Sunday, 18 August 2013

A Life in Letters - Dear Laura: Letters from a Mother to her Daughter

Dear Laura: Letters from a Mother to her Daughter - Laura Hird & June Hird

Elizabeth Chatwin, the widow of Bruce Chatwin said, "letters are the most vivid writing" and in reference to the book I read this week, I would certainly agree. The letters which fill Dear Laura are full of wit, sentimentality, sometimes admonishing, full of gossip and quotidian banalities, but always vivid and entertaining.

The majority of letters in Dear Laura cover the years 1988 - 1991, when, at the age of twenty-one, Laura Hird left her working-class home in Edinburgh to attend university in London. All bar one of the letters are from June to her daughter.

Laura is an only child, and despite a sometimes fraught relationship, the bond between daughter and mother is an incredibly close one. After signing off one of her letters, June writes "till midnight" as before leaving home Laura and her mother had agreed that every night at midnight, even though they will be 400 miles apart, they will think of each other and send good "vibrations" to each other. They also send a plastic, lucky horseshoe back and forth depending on who needs the most luck at any particular time, which reveals as much about Scottish culture as it does about the love and support mother and daughter show each other.

I can't say that I found the twenty-one year old Laura a particularly sympathetic character. In the letters she comes across as incredibly spoiled and struggling to survive her entry into independent adulthood after a sheltered childhood. Her mother often sends stamped addressed envelopes to London along with her own letters, which contain thank you notes for various friends and relatives who have sent Laura money or birthday cards and presents and all Laura has to do is pop them in a postbox in London, so they have the required postmark. In one letter June describes visiting Nannie an elderly relative who, "was in tears today about the beautiful letter you didn't write for her birthday fiver. It had pride of place on her sideboard and she made me sit and read the letter I had written, while she wept at how sweet you were."

June Hird is an accomplished letter writer (with the added ability of forging thank-you notes!) having had plenty of practice. At the end of one of her letters she says, "I must stop. I have 6 more letters to write." When was the last time you wrote one letter, let alone seven in one day? Her letters are often funny whether relating anecdotes of her daily life in Edinburgh or just expressing her thoughts. I was particularly amused by a discussion on the merits of coloured writing paper.
"Why is it healthy to write on technicoloured notepaper? - well according to a TV programme last week bleached paper contains the deadly poison dioxin. Tea bags, coffee filter paper, white tissues and toilet paper, disposable nappies and tampons, and notepapers are all suspect. Only recycled paper is safe.
Who wants to write a letter on a recycled tampon, toilet roll or nappy? Even if one does tend to write a lot of verbal diarrhoea, one doesn't need to have one's nose rubbed in it as a punishment. Thought-provoking, isn't it?"
If you are looking for a memoir about the relationships between mothers and daughters, read this book. However, don't be tricked into expecting a heartwarming tale of sentimentality, this is also a great read for anyone interested in late 1980s, early 1990s Britain: polytechnics, poll-tax riots, Margaret Thatcher and classic TV (I'd forgotten all about Lilo Lil from Bread). Dear Laura is a fascinating, easy-to-read piece of social history and a beautiful tribute to Laura Hird's parents.

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