Mark Rylance and Me

Sir Mark Rylance, star of stage, screen and TV, had a grandfather who was a PoW in Hong Kong. You may remember that back in the spring I was approached by a TV production company who wanted to know all about the battle of Hong Kong and the PoW experience? Well, the series they were making is soon to air on Channel 4 as “My Grandparents’ War” with 4 shows, each hosted by a celebrity. The episode featuring Sir Mark and Hong Kong will air in December, last of the 4 shows. Sadly, they didn’t fly me to Hong Kong and I didn’t meet Sir Mark (boohoo, I’m a massive fan), but it’ll be great to have the role of Hong Kong in WW2 highlighted. They’ve sold the rights internationally so it will be seen by a large audience, which I am really pleased about. I will update with more details when I know the precise dates and times that the films will be shown.

I had a lovely letter of appreciation from HRH the Princess Royal’s secretary, following my donation to the RDA. I was away when the letter from Buckingham Palace arrived and had to ask Julian to open it for me. Just in case it was about my imminent damehood…

It will soon be Remembrance Day and once again my heart goes out to all those whose loved ones gave their today for our tomorrow. We should all be deeply grateful for the peace that we have enjoyed in Europe these last 75 years. We share so much with our European neighbours and I am minded to quote Vera Brittain in the closing pages of “Testament of Youth” when she muses on the role of the survivors after the First World War:

“Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was to refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. If only, somehow, the nobility which in us had been turned towards destruction could be used in them for creation, if the courage which we had dedicated to war could be employed, by them, on behalf of peace, then the future might indeed see the redemption of man instead of his further descent into chaos.”

Donation to Rea Valley Group at RDA 50 Celebration

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA). It seemed the perfect moment to hand over a donation from the proceeds of Stranger In My Heart. It was an inspiring and heartwarming event at Berriewood Riding Stables, seeing so many dedicated volunteers and happy riders on beautifully turned out horses. There were also many familiar faces from my childhood, women who were stalwart volunteers back in the day, who saw a need and responded to it, fundraised, kept things going, inspired others to help, were generous with their time and enthusiasm. Here is the write up that appeared on the Rea Valley Group’s Facebook page:

REA VALLEY GROUP 1 OCTOBER 2019 “…and we ALWAYS have Cake”! So were the proud words of the Rea Valley Group in Shropshire in their celebration of 50 Years of RDA. This came at the end of a very energetic, well delivered and most positive morning where a dozen riders were put through their paces. Whether Visually Impaired, carrying a debilitating physical condition or recovering from severe injury, each and every rider was given care, attention and every encouragement to progress and feel good about themselves. Each was presented with a commemorative Golden rosette and their Endeavour and Achievement Awards brought especially by Marissa Brereton-McKay of the National Office Team. “It was a truly excellent session in every respect and a smashing exhibition of what RDA delivers”.

Rea Valley RDA 50 celebration
RDA Rea Valley founders and friends

Surrounded by a host of supporters including some of the “Founding Sisters”, Carla Howarth, the Group Chairman, gave a warm welcome and praised the foresight of these ladies who had the vision to “provide an opportunity for those that had a need” and that they “should feel deeply proud of the foundations that had led to the Group that is still flourishing today”. Diana Baart, June Whitaker and Mary Anne Richey recalled with enthusiasm that they were driven by a need to support riders from the local Rowton Castle Blind School, a brave move back in the early ’70s. Such was the success that the Group “morphed” into the Rea Valley Group with the ladies giving around 30 or so years service each and who remain active supporters today.

Among many highlights was a short insight into her father’s life given by Mary Monro who had made the journey up from Bath for the day. Mary has written a fascinating book recalling the challenges, exploits and dogged determination of her late father, Lt Col John Monro MC Royal Artillery, who had escaped the Japanese by crossing 1200 miles through China following capture at the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941. As a Shropshire farmer and keen horseman post War he dedicated his life to creating opportunity, “freedom and agency” for others who suffered, bringing children from the Condover School for the Blind to ride ponies at the family farm. His efforts all those years ago were at the root of what became the RDA and Mary was delighted to present Rea Valley with a generous “cheque for £850 in support of the wonderful work you do and to continue the legacy of a truly heroic and self effacing man”.

