Tomatoes (plus a little DIY and writing) rule my life

Now that the DIY on our two rotten windowsills, after much resin filler and elbow-grease, is nearing completion, I can concentrate on my writing…

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Except that last year my new greenhouse was a pitiful desert. All I managed to grow were three sweet peppers (on one plant). Everything else got fried or damped off as I was ignorant about managing the ventilation. So this spring, I sowed madly… perhaps a little too madly. I was miffed when tomatoes failed to germinate, so I sowed more. Various seedlings got potted on and moved into the garden and veg plot, but new tomato seedlings – unlabelled – kept popping up in unlikely places.

Apart from three pepper plants, tomatoes now rule the greenhouse and my life. There are more than 34 plants. The greenhouse ones need constant  water, and ventilation and they all need non-stop disbudding (a skill I have acquired late in life, but will lead, I am assured, to more tomatoes and less greenery).

DSCN8100DSCN8099 DSCN8097 DSCN8095 DSCN8088 And the hosta, of course, just keeps on growing. DSCN8024I am still writing, and I have exciting news on the POW letters book front, but I will wait for tangible confirmation before sharing it.

 

Surviving Far East Captivity

Dear friends, I have missed many of  your posts, and I have no hope of catching up, so I will have to skip many of them – my loss.

I have just returned from a conference titled:

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This was convened by the group of dedicated researchers at Researching FEPOW History, held at, and sponsored by, the Liverpool school of Tropical Medicine (LSTM). For two and a half days I have listened to surviving Far East prisoners (FEPOWs) and interned civilians, military historians, doctors, museum curators, family researchers and the children of Far East Prisoners.

The hairs on the back of my neck rose many times on every day. I laughed, and cried in almost every talk. Every delegate had stories to tell and the venues buzzed as we tried to exchange these stories with each other. I have come back loaded with books, but here is the star of the show. Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 22.23.43

Meg Parkes

Meg Parkes

Meg Parkes, One of the authors of Captive Memories, was also the lynchpin of the whole conference, taking in radio and TV interviews as well as keeping the whole show on the running.

Of the speakers and attendees, the three surviving FEPOWs, provided some brilliant insights, and much laughter. An interview and discussion session with Eric Lomax’s daughter Charmaine McMeekin and Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the scriptwriter of the film The Railway Man had most of us sobbing. This was the first time Charmaine had been among people who, like her, had been brought up by a father so badly damaged by his war experience.

There is much more to say, but I must sleep…

Four-decker book sandwich

DSCN7753As usual I have (mis)managed my reading by finding myself in the middle of four books simultaneously. I don’t know how many of you have the same experience, but there is a strange crossfire between books as a result… I have just checked my list and realised that three more books have crept into this sandwich (this is embarrassing, but I have finished two of these and lent the third to a friend who had left her iPad behind).

DSCN7754 - Version 2So, I started David Willetts’, The Pinch, on holiday in the wonderful library in Borgo Pignano, and ordered a second-had copy on my return. As a Baby Boomer myself, I’d like to understand this discrepancy between what we have had and what our children will inherit. What I have read so far, about how the historical structure of the British family make  it different from the rest of the continent (and much of the rest of world) I find fascinating. I reserve judgement on some of the lines he is taking.

 

[I ended the holiday by re-reading an old friend, Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground. Returning to my stacked bedside I picked up The Secret Rooms by Catherine Bailey, a serious and riveting piece of research taking in the upper echelons of British Society, and WWI. Don’t be put off by the way it is uncomfortably dolled up for marketing purposes as a ‘True Gothic Mystery’. The research and the story are good and very revealing. I finished this in time for the visit last week by the kind friend who had given it me.]

DSCN7756 - Version 2A WWII Spitfire pilot, Geoffrey Wellum, appeared on TV the other night and my husband dropped the book he published in 2002, First Light, onto my desk. Had I really not read it? With an Mosquito navigator uncle and Halifax pilot father-in-law, I should have read this enthralling classic  So I started and am totally involved. This is heart-beating stuff told without the least swagger, carrying you from the schoolboy who writes to the Air Ministry to the (very) young Spitfire pilot trying to keep his end up in the battle of Britain.

