Friday October 24, Part Two

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And once again, through no design of my own, I publish a letter at almost the same time of year that it was written. Here my uncle writes of migrating birds and robins singing again. I pause from my typing to listen to my own little robin warbling on the garden fence. I see the geese pass overhead. Albert is tapping lightly on my shoulder, asking me to look beyond and see the gossamer thread of connection that we share on this late October day. So we start to know each other.

I have got left £2.15s to last me until next pay day on next Friday. Also I have the best part of a 5/- [5 shillings] book of stamps. I am glad to hear that Jean has at last got a bicycle: she says that you took the money from my box, so don’t bother to repay it, she can count it as a birthday (or Christmas) present from me. We got 10/- at Padgate, and since then have had no money. Glad I brought some!

I was interested to hear how you are getting on, though it made me a bit homesick to think of all the places you went to on your ride. I am glad to see that you use the gramophone: you must let Joyce hear it when they come round, she would especially like to hear the “Emperor Concerto” right through (H.M.V. plum label) and the Bach Piano Concerto in A minor (H.M.V. red label). The second she has not heard at all, if I write to them I shall mention it. That “Hymn Tune” is I think “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, played by Myra Hess (H.M.V. plum label 10″ in right hand compartment). Others which you might enjoy are:

Invitation to the Waltz, Overture midsummer nights dream, Marche Militaire (J), Unfinished Symphony, Hungarian Rhapsody (J), Anita’s Dance (J), Liebestraum No.2 (J).

Those marked (J) are Joyce’s and in the left hand compartment. There are also all our old ones knocking around somewhere in the box. By the way my balance is not a “Spring Balance“! Take a look at it one day and see if you can find the spring or the springs. When you went out you probably noticed, as I did before I left, how the birds are beginning to sing again, especially the robins and wrens. I expect the skylarks will be beginning again soon. I have heard none up here, but have seen several flocks of birds flying out to the sea S.S.W. Migrating I suppose, quite possibly martins, swallows or swifts. I have never seen migrating birds before. I have just read the letters from Havant and Branstone: it is very nice to see how they are getting on. It reminds me to see about something for Auntie Lizzie’s birthday too. I had forgotten about it. I think I can get some chocolate at the canteen & send some along to her.

I am glad you are still getting the “Radio Times” (show Joyce) for tonight I see something labelled in the paper “Mozart”, it should be good. I have got the “News Chronicle” to-day, the “Telegraph” is nearly unprocurable here. I was interested about the rear lamp, a pity we did not think of it before, because that should solve all earthing problems. You were quite right about the taxi. I lingered at Stewarts until nearly 10 to 1 and by the time I got to Euston, it was 1.4 (train at 1.5). I was fortunate in obtaining a taxi just outside the door in Regents Street. But still, it cost me only 2/6 with the tip. As for the book of stamps, I had no time at all after lunch. That had better be all so goodbye now and love to all, from Albert.

P.S. You will show this letter to anyone else who would be interested of course. The food in this billet is quite good but not very plentiful. We should get moved on Monday to more permanent billet. I shall want you to send up my bicycle padlock & chain to lock my kitbag a little later – a lock here costs from 2s6d. Also some bits of rag for cleaning. I shall need a torch too.

This letter is recognisably from a different era; gramophone records, shillings and pence (d) and a curious way of writing the time – I assume 1.4 and 1.5 are 1.40 and 1.50 respectively. I also took note of the hyphenated spellings ‘to-day, to-morrow’ etc. I’m guessing these were not Mabey idiosyncrasies, although the family has some rather poor spellers! I was also surprised by the date format that Albert used, thinking this an Americanism, as we favour (and being English regard it as superior) the ‘day, month, year’ form. Was Albert’s date a ‘modern’ form that later fell out of favour or the traditional format that the UK later abandoned? I delight in these details, pedant that I am.

Friday October 24

“You see Blackpool is not like Bournemouth or the seaside towns we know…..even the sea is the colour of tea.”

