“a sort of guarantee that things are much as they were, underneath, just as you know that a tree is fundamentally the same in Winter as when it is able to be in leaf.”
I don’t know when Albert would have received this short letter, surely some weeks after the date his school friend Phil Hart wrote, on 16 December 1941. However, in The Christmas Party Albert mentions receiving a letter from his school friend. If this ‘Air Graph’ took only five days to fly from ‘The Middle East’ to Southampton and thence to Blackpool, that would have been some kind of miracle. At the time of writing, these young men were only 20. Although the letter is short I loved the insight it gave me into another important relationship in Albert’s life. I was moved by the wisdom of Phil’s words, so apt not only for their radically altered lives, but the strange and uncertain world we live in now:
Dear Albert, This is just a “filling in” missive, not my much-overdue letter to you; that will arrive later. I hope you’ve seen everything that has arrived home from me. I am aware that you’ve been in the RAF for several weeks now. Unfortunately, I am not in possession of your new address yet, so this will go via No 38. I received a letter from you a short while ago, written in Devon. I enjoyed your holiday. It’s strange how you do enjoy such things by proxy, when you’re separated from them. It seems to be a sort of guarantee that things are much as they were, underneath, just as you know that a tree is fundamentally the same in Winter as when it is able to be in leaf. My sister, for instance, writes, “Albert wrote to me last week – don’t think he’s very happy, fed up with drilling etc. So write and cheer him up. Muriel, Sheila and I, walked from Compton, via Oliver’s Battery and Tegdown to Dene and Sparsholt and back to Winton for tea last Sunday. There was a tremendous wind and the Downs looked all silvery and lovely. I do wish you could have been there.” So, of course, do I, and you with me, but meanwhile isn’t it cheering to hear of these familiar places thus? I can’t supply this fare, as you did for me before you entered the RAF but you should receive a better letter from me about a fortnight after this arrives – cheerio for now – Bill.
I know that Phil survived the war, I don’t know why he signed himself ‘Bill’ though. Any readers familiar with the area around Winchester will be impressed by the distance Phil’s sister (Joyce) and friends walked in an afternoon, I’m sure it would take me a whole day. And, in a time of limited freedoms, it is cheering for me to hear of the silvery Downs and imagine a walk with family or friends in that familiar and essentially unchanged landscape .
Wishing you all a Happy New Year, with better times ahead.
“Incidentally, I believe that the large number of civil servants here are responsible for the good shows and concerts that come here.”
I have not found it so easy to post a letter every week, far less easy than Albert found writing to his parents – this letter was sent two days after the last. It has troubled me, my lack of consistency. Partly I battle against the commonplace demands of work and fatigue, the need to cook meals, and generally look after oneself. Yet there is another specific reason, which is that I find typing out Albert’s long letters rather laborious and as I am an impatient soul my slowness frustrates me. I can type quite quickly if the words spring from my own head, but copying another’s is achingly dull.
But I won’t give up on Albert; I have (oh the wonders of technology) started dictating his letters, which is such a time saver! Reading aloud, if only to an iPad, shadows how these letters might first have been communicated to my Grandparents. I imagine my Grandfather reading to my Grandmother in the kitchen (reorganised to combat the winter cold), or maybe Grandmother read to my Grandfather as they sat together by the fire. Although I realise now how infrequently that would have occurred in the war years, for my Grandfather was evacuated with his entire school to Dorset, and Grandmother was mostly alone in Bullar Road. Still, these letters would have been passed around the family and read aloud at the kitchen table in Headley House, when Grandmother and Jean, reunited on the Island, went to visit.
Dear all, here is a letter to accompany the parcel which I hope to send tomorrow (Thursday) dinner-time. I have not done much since I wrote last. I went to the concert, for which I have enclosed the programme. The orchestra was quite good and the pianists excellent. I liked the Bach best of all, it was similar in some respects to the concerto in A minor which I have. There were about 15 in the orchestra but the audience was most disappointing – there could not have been more than 350 there, which, since there are 75,000 Airmen in Blackpool represents about a quarter %. Some of the audience were civilians too. On Monday I went to an educational test to see about being an observer. I took a short and easy test and when the real test comes off I am pretty sure I shall pass. When I pass that I am given a sort of certificate to show that I have passed. Later on in our fourth or fifth week of training we go before a selection board and are asked if we wish to go over to the pilot’s course (same for observers) and if we produce this certificate we have quite a good chance of getting through, so I have only to wait. I believe that our squad is all taking this test on Friday – but like many other things up here that may not come off as arranged.
“I wished I had been cycling home from Hamble instead of drilling in one of Blackpool’s dingy backstreets. “
On Friday we have our second Morse test and with luck I should pass that and get onto the six words per minute class. To-day I must try to book a seat for the Warner Brothers film – I hope to go on Friday. There are generally so many people going to the cinemas that one has to queue up or book a seat, yet there was plenty of room at the Halle orchestra concert on Saturday. Incidentally, I believe that the large number of civil servants here are responsible for the good shows and concerts that come here. I am told that before the war, the entertainment was about what one might expect in a place like this. Today is quite muggy and warm, yesterday was lovely, warm sun and not much wind and quite warm walking home in the evening. I wished I had been cycling home from Hamble instead of drilling in one of Blackpool’s dingy backstreets. We have just been issued with an extra shirt and two collars, making three shirts and six collars in all. Not that I need them, for I find that apart from socks, I do not dirty my clothes at all quickly, of course we do not do any dirty work. 6.40 Evening I am now waiting to go down to the music Society meeting at 7:30. This afternoon we played football, or rather 11 of us did whilst the other 30 sat down and watched. Then we went home early, which is not a bad way of spending an afternoon. This morning I put some boric acid powder in my socks to stop my feet from blistering but I don’t know whether it has made any difference. Well, there seems very little to write about this time. I have not had any letters since yours, I do not seem to have had much mail lately though I have written quite a lot. I have not written to Raymond yet or to ‘Spray Bank’. I think I might as well break off now and add a bit more later on, if there is any more to add. 9.40 It is funny how I keep on suddenly thinking of little bits of country round home at all sorts of odd times and usually for no apparent reason; sometimes my memory brings up a picture of Stephen’s Castle Down, another time of Deacon Hill or again of the Lyndhurst Road. I don’t know what it shows, but there it is. Well that about finishes that piece of paper, so goodbye and love from Albert.
In the 1930s and 40s Southampton was a large, bustling commercial port and town, yet Albert’s 6 mile cycle ride to the Shell Mex BP oil refinery in Hamble would have taken him down green lanes with views of the river Itchen and the wider expanse of Southampton Water. No wonder he missed his daily dose of countryside, as his sore feet marched up and down the dingy drill ground for hours on end.