Dear Mr Bigelow: A Transatlantic Friendship by Frances Woodsford

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Dear Mr Bigelow: A Transatlantic Friendship by Frances Woodsford

Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: An engaging spread of Letters to America from the 1950s, written by a very personable English lady with a charming wit and way with words.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099542292

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Meet Mister Bigelow. He's elderly, living alone on Long Island, New York, with some health problems but more than enough family and friends to get him by, and still a very active interest in yachting, regattas and more. Meet, too, Frances Woodsford. She's reaching middle-age, living with her brother and mum in Bournemouth, and working for the local baths as organiser of events, office lackey and more. I suggest you do meet them, although neither ever met the other. Despite this they kept up a brisk and lively conversation about all aspects of life, from the late 1940s until his death at the beginning of the 60s. And as a result comes this book, of heavily edited highlights, which opens up a world of social history and entertaining diary-style comment.

It is perhaps unfortunate we do not have the letters sent here from there, as his letters to Bournemouth did not survive. It was thought all Frances's writings were lost too, but no - they were kept, and turned up eventually. As far as reading them goes, it is a momentary hiccup that we are only witnessing one side of the dialogue, and one we recover from quickly.

This is mostly down to the bright and enjoyable way Frances wrote. She has a charming turn of phrase throughout that matches a winsome personality ("I am usually smiling except when I am not"). She defines porridge as "boiled woollen underwear", which is one of the most agreeable sentiments I can remember reading for years. And with the density of her letters, really getting under the skin of her life, we see everything about her through her singular and welcome eyes.

We learn of the specifics of her career, in combatting customers at the baths, or arranging swimming galas and water shows. The notable events of the 1950s are briefly touched on - the Coronation and its televising, Eden and a certain canal, and so on. But more often than not the letters open out into her unique slant on life in general - insomnia, learning to drive and more. I suspect the latter was not so common for a lady of her age and income in those days - further proof we have a pleasantly unique narrator.

What surely is also rare is the regularity of her writing. She seems to have spent some minutes of every day at the office typewriter, tapping away at some diary-style entries to her letters, sending them every week in the form of a Saturday Special (although most of those left these shores on a Friday), and sometimes in between, even two days apart. You wouldn't get that this day and age - any more than you would get trans-Atlantic post as rapid as featured here.

Beyond that there are presents to be shared, books to be swapped (and this is the only time when this touches on turning into 84 Charing Cross Road), and news to be divulged. And with so much rich material here we really can become social historians of our own, whether interested in the topsy-turvey weather suffered by Frances, or something a lot more academic.

The book is not perfect - as I say, in an ideal world it would be a real conversation, and sometimes the scattiness of the writer (or perhaps the editor) comes to the fore - the sister-in-law's vital operation is not mentioned here for some weeks. But this is one of those volumes you probably would not think to choose as a priority, but could only be charmed, entertained, amused and informed by, making this a welcome surprise for me - and many more who will meet Frances and her Dear Mr Bigelow here.

I must thank the kind Vintage people for my review copy.

For more of nineteen-fifties Britain, this time from the point of view of the historian, we can recommend Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties by Peter Hennessy. For a personal picture you might want to look at A Secret Madness by Elaine Bass. There's some particularly good fiction about the nineteen fifties, such as The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, None of the Cadillacs was Pink by William Bedford and The Palace of Strange Girls by Sallie Day.

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Buy Dear Mr Bigelow: A Transatlantic Friendship by Frances Woodsford at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Dear Mr Bigelow: A Transatlantic Friendship by Frances Woodsford at


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