“I’d be hutched up to the warmth of the dying coals in the Yorker kitchen stove sitting on a stool lost in reading, searching the wordy undergrowth for stimulating passages ‘til long after the house was chill and silent beyond midnight” (37).
Joe loved to read and it was one of his favourite things to do as a young boy. Because the Loftus household didn’t have a lot of money to spare for Joe to buy his own reading materials and “as a school boy I didn’t qualify for pocket money” (38), one of his first experiences of reading, and where he started to develop his passion, was by stealing his older siblings’ novels, comics and magazines when they were out of the house. Although part of a highly literate family with all members being able to read and write, Joe never reveals what initially sparked his interest in reading, other than his curiosity to know what his siblings were reading in their leisure time. (Read more about what the Loftus family did in their leisure time in ‘Home & Family‘ and ‘Habits, Culture & Beliefs‘). When his sisters were hard at work in the cotton mill, Joe recalls “I was a great one for swiping them. To zip through on the quiet. Romantic novels galore like Marie Correlli’s ‘Barabbas’ and ‘Montezumas Daughter’ by H Rider Haggard along with Mrs Gaskell, the Bronte sisters…and so many others” (37). These great novels are obviously gendered texts tailored towards a female readership, but this does not seem to bother Joe, perhaps because he was so keen to read whatever he could get his hands on! From an outside perspective, this material Joe was reading at a young age appears too advanced and with a high lexis that he would struggle with, but in his memoir Joe details no difficulties, which suggests he was an intelligent child with literary capabilities above his years.
However, Joe did manage to read material that was better suited to his age and gender. Again by stealing, but this time from his brothers, he notes “of all my childish pleasures none was greater than to slip into that bedroom when the coast was clear. Kneeling beside the trunk, I would quietly open the lid, take out a comic at random and slip quickly and totally for hours into that other world of Weary Willie, Tired Tim and Casey Count and the other 101 characters beloved of my generation” (37). In his memoir, Joe then proceeds to list the different comics that provided him with so much pleasure in the stolen moments while his brothers were out: “The trail through this land of instant happiness was signposted by Chips, Comic Cuts, Film Fun, Lot-o-Fun, and sexton Blake with now and then Rainbow, Tiger Tims Weekly, Chicks Own or Butterfly.” (38) This suggests that, understandably, he enjoyed this more than his sisters’ literature.
His appetite for reading really came into its own when he joined the local Leigh Library. In his element, Joe notes “you’d find me on a Saturday forenoon in among those smashing children’s books, lost to the world” (42). While limited to the children’s section of the library, poles apart from his love of funny comics, Joe was interested in “introductions to science, inventions, hobbies and skills” (42) that included “ravishing pictures and photographs, some in colour, of surprising animal and plant life in our own hedgerows” (42). Because of this, Joe learned more from reading than he did from his schooling, admitting “my capacity for expressing verbal or written English developed more by a process of absorption, by osmosis from the English literature which school stimulated me to read outside of school hours” (82). (Read more about Joe’s schooling in ‘Education & Schooling‘.
Juxtaposed with the list of childish comics he enjoyed, Joe delivers an extensive list of all the literary works that he read as a teenager through the library, once he was permitted to join the adult section:
“I was captured in mid-adolescence by the passing glamour of Rider-Haggard, Zane Grey, Edgar Wallace, Conan Doyle and P.G Wodehouse[…]Lifted by the tapering inspiration of Fitzgerald’s ‘Rubaiyat’ and Gray’s ‘Elegy’; picking up, laying down and retaining parts of Keats, Yeats, The Lakelanders, Shelley, Longfellow, John Donne, Belloc, Chesterton, Byron, De-la-Mare and Robert Burns” (43).
By presenting this list of somewhat highbrow authors, it raises questions about Joe’s intentions. Is he trying to portray himself as well read and therefore intellectual? Is he trying to consciously break the stereotype that working class men were not cultured? It does appear that Joe is showing off, until he admits he would skip through sections and skim read until he reached the interesting and action packed bits of these novels. He says, “I was also learning to discriminate, to path find around. Over or through the densely woven thickets of intervening wordiness to get closer to the action” (43) and confesses, “I leafed through and no doubt immaturely rejected the tedious novels of Scott, Trollope, Thackeray, Hardy and their ilk” (43).
Although Joe was reading texts from authors associated with the literary cannon, he isn’t thoroughly engaging with them and would probably skip the most important and influential parts. Ultimately, he is just reading books for their entertaining nature and not didactic quality. Because of this, I don’t think Joe is trying to communicate the idea that he is cultured, through the honest and frank way that Joe writes, which is apparent throughout the whole of ‘Lee Side’, he is simply depicting himself as an eager boy who loved to read for pleasure. As a working-class boy, it is interesting to consider how Joe’s life would have differed and indeed perhaps suffered if he could not access the library for free. In this instance, Joe’s class status did not obstruct his access to knowledge. In his later years Joe used his literary skills to write a series of allied woodworking-trade training curricula.
Joe does not mention any further reading that he did in his adult years, so we do not know if his reading preference altered. The reading Joe did as a child has certainly had an impact on his writing. His memoir is highly engaging and at points is written as more of a story than a memoir. In fact, stylistic features present in books Joe has read infiltrate in to his own memoir and Joe tends to articulate his experiences using fictional tropes. For example, at the end of his memoir when he describes a passionate affair he had with his landlady’s daughter while lodging in Essex, isolated, it sounds like something straight out of an erotic romance novel:
“That morning when she came in with me once more again, glowing with love and tenderness, sliding down to me on her back, wriggling down on me and we found each other, scissor-cut-scissors style, so impetuously, sweetly and naturally, with mutual signs of bliss. My fingertips caressed her lightly, over and over, following the contours of her limbs and twisting body. Then we kissed in close embrace, but carefully” (197).
It is clear then that reading has shaped Joe’s imagination and it seems reading his sisters romantic novels all those years ago has stayed with him!
‘Joe Loftus’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:484
Loftus, Joe. ‘Lee Side’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:484.
“Portrait of a Young Woman Reading by G.B Barlow. North Lincolnshire Museums Service” www.artuk.org Web. Accessed 22/03/2017 https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/category:hobbies-and-pastimes/page/15/view_as/grid
“Illustrated Chips comic 1922, one that Joe might have read as an 8 year old” www.comicbookplus.com Web. Accessed 22/03/2017 http://comicbookplus.com/?dlid=2452
“Lot-o-Fun Comic 1914” www.alamy.com Web. Accessed http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-lot-o-fun-comic-1914-editorial-use-only-10469756.html
“Leigh Library” www.leigh.life.com Web. Accessed 22/03/2017 https://leigh.life/index.php?action=media;sa=album;in=22603
“William Thackeray by Samuel Laurence (1812-84). Berg Collection, New York Public Library – a novelist rejected by Joe” www.victorianweb.org Web. Acsessed 22/03/2017 http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/wmt/wmtbio.html