The Reading Journey of Carolyn W

By Mary Grover

Carolyn was born in Sheffield in 1944. Twenty years later, while working as an analytic chemist, she married Bob whose reading journey is here.  

Unlike Bob, who found his own way to books and reading, Carolyn’s reading was always nurtured by her parents. Though she cannot remember being read to, she thinks she must have been because ‘of the books I remember, sort of nursery rhyme books and there were things like that’.

Hey diddle diddle

Throughout her childhood she was bought comics and annuals: School Friend and Girls’ Crystal. She particularly remembers a compendium:

a big one like the annuals but it was all old stories, not sort of the comic strip things and the quizzy things like they are now anyways.

This sounds like one of the Wonder books described by some of our other readers.

Walkley Library

She was soon enrolled by her mother at Walkley Library. Along with Hillsborough down the hill, this was one of the first two branch libraries with a separate and sizeable children’s section. While Carolyn was feeding her appetite for Enid Blytons at Walkley, Bob was finding his supply at Hillsborough. The first books that Carolyn can remember reading ‘all by myself’ were these Enid Blytons.

In the 1950s Carolyn and the family went on book-buying expeditions together.

The bookshop in town, Andrews, . . .we used to go there on a regular basis, all three of us. Mum, Dad and I. And they always used to . . . anything that you sort of, you know, that you wanted, we went there and got it. And that was the other thing. My dad was always into sort of encyclopaedias and things like that.

A few years younger than her husband, Carolyn largely escaped war and post-war austerity. Her father was a railway engineer, and as she grew up, an only child, there were more resources of all kinds available to her family. The support of both parents for their daughter’s school work was practical and constant.

If I needed a book for school at home, you know, because there would be some books where there weren’t enough for everybody to have one.  So that I could have it, they’d always buy me one so I could have it at home.

Her family must have been the only family in Sheffield to have bought a television to help their daughter prepare for an exam on The History of Mr Polly – set for O level in about 1960. (The BBC Genome project shows that it was broadcast in six episodes in autumn 1959.)

That was on the telly and we hadn’t got a telly.  . . . We found out it was on the telly. Anyway, Dad organised something with his well-off friend.  He got a new telly and we got their old telly.

She remembers the grandeur of the set itself.

You had to have the curtains closed. And it was one of these tellies with doors. It was this tiny little screen and it was a huge thing. And it had doors and this tiny little screen. And we managed to watch Mr Polly on it.  Yeah, but dad was tickled that he had managed to get this telly so that we could watch Mr Polly.

But it was her mother who was the strongest influence on what she read. When she was a teenager she shared many of her mother’s favourite authors: Dick Francis, Nevil Shute and Agatha Christie, a taste she shared with Bob.

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Nevil Shute

Like Bob’s mother, Carolyn’s took the Women’s Weekly in preference to any other women’s magazine:

they were never quite as, I don’t know, Mills and Boony as other magazines, the serials in that. I did read those as well’.

When Carolyn got a place at grammar school, right over the other side of town and a tram journey of four to five miles, she was taught in her first two years by an inspirational English teacher.

And she was great, she was. And I think maybe then that’s when I started reading, as I say, more school sort of books.  I did end up going through all the ones girls were used to read in those days.  Like Jane Austen and Jane Eyre, all that sort of stuff.

When Carolyn was asked if she looked out for a difference between ‘popular’ and ‘quality’ writing she wasn’t sure that she did.

Well, I don’t know.  I suppose . . .  I read them and I had no idea of the quality of the writing that was in those books.  I just never liked the romancey sort of stuff.

Though she had the Arts and Books section of the Telegraph by her side when interviewed, Carolyn isn’t sure how much influence these reviews had on her reading choices. The only review she can remember having an effect on what she chose to read was one of Jilly Cooper. She read it and concluded that these novels were not for her.

Carolyn became an analytic chemist at a refractory works in the early 1960s (where she met her husband). She benefitted from the post-war increase in further education and training. Very few of our female readers coming to adulthood before the Second World War were offered on-the-job training. Though Carolyn was a reader and came to her firm with good science qualifications she had always found English Language examinations hard. It was while she was on day release that one of her lecturers pointed out to her that she could do an O level in English Language that was specially designed for scientists. By gaining a pass in that examination she was able to gain a licenceship in chemistry.

Even though I read a lot, I don’t think I’ve got that good an imagination to write … to make things up.  My imagination works in a different way.

Here is Carolyn’s interview in full.

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