Extract: My Dear Bessie, A Love Story in Letters
Chris Barker and Bessie Moore's letters are published in a collection edited and introduced by Simon Garfield
When writer Simon Garfield first published selected wartime letters between Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, he didn’t realise how much his readers would be captivated by their story. Now he’s published a fuller collection of their correspondence
'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.
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.'
Simon Garfield, Editor
14232134 SIGNALMAN BARKER H.C., BASE DEPOT, ROYAL SIGNALS, MIDDLE EAST FORCES
[Tobruk, North Africa]
19 March 1944
Here again to greet you, four letters in four days – and really wanting to write four each day. Stupid and silly, but since my thoughts are around you and I am pulsating still, I am going to follow Oscar Wilde’s advice ‘The only way to resist temptation is to succumb to it’. Really, you should reply to me that I am an ass, and that you have been kind enough to burn my words before I want to eat them. But I am sure that you won’t, and that almost for certain you are down with the same ailment, wanting me the same as I want you.
Now to the impersonal part: The Debate [on ‘a woman’s place is in the home’, which Chris was arguing against] took place OK. Everyone was there, forty in all. The proposer was a decent chap, a Scottish signalman. His seconder was a Major, mine was a Lieutenant, jolly good chap, also a Scot. I had heard that my opponent was a good speaker, and I had wondered if I would fail to shine. I need have had no doubts. He had written his speech word for word and read it from the paper, which he held in his hand. I’ve a bad memory, and at present, anyhow, I am more concerned with the possibilities of you. After the almost grim speech of my opponent, I just got up and sparkled. I made them laugh when I wanted them to. I just had them in my hand. I had to stop at fifteen minutes, but I could have gone on for fifty. Imagine how cockahoop I was – I was far and away the best speaker there. After all this – and we were overwhelmingly argumentatively superior – the vote ended 35 for 5 against. In other words, man’s deep prejudice was undisturbed by argument.
This afternoon I visited our hospital, some fifteen miles off. At an exchange a couple of hundred miles away there was a chap with a very high-pitched voice, just like a nagging wife; I had not heard him for a couple of days, and on enquiring his whereabouts was told he had collided with a grenade. So I thought I would pay him a visit and cheer him up. He was very lucky, and only got badly sprinkled with shrapnel. No fingers or hands off. He is said to be 17 years old. He looks 15. I got a lift (there is a nice ‘taxi’ spirit on the road here) there in a truck which was taking [a man] to hospital with smallpox. I hope I don’t get it!
26 March 1944
This war will delay many marriages as it will cause others. I shall either marry quickly (and take the consequences) or court for about ten years, by which time you’d know your future wife as well as your own mother.
Did I mention I’d seen Shadow of a Doubt during the week? It was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, ought to have been good, and for photography and direction, certainly was. (Do you hate or approve Orson Wells – Citizen Kane whirled me round a hundred times, but I believe I bit it, and I liked its different-ness.)
My brother was out on a run. As I walked along in the rapidly fading light I saw a familiar slip on the ground, and picked up – an Egyptian pound-note! I hope it came from an officer but I fear that the wind whisked it from a fellow-other-ranker. I was delighted to find it (‘Unto them that hath shall be given’) as my brother is always finding odd coins, notes, valuables. We share luck, and I happily preened myself as I handed him his 10s. just now. The last time I found any large amount was when I was taken as a 9 year old, by my brother, to the AA Sports at Stamford Bridge (I got separated from him in the Underground – those new automatic closing doors were just coming in – remember the guard at the old trellis-pattern gates?). I found a purse, containing 19s. 11d. and a visiting card. My Mother returned it, and with such a horrible ‘you ought to be thankful an honest person found it’ air, that the poor young girl remitted a 5s. reward to me, almost by return post. I always felt the small fortune was a little tainted.
How do you get on in the Air Raids? I hope you continue to have good luck. If we were together I guarantee we could ignore them, just as I want to ignore everything now, so that I may touch you. And I want to do that badly.
Tonight Churchill is speaking from London, and I hope to be amongst those who gather round the wireless to hear his latest estimate of the war’s duration. We all take it very goodhumouredly but the language is sometimes lurid.
I hope you are well. I am thinking of you.
At the back of my mind I have some idea of selling books at a later stage in my life. I would, I think, like to start a second-hand bookshop mainly. It’s not for the money one might make, but only on the basis that books are good things whose circulation must assist reasonableness and progress. What do you think?
25 July 1944
I have today posted you a registered parcel. I suppose it will take a couple of months to reach you, so that you should, by the end of September, be the proud possessor of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. You may have heard of the volume previously, but I rather think you would not have one already. It is a classic; I bought my first Bartlett’s, published in 1884, second hand for four pence. It was very fine. The latest edition has all the ‘modern’ quotes; I had a good deal of trouble getting those I got in England. The publishers gave me the last copy they had. The book cost a guinea when I bought it first, but has since been raised to £1 10s. When I saw one for £2 in Alex. on leave I thought ‘I must get it for Bessie’. (The 10s. extra is because of agreed prices for sale of English books in Egypt.) I had hoped to hold on to the volume for another month, to ensure its arrival near your birthday. But that is not possible, and I hope you will regard it as my first birthday gift to you, with all my love and affection, my regard and esteem. I hope that we may spend many happy hours looking into its pages together.
I do not really remember the things that made you sad in my 6/7 letter and which were dispelled by my No. 1 letter which arrived in the evening. My only feeling is that your imagination works overtime on things which might make you miserable and unbelieving and undertime on things that might make you happier. If ever something arises about which I feel very strongly that you are acting unwisely, I shall tell you unmistakeably.
The ‘bursting’ feeling that you mention I have in varying degrees, and there are times when I feel desperate for you, for your flesh, for your body, for your breasts. Always I long to feel you, but I have my ‘peaks’ of wishing for you.
I am sorry about your bomb troubles. Please tell me all about them, as they occur to you. I shall not comment on them as I do not want to start repeating horrors ‘at’ you. I suppose your bad ‘sleeps’ are inevitable. I wish I could come to you in your sleep and drive your nasty shadows away.
We shall never know if, really, we have met ‘a bit late’. Perhaps it is a fluke that we have come together. I am hoping that we are going to make the best of it. There are years and years and years ahead of us. Probably we shall be able to recollect our present correspondence only as a small part of our happiness.
Although I may be able to wangle it somehow, I shall perhaps be forced very soon to destroy some of your letters, the great majority, actually, as it is space which I must consider. I am sorry about this. Please, forgive me, but probably I should have had to do it sometime, anyhow. I shall not forget any of the things you have told me. I shall remember every embrace, every endearment, every caress.
I love you.
Chris eventually did have to destroy many of Bessie’s letters, in order to make space in his kitbag, and most of the letters published in the book are written by him. My Dear Bessie (ed. Simon Garfield) is out now, published by Canongate.