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.
Christopher Lloyd said that all gardens have an unpleasaunce as well as a pleasance – ours has several. In the last couple of months my husband has created order out of chaos and we are unpleasaunce down and several compost bins, new fence and a log shelter up.
The rest of the garden is half way through June as far as I can tell.
… I am being forced to use the new editor as I cannot upload media in the old one… and it is sending me crackers!! I have no idea why these images are different sizes. Here, I hope, is my art-house image of the garden.
This post is really to say a brief goodbye as I tackle the pre-publication launch parties for the new book. Copies were due last week… they will now arrive three days before the first party. I shall be away from my desk for several days. My sanity is hanging by a thread. I am trailing behind with all your posts, so will be doing some leapfrogging. Sorry about the ones I will miss.
My back aches.
I have been (willingly) chained to my desk for the past few weeks creating an index for my Far East POW book. It’s an occupation for the obsessive list-maker and one I didn’t expect to enjoy, but it has its satisfactions. It has also raised multiple research questions. I hang my head with embarrassment over the number of tiny textual errors I have discovered in the process. Yet everything discovered is one less error in the published version.
On Thursday the sun came out and I played truant from my desk for several hours to plant up my nursery of seedling maples – all offspring of Matsukaze or Sengokaku. I started with a pot or two and some compost…and then I needed the big cutters for some roots and more leaf mould and, and, and… By the time I started to clear up, the sun was going down.I know it all looks very dull now but there are eight Japanese maple seedlings between one and three years old in pots or in the ground, and in a couple of months they will be trembling with new leaves.
Back to my desk, much refreshed.
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. Tabor Hill Winery
On one of our expeditions we visited the Fernwood Botanical Garden. There were woodland walks, prairie meadows and formal areas, but one particular display grabbed our interest for a long time. We became kids again. A walk-in area of wooden structures and natural landscape with trains running in and out and suddenly reappearing where you least expected them. It was wonderfully complex, engaging and utterly charming. There was so much to see, we didn’t know which way to look. We 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, and this Fernwood. 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. This is Fernwood again.
Some of us cannot forget.
Surviving the Death Railway: A POW’s Memoirs and Letters from Home
To my intense joy and relief the military publishers Pen & Sword and will be launching this title in June/July 2016.
For six years I have been researching and editing a story using a unique collection of letters and a memoir. The letters between my parents, Barry and Phyllis, and my father’s memoir of life as a Japanese POW tell a chronological story of a young couple during World War Two – these are special, but not, perhaps, unique.
What is unique is another collection of letters and a dossier. Phyllis spent the war looking after her baby son AND trying to look after the relatives of the men in Barry’s Royal Signals Unit, 27 Line Section. There were 68 men under Barry’s captaincy and Phyllis had addresses for many of the wives, mothers and fiancées. She sent circular and individual letters, at first to keep up spirits, later to co-ordinate information, and towards the end of the war to create a simple dossier of the men to help identification by rescued POWs at the War Office. To do this she gathered information about each man.
If it is of any help my son was a jolly natured chap, with wavy hair and a gap between his front teeth.
Although there was nothing outstanding in his appearance… he had a tattoo done on his right forearm, it began at the wrist, and went almost to the elbow. It was the figure of a highlander in full national costume…
These letters are heart-breaking and heartwarming and give and insight into the lives of ordinary people coping with the wall of silence that came down with the Fall of Singapore on February 1942.
Barry memoirs record, without bitterness or bravado, what the lives of the men were like during those years.He helped to build the Wampo viaduct, he nearly died, he became a chorus girl and he assisted at amputations. After giving blood he remembers a happy encounter with one of the men from his Unit:
“Sir, yesterday I had some of your blood, and last night I dreamt about a woman for the first time since capitulation!”
This story records the two streams of life in Britain and the Far East. What I find so moving is that year after year these relatives wrote into the blue. Although some received a few multiple-choice field cards; no one, as far as I know, ever received an answer to a letter in three and a half years.
Please forgive me, but for the next two months I will only be a very rare visitor to your blogs. I am already deep in the final editing of the manuscript, gaining permissions for the ninety odd illustrations and preparing them and the maps for publication.
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:
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.
