I've just been doing some reading for a talk Waterstones have asked me to chair by Alistair Urquhart, whose book The Forgotten Highlander, about his terrible experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore, has been storming the non-fiction sales charts.
Alistair's story is an incredible tale of heroism, hardship and survival under terrible conditions and at the hands of captors whose mercilessness was only outdone by their brutality. Yet it's also the story of the enduring qualities of the human spirit and how man can survive even in the most appalling conditions. Until he wrote his book, Alistair didn't talk about his experiences for sixty years. As a prisoner of the Japanese, he worked on the Burma railway and the infamous bridge over the River Kwai, survived being torpedoed by an American submarine and was finally held at a camp just eleven miles from the Nagasaki nuclear blast. When he returned home his family barely recognised him.
His story reminded me of a couple of people I knew in the early 1970s in Jedburgh; men who were old before their time, had suffered crippling injuries and who seldom spoke to anyone outside their immediate family. It wasn't until years later that I realised that they too had been prisoners in the Far East and had never recovered from their time in captivity. Neither of them lived long enough to collect the £10,000 the British government was eventually shamed into handing over as compensation to the survivors in the year 2000.
The venue for the event has still to be sorted out but I'm really looking forward to meeting this remarkable ninety-year-old who somehow manages to find positives in what he went through, despite never having fully recovered from the events of more than half a century ago.