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A Box of Love Letters

Most people, I guess, found that in “lockdown” they got round to doing things that were only on their really long list of things to do. In my case this included opening up the box file containing my father’s letters to my mother during the Second World War. He was in the Eighth Army in the Royal Artillery so the letters are from North Africa and Italy. There are hundreds of them; some are conventional letters, others are on lettercards, but the overwhelming majority are “airgraphs”, letters written on a form and photocopied onto lightweight paper four inches by five so that they must be read with a magnifying glass. There is no correspondence from my mother to my father presumably because it was impossible to carry such luxuries back. All of the correspondence has a censor’s stamp on it, but I have only spotted one instance of censorship. He was enclosing “Two small flowers from the sands of . . . “and the location of the sands is obliterated. The censor seems highly tolerant of political opinions and reports of low morale, but won’t tolerate anything geographical. Frustratingly for me reading them as I’ve traveled between Cairo and Tunis and know Sicily quite well we only get references to “a nearby town” whereas I’d love to know where he actually is.

I have no idea how many similar boxes of letters exist from troops in the Eighth Army. I honestly doubt that there would be many so prolific: he was resolved to write at least once a day. It’s a reflection on twentieth century military life that he managed this nearly all the time with exceptions when the action peaks. In fact he reports some banter with the sergeant in charge of mail about the volume of his correspondence. Most of the material in the box is from 1943. I guess less got through in the difficult days of 1942; by 1943 the Allies were beginning to control the Mediterranean and as far as I can see everything was getting through. By June 1944, when the Allies took Rome, my father had become ill with malaria.

I have known my parents’ story all my life, but only reading this correspondence brings its nature into focus. In some ways it is a tale typical of its period, but it is surely an extreme case. They, Jim and Monica, were married on November 5th 1941, less than three months after they had met; he was twenty eight, she was twenty six. Ten days after the wedding he sailed for Egypt via Cape Town and he spent the next three and a half years as a lance bombardier in the Royal Artillery. The most dramatic events at which he was present were the decisive version of the battle of El Alamein and the invasion of Sicily.

On the whole the letters are very boring. This is not a complaint or a criticism because it was all they had and it wasn’t meant to entertain a twenty-first century reader. It is in any case a reminder of a true cliché about twentieth century warfare, that it was very boring and the overwhelming majority of armed forces were non-combatants for the overwhelming majority of the duration. It is also, to use a term I don’t believe existed at the time, self-referential in that it is often about the mail and its problems. There are accounts of the misery of receiving nothing followed by later accounts of receiving seven items all in one go. There are plenty of general speculations about the state of the forces mail service, its reliability and the time it takes: twelve days is a figure mentioned. The sense of boredom has to be put alongside the undeniable observation that my father had a relatively interesting war; not only was he involved in great events he was able to go on a wide variety of courses, ranging from truck driving to Italian. As a language graduate he was given every facility to develop his Italian up to near fluency in a few months.

Understandably the duration of the war is a major obsession. I can detect no hint that my father or anyone he is serving with is any doubt about the eventual outcome, though that might have been different in some lost 1942 correspondence, but they get very mixed messages about how long it will take. Churchill’s “end of the beginning” speech, repeated on forces’ radio, is greeted by an entire room full of troops shouting, “Switch him off”. A military analyst predicting a 1949 finish causes despair and desperate discussions about the introduction of a system of leave that will actually get them back home for a time. Enormous faith is placed in “Uncle Joe” and the Red Army as agents of shortening the war. My father gets hold of a Russian grammar to study in tribute and asks my mother if it is true that people are addressing each other as “Comrade” now in England. The word goes round that they should keep their ears open for mention of Smolensk as an indication that the German army is in serious retreat. Of course they were right to be grateful to the Red Army insofar as if Hitler had not ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union they would have been facing vastly stronger German forces in North Africa. As an alternative to the war ending my father sometimes speculates on various kinds of transfer and promotion, but usually dismisses these possibilities quite quickly. The most fantastic occurs when he hears that a fellow “Ack Ack” gunner has effected a transfer to the merchant navy and he imagines following this lead and managing to get onto the ship commanded by his father-in-law, my grandfather, slightly incongruously referred to as “Daddy” here and still on active service in his sixties. At this stage the two had never met, though they did meet up in Syracuse later, a feat of logistics I have never understood.

I don’t imagine for an instant that an historian of the Second World War would learn anything new from these letters, but they do contain anecdotal nuggets which help build a vivid picture of Eighth Army life. A consignment of battledress arrives for the onset of the Italian winter; they are supposed to be sized and labeled for each man individually, but nobody is surprised that the system doesn’t work and we have the picture of a room full of men in various states of undress and to various degrees frustrated, satisfied or amused by the multiple exchanges that occur.

