Seven: Marriage is a serious matter and must I think be an ordeal, at least for the man
When May Greenwell accepted Bill Pottinger's proposal, it was by letter from Sunderland to China. Her silversmith father William, by then almost in his sixties, must have had very mixed feelings about the offer and its acceptance. His second son, another Will, had already gone to the other side of the world, and he must have suspected that he would never see him again. Now his daughter was about to marry his second wife's brother. He might never see her again, either. His elder son Fred was itching to join Will in New Zealand. If William senior had ever entertained any hopes of his silversmith business, which was flourishing as the town became more prosperous, being handed on, then those hopes must have long been dashed.
William was quite well connected in Sunderland, through the Herring family, who included George, the editor of the Sunderland Daily Echo. Another Herring brother-in-law, David Haggie, had become Sunderland's M.P. in 1906. This was the same family through which his elder brother Tom had minted a small fortune. True, he saw little of Tom these days, after the scandal. Tom and his unhappy family had largely gone their separate ways - except for his son Harold, of course, a dour man who had taken to the bottle in a big way. William's younger brother and sisters were all dead. His first wife, Jennie, had eventually grown so weak that he had had to carry her up and down the stairs to his home over the shop in Holmeside. Jennie's sister had married Tom's brother-in-law, but that link had snapped twice, with Jennie's death, and Tom's wife's departure to Harrogate. His two elder sisters, Lizzie and Polly, were still alive, both widowed more than thirty years earlier. Both were invalids.
William's second wife Ethel was a little unstable. She wanted the whirl, the flash, the excitement of Sunderland society - to be part of the company of wives who visited and drank tea, and held elegant parties, where the silver items her husband made were on display. But then, she was nearly twenty years younger than he was. Where was her husband's sense of adventure? And if her brother Bill wanted to marry May, then why not? If it was peculiar, then let them gossip. Besides, there was money to be had in China. There were more than missionaries out there (her husband reminded her what had happened to his brother-in-law John Kitts. Opium. Death. That was in Shanghai, she retorted, the brothel of the Orient. Tientsin wasn't like that). And their elder sister Floss was in Tientsin. The mayhem of the Boxer Rebellion was eight years in the past, and there were nine countries trading from the city. The South Wales Borderers were on hand to keep the Celestial Empire's feuding enemies and other bandits at bay.
Bill Pottinger had been an ambitious man, and there wasn't much about Sunderland, where his Shetland and sea-captain father had lived and retired, which suggested a quick path to a fortune. Bored by working as an office clerk, he had already spent five years in Buenos Aires in a bank. The weight of the Sunderland sky depressed him. He had courted May carefully, but briefly. In truth, he knew her so little that it was a relationship he could only clinch by post. All he understood was that May herself was unsettled. She wasn't like her cousin, Maud, who was prepared to live the pure life in semi-ascetic self-sufficiency, he could tell that. And so he had set out for China without any fixed prospect other than the prospect of change itself.
When he stepped out at the Central Station in Tientsin, before he had even peeked at Europe-by-the-Sea, or travelled down the main street (which translated itself from Kaiserwilhelmstrasse to Victoria Road to the Rue de Paris until it wound up as the Via D'Italia), he was approached by a friend of his sister's. He didn't mince his words. “Hullo, Bill,” he said, brushing away the formalities, “I'm Stan. Floss said you were coming out on spec (1). Look here, old man - I've just started a soda-water plant. I want someone to run it. Will you?” William Innes Pottinger had been offered - and had accepted - a job as a manager, even before he had had time to catch his breath.
Now he could write to May and tell her that he was manager of the Pei-ho Aerated Mineral Water Company. It was more home than home, he told her in his letters. There was even a park - Victoria Gardens - with swings, see-saws, plots of grass, flower-beds, a bandstand. The British area was about one thousand acres, and home to 2,000 people. Not to mention more than 30,000 Chinese, although they only moved where they had permits. There was certainly no servant problem.
For May, this was a golden opportunity. She did not like Ethel at all. Ethel was all argument and sulks and taking to her bed. She wanted a roost to rule. She fancied herself as a creator of recipes, and liked nothing better than to dictate the ingredients to others, to supervise them as they sifted and chopped and heated and served. She called this “cooking”, but this was a culinary art by proxy. She had a boss complex, and it stifled May, whose mother had died when she was only fourteen, to see this peculiar woman attempting to take charge of the flat above the silversmith's, to see the glazed expression on her face after a drinking bout.