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It is fair to say that homesick Albert did not think much of Blackpool. In fact should you hold a fondness for that place, I suggest that you think twice about reading further! This is the earliest letter I have. It may not be the first he wrote, but I do know he started his training in the autumn of 1941. The letter is 6 pages long and what follows is the first three pages. Blackpool seems a strange place to start one’s flight training but apparently the town was full of new recruits in 1941; no wonder the shopkeepers put their prices up…

Dear All,

I received your letters this morning, and am replying this morning without yet having read all the other letters. Yesterday afternoon we were inoculated, and have to-day off to “get over it”. But in my case there is practically nothing to get over, and though, strictly speaking, it is not permitted, I shall go out at least to-night.

Now I am fairly happy here. On Wednesday morning, the day after we arrived at Blackpool, I was very miserable and homesick because this is a very spit and polish place and we go drilling on the promenade, which I do not like at all, even now. Strangely enough it was the afternoons gym period which cheered me up! I thoroughly enjoyed it, because it allows one more freedom I suppose. After that I have been getting on much better, though I still dislike drilling etc and always will I suppose. Our billet is quite a good one, though we have no supper. We are allowed out until 10.30pm and lights out is 10.45pm but there is polishing to be done morning noon and night, and life is one long rush.

Blackpool I think is a nasty place. There are few good shops – one camera shop (good) one bookshop which I have not yet seen and about one music shop. There are many, very many such places as oyster and whelk bars, dirty, dingy tea rooms and restaurants, cheap jack shops that sell all manner of old junk and Woolworths etc. Everything is very expensive and the supposedly good-natured Lancashire folk seem very willing to “do” people, and to get rich as quickly as possible. I paid 5d each for dusters the size of pocket handkerchiefs, 1d for 3lb for very poor Cox’s pippins all scabby and some bruised and maggoty. It will be worth while for you to send some from home. I saw cream buns at 4½d each, some small pies 2½d -4d each. The large show places here such as the Winter Gardens, The Tower and The Palace are very ugly buildings, and dirty outside. Nothing modern and clean except perhaps the Odeon cinema and I don’t like that either!

The good thing about Blackpool is the number of shows going. This week the Sadlers Wells opera company is here and I have got a ticket for Saturday night to see the “Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart. Joyce has the “M. of F.” overture, it is in the left hand compartment of the record cabinet, a light blue 12″ Columbia record in, I believe, a blue case named “J.Tee”. Try it, it is a good overture. Since I was late booking, I had to pay 6/6 for a ticket! To-night I shall try to get in to the “Barber of Seville” by Rossini, but must get there early so as to be at the front of the queue. You probably know the overture to that too & probably one or two of the songs. Next week, also from London, is a Russian opera and ballet. I have booked for that already, and got a good seat at 2s6d for Saturday night. Ronald Frankau is also on at the Palace.

At Warrington we were not allowed out but here we get Sunday off and once training begins, a 48hour leave pass each month with permission for travel to a 50 mile radius, so I shall be able to go to these various places. Our chief chemist’s parents are at Cleveleys near here (see map, I believe there is a Blackpool town plan in your atlas) and I can go there of a Sunday. As I have said, my old workmate is here training, and yesterday I called on him. One of the fellows at his billet was being posted to an aerodrome and in his honour, their landlady treated them to dinner. I was invited too! and at the Tower restaurant: about the best in town. We had a grand dinner of hors d’oeuvres, soup, chicken with fried potatoes and brussel sprouts and ices and coffee. There was also sherry and beer to drink, and I tell you we had a fine time. On Sunday afternoon I am going to see him again and we shall go to Cleveleys together, he has been and says that they entertain very well. Incidentally, I have not seen a bit of green open country since we were in the train on Tuesday, and so far have seen no parks in Blackpool. Certainly there are some near the front, and the “Winter Gardens” are gardens in name only, in fact they compromise a cinema, restaurants, dance hall & I think, a theatre. No gardens. You see Blackpool is not like Bournemouth or the seaside towns we know and far from being so clean and smart, I find it dirty and dingy: even the sea is the colour of tea.

 

Albert

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I know very little about him. I know my uncle was born in Southampton on 20 July 1921 and that he died in Scotland in January 1944. He was the eldest child of Hedley and May Mabey, my grandparents. He worked as an industrial chemist before his service in the RAF. He was a clever, handsome man and a keen photographer.

