The Glass Room

I have just read Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room.

DSCN4746 - Version 2As a writer I am gagging with envy. As a reader I am one satisfied customer. The book is set in Europe between 1928 and 1990, with the meat of the story taking place during WWII. The frame of the story is a dream modern house (which actually exists), built in the 1920s for a private family, during the short-lived Czech Republic. Although the style of the house and the spaces it creates are central to the story, it is the characters that grab you, entertain you and make you care about their fate.

The language is immensely rich, graphic and easy to read. It is haunting, but never sentimental. It depicts some of the richness and beauty of the spaces we live in. If I have a caveat, it is one I often find in male writers, an inability to resist depicting one or more women as a vamp. Mawer’s particular vamp is one of the most interesting and entertaining of the characters, so I am not really complaining. Her very boldness allows him to say things that most characters would not get away with.

I can’t work out if this is a heartbreaking story or one of hope, which sounds strangely indecisive*. The coverage of war experiences, however fictional, is in essence true and devastating. The longevity of an idea, embodied in the Glass House and persistence in survival of the human race under a variety of repressive regimes as well as war, are elements of hope.

*My discussion group are in no doubt that it is heartbreaking.

Another snake, another ladder

Yesterday I received another rejection for my novel Border Line. They are stacking up nicely now.

Last night I found an email from a friend. The subject line read: did you write this??? or where did I HEAR IT?

The text read: “Not even purgatory would feature a sing-along bar in Ljubljana. ”

This is a quote from Border Line, which my friend must have read well over a year ago. He may have remembered the line because he hated or was irritated by it, BUT at least he remembered it. He may even have liked it. I have to hang on to all forms of encouragement.

Birches in Anglesea Abbey gardens Winter Walk today.

Birches in Anglesea Abbey gardens Winter Walk today.

writing magic

A few weeks ago a friend lent me a book she had been unable to put down.


John William’s book Stoner sets out from page one to kill expectations. The tone is matter-of-fact, and the novel opens with Stoner’s death at the end of a clearly unremarkable life. This life is led almost entirely within the walls of an American university, though, crucially, Stoner is the only child of a small farmer.

So why has it become a bestseller here in the UK? The prose is mesmerising in its clarity and simplicity. The life it unfolds is unpromising in modern terms; bare, unambitious, and with few happy contributions from chance. Yet, this is an extraordinary and moving novel. I have rarely felt more sympathetic towards a protagonist. This remains true, in spite of the fact that much of his experience is marred by the limitations of his own personality. His background and upbringing are hidden shackles which the reader continues to hope (and not in vain) will crumble just a little some day.

It is also a story about the ordinariness of love and the magic of the written word.

A Time to Talk

I read this book just after Christmas and it made a happy contrast to some of the bleak writing I had waded through in the run-up to the festivities.


A Time to Talk is written in the style of a memoir and the voice is engaging, with a delightful turn of phrase and an often original way with language. There is also a self-deprecating tone, which allows the reader to feel both sympathy and mild exasperation with the protagonist as he flounders among the ‘slings and arrows’. Max Frei, a freelance counsellor with nothing but the good intentions towards his clients, finds himself in conflict with the law and in debates with not only experts in his own area, but criminals outside it. All of this is accompanied by his bewildered but happy reactions to his own love affair.  The story is told at a gentle pace giving the narrator plenty of time for introspection, while events unfold around him.

Within this story there is much thought about the serious subject of mental health and the treatments available, but all told with humour and insight that I found refreshing. It is rare to find such serious debate wrapped in such an easy conversational package with much laughter alongside.

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).

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.


Hospital Orderly, Chungkai – POWs 22

As often happened in the course of 1943 and 1944, the theatre in Chungkai Camp was shut down for a period, because a production had offended the prison guards. During one of these periods Barry remembers:

With the closure of the theatre, I rejoined the group of volunteer orderlies in the ulcer ward and here met Dr Jacob Markowitz for the first time. For some months more and more men with large infected ulcers had been arriving at Chungkai from up-river camps.

Chungkai unloading the sick2

These ulcers were nearly all in the legs and were caused by scratches from the thorny bamboo, which like most wounds in the jungle soon became infected and ulcerated. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb would be amputated.

The doctors had a supply of Dental Cocaine and this was used as a spinal anaesthetic, very suitable for leg amputations. As I worked up and down the ward with the other volunteers, cleaning and dressing the ulcers we would regularly be asked “Will it be my turn soon?” Most of the men were anxious to be freed from the misery and pain of an ever-growing ulcer, and were prepared, even anxious, to undergo the risk and pain of an operation.