Ten men go down to “the local town” to watch a football match. Jim is a good footballer, inside-right for preference, and occasionally reports on games he has played in. But here they are spectators and they draw lots so that each man has one of the attacking players, numbers 7-11 on each side, and the one who has drawn the player who scores first wins the money. The number 11, outside-left for the away team, doesn’t seem a good draw, but well into the second half he scores a brilliant goal, equalising an earlier effort from a home defender (which doesn’t count) and the lance-bombardier is ten bob better off. He befriends a local boy called Federico, who is staying with his grandparents as his parents are away. The boy helps him master Sicilian dialect and in return is given sweets, which he keeps to give his sisters. In general a very relaxed picture is given of relations between allied troops and local people. There is a constant danger of sneak theft, but not of being robbed at knife point or even gun point as could happen in North Africa if you found yourself outnumbered by locals.

The invasion is covered by before and after full length letters written in June and July 1943. Before tells of rumours and warns of potential dangers. After, written when he is allowed to mention Sicily (though nowhere within it), tells the story of a nearly ideal invasion, a calm crossing with no sight of enemy shipping or aircraft and a landing on an undefended beach. The only problem was the landing craft tipped them out into five feet of water instead of the two they had prepared for and the rest of the day had to be spent drying everything out. The 48 hour rations are OK, though, because they’re all in tins with individual keys. They haven’t actually been told where they are going until the shoreline is in sight and my favourite image from this invasion is of my father sitting on deck studying his English Universities Press Teach Yourself Italian, as he would. Numerous times curious fellow soldiers approach him and ask, “Is that where we’re going then – Italy?” I see this as the true spirit of the infantry through the ages.

All of this is of some general interest to anyone who wants to know what that theatre of the Second World War actually felt like. But I have a much more particular interest as the only progeny of the relationship developed in this correspondence and having grown up in a house with the writer and the reader of these letters. I am bound to have a more intense interest in the personal material. As an example, on March 28th 1943 my father wrote (in a full length letter on this occasion):

“Monica, my darling,

When I start these letters with “Monica, my darling” I always feel it is something of a masterpiece of understatement. What I really feel like saying is, “Monica, my dearest, sweetest, loveliest darling, I love you. Honestly, darling, you can’t possibly realise just how much I do love you. You are my first thought in the morning and my last thought before going to bed at night . . . “

This is reasonably exemplary of his expressions of sentiment towards her and these expressions are regularly accompanied by statements of metaphysical romanticism. They are twin souls. He was determined on a bachelor life until “the lightning struck” when he saw her. She is a goddess to be placed on the highest pedestal. He yearns to care for her and protect her. (Already a smile – goddesses need protection?)

The first reaction to reading this for anyone must be sympathy. Whatever the content they are the desperate expressions of a man ripped away absurdly prematurely from the only woman (so far as I can see and apart from his mother and two sisters) that he had ever known who is desperate to get back to her. Their knowledge of each other has been so brief that in the course of this correspondence they are constantly finding things out about each other: he discovers, for instance, that she has had her appendix out while she discovers that he (sometimes) wears glasses.

The second reaction is a kind of shock (though not, strangely, surprise) that my rationalist, sceptical father could embrace so fully this metaphysical tradition of love. So far as I know he had no religious belief and religion is never mentioned here. As he was later the headmaster of a grammar school for sixteen years his agnosticism was not something he made a great deal of, yet the evidence for it is clear. But here he is talking a religiose language of love descended from romantic and courtly rituals that Cervantes was satirising four hundred years ago. Were other men doing this on airgraphs? Were the middle classes the sole bearers of this style by then? (I think of upper class memoirs and diaries of the time and find a much more earthy approach to love and marriage.) Was it the only way, artistically and ideologically, of handling the combination of danger and deprivation that faced him? It’s the kind of yearning and sense of loss that we found (mainly? only?) in popular music in my generation.

Because my next thought in reaction to all this is that I’ve neither written nor received anything like these letters in my life and I suspect this is partly the difference between two individuals but mostly the difference between two generations with almost opposite experiences of life despite their historical proximity. Some of it is simply that I hardly ever wrote letters, but it’s also clear that I wouldn’t have embraced those sorts of sentiments and ideas if I had. I’m inclined to think that a love letter written by me would have said things like, “I think you are a splendid girl with particularly fine buttocks”. Part of me feels coarse and superficial when I read those sentiments as if I agreed with the late Barbara Cartland on the subject of sex, love and marriage. There’s a sense of deprivation that these dimensions were missing from our lives, but it is quickly overlain by a gratitude that our lives were as they were. My father’s life at this time was about a profound love, the dangers of war and the yearnings of separation; mine was never about any of those things. But a much larger part of me is simply grateful that I was able to live the kind of life that people of my generation lived.

