Len: Our Ownest Darling Girl is now online.
The letters between Mother and Daughter span 1939 – 1950, and are now being published every Friday. This is the link to the book – lendarlinggirl.com – and here is an extract from Part Two 3 Life As Medicine. Len, born in Scotland, is working for the Ministry of Supply in Cairo. She is a shorthand typist, and is 21.
Part Two 3: Life As Medicine
“Some of the English girls don’t seem alive at all – they take life as a sort of medicine.” – Vera, a young Russian, quoted by Len, 28 August, 1947.
Hello my Darlings,
You’re such a joy to me, for when I hear from you I realise more than ever how much you both mean to me. Your letters are – well it’s almost like talking to you and believe me that’s what I need. 18th of August, one says the date to oneself, thinks of ones longing for ones people and the U.K. and on the other side the need for money and the other things which keep one in this Lotus Land.
I know how you feel about the “10lb look” (apologies to Barrie), but I really do want to lose it and E. is the only person who agrees with me – everyone else says I’m alright and that once plump always plump, which is a fallacy and inspired by lazy defeatists. I do need some one else to want me lose weight too and the incentive of the studio portrait is a help. Also re. dignity, it’s there O.K., you needn’t worry about that and he knows it. After all, I’ve told him to be charming and outwardly he hasn’t taken any offence and really that’s an awful lot more for him to do than me to lose 10lb and put on some nail polish. N’est ce pas?
In his last letter Ernst mentions Canada with quite a lot of keenness, I’m rather glad. He received your letter Mum and told me he was replying in a few days, I expect you have his letter by now.
Buying the house – what’s noo? I want us to have the house, and us all (inc. E) to go to Canada. The house is an asset and why shouldn’t we be ‘men of property’ even if we’re elsewhere. Our schemes are nebulous, but it’s better to have such schemes which can be adapted or suddenly clarify than no scheme at all.
Thanks so much for all your letters, I have them all to 187. It’s grand to get the dough, I’m exchanging some of it with U.K. bound people like Betty Mac who think they’ll find it useful. The Black Market could not be found, so I changed all my dough at the ninety seven and a half touch, found it maddening, but what could I do. (1)
Pat was at Ish at the week-end. (2) As you know I don’t propose going away till Ernst’s birthday at the end of September , so sometime in October I want to go to Ish.
Right now I’m busy collecting addresses in U.K. for everyone seems to be going that way, naturally I’ve given our address, so you’d better prepare for people popping in.
On Sunday after breakfast – which we had about 8.30 I went over to the Stokes. I talked to them for a while, then walked with them across to Gezira – whilst they went on to Wilcox.
Guess who I met in Gezira – Major Wallace. You remember I met him in the Fort William-Glencoe bus in September, 1945 and on the steps of the “Britannia” gangplank for a few minutes on the morning of a riot in February 1946 (3)
He’s a gem of a man and one to whom the adjective charming can be fearlessly applied. I do wish you could meet him Mum, for honest you’d get on together so well. He went into raptures when I said you came from Dornoch. I s’pose I said it in a cold Anglified way and when he repeated it after me, (in rapture) he really rolled it around his tongue and practically made a poem out of the word.
He was telling me his daughter of 18 has just left Roedean (you know, the school) and was starting on a tour of Scotland with her cousin and was also going to the Musical Festival at Edinburgh (the people I know who are going there – lucky so-and-sos – Ethel Wilson, Olga Rundall, co-voyager-out, etc.). (4)
He also told me about her playing the violin, whereupon I said “Oh, was it her picture in the Sphinx”. And it was. (5)
Mr Wallace as he is now took me out of the sun for this conversation and got me one of those gorgeous jugs of shandy. He was telling me that some pals and he have 16,000 acres in Cyprus and export to Britain and all about. As it’s a Crown Colony they have Imperial Preference etc. He told me too of all the car trips all over Europe which he’s done and was giving me various alternative itineraries for hitching home. I was talking to him also of the Summer Isles out from Gruinard Bay in Wester Ross and of Barrie’s “Marie Rose” being centred around one of them. (6)
He’s a pensioned official of the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada and now acts in a freelance capacity. I just wish I could really get in with his family. I’d be car-ing home then next year if I’d my way. However, he made a most charming companion for a short while.
As I’d had a lot of sun I slept for a little in the Ladies’ Lounge after looking at my French verbs, then went across to Wilcox for tea with the Stokes. It was lovely sitting there under the trees and they insisted I go back to supper with them.
My Digs. Of course I knew snags were bound to arise and they’re arising. The room is excellent and so are the breakfasts. However here are some points of interest, and of complaint, three of them:
1. This morning her clock was wrong and her watch was wrong, – about 20 mins. to half an hour. In consequence I missed the bus.
