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Granny Was a Buffer Girl

Granny was a Buffer Girl is set in industrial Sheffield from the 1930s to the 1980s. Three generations of Jess’s family tell her the heart-breaking and funny family stories and romances that bind them together. 11+ Carnegie medal, Boston Globe-Horn Honor.

Sadly, Granny Was a Buffer Girl is no longer available, although you may be able to find secondhand copies on Amazon or elsewhere.

Most recently published by Catnip, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84647-024-0. (Previously published by Methuen, 1986 and Puffin, 2003).

It was also available as a Collins playscript – see my Plays page, as well as a schools edition: Heinemann New Windmills 0435 123289, a Chivers audiobook, read by the author and a large print edition: Chivers. 0745107257.

Granny Was a Buffer Girl was dramatised for BBC Radio 4.

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“You tell your secrets, and I’ll tell mine,” said Granny Dorothy. “I’ll tell you something that Albert doesn’t know, even. My best secret.”

Mum did catch my eye then, and her look promised me that I wouldn’t be going home without sharing all its secrets, all its love stories, and all its ghost stories too.

Foreign editions

Granny Was a Buffer Girl was also published in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Japan, South Korea, Sweden and the USA.

Awards

Granny Was a Buffer Girl won the Carnegie medal, 1986, the Burnley book award, 1986 and the Globe-Horn Honor Book (USA) 1986.

The inspiration for ‘Granny was a Buffer Girl’

I came across a painting in the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. The title of the painting was ‘Sheffield Buffer Girls’ by Sir William Rothenstein and it showed two ordinary young women in their work clothes. It did not give their names. In the way that portraits do, their eyes seemed to look straight at me and to be speaking to me. I said “I don’t know what a buffer girl is”, and someone said “My granny was a buffer girl”.

For weeks afterwards the faces of those young women in the painting continued to stare out at me and to haunt me. When Dave Sheasby, a producer for Schools Radio, invited me to write a local series for Radio Sheffield I decided to go back to that painting. I wanted to understand what they were telling me. Two young women about eighteen or so, trapped forever in the frame of the canvas, yet they were real women. I wanted to breathe life into those young women and allow them to step out of the canvas. They became real people, living and working women of Sheffield.

Later, I decided to develop those radio stories into a novel. It tells the story of three generations of a Sheffield family, seen through the eyes of eighteen year old Jess.

A rich and compelling YA novel.

BBC Radio 4’s Open Book programme

A summary of ‘Granny was a Buffer Girl’

One: Celebrations

The entire family come together to say goodbye to Jess before she leaves home. Mum proposes that they should all tell Jess stories about themselves when they were about her age.

Two:Bridie and Jack

1930s Bridie and Jack are Jess’s grandparents. Bridie comes from strict a Catholic family of five sisters and a brother. She falls in love with Jack, but when he asks her to marry him she refuses because he is a Protestant. But they’re in love! They get married in secret during their lunch break, and after work, they each go to their own home. Finally, a sister guesses, and Bridie’s mother is heart-broken because she missed a wedding.

Three: The Buffer Girl

Jess’s other grandmother, Dorothy Hooley, is a buffer girl. On her 17th birthday she and her sister Louie go to the annual cutlers’ Ball. She dances with the young son of the Firm, and longs to see him again. Next day he searches for her, but doesn’t recognise her when she runs up to him with her face and clothes grimy with work. She realises that she doesn’t belong in his world. Her future is with her childhood sweetheart, Albert.

‘Granny Was a Buffer Girl’ is a gorgeous evocation of generations of a Sheffield family tinged with both joy and poignancy. Twenty-five years on this is a timely reminder of times when books like this – highest quality writing suitable for older primaries – won the Carnegie Medal. Many of Berlie Doherty’s books are set around her own home areas and beautifully evoke the landscapes and peoples.

The School Librarian

Four: The Saturday Hop

Michael, son of Dorothy and Albert and father of Jess, was a Teddy Boy. He saved up for suede shoes and a jacket with a velvet collar, and now he desperately longed for a girlfriend, like his mates. At last one of his mates fixes him up with a blind date, and anxious and nervous, he preens himself up. But when he meets the girl, he finds he knows her very well indeed.

Five: Lucy Cragwell

Lucy is a plain, sniffy girl with no friends. One of the girls at work, Jennifer, takes pity on her and invites her to the Saturday Hop. There she meets Michael, and falls hopelessly in love with him. He certainly doesn’t love her, but is too kind to hurt her feelings. But it’s Lucy, proud and strong, who realises that it’s a one-sided relationship, and finishes it.

Fascinating… this is required reading.

The School Librarian

Six: Danny

At the heart of the family, and at the heart of Granny was a Buffer Girl, is Danny. Danny is the person they all have to think about. He was Jess’s older brother, and he died when he was the age she is now. Jess needs to grieve properly for him and learn to treasure his memory.

