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.

Detective Work

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I opened this bundle of letters from 1943, thinking of my Grandmother who secured them together how many decades ago?

I mentioned in These Letters that many of my Uncle’s letters did not have complete dates, in fact most do not show the year. It’s not a problem if the letter is snuggled in an envelope, as the postmark will do the job, but there are many that have survived loose, so for example ‘Sunday February 28th’ is all I have to go on.

Oh the wonders of the internet! I can, with a few clicks, search the calendars of 1941, 1942 and 1943 and pinpoint the year for each letter Albert wrote. It has taken me about an hour to go through 50 or more letters. February 28th fell on a Sunday in 1943, in case you wanted to know!

Filling in the missing years to sequence the letters in chronological order would have been an impossible task without access to the ‘universal brain’, which we seem ever more reliant on. Being the age I am, I feel ambivalence about the virtual world that we collectively stride ever deeper into  – because for most of my life I have lived without it. The library used to be my place to find things out, and I recall many contented hours searching for information in reference sections. I show my age when, asked how I decided to retrain as a speech and language therapist, I say  I went to the careers section in the library and read about it. It sounds quite archaic!

I have not been to a library in over a decade, for I have no need. So libraries, deemed no longer ‘necessary’ by us former patrons, have lost their status in society. By eschewing their primary service I forgo their secondary free benefits: peace, a comfortable chair and a magazine to read, some friendly faces, acknowledgement, warmth, and a sense of being in a safe place in the outside world. I have no need of these things now, my home, my friends and my occupation provide all of the above. But in later, more isolated years,  will there be any libraries left for me to visit when I need a change of scene?

I procrastinate; Albert’s letters lie waiting and I look at them and feel cowed by the task. This is all there is of Albert. Can I do him justice? I have wondered about him ever since I was a child. Only ever wondered, for I knew I could not ask my Mother. If ever I picked up his photograph that stood on the chest of drawers in my parents’ bedroom, she was quick to chide me with a look. ‘That’s my brother’ she would say, her expression underlining that no more would be said. Mother would make herself more busy and I understood I was to occupy myself with something less contentious. In my childhood adults still talked about ‘The War’ and I learnt a fair bit about it, but one would think nobody died, in spite of the bombs that fell on Southampton and my father’s 6 years of service. Death was not to be spoken about.

Back then my parents deemed that Albert was not a subject that their daughter needed to know a thing about. Not so now, now I can do as I please. It’s a notion on which I have floundered; what do I want from this process of opening up the bundles of letters and publishing them in this virtual world? It is to let him speak again. To have as many living souls as I can muster listen to his words, and know that he was in the world.

 

These Letters

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These letters are from my Mother’s brother Albert. He did not live long enough to become an uncle to any of his four nieces. It is these letters that I always knew of. These are the letters that I knew were stored and safeguarded, because one day someone would read them again and Albert would come back to life.

He died on 12 January 1944. He was 22 years old. My Mother was 13, an evacuee in Bournemouth. His brother, my Uncle Peter was 17 and at Cambridge University.

The three bundles of letters are from 1941, 1943 and 1944. Those loose are from 1942 – I believe – although many have incomplete dates and so could be from other years. I look at this pile of letters and wonder where do I begin.

I think on how their contents are all I shall ever experience of him. The Letters as a whole entity are all I shall ever know of my Mabey relatives passed away, yet Albert’s letters have a particular poignancy. His death was the tragedy of my Mother’s family. She rarely talked of him but the silences of grief were still palpable in my young childhood.

I have two letters left from 1939, which I will publish in the next two weeks. Then we move to 1941, when the world is at wholeheartedly at war and thus Albert’s voice will take centre stage, and I shall come to know my uncle.