I’m not sure when my father decided to learn Malay though my sense is that he didn’t get down to it in earnest until the move to Kranji in May 1944.  At any rate, most of his Malay language notes date from his last dismal year in captivity.

Not that he did date them, or many of his other notes for that matter.  But everything was carefully numbered which in itself became an index of his changing condition and state of mind.  Paper, along with just about everything else, was in very short supply at Kranji and he was reduced to writing on every scrap he could find.  Such was the new state of parsimony that each side of an envelope would now be counted as its own page.

Still, the Malay language primers he was using must have given him some puzzling moments.  They had obviously been written for the pre-War colonial elite and didn’t try to disguise it.  Expressions such as: “What an idiot you are!  I tell you to bring water and you bring oil!” and “Does Madam know that dinner is ready?” would have had limited applicability in a POW camp.

Or anywhere else for that matter.  When my wife and I visited Singapore a few months ago I took a look at these books to see if they might be helpful but had much the same problem.  Foreign language phrase books are almost completely useless in real life situations it seems to me but when was I ever going to tell someone that “People say that he is a great opium-smoker” or that “The cleverness of Europeans is very great indeed”?  Not often presumably.

My father was quite proud of his working knowledge of Malay.  As a child I remember him breaking into it from time to time and being greatly amused by our puzzlement.  No doubt he quite enjoyed asking us whether his dress shirts were finished.

Letter from home

July 10, 2010

It appears that Sybil was the conduit for communication to and from home throughout my father’s captivity.  Of the five postcards he was allowed to send home between February 1942 and August 1945 four were addressed to her.  And she wrote to him frequently at least until March 1945, though it is likely that he did not receive all of her letters.  At the same time, I have found only one letter from his parents.  I have to think that they wrote others, possibly many others,  but it is odd to say the least that none of them have have survived given how much care he took to preserve envelopes.  Even in this one letter, shown above, it is clear that communication was going through Sybil.  Could it be that they simply didn’t write?  My paternal grandparents were not known for their emotional warmth, it must be said, but such reticence seems scarcely possible even by their standards.  And yet what little evidence I have seems to suggest it.

Something else doesn’t add up either.  The letter is dated February 15, 1943 and refers to a card that Sybil had received from my father and shown to them over Christmas.  But my father’s own records indicate that the only postcard he had been permitted to write prior to that time had been sent in July 1942 and in any case had been addressed to his home rather than to Sybil.  His next postcard was not sent until February 22, 1943, a week after this letter is dated.  If this is one small example of what historians do whenever they try to make sense of personal records from the past it’s a wonder any history gets written at all.

How to write a letter

July 5, 2010

In February 1944 The British Red Cross launched a monthly newsletter for the relatives of reported prisoners of war or those missing in the Far East. My grandparents saved all but a few of the issues published during the remaining year and a half of the war.

The first issue of ‘Far East’ came precisely two years after the fall of Singapore. But even then the editor could write that “contact with the (Japanese) prison camps has been only partial, intermittent and uncertain, and we know nothing reliable about the camps holding most of our men.”

Instructions for composing and addressing letters to FEPOW were printed on the back page of the first issue. As can be seen, letters were to be limited to 25 words,  written in block capitals or typewritten, contain no enclosures and deal only with personal matters. It’s hard to imagine what one could say in 25 words but no doubt Sybil — and many thousands of others — got very good at it.

Letters to Changi

July 5, 2010

Sybil numbered each envelope so I know that she wrote at least 120 letters to my father over a three year period. The last envelope among his notes was dated March 1944.   Still, there is some mystery to the numbering because in at least one instance it is out of sequence with the postage dates. Perhaps this could have been cleared up easily enough if all the envelopes had survived but only a few of them did. This in turn is also a bit of a puzzle because my father kept every scrap of paper he could to write on, including the envelopes of other prisoners.

The letter illustrated here was sent in December 1942. It is clear from the address (British Prisoner of War, C/O Japanese Red Cross) that she didn’t know which camp he was in.  She was using the same basic address convention in March 1945 which implies that she still did not know of his whereabouts or condition even then.

Sybil Trickey

June 6, 2010

Sybil in Windsor Great Park, 1937

My parents were married in 1947 but another woman had been uppermost in my father’s thoughts during his captivity. By the time he returned, however, she had married someone else. It was a common enough story but none the less wrenching for that.

Sybil Trickey had been one of my father’s natural history friends in and around Slough in the late 1930s. Whether she was also affiliated in some way with the Imperial Institute of Entomology at Farnham House I cannot tell though it seems possible. In any case, she was clearly one of a tightly knit group of friends that spent their weekends hiking in the Chilterns and camping by the Thames near Henley.  At some point before he left for Singapore they were engaged.

Sybil wrote more than 120 letters to my father while he was a POW though he may have received only a small number of them.  Still, he later described her letters as his “salvation” during those long years of captivity.  He did not keep them, naturally enough, though the envelopes were preserved among his Singapore notes as he needed them to write on.

Like many others he did not find out that she had married someone else until he got home.  But I am quite sure that hers was not the heartless act that it may seem.  My father had only been able to send five postcards home since his capture and it’s likely that two or three of them didn’t get through.  Indeed, it’s possible that she heard nothing from him after January 1943 and may well have feared the worst.

Still, she kept writing.  Her last letter to him was in March 1945.