Monday, 20 May 2013

Time Travel for Beginners

Angels and Demons

     My father always believed that there was a spiritual power of some sort protecting him in his life. I suppose that's one way of looking at things. He certainly survived a number of traumas which included being sunk as a young merchant seaman during World War II, then three and a half years of internment as a prisoner of war in Japan and over 30 years of internment in his own body as he suffered from Parkinson's Disease. It would be equally easy to see how you could think that there were demons rather than angels acting as a guiding force in his life.

     However much I move forwards with my life, I'm always reminded about his indestructible positive attitude. There are, it seems, so many reminders for me everywhere I look that it would be hard for me to forget his experiences. No matter how much I live in the 21st Century, I'm transported back to those dark days of the 1940s and the misfortune that befell him.

     The echoes of what happened to him over half a century ago still catch up with me in the most unlikely of places. When they do it's a very real experience.

All at Sea

     In April 1940 my father was aboard a lone vessel in the South Atlantic. He was a sixteen year old Able Seaman and it was an exciting time for him. His ship, the SS Kirkpool, was steaming for Monte Video carrying coal. There doesn't seem anything glamorous or exciting about that. But the way my father used to tell me the story ignited a passionate excitement about the adventures of being at sea.

     What happened next, however, was even more exciting for me when I was no more than about eight years old. The ship was shadowed and then sunk by the surface raider Thor. The way my father told the story was so exciting. He didn't spare me any of the gory details which, as a young boy of course was exactly what I wanted to hear.

Times of Change

     As I grew older the story became more fantastic and, to be honest, more unbelievable. I always found it hard to keep that same enthusiasm. But when I was about 20 a group of my father's old shipmates tracked him down. Much to my amazement they told me the same spectacular story he'd told me in every detail. As an adult the whole adventure was rekindled for me.

     I spent some time living in Germany. Whilst there I was contacted by a journalist who was writing a piece on the crew of the Thor, the ship that sunk my father! What an amazing experience. In return for some brief exchanges he gave me a copy of a photo of the attack taken from the decks of the Thor the moment the first torpedo struck. I can just stare at this photo for ages. It's so hard to digest the fact that my father was there.

     When I worked at the Public Record Office in Kew, the UK, I was able to look up the Board of Trade records and see the entry where my father, along with his ship's entire company, was listed as lost at sea. This was because after being sunk the survivors of the attack were first kept aboard German ships as prisoners before being handed over to the Japanese. What followed were three gruelling years in an internee camp in Fukushima, the first two of which the Japanese didn't declare their prisoners. Those unfortunate captives simply disappeared off the face of the earth until news of their captivity filtered back home through the Red Cross.

     I have a number of photos of my father fairly shortly after his liberation in 1945. As he was a merchant seaman he was kept in a civilian internee camp and was spared some of the inhuman treatment of the military prisoners. Although the treatment of the civilian internees was still terrible. I have a secret document he produced that records some of the humiliation and torture they underwent on a routine basis. Men and women were derided in ways that our modern sensitivities would shy away from. In spite of this, and apart from a slightly haunted look in his eyes, he seems cheerful and relieved in the photos.


For Those in Peril on the Sea

     Most recently I was in my local library in Dunmanway. I happened to see a book: "The Real Cruel Sea: the Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943" by Richard Woodman. Now, Dunmanway is a small place. The population is about 1500. I was delighted to find such an interesting book in such an out of the way place! As is always my habit now I leafed through the index of this intriguing looking book and despite all these encounters with my father's history throughout the last thirty years I am still thrilled when I see a reference to the Kirkpool.

     Every time I read a book like this it's amazing to see how they describe the sinking of my father's ship. Phrases like "labouring along in heavy seas," the Thor "closed her quarry before opening fire," and how some of the crew were "sitting in a circle in the fire-glow of a burning and sinking ship appealing to Allah" bring home some of the horrors of the situation. I have to pinch myself when I read that the Kirkpool was "still under way though ablaze from end to end" and I shudder to think that my father was one of those 14 who survived on various forms of shattered life raft or floats with "a burning ship astern of us, nothing else in sight ... and possibly a thousand miles from anywhere and a black night."1

Back to the Future

     My father died in 2004. He died without ever really telling his story properly. I have snippets of his adventure stored in my head but I can never really be entirely sure what he actually told me and what I have elaborated with my own twists and turns.

     I also once wrote a story when I was about 15. In it I described as a fictitious rendition pretty much the events as they unfolded according to my father's account. My teacher at the time was a really inspiring and colourful character. We called him "Bomber Wright" but I'm not entirely sure why. Some of our teachers deserved their nicknames such as the severe third master nicknamed "Killer Fry" because he had allegedly fought at Arnhem in the famous battle for the bridge. Unfortunately even "Bomber Wright" lacked the imagination to digest the events I wrote about.

     He commented in the margin "This is a bit far fetched!" At the time I must have been feeling fairly brave because I confronted him about this. I suppose he could have accused me of a kind of plagiarism or lack of creativity myself. But doesn't all art mimic real life in some way? In any case, his response was a very human one. He simply sighed when I told him that these events had actually happened to my father. He shook his head and he said,

     "Ah, well, Julian. Fact is very often stranger than fiction."

Family Treasures

     My prized possessions are probably what would be thought of as a load of old junk to most people. But to me they are more precious than the crown jewels. Chief amongst these curios are all the paraphernalia of liberation that my father brought home from Japan. There are photos, a small diary and a tiny book he tried to write. In addition a legacy of my archive work days has provided me with copies of the log book of his ship. 

     I have also been entrusted with First World War medals belonging to my ancestors and the corresponding photos. My adopted grandfather (who was married for the first time in his life to my blood grandmother at the young age of 63!) was another great hero of mine. I have his campaign medals too and several dashing photos of him!

     All these things give me great pleasure to hold, touch and experience. I don't really languish in the detail. And I'm not an expert or specialist in any particular area. Just having these things around me, however, really helps me identify with my past. It really is a way of connecting with my ancestors. I am engaging in time travel for beginners.

1 Woodman, R (2004) "The Real Cruel Sea: The Merchant Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1943," John Murray (Publishers)