2. Last night I got in from the Stokes about 11.30 (as you know Mum, early for Cairo). She’d given me a key , but lo and behold although it turned, I couldn’t get in for the door was bolted. Of course she let me in, but this morning suggested I let her know when I was going to be late, I said I didn’t know, where upon she said I could phone her, but I intend doing no such thing, for it’s not as if she’s got to alter meals, my having b&b.
3. The other night she suddenly intimated she wanted her money in advance. I mentioned this in passing to the Stokes. I’ve 50Pt. to pay for this fortnight (i.e. the balance of £5, half of the month’s dough – from 15th to end of the month), and Mr Stokes says I should pay this at the end of the month and tell her she’s getting the rest of the money at the end of each of the month and not in advance. Her argument is that she pays for everything in advance. Mr Stokes says that’s not my worry and they pay everything in advance, but Mr W. pays them at the end of the month. He says too she can’t hold a pistol to my head as they are all desperate for people just now, not like the war years when they had the upper hand. He says I stand to lose a month’s dough and the principle of the thing’s bad.
The Stokes were dears the way they championed my cause unasked and they also said if she says I’ve got to go I can bunk in with them for a while, so I intend to stand firm – wish me luck. I don’t mention all this for sympathy, but because I know it’ll interest you. I t’s part of the growing up process I hadn’t encountered before.
People keep on asking for bulletins about you Mum, they’re not content with knowing you got home safely at all almost want day to day bulletins.
Anything you want from the Musky , as I hope to go down there at the beginning of next month? (7).
I was nearly ill when I read the description of your accident on the DM.(8). Please take care of her Dad. Remember all those lovely plans can mature without money, but one must have ones health, for you can’t fight without that.
Good gracious, is the leopard skin ready all ready? Don’t work too hard at it Mum. Unless I receive your wee slip giving gen on thread I won’t get it on Thursday, for I daresay I’ll be going into town again pretty soon, after that. Thanks so much for your letter of comfort (re. E and me) I feel a new woman. (9)
I don’t mind you telling the people you said you’d tell about my homecoming and am with you in what you say about them – they are nice types. It’s just this dislike of the Reid-Ballantine clan which overwhelms my outlook – sorry. I know how you feel about the announcement angle Mum and can sense you’re feeling of wanting to tell the world we’re doing all right, but just ignore that clan, we don’t alter our behaviour for them. (10). I feel so strongly that E must have a good long holiday (and only hope he does) in our lovely land and that it will do him so much good and take away all that ME (11) tension and you know it’s with this thought in mind and the hope that it’ll be gratified that makes me feel a bit tense myself waiting for the months to slip by, wanting UK, wanting the dough I get out here to save and wanting E and you two all at the same time.
Must close this letter now and get it off – it’s 19th now.
Your own most loving Len xxxx
1. Len is converting her British sterling to Egyptian Pounds.
2. Ish: Ishmailia, seventy miles to the north east of Cairo, on the west bank of the Suez Canal. Nearby was a RAF camp, which today is used by the Egyptian airforce.
3. From a news report of the time, 21 February, 1946: ‘Riots Erupt in Cairo. British troops in Cairo today opened fire on angry crowds demanding an end to foreign influence. Twelve people are reported to have been killed and over 100 wounded’. There had also been protests in the Suez Canal Zone, beginning in December 1945. The protests reached their peak in Cairo, as reported above, in February, 1946. The Turf Club in Cairo, for instance, was set alight by protestors and eleven members died. British Army casualties during this period have been put at 33 soldiers killed and 69 wounded.
4. This was the first Edinburgh Festival.
5. A Cairo English language paper for the Brits.
6: Unknown to either of them, Gruinard Island, in Gruinard Bay, had been lethally toxic since 1942, and remained toxic until declared safe in 1990. Scientists from the Chemical and Biological Warfare Station at Porton Down, Wiltshire, had released a virulent strain of anthrax on the island, killing sheep that had been tethered. The conclusion was that anthrax bombs dropped on German cities would be very successful, apart from the problem that the cities would remain toxic wastelands for years. Len, in 1949, would be working at Porton Down.
7. Musky: the Arab market quarter. Variant spellings exist. Cecil Beaton in his Near East (1943) spells it Moski.
8. Mum had tripped or fallen and pulled a ligament.
9. This letter of comfort is not in this collection.
10. Mum’s sister Ena was married to Bill Reid. Their brother Dennis was married to Euphemia Ballantine – Aunt Phem. The cause for Len’s dislike of them is unknown. The ‘home coming’ is when Len’s tour of duty in Cairo would be over; the ‘announcement’ is more than just her returning to Scotland – Len and Ernst were engaged.
11. ME: Middle East.