There is a very precise point of similarity between my life and my father’s: as our twenty ninth birthday approached each of us was married in something of a hurry and then got on a ship to go a long way away. In his case it was without his new wife and it was a troopship; in my case it was on the QE2 with my new wife and it was to take up a remunerative fellowship at Stanford University. The similarity is eery, but entirely trivial when compared to the difference.

Two figures from fiction come to mind when I try to understand my father. The first is Don Quixote who found the real world unattractive when compared to his imaginings and the standards he aspired to live up to. Quixote “loved” Dulcinea del Toboso, a peasant woman whom he idealised into something quite ethereal. My mother was not a peasant woman, but she was almost a stereotype of an English middle-class lady, obsessed with doing the right thing as convention determined rightness and with remarkably few interests apart from horses and the royal family. She was an excellent mother, devoted to the job, always looking good, never embarrassing, but difficult to idealise. The second is Gordon Comstock, the central character of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Comstock is clever, embittered, sexually frustrated and obsessed with the relationship between sex and money in the London of his time. The novel was published in 1934 when my father was twenty two, finishing his training as a teacher (in London) and having difficulty finding a job. The references I have are unanimous that he was sober and diligent; anecdotally I’m also pretty sure he was embittered, celibate and frustrated.

When I was twenty two I took up a lectureship at the new University of Warwick. It was a rare case historically of a sellers’ market for young academics and I was offered a free apartment on the campus. On the first night I was there I had a quick early evening drink and remarked to anyone listening that I had to go to my flat in case there was a ‘phone call. When I had been there a few minutes there was a knock on the door and a charming and athletic young woman who had overheard my remark stood there with two drinks suggesting I might welcome some company. Orwell makes it clear that wasn’t the sort of thing that happened to Gordon Comstock nor, by extension, to Eric Blair. Nor to my father or Quixote. I don’t know about Cervantes. It was a generation gap as wide as any could be and it made mutual understanding quite difficult; you could do many things with the splendid ladies of my generation, but writing them long letters and putting them on pedestals were neither necessary nor appropriate.

After the war, when my parents actually managed to live together I soon arrived, along with a million other babies that year, as the fly in the ointment. There is no mention in the correspondence of raising a family though, of course, there might have been something in my mother’s half that my father ignored. It was clear that I was a wanted and much loved arrival so far as my mother, my grandparents and an assortment of other relatives were concerned, but that this reaction was not shared by my father. Family legend has it than after a very difficult home birth my father declared, “This is never happening again.” Nobody could agree on exactly what he meant though the fact is I remained an only child. A little later he stormed down to the registrar’s office and insisted on expunging the name Geoffrey from my details. It had been registered as my name by my grandmother on my mother’s instructions because it was the name of her boss at her wartime employment at the Yorkshire Rural Community Council. (His name was Geoffrey Ridley; he was twice her age and if one can judge by his letters to her which are in my possession he thought very highly of her, but in an entirely proper way. He did always write in green ink, though.) The registrar of course said that I must have some sort of first name and my father pulled a book out of his bag and I became Lincoln. (It was a biography of the president not a guidebook to the city.)

I could claim, I suppose, that my father “bullied” me. It was not physical – I don’t recall him ever laying a finger on me – but it was a constancy of sourness and bitterness attacking my abilities and value. It didn’t feel like bullying, though, because for some reason I couldn’t care less. Like everybody else I’ve read many tales, both fictional and autobiographical, of people desperate and determined to please their parents, but I wasn’t. I was quite happy to avoid, manipulate or annoy them as seemed appropriate. Perhaps my father might have stopped if I’d ever appeared to care – or if other people hadn’t seemed to dote on me so much. And it was a pure case of “sticks and stones”: every time he had a decision to make about me he made the right one and was prepared to support me whenever necessary like some devoted Kantian determined to superimpose duty on vulgar desire. He and I were determined allies, for example, in my desire to go to boarding school. In retrospect I am very grateful for his refusal to have a television in the house which lasted until after I had taken “A” levels because I grew up with the written and spoken word (mainly the “Home Service”) rather than being sedated by visual imagery. So he was a useful father and I wouldn’t have swapped him for a warm but useless one. He never changed, though. My wife met him when I was twenty seven and he was sixty one and she asked me in a shocked whisper, “Why does he dislike you so much?” Five years later at a time when he was being particularly awkward and difficult I finally gave him my summary of his failings. He said that he would never speak to me again and was true to his word. It was in many ways typical of his behaviour: reclusiveness was his default position in dealing with anything that resembled a difficult relationship. I never had any personal regrets. Initially, I had some regrets on the part of my mother, but quickly concluded that the situation allowed her to spend time with our family in a far more relaxed way than would otherwise have been possible.

