How Six Little Cards Brought a Lost Britain Back to Life

A seaside postcard by Donald McGill

How six little cards brought a lost Britain back to life

Postcards represent a piece of social history, however tiny, says Michael Deacon.

 Last week, in a charity shop, I made an intriguing find. It was a box of postcards. Not new postcards; used ones, written by a variety of holiday-makers, and postmarked as far back as the 1960s. None of the senders was a famous or important figure, and I doubt the postcards would be of value to a collector, if there is such a person as a postcard collector. And yet, flipping through them, I was fascinated.

Only the day before, I’d read that two in five British people no longer send postcards. The rest prefer texting or using Facebook. I think postcards are better, though. Sending one is a more thoughtful gesture, but it isn’t just that. Looked back on, years later, postcards represent a piece of social history, however tiny.

Take the ones I saw in the charity shop. They remind us, for example, how formally people used to address each other (“Dear Miss Fox, Lemon curd and jam superb”).

They chronicle our nation’s eternal dissatisfaction with the weather (“Fine but dull”, “[We] all have sunburn and wind chill at the same time”, “The sun has completely abdicated”). They record the places British people went on holiday before the advent of cheap flights: Hereford, Hastings, the Wirral.

And above all, they show what a wonderful ear Alan Bennett has – because, throughout my charity shop postcards, everyone writes as if they were a Bennett character, from vivid malapropisms (“I’m just sitting around, saturating the atmosphere”) to suburban bossiness (“Will you kindly take a brown loaf of bread & one pint of milk as arranged & leave them on the shelf in the porch” – I can’t read that without hearing the voice of Patricia Routledge).

The postcards were 50p each. I bought six, and wish I’d bought more. In their strangely heartwarming drabness, they made me nostalgic for a time I never knew.

As it happens, I went on holiday myself last week (and yes, I did send postcards, writing them with unusual care in case they end up being sniggered at by some impertinent young newspaper columnist in a charity shop 40 years from now).

For a second successive summer, my wife and I were in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. We loved it: the glittering sea, the palm trees, the lizards zipping across the pavement, the air as smooth as cream.

But mainly we were just grateful not to be driven off the island by a roaring mob, after a piece I wrote in this column last year. As part of a joke about how much more trusting the locals are than those of us from the mainland, I pretended I’d stolen an honesty box from a jam stall. To my dismay, several readers took the piece literally, thought I really had stolen the honesty box, and demanded that I be arrested. The outcry taught me an important lesson: take care with humour, because some people will believe every word they read in a newspaper, no matter how improbable the story.

So this time, in an act of deepest contrition, I went back to the jam stall and left a cheque for £2.5 million.

During our stay we went on a boat trip. Our guide told us the following legend, which I’ve decided to believe is true, on the grounds that I like it. About 150 years ago, after a shipwreck, a large, heavy barrel washed up at Luccombe, at the time a small fishing community.

Excited, the locals made a hole in the barrel, out of which spurted the most delicious brandy. There was enough to last for months. After a while, however, the locals grew puzzled: though they drank and drank, the barrel got no lighter. So they hacked it open.

Inside was the body of a pickled gorilla.

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