Margaret G’s Reading Journey

Margaret was born on 12 June 1924, and grew up in Walkley, a suburb of Sheffield. Her mother stayed at home after she married and her father was ‘a clerk at the Town Hall [where] he did all the salaries for the teachers’. Margaret left school at the age of 15 and worked in Sheffield, including for the local transport company. Later she trained as a nurse. She married in 1953 and had two children. She remains a keen reader, and still enjoys books she had in her younger days. 

‘No, I can’t.’ Margaret is quite indignant when she is asked if she can remember learning to read, as if perhaps reading has always been there.

I can remember my parents read to me every night and my father used to draw us pictures of the stories and, er, we were always well supplied with books. … Some were presents and some they bought.

Margaret’s parents were readers, she thinks, with her mother particularly enjoying ‘what she called a nice murder’. Margaret and her younger sister both belonged to the Walkley branch library, built at the turn of the 20th century with funds from the Carnegie foundation and with its own children’s room. When they were ‘able to cross the road’, they went to the library alone and ‘read the Chalet School stories and things like that, Angela Brazil’, like so many girls of their generation.

Walkley Library

Reading was perhaps seen by Margaret’s parents as a safe, suitable activity for their daughters:

I s’pose we were still reading … I was young – very young until I was 19. We weren’t like they are today. I wasn’t allowed to do things. I mean the night of the blitz* I was going to a dance – no way was I was going to go. My parents said no and that was it. You see, they said no.

It was around this time, Margaret thinks, that she was reading popular authors like Warwick Deeping, J B Priestley and ‘a lot of Elizabeth Goudge’.

I love her books – I’ve just been reading them all again … and er the libraries have managed to get some … I’ve got one or two myself and I got Green Dolphin Country and it’s so long I didn’t remember much and it all came back fresh. … I liked even the children’s books she wrote.

I think I read Herb of Grace. I think I read some of those early on. I know I used to go around the second hand bookshops when we were away [on holiday], especially if it was a wet day. I picked one or two books up there.

But Margaret never read ‘improving books’ or classics.

I never read Dickens or Shakespeare and that’s something I’ve never wanted to read. I suppose because I didn’t do it at school.

The war brought change. When her call-up papers came, Margaret trained as a nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Sheffield. While she enjoyed it, it left little time for anything else:

… when I was nursing there was no time – only for nursing books. … You had to go for your lectures in your free time for that day.

After she married in 1953, life was still busy but perhaps there was more time to read.

… my husband would probably sit in one place and I’d be in another and we might talk all evening … you know … Once we’d got the children to bed and I mean we’d only two and I used to knit and sew as well.

There were family trips to the library, the branch at Broomhill:

Yes, we all went together. My husband never read anything non-fiction. Yes, he was a physicist, so he was really more into … he did read autobiographies, perhaps, but not many.

He didn’t like novels?

Oh no, no novels!

Broomhill Library

These days Margaret says she reads ‘mostly when I go to bed, and in the morning. Make my cup of tea in the morning and I read in bed. … But I try and save my library books for bed.’  She enjoys today’s authors like M C Beaton, Jack Sheffield and Ken Follett.  ‘… the library are very good – if I ask them if they’ve got it in, they’ll send it me.’

But she also goes back regularly to the popular authors of earlier days:

A J Cronin: Shannon’s Way this is. Yes, this is the one, it says ‘To Margaret, Happy Christmas from Gladys and Dick’. Also you see, there’s a ‘1950’ in there and there’s ‘a pound’ on it. … I’ve just read this again and quite enjoyed it.

Mary Stewart: Oh, I like her.  I’m reading all those again at the moment. … Yes, I’ve got quite a few of hers there.

Patricia Wentworth: … an older one, isn’t she?  She wrote mysteries, yes. … well, I’m reading a lot of hers again with … not Miss Silver … yes, it is Miss Silver, and it’s Miss Marple. They’re quite funny really. They’re so old fashioned! They’re quite funny, quite simple stories.

And Elizabeth Goudge: … that’s what Elizabeth Goudge wrote about, families. And a lot of people would say it was fantasy but it makes good reading, and I’m finding now I’m reading properly, I’m not skipping anything. I probably did that in my younger days. I wanted to get on to see what the ending was, but I’m finding now that I’m reading more or less every word. … That is fantasy really, because it’s about a town, a small town, and everything circulates around the cathedral and the Dean and various things, and I suppose a lot of it is. But some of them write so descriptive you can feel you’re there. And that’s what I’ve found lately.

 

 

* The ‘Sheffield Blitz’ is the name given to the worst nights of German Luftwaffe bombing in Sheffield during the Second World War.  It took place over the nights of 12 December and 15 December 1940.  Margaret remembers it well:

And er I remember the night of the blitz I went to work the next day.  I walked all the way. Course when you saw the mess, I just walked all the way back because there was nowhere to go to work.  I remember that.

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.

mavis-garrattbw

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 

Dorothy Latham’s Reading Journey

Dorothy was born in 1931 in Catcliffe, between Rotherham and Sheffield, and grew up there, attending Woodhouse Grammar School.  Dorothy became a civil servant, working in careers guidance and employment.  She married Derek, who ran his own plumbing and heating business and they had two sons.

dorothy-latham-3

Even now I’m always reading, you know…

Always a passionate reader, Dorothy talked of reading in bed from childhood, on the bus to and from work and in the evenings while her husband pursued practical hobbies like joinery and repairing machinery.

I’d often, to be quite honest, read on the buses.  I mean you had a long journey sometimes…I still try half an hour in the evenings before I go to sleep in bed. It relaxes me.

But she was conscious of her reading tastes and interests changing over time. ‘I think you alter as you get older on what you like.’

