Help, the garden is waking up…

… and I am nowhere near ready. Last week… and this week                     DSCN6993DSCN7026

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.                            DSCN6998DSCN7002                     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  IMG_0919  DSCN7016  a week ago the plaster is still drying in all three rooms. DSCN7014 DSCN7008Then 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.

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At least the garden is awash with fat buds, snowdrops and winter aconites.

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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.

The Goldfinch – writer versus reader reviews

As a writer, I gasped in awe and groaned with envy; as a reader I was anxious, sickened and maddened.
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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).

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.

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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.

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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.

The Railway Man

Yesterday I went to see the film of The Railway Man (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Jeremy Irvine, Hiroyuki Sanada). Last night I re-read the book on which it is based that came from my father’s shelves.

DSCN4650The film was a moving depiction of a man finding redemption late in life, through the love of a woman who helped him to confront his traumas and finally to meet and even make friends with one of the men responsible for his traumas. It is ‘based on’ rather than an exact version of the true story.

The film also does two important things:

It renews my shame, as a UK citizen, at being even distantly connected to inhumanity of Guantanamo Bay and what the American military are still doing there. We have in the last twelve years thrown away the right to condemn any other nation for treating people inhumanely.

It gives me hope that people have the capacity to forgive their enemies, if they can only meet and talk.

The film is only a brief window on a relationship in trouble and the torture Eric Lomax underwent during interrogation. What the film does not, cannot, do is give the full long-term picture of what Eric Lomax and thousands of other men suffered as Far East POWs and the suffering consequently visited on their families when they returned. After lengthy torture, Eric spent a year or more in unimaginable squalor and imposed silence in Outram gaol. After release, first in India, he met the ignorance and indifference to his their sufferings that blighted these men’s lives – a lady volunteer who suggested that since they had been POWs during most of the fighting, they must now be anxious to ‘do their bit’. In England, so much had changed. Eric’s mother had died in 1942 and his father had remarried. People had suffered and were not keen to revisit, let alone deal with, something that was over and done with.

The book, not surprisingly, tells a more profound, detailed and informative story. There are many tributes to the book. Ian Jack of The Guardian writes: ‘This beautiful, awkward book tells the story of a fine and awkward man.’

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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