World War II , Vera Lynn and Auden

This was the day Poland was invaded by Germany and Russia 70 years ago, marking the start of the Second World War. Britain and France declared war on Germany two days later, on September 3.

Those wartime memories have now made Vera Lynn the oldest artiste to hit the charts. At the age of 92, she is back on the British album charts with a collection of her wartime songs, We’ll Meet Again, entering at No 20. We’ll Meet Again is a lovely song.

But just as sweet is the German wartime song, Lili Marlene. Here Vera Lynn sings it in English.

The poet WH Auden marked the day with this poem.

September 1, 1939

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Will A Suitable Girl be as good as The Glass Palace?

The news that Vikram Seth is writing a sequel to A Suitable Boy, my favourite novel, had me reaching for another book I love: The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.

What set me off was an interview Seth gave to The Hindu newspaper in India. The sequel, A Suitable Girl, will be set in the present, he said, and Lata, the heroine of A Suitable Boy, will be in her eighties. She was a young woman in A Suitable Boy, set in the early years of Indian independence, and the title referred to Haresh, the shoe company executive she married.

“She may be married to her husband Haresh, or she may be widowed,” said Seth about the sequel, which will be published in 2013, and is also about the Indian custom of arranged marriages. “A Suitable Girl is being sought for her grandson, who confides in her quite a bit.”

He added: ““It is going to be largely set in India, but could also involve other nations.”

That is why I was reminded of The Glass Palace, an epic novel starting with the British conquest of Burma and ending with Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest in Rangoon.

The book starts with the Indian Rajkumar’s arrival in Mandalay just before the British occupation in the 19th century and goes on to describe the lives of people in Burma, India and Malaya under British rule, the momentous events of the Second World War, and their aftermath.

Rajkumar is just a boy, an orphan, when he arrives in Mandalay. We see him make a fortune as a timber merchant in Rangoon, lose everything in the Second World War, and live to a ripe old age in India.

Panoramic novel

In this panoramic novel with a diverse cast of Indians, Burmese and Chinese, three characters stand out: Rajkumar; his beloved wife, Dolly, who had been a maid to the Burmese queen; and Dolly’s friend, Uma, the Indian Collector’s wife.

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The Singapore Grip

The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell

Anyone who loves Singapore should read The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell. He won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur about the 1857 War of Indian Independence. The Singapore Grip is also a historical novel, describing Singapore at the time of the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. The book was first published in Britain in 1978 and Farrell died a year later.

The author vividly describes the fighting in what was then Malaya and the fall of Singapore, the burning and the looting, the humiliation of the British, who were outgeneralled and outfought by superior Japanese forces, and the manner in which civilians and soldiers alike tried to escape from the island as the Japanese approached Singapore. The narrative captures the whole spectrum of human behaviour from cowardice and selfishness to selfless courage. There are some stoic heroic figures and a very attractive Eurasian woman who gain your empathy.

But best of all are the descriptions of Singapore before it was devastated by the war – the colonial bungalows at Tanglin, the carnival atmosphere of the Great World, the taxi dancers and the prostitutes, a dying house where the Chinese went or were left by their relatives to die to prevent misfortune at home, the world of the rich colonial businessmen and the relationship between the races. Especially memorable is the description of a plane landing in Singapore. The author gives an aerial view of Singapore as the plane begins its descent – it’s marvellous.

I have been reading the book again because I am already beginning to miss Singapore.

I will be away from Singapore for more than a month, returning towards the end of June. This will probably be the last post till then.

So I will end with this – a vivid description of the city I love as it was long ago. These are the opening lines of The Singapore Grip:

The city of Singapore was not built up gradually, the way most cities are, by a natural deposit of commerce on the banks of some river or at a traditional

Image via Wikipedia

confluence of trade routes. It was simply invented one morning early in the nineteenth century by a man looking at a map. “Here,” he said to himself, “is where we must have a city, half-way between India and China. This will be the great halting-place on the trade route to the Far East. Mind you, the Dutch will dislike it and Penang won’t be pleased, not to mention Malacca.” This man’s name was Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles: before the war his bronze statue used to stand in Empress Place in a stone alcove like a scallop shell ( he has been moved along now and, turned to stone, occupies a shady spot by the river). He was by no means the lantern-jawed individual you might have expected: indeed he was a rather vague-looking man in a frock coat.

