1944 (2): Thomas’s birthday – In Praise of Illusion

Note: the diaries of Raymond Jones and George Gerrard are available to members of the Yahoo Stanley Group:


The Jones diary and the diary of Barbara Anslow (with moden annotations), an extremely important historical source, are being published day-by-day at Gwulo:


Ever since Freud western culture has tended to regard unblinking honesty about one’s self and one’s prospects as a good thing. Baby Boomers like me have added to that an emphasis on ‘living in the present’ – something that came to us through a confluence of eastern religions, particularly Zen, and western psychotherapy, particularly Gestalt, whose leading figure Fritz Perls never tired of exhorting people to live in the ‘here and now’.


Image: Wikimedia

One of the values of historical study is that it enables us to enter into the circumstances and mental world of people in other times, and plunging into the dark world’s fire of Stanley Camp in 1944 makes me realise how valuable it can be to deceive yourself and to keep off your mind off the present. Early into her experience of occupied Hong Kong Emily Hahn had learnt that about some things ‘it was better not to try to realise what had happened’. For example, if you are living in a world from which law and order has disappeared, ‘Perhaps it’s just as well that one doesn’t realize it at the time.’[1] Self-deceit has great survival value when one’s circumstances might easily lead to despair and loss of the will to live.

If 1943 was about the fear created by Kempeitai operations all over occupied Hong Kong, 1944 was about the hard business of surviving deteriorating conditions[3] – paradoxically caused by the US submarine blockade and the bombing ofHong Kong that began in late October 1942 and proved a wonderful morale booster for the internees.

Most internees made an effort to celebrate their own and their friends’ anniversaries.[4]  It relived the monotony of days that otherwise seemed interminably like each other, and provided an earnest of the Stanleyites determination to maintain the decencies of civilised life in indecent and uncivilised conditions.  Thomas’s birthday was on May 5 – his real birthday. He had falsified his birth certificate to get the job with the Lane, Crawford[5] bakery, claiming to have been born on May 3, 1909. It’s easy to see why he should have wanted to seem three years older when he applied for such a senior position,[6] and no doubt he invented some suitable experience to fill those years: he did many different jobs in 1930s England and Scotland, but it’s not recorded that he ever managed a bakery! The change from the 5th to the 3rd is a mystery; it might have had something to do with the mechanics of the forgery.

The day of Thomas’s thirty-second birthday was a fine one. One of his pre-war acquaintances, the colony hangman R. E. Jones, recorded this in his diary and other details that help us understand the nature of the internees’ ordeal and how they survived it:

 Many rumours re repat.,{repatriation} parcels, Second front going around, all untrue it seems….sat on roof pm. Much thought of Frau, food & future as usual.

The Stanleyites were kept sane by their hopes for the future, their memories of the past and their illusions about their prospects. Raymond Jones did not keep his mind focused on the present but allowed it to play back good times in the past and anticipate their return in the future. How much wiser he was than the ‘be here now’ merchants whose superficial nostrums have so influenced ‘my generation’! He was forced to mobilise the full resources of his self for psychic survival and whatever he and his fellow internees did it worked: Franklin Gimson, the internees’ leader might have underplayed the extent of ‘mental illness’ in Camp, but he’s certainly right that what was notable was not its presence but its rarity.[7] This is not to idealise the internees, of course: there was plenty of mean-spiritedness, self-destructive behaviour, petty squabbling, and pointless sabotage of the mental well-being of others. That’s not where’d I’d put my emphasis though.

Let’s take a closer look at his illusions.

Repatriation as part of an exchange of prisoners had been one of Stanleyites’ dreams from almost the moment they arrived in Camp in the third week of January 1942. The fact that this actually happened to the Americans and Canadians (June 29/30, 1942 and September 22/23, 1943 respectively) only made the remaining nationals (mostly British) all the more convinced that their turn would come. It might have done, at least for some women, the children and the elderly, but negotiations always failed, for reasons that don’t concern us here. Sometimes the rumours had substance, and preparations were actually made to select those who would ‘sail away’ (as the Camp anthem had it); sometimes they were groundless, but at all times they helped keep the morale of the internees higher than it would otherwise have been. Such rumours persisted well into 1945, a time when I doubt that prisoner exchange was on the minds of either the British or the Japanese governments.

‘Parcels’ were Red Cross parcels – the internees only got one in each year of their confinement. Those parcels were good ones, though, packed full of the tasty and nutritious foods that most internees had little chance of acquiring for themselves, and they certainly saved some people from dying before liberation: after the parcel of 1942 the average internee put on weight for five months, a near mircale given the rations provided![8] The days after a parcel were good times for the internees; people grumbled, as they always did, but really almost everyone was happy. And even when there was no parcel on the horizon, rumours and dreams were at least better than facing the squalid realities of slow starvation. The rumours of May 5 were groundless: the next parcel wasn’t distributed until September 14, which was probably the best day of 1944 for Thomas and Evelina. I’ll write about it in my next post, and about the remarkable man who probably handed it to them.

A surprising percentage of R. E. Jones’s diary is given over to war news, some of it from Japanese sources, some from Chinese papers, some from rumours. In the early days there were radios operating in Camp, so probably some of it came from the BBC. Almost all of it is inaccurate, though, and nearly always because it exaggerates Allied successes.

Such illusory war news was another thing that kept the internees from sinking into despair. The second front was only a month away, and the Jones May 5 rumour was one of the more accurate ones by Camp standards. These rumours were another thing that had begun almost as the internees got off the boats that delivered them to Stanley Pier, many people genuinely believing that Churchill had promised Hong Kong would be retaken in three months (just as many of them had believed that Hong Kong would be saved from the Japanese by a Chinese army fighting its way down from Canton). In fact, it’s been claimed that some internees spent the entire war expecting that the end would come within three months!

