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.

Pleasaunces, unpleasaunces and a book break

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.

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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.DSCN9375

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.Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 21.26.02

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Mostly in, but occasionally allowed out

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…DSCN8819and 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.DSCN8825DSCN8835I 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. DSCN8837

DSCN8832 - Version 2As I left a Robin circled over my working area and sat in the nearby tree to assess the changes to his territory.

Back to my desk, much refreshed.

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.

Surviving the Death Railway – to be published

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.Wampo pc1He 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.

 

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…

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.