The Great Below

living the feeling life


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Christmas 1945

My mother’s 1946 diary begins with an entry on the flyleaf, written on Christmas Day 1945: “I am sitting in the front room writing this and am by myself. We have five days holiday over Christmas. What can I write here? There is so much to say that cannot be put into words. How tired we all are. Things this Christmas are a deal worse than they were last year, although they say it is our first peace-time Xmas. Ours perhaps, as regards actual physical fighting, but the fight in our minds still goes on. There is fighting still in Java with the Indonesians, and our men are still being killed, even as I sit here writing this. How lucky are the Americans and Canadians. From what we hear things have very much returned to normal over there, and food is wasted each year, as much as could feed the British Nation for a year. We are hard up, but living in Paradise in comparison to some of the peoples in Europe. We have had two chickens and a joint of pork, Christmas pudding and a rich fruit cake and much of the usual Christmas fare, including oranges. But no bananas or nuts. We haven’t seen these for five years.”

The war had ended several months earlier, but food rationing would continue until 1954 – two years after my parents were married, and only four years before I was born. In 1946 most of the wheat harvest was destroyed by rain, and for the first time bread was rationed, to widespread public outrage. In 1947 potatoes – a wartime staple – underwent a similar fate. Sugar, meat, cheese, butter, eggs, tea – all remained on coupons for years. Even items that weren’t rationed were often hard to obtain: in January 1946 my mother’s diary reports that a cousin has sent them some pepper in the post, because “we can’t get any”, and later on the acquisition of a bottle of gin merits a special mention in capitals.

But my mother also speaks of a kind of spiritual weariness, hardly surprising after six years of privation, fear, death and destruction. At least with the ending of the blackout the lights had gone back on, but much of the city was in ruins, and there was no money or materials for reconstruction. London had suffered renewed attacks in 1944/1945 from the terrifying V1 flying bombs and V2 rockets Рthe latter capable of wiping out an entire street with absolutely no warning.  My mother had also been profoundly affected by the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan, and would remain vehemently opposed to nuclear weapons throughout her life.

Small wonder then that, having lost her religious faith during the war, she talks of trying to find it again¬† now, although “when life is so hard it is difficult to believe. I shall try to do so with all my heart.”


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Love and work 1947

Woman’s Hour recently ran a feature on romantic relationships at work. Some companies are apparenty so worried about legal issues arising from workplace romances that they ban them outright. But as people spend most of their days at work, and often share interests or inclinations with those they meet there, it’s not surprising that it is also a place where many find love.

When my mother was twenty, she got a job in a design and engineering company in West London. She was taken on as secretary to a man in his forties, married with two school-age children, and at some point during the three years she worked there, they became lovers. Looking at it in hindsight, we might consider this relationship to be inappropriate, or even an abuse of power, but for my mother it was her first, and possibly only, experience of falling deeply in love.

I always knew about this man – that he had been married (my mother said unhappily), that he had eventually left her and gone to Australia, that she had been heartbroken. But recently I found a ‘short story’ that my mother had written some time later, after briefly meeting up with him again, that revealed the intensity of her feelings for him – a passion of mind, body and soul. Two years later, she was still devastated and grieving at the loss of this love, and very much attached to him in her heart, though fully aware that he would never be hers: “Oh dear God what shall I do, what shall I do – will I never be free, will the chain always be with me?”

So was he also in love with her, as she believed, or taking advantage of the beautiful, intelligent and besotted young woman he saw every day? Maybe it was something in between. Divorce was less common in those days, and he must also have been painfully conscious of the huge age gap between them, which clearly didn’t matter to her. He resolved the situation by taking a job halfway round the world and moving there with his family.

Before he left, he wrote my mother a glowing reference, which she, of course, typed up. By this time, she was no mere secretary, but ‘Chief Assistant of the Experimental and Research Department’. He notes that she “posseses an intelligence far above the average” and that “with an outstanding talent in draughtsmanship and a natural flair for modern design” she is “well-equipped for work in the experimental field.” It goes on in this vein for a while. At twenty-one, she might have seemed to have a glowing future ahead of her, but she left the firm at the same time as him, and returned to more mediocre clerical jobs.

Perhaps this in the end was the greater loss. Love fades and sexual intensity mellows, but in her pain, she perhaps gave up the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career and I think she felt forever frustrated and thwarted. Still on the rebound, she went on to marry my father – a pragmatic, but in the end not very happy, choice – and to become a depressed and disappointed wife and mother. Never again was she really able to shine in her own right.

But despite the sad outcome, I can’t be sorry that at least for a period in her life, she knew what it was to feel passion and deep connection for someone, however doomed the affair. If, as Tennyson writes, it is “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all”, then at least she had that.