Cycling Home by Moonlight

“The moonlight never attained the hard brilliance which you get on really clear nights, it was a good gentle light though.

In the time between Albert’s prevous letters and these, he has spent another weekend at home in Bitterne Park. Once again I wonder what did he do with his weekend, with my grandparents, perhaps my Mother? It makes me a lttle sad that I will not, through reading Albert’s letters, have any more than glimpses of his home life, nothing more substantial than that. So instead let’s enjoy Albert’s appealing narrative of his return journey from Southampton to Calne, culminating in a moonlit cycle back to camp.

Monday morning 7.30am March 30

Dear All,

I arrived here OK at about 12.30 am – late due to a bus breakdown, of which more later. It was not a bad journey though and a lovely night for cycling. I find that I have left my toothbrush (a blue one) in the bathroom, perhaps it could be sent on in the next letter. I shall write again tonight & Branstone, so love to you all for the present – Albert.

March 30

Dear All, I hope you received my short letter on Tuesday morning. The journey you will have guessed, was not a very good one as regards speed. I got on the Salisbury bus, with a seat, and travelled there as per timetable. There was a relief run, but it turned back at Plaitford and after there quite a number of people were unlucky. There were great crowds at Salisbury bus station, and in the town itself. Salisbury appears to be quite full of army and air force on Sundays. There was too much of a crush for me to eat my sandwiches in the waiting room, but I did not feel hungry. The Marlborough bus was not filled until some way out, but before we reached Upavon they were passing waiting people.

Two old Southampton buses

At Upavon the bus went on to Devizes & the Marlborough passengers had to change to a single decker. There our troubles began as we were told that the bus had to go along the Devizes road to pick up some Marlborough passengers from a bus which had broken down. We went nearly all the way to Devizes, to the railway bridge, & found that there were only about 2 passengers for Marlborough. We took some Upavon ones too. The bus then went back almost to Upavon and on the main Marlborough road.

I did not look at the time at Marlborough but I should think that it was about 11.30pm when we arrived. I went down to my garage and knocked up the people. At first I got no reply, & began to wonder if I was in for a walk, but eventually the woman came & unlocked the door. She did not seem to mind my being late though.

I tied the parcel on the carrier & left at what I suppose was 11.45.

I did not hurry and it was a perfect night for cycling – no wind, warm & light. I enjoyed the journey in spite of the late hour. The clouds gradually cleared as I went along, although the moonlight never attained the hard brilliance which you get on really clear nights, it was a good gentle light though.

I saw a few cars on the road and several lorries travelling in the opposite direction. About halfway along I came across 3 Army Bren carriers, one of which had broken down, & was being hitched up to another. I saw and heard several peewits which seemed to be quite active in the moonlight. Two of them were certainly performing all the usual acrobatics.

THE HANDY BREN CARRIER“The Handy Bren Carrier” © IWM (H 23492)

I arrived at camp at 12.30, being one of the last to arrive, except those who missed their train and did not turn up until this morning. I ate two of the sandwiches, leaving the others for this mornings break. I feel a bit sleepy today but not really tired, as I might have expected.

I think I was very lucky as regards weather, as today is quite misty and damp looking, though not unduly cold. I should not be surprised to see some rain though, and must put on that saddle cover tonight. That reminds me that I did not bring my pump with me. Also that I could have done with an oilcan, as the dynamo sounds as if it’s a bit dry. However, I can borrow these things.

I suppose Peter will have had his teeth done when you receive this; I hope he is alright. I hope Jean is well and happy too. Goodbye, & my love to you all, from Albert.

P.S. I hope you get the parcel sent on Weds, possibly Tuesday, but I shall probably not write until Thursday & even then cannot think that there will be much to say – so prepare for a short letter!

Later: I have just written to Branstone, telling of my journey.

Even Later: I have just, in spite of opposition, managed to listen to the latter part of the broadcast od “Love the Magician.” Had I known it was on, I should have listened to more, though no doubt opposition would have been greater.

Credit: Photo of moon by Herrmann Stamm on Unsplash

Two Short Letters

There is a windmill on the hill, but very tiny in this photo!

Albert’s letters this week are a little short on substance, yet they contain some amusing and puzzling details. I was amused by the egg and puzzled by Portsmouth’s contribution. I shall say no more about either, Dear Reader, and let you discover for yourself.

My photographs to accompany this post are from the very welcome trip I took to see my dear friend Clare, and her little girl. It was the first time I had been out of the city this year. Clare said to me, ‘let’s go and see Albert’s windmill‘ and so we met and climbed Butser Hill but the windmill couldn’t be seen from that vantage point. We clambered to the top of the hill and the three of us had a picnic under a bare-branched tree, looking out across the water of the Solent to The Island. We made a game with sticks and chalk stones and talked about our plans for when the world opens up again.