Were I to write that he was a presence in my childhood, I would be lying. All I remember is this photograph that was in my parents’ bedroom, finding the ‘big black compass’ and the book of poetry.

Ours was not a house filled with photographs but paintings hung on every wall in every room. The only two photographs on display when I was a young child were Albert’s and my Father’s mother. I knew that they were both dead, and thus in my solemn way I equated photographs with mourning.

We got into trouble once through playing with the ‘big black compass’ in the wild part of our garden. I think my sisters and I were being spies. The misdemeanour was my doing. It was I who rummaged around in the airing cupboard, pushing my small hands under the ‘good tablecloths’ at the back. There, amongst the bars of yellow soap and Imperial Leather talcum powder, I felt a leather handle to pull at. This was attached to the curious block of metal, which I furtively transported downstairs and out to our spot in the garden. Later Mother scolded me for taking what I should not. I knew I had done wrong but I could not understand the hurt upon her face. She never said it belonged to him. We called the heavy, square box a ‘big black compass’ because of its glass-faced display of semi-circular dials and red needles. It was a mechanical mystery. My uncle, what he did and who he was, was another type of mystery. I know now he was a flight navigator, but the function of that instrument will remain a puzzle, for Mother made sure that we never saw it again.

The book of poetry was the collected works of Keats. There was an inscription in it, from his girlfriend Joyce. Mother let me borrow it when I was at university, on condition that I took good care. I looked for the book after Mother died, but she must have given it away. What happened to the big black compass heaven only knows. The photograph stayed on the chest of drawers until my parents moved to live with my sister. ‘Long enough’ I suppose she said to herself – 40 years was long enough.

I have sent away for Albert’s service record and I hope that it will yield more concrete information, I’m waiting another week before starting on his letters, in the hope that I will receive the record soon. So it goes that more than 70 years since he passed away, almost everything I will know of Albert will come from his own hand.

Dear Old Dad

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I have the last letter Great-Grandfather wrote in my hands. He signs off ‘Your Old Dad’, and that has got me thinking about my own Father, who I have not seen in four years now. Four years since I have called him ‘Dear Old Dad’. We all used to call him that, for he was always an old Dad; he was 45 years old when I was born, and to have a father that old was quite unusual in the 1960s! So he got very close to his 96th birthday before he passed away. I have missed my Dear Old Dad rather a lot in the last few days, for no particular reason. Four years will turn into five, and so it will go on like that. I regret this. He is more distant to me now, the accumulation of years absent takes its toll. I look at the photographs, I recall the sound of his voice; I try to stem the ceaseless flow of time and what it carries away.

Great-Grandfather writes from his bed, laid up with bronchitis. Touchingly he acknowledges that he is ‘Well looked after in every way.’ He thanks my Grandfather for the secateurs, which sadly he would not get much time to use.

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Dear John,

I feel that I must try and write you a line or 2 re the “Secateurs” &co. What a bit of real “Luck” that you should manage to drop on a pair so very similar to the ones that I’ve lost &co and that you purchased for me so many years ago. I forget HOW MANY but they have done such GOOD WORK and Now to be lost!!! At any rate I am well pleased and Hope to do some good Work with these and tho’ at present it don’t look hopeful &co, as I am writing this in Bed and not very well pleased with myself so far – but must be well satisfied that I’m not worse &co &co. And thankful that I’m well looked after in every way. BRONCHITIS is no favourite complaint of MINE!!! Well I went round the Garden yesterday afternoon almost Heart Breaking &co and nothing done & the 3rd Week in March. Well goodbye for the present. Glad to hear you are keeping well and busy Gardening with kindest regards THANKS &co. From your ‘OLD DAD

I believe that this was the last letter my Grandfather received from his father. And so Grandfather chose to keep this letter very safe, demonstrative of the same sentiment I have for the things my Father left behind. Father did not leave me letters, but little notes and drawings appended to my Mother’s letters. I have other things by his hand too, paintings (of course) and other oddities such as this stone that he drew upon. I cherish these things because they keep him close.