RDA Rea Valley and Stranger In My Heart
Carla Howarth, Chair, and Mary Monro

“I love coming to this Group, you are so positive, have such great team spirit, and you look after both rider and their supporters so well. It’s a joy to see so many smiles and such a professional approach from a dedicated team of volunteers and so much lovely cake, it is a wonderful RDA experience”, summed up Anona White, the Regional Chair, in adding her thanks and congratulations on a superb day.

VJ Day

It’s 74 years today since Victory against Japan was declared. The war in the Far East carries some shocking statistics: 36 million dead, of whom 18 million were Chinese civilians; 200,000 Allied PoWs; 32% mortality among Far East PoWs compared to 4% among PoWs in Europe; the fourth deadliest battle of WW2 was the Ichigo campaign in China 1944, with 1.3 million casualties. Do these numbers surprise you?

RFHG pic
Far East PoWs learn of Victory against Japan,
courtesy of RFHG

The Pacific War is not given the same level of attention as the war in Europe and yet it arguably presented a greater challenge. For example, the terrain and tropical climate supplied an additional enemy in terms of conducting a war, with its poor lines of sight, gruelling physical demands, attendant diseases and difficulties for managing wounds and infections. Land transport links were poor making battle supply, communication, management and support extremely difficult and hazardous. The theatre of battle was spread over a vast area, much of it only accessible by sea, requiring complex logistical planning and long range resource capability. The Japanese fought a lawless guerrilla war rather than a traditional war, so that the Allied forces had no safe rear area and no respite at night. Co-ordination between the air, land and sea forces was critical, quite unlike any other theatre and any previous war. The Japanese Imperial Army did not abide by international law on the treatment of PoWs or civilians. The local languages and peoples did not allow for easy disguise and, along with the inhospitable terrain, made escape more or less impossible.

Let us celebrate the extraordinary endurance of both the Allied Forces and the civilian populations, and honour the dead on both sides. The silence of the combatants, the bamboo curtain raised by the Chinese Communists and our post-war trading and political alliances with Japan have all succeeded in allowing the Pacific War to become unjustly forgotten. Let us rescue the stories of the Pacific War before they are lost forever and commemorate this extraordinary chapter in our history.

38 years perspective

Dad died 38 years ago today and I have been wondering what he would think of the world today. He would appreciate many of the technological advances that make farm admin, planning and management more efficient but I believe that the industrialisation of farming would have saddened him. He was a real countryman, in touch with the rhythms of nature and responsive to her needs – he was a proper husband to the land, not a rapist. Our insatiable demand for cheap food has led to denuded soils, poisoned and homeless wildlife, the brutalisation of our farm animals and almost universal separation between producer and consumer.

Our disconnection from the land has had disastrous consequences for us as well as the land and its flora and fauna. We get our water bottled, we take any means of transport that keeps us separate from the ground, we like our food adulterated out of all recognition from the original plants that grew or animals that lived, we want strawberries at Christmas, we don’t trust the air to dry our clothes, preferring the tumble dryer instead. We don’t trust ourselves – our body’s innate intelligence – its cries for nutrition, water and sleep go unheeded and we don’t trust it to heal our wounds, cure our sickness and prevent infection from invading us. Mistrust breeds fear and fear breeds contempt.

At local level our lost relationship with nature manifests as a disregard for our own health and for the health of our local environment. At a global level we are on the edge of catastrophe. If we stop meddling with nature, exploiting it, trying to control it; if we enter into a healthy relationship with it we might just save ourselves. I’m sick of the brutalist agenda and hope for the ascendancy of kindness.

The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

1950s Hong Kong

I’ve just been to the Regimental HQ for 19RA, who Dad commanded from 1955-1957, to look at the Regimental Diary for his time in command. It makes fascinating reading, as the regiment was in Korea during 1955, keeping the peace – or at least a truce – after the Korean war. At the beginning of 1956 the regiment moved to Hong Kong and Dad was busy training troops all round the Island, Kowloon and the New Territories. I wonder how he felt, revisiting the sites that had been battlefield during the Second World War? These days we would be concerned about PTSD but I have no record of his response to finding himself back at the site of the deaths of many of his colleagues.

