In September 1942 Barry’s Line Section was sent by their captors, as a working party, from Changi to Bukit Timah near Singapore town. They were to build a memorial for soldiers of both sides killed during the invasion of Malaya. They marched the 16 miles to the new camp, carrying everything they owned. Barry remembers:
As our party, No. 27 and the rest of No. 1 Company, arrived at the site one of the POWs already working there whispered to our Commanding Officer, “Just keep the tools moving. Make a noise. Don’t stand still.” We noted guards standing around the site all with fixed bayonets and each of them carrying a stout bamboo rod to encourage the laggards. We had not met this situation before as none of us had yet experienced the sensation of working directly under the eyes of a Jap guard.
Some of my Glasgow men had inevitably been in prison at some time in their careers and we had good advice from them. “Keep your head down, do not be noticed. Do what you are told to do and never give the slightest hint of reluctance. If you are hurt or very tired carry on with every appearance of bravery and co-operation and perhaps a guard will take pity and give you a rest.”
Some men seemed quite unable to grasp the fact that their very survival depended on their maintaining a very humble appearance, obeying orders, combined with eagerness to please our masters. A sour look, a shrug, a turned away shoulder or any such gesture earned an immediate swipe, accompanied by loud shouts.
I have noticed an interesting effect of age. I no longer put off doing a major job properly. So in the garden, finding the protective mortar flaking off the lowest level of bricks in one area – which was in the same state four years ago when I was laying paving slabs there – I know that I must deal with it. I have this feeling with all heavy work in the garden; best to do it now, I may not feel like it in a year or so’s time, and best make a good lasting job of it.
This feeling spreads to other areas not necessarily involving physical strength. There is no longer anything to be gained by waiting for a better/quieter/more mature period in my life. While the tendency to cook up long term schemes and projects has not left me, perhaps I am finally learning to live in the moment.
I read that you should only touch a piece of paper once – meaning that when you open a letter you should answer and file it in one go. Looking at the pile of paper in the box that masquerades as my in-tray, I still have a way to go on that front.
Of course it may not be age at all. I have just finished reading an unpublished memoir of a WWII Far Eastern Prisoner of War (Dishonourable Guest, by W G Riley). Riley is a young Signalman who starts POW life in Changi, works on the Thailand-Burma Railroad, gets transported on the doomed Hokofu Maru troopship, and is one of the 23 Britons rescued in the dramatic Cabanatuan Raid at Luzon. I have read many POW memoirs in the course of the last three year’s research. Elements are the same, but each man’s story is unique. You would have to be very obtuse to reach the end of even one of these memoirs and not learn to appreciate the moment.
Riley made, in his son’s words, ‘anguished attempts to get the work published’. His whole life was affected, not only by his experience as a prisoner, but also by his need to get his story written and known. It was never published as a book, but his son, Steve, had the second version of the text (the first was lost) typeset and printed 1988. This certainly puts the odd rejection by agents or publishers into perspective.
Today in the shower, as I tried to make my fingers meet – right hand over shoulder and left bent up my back (I can do it the other way round) – I found my thoughts making a tour that has become a habit. Anything I can do now, I will be able to do less well or not at all in ten years time. It’s downhill only from now on. I had two follow-on thoughts. 1) At the end of Gillies book about POWs ‘non-work’ activities during the war, there was a chapter about what they did after release and for the rest of their lives. John Lowe, a prisoner in Changi, and Formosa, at the age of 88 attended children’s dancing classes. At the age of 90 he danced in Ely Cathedral. 2) it’s pretty silly to worry about what I won’t be able to do in ten years time. It’s possible that I won’t be around, so it is infinitely more productive to worry about what I can do today (always bearing in mind that staying fit in case I have another thirty plus years to go is a generally good idea). I make no progress in my attempts to relearn the piano. Another fantasy I have is that there will be a crash course for incompetent oldies to learn the piano i.e. do nothing else for a week. I expect there is, and it probably costs as much as a new piano.