Friday, 30 April 2010

Never forget

One of the best things about my new existence is getting out to meet interesting people, whether it's in a prison or at a book festival. It happened last night when I had the pleasure and the privilege to meet an extraordinary character whose story of has captivated thousands of people.

Alistair on a visit to the US, where he met veterans of the USS Pampanito, which sank the hell ship he was trapped in 

As a journalist one of the first things you are told is not to use the word miracle, but I make no apologies for describing Alistair Urquhart as a walking miracle. Alistair, from Aberdeen, survived the fall of Singapore and was captured by the Japanese in February 1942. He was forced to build the Burma Railway on a handful of rice a day and with men dying like flies around him, survived cholera, dysentery and beriberi, was locked in the hold of a Death Ship with five hundred men, some of whom resorted to cannibalism to stay alive, torpedoed and finally held in Japan where on 9 August 1945 he felt the blast wave of the Nagasaki bomb.

His book, The Forgotten Highlander, was published in October, shot to the No. 1 slot in the Sunday Times non-fiction list and is already in its fifth reprint. I'd been asked to chair an event he was doing at Stirling University's MacRobert Theatre. At 91, and still with the scars of the beatings he received, he's a ball of energy who kept an audience of three hundred spellbound for an hour and a half. His harrowing story, told with brutal honesty, had many in tears.

There are two shameful threads to The Forgotten Highlander. The first is his treatment at the hands of the Japanese who kept their prisoners in appalling conditions that killed many of his compatriots. The stories of casual beatings, horrific executions and systematic, agonising torture are a terrible indictment against a nation which has never truly acknowledged its guilt.

The second is his disgraceful treatment on his release by the British government which had sent him to war so inadequately prepared in the first place. Like thousands of others he was forced to sign a declaration swearing he would never talk about his ordeal. He was sent home by a circuitous route and arrived back in Britain to no formal welcome or acknowledgement of his suffering. Incredibly, when he received his back pay the authorities had deducted money for his keep. This from a man who had slept outdoors to avoid the bugs in the hut he had built himself and lived on grains of weevily rice for three years. And in a final insult he was refused a disability pension because he couldn't provide the records to prove he'd suffered from the diseases and beatings he claimed.

His disgust at the way he was treated by his government is still palpable after almost seventy years. Nor will he ever forgive or forget his treatment at the hands of the Japanese, who he still believes have never learned the lessons of World War Two.

Alistair only wrote his memoirs with reluctance, but when he recognised its astonishing success he saw the opportunity to launch a crusade to ensure that future generations would never forget those who suffered so much for their country and who received so little in return. In the most literal sense his book has given this amazing old gentleman a new lease of life.

If you haven't read The Forgotten Highlander, you should. Some things should never be forgotten.

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