Living Between the Lines

All because of Bunty. (Princess Tina!)

The world became a much more accessible place for me, way before the internet brought us into each other’s living rooms.

I wonder if there are others, born in the 1950s, who have traditional comics and snail-mail to thank for their first contact with anyone from abroad?

From the age of seven, I looked forward to Thursdays because that was the day my weekly comic landed on the doormat. The comic was called, ‘Judy’. I read it from cover to cover and each year, on my birthday, with the 7/6d (seven shillings and sixpence) I accrued in birthday gifts from my Great Aunt and my Grandparents, I would purchase the Judy Annual from the local news agents.

My birthday falls the day after Halloween, hence, the shop still displayed unsold Halloween masks and witches’ hats, stacked high like so many traffic cones, as I walked in. With Guy Fawkes’ night only days away, an array of brightly coloured fireworks would lie beneath the glass-topped counter while posters adorned the walls with the message,

“Remember, remember the fifth of November!”

My eyes would feast on these only for a moment.

The Christmas annuals would rest in a pile on the shelf behind, freshly in from the printers. The shopkeeper would pop mine into a brown paper bag and hand it to me with a smile. In return, I would proffer the five shiny shillings and the silver half-crown that I had received from my relatives and believe it to be a worthy trade. For this was the jewel in the crown –  an annual dedicated to my weekly magazine.

Despite the joy of owning the annual, the pleasure I got from reading those weekly comics remained undiminished. The wait for the latest instalment of a long running serial was made deliciously unbearable. Who wanted the story to ever end? Not me, that’s for sure. Ballerinas fighting for a place at ballet school in Prague, mysteries surrounding school trips to Budapest, all kept my imagination in fine shape with Bobby Dazzler’s antics guaranteed to make me smile.

It’s a shame we all get so much junk mail these days. I believe it has almost spoilt the thrill of finding a letter or long-awaited publication on the mat. Most of my mail is electronic now, though I do subscribe to a writers’ magazine that is delivered monthly, and I still feel that frisson of excitement when I see it lying there, pristine, untouched and ready to be read.

I still have the Judy Annual pictured here

By the time I approached my tenth birthday, I had replaced ‘Judy’ with ‘Bunty’ Previously my sister’s preferred read, it had long been my favourite of the comics and was an inheritance from her when she moved to something more worthy of her teen years.

insert: [I quickly moved on to reading ‘Tina’ which then merged with another title to become ‘Princess Tina’].
Some time in 1968 insert: [February 1968]

Princess Tina!

[In February 1968], I was reading the letters’ page when I spotted an article, just a paragraph deep, offering readers the chance to find a pen friend in America. I filled in the form, included details of my preferred hobbies and begged a stamp (a second-class English stamp) from my mother and posted it. It didn’t matter that the address was a foreign one. It did not occur to me that the postage would be too little. I felt confident I would receive a reply.

The weeks went by.

I all but forgot about the form I had sent off.

The letter that dropped onto my mat, many weeks later, carried an airmail sticker and a foreign looking stamp. I gazed at it with mounting excitement. I expected it to be from the Pen Friend Association. Opening it carefully, I was stunned to see that the letter inside had been written by an eleven year old girl in Minnesota, USA. This letter was from my very first pen friend!

Kathy was my age and apparently shared my interests in reading and writing. She had a younger sister and a younger brother. I drank in this information and marveled that my letter had found its way, not only to the address I had sent it to, but also to this other girl in the United States who had written back to me. The concept was amazing.

This is Kathy and her younger sister, Beth in 1968 – the first photograph she ever sent me. I do hope they wont mind me publishing it here.

Kathy and her younger sister Beth 1968

Our correspondence outlasted our school days and it wasn’t until the birth of my third child that I lost touch with Kathy for a while. She had gone on to University and was now a journalist working on a local newspaper. We moved house too and somewhere, along the way, me busy with a growing family, her with a burgeoning career, our correspondence lapsed.

In the meantime, just a few years later, the internet invaded our lives and I became aware that it might be possible to track down my friend via the various websites devoted to journalism. I sent queries to a couple of sites and to my amazement, the Dean of one of the universities, himself a member of the site, wrote back to me. He remembered Kathy well and gave me the name of the company for which she now worked, GANNETT the publishing giant in the USA.