As Camp Secretary John Stericker put it:

News was meat and drink to us. Whether true or false, as long as it was good, we lapped it up.[9]

In some periods at least ‘news’ and rumours’ were both pretty well synonymous with ‘inaccurate reports of Allied victories’! Early in his internment – April 15, 1942, when the Germans were renewing their assault and the Japanese advance through the south Pacific had not yet been checked – Jones decided that raising his hopes at the thought of imminent Allied victory was counterproductive:

Have resigned myself to a longer wait & refuse to let our so called news influence me.[10]

He’d recently recorded that the Russians were in Warsaw (which they didn’t capture until September 1944) and wondered if the Malayan battles were ‘progressing in our favour?’ (as far as I can make out there weren’t any as the Allies had long since capitulated). It’s easy to see why he became disillusioned. With heroic resolution, he records no news the next day. But on April 17 normal service is resumed:

…33% Jap Navy & 60% convoys lost

…a figure he seems to have believed emanated from President Roosevelt himself.

To a post-war reader – even one as obsessed with the minutiae of life in Stanley as me – it’s rather tedious working through the roughly one third of the diary devoted to inaccurate accounts of Allied progress. But then I remember why Raymond Jones (and other diarists) bothered to expend their dwindling energy and to brave the probably hideous consequences of discovery to write down accounts of imaginary victories.

Candace Pert’s book Molecules of Emotion (1999) made widely known her 1973 discovery that our bodies produce their own opiates – endorphins – in response to pain. Most people have come across this in relation to phenomena like ‘joggers high’, but it’s been established that it’s not just exercise that produces endorphins: ideas do too, and the well-known eighties pop group Tears For Fears produced a song called ‘Ideas as Opiates’ (1982), having picked up the concept from the Californian psychologist Arthur Janov. It’s never been proved but I’m willing to bet that writing down items of news that would affect one’s life significantly for the better in the unlikely event of their being true produces a decent-sized shot of mood-lifting endorphins. Raymond Jones knew what he was doing when, taking care to avoid the attention of the guards, he included details of the latest war rumours in the brief notes he made of each day’s events.

Novelist John Lanchester had two grandparents in Stanley: Jack, the Camp dentist, and his wife, usually known as Lannie. Lanchester’s speculations about the role of hope in such an imprisonment sound plausible:

And hope is a problem too {as well as happy memories} – perhaps even more of one. Prisoners need to think that they will one day be free; but if the hopes become too specific and too short term, they are easily crushed. That crushing can swiftly turn to fatal depression. So prisoners learn to be very, very careful with their hopes – they ration them, nurture them, fuss over them, deny their existence, even to themselves. Hope becomes a hypersensitive plant or private religion.[11]

In fact, although this was certainly true of some internees, it wasn’t, as far as my research goes, the case with the majority. There was nothing private about the religion of hope in Stanley,  little rationing (we’ve seen the failure of Jones’s attempt at self-denial), and the internees showed a splendid inability to draw the obvious conclusion from their frequent disappointments. And most of them had no trouble believing extremely specific and sometimes extremely short-term rumours:  on November 29, 1943, for example, Jones reported the news that parcels were in town and that everyone would, in any case, be repatriated before the end of the year, while George Gerrard begins to expect the surrender of Germany and re-union with his wife ‘very soon’ in the first week of February, 1943 (his diary doesn’t start until January 12, 1943!).

Deluding themselves that repatriation was close, another parcel about to be issued, Gerany on the brink of collapse – these things kept the internees sane. The only other things that they could fantasize about were letters from home, or parcels from Chinese or neutral friends in town, and these came to individuals not the Camp as a whole, and it was hard to interest other people in your prospects of imminently receiving a letter from your spouse or a goody bag from an old friend. Not that private rituals of hope didn’t exist – Gerrard often expresses his longing for another letter from his wife – but, pace Lanchester, they weren’t nearly as useful psychically as public ones. Sharing rumours was a major and morale-boosting form of socialising, and, as we’ve seen, everybody left with a very literal infusion of opiates to the brain.

Barbara Anslow, a former internee who has added an immense amount to knowledge of Stanley, puts it like this:

News and rumours were the very essence of life.[12]

As Thomas celebrated – if that’s the right word – his birthday on the fifth day of May in that long, hard year 1944, I hope he spent some time deluding himself that with the Second Front now established, the Germans would be out of the war by Evelina’s anniversary (July 10) and the whole thing would be over by Christmas.

[1] Emily Hahn, China To Me, 1986 ed., 300, 301.

[4] See https://brianedgar.wordpress.com/2011/12/22/reign-of-terror-6-first-wedding-anniversary-stanley-camp/

[5] This was the correct pre-war form, although Lane Crawford and Lane Crawford’s are also found.

[8] Geoffrey Emerson, Hong Kong Internment, 2007, Kindle edition, Location 2464.

[9] John Stericker, A Tear for the Dragon, 1958, 177.

[10] April 15, 1942.

[11] John Lanchester, Family Romance, 2007, 191.



Filed under Hong Kong WW11, Stanley Camp

2 responses to “1944 (2): Thomas’s birthday – In Praise of Illusion

  1. Pingback: 1944 (3): Second Wedding Anniversary and Evelina’s Birthday: the Hunger Gets Worse, the Fear Never Goes For Long | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Pingback: 1944 (4) Red Letter Day – George Gerrard and Rudolph Zindel | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

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