Oh darling, if I was there you wouldn’t need a blanket to keep warm
Aching with yearning, the surprisingly frisky letters that sealed an epic wartime romance
LATE in 1943, a 29-year-old Post Office clerk named Chris Barker wrote a letter from his dull wartime posting in Libya to a friend named Bessie Moore.
They were just friends. Bessie, who also worked for the Post Office, was stepping out with a mutual acquaintance called Nick.
Her reply took almost two months to reach Chris, who was serving in the Royal Corps of Signals, but it changed their lives for ever. No longer with Nick, 30-year-old Bessie remembered Chris with great fondness — and made her feelings plain.
And so began an extraordinary love affair: a tender, long- distance romance expressed in more than 500 letters delivered across war-torn continents and against a backdrop of unfolding world history, which would culminate in a joyously happy marriage.
Then, 70 years later, the letters — more from Chris than Bessie, as he had to burn most of hers to save space in his kitbag — were discovered by the writer Simon Garfield. He put some of them into a book on the lost art of letter- writing and they immediately struck a deep chord with all who read them.
Last year they were ‘performed’ live on stage by the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Kerry Fox. Now they have been collected in a volume in their own right. This is the moving, and sometimes hilarious, story of two ordinary people made heroic by the war they lived through, and the grand passion that sustained them.
21 FEB 1944
Signalman Barker H. C., Base Depot, Royal Signals, Middle East Forces, Tobruk, North Africa. Dear Bessie,
I received your letter of 1st January on 7.2.44, since when I have been busting to send you a smashing reply, yet feeling clumsy as a ballerina in army boots. I could hug you till you dropped!
The unashamed flattery that you ladled out was very acceptable — I lapped it up gladly and can do with more! Yes, I could hug you — an action unconnected with the acute shortage of women in these parts and mostly symbolic of my pleasure at your appreciation of qualities so very few others see, and which really I do not possess. Best wishes, Friend. Chris
15 MARCH 1944
I am hopelessly lost in contemplation of YOU — and I last saw you when? I feel like a king. I think I made a mistake about you years ago and I rush to make amends. I was quite OK before I got your first letter. I was rational, objective.
But now that you have my ear — I must give you my heart as well! I am always consulting my diary to see how soon you will get my letters, wondering how soon I will get yours.
13 APRIL 1944
I wonder what you look like (don’t have a special photograph taken). I know you haven’t a bus-back face but I have never looked at you as now I would. I wonder how many times I have seen you and how many we have been alone.
Now my foolish pulse races at the thought that you even have a figure. I want, very much, to touch you, to feel you, to see you as you naturally are, to hear you. I want to sleep and wake with you.
Let me know if you think I’m mad. When my signature dries I’m going to kiss it. If you do the same that will be a complete (unhygienic) circuit.
Yours, Chris ALL the while Bessie sends him encouraging letters back and eventually they swap photographs. But she also mentions more mundane matters, prompting Chris to reply:
11 JUNE 1944
My dear and lovely Bessie,
I am sorry about your gumboils. I should leave your private (acquisitive) dentist and pay at least one visit to the Dental Hospital at Leicester Square, which is concerned with saving teeth, not making money through extractions and dentures.
Don’t have your teeth out before you need do, and without seeing the Dental Hospital. They are good people. Do you want me to tell you, here, that I love you though you be molar-less? I do! AND a day later, as if to prove it:
12 JUNE 1944
I’ve never really asked you, have I? Will you marry me, Bessie (for better or for worse)? There are no good reasons, but the only excuse I can offer is that I will love you always. Reply by ordinary letter card, won’t you?
29 JUNE 1944
I thank you for the yes yes yes acceptance, the honour that you have done me, and the confidence you have reposed in me. I promise to do all that I can, at all times, to forward our union, to work for your happiness and to care for your interests.
I shall try hard not to be wilful, unheedful, thoughtless. I shall try to be considerate, kind and helpful, and where I fail I shall ask and expect your forgiveness.
I love you, Chris AT THIS point in the war, living with her family in Blackheath, South-East London, Bessie is in more danger from German bombs than Chris in Libya. And her besotted fiance worries about her endlessly...
3 JULY 1944
A smack in the eye for me today, nothing from you. I am wondering about these pilotless planes. I hope you go in the shelter, and do not try and be ‘brave’ by going to bed.
4 July. No mail today. I do hope you are OK. I know you must be seriously disturbed at least. It doesn’t matter about me getting letters, but it does matter about your safety...
I have never seen a break of seven days between your letters before, although I am beginning to know the terror of these new bombs and the greater job you must have in finding conditions enabling you to write... send me a scratch telling me you are safe... AT LAST Bessie replies — but now the tables are turned and it is Chris who is in grave danger. Posted to Athens, he finds himself in the thick of a Greek civil war between the socialist anti- Nazi resistance movement and the Right- wing royalist party, which the British back. Some of Bessie’s letters from this time survive:
27 Woolacombe Road, London SE3
6 DEC 1944
So very worried about what is happening in Greece. On the news tonight it spoke of it spreading and seems to have become a battle...
Well I am glad you have four blankets to keep you warm, if I was there you wouldn’t want any, you’d be hot enough.
Here am I, a blooming iceberg of a maiden waiting to be roused into a fire, not just melted but changed into a fire, and there are you, miles and miles away, needing an extra blanket.
I had to giggle about my ‘bravery’ in bombed London. I live here, work here and there isn’t anything to do but live here and work here and like most things up to a point, you get used to it.
Darling I love you, love you, so very much.
10 DEC 1944
My dearest Bessie,
But for us — US more than anyone — life will be grand in days to come if we will it so, if we trust.
