KLASSEN ON BOOKS - October 2015 - By John Klassen (Review)

 

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Reviews by John Klassen

 

Alistair Urquhart

 

Urquhart (1919- ) is a retired Scottish businessman. He wrote The Forgotten Soldier at the age of 90. It became a best-seller and Urquhart was much in demand as a public speaker.  After retiring from business, he taught computer skills to retired people and continued with his passion for ballroom dancing.

 

The Forgotten Soldier: My Incredible Story of Survival during the War in the Far East

 

Written at the age of 90, this is a fascinating, and horrifying, memoir of almost three years (1942-1945) a as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in circumstances that beggar belief.  It is a story of immense personal strength and determination, of cruelty beyond measure, of military malfeasance, of government ingratitude and indifference; it is the story of the blasted, torn, sacrificed lives of tens of thousands of prisoners of the Japanese, not just the dead, but also those, like Urquhart, who survived but for the rest of their lives were beset by nightmares and physical traumas. 

 

Urquhart grew up in Aberdeen where he worked in a plumbing-supply company, starred in local athletics, especially swimming, and became an accomplished dancer.  This idyll ended when he was called up almost immediately after war was declared, underwent basic training with the Gordon Highlanders and was shipped to Singapore at the age of 22.  Even at his young age, he could see the incompetence of the military leaders and system in Singapore where training was ineffectual, planning was worse, and the most prevailing attitude was one of haughty superiority and derision at the mere thought that the Japanese would even dare to attack impregnable Singapore.  Well, they did dare, and they did succeed, and from then on Urquhart’s life was a living hell. It is hard to imagine what he survived over the next three years, beginning with working on the 415 kilometre Burma-Siam Railway, aka the Death Railway, including the infamous bridge over the river Kwai, where 16,000 POWs died plus up to 100,000 native Thais, Indians, Malayans, and Tamils in the most terrible circumstances.  The cruelty and sadism of the Japanese, and Korean, guards was arbitrary and unrelenting; the physical conditions of life were appalling through back-breaking work with primitive equipment, latrines that were beyond foul, starvation sustenance, and whole catalogues of tropical diseases. 

 

Having fallen dangerously ill, Urquhart was moved to a hospital compound that, by comparison, was a substantial improvement, but once his health recovered somewhat, he and hundreds of others were shipped to Singapore and put into holds in “hellships” that transported prisoners to other parts of the Japanese empire, or to Japan itself, as slave labourers. These holds would shame any circle of hell: hundreds and hundreds of men jammed in so tightly that no one could sit and where you had to stay strong, “protecting your space with elbows and fists”; temperatures of 100F with no water; total darkness; men who had lost their minds screaming; and “The smell inside the hold was indescribable, a repugnant stench. An overpowering mixture of excrement, urine, vomit, sweaty bodies, weeping ulcers, and rotting flesh…”.  And then the ship, part of a larger Japanese convoy but with no markings to indicate that it carried prisoners (Red Crosses were painted on munition ships), was torpedoed by American submarines.  Hundreds of prisoners drowned.  Urquhart found a solitary raft and drifted for days, going out of his mind with thirst and injuries, until picked up by a Japanese freighter; he then completed his trip to Japan and began to work in an open-pit coal mine near Nagasaki. He was there for the atomic bomb, but far enough away that he experienced it as a strong clap of thunder and then a powerful warm wind that almost knocked him over.  Finally liberated by US Marines, Urquhart and others began a circuitous trip home, with various stays in hospitals, by ship from Nagasaki to Manila to Hawaii to San Francisco, train across the USA to New York, then troop transport to the UK and train home to Aberdeen.

 

Urquhart remains justifiably bitter about the continued refusal of the Japanese to recognize or deal with their conduct during the war, but the British government does not escape unscathed for its shameful treatment of its own men. Men who had answered the call of their nation and then suffered unimaginable horrors, only to find themselves neglected and worse after the war.  On the voyage to Manila, all were asked to sign a document pledging not to speak about their wartime experiences because the ‘bigger picture’ was the new alignment of Japan as a budding ally against the USSR in the fledgling cold war. Urquhart was refused a military disability pension because he could not produce documentation of the debilitating diseases he had suffered in the camps (as if they kept records!) and he even had to agree to be demobilized as A1.  In his view the British government treated the returning prisoners “disgracefully” as, “Despite dying in our thousands, sacrificing honest, hard-working and ordinary lives for the greater good, liberty and justice, we found they shunned us, forgot about us, and brushed us under the political carpet.”

