Earlier this year I opened a big can of worms. All his life my father kept significant correspondence which he’d received, letters of special import sent by friends of special closeness. I found them after his death seven years ago, sorted into old brown envelopes and piled up in two drawers of his old pedestal desk. They were carefully labelled – with the names of individual correspondents, or “School”, “Oxford”, “Army”, “Senior colleagues” and so on.
I couldn’t bring myself to read them. For a start there were so many, and in so many different hands. More to the point, we were all but estranged by the time of his death, and I just didn’t want to know. But in the last couple of years I have been writing a book which deals in part with the memory of him. He’s pretty much the pantomime villain of the piece, which has been hard to write – so hard that eventually I became blocked and couldn’t write any more. It was towards the end of this writer’s block that I opened the heavy archive box which now contains all his letters, and started to read.
Charles Henry Salter at his desk, c1938
They are fascinating! They cover his entire adult life and of course show sides of him which a son never sees of his father – the non-parental side, the adult among peers, the friend of friends, the intellectual colleague. What emerges is of course a much more rounded picture of the man than the one-dimensional cartoon I have been sketching in words so far. Will I have to start writing my book all over again? I can’t un-know this new full-colour picture I now have of the man I’ve been painting in black and white.
But I realise that it’s my memory of the parent which I am writing, not a biography of the whole man. The letters provide a welcome counterpoint to my own perception of him, but they don’t negate my own experience as his son. I’m glad to have them. There are, quite apart from the personal insights into his character, many delights amongst them: many characterful correspondents and many gripping stories on their pages.
In the summer of 1939 my father was having the time of his life. He had won an unprecedented two Chancellor’s Prizes in his first year at Oxford University, and he spent the summer with a group of student friends on holiday in Brittany. It was obviously a very vivid time for him, although he never mentioned it even when I twice holidayed in Brittany myself.
Pontivy, where my father and his friends spent the summer of 1939
Dad kept letters from many of those who were there that last summer before the war, the summer he came of age. He joined the party in Brittany after spending a few days east of Paris with a French friend, Jeanne, who was also a fellow student at Oxford; and a letter from her soon afterwards sets the pre-war tone of gaiety, fantasy and youth:
To the gentle knight Charles Salter,
Beautiful sweet friend,
I am happy and reassured that you have received the magic gold ring which I sent you before you left me for Brittany. It reminds me, the arrival of the ring and its messenger (in this case the postman, which is horribly prosaic, I’m afraid) of the ring which sweet Tristan sent from Brittany to Iseult his beloved, and of the queen’s oath, and it makes me give thanks to heaven that you, sweet sire, and I did not exchange similar oaths, although I ponder with despair on the distance which separates us.
Tell Elaine of the White Hands, if she is still near you, that the love which I carry for you is still not so great that I have none left for her, and receive, sweet sire, a tender platonic kiss from
My father never felt so vigorously alive as he did that summer. He and Elaine were something of an item, and in a later letter Elaine (who was also in Brittany that summer) declares to my father that she “would rather be your mistress once than marry a thousand Bobs.” (Bob was Dad’s rival for her affections.)
In the end she did neither. And other letters from the same circle of friends show that just below the frivolous surface, war was on everyone’s mind.
Next week’s blog is about two letters from the friends’ host in Brittany, written in 1939 and 1946, which illustrate perfectly and harrowingly what happened between the writing of them.