To Bella, Nelly & Jos : Letters from Their Grandmother About Long Ago & Other Places

by Sarah Bussy

Biography / Autobiography

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Originally written and published so that memories from a Grandmother wouldn’t be lost by her Grandchildren, this is a fascinating personal collection of memories from a Post War London to the mid 1990s. Anyone who lived through it, or has heard stories from their own family will be enthralled by the story they tell. 


From the author - Why I wrote this book...
This book kept asking to be written – but like many books that ask to be written it spent a long time in gestation.

For years I’d been frustrated by my failure to make creative use of my luck in having spent my formative years very close to a unique, ruined landscape that still lives in memory and imagination long after it has ceased to be as I knew it. I wanted to do something with that landscape – to understand it and to bring it alive.

While doing so I also wanted to evoke various social aspects of growing up in post-war England that would be unimaginable to young people of today.

It occurred to me some while ago that in 1960 when I was seventeen, I had two grandmothers still living who could have told me what life was like for a child in 1890. But they didn’t and I never cease to regret this.

So although I wrote this book for the pleasure of readers who enjoy evocations of the post-war years, I addressed the letters to my grandchildren Bella, Nelly and Jos even though they won’t be old enough to read them until about 2020. By that time, whether I’m still alive or not, I shall be telling them about a world as far removed from theirs as the Victorian world of my grandmothers was from mine.

While I was writing these letters to my newly-arrived grandchildren my parents had reached their nineties and were becoming increasingly frail. This too forms part of the story. One of my themes is the poignant nature of the changing relationship between parent and child over the decades.


Comparisons: Kisses on a Postcard by Terence Frisby, A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage

To Bella, Nelly & Jos : Letters from Their Grandmother About Long Ago & Other Places Synopsis

These letters evoke not just a personal world of private and family memory but one that will be recognised by anybody who was a child in England during the 1940s and 1950s.

Post-war London was a shabby place where the brightest things around were likely to be its red double-decker buses. It was a time of bombsites, coal-smoke, soot and smog; of anxiety about ration books and lack of cash; of clanking trains and lavatory chains; of silence about sex and concern about constipation.

Accordingly in the author’s home Friday night was dose-night and if luck was on their side she and her sister might get off lightly with a spoonful of Syrup of Figs. But if it wasn’t they got an infusion of senna. This proved the reliable ruination of many a Saturday morning.

This was also a time when men like the author’s father found themselves intruding upon a world of women who’d managed perfectly well for years in their absence during the war. Post-war readjustment was to prove difficult.

Although there weren’t any rows in her own home, a tense atmosphere within it wasn’t lost on the author who remained perpetually puzzled about almost everything and felt as if her life depended on keeping out of trouble. But keeping out of trouble was difficult to do and rendered even more so by the complications imposed by Catholicism.

So she often made herself scarce among the ruins of Crystal Palace Park that lay behind the unkempt hedge at the bottom of the garden. Among many other things, this vast, bewildering place contained nude (rude) statues strangled by ivy, swathes of barbed wire smothered in signs screaming DANGER KEEP OUT and life-sized replicas of prehistoric monsters wallowing in green slime.

As the letters move the family stories across succeeding decades that bring great social change, this influential landscape of childhood becomes a character in its own right and one that demands to have its own story told. This can be found after the letters, at the end of the book.

To Bella, Nelly & Jos : Letters from Their Grandmother About Long Ago & Other Places Press Reviews

The universe is transformation: our life is what our thoughts make it. (Marcus Aurelius)

'In her book To Bella, Nelly & Jos, Sarah Bussy has given her grandchildren the priceless gift of herself. Recounting her personal metamorphosis, she moves seamlessly through the past and the present. The narrative is episodic rather than chronological, enabling her to detach from the limited understanding of a confused child to the considered evaluation of an adult’s hindsight. There is no faux naivety in this memoir. It is a clearly written reflective look at a personal past. She has provided an historical resource for future family histories and a privileged insight into one child’s life in post-war England.

Sarah lived with her parents, maternal grandmother and older sister in a house that backed onto the Crystal Palace grounds. The possibilities of this wilderness to a child were limited by timidity and warnings, reinforced by barbed wire and fear of unexploded bombs. This unexplored world is revealed in a captivating addendum at the end of the memoir. The adult Sarah Bussy provides her readers with a concise, informative history of the area and its transformation from ancient woodland to home for Sir Joseph Paxton’s massive iron and glass exhibition hall. In her writing there is genuine nostalgia for a lost landscape which, hopefully, her grandchildren will be able to appreciate when adults themselves.

