My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
And back to my story…
So here we are with Norah in the summer of 1941 as she enjoys increasingly romantic exchanges with her penpal, Sailor Jim. She is getting to know a lot about him as he tells her of his years in the Navy, his family, his interest in cricket and football and the long list of Hollywood actresses that he admires. A silk handkerchief, numerous photos, a saucy postcard all wing their way to Castle Donington from HMS Elgin, his ship. He cheekily refers to Norah as ‘blondie’, ‘my darling’, ‘dearest dimples’ and bets her a kiss if his team (Arsenal) win the Cup.
It’s not hard to imagine the excitement she must have felt. She’d had crushes on boys over the years, but this one had the potential to be her first grown-up romance. 20th June 1941: I’ve got it pretty bad on him
But. And now I have a confession to make. I haven’t been completely honest with you about our man Jim. I’ve done that novelist thing, withholding snippets of information, choosing what to tell you and when, delaying delivery of a piece of detail that might have raised a question mark in your mind, as it did in mine when I first read his letters.
I’ll show you first and then I’ll explain. You can make up your own mind as to whether I was right.
Despite his very winning cheek, Jim presents himself as ‘unusual’ almost from the outset of his correspondence with Norah. ‘Girls have never interested me’, he writes in early April 1941, ‘and I have always had males for company.’ Whilst he is, he says, ‘the greatest of friends with most of the ship’s company’, he is a loner. ‘I always go on my own when shore leave is granted.’
I’ve learned quite a bit about what naval ratings got up to on shore leave. ‘My dad used to get sent in to the brothels to round up the men’, said a work colleague as we walked in to town from our office. Alexandria, Algiers, Tangier: it was the North African ports that stuck in his mind. ‘It was all a bit of an eye-opener for a young lad of sixteen.’
I wonder if Jim is deliberately representing himself as different from the stereotyped sailor. He will be well aware that he needs to prove his respectability to a girl like Norah. But it also crosses my mind that he might be gay, possibly unable or unwilling to articulate the fact, maybe even to himself. He writes a lot about a friend named Nelson. ‘My friend and I are very attached, and write regular.’ Despite the all-male shows, the beauty contests and cross-dressing, life in the Royal Navy for a gay sailor – I assume – would be no walk in the park.
A letter of mid-April, written six weeks in to their correspondence, blows this lazy assumption. ‘Have you a photo of yourself in school uniform’, Jim asks Norah, ‘or are you shy?’
While I am distracted by this request, Norah doesn’t bat an eyelid. Her attentions are on the enclosed photograph of Nelson, Jim’s best friend, who would like a girl correspondent of his own.
I push my uneasiness to one side. I want you to see Jim as Norah saw him, not through the eyes of a hoary old feminist who is also a mother of girls. I force myself to be open to the possibility that I might have got him wrong. Much of what Jim writes is a little bit risqué. He calls Norah his ‘dream lover’. He asks for a love letter from her, the sort she wouldn’t show to her mother, but he doesn’t expect she’ll comply (‘shy’). ‘I hope to collect the kisses on your letters one day’, he writes. ‘Cheerio sweetheart, all my love xxxxxxxxx Jim. Always thinking of you’.
When Jim makes a second request for a ‘school snaps’ a few weeks later, Norah is again unperturbed. 20th June: received a letter from my sweety. He’s going home. Hope he’s not ill because I’ve got it pretty bad on him. Says Danny will try to meet me.
This time, I am not so blasé. I am writing this post just days after Rolf Harris has received his sentence (five years only, due to the leniency of mid-century laws). I can’t help but think back to the commonplace experiences of my own teenage years: the flashers on the playing field, the employer whose tendency to follow female staff to the store room upstairs was usually thwarted by a swift bang on the shop ceiling with a yard brush, the octupus-handed teacher whom nobody thought to challenge let alone to sack. As Harris’s and Saville’s victims have made abundantly clear, prior to feminism and the idea of the rights of the child, there was no real language for discussing predatory men. Words such as ‘mucky’ and ‘dirty’ failed to articulate the devastating betrayal experienced by the girls they abused. For the rest of us, it was uncomfortable, confusing; we knew it was wrong, but the ‘it’ defied discussion. The lack of language poses difficulties for the historian, of course. And it forces us to think again about the relationship between the dominant response (‘he’s a mucky bugger, stay away from him’) and individual confusion and distress.
Norah seems to not have known that such a request might represent anything dodgy at all. Or maybe, not really understanding, she just ignored it, like she will ignore many signs of things untoward over the coming years, her innocence, hope and appetite for life always getting the better of her.
Says Danny will try to meet me. Just as Norah celebrates the end of her schooldays, noting her last ever tutorial, her final French test and biology lessons, Jim’s younger brother arrives on the scene.
I have to confess: I am mightily relieved.
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