DSCN7755 - Version 2However, I have a reading group meeting tomorrow night, so, slightly out of breath, I started Longbourn by Jo Baker. This is unpromisingly billed as: Pride and Prejudice – the servants’ story. It turns out to be an excellent read, full of interesting life and detail and a totally absorbing story in its own right. The P & P narrative is there, above stairs, and acts as a brilliant backstory, because we already know it. I am impressed and read happily and quickly.

DSCN7757 - Version 2In the meantime the winner of the Poetry Business Competition, is a young poet, Paul Stephenson, whose work I really enjoy. The result of the win is his first published poetry pamphlet, Those People. I can’t resist browsing. Some I recognise from individual magazine publications, others are new. There is a delightful mixture of his impish (Passwords) and tragic (Birthday Cards) take on life and delight in words (Wake Up And…) and sharp and hilarious observations (Angle End) and all these elements crossfire within the poems.

***

I’ve finished Longbourn, and returned to First Light; The Pinch next (though I need to fit in Golding’s The Spire for Other Reading group) and I’m dropping in on Those People at intervals. Now I must get down to the serious business of the Researching FEPOW (Far East POW) History conference this Friday in Liverpool.

Prisoner on the Kwai

In the early 1960’s Basil Peacock found himself unexpectedly in Bangkok, some twenty years after his last visit to that city. He hired a car and with his wife and American friends and drove up to the river Kwai. The hire car manager charged little, exclaiming:

“You work on railroad! Not dead yet! You must have iron bones — I make special price.”

His companions listening to him talking about his time as a Far East Prisoner of War (FEEPOW) persuaded him to write up his story. It was published in 1966 and is, as he says, mainly about the:

“bizarre rather than the tragic. My memories of unusual, odd and even crazy incidents were vivid and detailed, but those of horror curiously blurred.”

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 Basil Peacock was a veteran of the First World War, he joined under-age in 1916, received the Military Cross in 1917 and was wounded and captured in 1918. This gives him a perspective on his later captivity that few other writers possess. Prisoner on the Kwai is an excellent, extremely readable account of the FEPOW experience under the Japanese. [It includes some non-PC language.]

In the last five years I have read more than fifty books by or about FEPOWs, some published, others as private accounts or diaries in museums. Contemporary diaries are rare; they contain truth that is of the moment, but the contents can be restricted by the fear of discovery. The early post-war accounts vary and were often rejected by publishers as too brutal, particularly those by ordinary soldiers. Many who felt the need to record the three and a half years taken out of their lives were not natural writers, and their accounts lack balance and structure; sometimes bitterness, sensationalism or vainglory overwhelm the story. Others are brilliant, painful, heartbreaking and heartwarming.

The basic truths that always emerge are the desperation of hunger, the dependence on mates and the extraordinary endurance of the human will under every conceivable insult to the body. Reading these accounts, will confirm that altruism is a real human quality and so, sadly, is sadism, and that luck plays a very big role in survival.

Another thing that also emerges is that each man’s experience is unique. It is almost unheard of for even two men to spend the whole of their captivity together. Prisoners were sent hither and yon with no predictability throughout the war.

Some entries from the diary of Edward (Ted) Hammond who served as an ordinary enlisted soldier in the 5th Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment:

April 28th [1942]   Been at work on road making. Bullied about and beaten up by the Japs with sticks and iron bars. Kept at work until 6.15p.m.

April 29th [1942]   No work today. Emperor of Japan’s birthday. Usual breakfast, plain boiled rice and watery milk. Fine day after rain all night.

Sun. Dec 27th [1942] Work on the railway. I’m very weak indeed. Two more funerals today.

Wed. Dec 30th [1942] Work on malarial drains. Another funeral.

Sun.Feb 14th [1943] Work as usual. Pte Jarvis died last night.

Mon. Feb 15th [1943] Work again. One year ago today since the fateful day of Singapore’s capitulation and one year of hard work, chiefly on rice. Now we must hope for the best.