Chungkai ulcer ward

I worked for a short time as a member of Dr Markowitz’s team. My job was to tend a small fire under a cut-down paraffin can in which the instruments were boiled. We had, as I recall, two scalpels, a bone saw, and several retractors made from table forks. The operating theatre was in the open, without a roof as it was the dry season.

The area was surrounded by screens of rice sacks on bamboo frames. My job was to keep the fire going and to fish out the instruments with homemade bamboo tongs and to lay them on a piece of sterile cloth on a small bamboo side table.

There were no comforting pre-med drugs, so the patient was immediately rolled onto one side and one of Markowitz’s assistants inserted the needle into his spine and injected a suitable dose of cocaine. Marco usually had one or two doctors assisting him. When tests showed that the anaesthesia was satisfactory a very tight tourniquet was placed around the patients upper thigh or groin and the operation proceeded.

I believe about 80% of patients survived these operations, a great advance on certain death in a fortnight. Many of the ulcer patients would have preferred death to a continued endurance of their miserable condition.

Ulcer patient, Chungkai

Extremely debilitated British soldier – amputation and multiple diseases, Chungkai. Recovered (Old)

There were no painkillers and the next few days must have been agonising after the anaesthetic had worn off. These patients, referred to as the “Amputs”, lived all together in a separate hut and no doubt comforted one another. By the end of the War most of the survivors were getting about on some sort of bamboo prosthesis.

Goods for these and other operations were supplied very secretly by Mr. Phi Boon Pong, a Siamese merchant and barge trader.

Boon Pong and other members of his family were crucial in the delivery of life-saving supplies through the underground to some of the camps. Many, many prisoners owe their lives to him.

Boon Pong Sirivejjaphand

Boon Pong Sirivejjaphand

Another agent submission

Today I finally stopped messing around (clearing my desk, catching up on household chores, dealing with emails, fetching logs, photographing sunsets), and got out the file of my novel Border Line, worked over the first chapters and made another submission. I nearly failed to jump the last fence as I feel the title needs changing after the shift I made in my last major revision. Then I decided I was rearranging the deck chairs, and pressed the Send button. The title needs to be right, but if the text is good enough it is unlikely to be the rejecting factor.

Looking for a new title took me on a very pleasurable, though off piste, journey through my poetry shelves as I followed the lead from Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, through Graves and Donne and back to Rehearsal (by Eleanor Green), which had been one of the original stimuli for the novel. I still have not found the title, but here are the first four lines of Eleanor’s poem and the reason why actor’s exercises became central to the story of Border Line.


for an exercise
I look at his hands
to improve our relationship

WWII letters across the world – POWs 18

In January 1944 , in response to a circular letter from Phyllis to the relatives of Barry’s men in 27 Line Section, several of them wrote back to say that they have had cards from their men. Although one wife writes:

…You see, Mrs Baker, I received a postcard from my husband in August but it had taken a year to come from the time of writing and he was fit and well then, next came the War Office communication confirming that he was a P.O.W. [more than a year after he went missing].

Just a few weeks later the War Office notified me that my husband had died from malaria in Thai Camp and that the date of his death was unknown…

While devastating for this family, this information may have given false hope to others, thinking that if they had heard nothing their men were still alive and well. Phyllis, still without any direct communication from Barry since early 1942, keeps sending the brief permitted typed slips.

Phyllis notes1

This one, sent in January 1944, miraculously reached Barry 9 months later.

Sometime later in January 1944 Phyllis had her moment of hope, a POW card from Barry reached England. This was addressed to his parents house and the Post Office readdressed it across the Atlantic to Barry’s parents in San Francisco, where they were broadcasting to the Far East in Malay. This small card, having traversed the globe, reached Barry’s parents who then cabled Phyllis with the good news.

BCB POW card1

BCB POW card1R

Phyllis was now among the lucky ones, she sent another slip to Barry.

Phyllis notes2

And she shared her joy with the other relatives of 27 line section. This reply, from the wife of one of the men who saved Barry’s life nine months earlier, shows that by now relatives are at least partially aware of the bad treatment of Far East POWs.

Dear Mrs Baker, Many thanks for your nice letter, and let me say how glad I am to know that your husband is safe and in the same camp as my own husband. [Relatives naturally assumed that “Camp or Group 2” referred to a fixed Prison camp.]

Things seem to be moving a bit now, with the Japs getting a foretaste of what’s to come, so maybe a few more blows will make them decide that better treatment of their prisoners would be beneficial.

Also that twenty-five words included the date, which I had not known, so I’m hoping, that my previous notes, have got through.

I was most interested to hear that you have a small son Mrs Baker, as I am very fond of children, and having one of my own, I know what a comfort he must be to you. My little boy is nearly seven, and it’s due to him that I kept going during the long period which his daddy was posted as missing.