I was about to track down my pen friend.

Gannett’s website was vast. It was fortuitous that Kathy was actually listed on the roll-call of Staff Recruitment Managers. The Dean had thought to tell me that she now went by the name of Kate rather than Kathy. There she was, in black and white, Kate Kennedy. I hoped this was the same Kate who had sent me the photo aged eleven.

My email was sent and within a few hours back came a reply.

Yes, it was she. We were in touch once again.

Kate was married now and had a son the same age as my youngest. The boys attempted to correspond for a while via email. They were only four years old so their correspondence was sporadic at best. Here is one missive my son sent to Kate’s son, complete with typos and suspect spellings:

Steven aged 4, writes to Andres aged 4

While the boys’ correspondence lapsed, ours moved up a notch. I no longer had to wait weeks for a reply to a letter. I could expect a reply within the day. We swapped news and photos at will and vowed not to lose touch for so long, again.

More recently, we have renewed our acquaintance through LinkedIn and Facebook. We follow one another’s lives through the social networking sites and no longer wait for the sound of a letter dropping onto the mat. The little boys who struck up an email conversation aged 4, are now both at University. Kate is a Media Relations Manager, for the Society for Human Resource Management. I am a writer and Director of a Design and Communications company, and, most recently, a Grandmother.

We have still to meet in person. One day, we will we hope. Meanwhile, I look back at our correspondence across the years with a smile. How far we have both come!

To me, as an eleven-year old child, America seemed a distant part of the world. It was fantastic to think that someone living in Caledonia, Minnesota, knew of my existence. The presents we swapped, the news we shared, all were done at a pace we might laugh at today.

Yet, as I browse the social networking sites or pick up an email, I feel a nostalgic yearning for the old days, when sealing the envelope and sticking on a stamp before walking down the road to pop it into the post box, made one feel as though one had achieved something. I savour the memories of finding a small white envelope lying on the mat, adorned with an airmail sticker, and scooping it up in anticipation of having questions I had asked weeks ago, answered, of finding photographs connecting me with my friend across the ocean.

I can be confident that Kate will read this post. I am sure she will agree that we have both come a long way since being eleven-year old girls but there is something very comforting about the fact that we have followed each other for much of that time both with and without the aid of the internet.

All this because of Princess Tina!

I still have a stack of those old letters, stowed away at the back of my wardrobe in a box. So, I was able to pull out a couple for the purpose of writing this post. I see I have steamed off stamps from the earlier missives – testament to my days of stamp collecting – and the envelopes are now yellowed and fading but I scanned a few in, just to remind us of the children we once were and of the wonders of snail mail!

Letters received by airmail

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Teresa

    What a brilliant post – and how wonderful that you found Kate again.
    And how I loved Judy and Bunty and the annuals. I wish I’d kept mine. You have stirred up some very happy memories for me with this post 🙂

    • Deborah Barker

      Teresa, I really wish I had some of the comics too – still, the memories are there and I have a few of the annuals that have survived not only my childhood but my daughters’ too. I imagine you and I were reading the comics and annuals at around the same time 🙂

  • Martha Mawson

    What a lovely post. It is truly inspirational that you and Kate found each other again and are still “pen friends.” In this world of faceless and nameless communications, this really warms my heart.

  • John Cowton

    Another great story Deborah. Hope you meet up with Kate soon.
    My sister used to read Judy and Bunty . I remember she switched to another comic called Diana.
    I used to have the Valiant. The only characters I can recall in my memory was Captain Hurricane and Billy Bunter. I also enjoyed the Eagle, most famous for its vivid colour and Dan Dare. I switched to Look and Learn when I reached my teens.

  • Andrea Carlisle

    Thank you for this, Deborah. I loved comics too, but they were all Westerns (hand-me-downs from my brothers). I don’t think we had Judy and Bunty. Are they published only in England? As a little Minnesota girl, my first pen “pal,” as we called them (so American to be “pals”), was a girl from Germany. I remember loving the stamps, too, and also thinking how adult her handwriting looked (while I was caught up in the fad of drawing little clouds over my i’s). Unlike you and Kate, our paths have never crossed again. Lucky you!