She accepted. She accepted, and this terrified him. Here she was, en route, and he panicked, panicked. The bullet missed his heart by an inch. And so May found at first that she had to console her husband-to-be for the fright of her arrival. It brought them closer. May was a tiny, determined woman, fiercely independent. What was more, she had escaped the strange relationship between her father and Bill's sister Ethel. It wasn't long before Bill and May were married and had settled into a sunnily domestic routine, in which the unpleasant chore of sex was soon dispensed with. May was pregnant within weeks.
Bill and May Pottinger (née Greenwell) with their new son, Alec, in Tientsin, 1909. May is Alec's mother, but also his step- great-aunt!
Tientsin was more social than Sunderland (it occurred to May that Ethel would have been in the pink in Tientsin), and May was drafted into the chorus of Gilbert And Sullivan's The Sorcerer , in a thirty-five-strong cast. She must have winced a little inwardly as she belted out “With heart and with voice, let us welcome this mating,” since that, in a sense, was what was least welcome of all. And certainly, when she was singing out, “If you marry me, I'll scrub for you and bake for you....I'll cook for you and brew for you,” she already knew that a squad of Chinese servants was on hand to remove those wifely duties. This was just as well in May's case, because she had never bothered to invent herself as a domestic goddess, even in Sunderland, and her skills did not extend even to sewing. At school, she had elected to be the one who read to the others whilst their needles dipped in and out of fabric. The servants were expected, as far as possible, to anglicise the meals. Rice, yes. Easy on the spices. Porridge, bacon and eggs, Ceylon tea, toast and Keiler's Dundee marmalade created breakfast. Chicken, however - still a luxury in far-off Sunderland - was in ready supply, as were small game birds like snipe, quail and teal. And persimmons the size of large tomatoes, gritty Chinese pears, and ripe, warm figs from the garden had also infiltrated their way into the British diet. One or two of the families in the concession had allowed their tastebuds to go native. May desisted. Only once in ten years did she, and with some reluctance, allow her son to sample ethnic Chinese food at a British party.
Bill and May Pottinger - and their new arrival Alec (he only became known as Peter in his teens) - lived in a substantial three-bedroom, semi-detached house on the corner of “Meadows Road”. After the flat in Sunderland, it was a mansion. They employed four servants - an amah for Alec, a house-coolie, a rickshaw-coolie, and an all-important Boy. The Boy was a combination of butler and parlour-maid, and paid out his own wages for his own coolie, although his own room contained only a wooden bed and bricks for a pillow (the servants slept in an outhouse). He laid tables, and waited on them, too. Cook and Boy ran the household in almost every way. May did not need to shop for food. Her two principal servants saw to all that, and presented Bill with an account to settle at the end of each week. They also organised the delivery of coal for the open fires in each room, and the stove in the hallway, whose pipe passed up to the roof, and acted as central heating - necessary at least in the winter, when there were some hard frosts.
Whilst my grandfather was looking forward to his first motorbike, his second cousin Alec was riding a donkey in Northern China. The rickshaw coolie doubled as a mafoo, or groom, and took Alec out on a daily half-hour donkey ride. It is likely, since there were no stables, that the rickshaw coolie shared his space with the donkey, who was called Jammie-Face. Later, the mafoo – who himself acquired the nick-name Jammie-Face from his association with the donkey - taught Alec to ride a bicycle as well.
Not all was sweetness and soft lemon light. In early 1911 - at a time, incidentally, when there was considerable tension after the overthrow of the boy emperor, Pu Yi - there was a dust-up in the park between Alec's amah and a rival pram-pusher. The fight became sufficiently heated for a policeman to be unable to simmer the two of them down. So he shut them up in a different way - he took them to the police station and locked them in. Thus was Robert Greenwell's great-grandson imprisoned with his battling nanny, although happy enough to snooze or chortle as the instinct took him. A message was sent to Bill, to the effect that his infant son could be released from chokey forthwith, or, if preferred, left until tiffin-time, when the amah would have cooled down sufficiently to take him home on her own. Bill went for the second option, and laughed that evening away over Alec's new status as a jailbird.