It will be a wrench parting from him to take a job, but in the circumstances I think it would be best for you and will help to keep you from worrying. Often I have wished I could take a job myself, but having my father and sister to look after, (they are doing important work) along with my son, I seem always to have plenty to do.

I don’t think any more mail has arrived from the Far East since December, and although it’s unlikely that another postcard will arrive for a time, I’m just longing to hear that the men have received some mail from home.

Badly off as we think we are, it’s so much worse for them, not knowing how things are at home or how their dear ones are faring. Your father-in-law’s remark that the government hasn’t just let things slide, is very heartening, since he is in a position to know, so it’s up to us to be as brave and patient as our men, and who knows, it might not be too long before they return, when we will be able to make up to them a little for what they have gone through.

Hoping this finds you and your little son well and happy.

In late 1944 this correspondence that Phyllis kept up with the relatives became crucial when some Far East prisoners were rescued after the sinking of a transport ship.

The creative process?

I’m having a strange experience. Yesterday I finally gave myself permission to play with the novel I started writing in March – and haven’t touched since April. I love this phase, when ideas are in free play with no worries about the end product.

I have two scenes in Paris in 1947 and 1958 and I can hear Edith Piaf’s Milord playing in the background. There is an office in modern London and a house in Highbury, some digs in wartime (WWII) Oxford, a scene somewhere in America (seriously vague that), a musical mishap in Moscow with comic overtones. Some drafts are in the first person, some third, some in the present tense some in the past.

In the past I have started with a structure, like the armature of a sculpture, and let the story grow up and around this frame. This new story has a single central figure with plotlines radiating outwards, particularly into the past. I don’t at present see how it will ever shape into a continuous narrative.

Ideas for this book go back several years, and I have been disconcerted to find at least five different opening pages, several vague and/or contradictory plot outlines, some pages of character studies and dozens of unlikely names. There are four people alive and active in one or more of these scenes, but how the two from the earlier period interact with the more recent ones is still mostly opaque to me.

This is an octopus and I really don’t know which arm to investigate first. Actually, it’s more like a piece of knitting, with sections of sleeve or cuff half knitted on different size needles in different colours with different weights of wool.

Since I have created this chaos I should be able to sort out the strands and turn them into a serviceable rope. Hmm. In the meantime, I shall keep on playing Milord.

Hospital reader and Lady Almoner – POWs 17

All through spring and summer of 1943 starving and diseased POWs from the up-country railway work camps (in Thailand) trickled south to the bigger camps such as Chungkai. Barry reached this camp in July 1943 and was soon fit enough to do some work.

My first and simplest job was basically as a storyteller or rather reader. I would take a likely book from the camp library and sit down on the end of a bed space in one of the sick huts, and read a chapter or two. Then I would move down the hut, twenty or thirty yards, and read the same piece to another lot of sick men. This was judged to be a useful employment, so I was never called on to join a maintenance party.

In October the two parts of the railway, Thailand and Burma, joined up at Konkuita and from then on sick and dying men poured into Chungkai transported by barges or on the railway itself. Meanwhile Barry began to enjoy the theatre and concerts got up by enterprising prisoners, but found that:

These jolly functions contrasted harshly with our work in the sick huts, which got steadily worse as more parties of sick and dying arrived from up river. We were burying ten, fifteen, or even twenty every day, and it was disconcerting during my readings to become aware that one or two of my audience were never going to hear the next chapter.

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

From Peter Fyans biography of Fergus Anckorn: Captivity, Slavery and Survival as a Far East POW, the Conjuror on the Kwai

He progressed from reader to Lady Almoner

The job of Almoner, or “Lady Almoner” as it was called, involved the actual distribution of goodies bought from the welfare fund, to the sick men in the huts. The most useful purchases were eggs, honey, palm syrup, and occasional pots of vegemite, the Australian marmite. There was, of course, not nearly enough for everyone, the M.O. in charge of a particular hut would give me a list of the men due to receive these extras and the quantities for each one.

I did not at first realise the difficulty of the job but it became clear soon enough. Most of the very sick men got nothing at all because, as the M.O. told me, they would die anyway. The extras, very carefully husbanded, would go to those men who were able to profit from them and might just recover with their help but who would die without. At least I was spared the agony of deciding who got what, but every day I was faced with the need to find answers. “I am much sicker than Joe, Sir, why does he get two eggs this week and I get none?” An unanswerable question to which I had to find some reasonable answer day after day. I talked to the other Almoners and had no comfort from them, all in the same position as I was. “Tell them Orders is Orders, and you are just doing what you are told to do.”