Category Archives: Writing

70 years today since Churchill’s ‘worst disaster’ – Lest we forget

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On 15 February 1942 the Japanese Imperial Army over ran Singapore – the British Empire’s jewel in its South East Asian crown – and took prisoner over 100,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel in the process. My dad was one of those. What followed was over three years of privation, maltreatment, torture, disease etc.  Almost unimaginable by today’s standards.

My dad served as an officer with the 2nd Battalion The Loyal Regiment and was captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. He spent the following three years being moved around from Changi to Keijo in Korea then to Omori and Tokyo in Japan. He survived appalling treatment (although he was relatively lucky compared to those in forced labour camps on the Thailand/Burma railway for example). There were many others throughout SE Asia. He was also lucky enough to be in the first wave of POWs to be liberated.

He embarked on HMS Speaker to Manila. From there he was flown to San Francisco then shipped home. He remained in the Loyals at a holding depot in Preston until late 1946 when he was de-mobbed.

I recently watched a programme on BBC 2 Scotland about the fall of Singapore. If you’re interested you can watch it here. Ever had the feeling that you shouldn’t watch something because you know it’s going to irritate you but you watch it anyway only to discover that you were right.  It isn’t surprising that, as a Scottish/Australian co-production, this programme was going to be biased in favour of the Jocks. And on the whole its big picture was accurate – but the devil is in the detail. Heroic Scots and plucky ‘Diggers’ betrayed by ineffectual British ‘brass’ and traitorous native and Indian army deserters with not an English unit in sight. Not entirely true.

At one point the narrator gleefully points out that the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were the ‘only jungle trained unit’ to fight in the Malaya campaign. Nonsense. While it is true that their CO Lt Col Ian Stewart insisted they were well-trained in jungle warfare techniques and well acclimatised to the tropics and fought valiant rearguard actions as the British retreated down the Malay peninsula and back to the Island, they were not the ‘only’ unit trained to do so. Lt Col Elrington’s 2nd Battalion The Loyals were also well-trained jungle troops but were frustrated by poor senior staff decisions and retained in ‘Fortress Reserve’. When they were eventually sent into action the retreat had already begun. They were forced back by poor leadership at brigade level and eventually ended up back on Singapore defending their own barracks. They too were let down by allied troops, in this case Australian forces that abandoned positions leaving their lines fatally exposed.

While the Argylls may have been the last across the causeway from Johore to Singapore before it was blown up, the Loyals fired the last shots at the enemy before Percival surrendered. They were all brave men – heroes all – and should never be forgotten. While this episode of WWII might not be as ‘fashionable’ as some they fought and died just as hard.

Oundle Festival of Literature line up announced

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The ninth Oundle Festival of Literature gets underway on 12 March.

Its diverse lineup of events and writers includes Whittlesey actor Warwick Davis, popular historian Michael Wood, historical novelist Simon Scarrow, sports writer and Daily Telegraph columnist Sue Mott and food writer Rose Prince.

It looks like there really is something for everyone. Looking forward to it.

The Ballad of John Clare

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Just finished reading The Ballad of John Clare by Hugh Lupton. It’s a gentle fictional stroll through a year in the life of the young rural romantic poet.

Published by Dedalus Books (based in Sawtry) the book is not a classic as a novel, it is more of a lengthy spoken narrative of the kind of which Lupton is famous. The book is let down in places by typographical errors and continuity.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to read the detailed descriptions of place names most people in the village will be familiar with including Ailsworth Heath, Langdyke Bush, Lolham Bridge, Milton Estate, Swaddy Well quarry and the surrounding villages of Helpston, Castor, Maxey, Glinton, Northborough and Peakirk.

Lupton isn’t strong on literary form and structure, but his engaging narrative style and his skill as a story-teller make up for that. What he is very strong on however, are his descriptions of local customs that have long since been consigned to history or forgotten altogether.

May Day and Harvest Home celebrations were closely linked and Lupton describes these links nad how they fit in with the day-to-day life of the parish. Everyone’s lives were inextricably linked with the calendar and the seasons and these customs are a celebration of those links, which have been lost today for many of us.

Other customs are described such as the riotous behaviour of the village youth on Plough Monday and the performance of traditional plays by local ‘guisers’ who used festive performances at Christmas to supplement their meagre wages.

