By Ruth Owen
Ruth, who was born in Sheffield on 13 February 1954, is one of our original team of interviewers. She has been a teacher almost her whole career and is now a personal tutor for English and French GCSE and A Level. She is the daughter of Mary and niece of Pat, whose memories you can read here.
Just like so many of my generation, as children, I read and read and read. Frankly, there was little else to do. If the sun was shining and there were friends around, then we would all be outside, either playing on the street or in woodland. Games included hopscotch, French skipping, ordinary skipping, playing ‘two ball’ (throwing balls up against the wall) or riding our bikes.
But, when the rain came, or friends were away, or for some reason we had to stay at home, reading was always my first choice. I remember vividly hanging out of bed, reading by the landing light. My brother was rather more sophisticated in that he had a torch.
My parents were very different in their reading matter, but they both read. Dad was a newspaper man – cover to cover if he had the time between working at the railway for five and a half days a week and tackling all the DIY our house desperately needed.
Mum, on the other hand, was a voracious reader of fiction. Attempting to gain her attention when she was reading was quite a challenge. It would go something like this:
‘Mum. Mum. Mu-um.’ Louder now: ‘MU-UM!’
‘Yes love,’ she replied, paying little attention.
‘Can I go to Gillian’s?
‘Mum! Did you hear me? Can I?’
‘What’s that love?’
What she did hear was my dad coming home. She’d slam the book shut, stand up straight and pick up a duster. Dad had more than a bit of a temper. I’d give up and pick up a book.
So which books was I actually reading? I remember from a very young age reading Bible stories, especially the Christmas story. I was about four years old, was with my dad and was reading to him. I managed the word ‘suddenly’ which was the first word of the sentence telling of the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary. My dad was delighted. What influence his praise had on me to read further I cannot say, though it must have had some. His praise was very rare.
Other books I remember reading from childhood were Puppy Stories for Children – a book I loved and still have. Every Christmas I was given by my aunt an annual called Princess – it’s worth noting that a princess was the last thing I aspired to be, but I did enjoy the annual. Somebody bought me The Observer’s Book of Horses and Ponies. I read that book from cover to cover about a hundred times. I could recognise and categorise every horse and the script that went with it.
I have always loved animals and have read an awful lot about them. I am still horrified by the way humans treat them: factory farms, caged hens, the cruel dairy industry. This love of animals has also informed much of my reading, and still does. The question I asked as a child, ‘What have animals ever done to us that we treat them so abhorrently?’ No answer as yet.
And then, in she came, the most popular children’s author of my generation and maybe all time: Enid Blyton. I read them all. Secret Seven, Famous Five, The Naughtiest Girl in the school and my all -time favourite, Malory Towers: every single one. All I wanted was to be in a boarding school with Darrell and her mates. Actually that’s not entirely true, as I was also reading Ruby Ferguson’s books about Jill and her love of horses. Jill’s Gymkhana was a firm favourite and there was its predecessor, A Pony for Jill. The nearest I got to my own pony was a stuffed sock with button eyes and a broom handle body. Despite its inanimate properties, I was still up at 6 am ‘to muck it out’ and feed it. Creeping down the stairs of our very small house, I’d hear my dad. ‘What the bloody hell is she doing going out to feed that stick horse? Can’t you stop her, Mary? She’s obsessed.’ In this instance, he was right.
I’m trying to recall where I got these books from. Several were bought for me by my parents. Astonishing really, as money was very tight. We were living in Darnall, but I have no memory of going to a local library. My dad believed absolutely in the power of education to transform lives. The books were regarded as an investment. A poor boy from Tinsley, a prisoner of war for three and a half years, he was determined that his children would have that which he had been denied.
To this end, we moved. We arrived in Beauchief and my brother and I became pupils at Abbey Lane County Primary school. The A stream had an excellent reputation for all its pupils passing the 11+.
Now 11 years old and the summer holidays stretching in front of me, I would go to the library almost every other day. Woodseats Library was about half a mile away and I was a devotee. We had to go over to my aunt’s in Tinsley during the holidays, as my mum was working – she had to – but on arrival home there was just enough time before the library closed, to succeed in a mad dash to the shelves.
Grammar school time arrived in the late sixties and reading was expected and enforced. Fine by me. Jane Eyre for breakfast, Persuasion for lunch and Tess of the d’Urbervilles for tea. Despite being made to walk across the desks as King Hamlet’s ghost, by my rather eccentric English teacher, I loved Shakespeare too. I would read anything and everything, and at A level developed a love for French Literature too. Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Zola’s L’Assomoir and Germinal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – superb.
University was where I was able to study both French and English literature and was also where I developed a lifelong interest in literature from further afield too, particularly America, Russia and India.
Some friends of mine, six of us, about twenty-five years ago now, decided that we would form a book group and we are still going to this day. We take it in turns to choose the book which we discuss the following month. Several years back, it being my turn, I chose The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, in my opinion, a sublime writer. Sadly, this was not the opinion of the group, who really disliked what has come to be one of my very favourite books. It is so interesting to me how reading preferences vary. The fact that people with whom you have so much in common, educationally, socially and politically, can have such a wide variety of tastes in books, utterly astonishes me. But that’s how it is.
Right now, wherever I go, I have a book with me. Thrillers, serious tomes, studies of the English language itself; in short I have to have something to read. To have to wait in a queue, or wait for someone, or have my car break down or being unable to sleep – all of these irritations in life are soothed by the simple knowledge of having a book with me.