The production company who made My Grandparents’ War have been in touch to say that the Mark Rylance episode is being shown again on Saturday 4 April at 7pm on Channel 4. I know you won’t be going out, so why not watch the show?! It gives a real insight into the role of the battle of Hong Kong in World War II and looks at the conditions of the PoWs from all angles.
In other news, Unbound are promoting ALL of their e-books to give people a good value read to fill the ‘staycation’ hours. Mine is on offer at £5 if you would like a copy of the digital edition. Check out the other great titles on there while you are at it – I have read several Unbound books now and they are a diverse bunch of interesting ideas: fiction, non-fiction, graphic books, all sorts. If you would like a copy of the paperback of Stranger In My Heart, I have a stash at home that I can send you, for £12 each including post and packing. Signed by the author, naturally. Contact me via the website.
It is well worth reading these stories from the Second World War at this strange time. Whenever I start feeling cooped up and grumpy at the restrictions on my lifestyle, I just think of the lot of the PoW. No food, no medicines, no entertainment, no work, no prospect of release, every chance of dying in captivity. Their fortitude is humbling and a lesson to us all.
I have seen that in any great undertaking it is not enough for a man to depend simply upon himself.
On the night of 1st February 1942 Dad escaped from Sham Shui Po camp in Hong Kong and set off towards an uncertain future in China. He might have felt that he was taking back control of his destiny and in some senses he was. But he was heavily dependent on having companions for support and points of safety, resupply, information, healthcare, transport and finance along the way. He was escaping into an allied country, supported by British and American military missions. For all that, he and his companions were still destitute refugees who had to successfully navigate territory occupied by enemy troops, who would certainly have killed them if they had been discovered.
The choice to escape must balance the possible hazards along the way with the likelihood of reaching the desired outcome. And what might be the cost of staying put? We know that many of Dad’s colleagues who remained in the camp had a miserable time and some did not survive. The worst outcome of both choices was death, but the best outcome of escape was freedom and agency.
The diminished, demoralised and degraded group of men who remained in the PoW camp were to become Dad’s mission when he was appointed Assistant Military Attaché in Chongqing. Their appalling treatment in camp meant that they were no longer fit to escape – it would have to be mass liberation. Sadly, the fate of Hong Kong PoWs was not a strategic priority and Dad’s rescue plan – although agreed at the most senior levels as part of a bold strategy to win the Pacific War – was not actioned. An arrogant personality clash among the military leadership led to a different strategy, the consequent suffering of many and the loss of millions of lives.
On 25th December 1941 The Allied Forces surrendered Hong Kong to the Japanese, beginning their rout of Allied territories in the Far East. It became known as “Black Christmas” to acknowledge the losses suffered by the military and civilian populations there. This year will be the 78th anniversary of that sad Christmas Day. Stranger In My Heart, which describes the battle and its wartime context, is available online if you have any friends or family who haven’t read it yet!
I hope you have managed to see some of the “My Grandparents’ War” series on C4. It has thrown light on some of the lesser known aspects of WW2 but, perhaps more importantly, has reminded us of the character of that generation. The acceptance of the horrors that they witnessed, the hardships they endured, their bravery under fire or persecution, their indomitable spirit and their mental resilience are beacons to light our way. Our lives in the present are extremely stressful and many are suffering or in difficulty, but I wonder if we have lost that ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ attitude? Those participants in WW2 may have felt terrified, appalled, inadequate to the task, unprepared for what they faced, imperilled, confused, but they continued to do what was asked of them for the protection of their colleagues and for the greater good.
Let’s hope that 2020 will be a year of clearsightedness, when we set our priorities straight and work together for the greater good.
The Clearing by Martha Postlethwaite
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose. Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song that is yours alone to sing falls into your open cupped hands and you recognise and greet it. Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worthy of rescue.
Merry Festive Greetings and very best wishes for the New Year!
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.”
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”.
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”.
“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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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!