Making do

September 29, 2012

In conditions of scarcity everything becomes useful.  As my father put it many years later, Changi was “the opposite of the throw-away society.”  Nothing of any conceivable use was discarded.  Scavenging and salvaging were essential activities and the need for improvisation put a premium on inventiveness and ingenuity.

This was one thing at Changi.  It was quite another at some of the smaller and more remote camps that had even less access to supplies and were under the direct command of the Japanese.

Kranji may have only been ten miles from Changi but it might as well have been a world away.  As usual, my father never wrote about this directly.  There are no ‘dear diary’ observations about his changed circumstances.  But the evidence is clear enough.  The obvious difference in paper quality has been mentioned in previous posts.  As can be seen from the illustration, he was soon reduced to writing on the backs of envelopes and cardboard packages.  But within a page or two he started to list some of the other ways in which the POW were now having to make do.  There was hardly a need to say more.

Improvisations

Cigarette papers:  made from toilet paper in the early days – now newspaper.

Sand or Ash:  these are excellent for scouring plates, wash basins etc.

Watering can: consisting of a tin with perforated bottom & attached to a stick

Garden rake: made from nails or a portion of concrete reinforcement wire

Rubber latex: used for patching rubber to rubber, cloth to cloth, paper to paper etc.

Cigarette image

My father took up smoking in Changi along with many other POW. He said that as much as anything else it helped to relieve the boredom. After all, as Lady Bracknell put it in rather different circumstances in The Importance of Being Earnest: “A man should always have an occupation of some kind.”

But as can be seen from his note below and others to the same effect, it also helped to alleviate the almost constant hunger.

Of course cigarettes were in very short supply and fetched enormous value on the black market. They were also of very poor quality; “noxious” was one word my father used to describe them.

This wasn’t just a question of the tobacco. Such was the scarcity that all sorts of substitutions were employed. Dried hibiscus and other plant leaves were used to supplement what little tobacco was available and pages torn from books were substituted for cigarette paper with the thin pages from bibles being the most prized.

I never saw my father smoke a cigarette after the war. He did enjoy a pipe, though seemed to be addicted less to the tobacco than the pipe itself. While it was a semi-permanent fixture in his mouth he rarely bothered to light it.

However, in one of his occasional enthusiasms he did once try to grow tobacco. In fact, he grew about a quarter of an acre of it. Tobacco cultivation being something of a rarity in our part of Worcestershire it was a project that attracted a good deal of local attention.

Once the leaves were harvested they were carefully dried in the attic. This was done over my mother’s protests as the smell permeated our small house and was particularly virulent in the summer months. After a year or two the first of the leaves were retrieved and rolled quite expertly into a cigar. I well remember the moment when my father sat down in his armchair and with great ceremony raised this first homegrown cheroot to his lips, lit it and inhaled.

A moment or two passed and then he practically levitated in a fit of coughing and wheezing.

“Absolutely awful!” he spluttered.

Smoking as a substitute for food
Nicotine acts as a drug upon the senses & appears to ward off hunger. At any rate it satisfies after a poor meal. As a result many become heavy smokers.

Tobacco
Poor quality tobacco is improved greatly by soaking in a weak solution of water & sugar, rinsing out & allowing to dry in the sun.

Dampening tobacco
Papua, hibiscus and banana leaves are chiefly used.

Green Book, General Notes. March-April, 1944

A simple solution

February 26, 2010

Conservation of salt

As salt is absent from the basic rations issued to POWs, potatoes etc. are boiled in sea water.

Book B, p.24