    • Deborah Barker

      I doubt that the comics were published abroad but I really have no idea Andrea. I had a pen friend in Holland but we lost touch within a couple of years. This one was obviously meant to last!

  • patriciaswisdom

    Wonderful Post….I have read it several times and enjoyed it more every time.

    How delightful to be in touch and returned to being in touch – My Mum had a childhood friend who went off to the mission fields of China – they never lost touch and oh how glorious it was when the letters were sent and arrived….In Ramona’s retirement she moved back to Canada and several times came to stay with our family and she and my mum would be like a slumber party of talking and sharing. Ramona got married in her 70s and my mum went to her wedding. Ramona died in March and my mum in June of the same year…..I was doing the letter writing and emailing by then and Ramona’s nurse/ caregiver was doing for her….

    It was only after Ramona’s death that my mother shared that Ramona had been severely beaten by her alcoholic father most of her childhood…and it was the loving care of my Mother that got her through the tough patches….My mum thought that was something not to be shared until after Ramona died….a sweet secret no longer needing to be kept.

    Thank you – I so enjoyed this storytelling

    • Deborah Barker

      Patricia, what a bitter sweet story yours is. How lovely of your mother to keep Ramona’s secret all that time. I am so glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for sharing their story with me.

  • Val

    I came over via Patricia’s blog and am glad I did. This post brings back some memories for me. I used to read Bunty and Judy, amongst other girls magazines and comics and also some of the other girls annuals that came out but I can’t remember penfriend columns in them. I did have penfriends from when I was about eleven or twelve but found them via a penfriend column in a medical magazine (my dad was a doctor) and they were all doctors children which gave us something in common to start with. My earliest penpals were also from America, with one from Japan (who was into the Walker Brothers, as was I at the time!)

    I’ve subscribed to your blog and look forward to reading more.

    • Deborah Barker

      Hello Val, thank you for coming over from Patricia’s blog. I think I was just lucky to find that one small paragraph about pen friends. I did have a couple of others, one from Holland and one from here in the UK – London but neither lasted more than a couple of years. By the way, I have peeked at your site – I am enthralled by your work and will be back to explore some more. Good to meet you!

  • Kate Kennedy

    The thrill of anticipating — and then receiving — a letter is the same no matter what continent you live on.

    My role as a pen pal was a class assignment in school. But I’m proud to say my pen-pal relationship was one of the few that survived the school year and certainly the only one to survive decades.

    I, too, have kept the letters, photos, gifts and, more recently, e-mails between sons.

    In 1998, Steven wrote to Andrew: “I was in an assembly play at my school last week. I was winter and had to throw paper snowballs all over the stage. Mrs. James made me a costume out of tissue paper like icicles and it kept getting tangled up. I read my poem:

    Winter is cold
    Icicles on trees
    Noses are red
    Toes are froze
    Every body wraps up warm
    Really nice to sit in front of the fire.”

    Thanks so much, Debbie, for the memories — and the letters. I loved them.


    • Deborah Barker

      Ah Kate, glad you enjoyed the memories! Thank you for including that poem in your comment – I had forgotten all about the poem and the snow costume! Lovely to be reminded of it. Steven remembers writing to Andrew of course. Maybe they will meet one day, meanwhile we really must! How good to know that yours was a school assignment and lasted so long too 🙂

  • Deb

    I love this story, and can really relate to the thrill of finding a letter waiting (in my case in the mailbox up by the highway) from someone far away. None of my pen pal relationships lasted like yours with Kate, though. I’m envious. It is pretty cool that we can correspond with so many people so easily now. But there will never be anything quite like the small surprise gift of someone’s words waiting in an envelope. Wonderful writing, Deb..

  • Katie Gates

    Wonderful post, Debbie. I miss snail mail and everything it represented (a slower pace; acceptance of a slower pace). I think it’s wonderful that you and Kate have kept in touch. Happy belated birthday!!!

  • Hilary

    Hi Deborah .. isn’t that amazing – what a lovely story .. the most staggering thing is you’ve both kept the correspondence and photos etc .. what a little archive. Excellent too that Kate is still around .. and here giving us a comment or two – I do think that’s wonderful – thanks so much and all because of Bunty .. cheers Hilary

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