From the earliest I can remember, my parents were reading. As I grew older, I joined them. When I think about it, their reading was phenomenal.
This was in the fifties and early 60s. They received three newspapers, every weekday, Monday to Saturday.
My father read The Daily Herald. This was a left-wing newspaper, and once it was bought out by Rupert Murdoch and became The Sun, my father stopped reading it. I remember the transition from broadsheet to tabloid. The first edition featured a cartoon on the front page, showing a woman watching the paper come through the letterbox and saying, “Look Dear, it’s our first Sun”.
My mother read The Daily Mirror. This was also left leaning, although a lighter read. In its origins, it was a women’s paper but by then not so much. It had more cartoons than The Herald, including Andy Capp, The Perishers and Garth. I followed these for years.
The third paper was The Sheffield Star, an evening paper. This was politically right-wing. It still is but the reason I no longer read it is its unreliability. I’ve seen it report several things, I know from experience are untrue.
On Sundays we received two papers, The People and The Sunday Express. The former was left wing-ish and I can’t remember what happened to it. The latter was very Conservative. One of the journalists was William Rees-Mogg, father of the current Rees-Mogg. It was though, home of one of the all-time great cartoonists, Giles.
Then there were magazines. My mother was a prodigious reader. She read three magazines each week: Woman, Woman’s Own and Woman’s Realm. My father read The New Statesman and in those days, under editor Kingsley Martin, it had no pictures, just solid print from the front cover. At first I thought it boring. Then I started to read it and my parents sent it to me with a letter each week, when I was at university. I still subscribe today. If you count my father, I’ve read it continuously longer than I’ve been alive! On top of that we received both The Radio Times and The TV Times, each week.
On top of all that, both my sister and I received a couple of comics every week. You’ll forgive me if I don’t list them all – we both changed them frequently over the years.
I don’t remember owning a lot of books as a child. I must have owned some but it certainly wasn’t like it is now, where I have to climb over piles of books, whenever I move around the house. I’ve no idea where they all come from.
We were all members of the Central Library on Surrey Street in Sheffield. I remember using the Children’s Library (still there) where I read most of Enid Blyton plus Biggles and Jennings. As I grew older, my first love was Science Fiction and I moved to the adult library to read the likes of Clarke and Asimov. This led me to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Then I tried some of his other books, such as Eyeless in Gaza or Point Counterpoint.
My big breakthrough was when I saw a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Well, I thought, I’ve ploughed through Huxley, it can’t be more difficult! This led to an interest in Russian Literature. I devoured Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky. My mother teased when I went to University interviews, if they asked me what I’m reading, I was to reply “T’Idiot”.
My mother almost always had books on the go, mostly romances and she read them very quickly. I remember she took a couple of days to read the whole of The Lord of the Rings. She wasn’t impressed; I was, it had taken me weeks!
My father read books about politics, art, philosophy and religion. I watched him and in time copied him. I was never interested in steel but what he did at home had a lasting impact.
None of this was especially celebrated, it was something we did. We sat in front of the tele, reading. My father would occasionally share something he read and appreciated but mostly we got on with it.
I have no idea whether other families did this and so it is hard to generalise. First, both parents enjoyed reading. It matters little that their interests were so different. They enjoyed it and shared that enjoyment by doing it together and with their children.
This was rooted before television. It started before we had one and even when we first had one, programmes were restricted to set times. As television developed, we simply got used to reading in front of it.
There was something else too. Before the years when most people went to University, working class people had to be self-educated. Many were autodidacts and somehow my parents picked up the habit. They bettered themselves by reading.
One last point. Reading is a great way into solitude. It is a place where two minds encounter, the author and the reader. To be lost in a book is a way to escape the world and at the same time engage with it. We disengage when we are worried. To break the cycle of obsession, by going elsewhere in our minds, helps us forget reality and at the same time see our troubles in a wider context.
Soon after my mother died, my father invested in a massive book of fairy stories and read one a day. They weren’t long stories and took only a few minutes. The routine and vision of other worlds helped him.
During the 1980s, as my father approached retirement and before my mother died, they took up American Square Dancing. I’ve no idea whether they practice this in America but it is similar to and quite different from Ceilidhs. They took it to the lengths of competing and for that they needed a team and so they needed a name. The name they chose was “Steel City Squares”.
