Time for an Update

Apologies for my absence in January (first month missed since I started in 2013).

Winter aconites

Winter aconites

snowdrops

snowdrops

2016 was almost continuous mayhem. Some of it was wonderful. Surviving the Death Railway: A POW’s Memoir and Letters from Home was published, and has gone down well with the people for whom it was mainly written – relatives of the men who were prisoners with my father. It has pleased my own relatives too as my mother’s work during the war was not known to them.

Phyllis Custance Baker with grandchild

Phyllis Custance Baker with grandchild

I survived the terror of public speaking, giving five full lectures on the story of the book, and there are more lined up for this year.

However, still on the home front, there were family health problems that required a great deal of time and mental energy, but which are happily now mostly resolved.

Segukaku maple in late winter and birch

Segukaku maple in late winter and birch

Moving outwards the national outlook was, and is, depressing. Brexit was a shock and I fear for the future not only of many European friends, but also of those from further afield who feel alienated by the toxic rhetoric of the Brexit campaigners. I also feel desperately sorry for those to voted OUT, genuinely believing this rhetoric and thinking that vast new sums of money would now be available to the NHS, and that stopping Europeans coming to the UK will make Britons better off and having no idea that so many of the schemes in deprived cities round the UK are funded by Europe.

I would never have imagined that all of this would seem insignificant 5 months later. The new president of the USA is a nightmare of such vast proportions that it is difficult to see how the world will recover. Even if he does not cause WWIII or accelerate climate change beyond recovery (and I feel both are highly likely), I still feel diminished as a human being that people not dissimilar to me, voted for this man.

Pepper tree

Pepper tree

If I can see how to make a difference, I hope I will stand up and be counted. In the meantime it will contribute at the micro-level – supporting and caring for those closest and treating all humans as I would wish to be treated myself. We give to the men and women working at charities’ coal faces and we try and care for the environment at home. This all feels like bailing out the boat with a leaky bucket.

So, I am cultivating my garden, or rather starting work on clearing the next bit of fence for replacement; looking after the hedgehog (who reappeared yesterday); growing my garlic; publishing my husband’s book and re-starting my next novel. Life goes on. dscn0205dscn0204dscn0201-version-2

I wish you all courage in facing this even more less than perfect world.

Still picking and painting… thank you Sally, Rod… and geese for Linda

(The random nature of my posts reflects my state of mind)

My much neglected vegetable plot and greenhouse are managing fine without me, and still supplying pickings. dscn9938

In August I meant to clean and re-stain all our external and internal woodwork. I finally started a couple of weeks ago. dscn9898

There’s an awful lot of it, and a lot of other important commitments, so I am like a jack-in-the-box – out if the sun shines, in doing other stuff the instant it looks like rain. I have become weather alert, but this had me foxed. dscn9902 dscn9901 dscn9900

The bits that are done look good, but most of the porch and the left-hand run of windows are still to finish.dscn9948 dscn9949

In between my other commitments there are the other, other commitments – four lectures in four different towns (I’m getting a little less fearful with each one) – and one more to go (with others in the pipeline).

Surviving the Death Railway is travelling the world – thank you to all my fellow bloggers who have bought copies, and to Sally Cronin for generously writing about my work and to Rod on Fragmented Mind for his wonderful review.

Photo for Linda – what I did when I was told to be careful of the geese.hilary-chasing-geese_2

 

Sunday Living History Interview – Far East Prisoners of War – Hilary Custance Green

Sally Cronin has once more given my recent work on Far East POWs and my other work the kind of polish I dream about, but never quite achieve. My thanks to her and all her visitors.

Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life

Living HistoryMy guest today is author Hilary Custance Green and she will be sharing the story her father’s imprisonment by the Japanese during World War II and the letters that were written to her mother Phyllis by the wives and families of other Far East Prisoners of War.

About Hilary Custance Green.

hcg-bio-photo-small

Hilary had a nomadic childhood moving between England, Gibraltar, Germany and attending school in Belgium and therefore studying languages might have been the obvious choice. But it was art that was to become the priority. Hilary took degrees in Art History and Art Sculpture and then spent many years producing some stunning pieces. You will find examples of her work on her website: http://www.hilarycustancegreen.com/Hilary_Author_Website/Sculpture.html

This was not Hilary’s only creative endeavour as she also immersed herself in poetry and music both of which would feature side by side with her experience with the more scientific approach to brain health…

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One staff officer jumped right over another staff officer’s head…

On 21 May we had a launch party for Surviving the Death Railway; A POW’s Memoir and Letters from Home in the beautiful home where I spent the second half of my childhood. Here it is in the early morning of our wedding day in 1977. Dipford 1977 The party went splendidly and I was moved by the wonderful mixture of people – from relatives of the families in the book, to local people who remembered Barry and Phyllis (the book is about Barry, a Far East POW and Phyllis his wife, who waited out the war with no direct communication for three and a half years) and many of Barry and Phyllis’s (and my) relatives. There were men swapping stories about their father and their uncle and holding back their tears.

