Letters to the Lost
One Year On… by Iona Grey
2015/04/28  |  By:   |  Features  |  

As I write this, it’s exactly a year to the day that I sold Letters to the Lost and spoke to my wonderful editor, Clare Hey, on the phone for the first time. Now, publication time is almost upon us and I’m still slightly nervous that I’m going to wake up at any moment and discover that it was all a very lovely dream (even better than the one I had recently about actually properly kissing Rupert Everett in his younger days. I know, I know – unlikely on several counts).

Letters to the Lost was something of a dream to write, and a bit of a personal indulgence. Setting part of the book in the 1940s was a natural choice because I have so many memories from childhood of the vivid stories my much-loved grandmothers and godmothers told me about being young women and new wives in wartime. These stories kept me enraptured, struggling to really imagine what it must have been like to live through that time. One of my grandmothers (I’m the lucky product of two re-married parents, so I have double the usual quota of grannies!) was married in 1942 and didn’t see her husband for about a year after the wedding, or have any idea where he was. My godmother, married in 1943 to a vet, was given a ham by a grateful farmer and was so terrified of getting into trouble with the authorities for accepting goods off-ration that she buried it in the garden. They kept digging it up to cut bits off it, then burying it again and hoping it wouldn’t be found by foxes.

But, looking back, it wasn’t just the stories themselves that I loved, it was the whole atmosphere in which they were told, in houses cluttered with memories, over tea in china cups and luminous orange squash and homemade scones. Tablecloths, hand-embroidered with flowers. Photographs on the sideboard – the impossible glamour and romance of the black and white wedding photo amongst all of us gappy-toothed grandchildren in our school uniforms; the unlined faces of the bride and groom evidence that our lovely familiar grandparents had, incomprehensibly and intriguingly, had lives before us…

I loved their houses. My childhood was split between two homes where the modern style of the 1970s and 80s was enthusiastically embraced. Everything was orange and brown, patterned and plastic. In the houses of my grannies the colours were softer: sage green and forget-me-not blue. Sweet peas and roses bloomed on the walls rather than stylised geometric flowers (in orange and brown). Their kitchens contained chipped enamel dishes and kettles that whistled instead of melamine and electrical gadgets, and when we stayed the night we slept between cotton sheets (no quick-dry nylon) under woollen blankets and fat eiderdowns.

I still love these things, and my house is full of what I’d call vintage treasure and my husband calls old tat. Writing Letters to the Lost was not only a great way of celebrating a lifetime of family storytelling, but also of feeding my addiction for rose-patterned china and fringed floral lampshades and violet-sprigged wallpaper without taking up any more space at home. Much to my husband’s relief…

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