Bamboo Heart Inspirations: My Travels: Bridge on the River Kwai trip 1988

Lonely Planet tweeted a picture of all my guide books last week.

 

Anyway,  that got me browsing through the old Lonely Planet  Thailand guide by Joe Cummings that I used on my 1985 and 1987-88 trips.

The 1985 trip was with Trailfinders -(they catered to budget travellers then); the Bangkok to Bali Rover – all on public transport. We didn’t spend much time in Thailand -just Bangkok, Ayuthaiya and Pattaya (which even back then was the epitome of sleaze). But that journey gave me a taste for the country and a desire to return and linger.

Monks at Wat Arun bangkok 1985 001
Monks at Wat Arun Bangkok 1985

We also spent a few days in Penang on our way down Malaysia – which I’m going to cover in a later blog – that was the inspiration for the chapters on Penang in Bamboo Heart.

Our 1988 trip was eventful to say the least.  After Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway, Mum and I went on to spend a week in Burma – the week of 13th March 1988; the very week that there were protests and a military crackdown, tanks and guns on the streets of Rangoon and a curfew. Pretty scary. This YouTube clip is narrated in Burmese, but it shows what happened and how frightening that was. I’ll blog more about our Burmese adventure later too!

Back to the beginning: I met Mum in Bangkok -I had arrived there via India and Nepal and was just back from jungle trekking in the hills of Northern Thailand. Mum had also come via India where she’d visited Bombay and the Ajanta and Ellora caves near Aurangubad all on her own. Very brave for a lady of over sixty who prior to that had never travelled further than France.

Mum and I stayed in a bit of a dive, the Swan Hotel, pictured here. It is still going strong today although  has clearly been updated and refurbished. Back then it was rather grotty, it’s chief attraction being its location; it was virtually opposite the grand old Oriental Hotel (famous  haunt of great men of letters, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad). The poor old Swan hotel was, sadly, not as grand, and the backpackers who stayed there weren’t very illustrious, but it was  just back from the Chao Phrya river – and it had a swimming pool. The two essential things for a stay in Bangkok.

Swan Hotel
Swan Hotel Bangkok

We did the usual things – visited Jim Thomson’s house, the Grand Palace, the Royal Barge Sheds on the river, all the temples including Wat Arun and Wat Po; we  ate fantastic fresh fish in Silom village, watched classical Thai dancing and sampled aromatic Thai cooking from  food-stalls off the Charoen Krung Road. We didn’t stay in Khao San Road,  (the backpacker’s default destination and immortalised in the book and film the Beach). I didn’t think Mum would like it, but I had spent one night there when I first arrived from India. My diary says that I stayed in the Riverside Guesthouse on Khao San, but I can’t find any trace of it now. I can’t remember a great deal about it either. I know I went there with a Swiss girl I had met on the flight and we shared the cost of a room.  It must be this guesthouse that is the inspiration for where Laura stays in Bamboo Heart.

Grand Palace Bangkok 1985 001
Grand Palace Bangkok

Mum and I took a boat trip along the klongs (canals) in Thonburi – below is a lovely (not) photo of me on the boat. Nice glasses which had photosensitive lenses – so heavy they kept toppling off my nose, and weren’t that photosenstive at all. You could go inside the hotel from a sunny street and find yourself bumping into things and tripping up steps because the lenses still thought it was bright sunlight! Not quite sure why I had such short hair either – I remember having it cut by a barber in Connaught Squre in New Delhi, and I was probably his only female customer ever.

Bangkok - Klongs 1988 001
Boat trip along the klongs in Bangkok Feb 1988

I meant to get on to Kanchanaburi on this post, but I think I’ll have to leave it until the next one. I’ve just been reading my diary entries for our stay in Bangkok and will end here with our journey to Kanchanaburi. I could have sworn we went on the train, but no, we caught an Air -Conditioned bus from a bus station on the edge of Bangkok having struggled through the rush hour in a sweltering taxi. Here is my diary entry. I have forgotten about most of it, but the VT guesthouse is the inspiration for where Laura and Luke stay in Bamboo Heart.

‘We passed through lush green countryside, palms and coconut groves, then low hills. All the time I was thinking about my career dilemma [NB – I still am!….I’ll leave that bit out as it is boring ]... At Kanchanaburi we decided on the River Kwai hotel. A mistake. It feels a bit like a cross between a hall of residence and a brothel. I don’t think room service is on the cards! Went next door to a posher hotel for dinner. It all started very nicely -lovely service and a nice dining room, but things went drastically down hill when the waiter bringing our food slipped over on some water just next to our table and he,  the tray, plates and everything else went crashing down, missing me by an inch. Then the two men at the next table asked us to join them. We couldn’t refuse without being rude. Had to sit there while they practised their apalling English on us, which consisted mostly of the names of Arsenal and Man United footballers. They insisted on paying for the meal, so we quickly left, leaving 200 baht on the table. Crossed the road for a coffee, but fared no better. It was the Valen-Tine pick up joint where a Thai girl singer in black mini skirt and stilettos droned from the stage and the waiter told me I was beautiful and asked if I wanted a man friend!

Retreated to our hotel room which is very hot, bare and I think infested with bed bugs.