This is Ted’s last entry. He was marching up to the higher reaches of the railway, he was very cold at night, starving and his two particular friends were very sick. Work on the  railway was lasting all day from dark until dark. He died on October 16th 1943 of bacillary dysentery and beri-beri.

See also pacific paratrooper on this subject.

Poetry, prose and everything between

I have been, as is my unwise habit, reading four very different books, if not simultaneously, then turn and turn about.

Of these the one that gripped me most was Sarah Hesketh’s The Hard Word Box – a poet’s exploration of dementia and ageing. DSCN7047 - Version 2In a mixture of poetry and verbatim interviews, Sarah tracks the 20 weeks she spent visiting people living in a residential care home. In spite of their struggles with words, individual personalities emerge strongly. You understand that even as the brain fades, life experiences remain, such as the bullying Angela suffered at the hands of the brothers she adored. This slim volume takes you into worlds that most of us imagine to be impenetrable. There is a deftness and grace about the way she has done this that I admire greatly.

DSCN7045_2 More poetry, this time the 27th anthology of the Highgate poets. This collection is varied, entertaining and often moving. Among the many poems that I enjoyed are  Paul Stephenson’s Feel Good (Gone Viral) for instance, or Robert Peake’s The Knowledge, these gave me exactly that kick of recognition good poetry gives with a delicious last line. Mary Hastilow’s poems, By the Lea with Clio, To My Brother and Thin Skin, took me to emotional places I could recognise very well.

My third book is a novel, it is fiction and has an engaging Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 19.12.57story about family relationships, yet the wonder of this book is not the narrative, but the setting. Cinda MacKinnon’s,  A Place in the World takes us to Columbia in the latter part of the last century (which feels like yesterday to me). The story follows a young American girl with a peripatetic childhood who marries a Columbian coffee farmer. It is the life on this remote coffee farm in the cloud forest that kept me turning the pages, as the weather, the volcanic ash, the market and the politics of the region during those volatile years played havoc with the crop. The intricate, natural beauty – and the dangers – of the cloud forest, the slow pace of modernisation and the cultural differences between the Columbian and the American outlook make for absorbing reading.

DSCN7050Finally Richard Flannagan’s, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, also a novel, also fiction, is a book of two worlds. The life and romantic relationships of a man before and after the WW2 and his incarceration during WW2 as a prisoner of the Japanese on the Burma-Siam railroad. For me there was an imbalance not so much between these worlds, as within each one. The scenes on the railroad were shockingly believable (and this is an area I have researched and read many first-hand accounts), and I could also accept the after-effects of this experience on the man. However, the brave attempt to get into the mind-set of the Japanese guards on the railroad and of their life afterwards, I found unconvincing and overdone in places. Similarly, the pre-WW2 romance left me unimpressed, and although I could readily believe the stresses on the postwar marriage, I could not believe in the thoughts and outlook of either of the women involved. Finally, I found the endless ruminations of several characters just a little… overindulgent? However this is a marathon of a book in terms of content.

‘Those Magnificent Men…’

[This is a post for aeroplane nuts, feel free to pass on by.]

On Saturday we went with aeroplane enthusiast friends to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. This is an airfield, plus many great hangers, with aircraft spanning both world wars and up to today’s fighting/rescue aeroplanes. I did my best with my little camera. Here we have a Gypsy Moth.

DSCN6312And here is the Rapide from the 1930’s, in which people can take joy-rides from Duxford.

Rapide

Rapide

The Boeing B 17 Flying Fortress Sally B being fettled before she took off. Memphis Belle

One of the most exciting displays was the wing walkers. Here is one warming up.

DSCN6343And here they are in the air. One of them is piloted by David Barrell, who used to be a partner in our local garage, keeping my series of very fourth-hand cars on the road.DSCN6366 DSCN6367 I worry about the G force.

Here’s one (a Shorts Tucano) that sat in front of us for some time. It’s paint job made me think of your blog, Pierre, so this is for you. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Though I gather that this wonderful Canadian-built (1943) Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina is more to your taste.

Catalina

Catalina

She was majestic in flight and slow enough for my camera.

