“The longest month I have known.”

With these words Albert sums up his RAF career to date; I sympathise with my uncle – days of pointless marching and chilly evenings in shared accommodation, far from the home and the countryside that he loved. He did not have to sign up, and I admire him all the more for that. My Mother told me, that as a chemist in the oil industry he was in a ‘reserved occupation’ and would have therefore avoided conscription. But willingly he volunteered, committed himself to war as so many young men, and women, did. Did Albert ever contemplate his own death? On the 19th November 1941, I think not. His concerns were for his mother’s well being, and for those others that he loved. Not that he loved everyone mentioned, Albert’s opinion of ‘Mrs Churchill’ is less than favourable and why he recommended that ‘Aunt’ be barred from Bullar Road remains a mystery!

Wednesday, November 19th
Dear All,
Yesterday I received the parcel, which you posted on Monday, which was quite quick. I do not know which letter you were expecting from me, but the last thing I posted to you last week was a parcel containing socks and vest which went about Thursday. Yesterday or was it Monday I sent a package to you and a parcel containing meat paste, chocolate and sweets to Jean.
Thursday: incidentally I see that your letter was posted on November 17, one month after I joined the RAF and the longest month I have known, how much longer ago it seems that I was last home!
I do not think that I have a great deal of news to tell. My most interesting days are spent in the weekends, though this weekend we have a Church Parade, so once more I shall not apply for a pass, though if it is fine I shall escape into the country for a few hours. Monday and yesterday I attended the usual music meetings on Monday Myers Fogging, who played at the Tuesday’s concert, gave us some piano music – all from memory and very good. There was also a soprano and a gramophone symphony, making a mixed and interesting programme. On Wednesday one of the corporals gave us a most interesting lecture, illustrated with records, of the history of music – very sketchily of course, but he gave us a jolly good talk and played some excellent records including some that I should like very much indeed.
It is now evening and this letter will not be posted until Friday, so I hope you will get it on Saturday. Since I have nothing much to tell of my own doings I will answer your letter on the next page.


I was glad there is some news of Phil at long last, even if it was only a cable. Since I have been up here I have written him a letter and Airgraph and put a Xmas card in the letter, which I hope he has received. I am intending to write to Joyce somewhen and I will ask her what records she took away – just as a point of interest, I don’t mind of course. I can well imagine that you see plenty of Mrs Churchill too: I don’t suppose you have much time to think about your worries when she is in… I hope she will not be in too much when I come home, or else I shall be going back to Blackpool! However I expect she makes a good third for Kan-u-go, and company in the evenings. Do you see anything of Mr and Mrs Whatmore these days? You must keep “Aunt” out at all costs though, she is one of the visitors you must avoid.
It gets very dark these evenings, in spite of the street lights, and I’m glad to have my torch with me. This evening I saw the new moon for the first time, so we shall have some moonlight next week. We are on a new timetable next week, I understand, I suppose that will mean more work and time spent in marching around Blackpool. However, I do not mind marching now that my feet are better, or almost so, but the drill is still the item I dislike most of all. I am sure that I shall be able to walk much further now, which will be a good thing as I have no bicycle.
I have just been eating one of the apples and have two still remaining, so you see I did not really need any more. I also have some of the biscuits, which are very nice ones and a good shape as well, in fact I thought at first that they were shop ones before I undid the cellophane. As regards chocolates and sweets, I have not wanted to spend much money this week but I think I can get sweets at most times even if chocolates are rather scarce.

Murgatroyd and Winterbottom

I do not hear the wireless much here and I have missed all the things you mentioned. I should especially like to hear the talks on Mozart G minor symphony. I heard the music hall on Sunday though and thought it quite good with Suzette Tarri and Murgatroyd and Winterbottom who I have not heard for years. The “wireless” here is strictly speaking not wireless, as it is one of those re-diffusion things which seem very popular here.

“Another thing we see a lot of the swing doors, due no doubt, to the cold winds. I have never before seen so many swing doors as along the Blackpool Front.”

