My parents met at Glasgow University in the years before WW2. When war broke out, my father joined the Royal Navy while my Mother taught in Glasgow schools. The correspondence between them during 1941 describes how my father attempted to woo my mother in between disposing of bombs underwater. The contrast between my mother’s panics about teaching Latin and my father’s calmness in the face of danger is present in much of their correspondence.
The letters below are extracted from a correspondence covering 1938 and 1950.
Ordinary Coder G.S. Bryden,
My dear Doreen
Oh boys, oh boys, oh boys! What fun! Don’t you wish you were a sailorman? I used to play at ships when I was a small boy but never with the elaborateness and consistency with which we play it here. This place is an evacuated hospital: the steps leading to it are the gangway, one part is the forecastle, another the quarter-deck, another the foretop, and so on; the kitchen is the galley, the corridors are companion-ways, and every corner has some extraordinary title conveying nothing to landlubbers, but, oh boys, the glorious juvenility of it all!
Today we have done nothing but get our bedding, eat, lounge about, and receive fatherly advice from everybody from the commander down to the lads who have been here a week and think themselves seamen warriors. Tomorrow we get our uniforms, together with a vast quantity of miscellaneous kit which is to be stowed away tho Lord knows how. You get a nice wee wooden stamp which you mark your things with, using paint that takes two hours to dry, so that all your bedding gets covered for you can’t spread out everything at once. (This is being written at high speed in a canteen full of very noisey fellows of whom half-a-dozen are giving us the benefit of their wisdom so you must excuse if it is somewhat incoherent!)
The hours are struck on a bell somewhere, but none of us hae found out the secret of understanding it yet. A bugle sends out all sorts of hoarse messages throughout the day, and I suppose some day we’ll be able to follow that too. But the special instructions bellowed through a great loud-speaker, are for ever unintelligible. We go about in an excited and amused daze, eternally asking “What was that? What did he say?” And no one can answer.
Our course is to last seven weeks. The first two concern themselves with general seamanship which seems to be general domestic service: scrubbing floors, washing tables, sweeping dormitories, cutting bread, carrying tea, washing dishes. You never saw such a handles set as we are: they dry tea-spoons one at a time, plates two a minute, and as like as not dry over again the article you have already polished. Bread they hack and tear till it is uneatable. And, alas, the tea! This is the one blow of the day.
You cannot finish letters in bed in the navy, it is not possible. So this had to wait. But it can wait no longer or maybe it will never be write at all, for the men of our mess are passing out right and left and who knows but what I shall be next. Vaccination for small-pox and inoculations for typhoid – that’s the worst of being in a sea-port. The doctor who does the vaccinations is a funny pop-eyed little fellow who looks like a combination of Jimmy Allan and a Divinity student – any D.S at all. Sometimes your arm stiffens up, sometimes you faint – my arm has so far contented itself with reminding me pretty distinctly that it’s there.
Well, we got our uniforms all right this morning – about a hundredweight of stuff, great-coat, oil-skins, trousers, blouses, tickly undies, caps, hat-boxed, blue jeans (ho, ho, got you there!) knives, stockings, ducks (???) boots – this in addition to hammock, blanket, towels, soap. Mind you, it’s fine getting something for nothing, or alternatively, when you pay your income tax this winter, you can comfort yourself with the reflection that it’s not lost what a friend gets. You’ll just about cover my kit – thirteen pounds.
We have heard more about privileges so far than duties. Tobacco for instance: one pound a month, cost 2/4d. Reduced from the railways – thank goodness. Long leave at certain weekends – unfortunately all long leave has been cancelled for the moment on account of the invasion, so I’m not so keen on it at the moment – the invasion, I mean.