Catalina flying

Catalina flying

At one point there were four Spitfires and a Hurricane in the air. Here’s just one Spitfire and below a Spit and the Hurricane – CORRECTION – 2 Spits (the second with the squarer wings is a later version).DSCN6454IMG_0565There were many, many highlights in the day, but I particularly  enjoyed the WWI re-enactment using replica planes. These included the 1912 designed, Royal Aircraft Factory BE2; 2 Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a (1917 design) ; 2 Fokker DR1 (1917 design); a Sopwith Triplane (1916 design); and 2 Junkers CL1(1917 design). They appeared over the horizon, having  been flown from another display in Southampton.

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The show ended with an exciting display from an Avro Vulcan and two Hawker Siddeley Gnats. IMG_0730IMG_0732  IMG_0733

There were scores more planes. They taxied up, posed in front of where we were standing, then took off. There was always one, or many, flying at any one time.

The following day, when we were not able to attend, there was a much anticipated visit from a Canadian Lancaster. This plane, Avro Lancaster B Mk X, is one of only two that are airworthy. We hoped it would fly over our house at some time in its display, but we were disappointed (though the Red Arrows flew dramatically over our heads), so here is a far better picture from the Duxford Air Show catalogue. Avro Lancastercopy

And that’s it folks. We had a wonderful and very noisy time. I’ve probably misnamed an aeroplane here or there, so feel free to tell me. And if that seems like a lot of bad photos of aeroplanes, there are another 300 odd…

I did sneak off during the show to revisit the Burma War gallery, where there was a small exhibition of relics from Far East POWs, including some paintings of the POWs at work by Jack Chalker and others. I will return to the POW story – probably after Christmas.

A tiny extra – LeVier Cosmic Wind, Ballerina. One of the original three built in 1947.DSCN6379

 

 

 

 

Just a bee (I think)

I wanted to review this great book (which has a purple cover and is not out of focus),

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and I hoped to write about POWs, and I even planned to write about writing (which is a thing I should have been doing, but spring and greenhouses have intervened). Now Easter has caught up with me and my guests are here, so I shall be off for a few days. Here is a picture of what I think is a bee of sorts, but it may be one of those clever flies masquerading as a bee. DSCN5517

Far East POWs – reflections

It is some time since I posted about the men I have been writing about who were Far East POWs (and their wives and families). The MS is currently being read by an historian so I planned to take a break. Nevertheless I have been thinking about the men rather a lot. In the past few weeks I have been labouring against the clock to clear the ground for a new fence where mature trees once stood (https://greenwritingroom.com/2014/03/14/). I have also been trying to make a level base for a greenhouse (a task I have never done before).

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In the course of these endeavours I have been very tired, very hungry and slightly injured. Then I contracted a feverish cold, and the weather became strangely hot for April. With each of these sensations I couldn’t help remembering the accounts of the extreme versions the prisoners suffered on the railway. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be sicker or to have no rest, or food. As I stamped down the earth on my greenhouse base-to-be, I found myself repeating the phrase my father had remembered from his days when they were building the embankment on which to lay the tracks on the Thailand-Burma Railroad.

 At the end of each days work we marched up and down on the newly placed earth stamping it down firmly. I remember the Japanese engineers shouting “Orr men stepping very hardly”.

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It sounds perverse to say that I also enjoyed myself, I actually like labour, something I suspect I have learnt from my father. Anyway the fence (done by professionals in contrast to my DIY)) is now up.

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I can now get on with the rest. There is still rather a lot of earth to move, rather a lot of sand to lay as a base and all that lovely marble (purchased for another purpose several years ago) to go on top. In the meantime I have managed a few hours of editing on the POW MS. The men are not forgotten.

