Sunday, 14 November 2010
Remembering the Dead
The frangipani trees with white flowers are popular in cemeteries all over the Far East. White is more commonly seen as the colour for death than black.
In the north of Malaysia is a town called Alor Star. I remember driving through there with my grandfather many years ago. It is a dusty town, full of thundering lorries traveling between Thailand and the Malay peninsular. The main street is lined with frangipani. My grandfather told me about the appalling shambles of the battle of Alor Star as the British lost control of the town to the advancing Japanese in 1941.
I picture the frangipani blossom as I remember the dead today. I used to work in a school where there was a memorial plaque to the war dead from the school, two of the boys remembered are cited as “lost, fallen in Alor Star”, a million miles away from the cathedral cities of the West Country. I wonder if their bodies now lie rattled and shaken close to those thundering lorries and luminous white blossom.
I remember also, JW a Chinese-Malay and friend of the family who enlisted with the Chindits. He served and survived Burma, went to live in England, anglicized his name, married a local girl and marriage didn’t work out. By the time I met him, he lived in a condemned Victorian terrace backing onto a major railway line. He was living in poverty, with only his accordion, his calendar of Cantonese beauties, a stone sink and a one ring electric hot plate for company. Maybe not strictly a casualty of war, but a casualty of Empire and broken dreams, nevertheless.
I remember also, civilian casualties, in particular the many Eurasians (mixed-race people- like myself- on the Malay peninsular) who were singled out for exceptional cruelty at the hands of the Japanese. When you’re mixed race, nobody instinctively runs to your aid as a brother, many will assume you are a spy.
I also remember a later conflict out in Malaya and Borneo as the British and her allies fought the Communists in the 1950s. One man who served out there with the Royal Marines, ended his days homeless on the streets of Manchester; taciturn, dignified and haunted. He was not alone and it still breaks my heart when I see ex-service men in destitution on the streets of our major cities.
I pray for the forgotten, especially those involved in conflicts that could disappear off the radar of our memories.