At the end of 1957 Dad was leaving command of the regiment and they threw a party for him that is delightfully recorded in the Regimental Diary:

leaving party 1957

5 November 1957: Lt Colonel and Mrs JH Monro were dined out of the regiment at a Ladies Guest Night. The Colonel’s car was met outside of camp by two motorcycles who escorted his car into camp where he was invited to inspect a special quarter-guard composed of representatives from all sub-units of the regiment. During dinner Major W Hamilton RA delivered a speech on behalf of the hosts to which Colonel Monro replied.

After dinner Colonel Monro was towed, sitting on a trailers artillery, hooked into a gun, by the officers to the Warrant Officers and Sergeants Mess. His journey was accompanied by the noise of the horn of every vehicle in camp, the procession being led by the band of the 1st Battalion the East Lancashire Regiment and illuminated by the lights of the regiment’s vehicles. The band played the regimental quick march “The British Grenadiers”.

After Colonel and Mrs Monro had been entertained by RSM Shepherd and the members of the Sergeants Mess, the colonel was returned safely to the Officers Mess. Again the conveyance was the trailers artillery and gun, propelled this time by the motive power of members of the Warrant Officers and Sergeants Mess. The evening continued with an informal dance held in the Officers Mess, the music being delivered by the dance band section of the band of the 1st Bn East Lancashire Regiment. This made a very fitting end to a very memorable occasion.

Many thanks to Col Peter Beaumont, CO XIXRA, for his kindness in giving me access to this snippet of Dad’s military history.

Jerusalem

As the date of my first Women’s Institute talk approached, I realised that it coincided with the 75th anniversary of D-Day. It seemed appropriate to begin my talk with a silence, to honour all of those who took part in that momentous day. It suited me well to open with reflection, as it has become my mission to invite people to rescue the stories of their relatives who took part in the Second World War. The silent generation left most of us with a one sentence legend at best: ‘he fought in Italy’; ‘she drove an ambulance’; ‘he was a POW in Malaya’; or similar. The next generation down often don’t even have the one sentence legend and so, if we are to rescue these stories, it has to be done soon before they are lost forever.

The purpose of excavating these stories, bringing them into the light and making them widely available is multi-layered. At the beginning of the WI meeting we all sang Jerusalem. It’s such a part of our cultural heritage that it’s easy to sing it automatically and without really thinking about it. The last verse asks us to build Jerusalem/Heaven here and to never give up trying to achieve that:

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

England's green & pleasant land
England’s Green & Pleasant Land

At the time of the Second World War this was an almost literal command, had Blake used ‘gun’ instead of ‘sword’. Delving into the lives of loved ones who took part helps us to convert the abstract idea of sacrifice into solid deeds and values. The realisation of the courage shown humbles us, especially when the person was youthful at the time. Would we have done that? Made that decision? Taken responsibility for other peoples’ lives? Faced with a similarly dire circumstance today, how would we respond?

It is not only us as individuals who can learn from deepening our understanding of that generation. As a nation we are struggling with our sense of identity. We have seen our ugliness unleashed – greed, selfishness, intolerance, ignorance, tribalism, pettiness, and cruelty bursting through our civilised veneer like an angry red pustule. Our response is, not unreasonably, despair and anxiety, but we know that we have a better self. If we have forgotten what it looks like, the Second World War generation can remind us. We carry them within us – in our genes, in our hearts and minds and in our capabilities.

Thanks to the prolonged peace in Europe we do not face a military threat, but we do face a global climate crisis that needs every ounce of commitment, intelligence, co-operation, ingenuity, and leadership that a war draws out of us. I hope the media coverage of 75th anniversaries over the next year will catalyse a transformation into a more positive national identity. Not a regressive restoration to a small-minded and outdated ’empire spirit’ nationalism, but a determination to be our best selves to respond to a challenging future.

Today would be Dad’s 105th birthday and it’s the first birthday of Stranger In My Heart. Happy birthday, dear book!