Alec and the battling amah, 1910, Tientsin
When Alec was four, his amah was replaced by a “soldier nanny”, the wife of a corporal in the Borderers; however, the First World War took these soldiers away, and May for the first time took complete control of her son. By this time, May and Alec had travelled back across Siberia and Europe to Sunderland, a twelve day train trip to see her brother Fred and her silversmith father, who was then in the last year of his life. They stayed six months, before returning across the steppes to Tientsin. During the journey, Alec had his fourth birthday, but he was fiercely instructed by May to own only to being three – a four-year-old would have required payment for a ticket. “There,” stormed Alec, as his foot stamped itself back on the platform at Tientsin, “I'm four now .” Fred remained in Sunderland long enough only to help supervise his father's funeral. Then he sailed for New Zealand to join his brother farming. May never saw Fred or Will again - indeed, Will died in his forties. Fred, the eldest, maintained a regular stream of letters to May, and also to Alec (whom he only ever met as a three-year-old) until his own death in 1949.
Winnie Knight and her first husband, Albert Lay., in about 1916. This picture grandfather found in the bible turns up more than once.
There was to be one further reunion of cousins in 1920, when May, Bill and Alec Pottinger came back to Sunderland again, this time across the Pacific, and via Winnipeg. Here May met Winnie Knight, the daughter of her aunt, Emily - her father William's sister. Winnie was 32, and married - she had sent back the picture of herself and her husband to May, as she had sent the one which Ethel Hallewell had tucked in the family bible. It was to be the last time Winnie and May ever met, although they continued to correspond.
William Greenwell, the silversmith, my great-great-grandfather's brother and father of May, Fred and Will Greenwell
Fred Greenwell - May Pottinger's brother - who emigrated to New Zealand
Robert Greenwell Knight - Bert Knight - in about 1916, when he visited his relatives in Sunderland This picture, sent from Canada, was kept by several cousins.
Families do not always bust or fracture. More often, the individuals move so far to the edge of the concentric circles that they spin into a new orbit. Names are lost like echoes, or misted over by distance. Rumours replace truths, if they were ever truths in the first place. Geoffrey Greenwell, my grandfather's cousin, had persuaded himself within twenty years that his uncle had been knighted, that he lived in a grand mansion, and it was this version that had persisted. One of his mother's relations had switched sides, and become one of his father's. In Canada, Bert - the first of the three Robert Greenwell Knights - had recalled some family angst over his mother's marriage to his father. If it had existed, it had been re-assigned. My grandfather had almost smothered all traces of cousins on his father's side, which hadn't exactly helped his quest. Mollie Greenwell, my grandfather's sole surviving first cousin by the time of the 1990s, had slipped some cousins round in her memory. Perhaps the saddest comment was made by Maude, the wife of Evelyn - Tom's child by his housekeeper - about their relationship to my grandfather, probably about the time of his second and fruitless attempt to regain his seat in the House Of Commons. She told her niece forlornly that “such people are not for us.”
For May, life in China was not without its minor tribulations. The Chinese New Year in February meant that the servants had time off for feasting and celebration. There seemed to her to be a constant tinnitus of firecrackers, sparking, sparkling and exploding in the trees. She complained loudly about “awful bangs and flashes going off in the streets for days”, and objected to the reek of garlic that accompanied the Boy back from whichever delicacies he had sampled, or gorged. The servants would bring Alec china presents - figures in different types of Chinese dress - and, invariably, a bowl of goldfish. This last item caused May particular irritation, because, for the next few weeks, until the last of the goldfish had floated soullessly to the surface, the accounts prepared by the Boy included the supererogatory “Goldfish food - 10 cents.”