We returned across the country to our home. I began to relax, thinking I now had nearly a month to finish the private version of the book (done, and the proof copy arrived this morning to be checked),DSCN9555 and to rescue the garden from the chaos of neglect DSCN9552(ongoing) and rediscover my studyDSCN9515

under the piles books and papers (also done),DSCN9526before the second launch for local friends and other relatives on 18 June. This would then give me time to sort out marketing and publicity stuff before the release of the book on 30 June… I had even started looking in on your lovely, neglected blogs again. However, three days ago a cheerful email arrived telling me that the book had now been released (Pen and Sword publish by month and Amazon always release on the last day of that month – but I didn’t know that). This morning a lovely person from P & S’s digital marketing arm rang for more  information and this evening I managed to update my website. Next Saturday I have 60 plus people coming for sandwiches, sangria and a book. I am juggling garden rescue, food planning and creating, proof-reading (again!!) and I feel as though I am being leapfrogged at every turn.

In between all this I have joined the local branch of Toastmasters to try and overcome my fear of public speaking (I did my ice-breaker last Tuesday to the friendliest bunch of people you could dream up). And I have been arranging talks in museums on Far East POWs.

This is all in the way of saying sorry that I am not visiting your blogs. I will return when the staff officers stop playing leapfrog.

Running out of time, my birthday present to my husband was the promise of a few days in Venice in September – sort of cheating as I get to go too… I can’t wait.

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Proofs to the left of me, proofs to the right of me…

Free advice to writers – don’t try and work on two versions of the same book at the same time.

A couple of days ago I laid out the proofs of the private family version of Surviving the Death Railway on the dining room table in order to proof read it (again) and create the index. An hour later the final proofs for the published version arrived in my inbox. I cannot resist work, so I will check these again too.DSCN9154 I have to occupy the dining room as there is no space left in my writing room and the state of it is making me feel ill.DSCN9152And yes, my chair is an old block of polystyrene. It is a hangover from my sculpture days. It’s good for posture and it keeps the nether regions warm… but it has seen better days. I’m thinking of converting to a Swedish exercise ball.

The day before the proofs arrived, the marketing team for Pen & Sword got in touch and I have a five-page form to fill in. This is great because I will not be doing the promotion and marketing solo, a job I dread (and am very bad at). However, it is also a headache as I don’t know the answer to many of the questions (local radio? clubs and societies?), or they are tricky for a jack of all trades (short summary of career and education).

In between showers I rush into the garden, collect slugs, dig for half an hour and catch the spring. DSCN9161 DSCN9165 I barely get to emails at the moment and many of your lovely posts are unvisited, I will post this and go on a whistle-stop tour, but then I must get back to the indexing and the marketing forms. I am extremely lucky to have a publisher, but I am a little sad that there are so few hours in the day and that I am neglecting friends.

I have become multi-tasking superwoman – while writing this post I have printed off (one by one) another ten invitation cards to the second of the two launch parties for the book. Anyone near Cambridge let me know, I’ll send one, and you could come and enjoy sandwiches and sangria on the 18th of June (or near Taunton on 21st May for tea and cakes).

I have read the finals proofs… thank god I did, I found some errors I had missed and some gremlins that had crept in via the text editors.

Re tulips… the deep red flowers are Anemone de Caen masquerading as tulips!

Literature and the Truth – the Far East in WWII

In researching my book (Surviving the Death Railway: A POW’s Memoirs and Letters from Home) I have read many accounts of the FAR East in WWII – first, second and often third-hand ones. Truth is an elusive commodity. Diaries contain the most truth, but their vision is necessarily narrow. Survivor accounts have the same problem, plus the interaction of memory and the layers history has added. Helpful sons and daughters can introduce bias, historians are more objective – but they weren’t there. Here are five contrasting publications that I have read recently. Each contains a fragment of the picture, each has a different sort of truth.

