Jane Rye

Strategies for survival

This is an account of the multiplicity of ways in which men ‘stole back time from their captors through creativity’ in the prisoner-of-war camps of Europe and the Far East.

This is an account of the multiplicity of ways in which men ‘stole back time from their captors through creativity’ in the prisoner-of-war camps of Europe and the Far East.

This is an account of the multiplicity of ways in which men ‘stole back time from their captors through creativity’ in the prisoner-of-war camps of Europe and the Far East. It is not about the escapers, but about the men who ‘turned the contents of a Red Cross parcel into a cooking stove, a barometer or a stage set; men who discovered a talent for painting or foreign languages, or who took exams that might help their careers when they got home’; about elaborate sporting fixtures and concerts and theatrical productions and the near-miraculous saving of lives on makeshift jungle operating tables; about ‘mental escape’ through study, gardening or birdwatching (‘captivity was in many ways the ideal setting for the keen ornithologist’), and the ‘uplifting power of genuine art and artistry’ when the chips are down.

However, Midge Gillies is a woman who cannot resist a good story; she includes prisoners’ accounts of their own capture, and stories of heroic and all too frequently tragic adventures which take their place as a counterpoint to the POWs’ efforts to create some sort of imitation of normal life — touchingly reminiscent at times of children playing house.

It is a necessary counterpoint, too, because these astonishing tales of improvisation, ingenuity and courage are so enthralling, and also so comforting in their suggestions of camaraderie and the essential goodness of human nature in a tight spot, that it is all too easy to forget the accompanying brutality and indignity. We have the testament of the survivors, the toughest, not the many who for reasons of luck or a lack of physical or spiritual stamina succumbed to starvation, disease or despair or emerged with their spirits permanently broken.

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