Don’t expect me to get Christmas leave! I saw in the “Telegraph” the other day that there would be none, and of course that would be especially true for trainees. However I think that our long weekend should be within a fortnight of Christmas so you will be able to save up some of the festivities for me. Anyway, I think you will be safe to go to Havant and I think it would be a good idea to go there if you can.
As regards photographs, I meant a small one (P.C.) f the cathedral . If you cannot find it you could send the other large one, the horizontal one, not showing the Bishop’s Palace. The one from the cliffs which I mean is the one on cream base grained paper – what I believe you call bromide paper, though in fact they are all on bromide paper, except the small contact prints. I do not know if that one has a train or not, but it does have a smudgy white seagull over the sea. I do not think the ones of Saints (Kings?), Fingal bridge or the stream are good enough to send, though you can send them if you care to.
I am not sure which ones of Jean I have, but I think we should keep the better one, which is I fancy, on the cream grained paper. That is about all this week, not even enough to fill this page, so goodbye and love from Albert. (P.T.O.)
P.S. We are just having some cocoa and a sort of fig cake for supper – we also have fig puddings for desert, and I don’t like it much – all pips and not a very nice flavour, but I don’t mind it much and everything else is very good.

Once again the feeling that Albert and I participate in a delicate dance, in which time is irrelevant; he mentions his wish for a photo of Jean and I found that photograph of my Mother to share in my last post. Foolish of me to think I found it for him? Perhaps. I’m sure though that he would have been glad (if not astonished) that I am able to share his work with you, wherever in the big, wide world you may be.

Friday October 24, Part Two

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And once again, through no design of my own, I publish a letter at almost the same time of year that it was written. Here my uncle writes of migrating birds and robins singing again. I pause from my typing to listen to my own little robin warbling on the garden fence. I see the geese pass overhead. Albert is tapping lightly on my shoulder, asking me to look beyond and see the gossamer thread of connection that we share on this late October day. So we start to know each other.

I have got left £2.15s to last me until next pay day on next Friday. Also I have the best part of a 5/- [5 shillings] book of stamps. I am glad to hear that Jean has at last got a bicycle: she says that you took the money from my box, so don’t bother to repay it, she can count it as a birthday (or Christmas) present from me. We got 10/- at Padgate, and since then have had no money. Glad I brought some!

I was interested to hear how you are getting on, though it made me a bit homesick to think of all the places you went to on your ride. I am glad to see that you use the gramophone: you must let Joyce hear it when they come round, she would especially like to hear the “Emperor Concerto” right through (H.M.V. plum label) and the Bach Piano Concerto in A minor (H.M.V. red label). The second she has not heard at all, if I write to them I shall mention it. That “Hymn Tune” is I think “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” by Bach, played by Myra Hess (H.M.V. plum label 10″ in right hand compartment). Others which you might enjoy are:

Invitation to the Waltz, Overture midsummer nights dream, Marche Militaire (J), Unfinished Symphony, Hungarian Rhapsody (J), Anita’s Dance (J), Liebestraum No.2 (J).

Those marked (J) are Joyce’s and in the left hand compartment. There are also all our old ones knocking around somewhere in the box. By the way my balance is not a “Spring Balance“! Take a look at it one day and see if you can find the spring or the springs. When you went out you probably noticed, as I did before I left, how the birds are beginning to sing again, especially the robins and wrens. I expect the skylarks will be beginning again soon. I have heard none up here, but have seen several flocks of birds flying out to the sea S.S.W. Migrating I suppose, quite possibly martins, swallows or swifts. I have never seen migrating birds before. I have just read the letters from Havant and Branstone: it is very nice to see how they are getting on. It reminds me to see about something for Auntie Lizzie’s birthday too. I had forgotten about it. I think I can get some chocolate at the canteen & send some along to her.

