And furthermore ...

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Thursday, 7 May 2015


Postcard views and their written messages
 “I don't film messages. I let the post office take care of those.”
Bernardo Bertolucci

Usually the correspondence on the backs of postcards is perfunctory and not worth a second glance. Someone has arrived somewhere and the weather is fine, or not. (What is this peculiarly English compulsion to start a postcard by describing the weather?) The very public face of the postcard discouraged people from revealing too much and serious correspondence required the traditional sealed letter. Occasionally however a card turns up with a written message that enhances, contradicts or otherwise changes the way we look at the image. This one, to a Mr. T. P. Carson of Polk St in Minneapolis, was posted from Hague, North Dakota on the 14th of July, 1911 and reads:
Dear Brother;
I am sending you just a glimpse of myself, my old man and my buckskin pony. You must excuse me for not writing but I have been so busy. Will write you a long letter soon. Hope you are as well as we both are. Love to you from us both.
Your sis, Mrs J Berg.
We can hear a rural Midwestern accent in her phrasing, and that odd mix of familiarity – ‘Sis’ – and formality - ‘Mrs J Berg – is also found in the image. The photographer was most likely a friend and the Bergs look like they are on their way to church; all dressed up with the wide and empty plains of North Dakota behind them. Image and text tell us a lot about the relentlessly long and dull struggle the prairie farmers endured at the turn of last century.

Around the same time and across the Atlantic an unidentified woman wrote from West Hill House in Hastings to ‘A’. West Hill House is a listed building, which in the 1930s was occupied by the popular author Catherine Cookson. With the resources of the Hastings library at hand it wouldn’t be that hard to track down the author of our card, which reads:
Thanks very much for the P.C of last night it came as a pleasant surprise. I am sorry Eva could not see you last night I have not heard from her so I do not know if she has gone to her new place or not. I had a postcard from Frank (Eva’s brother) this morning he wanted to know if I got home safe last Wednesday night & said he was sorry he did not see me again (Don’t laugh) I am sorry it is ended with your girl through us but still if your not worrying it doesn’t much matter does it I’m afraid there’s not much love lost between you.
The absence of punctuation, the sloppy grammar and the catty tone point to someone in her late teens or early twenties. Note her acknowledgement, even the faint boast, of the part she played in breaking up the relationship between A and his girl. A few years later she could be cast as one of the flippantly cruel young socialites in Evelyn Waugh’s novels. Notice that ‘A’ sends her a P.C but Frank sends her a postcard. I suppose casual abbreviation was one way she distinguished friends from hopeless dolts. Note too the otherwise straight topographical view she has chosen. West Hill House is probably visible in this image, which is why she selected it, but she is unaware that her choice of image reveals how prosaic and suburban her outlook really is. 

 To Germany on September the 13th 1909, where Ella writes to Miss Alice Duvet in Dorchester and in three brief sentences tells us a lot we may one day find useful.
Wouldn’t this stop a clock? In 7 days we start sail for America and if possible will land in 12 days. Most likely it will be 14.
The expression, to have a face that would stop a clock, was current at the time and referred to someone who was particularly ugly. Ella sounds too polite to brand anyone else that bad looking so we can assume she is the woman in the photo. Is that her father with the camera? The person who took this was most likely another family member or a local photographer working the tourist market. The most interesting detail is in regards to the time needed to cross the Atlantic. There’s quite a discrepancy, a whole 48 hours between 12 and 14 days, even for the mechanized and technological 1900s. If a face could stop a clock, heavy fog and storms could halt an ocean liner. 

As previous posts have claimed, Fred Judge was the quintessential British photographer, meaning not just that he photographed the life and the land in detail but it is also hard to imagine him working anywhere else. A couple of sentences in a Hastings newspaper from the 1910s suggest he may have taken a brief trip across the Channel to Calais. That, for Fred, was about as exotic as the world got. The number of the card indicates the photo was taken circa 1910 and the scene is somewhere along the south coast of England, most likely between Brighton and Hastings. So far there is nothing remarkable to say. But read on …
Dear Femihan
I received your letter of April 9th and enclosed a page on May 3rd, yesterday May 27th. I am thrilled by this news! “CHEERS”! But dear, do come quickly, before I go … It will be tragic if you arrived when I’m gone!! … I leave Cairo for Dhour el Choueir, Lebanon; (that’s my address) at the beginning of July. Won’t you be here before? I hope & pray. I rang up the Diara (?) today, your uncle could not give me any news as he knew none! Hoping to see you with all the longing of “long absence” Yours, with love, Leila.   
Leila Mestrick has posted the card from Cairo, Egypt to Femihan, who lives in the Maltepe district of Ankara, Turkey. The punctuation and underlining for emphasis are all Leila’s. But how does a very English postcard get mailed from Cairo? Leila has also dated the card May 28th ’45, which helps explain things: this was during the weeks of progressive surrender by the German forces and Britain would have been in control of Cairo. Leila’s surname is also English, so presumably she married an Englishman. Notice how her English is impeccable though she emphasizes ‘cheers’, a very British idiom, indicating that English is her second language. Femihan speaks it too, demonstrating what we can already read; both women are from educated, prosperous families. Interesting that although we know the photograph was taken on the English coast there isn’t a single detail within it to indicate that. It could have been taken anywhere. Leila’s choice of card was deliberate. She didn’t want one showing a distinctly British scene, of castles or sheep in the fields. Is it too much to see the image of waves crashing on rocks as an allusion to powerful emotions that Femihan would get even if the English hubby didn't? And was there a newsagent in Cairo selling English papers, stationery and postcards or did Leila bring a supply of postcards over from England? Both possibilities tell us something about the British colony in Cairo during the war.


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