The Times obituary of the archaeologist Professor Sheppard Frere, who died on 26th February 2015, carried a familiar photograph: Gloria and Laura Geeve with the professor on a Canterbury dig in 1952. The same picture appears in With Love, which contains some detailed references to the happy archaeological experiences of the two sisters.
Laura has commented on the online edition of the newspaper with her memories of the digs:
Laura Ford: remembering inspirational digs with the late Professor Sheppard Frere
I was delighted to see the photograph that accompanied the obituary of Professor Sheppard Frere. It is very familiar to me. I am Laura, the central figure, and the other student is my late sister, Gloria Geeve. We went on a few of his digs and found them really interesting. Once, I unearthed a penny from King Alfred’s reign which received attention from the national press. I remember the method of cleaning coins was not exactly hygienic: spit and polish with a muddy finger.
I had looked forward to meeting Professor Frere with mixed feelings: he was after all the successor to Sir Mortimer Wheeler who had briefly been my professor at University College, London, and was extremely formidable. However, in my diary of the time I wrote: “We waited for Mr Frere who kept his trousers up with a tie but he was very nice and not old.”
He was always pleasant and easy to talk to. The fact that we kept wanting to go on more digs shows how much we enjoyed them. From my diary again: “Said good-bye to dear Mr Frere.” These digs increased my desire to become an archaeologist, but after taking my degree in Classics I followed a safer path into publishing and then teaching.
With Love is a compelling story of family life in the 1950s, told through the correspondence of two sisters as they come of age in a decade too often dismissed as dull and grey.
As the young women forge careers and travel the world, the letters of Gloria Geeve and Laura Ford, rescued from a suitcase in the attic after Gloria’s death, reveal fascinating details of social history and the domestic concerns of home life in suburban Ilford, often against a background of national and world events.
The exchanges are set in context by Piers Ford’s intimate commentary and Ronald Blythe’s insightful foreword – a testament to the importance of letters as a window on the past.
“This captivating collection of intimate, funny and loving letters between two sisters is a time-traveler’s dream. Whisking us back into the 1950s, the words the sisters write to each other elegantly communicate their brave new ambitions, their dress budgets and dramas at home and on the world-stage. Shaking off the austerity of post-war penny-pinching to enjoy the twin adventures of education and travel, Gloria and Laura reveal their lively, pioneering spirits. The once dusty letters are full of lives excitingly lived.” (Kerry Fowler, Books Editor, Sainsbury’s Magazine)
At the peak of their exchanges in 1956, Gloria is teaching in Alexandria when the Suez crisis boils over. She ends up under house arrest while the Egyptian government ponders the fate of the foreigners. Her letters home give a vivid account of the period, contrasting the star-dusted life of the ex-pat (she and her colleagues danced the night away with Tito and his entourage) with the growing tensions.
Not to be outdone – and ahead of her time in taking a gap year – Laura takes herself off on a six-month trip to America. Her exposure to the booming world of consumerism compared with the day-to-day scrimping and saving at home leads to some piquant observations in her equally evocative descriptions.
After all that, with Gloria coming home to teach Hungarian miners English in Barnsley before heading off again to the Forces Schools in West Germany, and Laura embarking on a career in publishing that gives her a strong taste of literary London in the late 1950s, there is still plenty to write about.
Laura Ford talks about the poignant experience of rediscovering her younger self through her letters after more than half a century, with the help of home movie footage of events and places described in her correspondence with her sister, Gloria.
In a world before technology rendered communication so mundane, the sisters nurtured, cajoled and supported each other with their ability to capture thoughts, feelings and moments in letters fired off between tasks — whether Gloria was teaching in Alexandria or Laura was moonlighting in Manhattan.
As Ronald Blythe writes in his foreword, “We, the inheritors of this regular correspondence, are the benefactors. They admit us to a private realm that tells us much about our own existence and reminds some of us of what we ourselves saw and heard, but have long forgotten, and puts the record straight for those who have been taught to write-off the 1950s as a non-event.”
With Love is published in paperback and as an ebook by Acorn Independent Press.