Surviving The Death Railway -Review

This book documents two things: what happens to the  men of 27 Line Section when they are captured by the Japanese during WWII, and the efforts of Barry Custance Baker and his wife Phyllis, not only to keep in touch with each other but the valiant efforts of Phyllis to keep the families of other prisoners of war as well informed as possible regarding the fate of the men.

deathrailwayT

Phyllis was in regular contact by letter with relatives of the captured men who, for a long time, had no idea whether or not they were still alive, where they were, or what condition they were in. Over a period of time she compiled what someone at the War Office referred to as a ‘fearsome dossier’. She could not have worked harder at this. Many letters from relatives are quoted, and without exception the relatives, mostly women, do their level best to express themselves and their feelings even when they know their letter-writing skills could be better.

The enforced slave labour of the POWs has been well documented, and is so again here. Barry proved to be an enormously resourceful man who did his utmost to help his men in the appalling conditions they found themselves. Many died, and at one point he was given the job of making crosses to mark their graves. There was also the ever-present danger of disease and the measures the POWs were forced to take to combat it.

‘There were, of course, no antibiotics regularly available though small quantities of one of the sulpha drugs did appear occasionally. The doctors decided that when an ulcer patient had a life expectation of not more than a fortnight then the limb, almost always a leg, would be amputated. Markowitz got to work immediately to sort out the backlog. It is recorded that he took off over a hundred legs in his first month.’

On the subject of these nice Japanese:

‘To discourage looting from the windowless shops anyone caught by the Japanese Special Police, the Kempi Tai [Kempeitai], was immediately beheaded. The heads were then displayed on small bamboo stands at street corners in the city, each head being guarded by a Japanese sentry with a fixed bayonet. Each stand also had a small notice in English and in Chinese characters describing the man’s crime. The Japanese policy, as we later learned, was to be generally very anti European and pro Asiatic, this being part of the ‘Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere’.’

And yet, what struck me most about this account was the amazing efforts of Phyllis to keep her marriage alive through writing, which provides a strong narrative thread running through the book. She adopted the technique of numbering her letters so that Barry could tell at once if one or more had failed to arrive. But sometimes her problem was what to include, how forthright to be. She could be very forthright indeed.

‘Now I’ll say goodnight and try to dream I am sharing that small bungalow and big bed with you. All day I want my husband and Robin’s Daddy home again, but now I want a lover back, and those times when you read bits of Bilitis, or Song of Songs to me before we once again translated their subtle, delicate, sensuous imaginings to glorious reality. My body lacks the vigorous, healthful stimulus of your presence, beloved, almost as much as my mind the perfect peace & relaxation of our fulfilled love. I can keep myself busy during the day, but at night I ache for you, body and soul. Remember, won’t you, your love means my whole life, darling.’

When reading a passage like this I feel uneasy, an intruder. Phyllis herself was aware of this possibility; on one occasion she writes:

‘My own dear darling, If when you get this you are with a crowd of people, please put it away to be read for another time. For I feel so full of love & longing for you, that I may be very indiscreet.’

It is known that Phyllis kept a diary but the editor of this volume, her daughter Hilary, was unable to find it and wonders whether she destroyed it because of the intimate passages it contained. We shall never know.

One factor here had to be the mental effect on Barry of the privation he suffered for several years as a POW, magnified by the responsibility he felt for those under his command and for whom he could do much less than he would have liked. Towards the end, after he has been freed but before his return, he writes:

‘I am very sick of my fellow men, and I’ve a terrible distaste for orders or authority in any form and even stronger distaste for any personal responsibility. This will disappear quite soon I hope. Whether I stay in the army or not must depend on a later decision. When I am mentally fitter than I now am to make it. Just now an army career fills me with horror.’

Hilary Custance Green has done an amazing job bringing order to the disparate materials at her disposal and bringing them into a coherent narrative. I read that it took her six years to complete this work and I can well believe it. But her efforts have paid off in an excellent book which, among other things, is a fitting tribute to her amazing parents.

hilary-custance-green

 

 

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Blurbs

After a woman is brutally murdered in a Nebraska cornfield, Detective Mackenzie White obsesses over the twisted mind of a potential psychopath. But as bodies start piling up, can she stop the killer before it’s too late?

Though I’m just a simple country boy, the blurb I have quoted above strikes me as unsatisfactory. If bodies are piling up, I would say it is too late already for some. In any case, haven’t we read the second sentence many times before?

Just asking.

Rules for Writers

Over the last few years I have come across several posts on this subject. Very often, the emphasis has been on what to avoid. For example, the aspiring writer should avoid adjectives, adverbs, verbs ending in ‘ing’ and the passive voice. My most recent discovery was that question marks should be also avoided – from which I inferred that questions should too. This post concerns one of these only, adjectives.

So adjectives should be used sparingly and, if at all, in a striking manmer. If a given adjective is only to be expected then replace it with something more arresting. This advice will certainly be beneficial to some. These papers first came into my hands a few weeks ago and this is how they began.

