By Mary Grover
David has contributed two key aids to our understanding of the history of Sheffield: Sheffield Troublemakers: Rebels and Radicals in Sheffield History (2011) and Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History (2018). Members of the Reading Sheffield team have used both books to inform our own research and have been hugely grateful to David’s personal help at various stages of our own projects.
A ‘left-leaning’ family
David was born in 1936. He spent the war years in Wales and the rest of his childhood in the south of England. It is not surprising that he became an historian; he was born into a culture of debate. His mother was a Methodist and more ‘left-leaning’ than the family of his father who once called her ‘the Muscovite’. She had a science degree and taught throughout her sons’ childhood. David describes her as ‘remarkably capable’. Though he had to leave school early, David’s father became an architect by working his way up in the architectural office of Edwin Lutyens and then found employment in the Ministry of Works. His parents first met in a boarding house on the east coast where they spent the first five hours of their acquaintance discussing ‘all sorts of things’. Clearly David’s mother was persuasive because his father moved steadily leftwards and they came to share their political convictions. David’s father ‘revered’ Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman.
At first the influence of David’s mother was strong, sometimes as censor. Though David’s enjoyment of Winnie the Pooh was encouraged, his mother disapproved of Beatrix Potter because as a biologist and botanist she disliked the anthropomorphising of animals: ‘animals speaking seemed ridiculous’. She did not approve of Enid Blyton whom she described as ‘a bit below par’.
As David grew older it was his father’s reading tastes that he began to share.
Though W W Jacobs is less read today than Wells, Stevenson and Conan Doyle, his sinister tale The Monkey’s Paw still appears in anthologies of supernatural or horror stories and has been often filmed.
I went on walks with him during which he would tell me about his latest reading (often biographies). Also he had a large book collection himself. So I read a lot of novels that belonged to his generation by authors like R L Stevenson, W W Jacobs, H G Wells, Conan Doyle.
The book that made the strongest impression on David as a child was one that I had never heard of, the Swiftian satire by André Maurois which mocks the folly of war: in French, Patapoufs et Filifers (1930), in English Fattypuffs and Thinifers. It is about a boy who arrives in a strange land where there are two countries at war with each other. One country is easy going and the other not. Both are fighting over a little island between them. In the end they make peace. David associates the presence of this book in the house with his parents’ membership of the Peace Pledge Union, the pacifist campaign which they joined in 1938.
The radio was a source of stimulation to both David and his parents. David remembers Children’s Hour, in particular Uncle Mac. He enjoyed the adventures broadcast, for example those of Malcolm Saville. Many of his stories were broadcast in 1946 and Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet in 1945. If the dangers seemed too thrilling there was always the sofa to hide behind. Though David ‘quite liked’ Arthur Ransome, it sounds as though they were a little short on thrills.
As David and his brother grew older, the whole family would often go to Guildford Repertory Theatre. The productions were of a high standard. He remembers Henry V, Murder on the Nile and the Broadway comedy Affairs of State by Louis Verneuil. But on Saturday afternoons David’s father usually took himself off, on his own, to the cinema.
School: more scope for debate
When David passed his 11 plus and went to Woking Grammar School, he developed a circle of friends every bit as intellectually curious as his parents. One of his circle became an Anglo-Catholic and David was a Methodist so religion became a subject for debate. The two boys and their friends would wander round the town’s parks in their lunch hour discussing religion, politics, evolution and the latest edition of the Brain’s Trust, in particular the contributions of the celebrity philosopher, Cyril Joad. ‘I remember the gossip when Joad was fined for not paying for a railway ticket.’ One teacher, ‘though rather pompous’ encouraged the boys’ general reading.
When he was 16, in 1952, David compiled a diary of his reading. It includes Joad’s Guide to Modern Thought, The Cambridge History of English Literature, British Historical and Political Orations, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, The History of the USA by Cecil Chesterton (‘a dubious brother of G.K. Chesterton who was regarded as anti-Semite’), Pickwick Papers, Goethe’s Faust in English, Doctrines of the Christian Church, the Penguin Book of Comic Verse, The ABC of International Affairs, The Life of Albert Schweitzer and Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. David describes reading Graham Greene in his teens and ‘probably’ Orwell. David’s diary includes a long discussion about the implications of Stalin’s death and notes for David’s talk about Chopin to the musical society.
David remembers reading Scott’s Kenilworth and Conrad’s The Rover. He returned to André Maurois, to his biography of Benjamin Disraeli, having recently read Disraeli’s novel, Sybil. The teenager ‘haunted’ second-hand bookshops, in particular Finnerens, where there was a mysterious inner sanctum containing books that Mr Finneren said ‘would not interest you boys.’ David also used the municipal library in Woking. His English teacher was a Freeman of the City of London and took the group to the City. It was a busy day – they visited The Guildhall Museum, Southwark Cathedral and then the teacher left them and the boys attended Question Time at the Houses of Parliament: all superb preparation for his successful application to study History at Cambridge in 1955.
David’s journey to Sheffield
After university David did his National Service in the Royal Army Educational Corps. He found himself helping poorly educated infantrymen with their English, maths and current affairs, a task for which he was well equipped. He then joined the Civil Service.
Moving for work, David has made Sheffield his home during the last forty years. He has written the histories of so many Sheffielders that it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to write a little of his own history: his history as a reader.