Sunday, 28 February 2016

Every Picture Tells a Story

Every picture tells a story is an old cliché but it is true. When it comes to illustrating non-fiction, well-used and thoughtfully captioned images can enhance understanding of a story. However all too often books contain pictures that are either poor quality reproductions or badly explained: pictures have to earn their place in books and that the author then has a duty to ensure that they are appropriately captioned.

One of the most extraordinary photographs is of The Endurance. On the face of it this picture is of Shackleton’s ship sinking into the ice of the Weddell Sea in November 1915.

What is significant about the photograph, taken by Frank Hurley was that Shackleton carried it with him in his pocket when he sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia to raise the rescue mission for the men left behind. Now here’s the critical thing as far as I am concerned: Frank Hurley took a photograph of a sinking ship. Fine. He developed the glass plate (approximately 12" x 8”). Where? On the ice. In a tent. Then he made a little print for Shackleton. Not a big one. Shackleton could not have fitted a big one into his pocket. Where? Also in a tent on the ice. Moving ice at that. In fact we know that Hurley kept a selection of the photographs he had taken on the voyage, prior to The Endurance sinking, because it is recorded that he and Shackleton had to make the terrible decision to jettison the majority of the glass slides as they were so heavy. Shackleton succeeded in making his extraordinary journey in a lifeboat, the James Caird, from Elephant Island to South Georgia, some 800 miles across some of the heaviest seas in the world. He carried this photograph with him in order to prove who he was and what had happened to his ship. It is only slightly more remarkable that the actual photograph still exists.

When my editor was looking for a photograph for the front cover of my book about evacuees she chanced up a famous image of three little children sitting on suitcases with luggage labels round their necks. The picture says everything about the mass evacuation of unaccompanied school children from Britain’s cities to the countryside in the Second World War. Except that this picture is not quite what it seems. It was taken not in 1939 but in 1941 when the children were about to leave from King’s Cross Station for Northampton. They had in fact been evacuated with their parents to Chislehurst Caves in Kent at the beginning of the war but returned to Greenwich before Christmas 1939. It was only when their father got a job as a driver in the RAF that their mother decided the children needed to be evacuated. Barbara, the oldest of the children, seated in the middle, had no recollection of the photograph being taken. Her memories of that day are of being left by their mother and ending up in a beautifully clean house smelling of lavender polish. She and her sister, Rosie, spent eighteen very happy months with Mr and Mrs Rice. 
Their brother John was sent to another family for the duration. They returned to Greenwich after the war and Barbara’s strongest recollection from that period was her determination to be as clean and tidy as her foster parents. Fast-forward sixty years and imagine Barbara’s surprise when her daughter phoned to tell her that the photograph had appeared in the Daily Mirror in 2005. The Royal Mail used it on a stamp for their Britain at War series and the memory of wartime evacuation returned to the forefront of Barbara’s mind. When I interviewed her in 2009 she said: ‘Although I was happy in Northamptonshire and well looked after I never quite lost that nagging sensation of sadness that I would so very much rather have been with my mum, despite all the difficulties of life at home.’

Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey DSO, CBE, 1974. His role as senior
British officer at the Bridge camp in Thailand was immortalised
by Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai
A third image (below) is one of my all-time favourites and it helped me better to understand a family story that I wrote about in The Colonel of Tamarkan. Sergeant Major Saito was a Japanese guard in the prison camp on the Thailand-Burma railway where my grandfather and 3,500 men built the bridge over the River Kwai. My grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Philip Toosey, was in charge of the camp and had difficult dealings with the Japanese and Korean guards. On one occasion two officers and six other ranks escaped from the camp into the jungle. This caused a terrible scene and Saito, second-in-command at the camp knew that the deeply-feared Kempei Tai (the equivalent of the Gestapo) would be called in to investigate. Toosey realised the implications of this so took responsibility for the men’s escape. He told Saito he and he alone had known of their intentions to run away (they were later all caught by the Japanese and executed). Saito beat him severely and ordered him to stand to attention for 24 hours in the full heat of the sun, badly knocked about. It was a public punishment intended to humiliate him in front of his own men but it was also for the benefit of the Kempi Tai who would not feel the need to investigate further, thus sparing the camp a much worse fate. Through this and various other contretemps, Saito and Toosey developed a mutual respect and understanding. At the end of the war Toosey was called to screen camp commanders for war crimes. It was here that he came face to face with Saito for the last time. To the guard’s intense surprise Toosey shook him by the hand and told him he was free to go. In his opinion, Saito had treated the POWs firmly but fairly. Thirty years later Saito wrote to him: ‘I especially remember in 1945 when the war ended and when our situations were completely reversed. I was gravely shocked and delighted when you came to shake me by the hand as only the day before you were prisoner. You exchanged friendly words with me and I discovered what a great man you were. You are the type of man who is a real bridge over the battlefield.’

Saito at Toosey's grave 12 August 1984, on what would have been my grandfather's 80th birthday

Saito had wanted to visit Toosey in Britain but the old man was too sick. In 1984 he finally managed to get to Landican cemetery on the Wirral where he visited Toosey’s grave on what would have been his 80th birthday. This is the photograph taken that day by Toosey’s son, Patrick. Saito wrote to him the next day: ‘I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty. One thing I regret, I could not visit Mr Philip Toosey when he was alive. He showed me what a human being should be. He changed the philosophy of my life.’


Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for the fascinating post! I don't have anything quite like what you describe; after the Holocause, my parents had very few photos from their childhoods when they were still at home. But we have a photo of my grandmother as a young woman in the early 1920s and an ID photo of my mother, looking very grumpy because her mother had bought her a travel card to make sure she no longer spent her public transport money on ice cream(and walked to school across the fields instead!). I only know that, though, because Mum told me. There are a few other photos , but not many, and mostly studio portraits. Those tell you very little.

Joan Lennon said...

What evocative photos - and even more so with the background information - thanks for this!

Janie Hampton said...

Fasinating! Thank you Julie