I have trouble deciding whether I side with LP Hartley “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” or the alternative version (whose author I can’t recall, but might be Douglas Adams) “The past really is a foreign country; they do things exactly the same there.” When I was last on Jersey, I picked up a great little book, Wish you were here by John le Dain. I’d recommend anyone to get a copy of this or something similar. It’s full of picture postcards over the last century; reading through it, and them, the pictures make me tend towards the Hartley view, but the messages on the back? Douglas might just have got it right.
Postcards, especially used and franked ones, can be dated to within a short space of time, so give the writer of historical fiction a nice source of what the world looked like. Yes, the views chosen tend to the picturesque, but they’re real, not a painted ideal landscape. I found it fascinating how little had altered, despite the bashing Jersey got in the war. There’s a picture of St Brelade’s Bay in 1909 – both the rocks and the little jetty look just as they were when I was collecting crabs and shrimps there with my daughter two years back. Details have altered, but so many places are instantly recognisable from one hundred years ago. Writing in the first half of the twentieth century or very late nineteenth? This sort of book would be a magnificent way of picturing your setting accurately.
Many postcards have pictures of folk going about their daily business – people shopping, horse drawn cabs waiting to pick up fares. These aren’t posed portraits, they’re commonplace men and women dressed in the everyday style and so possibly more likely to reflect ordinary life than a painting. There’s a crowded beach, for example, in what seems Edwardian times from the fashions. Little girls and boys are bathing, while their mothers stand not more than a few feet from the water’s edge, fully dressed – long skirts, hats, the works. In another picture, a family descend a dodgy looking ladder to a beach. We have the same, three-piece suited, ‘hats and boots respectability’ about the clothes, but the faces and poses of the two teenage lads who’ve scooted on ahead appear wonderfully modern.
The gems are in the messages, though – not words carefully crafted for public consumption but chatty, personal communication. People, of course, have changed very little inside – they have the same needs and desires they had when Ug and Og were living in a cave, watching the hairy rhinoceroses in lieu of TV. So we have this saucy miss from 1904: “Weather lovely – plenty of ‘Francais’ but do not want any of them. Nearly all fellows in the house.” I bet she was having a great time. So was the guy who wrote (undated) that there were “Some fine Janes here”.
Perhaps best of all, from 1958: “Having a very nice time here with bags of talent but most of it’s sixteen or sixty…Having a good old session every night & what with that and swimming every day I feel just about clapped out.” Nothing changes, eh? Except prices, of course. 1935: “Cigarettes 20 for 4d*, beer 4d pint, in fact we just LIVE.”
* that’s 2p, perhaps 3 cents.
I like the humour: 1934: “…and are at present sat in the rocks almost like an armchair only without the cushions.” And the snippets which put wartime hardship into perspective: 1946 “Milk is not rationed & wherever you go you see people buying glasses of milk just as you do ice cream. In the hotel at lunch times it is strange to see grown up people all ordering glasses of mil with their lunch.” Bet if you put that in a story no-one would believe you.
Something which struck me was the constant references to the weather – quite natural on a holiday postcard – but interesting when you consider weather patterns. We’ve had some rainy summers recently, so the doom and gloom merchants have come out in force to say “It was never like this when we were young – summers were summers then” or to link the allegedly unseasonable weather to global warming. Oh yeah?
August 1911 – “We were caught in a fearful thunderstorm…this morning it is very showery.
1922 – no month – “I shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t stop raining all the holiday.”
August 1934 – “rain every day so far”.
July 1938 – “…very cold and wet…We can’t even get English newspapers while the weather is so bad.”
August 1953 – “Had a fairly rough crossing and the sun seems to have deserted us.”
I hasten to add that there were plenty of cards saying how hot and sunny it was, but you get the point. People have short memories and look at the past through rose tinted glasses; if you want to really know what went on, go to the contemporary sources.