Summer meant two months at the seaside, whilst the men sweltered in temperatures of 120º. May and Alec travelled at first to coastal towns like Shan-hai-kwan, Chin-wan-tao or Pei-tai-ho. In the case of Shan-hai-kwan, this meant a complication, since the railway had not at that time reached the coast. May, Alec and their baggage were carried by sedan chair by three coolies - one in each shaft, and one to relieve them - and set down now and then for a rest. It was not an experience she enjoyed: the jolt and tilt as tired Chinese arms took a break. Later they took a steamer - a day and a half's voyage, which May loathed - to Wei-hai-wei, staying at the King's Hotel, on a low cliff above a great bay shaped like a horseshoe. An island blocked the entrance to the bay (it was where the British Naval depot was) and ensured that there was smooth, safe water for bathing and paddling around in canoe-shaped punts.
In Europe, my grandfather (who had joined the Royal Flying Corps) was anchored in a lookout balloon behind the trenches. Willie Hallewell's eldest son Jack was recovering from the effect of mustard gas. Percy Raine was having the ships torpedoed from under him. Geoffrey Greenwell's arm had been badly smashed, and, visiting my great-great-grandfather in Falmouth, he tried one-armed swimming in the bay. Bert Knight enlisted in an expeditionary force from Canada (he turned up in Sunderland with a batch of souvenir photographs of himself). But in Wei-hai-wei, May Pottinger's happy son Alec was going by hired sampan to deserted beaches, where there were rare and exotic shells, of the unexploding variety. The war passed peaceably over the heads of the British. There were only minor adjustments. At tiffin, the British Navy was given equal billing with God, when thanks were given in the grace. German acquaintances and friends were coolly cut out of the at-home invitations (4 p.m. each third Thursday of the month). Cakes from Kiesslings, the German pastry-seller, were boycotted. Some of the local Chinese were recruited as labourers to assist in Europe with the war. The average age of the men increased, as the younger ones signed up. When the Armistice was signed, some drunk and unpleasantly exuberant men marched from the British club to topple “Tin Willie” - a bronze statue of the Kaiser in the German concession. Otherwise, there were very few reminders indeed of the raging continent May had left behind.
Life in Tientsin was essentially Edwardian. Every day, Alec would be taken after breakfast to see his aunt. After a polite interval, he would be asked what he might like. What he would like was a chocolate biscuit, and a small square tin, dull olive green in colour, would be produced and opened. The Art Nouveau lettering on the tin read BOURNVILLE. In the evening, May and Bill might go to a dinner-party. The Boy would have Bill's dinner jacket laid out in his dressing-room, with the studs and cufflinks fixed into his starched shirt. For entertainment the British built a grandstand - a sort of miniature Twickenham - at one side of their rather dismal recreation ground. But in Tientsin, there was insufficient energy to get the intended sports - football, cricket, athletics - out of the semi-colonial torpor. Tennis thrived on a couple of hard courts.
It was golf, however, the sport of amblers, which prevailed. A course had been leased from the Chinese across the river, outside the Concession. A slight adjustment necessary to the noble rules of fairway, green and bunker was necessitated. The links lay on a disused burial ground, and it is Chinese custom to create shallow graves, upon which the soil is quickly heaped. The advantage of course was that these provided highly useful hazards for the golfer to overcome. However, since some of the graves were in a state of disintegration, a local rule was introduced. If a ball actually fell inside a coffin, it could be lifted safely out and dropped clear, incurring the loss of one stroke only. There was also the slight difficulty of the grass on the greens. There was no grass. Instead, a series of level mud patches was created, each to be sprinkled with a fine dust, and the caddy to sweep this dust across after the golfer had holed out. The caddy used some flexible bamboo.
During one round, May encountered another unforeseen problem. Normally her caddy would be alerted to her arrival by a specially posted lookout, who would chant “Da be-dze Tai-tai, lai!” Or, to translate, “Big Nose's Lady is coming” (Bill had a prominent nose). But on this occasion, Big Nose's Lady was obliged to borrow another caddy, her own having unaccountably gone AWOL. She took on a boy - it was a competition - who normally caddied for a bachelor with a large handicap and a highly colourful vocabulary. May's skilful shots were given encouraging praise (“Shot!”) by her new sidekick, much to her pleasure. She did not realise that the bachelor was the boy's only link to the English language, until she hit a duff putt. Exactly which four-letter word he used does not survive.