I left them later to walk on my own through the beech woods, seeking a view of the windmill. And as I walked deeper into the wood and the roar of traffic from the A3 subsided, I sighed and settled into a slower pace. Soft earth underfoot, not hard tarmac. Sounds only of birdsong and the gentle breezes of fresh air. I saw wild violets. I saw yellow gorse and yellow flowers I do not know the name of, perhaps coltsfoot that Albert also saw.

Then, as I came to the chalk path of the South Downs Way, I saw his windmill on the brow of a far off hill. With the beech trees and the violets behind and no planes in the sky, I felt I was experiencing life in that moment just as Albert would have. I sensed his presence, pointing a way. A way that sits outside of time, intangible but close at hand.

March 22 1942

Dear All,

This will be another short letter I am afraid, as the weather today is really too cold and miserable for me to venture out. There is quite a strong and unpleasantly cold east wind, and the top of the hills are over-hung with cold mist, and even in the hut there is a definite wind blowing across the back of my neck. So I am stopping in the camp for the whole of today, writing and reading and generally messing about.

Yesterday was very nice until the evening, when it became cloudy. I cycled to Calne early in the evening and did a little shopping. Then I took a look around the town which I had not previously seen in daylight. It is about the size of Botley but rather better, and with some good old stone houses. I took a little road which led me westwards out of the town, and soon became a footpath, which led to an old mill. From there I turned back along the riverside to Calne again. The walk was no distance but the birds were singing rather nicely & it was very quiet and peaceful looking across the river meadows in the twilight. Coming back in the dark I noticed that there was a new moon, which should be quite bright by next week, if I have to travel in the dark.

I had some supper last night in a W.V.S. canteen in Calne, as a very clean place. For sweet that had some sort of pudding with homemade plum jam on top, it was really lovely. I have put the bicycle in between the huts, and this afternoon I shall try to find some old sacks or blankets which would keep off some rain (which we shall get before long no doubt).

I have also bought some Vaseline which I can smear over the handlebars and 3 speed wire. I had better move the machine round to the east wall whilst the wind remains in this quarter, though I suppose this wind will not bring so much rain as the south.

I shall probably eat the egg today, for supper probably, not for a meal somewhere away towards Aldbourne as I had hoped. It seems almost a waste to eat it in camp, but will be doubtless very nice. The eggshell got rather cracked, but I think that was due to the spanner and things, which also broke up some of the biscuits. The chocolate biscuits were very nice, so is the cake which I have not yet finished. I really cannot think of anything further to say, so goodbye & love from Albert.

P.S. I have put on my pullover, after leaving it off for over a week.

Is this perhaps the same flower that Albert mentions in his travels?

Tuesday March 24

Dear All, I have just sent off a parcel, containing a jam jar, a pullover and some handkerchiefs. As parcels posted on Thursday do not seem to arrive until Monday, I must take to posting them off on Tuesdays.

Today has been really lovely, just the sort of day I would like for a Sunday. Had it not been the Music Circle today, I should have gone for a ride in the twilight. Tomorrow we are working all day as the sports afternoon is (as once a month) on Saturday, which will be very annoying in view of last week’s unkind weather. Another source of annoyance is that for this week we are having our tea later at 6 to 6.30 instead of 5.30 to 6. However, unless the weather is bad I shall go to Marlborough to find out where I can park my bicycle over the weekends, and also how long it takes me to get there.

I have got your letter written Sunday night, and am glad to see that we reached our War Weapons total; it really is a lot of money, I think that Portsmouth’s objective is only £2,250,000. I’m glad that the school did so well. [I transcribed the amount just as Albert wrote it. However that seems an extraordinary amount; was it perhaps £22,500?].

I suppose that Peter will be home when I go to the Island this weekend. I hope though that he will be alright when I see him on Saturday. I don’t know when I shall be home, by 9pm I trust. I don’t think there is time (it is 10.30pm) or necessity to say anymore except goodnight for a very little while from Albert.

“Settling Down”

Class receiving instruction in Morse code. © IWM (CH 2040)

Albert tells us that he is settling in to life on the RAF camp, happy to meet up with some familiar faces from Blackpool, and his former work colleague from Hamble (it’s a shame we do not get to know his name).

His training in Morse continues, along with learning about radio operations, which he finds quite easy. RAF Yatesbury apparently had a secret radar training section from 1942 onwards; of course Albert would not have been able to disclose any information, were he involved in this. What Albert does divulge about camp life is, in some respects, rather too much information in my opinion. I don’t mind reading about the cinema and his Saturday dinner out, but I did not enjoy reading about his ‘interesting’ trip to the dentist and his soap-saving endeavours!

Wednesday February 25

Dear All, many thanks for your letter which I think I received yesterday, but there is little to mark the passage of days here, so I am never sure which day is which. I am glad that you went to the pictures with Jean and enjoyed yourselves there, I expect Jean will manage to pay for her ticket out of her pocket money. The letter which came from Dickson Road was one which I had received long ago, but they found it behind the dressing table and sent it on in case it was one which I wished to keep. I must thank them for sending it on.

