The Reading Journey of Norman Adsetts

Norman was born in 1931.

He was interviewed by Mary Grover on the 17th April 2014.

sir-norman-adsetts-age-4

Though Norman was born in Manchester his father was from Sheffield and returned when Norman was four years old. In 1935 he left his job in London as a highly successful salesman of office equipment to open a sweet shop at the bottom of Derbyshire Lane. Attached to the sweet shop was Abbetts’ Library, the kind of of library of popular fiction, often known as a ‘twopenny library’.

Abbetts-the-Gods-of-Mars-

Ronald Batty’s superb guide, How to Run a Twopenny Library, was to come out three years later, in 1938, but Norman’s father would have endorsed Batty’s advice that a twopenny library seldom paid its way except as a ‘sideline to another business’.  And shrewd salesman that he was, Mr Adsetts had found a perfect pitch for the library attached to his sweetshop. The terraced houses of Meersbook, with their modest gardens, were the other end of town from the mammoth steel works which had created the industrial city of Sheffield. The families that lived in Meersbrook probably had a little more income to spare than those who lived in the more densely packed and smokier areas on the east and north of Sheffield. Enough to cover a weekly payment of 2d (53p in today’s money) to ensure a constant supply of the kind of popular fiction insufficiently improving to pass muster on the shelves of the municipal libraries. W. H. Smith filled the shelves of Mr Adsetts’ library changing the stock regularly.

It was in this library, surrounded by delectably long runs of Nat Gould, Zane Grey and Ethel Boileau (a favourite of his mother’s), that the four year old Norman learned to read and to acquire his life-long passion for reading of every kind. He cannot remember reading any children’s books or indeed being taught to read.

ethel-boileau-text

We lived over the shop and so I would be able to go down to the shop and the shelves were in the corner of the shop and I would simply take whatever was available. I read everything. I had a completely untutored and uncritical choice of reading and I have still got a few books which have the frontispiece of the library. The ones that I have, the ones I remember reading first were by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

These were the Martian series by Burroughs, science fiction that would have been written for the young. But Norman read indiscriminately amongst much more serious authors as well. Norman is unique amongst our readers in having sought out early editions of the novels he read as a child recreating the shelves which towered above him as a child. Norman’s study is today lined with 1930s editions of Sexton Blake, Edgar Rice Burroughs and other treasures. He holds out one with particular care.

The book that had the most impact on me was this one; it is called Cities of Refuge. I notice from this copy which I bought later that it first came out in 1937 so it must have been one of the first books to be put into the library; Cities of Refuge is by a man called Sir Phillip Gibbs who had been a famous war correspondent and a pretty prolific writer of romance and adventure stories built around the conditions of the time. And I didn’t know from Adam what it was all about but I read it with fascination. It was all about the lives of a group of aristocrats from Russia who were displaced by the revolution and then wandered across the world living in various ‘cities of refuge’ where they were welcomed or thrown out, found work or starved.

phillip-gibbs

Though the book was in many ways ‘beyond’ the little seven year old who read it, it shaped him and brought home the fragility of the world which was, in 1938, about to be plunged into another apocalyptic struggle.

That was a grown up book. It was grown up in all kinds of ways. There was sex in it, there was murder and killing in it. There was everything in it, most of which I didn’t understand but I read it and shared in the sadness of it all.

But there were yards of less harrowing tales. Though Norman’s father had had to leave school at eleven and had not had as much schooling as his mother, he obviously had an infectious delight in narrative and the power of the word which served him well as a salesman of every sort. He put these gifts to work in entertaining his two children, making up stories at bedtime which derived probably from the films of westerns that he had seen rather than the volumes of Zane Grey that his son was discovering on his shelves. However, Norman’s passion for reading was a solitary one.

My father had some understanding but he didn’t share my obsession. He was not a big reader at all.  He had difficulty in reading a book because he hadn’t had either the training or the opportunity.

Because of the solitary nature of his reading adventures, Norman often heard in his head words that were quite different from those the author intended.

I would read words that I didn’t know how to pronounce but I would gradually work out what they meant.  There was a word ‘avalanche’ which I never, not till five or six years later, knew how to pronounce. In my mind I used to call it ‘avahlahis’

By the time Norman had won his scholarship place at King Edward VII School, he had already galloped through most of the English novels that the school introduced him to. However, the Latin and Greek classics were a revelation.

When he left school in 1949, having gained a place to study biochemistry at Oxford, Norman had a ten week stretch of time in which he thought he would extend his reading further and revisit old favourites. He read out the list of the twenty five books he had read in those ten weeks.

The first was The Red Prussian, which was a remaindered biography of Karl Marx which I picked up from Boots: wonderful book, I have still got it; then Pattern of Soviet Domination, Stanisław Mikołajczyk, whatever. Introduction to Comparative Biochemistry; The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism by Bertrand Russell; for a school trip to Denmark I read a guidebook; Half a Million Tramps by W.A. Gape; The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck; The Man who was Thursday by Chesterton; The Loved Ones by Evelyn Waugh; Ship of the Line by C. S. Forester;  Chad Hannah by Edmunds; The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald; Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan; The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim; Prester John by John Buchan; Happy Return  by C. S. Forester; They Found Atlantis  by Dennis Wheatley; The Commodore  by C. S. Forester; Prince of the Captivity  by John Buchan; The Saint in Miami  by Leslie Charteris; Good Companions by J. B. Priestley; Jenny Villiers  by J. B. Priestley; Let the People Sing by J. B. Priestley; All Quiet on the Western Front by Eric Maria Remarque; The Story of St. Michel by Axel Munthe and Behind the Curtain by Phillip Gibbs.

sir norman adsetts library shelf 2015

Perhaps it is unsurprising that once the boy arrived in Oxford he decided to change from bio-chemistry to Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Nor is it surprising that he became one of the city’s leading business men, endowing the university library in the centre of Sheffield that now bears his name.

 

The Adsetts Centre at Sheffield Hallam University

by Mary Grover

Access Sir Norman Adsetts’ transcript and audio here

4 thoughts on “The Reading Journey of Norman Adsetts

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