Yesterday I posted an essay on the main part of this website entitled The Real Dharma Bums: on the beatnik frenzies of Julia Callan-Thompson & Bruno de Galzain. The text documents one of my mother’s relationships and the endless scamming that accompanied the hardcore drug use that was a part and parcel of said romance. Running to 10,000 words, this piece was too long to use as a blog. I prefer to place shorter and more fragmentary materials here. But as a supplement to that and other writings about my mother, I’m running below a couple of letters she wrote to my grandmother Elsie in the early 1960s.
The first letter was written from 101 Barnsbury Street, London N1. It is undated but would have been composed in either August or September 1961; most likely mid-to-late August. My Uncle Terry had recently been caught in possession of stolen goods and was banged up, while my Uncle Johnny was on the run from the army and the cops. Shortly before this, my grandfather Dai was one of several Newport dockers to lose his job after he was discovered incapacitated at work as a result of liberating and downing a large amount of booze that he’d been handling. The early 1960s were tough times for my family and my mother resolved to hide from them fact that she was pregnant (they would, of course, have been very happy to hear this had she been married). My mother was always a little cagey in her letters home, and I’ve heard enough stories about her teenage years to know that while she was only 17 years-old when she penned the first missive I reproduce here, she was already extremely streetwise and adept at pulling scams and cons.
I don’t really know what to make of the employment my mother refers to below, she was a nightclub hostess at the time she wrote the letter. Likewise, the story about going to Germany appears to be no more than a way of covering her tracks: she did not want to see family members when she was heavily pregnant with me. My view is my mother had no intention of leaving London – where I was born just before Easter 1962. That said, while disentangling truth from falsehood may be difficult here, the expressions of love towards my grandmother and our wider family are nonetheless one hundred percent genuine. So here’s the first letter:
“I’m writing because I’m wondering why you haven’t written. I sent you a card and a small something on your birthday which included my present address. Have you received this? If it has been mislaid in the post tell me in your next letter and I’ll get in touch with the post office as I’ve a receipt.
“How are things at home, did Terry get off lightly and have they caught up with Johnny yet? Hell! Here I am writing you what is supposed to be a cheerful letter and I haven’t said one cheerful thing yet.
“I’m living near to the hospital where I used to work. Its quite a nice area except when the Cypriots that live next door start arguing. Honestly I’d thought our family could argue but you should see this lot once they start going. Bank Holiday they started at about 11 am and no word of a lie mum they were still at it when I came home about midnight. The trouble is they start off with two people arguing and then their family join in then all the people that occupy the flats where they live join in, then the bloke who owns the cafe down the road joins in until you’ve got every Cypriot that lives within the radius of 4 miles joining in . It wouldn’t be so bad if you knew what they were arguing about but the trouble is that you don’t because they’re either babbling in Greek or Turkish and it does make old nosey want to know what’s going on.
“I must tell you mum I’ve actually acquired a sewing machine, a typewriter and a camera all within the last week. No I haven’t won the pools!!! The typewriter I had given me. You see mum up until this week I was working for a solicitor in Baker Street and the girl who I was supposed to be successor to was leaving to go to South Africa with her husband so naturally she wanted to get rid of all the things that she couldn’t take with her. The only problem was that I had to carry it all the way from East London. God I nearly killed myself doing it. It’s not a nice modern portable, but one of those big black heavy pre-war things and so you can imagine what a job it was lugging it all the way to the underground. When I got there the tube was full so I had to carry it. Then off the underground to get the bus then I had to walk about 200 yards from the bus stop to the house. Honestly mum I’m sure that if anything I lost about 2 stone that night and put muscles that were never there in my arms. Still I mustn’t grumble must I. At least I’ve got a typewriter for nothing. Also I bought the camera off her for only £1. Is a simply super one too.
“Now for the sewing machine. Last Sunday I was in the market. I don’t know if you know mum but the markets in London are all in the streets not closed in like the ones at home. You know you can bid a price down and I got the machine that was advertised for £6.10 for £3.10. I was so pleased with myself for getting it at £3 less that I just had to buy it.
“I’ve also paid my overdraft at the bank and got my tape machine out of the pawn shop. Honestly mum with all these things I’m beginning to feel that I ought to open up a shop.
“By the way is the radio working? I’m enclosing a spare valve because one of them is practically burnt out and it would cost you about fifteen bob to replace so as I’ve one here which I can’t use for anything else you might as well have it.
“Also mum when I collected my cases at Paddington there were only two. Did you send the other one or not? In case you haven’t I’m enclosing ten shillings which I hope will pay it, if not I’ll send on the difference You might as well have it sent straight to the house mum.
“I don’t think I’ll be home before next Easter at the earliest mum, as a German girlfriend who I have known since I’ve been in London stayed with me last week as she was going back to Cologne this week and she invited me to stay with her family for Christmas. If the finances will enable me I intend staying until almost up to Easter in which case I’ll come home straight from Germany and stay for a few weeks before I move on to somewhere else but after next Easter I don’t somehow think I’ll come back to London. I’m thinking of going to Leeds or Manchester or some other city as I’m becoming a bit fed up with London. Or maybe I’ll do a season job in Germany or someplace. I just can’t get over how much I’ve written, honestly mum, I’m bound to have paralysed my hand or something.
“I hope that you had some days out mum. I really do wish that I could share my luck with all the family. I had a really wonderful holiday in the Isle of Wight. I visited Ventnor and tried to see if I could find the hotel Johnny stayed at, but I’d forgotten the name. I hope you all received my cards and that Pat and Gerald received their rock all in one piece. Also when I was down there after about two weeks I went on to Lee-On-Solent which is just a small seaside place – but I was able to go to Southampton – which wasn’t very thrilling as I’d been there too many times before, and also you only had to take the ferry over the water and you came to Portsmouth where I’d never been before. Also, Margaret will probably know its only a 5d bus fare from Portsmouth to Southsea which is a lovely place, really mum you ought to spend a holiday there. The beaches are just as nice if not better than Brighton and the lights in the nights are really and truly beautiful from the water.
“I really must close now mum although I do miss you all. I must say thank you mum for giving me such a nice welcome at home and look forward to my next visit whenever that is. My regards and best wishes to the family. All my fondest love, Julia.”
Here’s the second letter, written by my mother on 2 March 1963 from 24 Bassett Road, London W10:
“I’m glad to hear that you’re up and about again, I was quite worried but it was good to know that the family hadn’t neglected you.
“In your letter, as in nearly all the letters you’ve written me, you have once more asked me to come back home. Well mum although I haven’t been very much use to you as a daughter, I would be of even less use to you in Newport. At least in London I’m being of some use to myself and I hope my friends.
“I was very young when I left home and most probably it caused you considerable worry, but myself I have never regretted the decision. This is no reflection on you but rather on other circumstances.
“You always seem to think that I’m unhappy. I sincerely want to stress the point mum that I am far happier here than I would be down there, it isn’t because of the higher wages that I stay here, although obviously it is much more pleasant not to have to worry about every penny. I had a very different life than I would have had had I stayed at home, and have therefore become a different type of person. I just wouldn’t fit into a Newportonian way of life any more, so please don’t fret about it.
“It’s very sweet of you to save up for my 21st. I’m not being ungrateful, but I’d much rather you had a holiday or some extra luxury with the money.
“Fondest love to dad, also my love to the rest of the family. Bye for now. Affectionately, Julia.
“PS. Look after your legs and don’t over use them, you won’t be supplied with a new pair if those should wear out.”
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!