"Portobello and the Great War" by Archie Foley and Margaret Munro is a surprising book. At first sight it appears to be another of Amberley's growing list of books of old (and often new) photographs of settlements. But you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and while this book is nicely illustrated with period photographs and documents, it is actually a much more traditional history book, covering many different aspects of life in Portobello during the Great War, and the deaths of so many who came from Portobello in various corners of various foreign fields.
The success of a book like this, set as it is at the scale of a single town, depends heavily on the degree to which the authors have been able to research their subject, and the strong impression here is that Archie Foley and Margaret Munro have done a superb job in researching theirs. The images used are all highly relevant, and come from a wide range of sources, while the text itself is well written and fascinating. The result is a book that illuminates a world now long gone, just as the 100th anniversary of the start of the war comes into view: and a book that will appeal to anyone with an interest in Portobello's history, or, for that matter, its near neighbour Edinburgh's.
The authors begin by setting the scene, describing Portobello at the beginning of the war and discussing many of the key citizens. We then move on to the home front: developments in the town during the war, including the ever increasing lack of reliability of the cable tramway system linking Portobello with Edinburgh. Other chapters look at food production; the introduction of conscription and the tribunals meant to enforce it; casualties and survivors; and the armistice and its aftermath for the town, looking at the changes that had swept across Portobello during the long years of the war and what happened subsequently.
But for us it is another chapter that is the most striking part of this book. "Dear Norah" reproduces, with appropriate scene setting and commentary, some of the many letters sent by a series of servicemen to Portobello resident Norah Torrance, who was 16 at the start of the war. Norah's father offered open house to many of the troops stationed or convalescing in Portobello, and Norah formed friendships with a number of them. While modern eyes have to see past some interesting issues of propriety, the letters themselves are fascinating, coming as they do from half a dozen men, including two who died in action; a Belgian; an Australian; one man Norah was engaged to for four months; and another she later married.