I have been getting on fairly well, & settling down in this past week. The work is almost entirely in classrooms with only a very little P.T. We mostly learn Morse and the way messages are sent out, and wireless, which at the moment is elementary magnetism and electricity and accumulators. I have thus done much of it before, much more thoroughly than they do it here, so that part of it comes very easily to me. The other is not very hard but the course is much more interesting than the plain Morse and drill which we did at Blackpool. We do not do any flying here.

One of the first things I did here was to break the little comb you gave me. It could not have been very strong as I just brushed my hair when it was wet, & the comb broke in two! I still have the mirror which is most necessary, as there is none in the hut or workhouse. I have the other (green) comb of course.

On last Friday I went to the cinema, & saw some old films, including a Mickey Mouse, and a “March of Time” issued whilst America was still out of the war. It was only 6d & quite good considering, though like everything else here, the cinema is inadequately heated & too adequately ventilated! Tomorrow I may go again to see a Deanna Durbin film – “Spring Parade”.

On Saturday evening I went with my Hamble friend and two other fellows to Calne, where we had dinner in the hotel there. A very good dinner too, of soup, chicken, potatoes and sprouts, chocolate pudding and coffee. It was a very pleasant evening, and a good change from camp life, in which meals are much more roughly served than in an hotel! I must go there again one Saturday.

I have also met two of the fellows who were billeted with me at Dickson Road, and they say that they have seen three of the others up here. I have seen several people whom I met at various times at Blackpool, so this is by no means a strange place to me. Strangest of all, I met last night a chap who for two years was in the same form as me at Taunton’s [Richard Taunton Grammar School]; a very pleasant coincidence. He too is on an Observer’s course, though about a month ahead of me, so we stand a chance of going to the same place together after this.

Monday and Tuesday evenings I spent writing letters and reading books. I have already got some way with my W.H. Hudson book. As the hut is so draughty & the NAAFI reading room shuts at 9.30, I usually go to bed at about 10.00 and until lights out (10.45) read in bed. Tonight I am up later writing this letter. Tuesday I sent a towel, shirt and collar to the laundry. I don’t know what the result will be but I have taken the risk until I have a definite reason for not doing so. Whilst on the sunject of clothing, perhaps you could send up my pullover next week. I do not remember if there is a sleeveless one still about, but if there is, perhaps you could send that one. If not the other will do.

Later in the day I had my teeth scraped, or sealed, as the dental term is. It consists of removing the tartar, or lime or whatever collects of them with a miniature scapel: quite an interesting process, and my teeth feel much cleaner as a result of it. In the evening I had a bath – a good hot one too, and that reminds me that I could not find my flannel. If it is at home perhaps you would send it up with the pullover. By collecting bits which other people have left, I have not used my soap yet. The water is extremely hard here and soap doesn’t lather at all easily. As that completes the page, & I have little else to relate, I will close now with love from Albert.

Albert is Coming Home

My Grandmother would have received this telegram at lunchtime on 6th February 1942. Imagine her delight at opening the golden envelope. Her son is coming home on leave.

Albert wrote a letter immediately after he despatched this glad news and I’ll share it soon. But this evening I wanted to mark this happy anniversary with you. Albert’s going to be opening the ‘warning gate’ soon, to walk through his own front door and into the arms of his Mum.

Weather, Food & Flowers

It is still possible to buy penstemons from RHS Wisley; this is ‘Red Riding Hood’.

These three subjects of the letter dated 4th February 1942, are familiar to us still in 2021 and just as comforting; topics of family conversations that form the fabric of daily life. In my mind’s eye, as I read, I could see my grandparents poring over the RHS catalogue and making their choices for the growing season ahead. The years may have changed the world very much since Albert wrote but the flowers and their beauty are essentially unaltered. I have penstemons in my garden and I think Albert would like them.

Albert also updates us on his feelings about his billet, adopting a more sanguine attitude than previously. He knows it is only temporary; after over three months in Blackpool he will be moving on soon.

The bounty of his food provisions is a source of pleasure (did he store everything under his bed I wonder?) and, thank goodness, he keeps us all updated about his socks.

Dear All,

Just for a change I will start by discussing the weather. From your description of it, written on Sunday, your weather seems to have been worse than ours. We had a good dose of snow on Sunday night, followed by heavy rain and more snow on Monday night. The roads were very slushy on Monday, but the rain soon disposed of it. Today is rather cold & grey, but as yet, nothing worse. We have not yet had any hail or thunderstorms. Fellows who have come up from the South say that there was bad snow there at the weekend.

Thanks for the Wisley list. I see that you are persevering with the heaths and gypsophila. I hope they are more successful than the last attempts. I hope the Geum will be quicker in blooming than our red ones, I hope it will not be the same one. The penstemon I see is still not the old red one, I wish you could get hold of some of them. The other Wisley penstemon has rather small flowers, of a pale mauve if I remember rightly. I think the list looks a good one, if only we can get most of them; I think it best to send it off quickly. The “unknown” plants look a very interesting lot – the spindle tree I should like to see too. Is there a wild potentilla with small yellow flowers?

