I have mentioned before that my uncle was a keen photographer. And being a photographer in the 1930s and 1940s meant developing one’s own photographs, with all the expense and labour which that entails. The photograph above is, I think, of such a high quality that it deserves to be the first that I share with you. Albert must have been rather proud of it too, for he included it in his 1940 album. You can see below how he chose to mount it, with a precise hand-drawn frame and caption. I’m sorry that I could not get an entirely straight shot of this page, because the album is a little warped, in spite of my Mother’s care in keeping it. Albert’s choice of title “The Quiet Stream” hints at his romantic spirit, of one in love with the English Countryside. I wonder if he ever looked at his work and dreamt of a future where his photographs graced the pages of a guide book or ‘Country Life’.
I also love the photograph below. This really is of ‘another country’; a bygone era, unknown to all but a few people now. It might be of farmland on the high hills around Winchester, if not there then I am sure that it will be somewhere in Hampshire or Dorset. These counties were his favoured lands. I have two versions of this photograph, one is a test print on a postcard and this is the final print, which he mounted in another album, preceding the 1940 one. Certainly the photos in the album are not quite so lovingly mounted, which is why I didn’t include the frame! I think it is beautiful.
On the back of the test print are some notes made in pencil. Initially I thought Albert had hurriedly set down his thoughts, for the letters slope uncharacteristically elongated and almost illegible across the card. But as I slowly deciphered the words, I realised they were by another’s hand. I had not given any thought to how or where Albert developed his photographs. Given the costs and space required, he most likely shared resources, maybe at a club. The critique below must have been written by a friend or a club member, someone who had some expertise to pass on to my uncle, but I don’t know who. Maybe my Uncle Peter will be able to recall?
‘Apparently sun wasn’t shining – so don’t expect highlights on the horses. Besides my horses were classics – these aren’t. Composition might have been improved by having sky behind house instead of a horse. I’m always doing the same thing. Plus sunshine, this might have been a prizewinner.’
Oh but I think it absolutely is a prizewinner, Uncle Albert!
“Our beds are made, we have cocoa & a sandwich for a supper & there is hot water all times.”
Two days later, on 4th November 1941, Albert writes another letter home from his new billet. He is sounding really rather chipper, his excitement about his new lodgings leaps off the page. He finds himself in a hotel where there are more ‘girls’ than airmen, a dream come true for a 20 year old man far from home, I am sure.
He has a sense of purpose too, for his specific training has commenced and he is learning Morse code. He writes that his efforts can be seen on the paper. I searched and searched and saw no dashes and dots, until I tilted the first page and saw the impressions of code besides the address. I cannot reproduce it here and if there is a secret message contained therein, well I’m afraid I shall not be investing in fingerprint dust to decipher it!
Later in the letter he relates his visit to Stanley park where he saw ‘Real live birds!’ and enjoys the softness of the grass beneath his feet. He wishes he had walked from Whiteley Bank back to Branstone with his family, back to Headley House where there have been worries about money. How dear he was, to offer a contribution from his wages to help his Grandparents and the Maiden Aunts.
I very much enjoyed this letter, Albert came alive as I read his news. I hope you enjoy it too.
Dear All, you will note the change of address! Apparently our old billet was too far from the parade ground (about 12 mins), so we have been moved here, which is about 10 minutes nearer. We got back to billets at about 6p.m. and were informed that we should move after tea! It is now nine o’clock!
Fortunately this billet is, I believe, even better than the last. For example, our beds are made, we have cocoa & a sandwich for a supper & there is hot water all times, none of which we had at Hull road. Two of use from Hull road came here, and joined five other airmen who have been in Blackpool about 8 weeks I understand. There are also 10 girl Civil Servants, who are working at the Ministry of Works and Buildings, which has moved up to the Hotel Metropole here. There are other Ministries here, including Pensions and Health. They have naturally got the biggest & best hotels in the place.
We have begun to work in earnest this week. We work from 8 or earlier, to 6 with about an hour for dinner. There is the usual drill, and now we do Morse. Yesterday I had my first acquaintance with the Morse code and instead of going to the Music Club I learnt, or partly learnt the code – you will see that on the top of the page over. This evening I missed Handel’s Oratorio Judas Maccabeus by moving here. To-morrow I mean to make the greatest efforts to get to the music meeting. And on Thursday I must see my Hamble pal again – he was out when I called last week.
