My Dear Bessie

Introduction


In the autumn of 1943, a 29-year-old former postal clerk from north London named Chris Barker found himself at a loose end on the Libyan coast. He had joined the army the year before, and was now serving in the Royal Corps of Signals near Tobruk. He saw little action: after morning parade and a few chores he usually settled down to a game of chess, or whist, or one of the regular films shipped in from England. His biggest worries were rats, fleas and flies; the war mostly seemed to be happening elsewhere.

Barker was self-educated, a bookish sort. He fancied himself as the best debater in his unit, and he wrote a lot of letters. He wrote to his family and former Post Office colleagues, and an old family friend called Deb. He wrote about the local food and customs, and the occasional trip away from camp with his brother Bert. On Sunday, 5 September 1943, he found a spare hour to write to a woman named Bessie Moore. Bessie had also been a Post Office counter clerk, and was now working in the Foreign Office as a Morse code interpreter. They had once attended a training course together at Abbey Wood in south-east London, a time she recalled with greater fondness and precision than he did. Before the war they had written to each other about politics and union matters, and about their ambitions and hopes for the future. But it had always been a platonic relationship; Bessie was stepping out with a man called Nick, and Chris’s first to Bessie from Libya regarded them as an established couple. Bessie’s reply, which took her several weeks to compose and almost two months to arrive, would change their lives forever.

We do not have this letter, but we may judge it to be unexpectedly enthusiastic. By their third exchange, it was clear to both of them they had ignited a fervour that would not easily be extinguished. In under a year, the couple were planning marriage. But there were complications, such as not actually seeing each other, or remembering quite what the other looked like. And then there were other obstacles: bombs, enemy capture, illness, comical misunderstandings, disapproval from friends, fear of the censor.

More than 500 of their letters survive, and this book distils the most alluring, compelling and heart-warming. It is a remarkable correspondence, not least because it captures an indefatigable love story. There is no holding back, and the modern reader is swept along in a gushing sea of yearning, lust, fear, regret and relentlessly candid emotion. Perhaps only those with steel hearts will fail to acknowledge an element of their own romantic past in this passionate tide. But there is so much more to enjoy, some of it banal, much of it humorous (that is, humorous to us, while evidently vital to them), all of it composed with a deft and elegant touch.

The vast majority of these letters are from Chris; most of Bessie’s were burnt by Chris to save space in his kitbag and conceal their intimacy from prying eyes. But she is present on almost every page, Chris responding to her most recent observations as if they were talking in adjacent rooms. We follow their transactions with the eagerness of a soap opera fan; the main villain is the war itself, closely followed by those they berate for keeping them apart. The erratic nature of the postal service as Chris moves from North Africa to hotspots in Greece and Italy is another bugbear, though it is also a constant wonder that the letters got through at all. We fear for both of them; the greater their joy, the more we anticipate disaster.

Chris and Bessie met only twice between his first letter in September 1943 and his demobilisation in May 1946, and their postal romance describes a fitful and compacted arc. Older readers may recall the advertising campaign for Fry’s chocolate bars, a treat Chris particularly enjoyed. In the adverts, five boys are each depicted with a different facial trait: Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation, Realisation. We get a similar range in this correspondence, not always in that order, often within a single letter. We pass swiftly from overwhelming physical compulsion to domestic furnishings. But we detect no hint of irony from the writers: they just let rip. Many of their letters were several pages long, and contained fleeting and dutiful observations of little interest to us today. There is also much repetition, not least of their romantic yearnings. Occasionally, Chris embarks on extended philosophical discussions of trade unionism, family politics and the state of the world in general. In my attempt to present a progressive and engaging narrative, I have chosen to retain only the most relevant, substantial and engrossing details. Accordingly, many letters from Chris have not been included at all, while others have been trimmed to a few paragraphs.

Who were these two people? What occupied their thoughts before each other? Horace Christopher Barker (or Holl to his parents) was born on 12 January 1914, and the austerity of the period never left him. His father, a professional soldier, spent the Great War in India and Mesopotamia, and later became a postman (with a sideline in emptying public phone boxes of their coins). Chris was brought up first in Holloway, north London, and then four miles away in Tottenham. When he left Drayton Park school at the untimely age of fourteen his headmaster’s leaving report noted the departure of ‘a thoroughly reliable boy, honest and truthful, and a splendid worker. His conduct throughout was excellent: he was one of the school prefects and carried out his duties well. He was very intelligent.’

His father had lined up a job for him in the Post Office, confident of a secure, if predictable, lifelong career. Chris began as an indoor messenger boy in the money order department, fared well at the PO training school, and found a position as a counter clerk in the Eastern Division. His passions were journalism and trade unionism, and he combined them in his regular columns in several Post Office weeklies. He was a pedantic, reliable, headstrong man. Not the life of the party, perhaps, but a solid fellow to have in your corner. He was certainly no Casanova.

The Barker family moved to a semi-detached ‘villa’ in Bromley, Kent, shortly before the outbreak of war, and Chris lived there until 1942. His training as a teleprinter operator ensured his status in a reserved occupation before the demand for army reinforcements brought him first to a training camp in Yorkshire in 1942, and then to North Africa.

Bessie Irene Moore (known as Rene or Renee to her family and some friends) was born on 26 October 1913, two years after her brother Wilfred, and she spent her early years in Peckham Rye, south London. She had two other siblings, neither of whom survived infancy. Her father, also called Wilfred, was another ‘lifer’ at the Post Office. Bessie won a scholarship to her secondary school, passed her exams with credit, and became a postal and telegraph officer in the female-only offices in the South Eastern, Western and West Central districts. She shared Chris’s view that there could be no more worthwhile employment, filled with human incident and variety, and dedicated to public service.