‘When the comets with their milky tails race in the inky dome of the sky and Aurora laces her silky skeins over the Ladder Hills, where the stags are roaring and the red grouse call ‘Go back’ warning of danger, just as they had in Jacobite times; when the Cambus Burn runs sweet and cold into ‘The Cardinal’s Pool’, it is hard to think that this peaceful, unpretentious old house sited in its own leafy water meadow, now guarded only by swallows, curlews and peewits, is the same as . . .’

And so it continues. Even allowing for the writer’s old-fashioned cast of mind, it won’t do. When I pointed this out the author admitted to a weakness for ‘purple prose’. At which point, just to keep the pot on the boil and with no serious intent, we take issue with the adjective ‘purple’.

But adjectives are necessary and desirable, Imagine writing a pen portrait of a person or a place with none at your disposal. And who has written pen portaits of this type? (Excuse the question mark.) Many writers have but, the one who stands out for me is Ivan Turgenev.

Clearly (I had to sneak in an adverb) there are many pen portraits in Sketches from a Hunter’s Notebook. Two of the most memorable are his description of lying on his back looking up at the sky through the trees, and his description of making his way through the countryside at night when he has lost his way. But both of these are long. The following combines description with the author’s satircal streak, something which got him into trouble with the authorities. (Yes, I know, I could have said ‘deep trouble’ but held back).

‘TikhonIvanovich willed his estate, as could have been expected, to his most honoured benefactor and magnanimous patron ‘Pantaley Yeremeich Chertopkhanov’. But it brought no great benefit to the most honoured benefactor because it was quickly sold by public auction – partly in order to cover the costs of a monument over the grave, a statue which Chertopkhanov (evidently his father’s blood still ran in his veins!) wanted to erect over the ashes of his friend. He ordered the statue, which should have been that of an angel in prayer, from Moscow, but the man recommended to him to commission it, aware that in the provinces there are few sculpture experts, sent instead of an angel a goddess Flora which had for many years decorated one of the overgrown suburban parks of Catherine the Great’s time. This statue, exceedingly elegant, certainly, in rococo style, with chubby little hands, fluffy curls, a garland of roses on her naked bosom and a noticeably curved waist, was obtained by the commissioner for nothing. So it is that to this very day there stands above TikhonIvanovich’s grave a mythological goddess with one foot graciously raised who looks with truly aristocratic disdain at the calves and sheep strolling round about her, those devoted visitors to our countrygraveyards.’

Turgenev’s most famous book is the novel Fathers and Sons. The translator of my edition has studied the orginal manuscripts and discovered how much trouble Turgenev took with adjectives.

‘Most of all, of course, the working autograph manuscript reveals the struggle of the author to establish and refine the detail. The ‘realism’ of the work can literally be sensed in the minute changes, the finessing process of introducing the right descriptive adjectives into depictions of landscape or clothing or facial appearance, whereas for the greater part the dialogue (except in some of the polemical passages) received far less revision and can therefore be supposed to have formed the voiced or dramatized structure of the fiction, its inner core, the characters themselves being often signalled by no more than initials.’  Richard Freeborn

There are many descriptions in this book.

‘Arkady looked round and saw a tall woman in a black dress who had stopped in the doorway of the ballroom. She stunned him by the dignity of her bearing. Her bare arms lay beautifully against her elegant waist and fine sprays of fuchsia drooped beautifully from her brilliant hair on to her sloping shoulders. Her bright eyes shone calmly and intelligently—calmly, it has to be said, and not pensively—from beneath her slightly pronounced white temples and her lips smiled a scarcely discernible smile. Her face shone with a kind of soft and alluring strength.’

So now we can visualise Anna Sergeevna Odintsova very well, but I hear the objection – you can’t get away with this sort of thing these days. And you probably can’t, which tells us something not only about the use of adjectives but also about ‘these days’.

To conclude, an instance of Turgenev pinning someone down in a few words.

‘His mother, from the Kolyazin family, known as Agathe before marriage but as Agafokleya Kuzminishna Kirsanov in her capacity as a general’s wife, belonged to the tribe of ‘matriarchal battleaxes’ and wore sumptuous bonnets and noisy silk dresses, was always the first in church to go up to kiss the cross, talked loudly and a great deal, permitted her children to kiss her hand each morning and gave them her blessing each night—in short, lived her life to her heart’s content.’

Poetry Comics

For several years I wrote poems and published them in newspapers, magazines and anthologies. Then the mood passed, I stopped and turned to prose. Until recently.