First real news after 3 years – POWs 23

Some time at the end of April 1945, Phyllis, with the dossier of information and photos of Barry’s men, interviewed a Sergeant Smith, from the Royal Signals. Smith had been a prisoner of the Japanese and was rescued after the sinking of the transport ship Hokofu Maru. He knew Barry and other men from 27 Line Section. In her notebook Phyllis  scribbled entries for each man who Smith remembered having seen. For example:

Appleton. Saw him in June ’44. Excellent condition. Down ? Tech. Party due for Japan but hadn’t left [‘Japan party’ are the groups of men selected to be shipped to Japan]. Worked with Smith as Cook after completion of railway in Tamarkan hospital camp. One /or 2 attacks/malaria but survived them well, often spoke of his children and wife.

Bridge

Jim Bridge

Bridge. Died 1943??

Canning. Tropical ulcers on leg in Thailand sanatorium. April 1944. Ulcers healed unable to straighten his leg. Very clean. Mentioned wife & mother. Health otherwise O.K.

Canning

Hugh Canning

Dawson. Seen end Jan 44. Condition pretty fair. No party for Japan then.

Signalman William Dawson

Signalman William Dawson

Douglas. June 44. Sick in 1943 but recovered. Worked in Japan cookhouses as servant which gave him extra. Mentioned both wife and son. Kept out of trouble.

Jack Earnshaw

Jack Earnshaw

Earnshaw. 1944 June. Health quite good. Mentioned fiancée a lot. (sister?) Packed up on railway in 1943 August. No party for Japan.

Farrell

Henry Farrell

Farrell Plumber? Friend of Walls? Last seen June 44. Health fair. Trouble with asthma. Kept bright & cheery. In hospital October 43. Down for new San. (?) Looked after by Thai Red X.

Garrod 43. Last August 1943 Condition quite good – bright & cheery. Not due for Japan. Mentioned wife.

Graham June 44. Quite good health. Pelagera [pellagra – lack of vitamin B3] – but recovered by June 44. No party for Japan.

Harrison. Early 44. Quite well.

Jennings June 44. Quite well. Not on railway.

Reginald Jennings

Reginald Jennings

(In September 1943 The War Office had written to Mrs Jennings to say that her son, Reginald, had died of beri beri malaria on 18.7.43. Scepticism had long since set in among the relatives and she had still sent a photo and information about her son to Phyllis for the dossier. The War Office had been right and Smith must have thinking of another Jennings.)

Charlie Johnstone

Charlie Johnstone

Johnston. June 44. Might be sent on draft to Japan. Always speaking of his wife and children. Well & cheerful. Knew Barry. Kept going very well.

Jones. June 44. Working in hospital dispensary. 2 camp. Not changed – keeps well.

Kittwood Last seen early 44. Very seriously ill – malaria.

McDonald June 44. Good health. Worked on railway 10 months – Then hospital orderly in Tamarkan camp. In original 27 Line in France.

Neil McDonald

Neil McDonald

Parker. Same cargo boat for Japan. Probably killed.

Russell June 44. In quite good health – quite cheery. Always speaking of wife & 2 boys.

Walls  Speaks of wife and son. June 44. Well and cheerful. Pretty good health.

Finding big errors

This is a thank you to the whole business of blogging. A few posts ago, I wrote about Barry in the Japanese POW camp, Chungkai, in Thailand in 1943 and 1944. I mentioned the Thai merchant Boon Pong, and because of your interest in this amazing hero, I did a little research and added a post about him. In the course of that research I discovered an error in the book I have put together using letters and memoirs of that period.

Barry was in his eighties when he wrote about his time as a prisoner. He was in Chungkai camp from July/August 1943 to February 1945. He remembered in detail (far, far greater than anything I have posted) working for the surgeon Marcowitz as he carried out amputations on those men with incurable tropical ulcers. But he remembered this period as the end of 1944, beginning of 1945. Marcowitz left Chungkai in January 1944. It is over the previous Christmas period that Barry worked for him.

I have had to move several chunks of text around, all with some tricky knock-on effects on the rest of the story. But I am so grateful to have discovered this. So thank you everyone.

A little spring cheer to say thank you, a marigold is still blooming in the vegetable garden (and I have been squashing greenfly on the new rose growth today).

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The most cheering pre-spring sight I know – winter aconites springing up all over. Sorry it’s not a great picture, but they really are unfurling in every corner of the garden.

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