I shall come back to England, to an England that I knew and in my fashion loved (have you ever been chestnutting at Sunningdale in October or blackberrying at Caterham in September?).
And I shall brighten up your scene, I hope, and make you see things in a new and better light, so that we both realise we had not lived till we met, till we loved.
11 DEC 1944
What I feel for you, dear one, is love. This is not settling down, getting married and having children, it’s something so much more, so much bigger.
You have caused an upheaval within, an upheaval that contains so much sweetness, ecstasy and pain, something that I didn’t think I was going to know, something that I thought did not exist because I had not known it.
It is new to me, you are new to me, I trust myself to you so gingerly, a little afraid of, not you Christopher, but of the unforeseeable...
Goodnight, Darling, Bessie ON DECEMBER 18, 1944, Chris is taken prisoner by the Greek People’s Liberation Army after a siege in an Athens hotel. Bessie continues to write:
26 JAN 1945
Surely there will be something in the press when prisoners are exchanged. Unless I have missed something in a corner — don’t think so. Oh! Where oh where are you, Christopher My Darling? Days have become weeks and still no news. I can’t settle down to read, not even in the train...
I love you, Bessie CHRIS is set free in January 1945, and receives the much-anticipated news that former prisoners will soon be shipped back to England. He describes his imprisonment to Bessie:
28 JAN 1945
We spent the first ten days marching. About 120 miles through rain, snow, hail at times; always very cold, always hungry. Our overcoats were taken and we had no blankets. [My companions] and I had terrible nights. No sleep, very cold.
Many chaps had very bad times, boots stolen (you can imagine how this affected one, stockinged feet in the snow), underclothes taken, trousers and blouse removed and very thin ragged clothes given in exchange...
31 JAN 1945
IT IS a strange thing but I cannot seem to get going and write very
freely. All I am thinking about is ‘I am going home. I am going to see her’. And I expect you are feeling the same.
I may be home in as little as a fortnight. It is no longer speculation or hope, or possibility. It is a fact, a real thing, an impending event, like Shrove Tuesday, Xmas Day or the Lord Mayor’s Banquet.
You have to be abroad, to be hermetically sealed off from your intimates, from your home, to realise what a gift this going-home is. I can say no more, no less, than that I love you.
Chris BESSIE is overjoyed, yet also anxious. This will be the first time they have seen each other since the ‘love affair’ began.
6 FEB 1945
Darling, darling, darling,
This is what I have been waiting for, your freedom left me dumb and choked up, but now, oh now, I feel released. Oh Christopher, my dear, dear man. It is so so wonderful. You are coming home. Golly I shall have to be careful, all this excitement is almost too much for my body...
Also confidentially I, too, am a lit- tle scared — everything in letters appears larger than life- size. Like the photograph it didn’t show the white hairs beneath the black, the decaying teeth, the darkening skin. I think of my nasty characteristics, my ordinariness. Yes I, too, feel a little afraid...
I Love You, Bessie. CHRIS and Bessie meet at last. He spends three weeks on leave in England and the couple share five days alone in Bournemouth. Their time together is a success, yet Chris is posted to Italy immediately afterwards. He starts writing again to Bessie as soon as he gets on a train. Grand declarations of love are interspersed with more banal subject matter...
16 APRIL 1945
I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. Don’t just read and pass on. Please read this reiteration carefully and hear me saying it. Blow me, I am mournful at the thought of our distance. It seems so absurd, so wrong, so impossible that only a little while ago we were together and now we are apart. I can’t help having a cheated feeling and not much interest in anything else but you.
19 JULY 1945
My Very Dearest,
I read with regret the extraction of your teeth. The racketeers. I think I should go ahead and have the whole lot out now. It will save you a lot of trouble later on. And you’ll almost certainly find a dentist who will tell you you would be better off without them.
21 JULY 1945
You blooming Old Darling, I could hug and hug and hug you, for somehow saying all the right things, and being your beautiful self, do you wonder that I get so blue? Look what I am doing without.
I guess I haven’t felt a ‘calmness of spirit’ since Greece, it came home to me then how easily I could lose you, just like that, and I haven’t been able to erase it from my mind, it impressed me too deeply.
Bessie SIX weeks later, on another short leave, Chris and Bessie are married in London. He goes back to Italy but Bessie quickly discovers that she is pregnant. Chris returns just in time for the birth, and at last he is leaving the Army. Almost three years since they began their long- distance courtship, he writes his final letter in soldier’s uniform to Bessie.
7 MAY 1946
Tonight I spent my last night in the Army. Tomorrow I spend the night in the train. As you go to sleep Wednesday night think of me speeding along the rails towards you, sleeping this final separate sleep. And remember that when you awaken in the morning, it will be to hear my voice and see me.
Dearest darling, only one, thank you for all that you have been to me through these years, and be sure we shall overcome with our love any difficulties there may be later on. I can never be as good as you deserve, but I really will try very hard, and I know you will help. We shall be partners, collaborators. Man and woman, husband and wife, lovers.
I love you. I want you. I need you. ALWAYS.
YOUR Chris THIRTEEN weeks later their son Bernard was born, followed in 1949 by their second son, Peter. Chris and Bessie lived a long and happy life together. He went back to the Post Office and worked his way up the ranks, while Bessie spent hours in her beloved garden and became an accomplished amateur artist.
Together they travelled a Europe finally at peace and, when Bessie’s memory began to fail, Chris cared for her at home. She died, aged 90, in 2004; Chris followed, aged 93, in 2007.
Long-distance love: Bessie and Chris