Stranger News

It is almost a year since Stranger In My Heart was launched. I have recently received my royalty statement from Unbound which said that, in the 9 months from June 2018 to March 2019 I sold about 1,000 copies, half e-book and half paperback edition. I’m told that I should be pleased about this, even if it seems small reward for the blood, sweat and tears that went into the project! It also means that I have over £800 to donate to the Riding for the Disabled Association. I am figuring out how to donate it for maximum impact and will keep you posted.

The TV company that are making a documentary series to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2 have told me that they won’t be filming me after all, but it will still be great to have the Hong Kong story told on prime time TV. The show will air in the autumn and they have said they’ll tell me when it is on.

Next week I have the first of several talks to Women’s Institutes in Wiltshire. As it is a lovely sunny day I thought I’d go and sit in the garden and read my book! As in read MY book. I’ve become so focused on my work in progress that I’ve forgotten the details of Stranger In My Heart and I don’t want to look an idiot by not being able to answer questions about it!

I just heard from the Commanding Officer of 19RA, the Regiment that Dad commanded in the 1950s. They have a scrapbook detailing what they were doing throughout his Command, including their activities in Korea and Hong Kong. I am going to go over to Larkhill in a few weeks to have a look at it. It will fill in an annoying gap in my knowledge of his army career. Here he is in front of his troops in Korea. It says it’s the Queen’s Birthday Parade, but 9th June is also Dad’s birthday.

19RA, Korea 1955
Dad in Korea with 19RA, 1955

Moving Pictures

Moving pictures of both kinds to discuss. I met a TV company in London who are making a series to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2, to be aired in the autumn on C4. They asked me all about the Battle of Hong Kong and the FEPoW experience at Sham Shui Po camp, as well as Dad’s escape. The celebrity who is presenting this episode is being flown out to Hong Kong – without me! – and the company may or may not want to interview me to fill in the gaps. They like that I am female in a male dominated topic, but I guess it depends how the filming goes in HK.

I have just returned from Shropshire where my brother showed me some old family photos. I took them to the nursing home to show my mum, Betty, and she really connected with them. It prompted her to tell some stories from her youth and it was so moving to see her enjoy her memories and to hold a coherent thread. It is rare treat nowadays to see her rise from a sea of confusion for a brief moment in the light of reason. I told her I loved her, always mindful that it may be the last time that I can be confident that the message will reach its destination.

These portraits of my parents are by society photographer, Madame Yevonde of Berkeley Square.

John Monro 1952
John Monro 1952
EL Monro 1952
Betty Monro 1952, aged 25

There was also a couple of pictures of Dora; with her brother Howard on a cruise to Australia in the 1970s, perhaps after husband John died in 1975? And with John in the 1930s.

Dora Metcalf cruise
Dora Metcalf, Frances & Howard Greene, 1970s?
John & Dora Metcalf
Capt John & Dora Metcalf

Escape Anniversary


On the night of 1st February 1942, Dad escaped with two colleagues from Sham Shui Po PoW camp in Hong Kong. They took some supplies with them to see them through the next week as they walked at night across the New Territories towards the Chinese border:

8 Tins Bully Beef, 1 Tin Mutton, 2 Tins Carnation Milk, 1 Packet Army Biscuits, 2 Emergency Rations, 2 Pints of Sugar (half in a tin; half wrapped in a piece of gas cape), 1 Tin of Salt, 7 Oxo Cubes, 80 handful of Dry beans stored in containers made by tying up the ends of the sleeves of a gas cape, 1 Jar Virol (malt based health drink).

From the Medical Officer: Some Biozygen (vitamin supplement), Quinine Tablets, Aspirin, Iodine, Pot Permang Tablets, Chloride of Lime, a very small bottle of brandy.              

An oil Prismatic compass, 4 Field Dressings, H.K.$ 180 in cash, 50 Camel Cigarettes, a 1/250,000 map of the Country to Waichow.

Quite a comprehensive list considering the camp conditions, but not much given that they had no idea where, when or how they would resupply. It was a bold move to escape into the unknown, not knowing if they would be recaptured, killed by the Japanese or betrayed by the Chinese. Dad was 27 years old.

A TV production company from London called, asking if I would contribute to a show they are making about Sham Shui Po and the Battle of Hong Kong. Not sure what that will mean just yet but will keep you posted. Exciting!