Wed 24th.

Bad night owing to traffic roaring past -without silencers. it is far noisier than Bangkok. Also extremely hot and stuffy. In the morning set off in search of a more peaceful place, and after much walking up to road towards the Bridge on the River Kwai, backtracked onto a little back road and found a lovely spot, the VT Guesthouse – little bamboo huts built out onto the river Kwai, run by a young couple with two little kids…..’

More about the VT Guesthouse and the River Kwai next time, but here are some pictures..

Mum on the hut beside the river Kwai. The hut features in Laura's story.
Mum on the hut beside the river Kwai. The hut features in Laura’s story.
River through branches resized
View of the River Kwai from the platform of the hut

 

 

 

Bamboo Heart by Ann Bennett

My first ever review from a professional reviewer – Raelee Chapman of the Singapore Review of Books. Very pleased indeed with that! Just stumbled across it whilst googling…

Singapore Review of Books

Bamboo-Heart

Ann Bennett’s Bamboo Heart begins with Tom Ellis, a captive of the Japanese working on the Death Railway in 1943, in solitary confinement. It is in these opening pages and the narrow confines of his pit prison that we learn what gives him the will to live. Tucked in his chest pocket is a photograph of a young Eurasian woman from Penang, Joy De Souza – this is but one of the threads in Bennett’s first installment of her WWII trilogy.

Bennett has given us a hybrid of sorts with alternating narratives between Tom Ellis and Laura Ellis, his daughter, a lawyer living in London in 1986. Tom’s narrative involves several non-linear time-splits of his pre-war life as a lawyer in London living out days of drudgery, and then as a young man managing a rubber plantation in Penang. Here we get a real sense of Tom’s paradisiacal life in…

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Bamboo Heart – Inspirations Part 2

At the end of the Second World War allied  intelligence services surveyed newly-released prisoners of war with so-called liberation questionnaires. My novel, Bamboo Heart, started life when I discovered my father’s liberation questionnaire in the National Archives at Kew. It was an amazing moment when I first saw it; written in his perfect copper-plate hand in pencil, it answered so many questions I would like to have asked. From that moment I knew I had to write about his experiences as a prisoner-of-war on the Death Railway in Thailand.

This discovery was the culmination of a lifetime’s quest to find out what had happened to my dad during the war. He died when I was only seven, and growing up I became increasingly interested in his past. He hardly spoke about the war, having started a new life with my mother on his return to England in 1945. I was interested enough to travel to Kanchanaburi to see the railway in 1988. On that trip I fell in love with South East Asia, but found out very little about what had happened to dad there.

View from train along tressles - resized

I took the tragic events Dad described in his questionnaire as the basis of Tom’s story in Bamboo Heart. I wanted to write about those events from the perspective of one man, within the framework of a fast-moving narrative. My aim was to bring those events alive without it feeling like a history lesson.

The scenes I was describing were harrowing. So to lighten the mood, I broke it up with flashbacks to Tom’s pre-war life in colonial Penang, where he fell in love. I also introduced a parallel modern plot, the story of Tom’s own daughter’s search for the truth about the war. For Laura’s story I drew upon my own life as a disaffected young lawyer in the eighties, and upon my memories of those times. The novel touches on the Wapping Riots, which I remember well as I lived in North London at the time. Co-incidentally the first day of serious rioting was 15th February 1986, the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

I tried to tell a story of hope and survival, to examine the reasons why some survived the worst of ordeals and others sadly did not. I also wanted to show what an important role history plays in all our lives; how powerfully our family’s past affects our own choices and values.

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My research for Bamboo Heart taught me so much more about the war in the Far East than I had expected.. Continue reading Bamboo Heart – Inspirations Part 2

Inspirations for Bamboo Heart – Part 1: Beginnings

Welcome to my first post on a new regular blog about my writing.

I’m getting ready for the upcoming UK launch of my novel Bamboo Heart, published by Monsoon Books and have been thinking back to what first inspired me to write the book. It is the story of Tom, a British soldier during world war II who is captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore and sent to work on the Thai-Burma railway. Decades later his daughter Laura travels there to try to try to piece together what happened to him during the war.

The seeds of the idea were sown over twenty five years ago when I first went to visit the River Kwai and the death railway with my mother. I had grown up knowing that my dad had been a prisoner there during the war and that he’d never recovered physically from the experience. Dad died when I was seven, and the urge to find out about his wartime experience grew stronger as I grew older. When I was in my twenties I decided to go to Thailand to discover as much as I could for myself.

It was not easy then to find information out about what happened to individual prisoners, and I don’t think their records were available in the National Archives as they are now.  But Mum and I travelled to Kanchanaburi, stayed in a bamboo hut right on the river and saw as much as we could of the railway, the bridge on the river Kwai and the only museum that was there at the time – the JEATH museum. It was not an easy experience for either of us, especially for Mum – she was of the generation that wanted to forget.

During that trip I kept a diary, and that has been the source of inspiration for quite a few of the scenes in the book.Here is a link to my website page of some of the pictures I took then. Over the next few posts I’m going to add my diary entries too, and post further instalments about the ideas behind Bamboo Heart.