"Once again I'm torn in little pieces. How thankful I will be when my heart,
mind and body are all in one place!" So wrote my mother, after 17
years of a marriage mostly spent apart living on different continents.
Mum was born in 1916 on a farm on Sunk Island, a remote part of
Yorkshire. She grew up learning the skills she would need to be a farmer's
wife but instead she married a man in the Colonial Survey Service, who
spent all his working life mapping Nigeria and the Gold Coast.
In Lagos she had a dramatically different lifestyle. They were in a city! They
had electricity! They had servants! They socialised at The Club, where on
special occasions she wore glamorous evening gowns. (A lot more
glamorous than The Club, probably. It would have been a scruffy, dusty
It was in The Club that my parents heard Chamberlain's announcement on
the radio declaring war on Germany. Shortly after that, they came home to
England on leave, Mum now expecting their first child. In July 1940 Dad
returned to West Africa, the White Man's Grave - far too unhealthy for
English babies. Mum remained in East Yorkshire. And so began long years
of marriage conducted by post.
During the war there was no airmail, and letters sent by sea took weeks, if
they arrived at all. On May 6th 1941 Mum wrote "At last a letter arrived,
dated 24th Feb... It isn't news I want so much as just something from you.
What matter if the censor reads [our letters]. It can't help the Germans and
it does help me!" It was not all loneliness. In December that year she
reports on the Home Guard Dance: "I had a gin and lime, then somebody
bought me a whisky, and I'm sure Harry thought that with one more I'd be
laid out. Fortunately the bar closed...!"
Dad kept almost all of the letters she wrote to him - those that survived the
U-boats, that is. When Mum died in 2015 the collection came to me. There
were more than 1200 pages, written over the 17 years before Dad retired.
They tell of the strange life Colonial Service families were expected to lead.
A world where email and Skype were not even in science fiction, where
phones were rare and air travel rarer, and wives and children had to put up
with circumstances that would appal psychologists nowadays. Few of Dad's
letters survived, not least because of my brothers' stamp collecting
enthusiasms, but a few from 1955-57 tell something about life in Accra as
the Gold Coast moved to independence.
Mum's letters are also a record of domestic life during and after the war.
Written at that time of real austerity - bombs, rationing, power cuts, they tell
the story of any British family at the time. I felt they were well worth editing
into a book to preserve something of that world.