Bessie was twenty-five when she moved with her family to Blackheath in 1938. The Moores enjoyed a relatively prosperous lifestyle, taking regular holidays to the seaside and frequent trips to West End theatre. Bessie particularly admired the work of George Bernard Shaw and Kipling, and developed an interest in gardening and handicrafts. Shortly after the outbreak of war, her training in Morse led to a job at the Foreign Office deciphering intercepted German radio messages. She endured the Blitz and engaged in fire-watching duties, and volunteered for the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force until her mother died in 1942 and she began looking after her father. When her relationship with her boyfriend Nick broke up in 1943 she believed she had wasted far too much energy in the pursuit of love.

***

I first came across Chris and Bessie’s letters in April 2013. I was completing my book To the Letter, a eulogy to the vanishing art of letter-writing, and I was becoming increasingly aware that what my book lacked was, unpredictably, letters. More specifically, it lacked letters written by people who weren’t famous. I had been concentrating on Pliny the Younger, Jane Austen, Ted Hughes, Elvis Presley and the Queen Mother, and I had been talking to archivists about how historians will soon struggle to document our lives from texts and tweets. It became clear that what the book needed was a significant example of the ability of letters to transform ordinary lives.

And then I had a stroke of luck. I had mentioned my book to Fiona Courage, curator of the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex, of which I am a trustee. She mentioned the recent arrival of a comprehensive collection of papers of a man called Chris Barker, a pile of boxes that included newspaper articles, photos, documents and many letters – a musty, lifelong stash. I arranged to visit the archive immediately. After ten minutes in a room with the letters I was sure that his correspondence with Bessie Moore was just what I was looking for. Within an hour I was close to tears.

That these were valuable documents would have been evident to the first historian to encounter them. Almost all their letters were handwritten, many dashed off with evident hurry and distress. (The physicality of correspondence is another pleasure all but lost to us now, and one need only look at the manic array of stamps and inscriptions and directions on the outer wrappers to understand that these letters did not enjoy a smooth journey.) Shortly after my visit I was talking to the man responsible for placing the papers at the archive, asking to use some of them in my book. I expressed the distant hope that they may one day form a book of their own. Permission granted, I selected about 25,000 words from just over half a million, and interleaved them within my existing chapters.

When my book was published a few months later, readers responded to Chris and Bessie with enthusiasm; rather too many said they skipped through the main chapters to discover what happened to the couple next. Shortly afterwards, Chris and Bessie featured in a series of performance events called Letters Live, where superb readings from Benedict Cumberbatch, Louise Brealey, Lisa Dwan, Kerry Fox, Patrick Kennedy and David Nichols won them even more fans. And so, by what I can genuinely claim to be popular demand, here is a fuller account of their story.

What lessons may we learn from their exchanges? First, that the generous intimacy of letters casts a spell like no other. Grand histories have no time for the peevish minutiae of the infested billet or the unfortunate wartime shopping purchase, much less the silent devotion of lowly combatants. But beyond the grand sweep of adventure, it is these incidentals that hold us most: the Larkinesque disappointment of the film show; the jealous sideswipe at a former companion; the corduroy trousers ahead of their time; the cadging austerity that wormed its way into the soul; the way a postal delay brought on by a thunderclap over France could cause a person to fear the very worst.

Secondly, we know that Chris was a breast man. He had all the standard urges of a healthy male in his lustful prime, compounded by desert deprivation. The sexual highlight of the week was too often a man dressed as a woman in a touring variety show. Chris did not fail to express this hormonal bottling. In my edit – reducing more than half a million words to about 85,000 – the simplest task was trimming the references to Bessie’s chest, and his desire to embrace it in a multitude of original ways. One imagines that even Bessie would have tired of this malarkey after a while, although perhaps not. It is clear from her letters that she needed constant reassurance that he was not going off her; moreover, her own frequent references to her anatomy seemed certain to arouse him further. (In the second half of their correspondence, having seemingly satisfied his urges, Chris shifts his lustful gaze towards the purchase of carpets.)

It is also clear that they wrote with far more passion than they could ever express in person. Chris repeatedly regrets being tongue-tied and ineffective during their two intermediate meetings. Their graphic intentions may have gone some way to alleviating the sheer damn dreariness of it all (‘We put up a tent. We take it down,’ Chris writes at the war’s end with the weight of all the wasted years upon him).

I am certain that for years to come we will read these letters with a sense of wonder and delight. Something magical happens here, as well as something commonplace. The postal service to which Chris and Bessie dedicated their lives in turn rewarded them – and us. In the many years that followed their written romance, the couple lived to tell their tale. But they never told it like this.

What appeals to me in particular is the lack of heroics. Our correspondents are vulnerable, fearful, occasionally pitiful. They frequently berate themselves for their thoughts and actions. Yet it would be hard to imagine a more immediate expression of naïve, rambling and utterly candid engagement. When the war is still, the couple create their own turmoil. When rockets fill the air, their own turmoil becomes an even greater reason for survival. I’m tempted to suggest that, while unannounced in the grand Churchillian speeches, it was for the likes of Chris and Bessie that we were fighting; not so much for the sunlit English pasture as the freedom to unite lovers upon it.