The lovely Elaine sent me Kisses on a Postcard after I won the draw on her blog, and I am so very glad that she did. This is a delightful and surprisingly moving account of three years in the life of Terence Frisby, detailing the time when he and his older brother Jack were sent to the depths of Cornwall to escape the bombings in London.
The period of history this book encompasses has always been of interest to me, and evacuees and their experiences particularly tug on my heartstrings; my favourite childhood book was Goodnight Mister Tom, about a young boy sent to live with an elderly widower to escape the bombings in London, and it never failed to make me cry every time I read it. I just can’t imagine the anguish of mothers forced to wave their precious children off on trains to goodness knows where, not knowing when they would see them again, if ever. Many of these women would have had to send husbands off to the front line too, and I am just in awe of the way they just got on with things and kept going through it all; I couldn’t imagine having to live without the people I love, faced with the fear every day of a knock on the door and a telegram bringing dreaded news from the Front.
My surviving grandparents were active during the war; my nan, who is a few years older than my granddad, was a member of the WRAF, and she joined up straight from being a housemaid. She was a country girl and she loved the glamour of the base; she told me that the American soldiers were the best, and that she’d often sneak out after curfew to go on a date with one of the dashing pilots. She described many an occasion where the base would get machine gunned by German bombers, flying down so low that she could see the pilot’s faces; she would get down behind the bar she served at, wait for them to pass, get up, clear up the damage and just get on with it. Nan said she had to get desensitised to it all, because most days, half the ‘boys’ who went out in their planes just never came back. Her brother, who she adored, was killed early in the war too, so she learned to just compartmentalise that side of things and move on. My granddad was in the RAF right at the end of the war; he was too young to fight at the beginning. He never really talks about it, but he met my nan on the base and they married and moved to Welling, in South East London, where they still live, and which is, much to my delight when I realised, where Terence Frisby grew up. Both of my parents were brought up in Welling and it was on the streets of said dull suburb they met, and so this book had a lovely personal resonance for me, as I recognised all of the places he mentioned in that part of London.
So I already love the topic, and I know where part of the book is set like the back of my hand; therefore, I was predisposed to love the book itself, I suppose, but it delivered so much more than I had expected and I was actually struggling to hold back my tears on the train this morning. One of the aspects of Terence’s story I found particularly interesting was what he remembered, and why; the book is only 200 pages long, not much when you think it covers three years of a life, and so the anecdotes he tells are clearly what have stayed with him over the years, and the remarkable accounts of adventures and friendships and displays of love and affection he experienced are truly worthy of remembering. It made me think about what has stayed with me from my childhood, and why some people and events have become etched in my memory and others have been forgotten. It’s funny how some seemingly trivial events can seem to sum up periods of our lives so completely.
The couple who took Terence and his brother in, Auntie Rose and Uncle Jack, are two of the most wonderful people I have ever come across in a book; their generosity and love towards two strangers is truly awe inspiring and my heart broke for them at the end when the boys inevitably went home. To know that there have been, and still are, such people in the world gives me hope for humanity; true selflessness does indeed exist. The life in the quiet village of Doublebois in Cornwall is enchantingly described, and I loved the stories of the ‘vackies’ and ‘locals’ fighting it out in the streets. Just how much the world has changed in the past 70 odd years was brought home to me by the description of the shock the community had when black American soldiers arrived; none of them had seen a black person before except a grotesque caricature. I can’t imagine a world so small.
Another aspect I found really interesting was how those who had been through the First World War were affected by the Second; Uncle Jack and Auntie Rose were that unfortunate generation who had to fight in the First War and send their children off to fight in the Second, and Uncle Jack’s vehemance towards religion and the government and the ‘superiors’ who decide the fate of those underneath them all came from his terrible experiences the first time round. The frustration they must have felt at having to witness the death of so many young men and then have to go through it all over again, rendering that first ‘war to end all wars’ utterly pointless…no wonder it destroyed men like Uncle Jack’s faith in religion and governments. One character I also found very poignant was Miss Polmanor, an elderly Wesleyan lady whose strict religious morals cause great inconvenience to others in the village, especially the atheist Uncle Jack. Terry discovers that the reason for Miss Polmanor’s extreme religion and prickliness is that her fiance was killed in the First World War and with him died all of her dreams and hopes for life; she became one of the ‘surplus’ women, like so many hundreds of thousands of others whose hopes of becoming wives and mothers died on the battlefields of Europe just twenty years before another war was to take the sons from the fortunate women who did manage to get their husbands back in 1918.
I think it is so important that these types of memoirs are read, as the story they tell of a way of life and a worldwide collective experience that I hope we never have to go through again is rapidly becoming a history that ever fewer people are able to tell. As the generations that went through the war get older, and die off, their stories get lost, and I for one never want to have the heroism of both the soldiers and those they left at home be forgotten. Kisses on a Postcard is a real treasure; it’s told with love and fondness and humour and I never normally read memoirs by men so it’s been refreshing and illuminating to have a male point of view on childhood for once. It really is a wonderful book that shows the tenacity and generosity of the human spirit, and I highly recommend it. Do read Elaine and Simon’s reviews as well.