William Woodruff died this week. He was a professor of world history best known perhaps for his autobiographical works. He discovered a love of learning as a young adult and found his way to Oxford and a life in academia on three continents. His autobiographical The Road to Nab End was published in 1993 and portrays a long gone past of growing up working class and impoverished in a Lancashire weaving community.
Here’s a short extract about learning to read and write and America:
“My debt to grandmother Bridget is even greater than that which I owe to my sister Brenda. Nightly, she taught me to read and write. I think she gave me the attention she should have given my mother when she was my age. Grandmother stood over me while I struggled to link word to word, sentence to sentence on my slate. ‘Practice makes perfect,’ she said as I cleaned my slate. Her wrinkled finger followed mine when I tried to read a children’s English grammar she had borrowed from the Public library. Work done, she would tell me about the library books she had read. She didn’t go in for the classics like the Penny Reader, Mr Peck. She liked to read the novels of the time. She was fond of the books of a writer called Warwick Deeping. I suspect she liked him because he had written a book about an Irish girl called Kitty.
She also talked about America. She believed that America was the largest, richest country in the world. Beyond the packed cities and skyscrapers of the American eastern seaboard, she told me, were endless grasslands reaching to high mountains. Everything was big. ‘One day you will go to America, Billy Boy,’ she said, as if it had all been arranged. As I got older she became more concerned about what was to become of me. ‘You can go a long way’ she would say, shaking her lace cap at me. “That’s if you wish to. But you won’t go without “larnin’.” It’s the key that opens all doors.”