My Book: “Stranger In My Heart”

 

STRANGER_finalfront

Stranger In My Heart is being published by Unbound. The foreword has been written by HRH The Princess Royal, in her capacity as President of the Riding for the Disabled Association. My dad was one of the founders of the RDA and 20% of net proceeds will be donated to the charity. The Unbound website has more details and the chance to pre-order a copy of either the paperback or ebook.

Synopsis

Stranger in My Heart describes the transformation of a stranger called ‘Dad’, who died in 1981, into someone I know and honour, while expanding my sense of self and enriching my life. It began at my mother’s 80th birthday party in 2007 when a friend described my father as a ‘20th Century Great’. I already knew Dad had fought in Hong Kong in 1941, had been imprisoned by the Japanese and had escaped across China. I didn’t know that he had been Assistant Military Attaché in China 1942-43 and had hatched a plan to evacuate all the PoWs he’d left behind in Hong Kong; or that he’d fought in the blood and sweat stained hell of Burma 1944-45.

 

Major John Monro, 1942

Major John Monro MC, 1942

I also learned about his mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas with Sherpa Tenzing in 1946 before he eventually left the army in the late 1950s to become a Shropshire farmer (where I was born). Driven to fill in the gaps, I transcribed Dad’s letters and diaries, visited the Imperial War Museum, read books and researched online. Not satisfied by the written word on my father’s experiences, I learned some Mandarin and retraced Dad’s escape route across China. I became enchanted by China’s beauty and intrigued by its culture and history, having previously barely known that China had been our ally in WW2. I began writing, seeking to fully understand the context of my father’s story. I hired researchers to dig around in London and the USA, and gradually built a more complete picture of my father’s world, comparing his story with that of other escapers and delving into the Allies’ military strategy in the Far East.

Comments about the book

“I’ve read your proposal. My thoughts are, first and foremost that you write very well. That certainly stands out. A rare gift and you have it”.
Damien Lewis, author of  Zero Six Bravo and Hunting The Nazi Bomb.
 “I started reading chapter one and couldn’t stop…lunch was rather late as a result!”
Jane Dunn, author of Elizabeth & Mary and Daphne Dumaurier and Her Sisters.
“My overall view is that it is easy, witty, fun and interesting to read, with (in addition) very memorable passages and turns of phrase both from yourself and your dad, while the interwoven themes and content are well balanced and nicely integrated and inherently worthy of attention. It’s got some good history, language, travelogue, militaria, etc., in there, but I see these as being like nectar that rewards the penetration of the hummingbird’s tongue: the real theme is a human story of ‘becoming through self-discovery through father-discovery’, in which everyone on the planet is also engaged and to all of whom you speak”.
Julian Caldecott, author of Water, the Causes Costs and Future of a Global Crisis and Aid Performance and Climate Change.

Comment on the Chapter about the Stilwell vs Chennault strategy in the Pacific War

“It seems to me well-written and to have drawn on good materials to make its point. It’s still a live issue and I am sure your book will add to the debate”.

Prof Rana Mitter, Oxford University, author of China’s War with Japan 1937-45

Chapter Summaries

1. The Call To Adventure

A chance remark from an old family friend sparks the author’s long journey of discovery. Her father Lt Col John Monro was described as “a 20th Century Great” – with no further explanation – the only other clue being his Military Cross medal. He died in 1981 but left behind diaries and letters describing his wartime experiences. The author sets the scene on who he was and what he meant to her, from family life on the farm to his reticence about his army career and the impact of his death. For this book is also a personal and psychological voyage of a daughter in search of the father she never really knew. Through memories of her mother, siblings, old family friends and the use of other war diaries, Mary pieces together a picture of a man who combined Victorian suppression and silence with an unfettered love of adventure and derring-do, and the necessary discipline and courage to carry his bold decisions through to completion.

2. Hong Kong 1941

An overview of the Battle of Hong Kong and its role in the war illuminate the personal and poignant, eye-witness version of events from Major Monro’s diaries.

Battle of Hong Kong 1941

3. Escape

We gain insights into the minds of prisoners of war as they struggle to escape into an unknown and hostile land. Is it more dangerous to stay or to go? How to get through Japanese occupied territory, otherwise populated by armed bandits and Communist guerrillas? Several parties escaped on the same night in February 1942, but with very different outcomes.

4. China’s War

Mary uncovers more about the 20th century history of China and its key role in the Allied Powers’ war effort against Japan. She starts to unravel the mystery of her father’s route across China. See map of Major John Monro’s route from Hong Kong to Chongqing in 1942.

5. Road Closed and Open

Mary explores Chinese language and culture in preparation for her trip to China. She muses on whether retracing her father’s escape route will bring her closer to understanding him.

6. Crossing the Threshold

A tour of Hong Kong connects her immediately with her dead father, through a chance sighting of a Black Kite, a meeting with an old family friend and a visit to the war cemetery. The battle of Hong Kong is brought alive through a tour of the battle sites.

