‘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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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.

 

“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.

24 -10-39

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.

 

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.

Side by Side

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Side by side within the small envelope are two letters to my Mother from her Grandparents. Two letters sent to Wales from the Isle of Wight in 1939. My Mother was on holiday with her parents and brothers. It was to be their last family holiday together, although they did not know this at the time. Just as no-one knew for certain that Britain would declare war within a few weeks, least of all (I hope) my eight year old Mother.

I had intended to publish these letters from Great-Grandmother and Great-Grandfather in consecutive weeks; perhaps a subconscious desire to stretch out the idyll of the pre war letters for a little longer. Yet they have lain so long together in that tough little envelope, how could I part them? So I send them out into the world together, as always intended.

I imagine my mother dashing up to her bedroom and sprawling across ‘the biggest bed in the house’ to read her very own letters; the private joy of one’s very own correspondence. Auntie Frad has piggy-backed a line onto Great-Grandmother’s letter, ‘Thank you for your letter. I will write next week.’ I regret that only one letter from Great-Aunt Frad survives, written in 1970 in which she blames the bad weather on the Apollo 13 space mission. I have faint but fond memories of our Auntie Frad.

20-08-39

Dear Jeanie. I must write a letter to you to thank you for your drawing of your holiday cottage. It is very nicely done and gives us a good idea of the place. We are all so glad you are enjoying yourselves and that the weather is good. I think it might be a rather dismal place if it rained all day. Fancy you having the biggest bed in the house you must be nearly lost in it and hardly know which end to get out. There is no fear of your falling out of the window if it is only a skylight? But you cannot see the country from it? We were everso interested in Daddy and Mummie’s letters of all your doings. I know Daddy enjoys getting the wood for the fire but I expect Mummy will be glad to get back to her gas stove and water from the tap – but I am sure she likes sitting out in the garden. We are sorry you are troubled with spots again – they must be Welsh ones this time. I have just been to look at the little colts. They look so pretty under the trees but the flies don’t give them much peace! Auntie Frad found your lace petticoat in your bed here. She has washed it and will send it to 38 B. Rd. Now with love from all to all I will say Goodbye. Love from Grandma x x x x x x x x x x x x

Great-Grandfather’s letter is characteristically exuberant but less easy to follow. I am not sure what type of woollen attire my Mother sent him, nor who Mr Lloyd was, and why his visit was worth mentioning.

Dear JEANNIE. I am just writing you a few lines to thank you for sending me the Welsh LAMBS Wool. Real WELCH from WALES – fancy that. I am sure I SHALL Hop about quite smartly now when I go out to SMOKE my PIPE &co. Thank you very much for your kind thought &co. I am glad to hear that you are enjoying your holiday &co and that you are having nice summer WEATHER. Tell your DAD that I have been very busy this week picking Apples and PLUMS – wouldn’t you like to have some in the GARDEN where you are staying ?? Also planting broccoli &co as Mr WOODS came up yesterday and dug some ground for me. Also tell him not to forget all about his VISIT to Mr Lloyd as I did not hear very much &co. Well now I must say Goodbyee. Hope that you will have it fine all this week and NEXT. With lots of LOVE & kisses from “GRANDAD” x x x x x x.

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A page from my Mother’s album.

 

It was 79 years ago today..

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Curious that I should find this letter, next in line to be published, on the anniversary of its creation. My Great-Grandfather wrote to my Grandfather on 12 April 1939, a day of ‘warm weather’ – oh how I wish it were warm here today, another gloomy, grey-sky day in London. Great-Grandfather asked for advice about the lawnmower, wondering if his son John could look for a secondhand one in Southampton. My Great-Grandfather is 81 and worried about all the grass there is to cut and worried too about money.

His daughter Frad has left to take Jeannie, my Mother, back to East Cowes to catch the ferry for Southampton and Great-Grandfather chooses this moment of privacy to appeal to his son. Great-Grandfather and Frad have argued; Frad held the purse-strings in Headley House and she was not persuaded of the expense of a replacement mower, secondhand or otherwise.

So on this damp and overcast morning I try to slip myself into that long-ago world, where a little girl who will grow up to be my Mother is skipping down the road with her chatterbox Aunt Frad who (being a schoolmistress) always knew best and always had an opinion that you would be foolish to contradict. Great-Grandfather saw them to the gate, one hand on his walking stick,  the other hand steadying on the postbox wall. As they passed out of view he turned back to the house, shaking his head at the relentless new growth of his market gardens, land that he could no longer control. Oh what a thing it is to grow so old, to lose grip on one’s kingdom. What an agitation to have no secure income, to have to make do with less and less as the years pass. So Great-Grandfather resolves, with the good humour that would never leave him, to make an appeal to his eldest son, the Headmaster and scion of all these grounds. He knows there can be no satisfactory outcome without Headley John Mabey’s assistance. Great-Grandfather sits at the bureau by the open window and labours over his long letter. Finally he sets the pen aside and rubs and wrings his hands as old men do. The sun warms the earth and the birds’ songs fill the sky. With a nod to the natural order of things he leans forward to write the final lines. And thus the crown passes as my Great-Grandfather concedes ‘We SHALL abide by your decision’. 

Dear John – Frad and JEANNIE has just STARTED off for So’ton and as can’t as yet do much in the way of Gardening &co and Mr Woods is busy planting Eclipse Potatoes (early) as he has finished the MAIN crop &co, I thought I would write you a few lines in reference to our GRASS Mower &co. Dick says that it wants doing up &co as it is pretty well coulled [sic] up and the question is, is it worth spending that much money on it? He says that you can get a New GREENS Lawn Mower for 25/-. In fact I saw it advertised in the EXPRESS or do you think you might run up against a 2nd  hand one in So’ton? We have not much money to play with – and I told Frad that I cannot manage to cut all the Grass myself now. You know what grass cutting is with a reap hook – and at 81 it’s a proposition. Frad don’t know SHE is inclined to think it’s too expensive – but if we have Mr Woods to do it it means 5/- each day and it would take him 2 days to get round it and it would at the least want cutting 3 times? And he is 75 and can’t get down to it very well at that and at the present I awfully shakey it seems from the lower part of my back to my knees, got to have a stick now if I go to the LETTER BOX some OLD MAN EH. But no doubt if this warm weather keeps up I SHALL improve lets hope so at any rate. I have not finished TIEING THE Rasps yet this “Flue” business caught me napping about the 2nd March and has held on well and good ever since. Never felt so washed out before but as I hope, a week or so will buck me up and I SHALL be “A HIGH!!!”

GLAD to say that Mah seems to be keeping fairly well &co. We SHALL miss JEANNIE. SHE has been good company &co and I think SHE has enjoyed herself and we have been friends &co. Hope that you are enjoying your holidays – you have had GRAND weather &co. Well I hope that you and Frad will discuss the matter I’ve written and we SHALL abide by your decision &co. So now will close up &co WITH LOVE to all from your “OLD DAD”.

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