My parents marriage lasted sixty one years though they were apart for three and a half of those at the beginning and he was unable to recognise her for the last five. On Christmas Day 2002 I received a ‘phone call from his care home at 4 o’clock in the morning. In the strongest of Lancastrian dialect I was told, “It’s tha father (short a in both words) – it dunt look good.” I was enormously relieved, not because my father was dieing, but because before I went to bed I had parted from three sons in a pub as they went off to a night club. When someone rings you at 4am and you last saw three sons heading for a night club the fact that ‘phone call isn’t about them is bound to be a great relief. I went back to sleep and at 8.15am I received another ‘phone call to say that he had died; he was ninety. My mother was staying with us, having been persuaded that being with him was of no benefit to him or anyone else and she threw herself on the bed and wailed when I told her the news. Yet minutes later she was downstairs and chatting brightly and seemed to enjoy the rest of Christmas Day. She lived a further twelve years and died a few weeks short of her hundredth birthday. At the end as earlier my father was withdrawn, but still useful. Because he had retired in 1974 his pension was boosted by several years of enormous inflation; his pensions in total were more than double his care home fees so we were actually making a profit on him.

At the time of writing our marriage is forty five years old and we knew each other for three years before that. Comparison is irresistible, but intellectually challenging. After all we must simultaneously compare not only two couples, four people, but the styles and assumptions of two adjacent, but very different, generations and two different ideologies of love and marriage. These are not the same thing, but loosely correlated. That is, I think there probably are couples younger than us who function as my parents did, but far fewer of them than in their generation. In some respects, though, the comparison is simple because it starts with a list of things which we do and they didn’t do.

We banter, we squabble and we do horseplay. We argue, both about our plans and about the world; I remember my wife’s jaw dropping when she asked my mother about holiday plans and received the answer, “I don’t know – he hasn’t said yet”. We have diametrically opposed views on many important subjects, including politics and religion, whereas my parents always seemed to speak with one voice. Both couples quarrel. I remember my father slapping my mother’s legs hard: I have no idea what the immediate issue was, but the underlying bitterness was always because she was alleged to love me more than she loved him. It only ever happened once, in my presence at least, and I wasn’t all that shocked because I’d heard from other boys about their fathers “braying” their mothers. The most violent incident in our own marriage was an incident of banter-cum-horseplay when I used irony and had two teeth knocked out for my efforts. Actually, they were an old and cheap bridge which needed replacing, but I relish to this day Ann’s face when I held up the two teeth: she giggled, but it was a very guilty giggle. In fact we laugh all the time, both with and at each other; my parents rarely laughed with each other and laughing at the other person would have been unthinkable.

Above all, what we do that they didn’t is compete. I can easily think of fifty things that Ann is better at than me and even half a dozen where I’m the better of the two. But the interesting activities are the ones where we are nip and tuck such as tennis (where my feared slice-drive is regularly described as “the world’s ugliest tennis shot”), quizzing, arguing and cooking. We aspire to put meals in front of each other that reach new heights of “fine dining” or the solid virtues of “comfort food”. During my parents’ marriage my mother did all the cooking until my father retired. Then he bought lots of books on the subject and banished her from the kitchen. It lasted about six weeks before some mild criticism elicited one of his notorious, “Right! That’s it!” responses and he gave up cooking for good.

For decades my parents slept in separate rooms but also sat in separate rooms during the day. My mother used to insist that most of their friends were similar and they were happy doing it that way. So it is strange when I read of my father’s worship of my mother and that she was the only person in the world that he could ever have married. Perhaps such thoughts are inevitable given the heart-rending separation they endured. But I was dealt much easier cards to play and I once said in print that I could have enjoyed being married to approximately 11% of my female contemporaries. My parents started with a belief in twin souls and a kind of worship; we were just attracted to each other. But when you live a life together and it works the part of you that is the “relationship” slowly becomes the only part that matters – you become eternally bound to each other. You might think that “twin souls” would have more staying power than “particularly fine buttocks”, but it’s not necessarily so.

Lincoln Allison July 2020

(A version of this essay was published in the April 2021 issue of The Critic under the title, “A Kind of Loving”. It was edited sensitively and purely for length, despite the recycling of Stan Barstow’s novel title; at well over 4000 words this is too long for a normal magazine article. But this is the full version.)