Remembrance 2020

There’s a sense of looking back and looking forward in the title ‘Remembrance 2020’ isn’t there? As always, we remember and honour those who fought and died for us. When I saw a poppy seller on the street a couple of weeks ago I thought ‘oh, no, I have no cash!’ So many retailers are card only now that I don’t carry any. I needn’t have worried. I approached the veteran and he showed me a text number (text POPPY to 70020 to make a £3 donation) and said I could also donate online at the Royal British Legion website.

golden light on rice terraces, China
Light in the darkness

Our knowledge of their sacrifice and suffering has become our lived experience this year, when we have all been at war with Sars-CoV-2. So many people have suffered loss, or have died alone and apart from their loved ones. Our elderly and vulnerable citizens have been prisoners of this war, cooped up at home or in care homes, including my poor old mum, isolated and with an uncertain future. We have all experienced deprivation – of connectedness, of liberty and, for many, of their livelihoods.

Our experience in 2020 has been valuable in highlighting what is really important in our lives: friends and family, community, the value of the unsung heroes in our workforce – not just the frontline workers but people like the delivery drivers, the shelf stackers and the café workers. What helped me to get through some of the moments of anxiety and dread was reading, watching the series of plays offered online, for free, by the National Theatre, and catching up on TV and movies. Nature played her part too, reminding us of the continuity of life in spite of it all, and feeding our souls with beauty and joy.

The terrible suffering of the Second World War has been redeemed by 75 years (so far) of peace in Europe and amicable relationships in the Far East. As we look forward, Covid is steering us toward a different relationship with nature. And a stark realisation that poverty and inequality leave people vulnerable to deadly disease. And an appreciation of the value of the arts. Hope begins today, when Covid has contributed to the ousting of Trump. I saw on Facebook a post that said “Make America Kind Again” and that is a meme for this side of the pond too. Let’s pray for a new era of kindness during the silence for Remembrance 2020.

VJ Day 2020 in the UK

VJ Day 75 in the UK

On 15 August 2020 it will be 75 years since the Second World War came to an end with victory over Japan, commemorated as VJ75. Those who lived through that conflict, or died in it, deserve a special place in our hearts. Some fought at the front, others suffered as Prisoners of War, some nursed the wounded, grew food, were cruelly persecuted, were torn from their families as children, had their homes bombed or were forced to flee for their lives. They all experienced something that the rest of us can barely imagine.

The Forgotten War?

Perhaps the Far East war receives less attention in the UK because the veterans and their families are scattered around the world – Commonwealth forces made a major contribution to Allied efforts in the Far East. Our Chinese allies disappeared behind the ‘bamboo curtain’ with the Communist takeover in 1949, obscuring their contribution to the Allied victory. The Far East battlefields are distant and it is more expensive and difficult to visit Burma or Singapore than to visit the Normandy beaches or Montecassino. Or, perhaps, it is because Japan never attacked the UK, bringing the threat of destruction to our front door. Whatever the reason, it is time to bring remembrance of the Far East war to the foreground, to honour all those who fought and died there.

Researching Family History

Many of us have a one sentence legend about what our ancestors did in the war. Even that little snippet is at risk of being lost, so now is the time to investigate the legend and find out more about your family history. It has never been easier to do the research, but it helps if you have a starting point, such as a military service record or letters and diaries that the person left behind. Did you know that batteries, squadrons and other military units kept diaries, recording day to day events and troop movements? The service record will tell you which units your ancestor was attached to, and the unit diaries help you learn where your ancestor was and what they were doing.

The history of the Second World War will not be complete without these stories, which often uncover little known aspects of the war. We have much to learn from veterans’ experiences, especially in this Covid year, when our resilience, adaptability and capacity to work together for the common good are being tested in ways that they probably haven’t since 1945. You can now purchase a signed copy of my father’s story Stranger In My Heart from my website. I hope it will inspire you to research your own family history and give you some strength to cope with these difficult times.

Commemorations of VJ Day 2020 in the UK

I made this 5 minute film to recap my father’s story. BBC1 is showing a service from the National Memorial Arboretum on Saturday 15 August from 09.30 – 11.30am, which will include testimonies from veterans and families of those who served in the Far East. There is also a show on BBC1 at 8.30pm, commemorating VJ75. The Royal British Legion website has comprehensive coverage of the war in the Far East, particularly commemorating the role of forces from all over the commonwealth. They are featuring Dad’s story here. The Sun newspaper is offering a four-page pullout feature commemorating VJ Day. They interviewed me for it, so there may be coverage of Dad’s story there too. We will remember them.

Happy 2nd Birthday!

Stranger In My Heart was born on 9th June 2018, so it is the book’s 2nd birthday today (and Dad’s 106th)! I have learned a lot about book marketing over the last two and a half years, not least that it is time consuming and requires constant attention to Twitter, Facebook and the rest. I did my best and I really enjoyed the launch party and the various events that I spoke at. Thankyou to everyone who helped along the way, with support, encouragement, book buying, review writing, tea, cake and general loveliness. Sales naturally slow down after a while, especially when events that might have been useful in promoting the book have all been cancelled…

Birthday cake stranger in my heart

I was supposed to speak at a conference in June, commemorating the 75th anniversary of VJ day (VJ75). I was looking forward to talking about Dad’s efforts to liberate the PoWs he’d left behind in Hong Kong, and meeting veterans and their families. The conference is rescheduled for next year so I hope to speak then. VJ75 is a major milestone, conference or no, but it is very much the poor relation compared to the attention paid to VE day. Perhaps by August 15 we will be able to get together to mark VJ75, sort of in lieu of the celebrations that were supposed to be held on VE75. If so, that might raise awareness in the wider population of the war in the Far East. Every cloud…

I am thoroughly fed up with lockdown now. All my favourite events have been cancelled and everything that was in the diary between now and the year end has gradually been deleted. I have enjoyed the opportunity to get on with writing my book about my great aunt, and we are loving exploring Edinburgh, but I miss seeing people and going places and eating out and holidays. I know I am immensely privileged to have a happy home, good health, reliable internet and enough money to keep me going and I do count my blessings. But, well, you know. Stay safe and well and we’ll meet again…

Another Chance to See…

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.

Far East PoWs behind bars

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.

Teton Sioux

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.

Interconnected and interdependent

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.

78th Anniversary of Black Christmas

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!

John Monro, Tenzing Norgay
Three Wise Men (John Monro, Tenzing Norgay, another Sherpa)

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
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!

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.