Reading the Old Girls’ magazine of my school recently, I noted that one of my form mates was still writing to a penfriend acquired in 1944. I was completely overwhelmed. What a record! Still to be writing at the age of 60-plus to someone in a foreign country, first contacted fifty odd years ago!

My record was far less impressive. At school, I became acquainted with pen-friends from many countries. Whether the school reckoned it would be good for our handwriting, our fragmented foreign language teaching or our social skills, I shall never know. All I do know is that my particular letter-writing talents must have left a lot to be desired for, over the years, my clutch of penfriends disappeared as silently and unproclaimed as they had arrived.

Firstly, there was Michael P. from Greece whose father was something ‘important’ in the government. Michael sent me a photograph. A handsome, dark-haired, athletic youth marching in procession in the American College in Athens. I was instantly captivated.

Letters on flimsy airmail paper flew between London and Piraeus for several years. He told me he liked tall, sporty girls “with a ‘rich chest’….”. In 1947, I was 15, five foot nothing in my gym socks, pleasantly plump (my mother’s words) and brilliant at finding excuses to skive off games.

One day, Michael visited London and we met. I’d washed my hair with Amami, rolled it up in Dinkie curlers and, as a result of my recently acquired Toni Home Perm, looked startlingly like Topsy – without the appeal.

My ‘New Look’ suit was tight round the middle and, although I’d stuffed my brand new Twilfit brassiere with a pair of socks, I somehow never managed the ‘rich chest’.

We met at his hotel and discovered immediately that we had absolutely nothing in common. He was a very attractive young man, playing the field and having a great time. I was an adolescent, puppy-tubby, boring London schoolgirl still getting over the war. We walked around Russell Square in embarrassed silence. Back parted, knowing deep down, that a correspondence era had come to an end.

Then came Dorothy R – from Boone, Iowa. To me, America was a glamorous place only ever seen in the movies – sorry, pictures – and somehow, Boone, Iowa, was not at all like places I’d seen on the silver screen. Dorothy’s letters were full of expressions I’d never heard of such as ‘semesters’ and ‘sophomores’ and ‘proms’ and a very new word to me – ‘teenagers’.
My social and school life in London must have sounded positively dreary with all the talk of School Certificate, Matric Exempt, Higher and Sewing Bees. Teenagers were from another planet. We seemed to go from spotty little schoolgirls almost overnight to spotty little adults.

Dorothy sent me a photo of herself and her family – affluent-looking parents and a very good-looking brother in a GI uniform looking uncommonly like Hollywood’s Van Johnson. I was astounded when she asked if she could send me food parcels, warm clothing or school equipment. My photograph to her as a podgy schoolgirl in black velour school hat, long striped scarf and an oversized satchel could surely never have suggested that I was in need of a personal dose of Marshall Aid?

One day a handsome GI turned up at our door. He was Dorothy’s brother visiting London. My mother took one look at him – and then at me – still the acne-prone school kid in gymslip and navy-blue pas-sion-killers and said to him. “Oh I’m so sorry, the family moved away ages ago!” and closed the door.

To me she said: “No daughter of mine is going out with a GI whoever his sister might be. Now get on with your homework.” And yet another beautiful pen-friendship died.

Rathymalar from Malaya was a very different sort of girl. Her photograph showed a solemn, beautiful girl in a sari holding a diploma. Education seemed to be paramount in her family and, at 16, she knew precisely how her life was mapped out. My future? I had no idea. My main concerns at the time seemed to be whether or not my mother would let me have a Poodle Cut, and, please God let my next brassiere be a B cup!

Having written to Rathy for several years, I discovered she liked nothing more than a deep and meaningful discussion on world politics, philosophy, economics and differ-
ential calculus – whatever that was – and there was I, still swotting for my School Cert!

It came as a huge surprise when, one day, I received a neat paper package containing some deep red powder and a little wooden stick. After reading my letters bemoaning my lack of boy friends and social life, she had decided to send me this powder of significant colour to put a distinctive mark on my forehead (hence the stick), to proclaim to the world in general and the male population in particular that I was still ‘on the market’.