After another interruption. Kit has its responsibilities as well as its delights. All afternoon we have been marking it with wooden stamps and paint, and of all tedious and finicky jobs this is the worst. You know what a grand mess I make of folding a rain-coat: well imagine me with a stiff arm –and very painful too – marking and folding some thirty blessed garments. And of course I was a member of today’s cook-squad, so I lost an hour and a half which collecting fried fish, roast beef, cauliflower and roast potatoes, cutting bread, pouring out tea, and washing up. What a hosteller I shall make after the war! – to say nothing of a householder. – So I have some to mark tomorrow before getting into my uniform.
You would never believe what a nice set of lads we have here. This is a special sort of depot, devoted almost exclusively to coders, and there are lots of schoolmasters – which is better than you would think. Four of us from Scotland band together and we can all dry dishes and cut bread which is more than the Englishmen can – amiable fellows thought they are. And handsome! Englishmen are the handsomest fellows I know – all classes of them.
But the quincunx of heaven burns low and ‘tis time to shut the five ports of knowledge. Which reminds me that I shall have to send most of my book home, alas, for I can hardly carry my kit as it is. Please talk about the books you read, new and old, and quote all you can. I shall lap it up.
And do tell me more about Closeburn It will take a lot of hard usage and bad times to make me forget it. What luck that the weather was so good.: autumn is my magic time – West Kilbride and Closeburn – ohohoho!
I’m afraid this is a bad, rambling letter, but the next will be better. Have a good holiday and don’t work too hard when you go back to Glasgow. Please keep me posted about your whereabouts – maybe I could come and see you at Closeburn when Glasgow was out of the question.
Good-night, my dear
From D to G at HMS Agamemnon from Closeburn April 22nd 1941
It’s a perfect early summer afternoon, soft warm sunshine, scarcely a breath of wind, the rooks cawing above the big beeches, Hindle digging away tranquilly in the garden, the scent of warm grass coming from over the glebe and I’m sitting blissfully beneath the dining room window by the holly tree – and wishing you could be here too. So infuriating of the weather to blossom out like this just after you’ve gone! It’s just as I wanted it to be for you and it’s just too late.
Och, but it’s bonny here! Time to draw breath and be tranquil and at peace and think without being interrupted by things clamouring to be done at once. Mummy’s gone up to West Kilbride to see Grampa and Auntie May, so I’m in charge of the household for a day or two – quite fun. Because with Chrissie it more or less runs itself and all I’ll have to do really is choose and cook the meals. Which is diverting specially after a long term of Living in Digs and attending formal meals and being a City Worker. Oh my dear, the country’s the place! Four eggs have I wrested from beneath that soft white feathery but infinitely obstinate broody hen this very afternoon! But yesterday we had an egg from every one of them – so we gave them an address of thanks and encouragement.
Such nonsense I’m writing about hens when what I really want to say is “Thank you” for such a lot of things – for being so easy a guest (Mummy reading your letter this morning – “Bless me, if everyone were so little trouble to entertain!”) so you see how well you fitted in; for being so good a comrade – I did enjoy all our expeditions (despite the undercurrent of resentment at the weather – it’s a heavenly day for a picnic today!) babbling anything that came into my head to you and listening (and sometimes barely listening) to His Majesty’s Navy: its curious and oddly small-boyish ways and just being glad of your company; for liking Closeburn nearly as much as I do; och for being you and for loving me so generously. Your “wee short note” is one of the most treasurable letters I’ve ever had, and whatever happens, I’ll never forget it.
Such a load the postman (Hindle minus gardening fork and plus uniform!) had this day for the Manse. Two letters for the children, four for me, four for Mummy – all such nice ones – yours, Mrs Neilson Thanking her for the dozen eggs John took up, and renewing her invitation to go to see her whenever I’m back in town – she seems to have enjoyed that Sunday nearly as much as I did! A long double letter from her brother my most interesting Uncle James and his wife, and one most appreciative one from the children’s father.
Back again after tea. Chrissie’s had a job rounding up everyone at four today as all but Daddy were scattered out of doors! Daddy says significantly that he’s got a lot of reading and work done in the study this afternoon!
