Last year I went along to an event at the Southbank Centre called Letters Live, celebrating the joy of the written word, in a time where letter writing is done by fewer and fewer people. As part of the event, some of the letters read aloud were by a young couple during World War II. This snapshot in to their lives was the highlight of the night for me and I did leave wondering what happened to them. The special quality of these letters was not lost on Canongate Books and I was thrilled to learn that a full book was to be published of the letters between Chris and Bessie and last night I attended an event at Foyles bookshop in London (an incredible place if you have yet to explore it since its refurbishment), at which Simon Garfield, whose To The Letter book first brought us this love story, introduced this compilation. What made the event more special was that he was joined by Chris and Bessie’s two sons Bernard and Peter, who shared some wonderful anecdotes about their parents. For those unaware of their story, in 1943, Chris Barker was serving as a signalman in North Africa and decided to start writing letters to friends to help pass the time. One such friend was Bessie Moore, with whom he used to work at the Post Office, who at that time was dating another man Nick. Her response to Chris revealed they were no longer together and from that point onwards, through their letters, their growing affection and love for each other blossomed. Over the last few years of the war they continued to write to one another from across the world. I am still making my way through the book after buying it last night, which is proving to be a heartwarming and beautiful piece of work. In a digital age where we all seem to focus too much on communicating electronically, it’s lovely to gain an insight in to a time where letters had such incredible power to affect people’s lives, in this case creating a bond that went on to last a lifetime.
During the event, Simon Garfield explained how he’d been lucky enough to come across their correspondence during his work on To The Letter. He needed to include more letters from ordinary people (most of the letters are from well known public figures) and on a visit to the Mass Observation Archive in Brighton, he was shown “the Barker Papers” and he soon realised how special they were. The letters had been donated to the archive by the Barker’s sons, Bernard and Peter. Bernard recollected his father giving him the letters two years before he died, asking if he should throw them away. On asking what they were, as he had been aware that his father had some wartime correspondence related to the Greek communist resistance ELAS, he was surprised to be told they were love letters to his mother! He’d certainly never imagined his father as the type of person to write love letters. As a historian, he couldn’t imagine destroying them. Following his father’s request, no one (their sons included) read the letters until after both their parents had died. Bernard admitted that as his father had left school at 14 and didn’t really have much of an education, he and his brother both never imagined that he would actually be such a wonderful writer. He said they realised that, despite their educations, compared to their father they were actually third rate! The letters were too special to not be shared and so they were given to the Archive. Both Bernard and Peter said how surreal it now was to experience the publicity about their parents, which came about due to To The Letter and Letters Live and now through this new book and they were thrilled about it. The event last night wouldn’t have been complete without a reading of some of Chris and Bessie’s letters, the way many people, myself included, were introduced to them in the first place. Simon Garfield spoke about the famous names who have taken part in such readings in the past, at events such as Letters Live and the Hay Festival, including Lisa Dwan, David Nicholls, Louise Brealey and Benedict Cumberbatch. Louise Brealey had been the reader of Bessie’s letters at the event I went to last year, so it was lovely she was able to be there last night, together with actor Brian Dick (currently Richard Riche in Wolf Hall on BBC Two) to bring Chris and Bessie to life for the audience. Both read with such passion and tenderness. The book doesn’t contain all their correspondence as there were 500 letters written, totalling approximately half a million words, spanning the years from 1943 – 1946. There are also more letters from Chris than from Bessie (she had instructed him to destroy her letters, which thankfully he didn’t completely obey!). However, what Simon has been able to do is publish enough of the letters to truly convey their beautiful relationship during such an important time in history, which gives a very human insight in to what it was like to live through the war, as well as being such a special love story. I am sure there were many other couples doing something similar at that time and Chris and Bessie stand as representatives of all those ordinary lives touched by the war. I’m truly loving reading this beautiful, romantic and emotive book. Simon Garfield has done a fantastic job of selecting the letters to be included, so that the personalities of both Chris and Bessie shine through, as well as their touching romance. We may live in a more modern age, but I certainly think this book is an example of how words can be so much more special when we take the time to put pen to paper and spend that little extra time and effort to stay in touch with those important to us. My Dear Bessie is a book that will warm your heart and would make a lovely gift too. I urge everyone to take the time to read it. My Dear Bessie by Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, edited and introduced by Simon Garfield, in published by Canongate Books on 5th February, available at all the usual book stockists.