Sunday, 3 January 2016

To the Kwai and back - Ronald Searle

I've been dipping into this book over the last few weeks and it is a compelling and harrowing read. In a single volume, this book also demonstrates why there will always be a market for good old-fashioned books as opposed to digital representations. For all its benefits, I struggle to understand how Searle's illustrations would translate to a Kindle.

Ronald Searle will be a familiar name to many but his drawings, made whilst he was a prisoner of the Japanese between 1941 and 1944, are his most powerful and haunting. To the Kwai and Back, first published in 1986 and republished twenty years later by Souvenir Press combines Ronald Searle's illustrations with his equally powerful commentary. Two years into his incarceration he writes, "Our eyesight was deteriorating, we were losing our memory... and our leg muscles were often as difficult to control as our bowels. Our teeth loosened or fell out and pellagra left us with raw, swollen tongues and fierce burning patches on our skin. As there was never any relief from the tropical heat in the prison and no clothing to protect us from the sun outside, we were rarely able to enjoy the luxury of being able to escape the offensiveness of our bodies for even a moment."

To the Kwai and Back documents the lives of the men whose fate it was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and also records the Japanese who guarded them. Some of the men are named - Barratt, in the illustration above is a good example - and it is possible with a little digging, to uncover more information about these named individuals. For instance, on page 86, Searle's drawing of a "Prisoner playing camp-made guitar" includes the additional information that this man is Don Hosegood. A search of the recently released PoW records on Findmypast brings up no fewer than seven separate documents for Sapper Donald Leslie Hosegood who was with Searle in Thailand and at Changi in Singapore. Ronald Searle, for that matter, also has a number of entries on Findmypast.

This is a well-written and well-illustrated book which serves as a good introduction to the horrors of the death camps of the Second World War. It should be compulsory reading.

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