I received your letters this afternoon. I was sorry to hear that you had so tiresome a journey, though I would be pleased to walk from Whiteley Bank with you! I am very pleased to hear that the bother over the money has been settled, but perhaps you would like to take say 5/- per week out of my S.M. & B.P [Shell Mex and British Petroleum, Albert’s employer]. Or I could make an allotment of 7/- a week to you or them, and you could have as much as you require. Don’t be afraid to take the money if you want it. I am glad that their wireless is alright, and that Peter is better now. I suppose Jean is still in the same billet; I shall try to send her some chocolate or sweets and perhaps some meat paste.I believe there is a laundry service that we can avail ourselves of.
On Sunday I went to Stanley Park which you will find on the map with a pond in the east part of it. I believe it is the only park in Blackpool, but it is quite a nice place and I was joyful to have some grass under my feet, & trees on either side, and even some birds – real live birds! I walked to the eastern gates and out to a field nearby, where I actually saw some cows.
If I can manage a day pass to get outside the 5 mile limit, I should like to go to Garston on Sunday. Garston (I hope that is the name) [No Albert, you meant Garstang] is a village under the Pennines and I can do a little walk from there.
The fellows here say that it is not always the case that leave passes come when they should so whilst we can live in hopes, it is not advisable to hope too much! I have tried some shops for 1/4″ map of the district. There was a 1/2″ available but it did not show Castleton or the Lake District. I shall keep trying though. Boots have a very good shop and quite a nice selection of books. The apples have all gone – I was wrong when I said they were not so good – I had only had two of the little ones when I wrote – the large ones were much better & I shall always be pleased to see some more. That had better be all so goodnight & love from Albert.
P.S. I should not send any more envelopes you can see what happens to them!
What did happen to the envelopes I wonder? This letter, like many others, did not have an envelope. Albert’s letters were most likely censored. I know for a fact that some later ones were, as I’ve found little windows on pages, signifying the removal of a potentially treacherous word or two. Goodnight Albert, enjoy your cocoa and the sound of the “girls'” laughter.
Dear reader, forgive me for not writing for so long. Albert’s letter has been lying around my house (on the bedside table, by the computer, on the sofa) for too many weeks. Perhaps the letter has enjoyed its travels around my house, reminiscent of the times it spent on the dining room table at Bullar Road. Perhaps Grandmother or Grandfather kept the letter in a pocket for a while, in order to read it again, refolding the five pages carefully along the creases that remain in place today.
Albert’s opinion of Blackpool has changed somewhat, due to the variety of evening entertainment on offer. Although he struggles to find a quiet place to read (I love his observation “of course the churches are no use at night”), he has thrown himself into his new life with gusto. One would hardly think there was a war on!
A melancholy tone pervades at times, such as when he writes “it is not very happy stopping indoors in a home that is not mine.” Did my Grandmother worry about her sensitive son, lover of classical music and English Downland? If he were mine, I am sure that I would have.
Dear All, On Friday I received your letters and rag, written Sat. night and yesterday afternoon, your parcel arrived. I see that those letters were written on Tuesday night, so it seems that the letters take longer in this direction. I was very pleased to receive the parcel; I think the pleasantest part was the pair of shoes. Having to wear boots has made my feet quite sore and although those shoes are heavy one I felt as if I was treading on air. You have probably received my parcel of cigs by now. I shall certainly send more later, also chocolate but the latter is not now so easy to obtain. We do not use the token or coupon system at the NAAFI which now serves us, we have to queue up & then we only get 20 cigs. and a 2d bar of chocolate. I can get the cigs. at other places quite easily, but not so the chocolate. Incidentally, I bought 2 x 20 cigs and a 10 at the first 3 shops I tried – all Player’s and I didn’t draw a single blank! By the way when you say “Player’s or better”, what are the better?