The pace of these days suited May, who liked everything to be nice, to be right, to be proper . She hated to rush. The mile-an-hour rickshaws exasperated her sometimes. Hsiao-hsing, Coolie! Man! Man! she would call - Take Care! Go Slow! Her Sunderland inflections generously impregnated her pidgin. Now that Alec was her charge, she instilled in him her mixture of caution and kindness. If he wanted to take toys from one room to another, let them be taken in two trips, rather than dropped. His bicycle-riding should be restrained (“Alec - don't scorch !”) If his arms windmilled and his legs went hullabaloo in the heat, she would fix him with the observation, “You've got yourself too hot and you've gone all white in the nose .” As for Alec, he was happy to wear a bona-fide naval cap with the ribbon of HMS Usk. Snootier boys who wore HMS Dreadnought sailor-hats tried taunting him. He pointed out that his had come from a visiting Naval Officer. It was a proper hat. Theirs were from shops. He also stood on his dignity over the full length of his name, informing a friend called Wynyard Waters that he was not merely Alec Pottinger but Alec Innes Pottinger. “That's nothing,” said Wynyard. “My full name is Wynyard Aerated Waters.” Alec was impressed, and May had her work cut out to convince him that Wynyard had been the victim of a prank - two, indeed, if one counts his actual first name.
May instituted a more rigorous routine than the amah or nanny. Alec was made to do Swedish exercises every morning, and at bed-time. His head was inspected regularly, and any dry patches anointed with “Cuticura”; ears were checked for wax, and at bedtime, warm olive oil was tea-spooned into each, before they were plugged with cotton wool. Dental check-ups were organised (the dentist was next door), and laxatives were administered with great zeal. If it was morning, it must be Eno's Fruit Salts; bedtime meant a shot of Senna tea. Any suspicions of irregularity were dealt with by a tablet of Cascara Sagrada, or, as a weapon of last resort, a tiny calomel tablet. This was of course in addition to the annual purging (“Alec, you will drink this Castor Oil now !”) She also taught her son to write, to do arithmetic up to long division (as far as May could go). Once a week, a French teacher came to improve his language skills. In a sense, the two of them, May and Alec seemed to revolve around each other - Bill was a friendly, but more remote individual. And for Alec it was an idyllic time, with the odd spat between him and his mother thrown in almost to show how sunny the rest of the world was. He made the mistake of ordering Jammie-Face to be saddled himself at the age of five, when he was supposed to be finishing work from one of May's lessons. At the end of a minor tantrum, he made the mistake of telling May she wasn't meant to be a lady. “You were meant to be a coolie!” he shouted. So that was the donkey-ride and an afternoon party out of the window, then. Alec also made the mistake, just before his first “proper” day at school, of deciding to behave like a schoolboy in the Chums Annual. He stamped his feet. He rummaged in his toy cupboard and hurled the toys to the ground and - the major offence, given May's desire for peace - banged on an old drum like a banshee on amphetamines. May restored order firmly.
In early 1920, the Chinese idyll came to an end. No more secret trips to the street hawkers to try tiny crab-apples glazed in sugar toffee, to taste the enormous round boiled sweets - two for one cent, and better than Pascall's Acid Drops in the jar at home. (May would not have been pleased - “all cooked in river water, you know”, she had told him). No more glimpses of processions, of creaking wooden carts along the Taku road, of hobbling women, cursed by the footbinder; no more dressing-up (Alec had appeared as a hob-nailed-booted soldier in one extravagant fancy-dress party when he was four); no more skating on the frozen lake in the Russian concession. It was time to be transmuted back into a proper English boy.
In the 1920s, Alec was back at school in England, whilst May and Bill returned to the concession, before commuting the world for a climate to help Bill's failing health. Bill found new work as an importer, and although he kept an agency in Tientsin, it was no longer his main place of residence. He did occasionally return to keep an eye on that end of his business, whilst Alec stayed in England, settling in Birmingham, where he met his wife Marjorie. This was in late 1938. News of the impending marriage brought May back to inspect her prospective daughter-in-law in early 1939 - a mixed blessing, since she arrived back before war broke out, but was prevented by events in Europe from getting back to Tientsin, where Bill died in 1941 (and where his sister Floss was interned when the city was overrun by the Japanese). Thereafter, May led a peripatetic life, spending winters in Bournemouth hotels, where single ladies of reasonable means were able to find modestly priced rooms, and where she must have made contact again with her cousin Laura Greenwell. Ethel, her sister-in-law and stepmother, was kept similarly on the move, gradually selling her furniture, being supported by relatives. On the way, and in a mental decline, she lost hold of the papers she had - to Laura's annoyance - swiped when Aunt Polly had died, just before her elderly husband, at the start of the first world war. When Laura wrote to my grandfather on her eightieth birthday about this, she did not realise that Ethel was at that very moment confined to a nearby mental home. Both died in 1954, within a few months and a few miles of each other.