I have been doing quite well for food of late. I did not go for a walk on Sunday as, the weather was much too bad, but I had bought a meat pie and a “fruit malt” loaf and with the cakes and your potted meat I have been doing extremely well. We have had some more “jam” too! I noticed that the meat contained some tomato and thought you must have opened one of our bottles. The apples are still very nice. I have been having one after dinner, and will eat the last one today. I shall look forward to some apple or apple & blackberry tart when I get home. Also some of those gooseberries, and some vegetable savouries like macaroni cheese and butter beans with cheese sauce. I have not had anything like that since I have been here; of course you can’t expect the landladies to fiddle with such things, especially as many fellows might prefer something more solid. It is a strange thing but since Hull road I have not had any brown bread or wholemeal bread.

This Sunday I think there is a Church Parade for us, but if not I may try to get a lift to Bolton to see Mr Gibson. For the last two weeks I have tried to get a pass but have failed to do so. Now I must try to get out without one, I do not expect I shall be stopped in a private car, it is the trains they watch.

Vivien Leigh (who played Scarlett O’Hara in the 1939 film version of ‘Gone With the Wind) in ‘The Doctor’s Dilemma’ 1941.

Monday I went as usual to the Music Society concert. Last night I went to the theatre and saw Bernard Shaw’s play “The Doctor’s Dilemma” with Vivien Leigh in the leading part. It was very good with plenty of laughs, mainly at the expense of the medical profession. It was well produced too, on a very lavish scale as regards costumes, props etc. I was also rather fortunate in being able to buy some chocolate there, which I ate in the interval. Tonight there is another Music Society meeting. If I am here on Feb 14 I shall go to the Halle concert on that date.

I have sent a birthday cards to Uncle Dick and Mrs Franklin, and written a letter to Joyce. I sent her Phil’s airgraph. The letter which he promised has not yet arrived. I am enclosing a piece from the “Listener”, I hope that it is not the trouble with our plum tree.

We have heard no more about changing billets, though of course we still live in hopes. I am afraid there is nothing to be gained by complaining. The food is wholesome and good enough, the beds are satisfactory now that we have sheets, and there is a fire of some sort in the evenings, though it is generally well damped down with what appears to be earth. The general comfort or lack of it doesn’t count, so we have no grounds for complaint.

Evening: this afternoon I volunteered for a job in the office, & I spent the time making forms for leaving billets. I think that it is pretty definite that I shall be leaving this place and moving back to the old area. It is unlikely that I shall get back to 39, but at least it will be nearer there. At the moment I am a half or three quarters of a mile distant.

I shall not send any laundry until the weekend, as then I shall have another pair of socks. My feet don’t sweat much in this weather! That seems to be all my news and comments so goodbye and love to all, from Albert.

How lucky Albert was to see Vivien Leigh perform on stage. I wonder who accompanied him, perhaps one of the ‘girls’ from 39 Dickson Road. He seemed as pleased with the interval chocolate as he did with the play!

Albert did not manage to get to Bolton to see Mr Gibson ( an ex teacher colleague of my grandfather’s), as you shall read in the next installment…

That’s January Done

There is a general feeling, in this country at least, that it’s good riddance to January 2021. Lockdown continues, the death toll is alarming and the weather has been awful. Whether or not Albert experienced a similar dislike of the first month of 1942,I shall let you decide! Here are his two last letters of the month. The first one is undated, but I believe I have placed it correctly. Food, socks, concerts, cold weather and cold water – these are some of the topics covered. They are all familiar subjects but elevated out of the mundane by the glimpses they offer of a long ago England in wartime.

Dear All,

Thanks very much for the parcels. I got the tin of biscuits etc. yesterday, and the parcel of socks came this morning here. I think it best that you should still send mail here, as I have heard a rumour that we are being moved again. The place hasn’t improved much but I come round here quite often so I am getting on pretty well. I bought some “Diploma” cheeses on Monday to have at teatime. I must try for some “Velveeta” another time. I can’t quite remember when I wrote my last letter to you, or what I said in it. Was it the one I wrote at the YMCA canteen.

The weather lately has been very changeable with rain, sun, a cold east wind and some snow all mixed. On Monday I was put On Guard – 7 hours in all and it was rather cold at night but I’ve got over it. The only thing was that the wind caught my hands a bit and made them rough and bleed a little (probably washing in cold water made things worse) but I managed to borrow some sort of cream from one of the girls here, and now they are much better. Coming back in the morning I was able to get quite a lot of chocolate in the canteen. I shall save some of it for Christine’s birthday. Could you tell me when these birthdays are.

I was sorry to hear that you have got the wrong size tyres, though I thought that the wheels were 26 x1 ½ “. My back tyre is a 26 x 1 3/8”, though the fact that it is a “tandem” tyre makes it look much larger. I intended to get a 1 ½ “ tyre but all the shops at which I enquired said that it couldn’t be done. I suppose that it would be liable to come off when not wanted.

