Dad wrote these letters in the mid 1960’s, when he was in his mid-20’s. For us as a family, it’s been fascinating to re-read them – and then to share them here.
Being written so long ago, they inevitably offer a window into the language and society of 53 years ago. That can offer a few challenges. In the 60’s, the general term used for black people / African Americans in America was ‘negroes.’ That jars today, as language and society have both changed a lot since then, but it was the term used then.
In some letters Dad described instances of racism or social injustice – but without noting disapproval or distress. I found this surprising. Especially as I know Dad was horrified and deeply affected by the poverty and suffering he saw in his travels.
So why didn’t Dad pass any comment in his letters? I asked him, and we had a genuinely interesting conversation.
Firstly, Dad agreed that they inevitably benefited from white privilege in their travels. And coming from white, Christian, class-based Britain, they had little concept of how other cultures lived.
Arriving in America, they were soon caught up in living out their lifelong dream.
Dad told me: ‘We weren’t so ‘worldly wide’ then as people are today. In the early 60’s we had no internet, no computers, the BBC news was all old-fashioned film reels and very slow. We didn’t get the instant news like we get today. To make a phone call from the US meant making an appointment!
‘I didn’t want to write deep intellectual discussions about race issues and poverty and politics, because the truth is we didn’t really know much about it.
‘You recently told me there were race riots in Philadelphia just before we arrived there – but we didn’t know anything about those riots. Today, we can look it up on Google or Wikepedia and get all that information in seconds. We didn’t have that luxury in those days, and I admit that both Colin and I were pretty unaware of lots of things – but that’s the way it was for most people then.
‘We were enjoying the American way of life, and my letters were simply my observations of life there, which was so different from life back home. My concern, re-reading the letters, was that I might come across as a bit of an idiot at times, somewhat irresponsible and cavalier. But – we were having fun!’
It’s true – Dad’s not one for deep discussions of world affairs, politics or sociology. Instead he loves people – their quirks, their stories.
Even today, my parents love cruises, but they rarely follow the crowd. They’ll go to a remote island, hire a driver from the kerb and spend the day with him, meeting his relatives, going to his favourite spots.
So they might not be able to tell you a socio-political analysis of the place, but they’ll have some amazing tales about the people they met, the hidden places they visited and the laughs and stories they shared.
As for Dad and Colin, as they continued their travels, they gained the ultimate education, as they experienced first-hand the highs and lows of life around the world.
NB: Dad just emailed me this-
Recently during a conversation with some friends of ours, we were discussing the fact that they enjoy visiting museums and old ruins etc, when they are abroad.
They love inspecting old artefacts in museums, for instance Roman pots and utensils etc and discovering about the history behind them.
I told them that that sort of thing doesn’t appeal to me, but I really enjoy looking at the lifestyle of the people where we are visiting, and I like nothing more than visiting markets and seeing the local fruits, vegetables, fish, clothes and lifestyles of the people e.g their homes and the local architecture.
Our friends described this as ‘social history’ as opposed to ‘ancient history’ – and I thought that was a very good term to use.
I like the term social history and it certainly applies to me.