'Ronnie and Hilda’s Romance' is precisely that: a heart-warming journey from a chance encounter and love at first sight through long periods of separation imposed by Ronnie’s army service overseas in the aftermath of the Second World War until he is finally discharged and they are at last able to marry in June 1947, 19 months after their first meeting. Yet this memoir is much more than its title might suggest. Author Wendy Williams’ decision to let her late parents’ extensive surviving correspondence speak for itself gives the two principal figures an extraordinarily vivid presence. Their copious letters, his frequently written at odd moments stolen from an almost ceaseless round of military duties, are a timeless evocation of a first love that was to endure for the rest of their lives. Yet the epistolary form means that we gain a first-hand impression of the background against which their romance developed. Hilda, in the first years of her teaching career, writes to her fiancé amidst the shortages and traumas of a post-War Britain struggling to heal its wounds and regain prosperity. The details she includes, at pains to share her day-to-day life with him in the only way she can, tell us much about the possibilities and limitations that ordinary people of her generation experienced. Entertainment, train travel and social pastimes were prominent, yet the practical challenges of setting up a home in readiness for their married life were huge.
The stark, unstated contrast with the deprivations that Ronnie experiences in continental Europe, rising rapidly through the military ranks but charged with mopping up the sometimes gruesome legacy of the Peace, is arresting. This is another world, and one too little known about today. He takes prisoners-of-war to the firing squad, fights chaotic organisation to bring a semblance of fairness to a detention camp; he tears down huts for firewood to keep himself warm in the freezing Austrian countryside. Longing only to return home finally to his wife-to-be, he applies all the skills and discipline that fighting in Italy had taught him to this no-man’s land of sinking morale as units are disbanded and prisoner escort duties deprive him of sleep. There are vivid impressions, too, of the places he sees, for he goes everywhere with eyes open and a mind curious to learn about this world so remote from his Rochdale home.
Wendy Williams has given her late parents the lasting voice – their own – that they deserve to have. Here are two young people in their early twenties, forced by historical and personal circumstances to grow up all too quickly. The skilful editing of the correspondence creates a sense of vivid dialogue between their two worlds. Ronnie and Hilda come alive for us, with all the sensitivities and foibles of real people, and, with them, they bring alive two worlds now all but lost to us. This is social history at first hand, and the well-judged annotations, introduction and appendices, complemented by an excellent range of photographic material, situate the personal story fascinatingly within the broader context of the period.
by Grahame Whitehead
This book promises much on the cover yet delivers ‘in Spades.’
As an insight to the hardships caused by administrative incompetence by HM command, by inference the failure of the 1945 government to honour its pledges to its troops, this is a sorry military record of failure which was buoyed-up by the total loyalty of those who had endured (and continued after) incredible deprivation in the service of King and Country.
Reading the letters from Lancashire one assumes all ‘tickety-boo’; read the book to realise the whole story.
by John Keys
I began by browsing at random but quickly went back to the beginning and, two hours later, was still reading. It's a beautifully put-together account of a love story in late wartime but I was particularly gripped by what was going on in Hilda's life back in Lancashire - her day-to-day existence, living over the family shop and teaching in a secondary modern school, the outings to the pictures and evening classes that helped pass the time until she could be with her beloved Ronnie again, all the detailed hopes and plans for their subsequent marriage. These letters bring it all to life and helpful footnotes flesh out the background for us - a real first-hand social history.
by Kathryn Dews