Evelyn Cheesman

September 1, 2012

While about a third of my father’s time as a POW in Singapore was spent at Kranji, the notes from that period are a very small fraction of the total.  A lack of paper would have helped to account for this but so would a general lack of reading material.  There was no shortage of books at Changi and as previous posts have indicated he read very widely, probably more so than at any other time in his life.  To say that his notes on these books were copious would be to understate what in some cases was essentially an exercise in transcription.

Another point that I have neglected to make much of so far, largely because I’m not quite sure what to make of it, is that he rarely wrote about his primary interest, that is, insects.  During the years leading up to the war he had been a lab assistant at the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham House in Farnham Royal near Slough.  During this time he had worked with some of the leading entomologists of the day and had illustrated a number of scholarly articles.  He was not only fairly knowledgeable about insects; entomology had become something of a passion and remained so for the rest of his life.  It is curious then that he wrote so little about it either at Changi or Kranji.  There would have been no shortage of bugs after all.

Perhaps part of an answer can be found in his note from one of the few books he was able to read at Kranji: Evelyn Cheesman’s Land of the Red Bird.  You don’t hear much about Cheesman now but in her day she had been a very visible figure in the world of natural history and a prolific author.  Many of her books were based on her remarkable expeditions to the south seas where she hacked her way through remote jungles, bantering with everyone she met and getting herself into the most extraordinary scrapes in the breezy and yet indomitable way only a certain sort of English lady of that period could do.  Her accounts were of serious entomological and botanical interest yet they often read as page-turning adventure stories, as indeed they were.  You get the idea from just three of the titles: Hunting Insects in the South Seas, Backwaters in the Savage South Seas and Camping Adventures in Cannibal Islands.

But my father just had Land of the Red Bird an account of her insect-collecting expedition to New Guinea.  I’ve read it and suspect that he enjoyed it very much.  He made a couple of pages of jottings on it but the ones below are representative.  He would no doubt have agreed with her on the topic of eating half-dried fish and found her advice on leeches to be most useful.  Her humorous perspective on stings and bites would have appealed to him greatly.  But her observation about the difficulty of doing entomology in the tropics must have been of special interest.  And of course he had no access to a microscope, test tubes or preserving fluid, the essential tools of the trade.  He would simply have to content himself with reading about entomology rather than doing it.  But at least it would have been a darned good read.

Kranji Notes, page 1.

Half-dried fish:  “Chinese and Malays eat it.  I noticed that they always mix it with quantities of pepper, chillies and other hot condiments, and can well believe that it is only by cauterizing the palate first that any human being could take such food.” (p.21)

Leeches:  “It is said that salt will make them leave their hold, but salt is dissolved almost as soon as it is exposed to the air and does not remain long enough to have any lasting effect.  Strong tobacco juice is supposed to discourage them.  (p.79)

Stings & bites: “ There is never any respite from things that bite and sting.  Some attack because it is going to rain, or because it is raining, or has rained, or won’t rain.  Some because it is dark, others because it is light.  So they succeed one another regularly in shifts and there are no interludes. (p.123)

Collecting insects in the Tropics. It is extremely important to send off specimens, particularly the insects, as soon as possible, to get them away from that climate.  When once the insects are dried and packed between layers of special wadding, in many layers in special boxes, with insecticides to keep out beetles and carbolic to keep out mould, it is better not even to open the boxes again to see whether they are alright (pp. 249-250)