Captured for posterity

1st November 2002 at 00:00
Jerome Monaham describes how a soldier's diary of his time as a Japanese prisoner of war came to be used in class.

On February 6, 1943, Captain Atholl Duncan, then in his 11th month of captivity in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, reports: "I thoroughly enjoy writing up this diary and fear that, on occasion, I become rather long-winded but believe - pardon my conceit - that it should make quite interesting reading at some future date."

His comment conveys nothing of the risk he was running keeping a diary of his life as a prisoner of war, an activity forbidden by the Japanese. Far from being long-winded, his account supplemented with sketches and collected artefacts - orders, cards, even a comic menu - provides an exceptionally detailed record of his time in captivity.

And in celebrating the value of writing during a prolonged period of adversity, the entry carries an important literacy message for young readers. Now the diaries, reproduced in the book Notify Alec Rattray, have been taken up by subject inspectors on the Wirral and are being tried out at a number of schools. Teachers are delighted to have so compelling a text with which to teach non-fiction and personal writing.

Editing and publishing the diaries has also proved cathartic for Capt Duncan's daughter, Meg Parkes. She has finally uncovered the kinds of wartime experiences that coloured her family life. In this way Notify Alec Rattray is different from so many prisoner-of-war stories because it describes the psychological strain endured by those waiting for news at home.

Talking about her mother, Elizabeth, Meg Parkes says: "She suffered a different kind of captivity. It took 14 months before there was news of Atholl's capture and a further eight months before there was confirmation of which camp in Japan he was being held in."

This finally came indirectly, in the form of a brief aside in an American PoW's Christmas message home (broadcast as part of a Japanese propaganda exercise) that Alec Rattray - a friend of the Duncan family then living in California - should be notified that "A A Duncan is OK". Rattray was informed and immediately sent the good news on.

It is the multi-layered nature of the book that teachers will find particularly appealing. "It contains a wide variety of writing - biography, diary entries, poetry, contemporary journalism and even travelogue accounts of the camps and their surroundings," explains Wirral English inspector Georgina Herring.

"The many photographs also provide opportunities for analysis. Then there is the added dimension that what Atholl Duncan wrote often had to be encoded in case of discovery - so the diaries are rich in abbreviation and euphemism as well as 1940s idioms providing all sorts of helpful leaping off points for language exploration."

Meg Parkes has also placed the diary entries alongside contemporaneous events on the home front to give a fuller picture of what the war felt like for her mother.

The diary has fascinating "warts and all" details about how the PoWs reacted to their long incarceration and describes the indignities they suffered as a result of diseases. Particularly grim is the chapter describing the nightmare life aboard the Singapore Maru on the final leg of his journey from Java to Japan. It was a voyage which, according to Rod Suddaby, the keeper of documents at the Imperial War Museum, cost the lives of more than a third of those who embarked.

Rod Suddaby was an important source of information and advice to Meg Parkes and feels the book is a valuable historic resource. "It is an important reminder that of the 30,000 allied troops captured by the Japanese during the Second World War not all them ended up on the Thai-Burma railway," he said.

According to Trish Davies, a teacher at Kingsmead School, the book is also valuable because the curriculum tends to sideline the war in the Pacific.

In many ways Capt Duncan was fortunate. By chance he ended up at Zentsuji which the Japanese decided would be a model camp where they could stage public relations exercises and welcome Red Cross representatives.

"Of course, 'fortunate', is a very relative term," emphasises Rod Suddaby. "His life was far from cushy. Unlike a normal prisoner with a finite sentence, he had no idea when his ordeal would end."

Notify Alec Rattray by Meg Parkes is published by Kranji Publications at pound;11.50 plus pound;2 pamp;p with a 30 per cent discount for orders of more than 10. Teaching resources are in preparation. The travelling exhibition associated with the book is at the Wirral Museum, Hamilton Square, Birkenhead until February 28 next year (0151 666 4010). Schools can book for the exhibition.


"This is definitely a book for dipping in and out of," says Helen Yorke, assistant key stage 3 co-ordinator at Pensby High School, Wirral.

"Students love diaries - I suspect it is something about being nosey - and this is a book they will not have encountered at primary school, which can be a problem with the better known diaries such as Anne Frank's." She has incorporated Notify Alec Rattray into a Year 8 scheme which includes Anne Frank's diaries, Michael Morpurgo's Wreck of the Zanzibar, Robinson Crusoe and the Oxford Lit Kit and Oxford Skills 2 units on Learning Through Diaries.

"It is a good resource for prompting text, sentence and word level literacy tasks - and it would be an interesting exercise to compare it to a more literary treatment of a similar subject such as The Empire of the Sun," she says.

Additional curriculum tie-ins include citizenship because of the human rights issues it raises, especially when considering current controversies concerning people imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The evocative passages celebrating Meg's early memories would be a helpful prompt for children's own writing. Finally, Notify Alec Rattray could provide a stimulus for personal history research among pupils.

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