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And so farewell Great-Grandfather. I started this project knowing only your name and where you had lived. Apart from knowing a little more, I feel a sense of your spirit, which surprises me. Were I younger and my parents still living, my connection to you would not be so heartfelt, of this I am certain. Now I have lost my Mother and Father, the lives of long before (ushers in of us all) have a pull upon my heart.

Truly John Mabey, it has been a great pleasure to be with you.

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‘These are The Days of The Unexpected’

IMG_1906Just as I was about to start on Albert’s letters, Great-Grandfather makes another appearance! I found this letter from 1940 as I was collating Albert’s. Looking at the letter propped up against my computer, it seems to come from a different age. I suppose it does, for what did my Great-Grandfather, born in 1858, know of the trappings of my modern-day, connected world? I wonder what would he make of it all.

Great-Grandfather writes, as he did in October 1939, to wish Grandfather a happy 51st birthday. How different their lives are now, compared to the year before; Grandfather has been evacuated to Dorset with his school and bombs are falling on the Isle of Wight:

27 October 1940

Dear John – just a few lines to wish you all the Best for your 51st Birthday. How Time Flies &co. I suppose that you will not spend this B’day at Home as you were Home last Sunday. Well last Sunday JIM and Olive were here. What a lot of unexpected things have happened this last Month &co – all for the good we hope. These are the days of the unexpected for just about half an hour ago, we – Mah, Elsie, Daisy and Norah were in the kitchen busy talking &co when all at once THE LAMP jumped – THE WINDOWS rattled and the house SHOOK &co and 5 Bombs dropped, seemed Quite Close. Caused quite a consternation but have no idea where they dropped possibly WINFORD WAY? Shall possibly hear about it Tommorow? So must leave it at that!!! But we must be thankful that we do not live in London – or any large TOWN &co. Well let us hope that by your next B’DAY THE HITLER GANG will have THEIR TEETH severely DRAWN &co. Well GoodBye Cheerio “OUR CHINS are Still up” DAD.

Wouldn’t the world have been very different, if Great-Grandfather’s hope had been realised and ‘The Hitler Gang’ were defeated within the year? Great-Grandfather seemed unaware that Southampton had already been attacked by Nazi bombers; 23 September 1940 is widely reported to have been the first night of The Blitz. Perhaps information was kept to a minimum. Southampton was very heavily bombed because it was a major port and the Spitfire factory was located at Woolston. A good account of Southampton’s Blitz can be found here The Blitz. As a naval base, Portsmouth was also targeted and often bombs were discharged on the Isle of Wight as  planes returned to Germany.

Periodically I ask myself, when sifting through my box of letters, why a particular letter was saved from the vast correspondence Grandfather received in his lifetime. In the case of this little letter the reason is clear, Great-Grandfather died in 1941. This was the last time he sent birthday wishes to his son.

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“Your Dear Little Self”

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This little letter, the good quality notepaper and envelope all of a piece, was written and posted on the 27th December 1939.

Dear Jeanie,

Thank you so much for the pretty Xmas card. Your Aunties were very pleased with theirs especially Auntie Daisy and Norah with their picture of Blackie. I do miss you running about the house but am so glad you are enjoying yourself with your dolls – what a large family of them you must have!

I expect Daddy’s holiday is going all too quickly – if you had stayed here another week you would not have been able to go home for Xmas because of the fog – wouldn’t that have been sad? Give my love to Peter and thank him for his letter. Love to Albert too. I hope he is well. Lots of love to your dear little self from Grandma.

Auntie Frad will write to you.

Auntie Frad stands behind my Mother in this photograph, with Great-Grandmother and my Grandfather. It was taken in the front garden of Headley House, on a spring afternoon I imagine. My Mother is possibly a little younger than eight years old – but it is the only photo I have of them both together. And you would imagine her a rather miserable soul, would you not, from her expression? Thankfully we have her letters and see the sunnier side of her character. There is another tiny photograph of Great-Grandmother cuddling a little cat, perhaps it is Blackie? I shall find that and share it soon.