DSCN8667First a little slip of a book, POW Sketchbook: a story of survival by Judy and Stuart Dewey (Pie Powder Press). Judy and Stewart tell the story of the artist William Wilder, using his diary entries, his memories and his excellent drawings. You get a true picture of the daily grind: ‘Late dinner at night in dark. Up at 7 am, breakfast in the dark, just rice and sugar… carrying planks and heavy wood over rough rocks. Frightfully hot. … . It is really hell. Little drink, sun the bug-bear… .’ Or brief entries as he lay in hospital, ‘8 deaths in the last 24 hours.’ The following day, ’12 fellows died yesterday.’ He drew to survive, but his work was often taken by his captors or destroyed. 70 drawings survived. To have saved these and his diary was an act of extreme courage.

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 18.10.37Next a slim but dramatic account, Out of the Depths
of Hell: A Soldiers’s Story of Life and Death in Japanese Hands 
by John McEwan (Pen & Sword – my publishers). This is a soldier’s account, lively, tough and full of the harrowing and detailed memories of the years spent, in his case, mostly in the grimmest slavery in the copper mines of Taiwan. His feelings about his mates, his captors and his views on life and religion make this extremely, though painfully, readable. The truth here is a personal one told through the long lens of memory.

 

This next one, The Burma Railway: The Original War Drawings of Japanese POW Jack Chalker (Mercer Books 2007) is one of the most beautifully designed books I have ever handled, I want to weep and admire at the same time.DSCN8664It contains over a 100 full colour illustrations. The calibre and scope of these is astonishing. Every part of the POW experience is there. They are beautiful and painful. He depicts individuals undergoing sadistic punishments and hundreds of men at work, he shows wards of sick men and, when he worked with the famous surgeon Weary Dunlop, precise depictions of ulcers that ate into the bone. Jack tell his story between the drawings.

All the above are personal accounts with one main viewpoint; they do not claim to be literature or even research.  They all contains inaccuracies.

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My fourth is another small volume The Death Railway: A Brief History of The Thailand-Burma Railway by Rod Beattie (Thailand Burma Railway Centre Co., Ltd). This is modern, practical, and factual. Rod is the great researcher of the railway, an Australian who has walked, recorded and uncovered every inch of the tracks. He and Terry Manttan run the Centre at Kanchanaburi in Thailand and know more about the railway and the individuals who built her than anyone else alive. In his book Rod assembles essential facts and corrects many railway myths.

 

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 09.56.38Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 22.18.43My last book is odd in this context – and I haven’t yet finished it – The Gift of Rain, Tan Twan Eng. It is high quality literature and a work of fiction. Set in Penang fifty years after the war, the story within it runs from 1939 to 1945. It is as multicultural at its setting – British, Chinese, Malay, Japanese and Indian characters cross the stage. Only in this mesmerising, page-turning book have I found a sense of how the war affected individuals of all kinds in that part of the world, and why cultures with opposing philosophies that had lived harmoniously until then, both helped and brutalised each other. You get a glimpse of why civilisation cracked up and again later was able to rebuild.

My Far East POW book is now in the publisher’s hands and I am haunted by all the books I have not yet read, the archives and museums I have not visited and all the threads I have failed to follow up. What troubles me is how little of the truth can be found in any one account. Maybe fiction can weave a truer tale.

The unexpected haunting of the River Kwai

Last month we had a wonderful holiday with family on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan, with sunsets, wine-tasting and much good American food. IMG_1173 DSCN8355 DSCN8360Tabor Hill Winery

On one of our expeditions we visited the Fernwood Botanical Garden. There were woodland walks, prairie meadows and formal areas, DSCN8366 DSCN8378DSCN8368but one particular display grabbed our interest for a long time. We became kids again.  DSCN8377A walk-in area of wooden structures and natural landscape with trains running in and out DSCN8371 and suddenly reappearing where you least expected them. It was wonderfully complex,DSCN8372 engaging and utterly charming. There was so much to see, we didn’t know which way to look. DSCN8374 DSCN8375  DSCN8382We watched these trains dipping in and out of the foliage, creeping round the sheer edge of a wooden cliff, or traversing great gaps balanced on twig like structures. Yet all the while I felt a sense of haunting, a constant tug by the images of another railway.  This is the Wampo (Wang Pho) viaduct,Wampo pc4 and this Fernwood.DSCN8383 and this shows the bamboo scaffolding for the Bridge on the Mae Klaung (now renamed Kwai)and Far East prisoners of war and conscripted labourers at work on the Thailand-Burma railway in 1942/1943.Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 15.56.10                         This is Fernwood again.DSCN8370 - Version 2

Some of us cannot forget.