Dorothy’s reading habit was inherited from her mother.  She recalled being told Rupert the Bear bedtime stories and then reading for herself: ‘…once I could read, you know, I just didn’t put them down’.  This included, you sense, reading to cope with the disruption of the Second World War, when Dorothy remembered standing in her garden and watching Sheffield being bombed in the middle of the night.

The first book Dorothy really loved was the ever-popular Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery.

My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series. If I’d have had a daughter – which I didn’t. I had two sons – she would have been called Anne…I adored it, and I – I was just absorbed with it.

Within her family, books seemed to be a means of both enjoyment and self-improvement.  ‘You know my mother was always encouraging me…in that kind of life.’  Dorothy was unusual in her village in winning a scholarship to Woodhouse Grammar School.  There she was introduced, as children usually are, to Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and other classics.  ‘It was always the English that I was good at.’  Meanwhile the war made buying books and much else difficult, and so Dorothy and her mother often borrowed from the private Red Circle library: ‘…I was brought up in an ordinary household but somehow I got the best’.

As she grew older, the reading habit grew stronger.  Dorothy’s father was very protective of her, and she spent many evenings reading at home rather than going out.

It may sound strange but I was encouraged in…erm…I mean I never went out. I suppose I was too young in the war but I’d meet some people and they were out dancing and doing all that. Well my father wouldn’t have, he – he was very protective. You could say I missed it really.

Marriage did not stop Dorothy’s reading: ‘…when I got married I had to limit myself to what I did but I’ve always, always loved the reading’.  Her husband and mother-in-law were not much interested in books (indeed she thinks her husband was dyslexic), but her father-in-law was, to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables, a ‘kindred spirit’.  He told her, for example, about finding a ‘wonderful book’ which she must read: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

And you know, I’d discuss books with him and all sorts and you see my eldest son, his first memory of being taken to a library was being taken by his grandpa.

dorothy-latham-1

Dorothy sometimes made compromises between reading and looking after home and family:

…you know I thought I could just be a bit of a monkey and sit down and read and not get on with what I was doing. I mean my husband never bothered, I could have done what I wanted really. I mean you have to look after the children and things and I tried to look after my parents. So you’ve got to fit things in, haven’t you?’

 

dorothy-latham-2

Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son was an example: ‘Oh, yes! Oh I thought that was fantastic. I found it…it absorbed me, yes it did. I didn’t want to put it down.’

By now L M Montgomery had been replaced in Dorothy’s favour by Emily and Charlotte Bronte.  She liked Jane Eyre but her favourite was Wuthering Heights. ‘Soooo romantic and now I just think: “oh, not so much”.’  The past was always interesting.  Dorothy liked history and so looked for classics like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and also lighter, historical novels by writers like Georgette Heyer, Margaret Irwin, Baroness Orczy and Jean Plaidy.  But her reading was very wide.  She happily quoted: Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Mitchell, Catherine Cookson, Rosamund Pilcher, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, P D James, Ellis Peters, Edgar Wallace, Anthony Hope, Nicholas Monsarrat, Dennis Wheatley, Betty Neels, Arnold Bennett, A J Cronin, Nevil Shute, J B Priestley, Somerset Maugham and Howard Spring.

When it came to books vs television and/or film, Dorothy preferred books:

If I’ve read a book and it’s made into a film, I’m disappointed because your mind works with the book and when I read them, they don’t, they’re not the same…I’ve always felt let down… [Filmmakers] don’t go into the detail and I don’t think they realise that when you read your brain is working out and in your brain visually you are imagining the positions and the circumstances…

(Not that Dorothy disliked all adaptations: Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and The Forsyte Saga all gave her a lot of enjoyment.)

Dorothy’s sight, hearing and mobility deteriorated as she got older and over time she relied more and more on the home library service and audiobooks.  ‘I’ve been very grateful for that, very grateful.’  She let others choose her books but she would give feedback: ‘…sometimes I say “oh I did like that” and then they send me a lot, you know. Because I’m, I’m very choosey and they know exactly what I like’.  This did get her into trouble once when a friend picked up a book from the library, which turned out to be more explicit than she usually read.  ‘Phft do you like this stuff then?’ he said.  Dorothy had to explain how the book had been chosen without her looking at it.  Sadly she couldn’t recall the title or author, but she remembered it as ‘very, very embarrassing’.

This reliance on libraries throughout her life gave Dorothy strong views about their value.

‘I was so annoyed when I came here that they sold the library… I thought it was disgusting…and they said “Well, you can go into town” and I thought I’d come here because I was disabled and I thought no library! I thought that was a shame. I hope we don’t lose the libraries.’

After years and years of reading, did Dorothy re-read the favourite books of her youth?

I don’t know about Anne of Green Gables. I absolutely was besotted with it…and I mean now I don’t want to read it. Also I though Wuthering Heights was so romantic, I don’t anymore now, I don’t know, I think it’s a bit over the top.  It doesn’t seem quite real.  But as young person I was telling everyone that’s my favourite book. I must have been about 20, I don’t know. Yeah, that was my favourite and I don’t think it is anymore. I think you alter as you get older on what you like.

Asked if reading changed her life, Dorothy agreed.

…as I’ve got disabled, I have to say I’d be quite lost without my books because I have to fight against getting depressed. I’m not but…because of how I am, I’m not one for just needlessly sitting about like this.  I like to be occupied…I’ve switched off from what I can’t do because I’m filling my life with things that I can and that may sound strange but it’s no good…I’ve reached a good age.  I’m 80 in a month and, and I think “well, I’ve done quite well really”.

 

By Val Hewson

Access Dorothy’s transcript and audio here