As promised, tonight I’m going to chat about Terence Frisby’s Kisses on a Postcard, and there isn’t really a better way to begin than the way in which Elaine started her review – ‘Gosh what a lovely lovely book.’ (She also has a draw to win copies, do go and enter). But I’m going to start by mentioning how Terence Frisby had arrived on my horizons before – in the revue with Prunella Scales, Tim West, and Sam West, which I saw back in July. They performed an excerpt from It’s All Right If I Do It which was hilarious, and I’ve requested a copy of the play to the Bodleian to read.
But back to Kisses on a Postcard. This is an autobiographical book about Frisby’s years as a ‘vackie’, evacuee to you and me, sent to Cornwall with his older brother Jack in 1940. This tale has previously made appearances as a play, Just Remember Two Things: It’s Not Fair and Don’t Be Late, and then as a stage musical from that play. The musical hopefully being staged in London at some point… watch this space. Frisby warns in his Foreword ‘What memoir of childhood could be entirely true?’ Kisses on a Postcard combines all the facts of his experiences with the elaborations playwriting brought, as well as being seen through the wrong end of the telescope. But no matter – this book is true, in spirit if not in dialogue.
Like Emma Smith’s wonderful The Great Western Beach, Frisby’s book is an antidote to those misery memoirs which crop up everywhere. With MisMems (as they are apparently called – what you do learn at a book launch) I always say: I understand why people write them, but not why people read them. Thankfully Frisby, and Smith, take situations which could have been horrific, and write lively, joyful, invigorating books about them. Kisses on a Postcard even opens ‘I was the luckiest of children: I had two childhoods’. What a wonderful way to see a potentially heartbreaking event.
The beginning of the book looks at his first childhood, at home in London – his tough-but-sensitive father, his loving, well-educated mother who had perhaps come down in the world a little. Her background of suffragettes and society became one of marriage to a railway man – but a contentedly proud one. The Frisby neighbourhood and friendships sets the tone for a cheerful, resilient upbringing.
And then, of course, September 3rd 1939 arrived. And, more significantly for Terry and Jack Frisby, June 13th 1940 – when they were sent off to Cornwall. Mrs. Frisby devised the code from which the title comes – a number of ‘x’ kisses on their first postcard home, dependent upon how much they liked their evacuation home – three kisses if they were very happy; two if it was ok; one kiss and she would come straight there to collect them. What a remarkable woman. The parents who had to say goodbye to their children, knowing it could be forever – they are the unsung heroes of the war.
I don’t remember seeing any tears on that platform [when Terry and Jack left for Cornwall] but there must have been plenty. Jack and I stood at a window, waving and shouting at Mum, who stood in a crowd of waving, smiling mums. She mouthed, ‘Don’t forget the code,’ as though we could have. She told me years later that she went home and sobbed. Like all the other mums, I expect. I still cannot think of her inventiveness and bravery, even now nearly seventy years later, without my eyes filling.
You and me both, Terry. You can mark Kisses on a Postcard by the places it makes you cry – this was Tears No.1 for me, with plenty more to come. But thankfully, Terry and Jack were very fortunate with their host and hostess – known as Uncle Jack and Auntie Rose by everyone, regardless of generation, they lived in a tiny terraced cottage by the railway. Of all the lovely, lively characters in this book, it is Auntie Rose whom I shall remember most. Endlessly kind, honest, and selfless, she makes the boys welcome – acts as wise disciplinarian when needed, but never tries to replace their absent mother. It was a great privilege that Rose and Jack’s granddaughter was at the launch yesterday – now she will have to share fond memories of Auntie Rose with thousands of others now.
Terence Frisby relates so many things in this book that it would be impossible to list them all – we see a village community undergoing great changes, but also keeping true to a village spirit which with wider travel, communication, and resources has now all but disappeared. Kisses on a Postcard is a paean to rural life, to all the discoveries an urban child had to make – it makes me grieve for the generations since, including my own, who know so little about the natural world. (I blame electricity!) There are so many vivid characters portrayed – I was left feeling desperately sorry for Miss Polmanor, an ardent Methodist, but lonely lady, to whom Uncle Jack was often unkind. She could be interfering, perhaps, but… These were the only bits of the book which left me a little uncomfortable – Uncle Jack’s fairly constant, strident bellows of atheism, and his consequent unkindness to the attendants of Church and Chapel. But he had been through trench warfare, and was inevitably damaged by his experiences, despite being able to overcome this most of the time.
And on the tears front… when you’ve read Kisses on a Postcard, simply the names ‘Teddy Camberwall’ and ‘Gwyn’ will be enough to make you blink furiously, and pretend you’ve got an eyelash in your eye.
Perhaps Kisses on a Postcard is open to accusations of cosiness or even (a word I can never understand, or view as censure) tweeness. Well, it ought not be thought ‘cosy’ to commemorate acts of great human kindness, nor twee to rejoice in the possibilities of happiness amongst widespread sadness and turmoil. What Terence Frisby has done so excellently is write an honest account, with moments of desperation, which avoids misery without being falsely cheerful.
Sadly there cannot be many more decades of first-hand experiences of WW2, and those which we get now must be from the child’s viewpoint. All the more reason to treasure something as special as Kisses on a Postcard – I predict a classic, and one which can be enjoyed with joyfulness, thankfully, and not solely sympathy.