(1 customer review)
Publication Date: 28 Feb 2022
Categories: History, Politics and Society, BiographyISBN: 9781914471100
Christopher is the eldest of seven in a middle-class English family.
Theresa is the thirteenth child of Chinese immigrants in the British colony of Singapore.
This is the story of how they met after the war, having grown up on opposite sides of the world.
Despite vastly different backgrounds, they shared a common bond, having both survived the Second World War in Asia – Christopher as a prisoner on the Burma-Siam railway, Theresa a young woman working in Japanese-occupied Singapore.
Real-life characters, from sardonic ex-POWs to affectionate siblings and cousins in the armed forces, eccentric spinster aunts, hilarious ex-girlfriends and ebullient colonial types leap off the page as they tell the story in their own words, collected in this memoir through letters and diaries dating from the 1930s to 1959, interspersed with Theresa’s tape-recordings about her life made in 2000.
Caroline Repton was born in Singapore and attended boarding schools in England. After gaining a BA degree in French and German at Exeter University, she completed a postgraduate diploma in International Journalism at City, University of London. She began her career in journalism as editorial assistant at the London bureau of Japanese financial daily Nihon Keizai Shimbun, progressing through various media organisations including Visnews, Channel 4, AFP and as a subeditor at Thomson Financial (formerly AFX) News. From 2010, she worked part-time for a charity/special school for autism while caring for her mother and two daughters in London. Having retired, Caroline now lives in west Dorset with her partner.
C Anderson (Guest Review) - 22 Apr, 2022
When I closed this book for the last time, having read every word from cover to cover, there were tears in my eyes. Not because the story is sad but almost the opposite, that over the course of 25 years and 400 plus pages I had got to know Christopher, his family, chums, colleagues, amorous lady friends and more, but in a rather unusual way, through the letters he wrote to them and they to him, without any intervening commentary, so that I was a party to it all, living the events through their own thoughts and feelings, and when the party was over and it was time to say goodbye it was like saying a final goodbye to your own friends in real life if they were to go away for a long time, perhaps forever.
From the backstory, which the author has sensibly placed at the end so as not to colour or interrupt the immediacy of the events as related by the participants at the time, we learn that Christopher and some other members of the family saved almost everything written to or by them, a treasure trove of material ranging from the most intimate love letters through the jokey or heartfelt exchanges of siblings, cousins and other companions, to business correspondence, official announcements, telegrams and the occasional related newspaper clipping. There were also cassette tapes with later reminiscences recorded by Theresa, the woman Christopher eventually married. The roughly chronological sequence in which the selections from this family archive have been compiled has a kind of random coherence that reflects life itself. Certain characters take centre stage for a while, then fade from the scene as Christopher’s destiny takes a different turn and another personality emerges or makes a comeback. There might be a long series of letters received or exchanged with one intimate friend suddenly broken into by a more formal document, or there may be a flurry of letters from correspondents in all corners of Britain and the world. You never know who might be writing next and from where. These are mainly people in their 20s and 30s trying to make their way in unsettled times. They rarely stayed at one address for long, seeming to think nothing, after living through the upheavals of war, of dashing all over the country and only slightly more of criss-crossing the globe during a time when travel of any kind was more time-consuming, risky and yes, romantic. Though the main trajectory, as per the subtitle, is Surrey to Singapore, the reader also gets a flavour of expat life in mainland Malaya, Java and Rhodesia along with the recounting of trips in Europe and up to Japan. The war itself is conspicuous by its lack of mail once the conflict erupts in Malaya where Christopher was posted in 1941. Some retrospective correspondence and the author’s historical notes give us a notion of what he went through.
Amongst all this displacement, writing letters as a means to retain and develop personal connections and relationships comes across strongly. And what writing! Christopher’s letters home and those of many others made me laugh out loud frequently at the drily humorous way of putting things or when habits, attitudes and domestic details that now appear quaint slip out. Unwittingly this extensive range of voices collaborate to paint a vivid picture of the period. The minutiae of everyday life and work in the mid 20th century, being so different from today, are as fascinating as the big events and the momentous decisions that Christopher has to grapple with. After all the to-ing and fro-ing, the exuberant or soul-searching missives that cross the ocean, there is a kind of relaxing surrender to the calm, sober devotion of the woman whose reminiscences and letters to and from Christopher take prominence at the end. The surface formality of their exchanges masks but does not hide the deep and secure attachment they have found. Even in this section the occasional throwaway remark by one or other of them strikes me as hilarious. There is certainly sadness too, most particularly in the decline of their own elderly parents with one on each side passing away before the end.
Is there any other biography that evokes the early life and times of its subject or subjects so clearly, simply by assembling the contemporary material in this pleasing way, and written by so many variously connected people each with their own particular style? The separate stories that eventually come together of Christopher and Theresa are of course unique and fascinating in their particulars yet also so representative and informative of the time and the places they and their contemporaries inhabited. Though I have now finished the book it is tremendously comforting to have it nearby, tempting me to dip into it now and then to experience again that curious nostalgia for a period before I was born.