I shall send back a vest and a pair of pants (and pyjamas) with this letter. there is a laundry service to which I am sending my Air Force stuff – towel, shirt, and collars. It is a free laundry & until something goes wrong I shall use it. I have washed socks and handkerchiefs but perhaps you could send some more socks, as I have only two pairs – one I am wearing, the other pair is drying. I was also pleased to receive the apples though I do not think they will keep long, the small ones which I have tried lacked that crispness which they usually have. When you send again you might put in some darning wool for my socks – just in case! The money for my parcels and torch you really should take out of my pay – I expect it is none too easy to make ends meet and at the rate of several parcels a month it will not take long to pay back the cost of Jean’s bicycle – so you would not be any better off! As regards money, I find Blackpool a real city of temptation. It is so much easier to buy a reserved seat at 2/6 or 3/- than to queue up for 1/6d or 2/- seat, and after the show I don’t need much persuading to go and have supper, and of course there are always coffee, ices and lemonade brought round in the interval. I met quite a nice fellow at Friday’s WEA class and we had supper together. I had not seen any cheese since Padgate, so I had and enjoyed Welsh rabbit [rarebit]. If I spend only 7/6d this week I shall have £1 left, which I shall try to save. I shall also try to save 5/- a week by managing on 10/1 per week and thereby save something for Christmas presents and leave. In 4 weeks from now we get (if lucky) a short weekend pass, Saturday dinner time to Sunday night, and in 8 weeks time a long weekend from Friday night to Sunday night, or Monday morning (7am). So on the long weekend I might get home, and on the short weekend, I can go to Castelton or Wentworth. After a while I may be able to get a day pass out of our 5 mile “bounds” (the bounds exempt Fleetwood and Lytham on the coast) and possibly go to Coniston on that, or else Bolton, if the coach tours no longer run.
Yesterday I saw the opera of which I am sending the programme. Being Russian it was not so easy to understand, but I enjoyed it very well. The Opera house is much bigger (about the size of the “Forum”) than the “Grand” where the other operas were, and it is quite modern. The Winter Gardens, the Tower and the Palace are the 3 main places of entertainment. Each contains a cinema, a variety (Palace), stage show (Winter Gardens -Opera House) or something similar and a ballroom. The Winter Gardens have about 3 restaurants and 4 bars, as well as milk and coffee bars, lounges, and amusement halls of automatic machines. The Tower has restaurant, bar, and a menagerie and aquarium. By paying for the cinema or stage show one can see the rest of the building, and after last night’s opera I wandered round & looked at the amusement arcades and the dancing in the Winter Gardens. even if it does not appeal to me much, it is a truly remarkable place.You are quite right about the fellows here; they are not of the “rough & tough” type, and don’t bother me, but there is usually plenty of noise going on, so I find it difficult to concentrate on writing & reading. this morning things are quite quiet, but if you find a lot of mistakes in my letters you will know the reason why. That is why I do not stop in very much, also, it is not very happy stopping indoors in a home that is not mine, one tends to forget being away by going out. So on Mondays & Wednesdays I go to the RAF musical meetings, on Friday to the WEA class, on Thurs. or Tuesday to see my Hamble friend, & on Saturday to the Theatre. That does not leave me much time to be lonely. It does not leave me much time for reading either and I have only reached page 39 in my “English Downland” book. I hope to find a quiet place where I can read in silence. I must make a tour of the many clubs and canteens & see if I can find somewhere. The reading room of the library is unfortunately closed at 7p.m., and of course the churches are no use at night.
Could you let me know which books Peter took? Or perhaps I shall write to him and ask. Somewhen you could possibly make a list of Christmas presents for our family, Ron, Havant & Branstone. Our course at Blackpool is 10 weeks to-morrow, so it looks as if I shall be here for Christmas and I might as well buy presents about a month before the time so as to have a good selection to choose from. I might get Peter another chemistry book. Thanks very much for the torch, but I used it to go downstairs & when I tried it again it would not work! so I suppose the bulb has gone: the journey up must have done for it. Most of the people have had their photographs done by now but you will not see any from me in a hurry! Some of them are very poor & I have seen none of real excellence. I have not as yet made any real friends but I do not mind that. I go out on my own and often meet pleasant people when I am out. I do not doubt that the others in the billet wonder what I do with myself. I do not tell them much because I should not think they would approve of my music meetings. Next Monday there are some professionals appearing to play a Beethoven Sonata and a Brahms trio, usually the music is provided by a radiogram. On Wednesday we tried to hear a broadcast concert but the reception was too poor to continue listening. In spite of it being a very good set, there was a lot more fading than we experience, so to fill the time, the one who organises the meetings played us some piano music: he had no music & is a very good player.
Well I think that is about all so goodbye and love from Albert.
P.S. I hope you have some nice rides – tell me about them, I should like to know. What does ‘ad vincula’ mean?
