Last night a James Joyce saved my life

Posted on February 17, 2013


Enough is medicine, too much poison – Burmese proverb

burma-road-april09Before getting into Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From the Land of Green Ghosts, I’d like to take a small, reasonably relevant detour.  If you don’t fancy going round the houses, no matter how picturesque, skip to the next paragraph where we rejoin the path.    Like most families mine has its stories. How much of these is truth, and how much exaggeration or myth is hard to say, but although unverifiable in most cases, they have become part of the truth of who we are now, so perhaps it doesn’t matter.  I had three uncles. On my Dad’s side, Uncle Jack.[1] On my Mum’s, Uncle Joe (named after Jesus’s step-dad) and Uncle Terry (named after the Irish revolutionary Terence MacSwiney).  True to their names, Joe was slated to become a priest, Terry a hell-raiser.  Then WWII started.  Uncle Jack joined the RAF but was kicked out due to bad lungs and sent off to the Army (they’re not so fussy apparently). Uncle Joe joined the Border Regiment as a wireless operator (he didn’t want to kill anyone unless absolutely necessary). Uncle Terry joined the Navy.   Uncle Jack’s first job in the army was to take up the turf of the quads at Cambridge University to put in storage for the duration. I’m not sure this is true or, if it is, why the sacred sod was stored. Maybe the revered rectangles were used for growing vegetables.  Having completed this important task, he was shipped off to Egypt where the worst he suffered was a mild outbreak of prickly heat and the long attrition of boredom.  Uncle Terry meanwhile, was on a ship which, so family legend has it, sunk a U-boat. Maybe all families have a U-boat sinking uncle. The only injury Terry suffered through the whole of the War was losing his front teeth, knocked out by the ship’s bell when he was drunk. The only thing worth mentioning about this is that his front teeth grew back, so he didn’t lose them for very long.  Then there was Uncle Joe.  Pacifistic, predilicted-prelate, Joe.  He was sent to Burma.  The Border Regiment in which he served were subsumed in 1941 by the 48th Indian Infantry Brigade which consisted of Indians, Gurkhas, and Burmese, and saw some of the worst fighting.  I wonder what a 19 year old lad from Lancashire made of all this.  We will never know.  The telegram saying Joe was dead arrived after the war had ended in Europe.  When my grandmother died aged 84, we found the telegram in her handbag. She must have carried it with her all those years. It was clear that it had been read more than once.  Later, when my Mum visited the regiment, she was told that Joe had been walking, alone, along a road in the sunshine and was picked off by a retreating sniper.  At some point, I would like to walk that same road, with the sun on my face, and visit his grave.[2]  Everyone should have someone to wave them off. [3]

So, if you’ve stuck with me thus far, well done. If you’ve rejoined us here, welcome.  Back to Burma and Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From the Land of Green Ghosts.   This is an account of the life of Khoo Thwe from a boyhood in a remote, catholic village in the Burmese hills, through a brief stint in a seminary, university in Mandalay, student agitation, flight into the jungle towards the Thai border, and fighting alongside the Karenni rebels against the regime.  If, like me, your only view of the struggle for democracy in Burma has been through the prism of Western media interest in Aung San Suu Kyi, Khoo Thwe’s book offers new perspectives on the same fight, together with poignant descriptions of the loss, boredom, and depression that are a inescapable part of war.   Above all, he exposes the randomness of life – one fighter gets hit by a grenade that doesn’t explode, another stands on a landmine.  Khoo Thwe himself faces multiple bouts of malaria and faces down a tiger.  But perhaps the greatest example of randomness is the reason that his story can be told at all.  It all starts with his unlikely love of James Joyce.   Which, as they say, makes him a better (hu)man than I, Gunga Din.

As a student in Mandalay (get out of my head Rudyard!), Khoo Thwe works as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. It is here that he meets Dr John Casey, who is visiting the city because of Kipling’s poem and has been told by friends to speak to the waiter who likes Joyce.  When Khoo Thwe has later fled to the jungle, he writes to Casey – the text of his letter is transcribed in the book in heartbreakingly simple and broken English – asking for help. The letter is addressed to Casey at the English Department of Cambridge University, London.  Thankfully the Royal Mail showed some common sense.[4]  The resourceful Casey sends Khoo Thwe a copy of the New Oxford Book of English Verse, with £50 notes inserted at Kipling’s ‘Mandalay’.  This act of kindness saves a number of lives.  Casey is also instrumental in helping Khoo Thwe into exile and organising him a place to read English at Cambridge.   Khoo Thwe’s description of his time at Cambridge is humble and heart-warming. He leaves with 2nd class honours and an understanding of the English language that makes From the Land of Green Ghosts a beautifully crafted work, full of lyrical descriptions of an idyllic but not idealised childhood, stark depictions of the brutality of the regime, and wistful reflections on the meaning of luck and the pain of exile.

I like to imagine Khoo Thwe standing looking (no walking on the grass!) at the quads which my Uncle Jack saved.  I think of the chances of surviving jungle warfare and am glad that, unlike Uncle Joe, he made it to safety.  While reading this book, many poems and songs ran through my head. Kipling, obviously, and Charles Kingsley’s Three Fishers – ‘For men must work, and women must weep’, but the one that sticks as I write this is Pete Seeger’s song of the 60s, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?  – When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?


[1] Dad was the youngest of 7 boys. Only two survived past childhood.  When people moan about the welfare state, remember that that is one of the stark realities of not having a safety net.

[2] The bodies of soldiers who died in the Burma Campaign were moved to a cemetery in Imphal, Manipur.  When one of my sisters and I tried to visit we couldn’t get a visa.  Visas were only granted to Manipur State for single men, a man and a woman, married couples, groups of 4 or more.  Two women were not allowed to enter.  Who knows why?  As we have the same surname we did wonder whether we could say we were married, but we weren’t sure that that was what they meant by married couple.  One day, we’ll grab my other sister and two brothers and hopefully have enough of everything to get a visa.

[3] I indulged myself by reading George MacDonald Fraser’s (of Flashman fame) Quartered Safe Out Here, an account of the final assault against the Japanese in Burma. It is considered to be one of the finest first-hand accounts of war ever written and gets me as close to understanding the last few days of my Uncle’s brief life as I’ll ever get.

[4] This reminds me of a story about a letter being addressed, simply, GBS London which reached Mr Bernard Shaw thanks to the determination of the Post Office.

Posted in: Burma, Khoo Thwe, Reading