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…
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. In 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.
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 story 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.
Finally 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.
I planned to do some radical mulching of my poor thin soil before the spring sprang. It should have been done in the autumn, but there was the small matter of publishing Border Line. The giant bag of mulch I have just ordered arrived at dawn, so I was directing operations in a dressing gown and wellington boots – not for the first time. All I need now is the time, the energy and some bearable weather conditions in order to spread joy among my flower and veg beds. I also need to dig out matted roots in the big Rhododendron pots and replace the soil, move a couple of roses, prune all the others, cut back cornus, raspberries, wisteria… etc etc
Unfortunately, I still haven’t finished the internal DIY. This should also have been done before Christmas (when I was publishing a book). So the dining room is full of tools and fleece liner, the spare bedroom is full of everything that has come out of our bedroom the box room and another room. I can’t progress here, because, although the plasterer came a week ago the plaster is still drying in all three rooms. Then there’s the greenhouse, new last spring, and not exactly justifying its presence. I managed to overwinter geraniums and sow some cut-and-come-again salad in November (which we ate on Boxing day) and is sort of still with us, but I need to get planting – now! And the vegetable plot which is… well embarrassing.
At least the garden is awash with fat buds, snowdrops and winter aconites.
Then there are exciting developments in my research on the letters to Far East POWs … I just need a ten-day week, and I’ll be fine.
As a writer, I gasped in awe and groaned with envy; as a reader I was anxious, sickened and maddened.
As a writer: I acknowledge The Goldfinch as a masterpiece. The scope is vast, the subject matter complex and requiring much detailed research. The writing itself is a delight, bringing all the senses alive moment by moment. I can only envy the mastery that enables Donna Tartt to use every word in her vocabulary. She describes small events over several pages rarely boring the reader or (presumably) causing her editor to asked for a 20,000 word chop. Even the simplest description is luxurious:
The sun didn’t seem to rise until about nine in the morning and even then it was hazed and gloomy, casting a low, weak, purgatorial light like a stage effect in some German opera.
She has superb control of tempo and keeps the tension ratcheted up, even while taking long descriptive detours. This is, as reviewers have noted, a Dickensian novel. It is also, as a friend pointed out, a magnificent, classical tragedy – a single blow of fate that then tangles the protagonist, and all who come in contact with him, in a network of misfortune. The ending, however, varies from the classical pattern.
In the last 70 or so pages, the three main characters step out of role and the authorial voice whispers and then starts shouting. In fact the whole of the end, as my friend again pointed out, tells of it’s American origins and the American reader’s expectations. The ending is, in many ways, satisfying, but, as a writer, I would judge it to be unbelievable.
As a reader: The Goldfinch was the kind of book I most dislike. It cleverly and intentionally kept me in a state of mild panic through most of it’s 700 odd pages. I’m sorry to be a wuss, but I don’t like sustained anxiety, aggression, cruelty, aggravated stupidity and characters who persist in being their own worst enemies. I have an enduring fondness for classical tragedy, yet in such tragedies the reader usually occupies a seat next to the gods, looking down on the piddling struggles of the humans caught in the net of fate. You watch them, unable to help, yet able to learn, at the very least, the meaning of hubris. In the Goldfinch, we are asked to hold hands with the protagonist and share in every misguided decision he makes, to experience his loss, his fear, his persistent bad luck and his stupidity. To be moved by a character’s fate, I need to feel love or compassion. I did indeed feel compassion, but few of the characters inspired love and the compassion was drowned out by irritation and fear.
So The Goldfinch was, to me, a very grand, ambitious, literary thriller – but a thriller nonetheless and I sincerely dislike being ‘thrilled’. The essence of being thrilled is to induce fear in the reader. To some this is a form of bone-shivering delight; for me it is acute discomfort. I will accept acute discomfort when reading accounts of the sufferings of Far East POWs, but not in a piece of fiction.
If you get this far you may wonder why I persisted in reading this book. It was a present from a dear friend and both he, and others, have remarked that the opening to my novel Unseen Unsung (2008) has much in common with the opening, the section on the explosion, of The Goldfinch (though mine is just half the length).
I wanted to review this great book (which has a purple cover and is not out of focus),
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.