Sunday, 14 April 2013

Sir Harold Atcherley, Prisoner of Japan: A Personal War Diary published by Memoirs Publishing

Sir Harold Atcherley, Prisoner of Japan: A Personal War Diary, Memoirs Publishing, Cirencester, 2012, £14.50.

Harold Atcherley records in his diary how he was walking through the camp at Changi one moonlit evening when he came across a body being carried to the morgue. He found himself wondering whether the man had a wife at home. If so, she would know nothing of how he died or what was on his mind. “It is just as well,” he concluded for she would “never understand, as nobody will ever understand, who has not actually experienced life here.” I am sure that is true yet the first-hand stories of POW can help us at least appreciate (if not fully understand) what happened particularly when they are told with Atcherley’s powers of observation and reflection.

Harold Atcherley was on the way to a successful career with the oil giant, Royal Dutch Shell when war broke out. Commissioned as an intelligence officer at the HQ of the 18th British Infantry Division he arrived in Singapore at the end of January 1942. Two weeks later he was a Prisoner of War. He began writing the diary in May 1942 and continued it until he was repatriated from Singapore in September 1945. Besides the first few months of captivity, which he recreates from memory, the only gap is between April and December of 1943 when he was working on the Burma/Thailand Railway. After the war he returned to Royal Dutch Shell and a career in public service. He was knighted in 1977.

Atcherley’s diary focuses on the day-to-day privations and tedium of camp life and on his state of mind throughout it all. But he writes with both perspective and perception. As an officer, perhaps, he was in a better position than many others to know what was going on in the camp even though what passed for knowledge was often little better than rumour. But as the years wore on he maintained a remarkable level of candour and insight about his feelings and emotions. Letters from home, for example, could be a very mixed blessing. The life they described seemed “so petty with all the stupid social conventions and traditions.” To not receive a letter could be dissatisfying and yet to receive one could be even more so.

The diary was a form of self-discipline, of course. Reading was another. It might be Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism one day and Huxley’s Essays of a Biologist the next; it was in fact. But even an intense and protracted reading regimen did not satisfy the need to keep his mind occupied. And so he took up Italian as well.

The early sections of the book dealing with Atcherley’s enlistment, training and voyage to Singapore perhaps give the impression of a privileged, not to say charmed, life. He was an officer with a batman, after all, and the months before embarkation seemed to be a whirl of dances and dinner parties. My father’s experience as a Royal Army Medical Corps orderly was rather different. But Atcherley was clearly troubled by the disparities in treatment between officers and ranks, for which he could see no justification. Indeed, his generous and fair-minded disposition extended to his assessment of the Japanese and his understanding of the challenges facing the world. By March 1943 (and perhaps much earlier) he had concluded that national sovereignty was an outmoded notion and that people needed to be taught that they had responsibilities to mankind, not just to the state in which they happened to have been born. “I have never wanted to fight Germans or Japanese,” he writes. “How can anyone like or dislike a whole nation?”

A surprising question, perhaps, given Atcherley’s POW experience, but that is precisely why he can ask it with such authority. It is an authority that is further enhanced throughout the published diary by Ronald Searle’s drawings. Atcherley and Searle knew each other at Changi and were together through much of their captivity. Searle captured the face of barbarity as few other artists have managed to do. Prisoner of Japan is a fitting testament to two men – and countless others on both sides – who rose above it.