The world of the social historian David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain 1945-51 and Family Britain 1951-57 provided the backdrop to Sarah’s childhood. What will her grandchildren make of life without such everyday necessities as a refrigerator, car or supermarkets? The physical claustrophobia of living in a small flat is paralleled by the social claustrophobia of class resentments. I cringed with empathetic mortification when reading seven-year-old Sarah’s public shaming. Her crime was to scramble onto a bus, which had presented itself at her spot in the queue, before others. Fear of being late home from school had prompted her precipitate action but it was her ‘posh school’ uniform that brought condemnation. Today, we would judge such public humiliation of a child by an adult as bullying!

To compound the injury came a crushing sense of guilt and sin at wishing her tormentor ill. Catholic indoctrination featured heavily in Sarah’s schooling. The expectations of the Rev. Mother Mary John at St Winefrides’s would have made Miss Jean Brodie pale, while ‘the venomous fury of Miss Reed’s tongue’ at Coloma, a Catholic grammar school for girls, inhibited any discussion on doctrinal matters. Good Catholic girls were not taught, they were instructed!

This book is confessional in its honesty. Sarah’s letters reach across her childhood and teenage as she becomes the woman she is to be. I was struck by the changes in life-chances and expectations that exist for young women today. Educational opportunities, sexual liberation and economic necessity have all played a part. To Bella, Nelly & Jos speaks of a marriage pattern that seems long outdated. Having examined the attitudes of her contemporaries to equality and working mothers, of whom her own mother was an atypical example, while Sarah herself was not, she seriously considers her own self-worth. It is a brave reflection that should be read by both sexes.

One woman’s transformation from childhood to adulthood is recorded in this book. The influences and incidents of that life and the thoughts that make the telling are contained in the intimate letters addressed to Sarah’s grandchildren. As a good little girl, she tried to make sense of the world but through a glass darkly. As a writer and grandmother, the clarity of her insights has created a unique personal record that should attract empathy and admiration from her readers.' (Margaret Highton)

'My wife and I have both read Sarah Bussy’s book – though ‘read’ is inadequate as a description of our mode as enthusiasm gradually waxed – devoured being more appropriate. In addition to everything else the book spoke to me of places with which I was familiar, and I wondered therefore if she would find as much in it as I; I need not have worried for – like me – she was impressed by the vividness with which Sarah Bussy was able to recall and recreate a lost world, and in particular the inner world of childhood. We also found ourselves on frequent occasions enjoying the rare treat of complete identification with opinions and attitudes not that commonly expressed… I really do feel the book deserves a wide audience.' (Peter B.)

'I finished reading this book some weeks ago but have returned to re-read parts of it – sometimes armed with London-area maps or with Google maps at hand. So much of the absorbing, thoughtful and often amusing account brings back memories of my own upbringing (and that of my sisters) over essentially the same time period. Now I feel the need to visit places like Sydenham, Penge, Croydon, Beckenham and nearby areas where so many of my uncles, aunts and cousins (not to mention my Dad) grew up.' (Dr Paul F.)
'A wonderfully evocative “must read” for anyone brought up in the 1950s. This marvellous reminiscence by Sarah Bussy takes us immediately back to the years when we walked to school (no mums in 4x4s in 1950s Penge or Sydenham in those days); to a world where children respected (or even feared) their schoolteachers, wanted to please their parents and wore Kirby grips in their hair. One is grabbed on page one by a hilarious riff on knicker elastic and after such a gripping start, it races along. Do you remember when only “common” children went to Saturday morning cinema? When daytime life for a child took place mainly out of doors (no iPods for Christmas then), using their imagination in the gardens and streets of their locality? One lives all the doubts and fears of an earnest but imaginative and intelligent little girl who, like most children, is rather desperately trying to make sense of what’s going on around her. Enjoy too the black-and-white photographs from an era that many of us regret despite its hardships. This memoir is unputdownable.' (Jennie R.)
'I love your book and have read great passages to my wife. It captures so much of my own memories of growing up in post-war, and indeed wartime, Britain. I should think it will be a super gift for your grandchildren when they are old enough to read it and, actually, a very interesting sociological document.' (Richard S.)

'This is an evocative read for anyone who grew up in post-war Britain and particularly in suburban south London. The pre-war attitudes to behaviour, to children and in particular to the place of women in and out of the home is something of which our grandchildren need to be aware, so that they can really appreciate how much has changed. An enjoyable read and a valuable story for all.' (Gillian M.)

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All versions of this book

ISBN: 9780956624109
Publication date: 01/11/2010
Publisher: Harebell Books
Format: Paperback

Book Information

ISBN: 9780956624109
Publication date: 1st November 2010
Author: Sarah Bussy
Publisher: Harebell Books
Format: Paperback
Genres: Biography / Autobiography,

About Sarah Bussy

Sarah Bussy is an oral historian and author of Winchester Voices (Tempus 2002).

More About Sarah Bussy

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