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Ballard’s terrible Shanghai in Empire Of The Sun

The Japanese committed terrible atrocities in the Second World War, as we all know, but they had no monopoly on cruelty.

One has only to read JG Ballard’s Empire Of The Sun to see what a terrible city Shanghai was when it fell to the Japanese.

I was going through the novel again after hearing on the BBC yesterday about Ballard’s death from cancer at the age of 78.

I was struck by the cruelty and callous disregard for life in Shanghai even before it was occupied by the Japanese.

Ballard describes the boy hero Jim being driven around by the chauffeur Yang, who lashes out at pedestrians with a riding crop to clear the way on crowded Bubbling Well Road. We see a truck carrying professional executioners, a man and a woman lying beheaded in a pool of blood surrounded by a crowd who had watched the execution at a marketplace.

Later, we see some of the locals turn on the defenceless boy when Jim is all alone, separated from his parents in the confusion of the war. An amah slaps him when he goes to a friend’s house. The house is deserted, two of the amahs – whom he knows – are carrying furniture out of the house. Foolishly, he asks them if anyone is at home. The answer is a slap to his face. Later, a shopkeeper with the help of coolie forcibly takes away his bicycle.

Eleven-year-old Jim bears the cruelty stoically. He knows the city is a jungle where the poor and the helpless are treated like dogs. He has seen a beggar’s foot crushed under the wheels of his parents’ car as their chauffeur drove recklessly past the gates out of their house.

Jim is reunited with his parents at the end of the story when the city is retaken by the Americans. But he is no longer the boy he was – he has been hardened by the war.

This is a grim wartime novel that draws on Ballard’s own boyhood experiences in Shanghai during the Second World War.

Ballard describes the buildup to the war, the Japanese troops in an uneasy coexistence with the Allied forces in the International Settlement, where everybody knows the war is coming. The actual invasion is described vividly. The Japanese ships in the harbour open up their guns at the same time as Japanese planes strike Pearl Harbour. Japanese tanks and troops pour into the city, rounding up the British and the Americans, leaving alone the Germans and the Vichy French. 

Jim’s father is taken away to prison by the Japanese. He cannot find his mother, who got separated from him when the Japanese tanks poured into the streets. As he roams around vainly looking for people he knows, he sees Chinese soldiers marching up and down the streets, British and Indian policemen directing traffic with Japanese soldiers standing guard behind them. It is a surreal scene at odds with usual accounts of the war, of Chinese resistance against the Japanese.

The story ends with Jim sailing from Shanghai to England with his mother. Coffins float around their ship, dropped into the mighty Yangtze river by people too poor to afford a burial.  Jim contemplates the scene from the deck.

Below the bows of the Arrawa a child’s coffin moved into the night stream. Its paper flowers were shaken loose by the wash of a landing craft carrying soldiers from the American cruiser. The flowers formed a wavering garland around the coffin as it began its long journey to the estuary of the Yangtze, only to be swept back by the incoming tide among the quays and mud flats, driven once again to the shores of the terrible city.

A writer in the White House

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

It was such a pleasure reading Dreams From My Father. It doesn’t read like a book written by a politician at all. Barack Obama has the novelist’s touch. How can you put down a book with passages like this?

Three o’clock in the morning. The moon-washed streets empty, the growl of a car picking up speed down a distant road. The revellers would be tucked away by now, paired off or alone, in deep, beer-heavy sleep, Hassan at his new lady’s place – don’t stay up, he had said with a wink. And now just the two of us to wait for the sunrise, me and Billie Holiday, her voice warbling through the darkened room, reaching toward me like a lover.

I’m a fool… to want you.
Such a fool… to want you.

It’s pure magic, Barack Obama describing the night after a college party makes you feel his loneliness as he listens to the music in his room.

He describes winter in Chicago and how it affected his work as a community organizer:

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