Thursday, 7 March 2013

Bringing Ghosts to life

Researching history means entering a world of Ghosts.  The presence of people from by-gone ages can be felt as one moves around places and buildings trying to imagine the past, and piece together a mental jigsaw from (often) limited snippets of information.  As an amateur historian with a military interest (and background) I have wandered around many ex-British army locations around the globe. 

Most recently I visited some sites in Singapore.  The big picture, the top down view of the campaign is clear, yet it is very hard to get a perspective from ordinary people who were not at the top of the tree - and it is their stories and memories that are vital to truly understand how life must have been.

As I sat in the underground bunker (called the Battle Box) on what used to be called Government Hill in Singapore, I remembered an account of what it felt like to be in the Fort Canning Complex as the first Japanese soldiers entered in 1942, bayonets fixed.... that account is given by Alistair Urquhart in his book the 'Forgotten Highlander'.  He brilliantly captures his moment of realisation that the British and Imperial Army had been defeated and that nothing would be the same again - an instant transition from one state (and culture) to another - as he and his comrades looked at their Officers for support, not yet realising that their Officers were now powerless to help them.

Outside the Battle Box and standing near the spot where Urquhart and his colleagues were no doubt  paraded by the Japanese invaders before being marched away, it was almost possible to see them.  For a brief second the past came to life.  That is why personal accounts and recollections are so important - without them - the Ghosts stay Ghosts.


  1. I have enjoyed reading your posts. Your point about the ordinary person's view is well made. One has to approach that problem with an inspired empathetic imagination. In my novel set during the fall of Singapore - Long Journey Home - among many other sources, I had access to a hundred very literate letters written home by the harbour commander who was one of the last people off the island but with others was drowned when his boat was sunk. I could hear his voice in those letters. (Thank you for following on Twitter...) W

  2. Thanks Wendy, I have just bought the 'Long Journey Home'and look forward to reading it on my Kindle. I note that it starts on 8th December 1941 in Singapore - the novel I am currently writing starts on 10th December 1941 in Penang. Due to the bombing (and subsequent destruction by fire)of the Penang Records Office, detailed research is proving challenging. I envy you those letters..........