Harry Young (B.1901-1996): Reading & Writing

A recent photograph of Islington Central Public Library.
A recent photograph of Islington Central Public Library.

As mentioned in ‘Education & Schooling’, Harry picked up a habit of reading in his school years as he travelled to Islington Central Public Library. He describes the excitement of walking into the library for the first time; One day I walked in – and discovered “Books”. This was El Dorado, my “Shangri-la”, my “City of the Sun”.’ In reading the chapter you get a real sense of the excitement and passion he had towards reading; ‘I fought with “Clive in India”, and with the “Black Prince at Crecy”. I devoured G.A Hentys rubbish like a starved rat. I rode a camel with “Kitchener to Khartoun” and a “Mustang in the Wild West”; “The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s”, “Top of the Form”, “Ivanhoe” and “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, all slid down my insatiable maw.’ This hunger for literature fed his imagination and gave him a reprieve from his self described ‘poverty stricken life’.

Some of the works of G.A Henty

This joy of reading put him at a great advantage to others his age. As a child he was unable to understand why others did not share this interest ‘I was to realise many years later, when struggling to get “backward” kids to learn to read that it was not the kid, but the father and mother who were “backward”‘. This statement leads me to recall a passage from David Vincent’s  ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’ whereby he describes the challenge of literacy within the working classes:

‘[T]he foundation for the eventual victory [of full literacy] was laid not in the schoolroom but in the working-class family … During the second half [of the nineteenth century] the increasingly elaborate efforts of the churches and the State were, until almost the end, dependent on whether working-class parents were prepared to send their children to school. Whilst parents and children were subject to an ever more complex range of pressures, for the most part they retained freedom of choice. The defeat of illiteracy was in the last resort the responsibility of the illiterates themselves.’ [1] (my use of italics)

So, despite the access and availability of education and reading materials to the working classes, ultimately the responsibility lay solely within their own motivation. Luckily, Harry found this motivation early on in his life and it’s clearly reflected both in his vocabulary and his working ambition.

His constant reading frequently got him in trouble with his mother as she demanded he stopped reading and come back to reality, yet to Harry ‘they were as real to me as the mole on my face.’ His love of fiction lead to an explosion of ideas and creativity within his own mind as he looked forward to the writing lessons in school, and he writes that ‘due to the plethora of ideas with which the insatiable reading had filled my buzzing head, scribbled at frantic speed to get the words on paper during the precious 30 minutes of the “composition” lesson, making smudges and blots which annoyed Mr. E intensely, great store being set on “neatness”.’

In reading this chapter I can see how much reading and writing positively affected him in his childhood despite his poverty and unfortunate circumstances. It is certainly possible that this love for adventure and fiction foreshadowed and influenced his decision to have an adventure of his own as he moved to and worked in Russia.


[1]Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247

Burnett, John, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography vol. 2. Brighton: Harvester, 1987. YOUNG, Harry 2-858

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