Book groups that turned into well-loved sagas

Judith Lafferty who has run a book group for 37 years relaxing at home in Crookesmoor
Judith Lafferty who has run a book group for 37 years relaxing at home in Crookesmoor

YOU can’t beat a good book – or a good book group.

At least two groups of women have been getting together in Sheffield for more than 30 years to digest and discuss their selected monthly literature.

They stepped forward after the Sheffield Telegraph featured a group who have been meeting for 20 years and wondered whether they were the longest-running.

In fact, one was started 37 years ago in October and another 31 years ago in September.

A love of reading brought together a group of women together in 1975, encouraged by Rita Johnson, who had been involved in a book group in New Zealand.

“When we started we were young mothers at home, mostly university wives, but a couple with steelworkers,” says Judith Lafferty, a retired librarian. “Thirty seven years ago you mostly stayed at home with the children.”

Consequently, it has always been a daytime group, but as demand grew, one of the members, Rosemary Boucher, the wife of the late Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, Bob Boucher, started to put people in touch with each other.

There are now seven satellite groups, with university links, some meeting in the evening, including one that is mixed and another with international students and lecturers.

The network has grown to such an extent that it won an award for for being the biggest book group in the country.

Members all get together once a year, with up to 60 attending, this year discussing Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with council chief executive John Mothersole.

Previous guests have included Bishop Jack Nicholls, MPs Nick Clegg and David Blunkett and writer Marina Lewycka and, over the past seven or eight years, the group has raised £1,000 for Weston Park Hospital.

The idea was to bring university people together and it worked. “It’s fantastic to have a huge network of friends,” says Rosemary. “If you go to a university event, you could see eight to ten people from a book group who recognise each other.”

Judith, who lives in Crookesmoor, said: “The original group is still going strong, reading a mixture of modern literature (Emma Donoghue’s Room), classics (Precious Bane by Mary Webb) and non-fiction (Adam Nicolson’s When God Spoke English).

“Apart from lively, witty discussion there is also coffee and cake. What more could lovers of reading want?”

The host chooses the book ahead of monthly meetings, gives a review and then there is a discussion, which can be “heated”.

Nine or ten women attend meetings and Judith is an original member along with Sheena Ritchie and Alice McClure. Four other current members joined a month or so later – Susan Lockyer, Mary Renshaw, Erica Jeremiah and Rosemary Atherton.

It’s a familiar story – they relish the chance to read a book they would not otherwise have selected.

“One that stands out came from Mary Renshaw, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst, by Nicolas Tomalin and Ron Hall, which I had not heard of,” says Judith. “I had to stay up until two in the morning, it was so good.”