My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
‘Dearest Norah’: as March runs into April, Jim takes the lead in stepping up the level of intimacy with his sixteen year-old correspondent. He teases her with his suggestion that her favourite (unnamed) radio star is chosen purely on account of his good looks, unlike his own choice, Bruce Belfrage, famous for his masculine stiff upper lip, calmly carrying on as the bombs fell on Broadcasting House.
He imagines (wrongly) her hair colour in his cheeky signing off:
‘I try to picture you, Blonde about 5’6”. Please forgive such a short letter but I have been travelling all night but I like to answer your’s so I can receive one from you. I also wish you free from raid’s, and will now close and sleep with you in my thoughts. I remain, yours friendly, Cheerio Blondie? Jim. “Smilin Thro”’.
Norah must put him right, as in his next letter he apologises for ‘the blonde and brunette affair’, adding that ‘being candid, the brunette is preferred.’
With one of these early letters, Jim encloses a ‘lovely handkerchief with “Royal Navy” on it’. This is indeed a beautiful piece of handiwork: I have it here, unfolded in front of me, the delicate lace edging offsetting a silk centrepiece of the most unexpected glorious purple.
Did Jim make it, I wonder? Its purpose is a mystery; beauty aside, the silk is rough and stiff. Norah is pleased with his thoughtfulness; it is ‘very sweet of him’.
With another letter, Jim encloses ‘two beautiful snaps of him & one of brother Danny in RAF’. These pictures were tucked away in the suitcase that contained Norah’s diaries and now lie on my desk in front of me. I dearly wish I could show them to you (post on ethics to follow!). They are two good-looking boys. Jim is small and stocky, with an open, symmetrical face, full lips and eyebrows, the sepia tint concealing hazel eyes. Danny, taller, slender and smart in his RAF uniform, is not quite so handsome here as in the 1944 photograph in Norah’s collection. It is the smile that makes the difference, tautening his features and adding a twinkle to his eyes.
I am impressed with the trust involved in this exchange: Jim knows Norah will return his snaps which, he tells her, are of sentimental value. (Later he will send them back to her, ‘for keeps’.) He is persistent in asking for a photo of Norah, which she eventually sends in early April.
I have to stop to think: which photograph? The famous wartime polyfoto of Norah, the one where she looks like a homelier Deanna Durbin with her dark waves and strong, shaped eyebrows, the photograph that sits on all of our mantelpieces, was not taken until 1944. Even the earlier wartime picture, the one I use for this blog, was not taken until September 1941. The picture she has sent to Jim is her bridesmaid photograph from August 1939. This was the most recent photograph and the best she could do. She stands in the back garden at 18 Moira Dale, in front of the rose trellis, smiling and squinting slightly in the sunlight, the effect emphasising her dimpled cheeks.
Jim takes the plunge. ‘Dearest Dimple’s’, he opens his next letter of 12th April:
‘We have just returned off night patrol, and half an hour afterwards your nice letter was handed to me. Gee! I think you are very attractive and pretty.’
He asks for a lock of her hair (‘it is a common thing in our ship and I would like to be in fashion’) and confides that he would like a snap to keep ‘for my writing box looks rather bare without a girl’s photo’. He likes it that she ended her last letter ‘with love’ and imagines walking with her down a country lane. ‘I thought of you 5.30pm Good Friday when your favourite song came through on the ship’s wireless, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.’ (It is hard to know which version, but I will plump for this one, released in 1941 by Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, Helen Forrest on vocals.)
13th April 1941: Received a rather romantic letter from Jim. Called me “dearest dimples”.
By mid-April, Norah is ‘My Darling, ‘my dream girl’. Jim refers to himself as her ‘mystery lover’ and talks about sharing ‘intimate feelings’:
‘Norah if you do not approve of some of my saucy remarks tell me where to get off, but please don’t. I shall let smiling through play its part if your Prince Charming comes along. The best things in life are free but very hard to get… Cheerio, Yours with love and xxx Jim.’
Norah is just sixteen. She is about to take her exams and will leave school that summer. Jim is cheeky, fun, a little too risque perhaps, but if she has any misgivings, she pushes them to one side. Jim is introducing her to a new grown-up world in which flirtation and romance play a prominent part.
What do Norah’s letters mean to him? Is she, as he claims, his only girl correspondent? Does she hold a special place in his affections? Or are her letters trophies among his fellow sailors, read out in the mess to bawdy comments, her photograph passed round like a tin of sweets?
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