Burma, My Father and the Forgotten Army, with Griff Rhys Jones, is on BBC2 at 9pm on Sunday, 7th July.
I have spent a week with old, old men, interviewing veterans who served with the West African regiments in Burma in the 1940s. It’s for a television programme about my father’s war. The young men who were shipped off to the Far East are nonagenarians now and, black or white, universally charming and calm: unhurried, unflappable and brimming with patient good humour. At first, I thought that that’s what must happen as you approach your own centenary. But then I realised it might be the other way round. Perhaps this admirable lack of neurosis was what kept them alive. So stop fretting. Get cooler. I fancy another 30 years myself.
The week began with testimony in London; then we went to Ghana to link up with veterans there. These men were shipped across to India and then into the jungles of the Arakan to clear the Japanese 28th Army out of the jungle. Being television, we wanted these grand old men to shed a tear for lost companions. And they did get emotional. ‘We overcame our enemies by force of arms and made a great victory!’ pronounced the first. The rest concurred, in louder voices. The West African veterans remained passionately and emotionally proud to have been the most efficient jungle killers in the service of the crown. Yeah.
From there it was on to Burma, where, on the last day, we were excited to spot an old party eating raw fish for breakfast. The battered golfing hat and checked shirt identified a Japanese veteran. Few survived the battles. Fewer still ever come back. And we had no money in our budget to go to Japan. An opportunity. The man proved to be one of only two veterans on an organised trip (the rest were mainly relatives). His companion didn’t want to expose his own halting English and recommended the Burmese tour guide, who ‘spoke perfect Japanese’, as interpreter. The guide spoke no English at all. We mimed the interview. He mostly remembered great West African compassion towards their prisoners.
Another thing I noticed in Burma: ‘The Lady’, a universal term for Aung San Suu Kyi, was starting to be used with irony. My Myanmar companions employ heavy quotation marks. ‘The Lady’ is now an MP. So could ‘The Lady’ spend a bit more time in the country and less time on Desert Island Discs and picking up international awards? It’s the Gorbachev effect. We engage in hero worship and the home crowd start to get restless.
But Myanmar does not look poor. Military discipline, presumably. Rangoon retains the trappings of a 1930s garrison town, with white-painted kerbs and sort of formal Edwardian bedding that used to adorn the centre of Weston-super-Mare. The colonial offices, press clubs, bank headquarters and railway stations of George Orwell’s Raj have hung on in mildewed pomp and so has the colonial bureaucratic ethos that they supported, now failing its citizens but weeding the verges. It’s all long gone in Weston, of course. And it will go here. The whole place is gearing up to trade in its Edwardian splendours.
I spend rather too much time abroad these days. I am happy to lose touch, especially with the newspapers. Newsprint only encourages choleric hangovers. In hotel bedrooms the big stories filter through via the BBC World Service, if you can be bothered to sit through earnest accounts of computer literacy in South China. But it is easy to miss important ephemera like obituaries. You’re not around that week, so how are you supposed to know that Ernie Wise has gone? Thus I don’t hear about poor Michael Winner until two weeks after the event. I shall miss him. He had the gift of instant intimacy. And his Christmas cards arrived ahead of everybody else’s, in November usually.
Pork is pork. Suckling pig is pork. Wild boar is definitely pork. But hotel streaky bacon is ambrosia from the wilder reaches of hog heaven. As with baked beans, you couldn’t reproduce the process that creates its addictive qualities. My guess is that it requires absolute neglect under a slow heater from about three in the morning onwards. Gradually it becomes a sliver of chewy opalescent fat and salt-encrusted crispness. I have to restrain myself from bacon excess. Except in Ghana. Where it turned out to be made of beef. Muslim sensibilities reach a long way south in West Africa. What hotels in both Burma and Ghana share is an extensive Chinese menu. The breakfast in the Inya Lake Hotel, Rangoon, stretched from Szechuan to the Corn Belt: congee, curry, sashimi, cheese, cold meat and cereals, with the Big Breakfast and Swiss muesli to round it off. Twenty metres of morning sustenance. And the bacon was top. Believe me, I tried it all.