the help of the pictures.

Between the ages of five and eleven Mavis went on regular visits to her father’s brother who was a headmaster two train rides away at Barnby Dunn, a village near Doncaster. With her mother working Mavis would often spend the holiday in the library of her uncle’s school.

And there were picture books, children’s books.  And he used to buy me books, often books which were much older than the age I was, and because I thought he knew what he was doing, if he bought it me and I found it hard, it must be my fault and I better make sure I could read it [laughing] because he would ask me about it when I saw him again ….His was the one book which triggered off lots of others.  He bought me, when I was about seven, he bought me a book of Greek myths.


Other relatives introduced her to other delights:

If went to my auntie’s I’d pick up her magazines. What was it?  The People’s Friend. And I would be as engrossed in The People’s Friend, I’m ashamed to say.  I was a bit omnivorous and unselective.

Mavis read everything, whatever she could get her hands on. When she got one of the highest 11+ passes in the city she attended Sheffield High School, another two stage journey. Her school friends came from all over the city and sometimes beyond the city boundaries so Mavis had few friends out of school. From 11 onwards her reading was extraordinarily varied.

It would be George Eliot one week [and] The Island of Adventure the next, or The Adventures of Scamp. … I had a horse phase, like all little girls, but I was reading quite a lot of adult fiction at the same time.  Especially as the stuff that I got lead on to was always available. You didn’t get a big queue for the next George Eliot whereas you did for the Enid Blytons.

Later on at the High School, she managed to take Friday afternoons off during the optional games periods and she would make her way, usually alone, to the Central Library. She remembers her first visit.

As I walked in – didn’t know quite know where to start – and started at the Ws. I found Hugh Walpole, Leo Walmsley and … I think accidentally someone had filed Warwick Deeping in the Ws and I read him and I just read others by those authors.

Perhaps the ease with which Mavis approached any kind of book, without fear or favour, made her a natural story-teller.

Funnily enough there was a little girl who used to read a lot who was on my dinner table when I was a third year. … She used to read quite widely for a little girl, I thought, and we used to play making up stories at the table, to while away the time when you’d eaten the first course and had got to wait till everybody finished to go and get the second, and you’d tell a story and stop, and the next one … And it was Margaret Drabble.  I’ve often thought, my goodness, no wonder she was a good storyteller, good at that game!

However, Mavis’s careless and carefree appetite for any kind of literature nearly cost her the chance to become the English teacher to whom so many children owe their delight in reading. When Mavis went up to Leeds University she had to make a train journey that she was anxious about. Would she miss her stop and end up in Scotland? To avoid getting lost in a book that might absorb her too fully, she snatched her mother’s copy of The Reader’s Digest magazine.  When she got to Leeds, the interviewer asked

“What did you read on the train?”  So I said “Readers’ Digest” and I saw this expression and I thought “Ah”.

Mavis quickly explained her the reasons for her reading choice and persuaded her interviewer that she was a serious enough student to do a degree in English Literature but after that I was aware that there were things you didn’t own up to but apart from magazines I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me.

Mavis's copy of Wordsworth

Mavis’s copy of Wordsworth

Listening to Mavis describe the lessons she taught all over the country: Harlow, Bolton, Kersley and Carlisle, I wished she could have been my English teacher. She created groups in which every member read a different book and shared her opinions with her friends. Alongside the necessary detailed analysis of a “set-book” these students absorbed Mavis’s delight in the range of literary journeys available to us all, her readiness to recognise the unknown and explore it.

When, at university, Mavis was temporarily abashed by how little she had learned at school about the Metaphysical poets, her response was characteristically matter of fact and entirely positive: “I realised that I had very large gaps which was a good thing to know”.

by Mary Grover

Access Mavis’s transcript and audio here