A friend who is an artist wanted a poem to illustrate and checked a few of them out. She chose Philosophy is Forced Upon the Frog and submitted her work for inclusion in a new book; Over The Line, an introduction to poetry comics, edited by Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone.

overthelinecover

Their book not only contains a varied selection of poems illustrated in ‘comic’ manner but also an excellent introduction to the subject. Since I knew nothing about it, I learned a lot. So I now have a new addition to the shelf with my work in it and learned today that Over The LIne is up for a Saboteur Award (Best Anthology category).

http://www.saboteurawards.org

The friend is Zyzanna Dominiak and this is her work.

frog 1

In the fourth frame Zyzanna has neatly subverted my negative conclusion (We’re doomed!) by the introduction of hope in the shape of tadpoles. Good for her.

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Author Bios

I have some trouble with these. They are usually in the third person, yet we know they have been written by the author. It feels a bit false to me, writing about yourself as if a third party is doing it,

Why is this a concern?  I’m putting the finishing touches to a crime novel and realized my previous bio wouldn’t do. I have drafted a new one in the first person. Can I get away with this, or is the word on the literary street that I should  convert to the third?

Just wondering.

________________________________________________________

I have traveled through Afghanistan, made bubble gum in Philadelphia and published poetry, some of it anthologized. Several years ago I turned to fiction, finding it a natural fit for a comic sense of life. I live with my wife in a old farmhouse gradually being surrounded by developers who take no account of the needs of wildlife. Since that includes me, I’ve turned to crime.

Technology in Fiction

Technology exists. Writing a novel without referring to it can be done but isn’t easy. I have just completed the first draft of a novel which could be classified as crime fiction and there was no evading it.

In those chapters involving mobile phones, computers, tracking devices and so on, I went into far too much detail.  Why? I was making sure that what I was describing would work. For my own reassurance, I had to follow through on all the moves.

But technology in itself is tedious. (I have sometimes found this in novels by Patricia Cornwell and others.)  The real interest in narrative fiction lies in what people do and why they do it. So now that I have begun revising, I find I am paring down technology references to the bare essentials to avoid falling into a deep sleep.

This may be what I should have done in the first place – it would have saved me a lot of work – but I had to know that what I was describing was possible and found an amazingly inefficient way to do it.

And what is true for technology may well be true of other areas as well – including the amount of detail devoted to post postmortems and the exact specifications of the handguns, rifles, bazookas and crossbows which caused the body to be on the slab in the first place.

So why do some authors do this? Not to reassure themselves but to convince the reader of their expertise. And also to give an authentic feel to the story – this is exactly the way it was. And if their readers like it, who could quarrel with that?

Taylor Swift’s Legs

Taylor Swift is a woman of unblemished countenance who sings songs. Although she doesn’t sing with her legs, they are deemed to be a major part of her act in much the same way as Betty Grable’s legs were in bygone years. Remember Betty?

 Betty Grable

‘Hosiery specialists of the era often noted the ideal proportions of her legs as thigh (18.5 inches (47 cm)), calf (12 inches (30 cm)), and ankle (7.5 inches (19 cm)).[2] Grable’s legs were famously insured by her studio for $1 million with Lloyds of London.’ (Wikipedia)

Mean (song)

Mean (song) (Photo credit: Wikipedia

I read that Ms Swift has also insured her legs – reportedly for the sum of $26,000,000. This may be an astute move on her part since breaking one of them would ruin her forthcoming tour. Why? Because, nowadays, singing is not enough. There has to be bodywork too. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs didn’t need to gyrate, and neither did Doc Watson, but times have changed. So get out there, why don’t you, and shake those tail feathers!

2005 picture of USA banjo player Earl Scruggs

2005 picture of USA banjo player Earl Scruggs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact I have no interest in Ms Swift’s legs, but I have been following some of her other moves. She seems to be an astute business person.

To maintain her squeaky clean image, she has bought the domain names TaylorSwift.porn and TaylorSwift.adult before they become available to buy as part of a public sale by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) planned to take place on 1 June. She has done this so that no one else can use these domain names to move ‘adult’ material. According to Ad Week, a select few businesses and individuals were offered the opportunity to buy addresses based on the new domains for $2,500 (£1,600) before they went on the open market and Ms Swift was one of those individuals. I think she did the right thing.

But Ms Swift has done something else as well. She has applied to trademark five phrases from her latest album 1989: ‘Party like it’s 1989’, ‘this sick beat’, ‘cause we never go out of style’, ‘could show you incredible things’, and ‘nice to meet you, where you been?’

So if you are innocently writing a novel or short story including the line, ‘Nice to meet you, where you been?’ you could end up on the wrong side of a law suit from Ms Swift’s legal team. I am not a lawyer, but I cannot see how it can be right to trademark an entirely normal phrase like this. Such moves should be resisted. If your book exists in file form only it will be easy to amend, but if you or your publisher have paid for a print run as well, then the entire consignment might have to be pulped.

Two years ago I came across an author who discovered, by way of a heavy letter from a lawyer, that her title had been trademarked and she couldn’t legally use it. Since her book was self-published, she had to come up with a new title, no easy matter, and pay for an amended cover design. All of which caused her considerable anguish.

Surely this is not the way we want to go.