Seven: Bird Boy

John is Jess’s other brother and a bit of a loner. Their dad Mike loses his job because the factory is closing down, and a new, strong bond develops between them when John develops a passion for pigeon fancying.

Eight: A Lad of Seventeen

Jess is very fond of Grandad Albert, who lives near the canal. They often walk together along the canal, looking at all the abandoned mills and warehouses. One day Davey, an old workmate of Albert’s, frightens her on the towpath. She tells Grandad, who tells her Davey is harmless, but has lost his mind. Later they see Davey gazing out of a top window in the derelict mill where they once worked. Together they rescue him. 

Nine: In Fear of the Giant

Jess’s Great Auntie Louie and Great Uncle Gilbert live in one of the last remaining terrace houses in a derelict street. Auntie Louie longs to leave, but Uncle Gilbert won’t. Mum and Tess visit them, and Jess is horrified because the house is damp and smelly and rat-infested. Great-Uncle Gilbert is a powerful, frightening man, and Mum wishes Auntie Louie would just leave him and go. But one day he has a stroke and is taken to hospital. Auntie Louie knows she can move house now because he can’t say or do anything to stop her. Only Jess understands his last wish.

Ten: Disco

Jess and her best friend Katie go to a disco, and Jess meets Terry. She falls in love with him, and they meet again. She can’t stop thinking about him, and is angry when Katie tells her not to see him again. At last Katie tells her he is married. Jess is distraught, but Katie’s brother Steve helps her to find a different kind of love.

Eleven: Going Away

The stories are over, Jess is ready to leave home, taking all the family memories with her. She is excited, like a child going on holiday. 

But I wasn’t a child, and I never would be, never, never again.

A compelling and unusual book.

Times Educational Supplement

My Sheffield

When I wrote Granny Was a Buffer Girl I was living in Sheffield. It had been one of the great industrial cities of the north of England. Its international renown was based on the steel industry and on the manufacture of cutlery. It was a thrilling experience to pass the blazing steel works at night, watching the dark silhouettes of the steelmen. Sheffield was stunned and bereft of its heart and motivation for many years after the decline of the steel industry.

The steel works became sad and decaying monuments to the past,. They were part of the history of Sheffield, like the remains of old mills and ‘Little Mester’ workplaces along the Rivelin Valley.

Sheffield was an important part of my life. I lived there for 25 years, and my 3 children were born there. Two of my children and 5 of my grandchildren live there still. I live 20 miles away now, and still have a strong bond with the city.

Display of Granny Was a Buffer Girl memorabilia at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books
‘Granny Was a Buffer Girl’ display at Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books

Some of the questions people have asked me about ‘Granny Was a Buffer Girl’

Q What is a buffer girl?

A They used to work in the cutlery mills. Their job was to ‘buff’ or polish the cutlery on a sanding wheel at its final stage. It was a dangerous and unpleasant job, as black dust sprayed over them from the wheel. It affected their lungs, and covered their faces and clothes. They used to wear newspapers or brown paper pinned over their clothes to keep them clean. 

Q Are the characters based on people you know?

A I knew of a family who had a son with Danny’s condition. I watched them form a web of protection around him, and around themselves.

And Great-Uncle Gilbert is based on my Uncle George. I used to be afraid of him because he had big hairy hands!

Q What about Bridie and Jack?

A They’re based on my mum and dad. My mother was the daughter of a poor Catholic couple, and my father came from a Protestant family. They married in secret, just like Bridie and Jack. 

Q Who is your favourite character in Granny was a Buffer Girl?

A Lucy Cragwell, because I think she represents all of us. I think there’s a time when we all look into the mirror and wish we were somebody else. But she has positive qualities that shine through at the end of the chapter. I tried to show her first as Mike and the other boys see her, and then as she really is. She’s very strong, deep inside herself.

Represents the depth of Berlie’s imaginative and emotional commitment.

Chris Stephenson, Carousel

Q Were you excited when you were writing it?

A I often do get excited when I’m working on a book and I’ve really got to know the characters. It begins to take over your life, and you really can’t think about anything else for a bit. I cried when Danny died.

Q Why did you use Jess as your main character?

A All the members of her family tell her the stories of the special things that had happened to them when they were her age. She hears how things changed them, but these stories change her too. Maybe they change the reader a little.

Q Did you have to do research before you wrote the novel?

A Yes, a little. It’s set in Sheffield where I used to live but even so I had to find out what Sheffield was like in the 30s. I also had to find out about buffer girls. I asked on local radio if any ex-buffer girls would talk to me about their work. This is my favourite kind of research.

If you enjoyed reading ‘Granny Was a Buffer Girl’…

You may also enjoy my other historical novels, pictured and linked below, my other Sheffield books Dear Nobody and The Girl Who Saw Lions or my other family books: The Sailing Ship Tree and Jeannie of White Peak Farm.

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