One of the many places I go to work so that I’m not staring at the kitchen wall all day is my local library. It’s warm, quiet (except on nursery rhymes day and coffee mornings) and feels studious, which I find conducive to work. I have my favourite table to work at, tucked away in the reference section, next to books about business, parenting and self-help. And in moments where I am pondering and staring absent-mindedly around me, sometimes book titles jump out at me. Sometimes I think I’d rather poke myself in the eye with a sharp stick than read them (Building Services Handbook, anyone?!) but others intrigue me and I want to know more.
Recently I came across one of the latter. ‘Can any mother help me?’ by Jenna Bailey interested me so much that I actually got up from my seat and took it down from the shelf to read the blurb and find out more. It turned out to be one of the most inspiring and moving books I have read for a long time.
Whilst doing some research in the Mass Observation Archive for her Masters thesis, Bailey happened across a secret magazine that had been written during the 20th century by a group of ladies calling themselves the Cooperative Correspondence Club. It started in the 1930s when a young mother, desperate and bored, had written to popular motherhood magazine, The Nursery World, asking for ideas of how to make her life more interesting – the title of her letter became the title of Bailey’s book. Her plight was recognised by many others and so they decided to form a club and write to each other through the form of a collated magazine twice a month. They wrote on diverse topics from children and politics to their jobs, the war and, eventually, their failing health. Their magazine ran from the 1930s until the late 1980s when the surviving members decided they were no longer well enough to continue.
What the book shows above all is the friendship that developed between these women. Although they all wrote using noms de plume, as there was only one copy of the hand-written magazine that was sent from one to another in a round robin, they also knew each other’s names and addresses – they were based all over the country and as time went on, some even moved abroad. I found the support they provided to each other through all the different phases of their lives truly moving and inspiring. Some lived very happy lives, others were less fortunate with divorce, ill health and unhappiness affecting them. Throughout it all they wrote candidly about their experiences and helped each other get through the tough times and celebrate the good.
Although not every issue survived, through talking to a few surviving members of the club and the children of others, Bailey was able to locate many of the articles that were written and to put together her remarkable book. She weaves together the life stories of this remarkable group of women and their own articles to show how their friendships grew and how they were able to support each other in good times and bad. By organising each chapter according to a theme, she also demonstrates the wide variety of topics they covered.
After a time, the women did begin to meet in person, either as a whole group or a few at a time. But their lifelong friendships were established firstly through the written word – yet again I was struck by how powerful words can be. Apparently these round robin correspondence magazines were relatively common in the last century, although the CCC is the longest running one. I suppose in a way they were an earlier form of the online communities and forums that many people join today when they are looking for help and support.
If you are looking for something to read that inspires, moves and motivates you with the power of communication, I would highly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of ‘Can any mother help me?’.
Until next time