 

Urquhart survived through luck, determination to survive, and closing into himself to conserve every ounce of physical and mental strength, but he was saved, more than once, by the unstinting care and support of medical people working in the most atrocious conditions, an experience that made him decide to dedicate his life, however he could, to helping others.

 

A fascinating, sobering book that despite its catalogue of immense cruelty glimmers with the sacrifices and caring and determination of some individuals.

 

 

Rachel Joyce

 

Rachel Joyce is a British playwright, actor and author. Her novels include, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Perfect.  A short-story collection is forthcoming, as is a new novel, The Music Shop, in 2016.

 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

 

Harold Fry, retired and in his 60s, is a reclusive and quiet man in a now loveless marriage that maintains itself through habit but with deep, unspoken strains within it.  One day he receives a brief note from a dying woman, Queenie Hennessy, with whom he had worked 20 years previously.  Harold is much moved by the note, pens a brief reply, and goes out to mail it. But a strange thing happens and he decides, on the spur of the moment, to walk all the way from his home in the deep south of England to where Queenie is in a hospice, in Berwick-upon-Tweed in the far north of England on the Scottish border.  Harold is unfit, unprepared, untrained, and unperturbed.  And so begins a remarkable pilgrimage the length of England; all because he phoned the hospice with a message for Queenie to say that he is walking to her and that she must hang on until he gets there.

 

Harold Fry is a wonderful character.  His walk, his pilgrimage, refocuses and reanimates his life.  The pilgrimage works on various levels, and Harold’s experience is the particular through which Joyce explores universal themes.  The pilgrimage is an odyssey in the two senses of the word: an extended, adventurous voyage, and a spiritual quest.  Harold sets out without any preplanned route, with no special equipment; he can at best cover only a few miles a day and so the walk is going to take months. Unlike Odysseus, Harold does face constant danger, but he meets a large cross-section of the population, most of whom influence him one way or another and almost all of whom show him kindness, especially when they learn of his mission.  Like Odysseus, Harold’s destination, his objective is known; what is not given is whether he can surmount the physical and emotional challenges that the pilgrimage will incur.

 

Harold discovers, as he says in one of his daily phone calls to his bewildered wife, Maureen, that everyone is interesting if you just talk to them.  He comes to see people as individuals with individual histories, strengths, weaknesses, hopes, happiness and regrets….weights of life that everyone carries inside them, not just blank entities against which we bump as we progress through life.  In one of his encounters, Harold realizes, “The silver-haired gentleman was in truth nothing like the man Harold had imagined him to be.  He was a chap like himself, with a unique pain; and yet there would be no knowing that if you passed him in the street, or sat opposite him in a café and did not share his teacake.”

 

Physically, after initial aches and pains of blisters and sore muscles, Harold becomes fitter and leaner than he has ever been.  He becomes more of a physical essence as he sheds pounds and conventions of dress and comportment.  He also sheds the appurtenances of modern life.  He realizes that, “Life was very different when you walked through it”.  He sees nature, especially the flora, in all its variety and complexity and beauty and he discovers its ability to sustain life if you know how to use it. He slows his life to natural, circadian rhythms contrasting with the unnatural speeds of modern life epitomized by the rushing vehicles on the highways where Harold does a good deal of his walking.  He seeks out the country lanes and smaller villages as opposed to the artificial conglomerations of cities.  Looking over a city that he comes to, Harold realizes, “There was so much out there, so much life, going about its daily business of getting by, or suffering and fighting, and not knowing he was sitting up there, watching.  Again he felt in a profound way that he was both connected, and passing through.  Harold began to understand that this was also the truth about his walk.  He was both a part of things, and not.”

 

Although it was certainly not in his mind as he set out, the long walk, the time alone to think, the new appreciations of life, all stimulate a spiritual, internal quest as Harold explores, not always willingly, the deep regrets of his life: his relationship with his son, the disengagement of his marriage, and his shameful reaction to a generosity by Queenie that led to her being fired from her job and disappearing from his life.  Harold’s sudden and inexplicable adventure bewilders and angers his wife Maureen but as she copes with it (they speak almost daily on the phone), she also is forced into a reconsideration of the events that have so affected their lives together; a thinking-through of guilt and anger that have festered and destroyed love.  The weights that people carry are not just within strangers; they exist even within those with whom we are most intimate.

 

Harold’s final arrival and meeting with Queenie could have easily slipped into the maudlin.  But Joyce is too good a writer to allow that and their reuniting is poignant in the extreme; it is also real, it is life and it is that other great universal death and, if you are lucky, the kindness of people at the end.

Tags: John Klassen