The story so far

March 20, 2010

This will be the fifty-eighth post since I started the blog almost a year ago.  Perhaps it’s as good a place as any to recap a bit.  Here then is a brief piece I contributed to the November 2009 edition of the Researching FEPOW History newsletter:

Simply scroll down to the last article in the November newsletter.

Besides the newsletter, the group sponsors a biennial conference to assist those interested in the research on FEPOW.  It’s an excellent resource.

The Singapore Grip

March 20, 2010

Singapore pre-1942. Note Malay policeman,

Chinese rickshaw puller and Indian pedestrian.

I’ve just finished reading J.G. Farrell’s The Singapore Grip. You might say that it has taken me a while as I started it about seven years ago. But then it is 568 pages long and not the quickest of reads as might be expected from a novel that includes a bibliography with citations such as K.M. Stahl’s The Metropolitan Organization of British Trade (1951) and P.T. Bauer’s Report on a visit to the Rubber Growing Smallholdings of Malaya (1946).

Farrell’s subject is Singapore during the two or three years before the Japanese invasion. But in selecting characters from the business elite he is able to situate events within the wider context of British imperial policy and decline. In fact, the novel is the third in a trilogy that explores other dimensions of that decline, in Ireland and in India. All told it is a remarkable work.

Farrell is strong on detail and atmospherics. Both come together in his haunting depiction of the panic that gripped the city in the final days before the surrender.

Of course, the Singapore Farrell describes is long gone. I’m not even sure how much my father saw of it.  But the old city certainly comes to life in these pages.   Sometimes you can almost see it or, as in the following passage, smell it.  “There, too, when you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of honey and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.”

I found The Singapore Grip on my father’s bookshelves a year or two before he died. My sense is that he acquired it very late in life when he was perhaps finally coming to terms with his time at Changi and Kranji. It’s unlikely that he read it from cover to cover — the only novel I ever saw him read was Jerome Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat which had him convulsed in silent mirth for a couple of days.  As a young man he’d known that stretch of the Thames like the back of his hand and not so many years after Jerome had described it.

Perhaps he’d dipped into Farrell from time to time.  Certainly, that’s how I approached the book for several years.   So intense were some of the passages that I often had to put it down for a while.  Sometimes I put it down for several months at a time but always came back to it sooner or later.

Farrell tells us that the ‘Singapore Grip’ can mean many things.  Perhaps this is another.