Rogation Sundays a year apart frame the structure of the novel. Villagers beat the Parish Bounds and give alms to the poor. The first occurs before the enclosures of the Parish fields nad commons have taken place, the second after. Changes are charted throughout the book as the winners and losers in the process are identified.

It’s a great period story and a historical document of local interest. His depiction of rural life in Georgian England just as the Enclosure Act is taking effect resonates even now as the countryside is again going through a period of fundamental change that will alter it irrevocably.  In fact the foreword is a quote from Ted Hughes:

But while the mice in the field are listening to the Universe, and moving in the body of nature, where every living cell is sacred to every other, and all are interdependent, the Developer is peering at the field through a visor, and behind him stands the whole army of madmen’s ideas, and shareholders, impatient to cash in on the world.

 The Ballad of John Clare is available at Waterstone’s in Peterborough or via Amazon.

Also read last year another novel about Clare called The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds. This is also a debut novel and a far superior work to Lupton’s.  In it Clare is incarcerated in a private asylum in Epping Forest in Essex, where he encounters Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose brother Septimus is an inmate. He eventually escapes and, delusional, walks back up the Great North Road to his home in Northborough.

Other literary figures with a local connection:

L P Hartley, author of The Go Between lived in Peterborough.

William Le Queux – the father of spy fiction, adventurer, radio pioneer and onetime resident of The Cedars, Castor.

Edward Storey – Fenland writer from Whittlesey who wrote A Right to Song – A life of John Clare.

Mark Haddon – Used Peterborough as setting for his novel A Spot of Bother. It drew criticism locally at the time of publication because Haddon admitted that he had only visited the city briefly.

Marina Lewycka – Used Peterborough as the setting for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Babylon was burning for Alan Davies

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You know how it is. Reading the books pages you see a book that interests you and you really want to read. Potless, you make a mental note to buy it the next time you have enough cash and then forget all about it for months. 

 This is how it was when I came across My Favourite People and Me – 1978-1988 by Alan Davies. I saw him talking about it in an interview somewhere and thought that it reflected some of my experiences and I wanted to get it to compare notes. By payday I had  forgotten all about it. 

That is until I saw Channel 4’s Teenage Revolution on Thursday night. Alan was there in suburban Essex telling me all about his middle class teenage frustrations and clashes with the local skins. Some of this resonated with me. A particularly poignant meeting with the leader of the Debden Skins, who had terrorised Davies and his mates during their youth,  highlighted the social juxtaposition between the working (shirking) and middle classes during the 1980s. 

The programme nicely portrayed the social and racial tensions that were more than just an undercurrent of the 80s. Real life wasn’t all about shoulder pads and gender bending New Romantics. For blokes over 40 – this was a great nostalgia trip. I went straight to YouTube afterwards to download the Punk and New Wave tracks of my youth like Babylon is Burning and Eton Rifles. For girls and anyone under 40, including our kids, it makes an interesting social and historical document. 

This was brought home by Lucy Mangan’s review in yesterday’s Guardian. She found it ‘so extremely boring.’ That’s because Ms Mangan is a girl and under 40 (probably). 

But I digress. I went out and bought the Penguin paperback by Alan Davies – Teenage Revolution: Growing up in the 80s. It is in fact the TV tie-in edition of the afore-mentioned and forgotten tome . Excellent marketing. But I’m really looking forward to reading the book and watching the remaining episodes of the programme. 

Family history research is fun.

Writing an entertaining and informative family history is all about research.

Researching my family history has taken me all over the world – via the internet. It’s amazing what you can find. I have found files in the US National Archive , the UK National Archive and the Australian National Archive. A wealth of material is available through searching these sites.

Web 2.0 also has much to offer the historian through blogs, YouTube and others.

There is also a wealth of online material accessible through websites like All kinds of records are waiting to be discovered, including census records, births marriages and deaths, military service records and so on. All human life is there just waiting to be discovered.

In addition to these, I have also trawled museums and discovered information from the national press using online archives. Then there are books and diaries and other secondary sources to consider. All fascinating stuff.

Where will all this research lead, and what skeletons will be rattled as a result? Who knows? But it’s a lot of fun finding out.