By Mary Grover
There was just room for a boy, his bed and a bookcase. In the early thirties there were few boys in Sheffield who were able to go to sleep looking at a full set of naval encyclopaedias and a set of hymn books. But John’s family had rich connections. His father had been an engine room artificer on the HMS Achilles so ‘he must have got some books somewhere to study or do some studying’. And then he returned to Hadfield’s works and spent his days grappling
with these huge castings and things like that, yet his hobby was repairing watches. So I’m thinking he had some, he must have had some reading knowledge about things like that.
And then there was the Wesleyan Reformed church on John’s mother’s side. Many of his mother’s relatives had been ministers. The book that John has read ‘more than anything’ is a book he came across, by accident, at a friend’s house: One Hundred Years of the Wesleyan Church, published in 1949, a book that contains an etching of his great grandfather.
Few of us have ancestors who made it into history books. Stories of his grandparents and meetings with Methodists from all over the country, gave John a fascination with the way events could be mapped and our personal journeys directed. The one book he would never be without is a ‘road map’.
But, having said … ‘a road map’, there are a lot of maps, or books that can act as maps if you want directions in life. And also which way not to go, you know.
Hymn books also served this mapping function, with the added advantage that the words remain when precious information has slipped away.
Why I like the hymn books, is because things like that you remember better, because my memory’s very bad now, so I can’t remember things. I remember this one verse in particular: ‘I am not skilled to understand/What God had willed and God has planned/I only know at God’s right hand/Stands one who is my saviour.’ And things like that you remember, and it makes you remember them. This is what I try to do now, to sort of stoke up my memory.
Buildings too ‘stoke up the memory’. The Sheffield church that John attended is now a mosque but when John enters one of Derbyshire’s two remaining Wesleyan Reform churches ‘the memories flood up there’.
Because John has memorised so many hymns, hymn books are not the ones he has at hand.
My favourite book, if you like, is the Derbyshire street guide, because this is Derbyshire, and you can find your way all around Derbyshire by this street guide. It’s the most well-thumbed book I’ve ever had, you know; too soon does it fall to pieces and I have to purchase a new one.
During the war John’s mother worked at The Book Room, the Wesleyan Reform Bookshop in Sheffield. It was to his mother that John feels he owes much of his absorption in history. He feels that his mother would have been a fine minister herself.
John met Meg, his wife, at the Manor Library where Meg had been one of the first librarians. I interviewed them together and he looked guiltily at Meg, as he recalls the use he made of the book case that stood at the foot of his bed when he was a boy. He uses it not only to connect with his relatives but to create a hiding place were they could not enter.
The other thing about the bookcase was one I probably shouldn’t admit to, because I know how Meg is, that I used to create a secret cupboard in here, in amongst the books. And I made a door and pasted the ends of books, the title pages, just to hide it and confuse you. Desecration I suppose it was, of a book.