I am afraid that this is will be a short letter as nothing much seems to have happened since my last, and there is very little to reply to in your letters. I must put in Raymond’s letter to give you something to read.

I don’t believe I told you about the symphony concert on Sunday. Of course the orchestra was a bit ragged to the Halle etc, and was lacking in some instruments but I enjoyed it very much. Norman Allin of course was very good – do you remember hearing him sing the “Song of the Flea” many years ago at the Police Concert? I enjoyed the “Fingal’s Cave” & the “Emperor” and the symphony No 1 – all pieces I like. I have long wanted to see a performance of the “Emperor Concerto”. That I fear is all I have to say so Goodbye and love to all, from Albert.

Bowl of Apples by John Thomas Richardson

Albert’s second letter is dated Saturday 31 January 1942 and continues with his familiar themes; he is very pleased to have some apples from the garden at home! Albert feels fortunate to have the homely atmosphere of ’39’ (his previous billet) to come back to, enjoying a cup of cocoa and homemade jam tarts. And whilst Albert barely touches on the matter, I sense that he knows his life will change imminently, remarking as he does on colleagues who are moving on . Soon it shall be Albert’s turn to pack up his kitbag and leave Blackpool. I think he will be rather glad about that, in spite of any nervousness about what lies ahead.

Dear All, your parcel of handkerchiefs, potted meat and APPLES arrived at 39 today and I collected it with my laundry at dinner time. The apples are lovely. I had one after dinner today, and it was so very nice that I then had another, the little one. Although it is true that they show some signs of shrivelling, they are still beautifully crisp and fresh, a real treat for me. Despite what we and Mrs Avery (as usual) said to the contrary, they have kept very well & nearly as long as in previous years.

I believe I said in a previous letter that I should like mail to be addressed to 39 Dickson, especially now as the people at 53 have an unpleasant habit of sometimes taking our mail into the kitchen and leaving it until we ask for it. Auntie Lizzie sent some Xmas cake and though it came in the afternoon it was not until the following morning that one of the fellows noticed it outside, and I was able to claim it. There were some letters for the others too.

I shall be quite well off for food next week, besides your potted meat, I have some jam tarts for today, a ginger cake for tomorrow (and perhaps Monday) ½ dozen packet cheeses and a jar of Poulton Noel’s meat paste. There is always plenty in the shops if one can afford it.

The weather now is very nice – sunny and not much wind though a trifle “fresh”. I should like to go for a walk tomorrow though these things are not now so easy to arrange, but perhaps I could get a small brown loaf and take it with me. The trouble is that I don’t know what weather to expect. Next week there is a church parade in the morning so I cannot go far then. Did I mention that I went to Evensong last Sunday? The church is blacked out and the service starts at 6.30. After that, with two of us from 39, I went across to a concert run by the church. It was quite entertaining and they handed round tea and biscuits for those who wanted it – all free!

Of the four of us who came from 39 to 53, one has already gone on his leave & another will go this week. There were two others at 39 but they have gone to good billets so we don’t see much of them. They have had no RAF at 39 since we left, so there is a good billet waiting empty. However, it does mean that we don’t overcrowd the place when we go there. They are very nice to us & last night I had my usual cup of cocoa & some very fine jam (strawberry) tarts which they had made. We occasionally get some jam at 53, I think it is intended to be blackcurrants, but that is just what it looks like, the flavour is very faint and not at all like our blackcurrants.

Last night I saw “The Devil & Miss Jones” which was quite good, though not so funny as I had expected. On the other hand there was more of a story than in most comedy films and though it was not particularly original it made the film interesting and more memorable. It was about a rich man (very rich) who, to find out trades unionists in a shop which he owned, took a job in the store, and was won over to their cause against an unfair and tyrannical management. Quite good on the whole. Thursday I saw the International Ballet again & once more enjoyed it. I tried to get a programme to send you but they were all sold when I got there. Next week I am not sure what will be on. There is “Hi Gang” at one cinema, but also a Bernard Shaw play at the theatre, so I may have to miss one – shall see how funds are. The trouble about films based on radio & variety shows is that they generally lack a story and don’t “hang together” – as in the case of Arthur Askey films, & one we saw a long time ago with Clapham & Dwyer and Teddy Brown and some other people in.

On Wednesday I shall probably send some more washing, or perhaps, on second thoughts, next Saturday – I shall see how many hankies I use. If anyone would like to do some knitting, I could do with another pair of gloves – large ones that I can wear over my present pair when on Guard & on other occasions when I am likely to feel the cold very much. I have put cream on my hands every night and now they are alright.

I do not remember whether I thanked you for the biscuits etc which were in the last parcel. I ate the Mars bar the same day as it arrived, & have been eating biscuits after meals. The crisps will be very useful if I go out tomorrow. I must get some birthday cards today for all these people, but as you say will not send presents except to Maggie & Christine who I cannot leave out.

