Friday, 29 January 2010

A Handwritten Letter from 1946

When did you last receive a hand written letter?

With the internet, I can access millions of words in seconds, without paying a penny for the effort taken to create them. I can comment on a blog by a celebrity journalist, and my words are on-screen with theirs. I can update my Facebook or Twitter and around 1000 people across the planet know my daughter has lost a tooth before the blood has dried. I am famous for 15 minutes. But has this flood of words diluted their value? When I go clack-clack-clack and slap ‘send’, have I created anything my great-grandchildren could find? And if they found it, would it give them a piece of me or a piece of fluff?

I have finally investigated a family story.

As a child my mother was often told, ‘if it was not for the snow you would be Welsh!’

In Britain, the winter of 1946-47 was legendary. It lasted from December through to March, with temperatures dropping to –21 degrees centigrade and snow drifts of 23 foot in the Scottish Highlands. Our recent flurry just don’t compare.

Just before the first flakes fell, my grandparents were in England staying with my grandfather’s family; my grandmother in the final stages of her pregnancy. They planned to return to North Wales for the birth and to set-up home, but the snow started to settle. There was no M62 motorway then, the only route to Wales was through Snake Pass - across the Peak District and full of hairpin bends and steep gradients. They could not risk it. So the baby came in Lincolnshire, and mum was a Yellow Belly not a Taffy. They called her Rita after Rita Hayworth.

Soon after the birth, a parcel arrived from Wales. It was addressed to Rita Bach (in English, Little Rita). Inside was a tiny, soft toy rabbit and a letter.

Hello Rita

This is Tommy Rabbit introducing himself. I am to be your new boy friend, but there is a catch in it. I’m to play with you during the day but I’ve got to sleep with the girls at night – your Aunty Jean and Aunty Grace. I only hope that they will let me give you a good night kiss. By the way it’s your Uncle Bill that sends me and he wants me to give you a big kiss when I arrive – if I can get my breath back after being in that box.

From Uncle Bill to Rita Bach

Don’t you love his graceful, copperplate hand?

Bill was my grandmother’s brother. And yes, that's his photograph at the start of this blog, taken around the  time he wrote the letter, when he was 25. I know, he looks older, doesn't he?

Aunty Jean and Aunty Grace were the sisters of my Grandfather; with those names they now sound like old dears, but of course they were pretty young ladies in 1946. Seems they had caught Bill’s eye, anyway.

A receipt from a removal firm confirms the family did get to Wales some five months later. So Bill and Rita Bach finally met when she was a plump, giggling, starting-to-sit-up-on-her-own kind of baby.

Sixy-four years later Tommy Rabbit still sits at my mum’s bedside. He now carries the letter in a little pouch around his neck. Made from sheepskin, Tommy was originally baby pink, but that’s faded away. If you dig your fingers into his fur you can see a little peach, though, and there's still a twinkle in his eye.

Uncle Bill died at 28 from tuberculosis, three years after writing the letter; three years into my mother’s life. Of course she has no memory of being with him, but because of the letter he is a real person to her, not just a few photographs, documents and a gravestone.

He’s someone who sprinkled magic onto one of the few toys she owned.

She often talks about the letter from the rabbit, so last week I asked to have a look at it for myself. And of course it got me thinking. And here’s what I think.

Keep the hand-written letter alive, for those big moments at least. I guarantee it will make someone feel incredibly special. But it will also stop your contribution to history, to your family’s story, becoming a handful of certificates and some dusty gadgets that don't work.

And don’t get me started on digital photos…

If you enjoyed this, you might also like to read In Which I Humiliate my Mother, which tells of her return to school after a 50-year gap.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Sharbat Gula and Me

I first saw her in June 1985 - as did the world at large - when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic. I guessed she was about my age and I was fascinated, and envious, of her beauty.

At that time, boys walked right by me to chat-up my friends, so attractiveness was something to be dissected and tentatively copied. This girl, without make-up or the enhancements of Photoshop, had a face that could launch a thousand ships. What was her secret?

I’d like to pretend that I was not a shallow teenage girl and that I went on to read the article and educated myself about the world she came from. But I did not. Her image, however, I could not overlook.

I spotted her again in a bookshop several years later. She was on the cover of National Geographic’s 100 Best Pictures. The image chosen to sell a superlative selection from an archive of most compelling photographs on the planet. Not bad, mystery girl.  

And life rumbled on.

Then last year a friend suggested I read A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. The story of two Afghan women, it spans three decades and rips your heart out. My mystery girl was back. In trying to picture Mariam, the spirited girl in the novel, my mind returned time and again to this photograph.

Where was that copy of National Geographic?

A quick hunt in the attic put my hands on it, and with a shudder I found out, at last, that the girl in the picture was a refugee. From Afghanistan. Her age and origin placed her much closer to the world of A Thousand Splendid Suns than merely looking like I imagined one of the characters to look. 

The National Geographic article said very little about her, though, and I wondered what had happened to her since 1985.

The Internet is a wonderful thing. Five minutes searching and the full story is now in front of me.

Steve McCurry was the photographer. He had the briefest moment to take this photograph in a Pakistan refugee camp. When he did, he had no idea the image would become one of most famous in the world. He did not ask her name or her story. So for 17 years this photo has simply been known as the Afghan Girl.

But - and you can see why - people wanted to know who she was, and if the horrors in the news had engulfed her. So in 2002 McCurry went back to find her. And remarkably, he did.

She has survived.

Her name is Sharbat Gula (in English, sweetwater flower girl) and her story does not dilute the power of the photograph, it explains it. Do take time to read it here, at the National Geographic website.

So why did I pick this as My Favourite Photograph? 

Her looks still floor me, of course. And how ironic that a beautiful female face has become an ambassador for a place where female faces are hidden. But now I also recognise that her authenticity is part of the shock. My world is saturated with contrived and posed images; the ones I take as well as those pushed at me from all sides. The real and potent emotions caught here – this was the first time she had been photographed - are astonishing, and astonishingly apposite for a girl escaping Afghanistan.

My six year old daughter saw the photo for the first time as I was researching this blog, and said “she looks very angry and very sad”. Sharbat Gula was also six when Soviet bombing killed her parents.

Which brings me to her relevance. Not just to recent history but, I predict, to a headline I will read next week. I do hope I can look at this image again, one day, and add "relief" to the layers of emotions it evokes.

Passing on the Meme

“My Favourite Photograph” is an internet meme where bloggers - erm - post a favourite photograph. I was tagged by @kellyfairy to take part when she posted a wonderful photo from her wedding on her blog A Place of My Own. I initially posted a personal photograph to take-up the idea, but then decided I was being lazy. So this is my second go.

I like this meme. It’s very versatile. I invite any bloggers our there to consider themselves tagged, but extend a special invitation to:

Serene Babe in It's All About We
Nene Labeet in La Beet
Debra Snider in Women at Work 
Kara in Karacornflake 
Laura Anderson in Miss Read  
Miss Whistle in Miss Whistle   
Titan Red in Really Should Know Better
Inshin in Inshin's Blog

As ever, please only take part if you know you'll find this richly rewarding.