7. Entering The Middle Kingdom

After crossing into mainland China, Major Monro took whatever means of transport was available to reach Shaoguan, wartime capital of Guangdong province, including taking a boat up the East River and suffering being crammed in the back of a truck for two days, with 34 other people, most of whom were constantly carsick. He was then obliged to spend ten nights in a floating brothel in Shaoguan. Mary talks about her father’s escape in context of the alternatives – the fate of those left behind and what became of them. Shaoguan was the founding HQ of the British Army Aid Group (BAAG), part of MI9 and the organisation set up to help escapers and prisoners, to which Major Monro devoted his time from 1942-44. Mary discovers some fascinating local attractions, including one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in China.

8. Rosy Cloud Mountain

Near Shaoguan, Mary experiences an International Hotel, Chinese style, and finds that wrestling is not allowed in her room. She visits Danxia Shan, a vast and impressive area of sandstone outcrops, almost unknown outside China in spite of being a World Heritage site. The paradoxes inherent in China are discussed via a brief history of modern China, including the heartbreaking tale of one of her guides. Back in 1942, Mary’s father takes the two day train trip to Guilin, arriving during an air raid.

9. Expanse West

Guilin city in Guangxi province is where the various escapers go their separate ways and indeed the fate of the city itself was the beginning of the end for the Nationalist Government. Mary visits a cave that was used as an air raid shelter and takes a cruise down the Li River to see the famous limestone karst landscape. She also cycles around the countryside, learning more about local traditions and culture. She gains insights into her father’s world view, being raised in the 1920s and ‘30s amid feats of mountaineering, flight and attempts to reach the North Pole.

10. Mountain Minorities

Mary journeys up into the mountains to see spectacular rice terraces and meet various ethnic minorities: the Zhuang with their animist religion, the Yao with their cut-once-in-a-lifetime hair and the Dong with their strange marriage customs. Major Monro’s journey from Guilin to Guiyang involved a thrilling train journey and a slow and jolty bus, when he was starting to suffer from appendicitis. Mary has an alarming flight between the two cities but then falls in love with this mountainous backwater with its impressive waterfall and charming ethnic villages. She meets the Miao people and sees a performance of their unique opera.

11. Wartime Capital

The journey reaches Chongqing, where Major Monro describes his life working for the British Military Attaché. Mary explains the role of the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) and her father’s audacious plan to liberate all of the prisoners remaining in Hong Kong. The appalling suffering of Chongqing and its inhabitants is counterbalanced by tales of jolly Christmas parties. Mary visits American General Stilwell’s residence and learns more about the relationship between Stilwell and Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese Nationalist Government leader.

12. The Devil In The Detail

Mary realises that her father’s plan to liberate the POWs in Hong Kong was part a much bigger plan by American Airforce Commander in China, General Chennault. He wanted to retake Hong Kong from the Japanese but, more ambitiously, he wanted to use China as an air-base from which to attack the Japanese homeland. After a political battle against General Stilwell, who wanted a land war in Burma, Chennault’s plan was agreed by the Allied Powers at the Trident Conference in May 1943. But the air offensive never happened – due to a clerical error and feuding strategic factions. Instead, countless lives were lost in the blood and sweat-stained jungles of Burma and in the exhausted. war-torn landscape of China.

Burma 1944-1945

13. Onward Journey

Her father’s journey continued into Burma and India, via an adventure in Yunnan province and a horrific autumn of fighting in Burma 1944, returning to England at the end of the war. He was posted to India in 1946 and took the opportunity to climb in the Himalayas, accompanied by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Mary explores why this successful army officer then chose to change career in his mid-40s. Mary’s journey concludes in Shanghai, where she visits the ‘Venice of the East’ and ponders on the experiences she has had.

John Monro with Tenzing Norgay 1946

Dad with Tenzing Norgay & another Sherpa

14. The Path Into The Light

She reviews her relationship with her father, why he loved China so much and how China has affected her. She muses on the paradoxes of China and the modern relationship between East and West. Finally she asks what it means to be described as a 20th century Great and the role of the many unsung heroes who helped to win World War Two.

Like all great quests, Mary’s for her father reveals as much about herself and the lessons he has taught her.  Through following in his footsteps across China, she finds a belated recognition of his spirit and the presence he has in her heart.  The family’s silent patriarch grows into a man more complex, more admirable, more human.

5 thoughts on “My Book: “Stranger In My Heart”

  1. I fervently hope that someone in the publishing world will make this fascinating historical, biographical, travelogue available to a wide audience. To paraphrase Damien Lewis, “your writing shows a rare gift” and he should know.

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  4. I look fwd to reading the whole book,
    as both my father Martin and later stepfather Tony Hewitt, were also captured in HK. Tony wd have taken brother officer Martin on his escape, but M had been shot through the shoulder in the battle. My father survived the sinking of the Lisbon Maru
    and pow camp in Japan. Tony wrote books about his escape and lived to 89.
    Both won the MC as did Mary’s father, I have written family mini-histories, so we have much in common!

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