I was interested to read the gardening notes. As you say, I don’t get much of a chance to see the gardens: it is only on the outskirts of the town that there are any worthy of the name, and even there nothing like we get at home in our outer districts such as The Avenue. What a pity that you lost the beans, they would have been some nice and early ones for us. I suppose the Forsythia is showing signs of blossom by now. That is about all so goodbye and love Albert.

P.S. I am writing this from a YMCA canteen. I shall try to remember to send Phil’s cable with the next parcel. I have received another letter from Joyce, after a long silence. When I reply I shall enclose the airgraph, and the cable address. I have not yet received the letter which he promised me.

PPS A couple of soldiers have just arrived at this table & are writing in pencil and making the table wobble. I hope they finish soon as I want to get through a lot of correspondence today: I have not written much this week due to shortage of stamps. The watch goes very well & keeps excellent time. It is necessary now as there is no clock in the room.

I love that Albert mentions that the soldiers are writing in pencil – I can just imagine his dismay: do they not own a pen between them?!

Snowdrops Photo credit: Olga Subach

A Moment in History

You had probably got rather anxious about the fate of my socks

Raymond Delfosse Jnr., Fort Marion, St Augustine, Florida 1942

This letter records a moment in American History, as well as the fate of Albert’s socks; the momentous jostling side by side with the banal. Albert and Raymond Jnr were distant cousins on my Grandmother’s side. Raymond’s grandmother Helen Pratt (known as cousin Ellen to my Grandmother) met and married Fernand Delphosse in France. Their son Raymond was born in Paris in 1900. At some point the family moved to Ontario, Canada. In 1920 Raymond moved to Queens, New York with his French Canadian wife Reina. Their son Raymond was born in 1922. I have assumed that we read Raymond Jnr’s words here, for relating that catastrophe at Pearl Harbor with a sense of excitement rather than horror is, I think, a tendency of the young. As the photo above shows, Raymond Jnr. was willing to serve his country, following through on the sentiment he expressed below.

Dear All                                               Saturday night, 17-1-42

Now that I have two letters to reply to, I had better start soon. You had probably got rather anxious about the fate of my socks. They arrived by the midday parcel post on Friday, and by the afternoon post came the letter including Phil’s “Greetings Telegram”, though it was written 2 days later. I expect the snowy weather has delayed things rather. Usually I get your letters quite quickly, the re-addressed one from Raymond arrived this afternoon.

Raymond’s letter I will return after I have replied to it. It is very interesting since it was written on Dec 7 and 8, just when the Japanese “declared war.” He writes about his newsreel film job, which he could not have, due to not being able to learn to drive in time:

“……in making a turn in reverse I smashed a pole and knocked over a mess of garbage [dustbin I suppose]. That was the end of that. It was too late for another test. “Holy Smoke!!!” a news bulletin has just come over the air stating that the Japs have attacked Hawaii. This sure is a surprise to me & sure is going to change a few plans over here…..Well I guess we’re ‘dyed in the wool’ allies now, and I’m going to drink to it & to you.”

That is really a thrilling letter I must say.

I should have said before how glad I am that the socks arrived, and must thank you for doing them, not forgetting Jean’s great services. I am now wearing a pair which she did (the mauve ones) and really Jean you have made a very good job of them (I expect that pleases her)…. If only you could make an equally good job of your arithmetic (I bet that doesn’t!). However, I will send the other socks on Weds. and when I come home, I must get Jean to teach me darning.

I am quite alright now (not that I was ever very bad) except for a cold in the nose which means I can’t taste much. I was sufficiently well to get to the cinema tonight to see the “Reluctant Dragon” which is a very unusual picture. It goes behind the scenes of the Disney studios and shows how the cartoon films are designed and made. The “reluctant Dragon” part is a Silly Symphony rather longer than usual and quite good; but best of all I liked a Goofy one on horse riding which is included in the the film. I laughed more than I had for a very long time at that one. For the next fortnight there will be the “International Ballet” at the New Opera House, and I shall probably go 2 or 3 times.

The weather is still cold and rather windy, but not, I think, so cold today as yesterday, when I should imagine that it was a bit colder than your 12˙ of frost a week ago. Is that the coldest you have registered this winter? We have had no more snow or rain since about Wednesday and I don’t wish to see any either. I expect there is some up in the hills, but as there is no promise of any sun, I shall not go out all day tomorrow. I will probably go for an afternoon excursion nearer Blackpool, after stopping in bed a bit late this morning. I will probably write a letter or so in the evening. I wrote to Jack this afternoon and have also sent to Maggie and Havant, so what with one thing and another I have not much of Auntie Frad’s book of stamps left.

Thanks for the 2/- that reminds me, I heard they had some “Players’ in the NAAFI today (but only 20 each) so perhaps supplies are returning. It has been all Woodbines & Star lately. Thanks for the chocolate too. Of course I like “Mars”, though having a cold, I have not yet eaten them. Do thank Mrs Churchill for taking the trouble to get them for me.