I am glad you are still getting the “Radio Times” (show Joyce) for tonight I see something labelled in the paper “Mozart”, it should be good. I have got the “News Chronicle” to-day, the “Telegraph” is nearly unprocurable here. I was interested about the rear lamp, a pity we did not think of it before, because that should solve all earthing problems. You were quite right about the taxi. I lingered at Stewarts until nearly 10 to 1 and by the time I got to Euston, it was 1.4 (train at 1.5). I was fortunate in obtaining a taxi just outside the door in Regents Street. But still, it cost me only 2/6 with the tip. As for the book of stamps, I had no time at all after lunch. That had better be all so goodbye now and love to all, from Albert.

P.S. You will show this letter to anyone else who would be interested of course. The food in this billet is quite good but not very plentiful. We should get moved on Monday to more permanent billet. I shall want you to send up my bicycle padlock & chain to lock my kitbag a little later – a lock here costs from 2s6d. Also some bits of rag for cleaning. I shall need a torch too.

This letter is recognisably from a different era; gramophone records, shillings and pence (d) and a curious way of writing the time – I assume 1.4 and 1.5 are 1.40 and 1.50 respectively. I also took note of the hyphenated spellings ‘to-day, to-morrow’ etc. I’m guessing these were not Mabey idiosyncrasies, although the family has some rather poor spellers! I was also surprised by the date format that Albert used, thinking this an Americanism, as we favour (and being English regard it as superior) the ‘day, month, year’ form. Was Albert’s date a ‘modern’ form that later fell out of favour or the traditional format that the UK later abandoned? I delight in these details, pedant that I am.

Dear Old Dad

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I have the last letter Great-Grandfather wrote in my hands. He signs off ‘Your Old Dad’, and that has got me thinking about my own Father, who I have not seen in four years now. Four years since I have called him ‘Dear Old Dad’. We all used to call him that, for he was always an old Dad; he was 45 years old when I was born, and to have a father that old was quite unusual in the 1960s! So he got very close to his 96th birthday before he passed away. I have missed my Dear Old Dad rather a lot in the last few days, for no particular reason. Four years will turn into five, and so it will go on like that. I regret this. He is more distant to me now, the accumulation of years absent takes its toll. I look at the photographs, I recall the sound of his voice; I try to stem the ceaseless flow of time and what it carries away.

Great-Grandfather writes from his bed, laid up with bronchitis. Touchingly he acknowledges that he is ‘Well looked after in every way.’ He thanks my Grandfather for the secateurs, which sadly he would not get much time to use.

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Dear John,

I feel that I must try and write you a line or 2 re the “Secateurs” &co. What a bit of real “Luck” that you should manage to drop on a pair so very similar to the ones that I’ve lost &co and that you purchased for me so many years ago. I forget HOW MANY but they have done such GOOD WORK and Now to be lost!!! At any rate I am well pleased and Hope to do some good Work with these and tho’ at present it don’t look hopeful &co, as I am writing this in Bed and not very well pleased with myself so far – but must be well satisfied that I’m not worse &co &co. And thankful that I’m well looked after in every way. BRONCHITIS is no favourite complaint of MINE!!! Well I went round the Garden yesterday afternoon almost Heart Breaking &co and nothing done & the 3rd Week in March. Well goodbye for the present. Glad to hear you are keeping well and busy Gardening with kindest regards THANKS &co. From your ‘OLD DAD

I believe that this was the last letter my Grandfather received from his father. And so Grandfather chose to keep this letter very safe, demonstrative of the same sentiment I have for the things my Father left behind. Father did not leave me letters, but little notes and drawings appended to my Mother’s letters. I have other things by his hand too, paintings (of course) and other oddities such as this stone that he drew upon. I cherish these things because they keep him close.

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And so farewell Great-Grandfather. I started this project knowing only your name and where you had lived. Apart from knowing a little more, I feel a sense of your spirit, which surprises me. Were I younger and my parents still living, my connection to you would not be so heartfelt, of this I am certain. Now I have lost my Mother and Father, the lives of long before (ushers in of us all) have a pull upon my heart.

Truly John Mabey, it has been a great pleasure to be with you.

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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.

 

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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