Move Over Dad

I realise that it is almost Remembrance Day, 11 November, when we commemorate our war dead, but I’d like to remember my sister Kathy on what would have been her 70th birthday, 9 November 2021. Her life was cut short by cancer at the age of 35, so she has now been dead almost as long as she was alive.

Inevitably one remembers the last few years, from the shock of diagnosis, the determined liveliness that followed, before the gradual shedding of her powers that led inexorably towards her parting. She died at home, very early on the morning of 2 January 1987, surrounded by family. She spent much of her illness at home on the farm, running a Christmas tree business and travelling to Hungary with our mother for a last adventure. The house almost became a hotel, with streams of Kathy’s friends visiting her, usually with a challenging range of special dietary requirements that Mum gallantly catered for.

Kathy, centre, with James in front and me behind

We didn’t have an easy relationship. Kathy was feisty and contrary, bright and adventurous and she thought I was the most boring, unimaginative person alive, contentedly plodding along life’s conventional track. It’s true that I had it easy – she was 12 years my senior and shook our parents to the core with her tempestuous and unconventional nature. She blazed a trail that handed me freedoms that she had had to fight for. I was in awe of her and some of her ardent feminism rubbed off on me, along with her outrage at injustice to the vulnerable and dispossessed.

Kathy travelled widely, doing whatever work she could find. She worked in Falkirk as a seed potato inspector and she also lived in Leith for a while in the 1970s. I work at a clinic in Leith – now the swanky port area of Edinburgh but in those days a slum following the decline of its industries (whaling, lead, herring fishing, shipbuilding). Leithers are a proud and independent people, with an international outlook and culture, probably making Kathy feel quite at home. Latterly Kathy lived overseas, in Hong Kong and Egypt, after training as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Egypt and Arabic fascinated her and it was when she was studying Arabic and Islamic Studies at Durham University that she was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. She completed her degree, gaining a 2.2 in spite of feeling extremely unwell. Her ambition had been to go to Yemen to work with women’s groups there but her illness denied her this opportunity.

Kathy at Giza

She never married or had children and I wonder whether she would have been a perpetual nomad, had she lived. Friends and boyfriends were fiercely loyal to her but she was restless, always had itchy feet. I also wonder if she would have mellowed at all. I sort of hope not – I can picture her campaigning for refugees, or women’s rights, determined to make the world a better place. I’d like to think she’s resting in peace, but that’s not really her style.

Did Allied Strategy Prolong the Suffering of FEPoWs?

The Researching FEPOW History Group (RFHG) blog has published a post written by me about how Allied strategy prolonged the suffering of the Far East PoWs. Dad had what he called a ‘great thought’ about liberating the PoWs he’d left behind in Hong Kong. He teamed up with the US Air Force, who had a much bigger plan to win the war against the Japanese with air power. Retaking Hong Kong was part of their plan and this represented an opportunity to rescue the long suffering PoWs. Sadly, the plan was subverted at the highest level, in a battle of personality and attitude. If it had been properly resourced and supported it might have shortened the war by a year, saving millions of lives, in Europe and the Far East.

The RFHG was due to have a conference this June, at which I was going to discuss this. Sadly, it was a victim of Covid19, along with so many other events. I was looking forward to meeting fellow FEPOW families and hearing about their experiences. I hope there will be other opportunities to meet up and share these hidden histories of the Second World War.

You can still buy a signed copy of Stranger In My Heart in time for Christmas if you’re quick! 2020 has been so strange and sad, I’m sure we will all be glad to put it behind us. Whenever I start to flag with the relentlessness of it all, though, I have only to think of those brave souls who endured the privations of WW2 and I revive a little. Wishing all of you peace and joy at Christmas and looking forward to a Happy New Year.


Originally this blog was intended to keep friends and family up to date with my travels in China. It worked far better than sending postcards and it was great to be able to share photographs and videos of my adventures. Now, though, I am going to start blogging about my publishing journey. The book is written but that seems to be a relatively small and simple part of the process – a journey from ‘twinkle in the eye’ to embryological development. I now have to get through the gestation process.

I am anxiously awaiting the return of the manuscript of “Stranger In My Heart” from the editor. I was expecting it last week but nothing has turned up yet. This is like the 12 week scan, when I shall see if there is a healthy heartbeat and the right number of limbs. After that I will have to do a lot of work. Everyone says that you have to ‘kill your darlings’ – allow cuts and changes even to your favourite passages – in order for the book to work well. I will try not to be too defensive but I hope that there isn’t a total rewrite to do as I am rather busy doing other things. I am also looking for people who might write reviews for me. I have contacted some celebrity supporters of the Riding for the Disabled Association (I’m donating some of the book proceeds to the RDA) and I have a well known author or two up my sleeve, but any suggestions gratefully received.

I am going to the Greek Islands in a couple of days for a holiday – it has been a tough year for me, healthwise, and I am hoping to come home with renewed vigour. I may or may not post while I’m away, depending on WiFi availability, inclination and newsworthy news!

On the road to Shangri-La

Today we headed north towards the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. First stop was the ‘first bend of the Yangtze River’. Three rivers rise in the north and head south through the mountains. Two of them continue south and join the Mekong, emptying in the South China Sea. The Yangtze makes a different choice – at this spot it makes a U-bend that then leads it eastward across China, ultimately reaching the sea at Shanghai. At this season, before the rains, the river looks charming and benign, but in a month or two it will be an iron-red raging torrent. We strolled through the little town next to the bend and snacked on deep fried potatoes with chilli.

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We continued on to Tiger Leaping Gorge (still the upper Yangtze, here known as Jinsha river). I had toyed with the idea of hiking the gorge for a couple of days but all the guidebooks say it is extremely steep and demanding, especially on the knees. Not for me these days. Instead we drove to the inevitable visitor centre, with walkways, viewing platforms and tat shops. Even so it was a considerable descent to reach the river and a stiff climb back up. No matter all the trappings of tourism, it is still stunning. Hydro power is growing massively in China and there was talk of flooding the gorge to create a dam. As well as affecting tourism, this would have displaced about 100,000 Naxi people. In a rare response to public outcry, the dam project has been shelved. However, there are still plans for dams higher up and lower down, so it is not all good news.

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We climbed from 2400m at Lijiang to 3200m at Shangri-La, via spectacular mountain scenery. We are close to Tibet here and the flavour of the town is very much Tibetan rather than Chinese. Goats gave way to yaks, pagoda style roofs disappeared and traditional Tibetan houses started to appear, signs started to be in Tibetan script as well as Chinese characters and prayer flags were flying everywhere. It’s also much colder here, but still good weather. There was a major fire in Shangri-La last year that destroyed about 400 houses in the old town. I’m not sure how much that will affect the look of the place.