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.
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!
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.