I suppose we shall be losing our railings soon, which doesn’t worry me much, as I never did like them much. We shall lose our ‘warning’ gate too I suppose but even that is not a very serious loss. It will show up the shabbiness of the wall though!

I hope Peter will be able to get Jean a geometry set. One of the shops here has some drawing and draughtsmens’ instruments – I saw a pair of dividers at 15/- – so I didn’t look much farther!

I set the watch right by Big Ben tonight. It had gained 4 mins since 6 o’clock last night. Now it is time for cocoa, so I will say goodnight. Love to all, from Albert

My dear Mother was only 10 in January 1942, but clearly old enough to be proficient at darning. I’m glad her efforts were appreciated although Albert still teased her about her arithmetic! I’m sure my Mum would have enjoyed the Reluctant Dragon too, but I don’t know if she ever saw it. And Albert seems oblivious to my Grandmother’s feelings about the ironwork being removed to help the ‘War Effort’. ‘The warning gate’, e.g. a creaking gate that alerted you of an approaching visitor, harks back to a time when it was unthinkable not to answer the door, so you needed a signal to give yourself time to check appearances in the hall mirror. How times have changed.

There will be more news from the American cousins in 1943, when Albert travels over the Atlantic, for a life altogether unimagined in January 1942.

“Oh, Mr Porter!”

Will Hay, Moore Marriott and Graham Moffat: Albert must have heard an extract from this film on the radio.

I could have titled this post “The Sock Saga”, as Albert is a little preoccupied with sock supplies, but I thought it not the most compelling title, plus it’s hard to find a photograph of 1940s socks. Yes, I’m sure somewhere on the internet there is a vintage sock snap; I’ll save that search for another day. I hope that Albert will learn to darn his own socks in the next year. He is getting used to washing his own hankies, as you will discover.

Albert is also laid low with tonsillitis. His doctor prescribes potassium chlorate and menthol to relieve his symptoms. I was a little alarmed when I discovered that potassium chlorate is a volatile substance, which is used in fireworks and other explosives, yet it was a widely used throat remedy way back then.

January 14 Weds

Dear All, your letter has not yet arrived, but I think I had better at least start to reply, though I shall wait until the first post tomorrow until I finally seal it up. I hope the socks arrive soon as I am down to the last pair, and even they have a hole in and want washing. I suppose that they arrived too late for the Monday morning post.

I have just been listening to Moore Marriott & Graham Moffat, in the bit from ‘Oh! Mr Porter!’ I expect you heard it too.

On Monday I went to the Music Society’s meeting as usual, & on Tuesday to a concert by the RAF orchestra. The orchestra played, amongst other items, part of the ‘Water Music’, some songs by a good soprano, and some very excellent piano playing by a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. As an encore he played the Dance of Fear [‘Dance of Terror’] from ‘Love the Magician’, much to my delight.

The weather has been still unpleasant, consisting mainly of wet snow, cold rain and cold winds. The snow has not laid properly, but it has made the roads nasty and sloshy to walk on. My cold is still with me and worse if anything, as I now have a sore throat too. I washed about a dozen handkerchiefs this evening, but have not yet succeeded in getting the blue out.

Nowadays we are back on the drill again. Not that there is any need for it, but I suppose that the idea is to keep us busy. Until then we were mainly on “route marches”, which generally consisted of about two thirds march & one third sitting in cafes.

Thursday: I am now at the billet after having been to see the doctor. He says I have tonsillitis and must stop in bed for two days. I have also to gargle, to inhale menthol & take some potassium chlorate tablets. I have not yet got to bed & don’t suppose I shall do so, because it is a lot warmer down here by the fire than upstairs, especially after the window has been open all morning. This morning was clear and very cold. About the coldest yet I should think. Don’t think that I am very ill though: as far as I am concerned I have just a bad cold and sore throat, but I think that if anything I am better than yesterday. I shan’t be able to go to the cinema tonight as planned though; I must try Saturday.

This morning’s post had only a letter from Auntie Frad for me, perhaps yours may arrive with the parcels at dinner time. I see from Auntie Frad’s letter that Peter arrived there on Monday, so I suppose that Jean has left you too. Her letter also included a 2/6 book of stamps, which is very useful, as I had run out & should have had to buy some to post this letter……….1.30pm: Nothing has yet arrived, so goodbye, Albert.

I had not heard of ‘Love the Magician’ until I read Albert’s letter. ‘El Amor Brujo’ was composed by Manuel de Falla between 1914 and 1915. I listened to an orchestral version of ‘Danza del Terror’ last night, closing my eyes to imagine my Uncle’s delight, to hear that familiar piece of music so far from home.

Close to His Heart

“..so Goodbye, and more love from Albert.”

In my last post, I mentioned that we had read the last of Albert’s letters of 1941, and the next post would bring us to 1942. Well, dear reader, please bear with me as we have to pause, and revisit October 1941 before we delve into the next year.