May's brother Fred never made it as a farmer in New Zealand. The promised land was made of evaporating milk and imaginary honey. Working as a hired hand on a chicken farm, his letters are touchingly familiar - conversations held by the proxy of airmail with a sister and a nephew he knew he would never speak to again. Thirteen of his letters survive, from 1934, when he was already nearly sixty, until 1949, the year of his death. They act, amongst other things, as a kind of distant tannoy, a lonely voice discussing the world that separates brother and sister, uncle and nephew. In May 1935, Fred, sending his letter in the last days before the first direct air mail from Auckland to London, worries
how things are going in China these days I hope things are better. The whole world seems to be in an anxious state & building warships& planes in a race for armament. I wonder what Germany is up to she certainly has put the wind up the world.
The wireless nags him in the background; so do children. Alec has given him a life-line to the outside world in the shape of Blackwood's Magazine, which he looks forward to reading peacefully. His days are long, and the nights are cold: I really have no news of interest just work work & more work always plenty to do tho it is our winter now & I have shorter hours & may put a bit of weight on, just turn the scales over 9 st haven't time to put on fat. What is your weight now? We have over 1000 head of poultry now a nice little family to look after, unfortunately we have some trouble with them recently, had croop pretty badly & of course eggs right down which is bad for this time of year when we get a decent price for eggs, to say nothing of all the extra work makes one sick of poultry farming. We have had an exceptionally fine hot summer, too much heat plays up with the birds.
Once the war starts in 1939, by which time May was marooned in England, he writes with great affection to congratulate Alec on his engagement to Marjorie. There is a touching blend of solicitude and artless, completely genuine feeling, mixed in with his stray thoughts about the consequence of war. He brushes thoughtfully over the separation of May and Bill (“how unfortunate”). In his lodgings in Papatoetoe, he is accustomed to, almost immunised against the loss of family. It is a world in which mother, father, brother, sister have become photographs, voices circling in his head.
I have just received by todays mail a letter from your Mum giving me all the latest news & the most important & pleasing is undoubtedly that of your "engagement" my most hearty congratulations old boy I am indeed delighted to know that you have at last found the best girl in the world & wish you every luck & happiness. You are just the right age I think to settle down
- Alec was just coming up for thirty -
& your Mum seems very pleased about it & says she is a very natural & clever girl & must be a nice girl in every way or you wouldn't have chosen her also I think she is a lucky girl, as from all accounts you have a charming personality & a general favourite wherever you go, so should be the ideal husband eh! No doubt your Dad will also be very pleased with the good news. How unfortunate he is to be held up in China & seems to be very little hope of his getting away the state things are in out there...... Your mum just got home in time, you would be delighted to meet her again after all these years apart. This blasted Hitler what a pity somebody cannot get a bomb at him & his staff, there seems to be a lot of jealousy in camp at present & may end up in resolution before long, I hope so.....one good thing about it is that the whole of the British Empire is determined to a man to put this Hitler& Co out of action & I think we will do it. You will have to let me know when the wedding is to be I will have to save up for a present eh! Pity I wasn't the wealthy uncle in New Zealand sort.
To a certain extent, Fred has no way of pitching his letter. He is writing to someone he has not seen since they were a toddler. His information is second-hand, his conversation intensely imaginary. His tenses shift unconsciously (“will...would”). There is something painfully wistful about Fred's letters. It is hard not to impose this quality on the only two photographs that survive, in which he appears faintly troubled by the camera, uncertain whether or not to smile, even lost.