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Rereading this note stirred the futile desire to have had a Grandmother myself, to have received such little notes – life-long treasures of family love.

I photographed the letter outside in my garden, taken by a strange notion to let the paper and ink feel the warmth of the sun once again. It is my morning habit to make a tour of my garden, which takes no more than five minutes due to its small size. It’s a daily pleasure to watch bees diligently visiting the flowers, to see leaves stirring in the breeze, and simply to be in the sunlight.

Recently I moved the original blueberry bush, which Mother and I bought at the nursery she loved. It’s in a better spot now. We only managed to get one, there being just a single variety on sale. She told me we should find another type, otherwise the flowers could not pollinate and there would be no fruit. That was in the summer. We had no further opportunity before autumn came. “You had better take it” she said in October. “You had better take it, for now.” I remember catching her eye and we silently acknowledged the falsehood of ‘for now.’ My Mother died two weeks later.

So I took the blueberry bush and I bought another. My Mother was right, of course, and I have been eating blueberries from my garden every morning, in this hottest of English summers.

Grandfather’s 50th Birthday

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‘Hope, family, the everyday ordinary’

Yesterday I walked with my friend on along the shore at Southsea, looking out across the glittering water to the Island, constant backdrop to our promenade. I realised that I have been so long in London that I forget the sea.

Southsea was a place I visited as a young teenager, travelling by train from Eastleigh to Portsmouth Harbour. Days of roller-coasters and minor misdemeanours. I am not sure I have been back since.

The sea was magnificently indifferent to my forgetfulness, continuing to cast spangles in the air. The same sea as in my Great-Grandfather’s time. Same sea, same sky – all else altered.

I have neglected my writing. A letter from Great-Grandfather has lain forgotten amongst my papers for many weeks. But the letter, like the sea, pays no attention to my oversight. It has existed unread for decades and thus it remains, patient for my return.

Great-Grandfather’s letter, dated  24 October 1939, was written on the day Headley John Mabey, his eldest son, turned 50. Sadly I only have this first page, the second page has been lost so I don’t know how Great-Grandfather ended his congratulatory epistle.

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Dear JOHN –

This is your 50th B Day and thought I must write you a line or two to congratulate you on your 1st Half Century &co NOT knowing if you will complete the NEXT. You will have many things to relate &Co if you do. 2 of the Mabeys of my TIME and Born at Knighton of the Older Generation Has reached 96 but of the later ones about 84 & 85 the Highest, my Grandfather 82 – but that leaves you a long way to go. Well 50 years ago was a FINER day than this and I was a happy man- that day- to learn that I had a SON – after several daughters &Co not that I was ever unhappy on this account, only Old Dr Foster told me when Daisy came along – Mabey you are going to fill up your house full of GIRLS trying &Co.

One thing I hope and wish for is that if you live to my age 81 is that you may be as well as I feel at the present – and I may say that until last March when I had the Flue &co I had never felt that I was an Old Man but I have SINCE but am NOT GRUMBLING. I’ve had a good innings and can still stand up at the Wicket although some of the Batting has been Good, BAD and INDIFFERENT. Well so much for that. We are not quite sure if you will be at Soton [Southampton] TOMORROW Re 1/2 TERM? At any rate you will get this at some place sometime. Our LITTLE Mah is keeping fairly well but this last week or so of Cold EAST and NE WINDS has not been for much getting out round the GARDEN &Co. I have not done much spade work &Co. I keeps on “POTTERING about My Son” as Old Uncle Jim WHEELER used to say &Co. Well I cut a bit of GRASS and to a bit of Hedge clipping &Co – as long as tis something…

Being one born so much later, I read Great-Grandfather’s words sensing the chill of sorrows that the long war, only just begun, would bring. He wrote in October 1939 not knowing how long the conflict would last, nor with any sense of dread at what would be taken away. He wrote unaware that he had few years left and that his son would not live to be 81, as he wished him to.

My dear Great-grandfather wrote in hope, writing of family and the everyday occupations of an ordinary life. Hope, family, the everyday ordinary – these continue unaltered, under the same sky and circled by the same sea.