Thursday 28 April 2016

What's in a Letter by Julie Summers

I’ve always been fascinated by communication. Not just in its literal form but in what it says about the human condition and how important it is to people to communicate and be communicated with. Throughout my many years of research into the history of the Second World War I have been struck by how much of a difference it made if people could talk to one another, if not face to face then by letter. In fact, sometimes it was enough just to write the letter, as it was in the case of one of the soldiers I wrote about who was a prisoner of the Japanese for 3 ½ years. In February 1942 he wrote to his wife: ‘I am a Prisoner of War.’ The letter goes on to describe the fall of Singapore and then he wrote the following:

'We are going to be linked together through the medium of pen and ink and pencil and paper as we always have been; we are going to continue to put our thoughts on paper. So long as I am able, I am going to write you at least one letter each week. One day you will read these letters … And know without doubt that you are with me … now and always.' 

Charles Steel wrote 182 letters to his wife, Louise, over the period of his captivity but he could only send them to her when he was finally freed in August 1945. He posted them from Rangoon in September and soon received his first letter from her expressing anxiety about how difficult it would be for them to reconnect after so much time apart. He replied: 

‘To hear you talking about cooking for the family is as balm to my soul. . . I am sure that we shall come together quite naturally because I see, quite clearly, a scene in our garden in forty years’ time. You will be reading these letters and I shall be gardening, and I shall come over to you with the loveliest rose I can find. As I pin it to your shawl, I can see you look up and hear you say, ‘Darling, what silly children we were to think that a mere war would alter our love for each other!’ And I shall kiss you, because I shall still love you . . .’

Charles and Louise Steel did indeed come together and were married for over forty years. Margaret, born after the war, is photographed here with them on holiday. 

Today we can communicate a hundred times a day in so many different ways: email, Twitter, Facebook and a dozen other ways I probably don’t know about because I was born into the generation that sent postcards from holiday and rang home once a week from school. In 1940, the postman delivered letters twice, even three times a day. Telegrams were for urgent news, both good and bad, and by the outbreak of war the telephone was becoming more widely used. 

But the bulk of wartime correspondence was by letter and the quantity prodigious. In the six years of war the army postal service handled thousands of millions of letters and parcels to and from conflict zones throughout the world. The army postal service was run by an impressive individual called Major James Drew who was over six feet tall and sported a fine handle-bar moustache. He was so successful in keeping the post flowing that he could guarantee next day delivery of letters in the aftermath of D-Day in June 1944 and parcels to arrive within three days. 

In every diary written during the war there are references to the arrival or non-arrival of the post. Crushing disappointment when nothing came, euphoria at the delivery of a letter from a loved one. And at home the post was just as eagerly awaited. ‘No letter from Jack this week’ or ‘I am sure you have written but I haven’t received any letters from you for a fortnight and I do so worry when I don’t hear from you.’ But ‘bliss oh bliss! Four letters in one day. I jumped into bed, pulled the covers up to my nose and breathed in your news.’ The value of postal communication and exchange of information between servicemen and women and their families is hard to overestimate. 

‘Letters for us stand for love, longing, light-heartedness and lyricism. Letters evoke passion, tenderness, amusement, sadness, rejoicing, surprise.’ These words were written by Diana Hopkinson. As a deaf woman she was particularly lonely without him. She and her husband corresponded for over five years, the words on paper giving meaning to her life without him. While she was stirring the jam or playing with the baby, washing her clothes or mending their shoes, the letters, full of love and passion, humour and tales of far-away places she would never visit but in her mind’s eye, filled her thoughts and kept her going throughout the war.

One very special set of letters came to my notice when I was writing the chapter in my book When the Children Came Home. This was correspondence between families separated by the Atlantic Ocean. In 1940 Sherborne School in Dorset sent 125 girls aged between six and sixteen to Branksome Hall School in Toronto. For some this was the opportunity of a lifetime, for others it was less happy as they missed their families, but for all it meant that the only form of communication was the letter. Sandra B had been a teenager when she arrived in Toronto. She wrote: ‘My family were most supportive. They had written twice a week. I had written home without constraint, and I felt that they had kept pace with the ways I was changing: they had both been to North America and were well travelled.’ Coming home, however, was difficult and she found that Britain had changed. Canada was where her heart was and she returned in 1947, marrying a Canadian boy the following year. She went on: ‘I consider myself Canadian, British Columbian, but my roots are still British. My mother, brother’s family, aunt, husband’s family are still there. In retrospect I feel I had the best of both worlds and was exceptionally lucky to come to Canada. Because of the age I came out, I do not feel that I was adversely affected; maybe my attitudes were already formed. I feel it made me more self reliant.’ Undoubtedly, in her mind, the ability to communicate openly with her parents had given her the courage to do what she felt was right for her.

Today we no longer communicate by letter. That is something that has changed in the last fifteen years and I rue it. Nothing gives me more pleasure than seeing an envelope with spidery writing plopping onto my doormat. It is almost bound to contain a story and I feel a tingle of excitement as I slit it open to see what little bit of life is going to be shared. Some years ago I received a letter which started: ‘My name is William Mortimer Drower and your grandfather was kind to me when I got into a spot of trouble in the camp gaol.’ That is a story I shall tell you next month. Please be patient. It is worth it…


Susan Price said...

Lovely post, but it surprises me by how unrepresentative it is of my family, who were working-class Black Country.
None of their children were evacuated, despite the B-C being reguarly bombed.
Various uncles spent time as PoWs, but I've never heard of any letters being exchanged. My family didn't write letters - they were for Bad News, bills and officialdom. I've been told that the first they knew of my uncle Arthur coming home from Burma was the official notification from the War Office.
My Dad liked to tell the story, with some pride, of how he first came home from National Service after 6 months away - his first time ever away from home. No one in his family owned a phone and there had been no letters.
As he neared his house he saw his father on the other side of the street, walking to work. His father saw him, his eldest and only son, gave a polite nod of the head, and walked on. My father nodded back, and walked on to home. The underlying message was: that's how we do things. No fuss.

Janie Hampton said...

I love letters, old and new. I have some of the letters my great grandmother wrote to her mother in Athens, describing her new babies, in the 1860s. To save paper she wrote horizontally and then diagonally across the page. She was a poor vicar's wife and couldn't afford photos, so from her description I know that my grandfather and his siblings looked just like my own babies. Pinky-blonde whispy hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks.