The theme for this blog was going to be about my urge to write. I’ve always had that inner drive since childhood when I composed endless poems and short stories – and now the trait lives on in my nieces Emma (11) and Julia (nearly 7) who are exactly the same!
But then I remembered my mother’s much-loved correspondence magazine and decided to focus the blog on another means of self expression; the art of writing letters.
When I was a baby in the 1960s, at a time when new mums rarely had jobs, my mother saw an advertisement in a magazine called ‘Parents’ for other young mums to join a correspondence circle. Today the equivalent would be a mini Mumsnet! Seven new ‘friends’ were selected by the person who had placed the ad and they agreed a system for the correspondence circle to work.
Person 1 would write a long letter in a large spiral-bound notebook which she then posted to person 2 who repeated the process, forwarding it to person 3 until it finally returned to person 1. At that point, person 1 would tear out her first letter and write a new one in the notebook so that circulation could start again. They took it in turns to buy a new notebook when necessary.
Ironically, the woman who initiated the idea soon dropped out – maybe realising she’d started something she was reluctant to commit time to – but the other seven young mums embraced it with enthusiasm. The mag, as it came to be known, was born.
I well remember my mother’s thrilled cry – ‘the mag’s here’ – when it landed on our mat several times a year. The correspondents were from as far afield as the Lake District, Hampshire, the Midlands and the South East and for many years they never met in person. Once they were retired, they started having girls’ weekends away which all seven of them always loved attending.
As a child I witnessed my mother’s absorption in the lives of these friends – bearing in mind she’d never met them at that point – and the fact that ‘the mag’ became a sort of confessional for the women who were bringing up families, going through the pain of separation or divorce, parents’ deaths, illnesses of family or loved ones. I think it was a vital outlet for their feelings, their hopes and aspirations, their worries and fears.
One woman detailed the discovery of her husband’s affair in heartbreaking detail, begging the correspondence circle friends for help and advice. The naked pain and desperation were evident in her letter and they all telephoned her to offer support but also wrote long, heartfelt replies in the mag. At other, happier times there were photos included of weddings, grandchildren and holidays.
My memory of the mag are of how much joy and pleasure it brought my mother and what a huge part it played in her life. At a time when there was no easy way to share feelings, it must have offered a vital connection to other women going through the same experiences of marriage and motherhood, many of them probably feeling isolated in their own way.
Oddly, the mag has played an important role in my own life too. When I was nearly 11, one of the mag correspondents – Betty – wrote that her daughter Joanna was seeking a pen pal. As soon as my mother suggested me as a candidate, Jo and I tentatively started writing to each other. We were two months apart in age and both loved reading books and writing letters.
Buying stationery for my correspondence to Jo soon became a regular habit; at one point we were writing to each other three times a week, desperate to share our thoughts and news of what was happening in our lives. I just wish I’d kept all those luridly coloured letters.
Happily, more than 40 years later we’re still the best of friends, having finally exchanged letter writing for emailing and meeting in person.
The sharing of memories, aspirations and anxieties are key to making friendships and I rue the loss of letter writing as a method of communicating. I do still write to my aunt in the USA – who can no longer use a computer and loves to have letters read out to her – but I miss the days of friends contacting me via the post. Receiving a hand written letter is a rare treat.
When my lovely mother died in 2012, I found amongst her papers many of her old letters from the mag which, having torn them from the notebooks, she’d kept as reminders of what had happened in her life. It took quite a time before I plucked up the courage to go through them – it was too upsetting to hear my mum’s voice in every word – but in the end I read them.
Her pride and interest in her family and her work (she was a teacher), her love of dogs and the countryside and of course her beloved football team Manchester City all shone through. Although I shed many a tear on reading them, I was so glad I did; they formed a sort of personal history of my mum and my own family.
Two of the original seven correspondents from the mag have sadly passed away but the remaining five still write to each other, faithfully circulating their notebooks around the country at a time when that personal contact is probably extra important and special.
Joanna and I are always threatening to write a book based on the mag and the bond between our mothers which started in such a special way and led to our own lifelong friendship. We’ve been through so much together as friends, as did our mothers – and those connections were formed via the crucial love of writing.