Monday, 26 August 2013

"Survivor on the River Kwai" by Reg Twigg, an 'on the spot' review...

There is a moment in Reg Twigg's posthumously published memoir, where he makes a very valid point.

 "Don't read this in the cool comfort of your armchair" he wrote, "Read it in the hottest greenhouse in Kew or the Eden Project.  Feel your clothes cling to your body, see the print on the page blur and smudge with the sweat droplets from your chin and eyebrow ridges.  Don't spend minutes there, spend all day. Spend every day."

He is absolutely right.  You really can't appreciate what he went through working on the Burma Railway until you feel that tropical heat for yourself.  Now, I am very much an advocate of a "sense of place" in history; visiting locations can teach more than just reading about them from the comfort of your garret.  But, reading those words in the oppressive humidity and heat of Thailand whilst on holiday recently, was taking the "sense of place" to a whole new level.

Twigg was one of those fated to experience the British defeat at Singapore in 1942 and subsequently to endure three years incarceration and labour on the Thailand-Burma Railway, best known to the world through the 1957 David Lean film "Bridge on the River Kwai".  In fact, the film is an enormous red-herring; adapted from a novel of the same name, it tells a rather fantastical story which merely uses the fact of the bridge's building as its narrative backdrop.  If you want to know the real story of the Burma railway, don't start by watching the film.

You could do worse than to start by reading Reg Twigg's memoir.  Its certainly an engaging read, telling the story of Reg's early life in Leicester, joining the Army (Leicester Regiment) and witnessing the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese.  The majority of the book however, relates to his experiences on the Burma
The real Bridge over the "River Kwai"
"Death" Railway, the various camps, the characters that he met along the way, the Japanese guards, and - of course - the Bridge over the River Kwai and the infamous cutting at Hellfire Pass, some 40 miles away towards the Burmese border.

Twigg was very much a 'ducker and diver' and - by his own admission - a "cheeky chappy".  This naturally contributed to his survival, as he proved adept at finding a role for himself, foraging for food and getting by.  His is also a very human account, telling stories about the many fellow POWs he met and often ending with the sentiment "I hope he made it home".  For the record, some 12,000 Allied POWs did not "make it home" from the Death Railway, and around half of those were British.

As one might expect, Twigg's account has all the requisite horror stories - the endemic disease, the brutal maltreatment, the backbreaking labour and the stifling heat - but it also has a tremendous humanity about it.  For all the horror, the book has flashes of light and warmth and as such - I suspect - is a fitting tribute to its author, who died, aged 99, shortly before publication.

For the historians out there, the book is certainly enlightening as regards the treatment meted out to the prisoners, and the conditions in which they lived.  However, as one might expect, it is a somewhat myopic account, being primarily concerned with those grim conditions, and providing little sense of the grander scheme involved; the purpose of the railway or the geography of the region and the location of the various camps. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, but I can't help feeling that the book could have been considerably improved by the provision of some wider explanatory context.

But that it a small quibble, "Survivor on the River Kwai" is an engaging and illuminating read and is a welcome addition to the selection of books on the subject of the Death Railway.  You don't have to visit Thailand to read it, of course, but the experience is all the more present and all the more pertinent if you do.

"Survivor on the River Kwai" is available here or you could do us all a favour and order it from your local bookshop - if you still have one... :-)