I was glad to hear that the Ceratostigma was out, does it look as if it will be a nice shrub? I have destroyed a good many of the letters you sent. I hope you wanted none of them. I am keeping Jean’s though because it gave me a good laugh to read it, Bravo Jean!
“Welsh Rabbit”, ah that made me smile, it reminded me of a staple of our Sunday afternoon teas; Welsh Rabbit with Worcester Sauce. As a child I thought it was a silly name my Dad made up, never having heard of a ‘Welsh Rarebit’. Does anyone else remember that? A silly, and frankly (for a small child) confusing and rather disturbing name. It tastes nothing like a rabbit.
Albert starts his letter on 26th October, two days after his previous letter home. I can’t help but think that Albert was a little lonely, occupying his free time in letter writing and solitary trips to cinema and theatre. He sends my Grandfather cigarettes for his birthday, which seems a rather shocking sort of present now, but normal for the times; everyone who has ever watched a film set during World War Two will know how scarce and sought after ‘smokes’ were. A weekly ration of 60 cigarettes was a privilege reserved for those who served. Albert is making do and making the best of it; washing his own socks, sharing a room with two strangers and bearing the cold weather of the North-West Coast. In my opinion he rather skimps on the number of pants he deems necessary, but these were different times!
Dear Everybody, I shall start this letter today and post it to-morrow after we move to our new billet. First, I will say that I got your first letter on Friday, and the parcel with the socks on Saturday. I hope that by now you will have got my parcel. As regards clean things, I shall try to wash my own collars, socks and handkerchiefs, if I am at all able to, but I think that it will be best to send home shirts pyjamas vests and pants. I think you could perhaps send to my new address a parcel consisting of : 2 vests, 2 pairs pants, I pyjamas & coat, my bicycle torch, my black shoes I wore to Padgate, some soft rag for brass cleaning. You can take the money out of my pay (when it comes).
Next Friday, we receive the magnificent sum of 10/- [10 shillings], and that has to last us for a fortnight, so I cannot see my £2 which I have left last me for long. I am sending a few cigarettes as a birthday present, and when we get paid I shall send some more. I have also got some chocolate for Auntie Lizzie’s birthday, but cannot send it until I have a box to pack it in, or at least some cardboard. We are allocated 60 cigarettes & 4 bars of chocolate per week, for which we have a token. So if you want anything like that, I can get it. There is not such a shortage of other goods either, I see tins of beans, fish & meat roll, paste and other things in the shops, so I can try for them if you want. I am having 2/- per week taken out of my pay and put into P.O. savings. I expect to be able to manage on 15/- per week after the next fortnight. By booking early for the theatres I should get a good seat for 2/6d. I got in easily on Friday by arriving at 6.20 (the show began at 7.30) and had a good seat at half a crown. I could probably have done the same last night. I enjoyed both operas very much indeed, and really cannot decide which one I enjoyed more.
I also enquired yesterday about W.E.A. classes which are held near here. There is one every Friday on “Appreciation of Music” which I shall probably attend. On Mondays there is the R.A.F musical society, meetings with gramophone records, and I shall probably look in there next week.
This afternoon, as I believe I have said, I hope to go to Cleveleys, I can tell more of that on Monday. Looking around Blackpool I have succeeded in finding some fairly good shops, and have also unearthed the local library and art gallery. By means of diligent searching I hope to find some parks one day, as I am told that there are some concealed in the less frequented parts of the town. I have written to work when I sent back a form for the making up of pay, and to Havant and to Jean (at Branstone). Later I must send to the Harts, to Phil & to Raymond. I don’t like any of the picture postcards here so I have not wasted my money on them. Have you seen Pat lately? Is he still at the docks or is he now elsewhere?
Monday. We are now at our new billet, 21 of us altogether, and 3 in our particular bedroom, which is on the 2nd floor. The 2 I am with were not in my previous billet and seem quite nice chaps. This billet is, I think, better than the other, though I have only been here for dinner. However there was more to eat, and a radio on, which, though Forces of course, enabled me to hear the news. I now learn there is no pay until Friday Week. However, I think I shall manage on it.