The day’s change now and a South wind’s started to blow – but I don’t care. It has such lovely country smells in it! I doubt I’m not acclimatised to fresh air even yet I can’t take it for granted! But with a blazer on and letters firmly anchored it’s still possible to be outside. Such a rich leisured life here – sometimes I’m scared that it can’t last. After seeing Mummy off on the train (your 12.2 which actually was dead on time today) Daddy and I spent a cheerful time interviewing the Blacksmith about the glebe fence and watching him and his son and his son’s son all working in the forge – the very young boy was offered a chance to go to University but he’s chosen to carry on the tradition – the best blacksmith in the South of Scotland we’ve been told.
Yesterday Mummy and I had a leisurely walk round by Park and Croalchapel and home past the Castle and found white violets growing all along the graveyard wall – they set the dark purple ones off so beautifully. Treasure-trove.
You’ll be at Dennistoun now maybe – don’t forget to use your cigarette case with conscious pride will you? So slim and excellent a case – like my writing one from Guides. What fun it’ll be to go back to School looking as brown as and well as you do and show them how you’re thriving in the Navy! Almost worth carting potatoes? Or not? And, ho ho and oho, you can point out to the Headmaster that the Almighty has achieved it this time!
Your larch twigs are coming out faster and faster. I brought them down to the dining room so that we can watch them. So are the chestnut branches we brought from the hills above Auchencairn. And the primroses under the trees are lifting up their heads in the sun – maybe it’s curiosity “what can this warmth, this unexpected heat be?”
D’you know a thing I forgot? To see your voyages in the atlas. Can’t remember just why, but I think there was something else to be done when you were going to show them to me. Next time we’ll have a double quantity and my geography will improve by leaps and bounds.
It was so nice of you to write so soon – you must have hardly have settled at home. I was quite sure there couldn’t be a letter at least till tomorrow. With our odd posting times and peculiar postmaster (literally and figuratively one-eyed!) this’ll not reach you before your leave’s done, so I’ll send it to the ship and hope it’ll be waiting for you there. By the way, I had a letter from Betty Galloway (staff, who knitted the gloves for you) and in it she “hopes Gilbert is well and happy.” Isn’t that nice? And you are aren’t you? Dear lad. So’m I, although last night I lay awake and went round and round in circles without achieving anything in the way of stability – “I love this about him – and I love that about him – oh I like them both so much and I wish I didn’t feel so deeply about either of them. It would be so much easier to be ruthless then.” Distinctly not the heroine of the novel. I’m sorry darling. But I will get it straight sometime. You see I’m most frightfully fond of you both, and yet I don’t honestly think I could say I’m “in love” with either – yet. Certainly not in the way you and he seem to feel about me. Which is what makes me feel mean, and unworthy of being loved. Queerly enough, I picked up a book called the Friendly Tree (or something like that, by Cecil Day Lewis (really this time!) and found this
“You must love me. It must be true.
“I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m so afraid of what I feel now being just a moment’s excitement, a lie I want to believe. O, my dear, you must give me time. Be patient with me.” And then
“You see, it sounds crazy, but I don’t know whether I love him or not.”
“Do you want him to make love to you?”
“Yes, I think I do…but it makes me feel so unnatural. Surely love’s more than that – more than just excitement?”
“Of course it is. But it’s got to start with physical excitement because that’s where the roots lie. The rest has to be built on that. The trouble is that you’ve started at the wrong end. You’ve come through to the sympathy and tenderness that for other people only comes out of physical marriage when it comes at all.”
“I wonder if you’re right. I’d never thought of it like that.”
“You’ve probably thought about it a good deal too much. There’s no use having ideas about love – they only get in the way.”
I wonder if that’s sense or just fiction. I’m beginning to feel a little like a Spectator myself.
Sorry about the blank page but I’ll have to stop now or this won’t go until the middle of tomorrow afternoon.
Goodnight, darling. Be patient with me. Even if George doesn’t approve!