Like so many of the memories of childhood, I have never recaptured the taste of those curries, the nearest I have come being a Biryani. What I do remember is the care and attention given to the purchase, preparation and cooking of the rice (no question of a perforated bag being boiled for 10 minutes), something which is still seen today on the sub-continent and most of Asia.
We knew that my father had served with the Royal Artillery in Burma but he never talked about it. Unlike our grandfathers who happily prattled on to their grandsons about the trenches in WWI – it all seemed one long lark; no mention of the mud, the rotting bodies of horses and men or the vermin. All that we learned from history lessons.
Much later we learnt that my father, in the administrative chaos following the evacuation from Dunkirk, was attached to the 136th (1st West Lancashire) Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. No matter that he had been born in Edinburgh, brought up in Aberdeen and had never set foot in Lancashire! The 136th became part of the 7th Indian Division in Bill Slim’s XIV Army and was sent to Rangoon via Madras.
There were, at moments, glimpses of Burma from my father. He was always obsessed with the family’s salt intake and once described how to deal with a bolting mule – not a normal part of a solicitor’s knowledge bank. I learnt much more from the Regimental History which is not the most approachable of texts but historically very important, if massively politically incorrect by today’s standards (the Japanese are referred to throughout as “the Japs”). Boring as the read may have been, I found there the names of my father’s men who had lost their lives and their place of burial.
I promised to myself that one day I would pay my respects to these men and I kept that promise in 2018.
We joined an organised trip which began in Rangoon/Yangon and ended in Mandalay after a trip up the Irrawaddy in some considerable luxury which contrasted somewhat with the poverty of the country we passed through. On our way from the capital to Pyay/Prome where we embarked, we stopped at the Rangoon War Cemetery. Like all War Cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission the row upon row of memorial stones with brass plaques (not upright stones or crosses as in Flanders and northern France) were immaculately kept but, as ever, the peace of the place hid the tragic story of young lives sacrificed for a greater cause. I had had a special poppy wreath made by the Lady Haig Poppy Factory in Edinburgh which I carried with me to Myanmar. The night before, in conversation with the group, it emerged that one of our fellow travellers was the daughter of one of my father’s fellow officers. We laid the wreath together the next day whilst the others of the group stood in respectful silence. It was hard for the dour Presbyterian Scot and the stiff-upper-lipped English naval wife (as she had now become) not to succumb to emotion faced with the graves of these young men so very far from home.
I had kept my promise.
Why then the unhappiness with the 2020 VE Day Celebrations? I do not, for a moment, minimise the importance of the defeat of the Nazis but I resent the emphasis put on the partial end of WWII (and if anyone says in my presence that WWII ended on the 8th of May 1945 they will swiftly be corrected!). “Since when has it been customary to celebrate victory half-way through a contest?”, asked the Sydney Morning Herald that day. On 8/5/1945 there were still hundreds of thousands of Allied men and women (not just from the UK but also from Australia, India, New Zealand and the United States) fighting in Burma, South-East Asia and the South Pacific. Many of them, indeed, from this part of the world (including my father). They faced an enemy more ruthless and determined in many ways than the other Axis powers. They fought until August 15th 1945 when Japan finally surrendered. That was the day WWII ended. Yet was there dancing in the streets, was there a public holiday? No. Fast forward 75 years. VE Day is celebrated with a public holiday (on a Friday would you believe?!) and the Monarch addressed us at night. Will 15/8/2020 be a public holiday? Will the Monarch address us that night? I suspect that the answer is “no”. Both Churchill in 1945 and the two Monarchs in 1945 and 2020 recognised that hostilities continued in Asia and we, the descendants of those who fought in the Far East, are grateful for that. But nothing can change the fact that my father and his comrades-in-arms went to their graves resenting the treatment meted out to them by a country they felt was ungrateful and which never appreciated their sacrifices and achievements. They were, indeed, the “Forgotten Army”.
Let me finish with a postscript. When I arrived at Cults Parish Church for my father’s funeral, on the church steps lay a bouquet of red roses – the red roses of Lancashire. The card read simply “From your comrades-in-arms”. Even at his end Burma was there.
This passed easily and our written declarations were examined and attracted no particular attention. A small number of passengers were individually escorted to a screened off area and it was not apparent whether they were allowed to board or not. It was expected that our itinerary might be changed to fit with the government health and immigration regulations of our destinations and that is what happened. Two ports of call were deleted, another was substituted and the order changed to arrive first at the Fiji Capital, Suva, before visiting another port. This was not a disappointment since we had paid for an Ocean Cruise with many sea days together with short visits to some very attractive Islands of the South Pacific and this is what we experienced. This was the prelude to what comes next and we happily disembarked in Sydney, two weeks later, with no reported cases of Arona Virus but news of one passenger suffering from shingles!
Grant's 70th Birthday was celebrated when we returned to Sydney where we spent two nights before journeying home. By this time the virus had hit the headlines and we were quite nervous about flying home on a direct flight with no stopovers. By this time the Australian Government were just about to ban all passengers originating in or transiting Singapore. On our outward flight we were in transit for 2 hours in Singapore, were subjected to a mass screening of body temperatures, but continued without a problem. The flight home to Aberdeen took some 28 hours altogether, was very tiring of course, but uneventful. Within days of arriving home the Australians banned most arriving foreign airlines, particularly those from China and the Far East and advised all foreign nationals to leave which caused a rush for bookings on the few remaining flights to Europe and elsewhere. It was also the final episode of Ocean Cruising in Australia as all arriving vessels were moored empty of passengers in the Sydney Harbour area.
It was reported some two weeks later that a flotilla of cruise liners was ordered by the Australian Government back to their home ports with all of their remaining crews on board. They sailed out of Sydney Harbour, one by one, watched by sad onlookers, their silhouettes eventually fading into the distant blue Pacific Horizon. Some of our Silversea Ships finally berthed near Marseille and Gibraltar with crews remaining on board, actually in quarantine. Five Scandinavian and other ships are moored for the time being at the entrance to the Forth Estuary by courtesy of the UK Government. Sadly, most of the devoted employees had no choice but to remain with their ships and were unable to return to their home destinations such as The Philippines, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, China and Europe. Most international flights at that point had been cancelled.
This is not a report of Ocean Voyaging but it, as a luxury holiday adored by millions, became the forerunner to the worst disaster, Arona, ever to be experienced by the cruising, holiday and leisure companies and their dedicated travellers. At time of writing the immediate outlook is zero for those eagerly awaiting their planned delights to come. This short report is part of a much longer ESSAY or Write-Up on the Corona Virus and how we have been affected. I was encouraged to submit it following the Culshaw's interesting Blog on the Islands of Scotland and started wondering how holidays might be spent beyond this point.
BILL CUTHBERTSON 7.06.20
Banchory East Church
A journal of the life of the East Church through the personal memories and opinions of our members.
We post on Tuesday and Thursdays. but not always every week.