from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Sunday night and a project

May 31. I don’t like Sunday nights. Maybe this stems from my years at boarding school, when Sunday nights were the pits. Maybe it was the long weeks remaining of term time, or the sad girls coming back from exeat, or struggling over an evening meal of brown vegetable soup, or the sound of weeping after lights out.

And this Sunday night, the last night of May 2020, it seems the world is not getting better on many levels. I planned to write a blog about how we all hoped for an improved quality of life emerging after Covid-19. I would amass the feel-good stories of people being kind and resourceful and imagine how this might carry forward.

Instead, tonight the TV news was about the USA cities on fire with protests as the country is saddled with a president who fails on every count of decency, honesty and moral leadership. Next came the news about the virus: we have reached over 6 million cases and 370,000 deaths of Covid-19 world wide and that is surely a significant under-assessment of the real numbers. These numbers are rubbery, certainly not overstated. The virus spread continues – without much check in densely populated countries.

My husband and I are in the cohort of the elderly in need of ‘shielding’ (as the Guardian suggests). The over 70’s. As my friend, James, said, it’s a bit like being back at boarding school. There are certain similarities: that feeling of nothing to look forward to, an awareness that you are being controlled by the system. This sense that tomorrow is like today.

But hold on! We have so much more we can do. We baby boomers have, in general, lived a charmed life in the West. Better education, better health that ever before. So, we have lived longer than the generations before us. We are a bridge between the old world and the new one of our grandchildren and we are in a position to remember the lives of our parents and the stories that came down through them of our grandparent’s lives. We might have snippets, or long stories; we might have old black photos albums or diaries. But I am sure we have something – and that something is of value.

My father was born in 1911, my mother in 1920. They were strong people and valued their backgrounds. I learnt of my grandparents and their birthdates go back to the 1880’s. I have stories of the Boer war, of the Kimberley’s diamond mines, of a great uncle dying in the Gaza desert in the 1st WW; of an uncle shot down in the Dieppe Raid, of my father fighting the Italians in the mountains of Somaliland in the 2nd WW and of my mother driving an African man mauled by a leopard to a hospital in Tanganyika. And so it goes.

The thing is, our kids are too busy, our grandchildren are too ignorant – at the moment to ask, to remember, to value this. We have a debt to pay, to record what we know of the past: to keep our family stories alive for the future – whatever form that takes. We are the shaky bridge between the past and the strange post Covid-19 future.

It’s not a repeat of a boarding school exercise, but it is a serious project to take on board during Covid-19. No exams to fear, no pass or fail, just a challenge to record your past as a gift for your future generations.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: the writing of letters and the answering of emails …

1956 On the way to boarding school in Tanganyika

April 23. I am a boarding school survivor, sent far away at the age of 8, my brother, Mike, with me. The school was Mbeya Primary School in the eponymous town in southern Tanganyika. The year was 1956. My father had taken a posting in Zanzibar as a political officer in the colonial administration. After a week of dormitory living with weeping at night; being called to strange meals by an African beating a drum and the realisation of the ‘wet takkie’ sanction for minor misdemeanours, I told my brother, ‘I’ve had enough, I want to go home.’ He explained to me that that was not how it worked.

In those days we had 3 term years. It was a long term for me. Every week we had to sit down and write a letter home. And every week, I received a letter from my mother.

This was the future for a few memorable years. To attend high school, Mike and I flew down to Natal, South Africa. It took a two-day flight by Dakota down the eastern coast of Africa and a train journey to get to school. And note that from the age of 12 and my brother aged 14, we were unaccompanied.

At boarding school I was the only child from East Africa, let alone Zanzibar, and was soon called a ‘zanzibar-barbarian’ because that is what kids do to strangers. But still the letters came and went. Every week my mother typed a duplicate letter to Mike and me. Every Monday for 5 years, the blue airmail envelope arrived bearing stamps with Sultan Seyyid Khalifa’s face and then Sutlan Abdullah’s. At rest period after lunch, these letters would take me home, a tangible and mental solace. Every Saturday we had letter-writing and I wrote to my parents about the happenings in my school life. I still have many of these letters, now a precious window into the past.

Forward to the present, 60 years on, and we have the miracle of emails. There are fundamental differences with emails: the way we write them; the way we read them; the way we reply. It’s fairly obvious that we do not take the same care over an email that we would with a hand-written or typed letter. There is just NOT that same kind of mental space. There is instead an imperative to be quick and to get it done – since there are so many to deal with. Parallel with emails, we now have phones that can access family and friends over the world without charge; we share personal time that way.

Since the lockdown, I have noticed that people are writing longer emails, more descriptive, more thoughtful. Some are calling these emails, ‘postcards’, delivered with photos and a promise to keep in touch with more extensive reflections during social distancing.

This brings us to another quirk with emails. You are expected to reply promptly. Whereas my letter home and my mother’s reply took a turnaround time of 2-3 weeks, I am able to reply to emails sent seconds ago. I feel that I should not leave days to reply or the sender might feel neglected. And what about the content? In my experience you told more of a story of your life, your situation, in letter writing. You were more reflective. Not quite so in emails.

And where do they go? I still have a swathe of letters from long ago, from my year living in the UK in 1971-1972 but as for emails? They disappear: left behind in old computers or not filed, not printed, not regarded as of any value.

the past is a forgotten country …