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Uniformed twins on different tracks

13 February 2016 No Comment

The Charles Family’s War
By Alan Fewster
Big Sky Publishing, 228pp, $29.99

When former journalist and diplomat Alan Fewster found a treasure trove of letters after the death of one of his uncles, he knew he had a book on his hands. Mind you, this intriguing and multi-layered tale of Australian twin brothers during World War II has had a long gestation.

It was in 1987, following the death of his uncle Edwin “Ted Charles, that the author came across a cardboard box containing the hundreds of letters that form the basis of this fascinating story. These letters were from Edwin to his brother Terence (“Terry), to their mother Beryl, and to their elder sister and the author’s mother, Rosalie Charles.

Sometimes, as Fewster reveals, there were two letters per envelope. This is because for much of the war Beryl Charles’s twin sons were both away from home. Hence Beryl often wrote her own covering letter, forwarding one absent son’s letter to the other.

As well as the letters, Fewster found a leather suitcase full of family photos, mostly from the 1930s and 40s — a number of which are featured throughout the book. Most of them were helpfully inscribed with identifying information and dates. So it is appropriate that Fewster’s prime debt of gratitude is to his grandmother, Beryl Charles, for instilling in her children the notion of “the importance of documenting one’s family history.

While oral history has its limitations, it is clear that a considerable asset while writing this book was the prodigious memory of Rosalie Charles. She seemed able to vividly recall details of people, names, places — even meals — dating back more than 70 years. It is pleasing to report that, in most cases, Fewster has also been able to find corroborating information to bolster his mother’s remarkable memory.

‘The Charles Family’s War’ takes us on a captivating journey from northern NSW (the brothers were born in Murwillumbah in 1916) to Canberra, Africa, England, Scotland, the US, India and Ceylon.

The book’s primary focus is the period between 1939 and the end of 1945, and the twins’ quite different experiences during the hostilities and beyond.

In keeping with the fact they were non-identical twins, their personalities differed markedly. Hence while Edwin was diffident, especially with women, Terry was confident, charming and attractive, especially to the opposite sex. Unlike Edwin, Terry thus had many dalliances and numerous affairs.

But both brothers avoided any long-term personal commitments. Indeed after reading Edwin’s letters, especially to his mother, it is hard for this reviewer to dismiss the likelihood of a homoerotic element in his make-up.

A key to understanding the twins’ difficult relationships with others and their mutual fear of marriage is that, soon after their birth, for reasons never made clear in this book, their father left home, never to return. This meant that Edwin and Terry and their sister were raised entirely by Beryl — with the aid of their much-loved maternal grandfather.

Their war years are chronicled in vivid ­detail.

Edwin, who had trained in Australia, eventually graduating as a pilot officer in July 1942, arrived in London in November 1942.

In contrast, as a member of the Australian militia, Terry was unable to serve overseas.

Having watched Edwin join the glamorous RAAF, at the end of 1942 Terry resigned his commission to attempt to follow his twin. But, as Fewster explains, in terms of a military ­career it became extremely difficult for Terry to catch up with his twin.

In 1943, Edwin went on duty to South Africa. He then served in India and, by the end of the year, in Ceylon.

In late 1943, Terry was elated to be on his way overseas. At first he thought he was going to Canada. But instead he arrived in San Francisco — which he described in a letter to Beryl as “a grouse place. Indeed, being an Australian in the US was, Terry wrote, “just too good.

But for all his experiences of worldly pleasures and carnal delights — first in America and then in Britain — the seemingly assured Terry found it disappointing that, as Fewster puts it, “he failed to emulate Edwin by winning his wings.

However, in the closing stages of the war in Europe, Terry eventually took on the extremely dangerous task of becoming a navigator in heavy Liberator bombers. Yet in terms of pecking orders of war-service prestige, to his mind this did not equal, let alone eclipse, Edwin’s promotion to the rank of flying officer in 1944.

Throughout the war, as Fewster explains, “the twins welcomed the steady flow of letters from Beryl and Rosalie, bringing gossip from home.

This applied even when the letters contained bad news, including the death of their friends and loved ones.

The bedrock underpinning and illuminating this sweeping story of wartime experiences is the vast array of detailed letters to and from a close-knit but sometimes fractured family. To this reviewer, they are treasured jewels indeed.

For the record, neither Terry nor Edwin ever married. Beryl died in a nursing home in 1984, aged 96. At the time of writing, Rosalie, who in the mid-1950s had married a marine engineer, Eric Fewster, was living quietly in Canberra and celebrating her centenary year.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of politics and history at Griffith University and the author of 38 books.

The Weekend Australian, February 13-14, 2016, review, Books p. 23

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