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.


The Agent Dilemma

Made myself concentrate on submissions today. It it just laziness that makes me go on looking for an agent instead of self-publishing? I broke even with Unseen Unsung, so I can do it and I have learned so much on that road… and yet… I feel an agent will do well all those things I just scrape through inefficiently. In the meantime another year has passed. Border Line is a much improved book over that year, so I cannot regret the time and effort, but I ache to get on with the new project.

If I were a brilliant writer, I would be writing poetry. This has, in my view to be perfect or nothing. However in the world of fiction, writing across a vast spectrum of quality can be enjoyed. There are happy readers for works from Byatt or Attwood all the way to Mills & Boon’s prescribed plots. So, assuming an interesting enough story, and writing skills somewhere between the two ends of the spectrum, there should be no bar to attempting a novel. However, even with the story in the bag, and enough skills to gain several hundred readers  (for two novels) on a shoestring, finding and agent – let alone a publisher – is like playing a bad game of Snap.

Agents have full books and enough friends (and friends of friends) who write, never to need to trek further afield for new material. They don’t mind being sent new material, but for all their claims about looking for a ‘good read’, they give off a clear vibe of hoping to spot the next Harry Potter or nothing. They have jaded palates when it come to subject matter – and who shall blame them, given the writing they must wade through. They have to predict the reading public’s next year’s flavour. They have to squeeze any author they take on into a pre-recognised genre. Ideally they want a personality to sell as well as a book. Oh, and they don’t much like subject matter (such as assisted dying) that will frighten the horses/publishers.

I could go on. I can see the problem. I’m just too bloody-minded to give in. Even knowing that, should I find an agent via this crazy blind date system they then have to sell my story to a publisher, doesn’t stop me looking. Am I mad?