As I worked my way through the very many letters of 1942, a little note slipped out of an envelope. Undated, many times folded over, tinted with the residues of coal dust and tobacco smoke. I held it in my hand and knew instantly by the soft curve of it, that this letter had lain close to my Grandfather’s heart, stored in his wallet or pocket book, from October 1941 to February 1963.

I think most people have one – a little note, some scrap of something handwritten. Often the subject is quite mundane (I have kept one of my Mother’s last lists) but the pattern and the flow of words written by one passed, or grown, touches us. There is something of the soul, something that we long to keep close.

The contents of this little note replicate much of what Albert wrote in the post 23 Hull Road. I guess what touched me most was that he begins the birthday letter ‘Dear Daddy’, and that he writes ‘may we spend the next one together.’

None of us know what’s around the corner, hasn’t 2020 highlighted that for us? And in 1941, no-one knew either. They had hopes, love and family and little reminders of those things, stored in letters and lists – kept close.

Gas Masks, Face Masks

“Blackpool, 1941, Gas Drill” by Tom Keay https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14646

As I drove to the supermarket this morning, I realised that seeing people wearing facemasks feels just so normal now, and I guess in 1941 it felt just as commonplace to see people carrying around their gasmasks. Whilst I won’t compare the current pandemic in the UK to the upheaval of a world war, I see similarities in the hidden, unpredictable threat faced and how society shifts into new, previously unthinkable, patterns of protective behaviour.

As I was thinking about the parallels between war and pandemic, I looked up the number of British civilian casulaties – 43,000 people killed between 1940 and 1941. Currently the number of Covid 19 related deaths in the UK is 41,429 – not far off – in 8 months.

In 1941 due to censorship, people did not hear about how many of their fellow citizens had died as a direct result of war. Albert would have participated in gas mask drills (he could even have been a model for this sketch) but his letters omit such details. There must have been many, many things he did, which he could not share with his family. And I am sure also, there were feelings and concerns he would have wanted to share, about his life, his purpose and the unpredictable world he was living in. As such candour was impossible, Albert details the munitae of his December days, in the dull lull between Christmas and New Year.

Monday Dec 29. 1941

Dear All, I hoped to write a long letter about a walk which I intended to take yesterday, but by the time I awoke it was 10 o’clock and the ‘bus left at 10.20 – so it was not much use hurrying to catch it. The weather was cold and rather grey looking, though no doubt I should have enjoyed myself had I gone. I was going by ‘bus to Garstang, and then to walk up to the hills and moors, using my new book of maps. I must try that walk before I leave here, though I fancy there is a church parade next week.

In the afternoon I borrowed the “Monopoly” board which belongs to the people here, and had a game lasting for the afternoon and the earlier part of the evening, then I wrote some letters. I heard some “bits” of music during the day, including Everyman’s music in which they played the 1st part of The Water Music, much to my delight.

This morning your letters, posted on Boxing Day, arrived, and I was pleased to hear that you had a very good time at Xmas, with the usual Christmas fare and games, & quite a large party to join in with them.

I did not know that Jean had been to the clinic during her exam period, nor did I know that she did so well for Drawing, she is quite good.

As you seem to have such quantities, I am not sending any cigarettes this week. I had 40, but sold them to the man here, as he is not always able to get them; I can do with the money too, as I have not yet got over Xmas! (financially that is). I wonder how you got on travelling on Monday. Several of the girls who have gone on Xmas leave were due back to-day, but none of them has turned up. The fellows who had weekend leave say that the trains from Euston were packed, & very many of them could not get on the night train, and have had to travel later in the day.

It has turned much colder this week, and tonight it is slightly foggy, with a moon shining, and a sharp frost in the offing. The roofs were quite white this morning, which was also rather cold. This is the first really cold weather we have had; it probably is getting ready for next week when I am supposed to have some guards to do!

“Squad Drill on the Prom, 1941” by Tom Keay https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/14652

I am sending along “English Downland” which I am sure you will all like. I have put some remarks in the margin, so I won’t say anything much about it here. The part I like best of all is the description of the road over ‘Old Winchester Hill’, which he does very well, and in addition it is one of my favourite roads. If you have a spare Sunday in the Spring when the violets are out, you really must go along the road from West Meon station to the top of the Hill. I think it is best to go up the road, as then you have to walk and can see the full beauty of it. You could continue along Tegdown to Hyden Wood and thence either home or to Havant.

To-day it is still cold and foggy, I expect it is something like that at home, judging by the weather report from Dover. I hope you are all well: my love to you both & Peter and Jean – Albert.

P.S. I saw a car (Morris 10 or 12) with a ‘COW’ registration number. I took my shoes to be mended today so for the next week I shall clump round in boots for evenings. We should have church parade on Sunday.

And that is the last letter of 1941. What will 1942 bring Albert Mabey? I don’t know much more than you, for I have made a point of not reading ahead, prior to posting these letters. Soon I’ll pull the bundle of letters out from the box and we can discover the next chapter together.