I tried it once but it looked like just another acne spot – only worse – and it didn’t work!

Ziggi, another penfriend, was from Switzerland. The whole point of this introduction, apparently, was to improve my schoolgirl German. Her photograph showed a sweet-faced 13-year-old with curly hair and fewer spots than I had. I wrote in poor German, using only words that I could translate easily. She wrote in Swiss dialect which was like German – only in code – and which I could barely understand. She must have wondered why I waffled on endlessly about the weather, my state of health and the dog.

While on holiday in Switzerland in 1948, we arranged to meet. How romantic, I mused – meeting a stranger I vaguely knew on the old wooden bridge in Lucerne. She was 5 feet 11 inches, wore nylons, high heels, expensive clothes and still didn’t speak a word of English.

My German although passable was pathetic. We managed to get to a cafe where I had a cup of very sweet hot chocolate and three cream cakes. She had a small black coffee and a cigarette. I showed her my holiday and family snaps. She smiled enigmatically and puffed smoke in my face. We went to the railway station. We waved goodbye. She disappeared on to the train, down the track and out of my life.

A very short-lived penfriend was Joseph from Nigeria. I wrote a long, chatty, friendly letter introducing myself – his reply was four lines on a page torn out of a school exercise book. It said: ‘You send me good camera, fountain pen, gold watch and a bicycle and I send you school bag!”

This I decided to ignore and wrote again with lengthy descriptions of my school, London and life in general.

Then the parcel came. It contained a woven straw bag about eight inches square – the sort of bag in which my father collected his winkles and shrimps in from nearby Billingsgate. Here is your school bag, said the enclosed message. “Goodness,” I thought. “It’s barely large enough to hold my lunch.”

But I wrote to thank him and sent him a leather-bound book of something by Dickens. He only wrote once more — the envelope had no stamp on it.

Solange came from Lyon-Vaise in France. Mademoiselle Dumont, my enthusiastic French mistress had arrived one day with a long list of girls in France waiting penfriends and we picked names out of a hat.

Regrettably, my French was almost as bad as my German, but Solange was pretty good at ignoring wrong past participles and highly irregular verbs. We used a lot of Franglais before it was ever invented.

She seemed fine, I thought. Her parents owned a charcuterie and she sent a photograph of the shop window full of unidentified cuts of meat, exciting-sounding foreign sausages and – what delight – in pride of place centre stage, a huge, goggle-eyed pig’s head. My mother sniffed and muttered something about “foreign muck” and “why can’t they eat proper food like fish and chips – and jellied eels like us?”

Solange also sent me large bottles of cheap perfume, face creams and beauty products – and oh, how I needed them! Her notepaper was always perfumed. I tried to make mine scented too, but never managed to get rid of the Phul-Nana spots on the page.

Her photograph showed a sophisticated 18 going-on 35 year-old girl with hair piled high on her head, the full make-up bit and a desperately low cleavage.

My mother said she looked like Mata Hari, but I thought she was wonderful and practised in vain in the mirror to achieve the ‘Victory Roll’ in my short, curly hair -too short, even, for bunches. Her deep-carmine luscious-lips look was exotic. Sadly, Tangee Natural lipstick did not have the same effect on me, but Potter and Moore’s powder cream, in that little jar with the mirror on the bottom, certainly disguised the spots, if applied thickly enough.

Despite all this, I still lacked that look of grown-up sophistication for which I yearned. In fact, I never ever did achieve it and fifty years on it seems to me that I went straight from spotty schoolgirl to greying granny without that exciting bit in the middle.

In 1949, correspondence with the La Belle Lyonnaise fizzled out and we just stopped writing. I suspect that letter-writing got in the way of her love-life and she had to get her priorities right.

My final introduction to a penfriend came as a complete surprise. A letter dropped onto my doormat from a chap saying he was a lonely soldier in Egypt and had found my name and address on the back of his locker door in his barracks and would I please write? His name? TED WINKLE!

I didn’t write back,

Ann Rheidol Powell