The Steel City is, as I’m sure you know, Sheffield. Built on seven hills with 5 main rivers, it was the home of iron and then steel, from the earliest times. By the twentieth century, Sheffield boasted several major steelworks in the Lower Don Valley. A few survive today.
This was the world my father inhabited during his working life. The hammers, the furnaces, the rolling mills, grinders and buffers were all familiar to him. He knew the smells, the dust, the noise … But unlike most who worked in the shops, he was self-employed.
I have lost track of his early working life. He did national service for three years but I think he started work at an earlier age, possibly 16. He seems to have been mentored by his Uncle Eric, who was not much older than he was. Dad’s mother, Elsie had three sisters – Nellie, Annie and Maud plus two brothers – Herbert and Eric. Eric was the kid brother. He showed my father how to do roof work, putting up steel chimneys, it was great fun and they were unencumbered by Health and Safety! At this time, my father got his sole qualification, through night school, in technical drawing.
Uncle Eric died at the age of 26, I’m not sure how he died but I gather it was some illness. My father married and soon after decided to go it alone.
He was in business from 1956 to 1986, which was a success. He bought a house and helped me and my sister through university. This was success to a degree but we need to understand what motivated him.
He set out to make bespoke (my word) machine guards, ducting and balustrading. (He enjoyed wrought iron, for gates and fences and at one time there was loads of his work around Sheffield but this never paid and so he reluctantly dropped it.)
The thing that motivated him was not so much the crafting and installing of things but the problem solving. Mass produced solutions are always cheaper but all the things my father made were unique. The configurations of buildings and the juxtaposition of machines within them, meant there was nothing readily available that met the needs of a factory.
My father would visit, find out what they needed and measure up. Then he would go to the drawing board, design something new and then his men would make it. This may sound simple but he never found anyone else who could do what he did.
Once someone called him in. They needed to get a huge boiler into the cellar. They said they wanted my father to put some pulleys onto the cellar head. Then he could lower the boiler into the cellar. My father said it would cost £300 (a lot of money). They looked downcast and so my father said, they could try something else first. He suggested they call together 6 of their men and tell them they would have an extra £10 in their pay packet of the boiler was in the cellar the next morning. If not, they would have lost nothing and my father would do it. The next morning, my father’s phone rang. The manager was delighted. He said my father was a miracle worker. The boiler was in the cellar!* The manager told loads of other people too, which was good for business. My father had done nothing!
One day, my father came home and announced he had discovered that he was an entrepreneur! But was he? Entrepreneurs build businesses, my father enjoyed solving problems in steel.
The reality was the business fizzled out in the 1980s. There were four reasons I know of. My father found that neither the Conservatives nor Labour cared for small businesses. He was a lifelong socialist and yet found the unions always sided with his workers, no matter how feckless they were.
Chasing payments was a constant headache. Everyone was awaiting payments and when one came through, they would pass it along the line. There was no point taking a debtor to court because they were in the same boat. The money would come through eventually. This played havoc with cash flows. Even worse was the end creditor, like the Inland Revenue. They did use the courts and if they made a business bankrupt, all their creditors lost out.
The third problem was the closure of many steel businesses in the mid-1980s. Many of my father’s regular customers disappeared overnight.
Finally, my father had multiple sclerosis. It affected his right hand side. He didn’t know where those limbs were. This was not good when he was climbing on rooves and erecting chimneys.
Looking back at this history, I think he became increasingly isolated in the business world. Overnight his business became anachronistic. He had the inner resources to take this philosophically, he taught himself to meditate and this helped immensely. He lost his purpose, was constrained by MS and for the last 15 years of his life mourned the passing of his wife. And yet he was calm and unaware of the inspiration he was to friends and neighbours.
He made two interlocking squares from metal, the logo for Steel City Squares. They were still there when we sold the house.
Day 7/21 of my writing challenge. Every weekday, I publish a short piece of writing on my subject, solitude. The writings are based on a daily prompt from Megan Macedo, who leads the challenge. These are all first drafts with minimal revision. Please comment if you find these posts helpful. Previous: Steel. Next: Workhouse.