The photograph he receives of Marjorie in early 1940 brings out a rush of emotion. It is strange to think of him, sitting alone at the table, trying to blot out the surrounding din, letting the pen run along the paper in a dream, chuckling to himself at times, perhaps, but always that lost and liquid look in his faraway eyes. He congratulates Alec on his choice. And then there is another, moving extract, and even a little amateur psychology about May's feelings:
I feel there are lots of things I should say on the auspicious occasion but unfortunately never having experienced matrimonial bliss cannot give you any advice worth having. I hope to have letters from your mother soon giving me details of wedding She will be pleased that you have married such a nice girl & perhaps a little sad Mothers don't like taking second place.
I have always felt sorry for her seeing so little of you, one of the drawbacks of living abroad & having to send their sons home to school
He writes again, just after the wedding, and in his letter, returns to his theme:
I received photos of wedding group some days ago from your Mum very good but sorry she looks so sad she is disappointed with your photo tho the one leaving the church is more like you not so serious eh! however marriage is a serious matter & I think must be an ordeal at least for the man.
This is one of the saddest things I have ever read, even though the tone is determined to be upbeat and jolly. Fred Greenwell, now 65, is projecting his lonely personality on to his nephew. There is an intensely regretful tone, a feeling of sudden loneliness masquerading as man-to-man, uncle-to-nephew banter. But part of this letter is to himself. The day before his sixty-eighth birthday in 1943, he is still mourning marriage as “what I missed”.
Most of Fred's letters contain passages about transport, about buses and cars and boats and aeroplanes, and by implication, distance and separation (although even thirty-three years after leaving his birthplace, he is still able suddenly to suggest that Sunderland football club “generally had the best of it in times gone by”). Sometimes - he admits this - he finds letter-writing an awful chore, but there are consistently contradictory strains in what he composes. One is an abiding sorrow that he is where he is (there is little mention of any friend or even acquaintance); the other is a desire to please his listeners.
His final letters, in the late 1940s, are painful to read. He has a had a slight stroke (“likely the start of breaking up”) in 1947, and there is a sudden, almost casually mentioned signal of his preparation for death in his 1948 letter:
Your letters are very interesting, it is lovely to have news of Judy and Doug [Alec and Marjorie's children] My memory fails me at moment, I destroyed all my letters the other day.... I was just thinking the other day that when I saw you last you would be just about the age Doug is now so I haven't seen much of you eh!
He suggests that the regular gift of Blackwood's magazine be re-directed to someone more deserving. Suddenly he has a presentiment of death, and it combines with his feeling of loss. He is in a nursing-home with forty other patients, and it is uncomfortable, writing on the bed:
I would like to have some more news from your Mum re some cousins and aunts. Now I must close God bless& keep you all Let us pray the world may be peaceful in their time. I feel quite sad & sorry not ever visiting your wife and family ......
At a moment when he sees the shutters closing, what Fred Greenwell, thirty-five years in New Zealand, thinks about is family. There is no-one to gather round; no-one to soothe; no-one even to receive his message for a week to ten days.
In the event, Fred rallied, and almost a year to the day later, he sends what really will be his final letter. He has heard of Dougal's impending christening, and has suddenly come up with a trump, a brilliant idea for a gift, one which will make Alec weep, and, fifty years later, will make me weep, too. A woman he knows is travelling back to Sunderland, and he has sent with her a mug:
I have had this all these long years and have used it occasionally for beer & sometimes for shaving, then when Dougal came along I thought of another good home for it. My Great Grand Father of Sunderland made it especially for me so I hope Dougal will have good luck with it eh!
He is reaching far back, too far back in time, to Thomas Henderson, the Sunderland potter whose daughter married his grandfather Robert, and whose first name kicked off the line of Thomases . But Thomas Henderson had died in 1838, forty years before he was born. Towards the end of the letter, he dwells for one more time on photographs he has been sent, shifting exhaustedly into the past tense:
The Photos on Xmas Cards were very charming I couldn't make out who the young man was then I decided it must be Alec, I haven't seen him or a photo of him for many years. I felt sad that I didn't know him. What we have missed I cannot think how sorry I am
(1) Floss herself had travelled out with her first husband, George Innocent, but he had not survived the journey. She arrived pregnant with her only child (to be named another George). She remarried soon after her arrival. Her son George died in World War I in the conflicts in the Dardanelles.