“By means of diligent searching I hope to find some parks one day”
We went to Fleetwood yesterday on the tram. The trams are half price for Forces, and to Fleetwood the distance of about 6 miles I should say, the fare was only 4d. From the shore there, we could see the hills of Cumberland in the misty distance, and they looked very fine in the hazy yellow light. To the east were the Pennines, though I do not know what part – considerably north of the Peak though. Perhaps one time, if I can afford it, Auntie Edie could get me accommodation for a 48hrs leave there. I see coaches run every Sunday to Keswick & suchlike at about 10/- but by the time I can go, they will probably have stopped. In winter the snow is no doubt quite deep here. It is cold enough already as the wind blows off the Irish Sea, as that was especially noticeable at our last billet, where there was no fire. At Fleetwood I saw many trawlers & and Isle of Man steamer. There are also very many trawlers, though most of them seemed to be in the dock. We could see the balloon barrage at Barrow too.
This morning, before leaving Church Street, a pair of socks arrived from Auntie Daisy, but as yet I have had no time to try them on. I shall go back there tonight and collect my books, writing pad & other articles which I left behind. I shall write to Branstone soon: I have already sent one there for Jean. I must also write to those others, so may not write to you again until I receive that parcel. Had better finish now so goodbye & lots of love from Albert.
Albert called my Mother “Jeaneth Bird.” Recently I found a Christmas card he sent her, in which he wrote “I had hoped to find a picture of the Jeaneth Bird in flight.” How tender that phrase appears to me, a sweet sentiment that brings forth the image of little Jean soaring like a skylark in a pale blue sky. Perhaps on the 24th October 1941, as he sat to write to his little sister, he imagined her amongst the migrating birds described in his letter to his parents and missed her too.
It is almost inconceivable now, in these always connected times, that a twenty year old man would trouble to write a two page letter to his ten year old sister. Or that a young man’s evenings would taken up with family correspondence and yearning for his bicycle and his gramophone records. In this letter Albert portrays Blackpool a little more favourably, editing out his homesick laments to his parents, but he shares his disappointment about the sustenance on offer. Food, the abundance or lack thereof, is a recurring theme in Albert’s letters.
Dear Jeaneth Bird,
I received your letter to-day and I have now started to reply to it. When I am moved to a more permanent billet, I shall send it along to Branstone. Now there are 3of our family in billets, and only two left behind at home. In our billet there are 8 of us, and we have to do our own washing up. And we have to sweep our rooms etc, and we get up at 6am too.
I hear that Sybil and Barbara are thinking of getting moved, and you want to be with them, so they cannot be quite so bad as you sometimes make them out to be! I hope you are still getting “Excellents” for your French, and no order marks now. But your English is not always so good, and I am sending back your letter with corrections (If I remember to put it in that is). I am very glad that you now have a bicycle, you must hurry up and learn to ride it so that you can go out for rides with Mummy and Daddy. Do you know what make it is?
[SUNDAY] You are doing quite a lot of travelling by yourself now, more than I used to do when I was your age, though I suppose there is somebody to meet you at each end of the journey. Blackpool is quite a large town, and there are plenty of shops and lots of cinemas and theatres. There does not seem to be such a shortage of things here, although the apples we get are not at all good. If I am able to, I shall get you some hair clips! Then you will have no excuse for wearing those other old things. Blackpool is not very dark at nights either. There are some dim street lights, and the blackouts are very poor, but no-one seems to mind much. The trains & ‘buses run very late too – until 11 at night I believe. We have the trams outside our house, so it is quite like home in that respect. To-morrow, we are being moved to another billet, which, I hope, is better than this one. We have no supper at nights and not really enough at other times. It is quite chilly up here now (I expect it is warmer at home) and we have no fire, so I shall be glad to get out this afternoon.
I think I shall post this to-day but if you want my address, Mummy will have it: you can let them send any letters to me, though I expect you will be too busy to reply yet. Give my love to Ped, & Grandma and all the Aunties and Uncle Dick.
xxxxxxx lots of love from Albert
My Mother was such a clever woman, it’s quite disconcerting to read Albert’s opinions about her academic abilities! I admire his modesty in not mentioning that he has gifted the money for her bicycle from his savings (see my previous post). He was a kind man and no doubt his words made her feel a little less lonely as she travelled alone from her ‘billet’ in Bournemouth to the Isle of Wight or Havant and back again. (My Mother was evacuated with her school to Bournemouth for most of the war).
I am sure this letter must have meant a lot to my Mum; she kept it for the rest of her life after all.
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:
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.
“You see Blackpool is not like Bournemouth or the seaside towns we know…..even the sea is the colour of tea.”
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…
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.
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.
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 nobodydied, 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 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.