Aidan Hartley

Wild life | 2 July 2011

Aidan Hartley's Wild life

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‘So much sorting to do,’ said my Aunt Beryl. We stood in the middle of her home in Sussex. I hadn’t visited for many years, not since Granny and Grandpa lived here. The memories of those dear people came in such a rush of images I had to sit down. That’s when I noticed the canvas leaning against a wall. The painted side was away from me, so I went over and picked it up. It was a portrait of my mother, Doreen Sanders, as she was in 1945, in Burma.

I had never seen this portrait before in my life. ‘Your mother didn’t like it,’ said Aunt Beryl. I wondered, ‘Why ever not?’ The painting is of a beautiful young woman. She’s only 19, but she’s already seen more than two years of war very near the frontlines — around Kohima, Imphal and the Arakan. Serving in the WAS(B) — the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) — she’s nursed in field hospitals, she’s run a mobile canteen for the troops of the 14th Army, and she’s taken down letters home for a wounded soldier who has lost his hands.

Now it’s just after the fall of Rangoon. Perhaps this is just after the party when her unit laid on a feast for liberated POWs and tried to get them to dance — and the men were so emaciated all they could do was stare at the food and cry.

The artist was Derek Fowler, a young intelligence officer and war artist. Most of the Burma war pictures I’ve seen by Fowler are of exhausted soldiers sleeping, reading or writing letters. A lovely young woman must have been an exciting change for him. In the picture she’s wearing her jungle-green uniform, but she’s put on red lipstick and eye make-up so that she can sit here for Fowler, on a Rangoon veranda out of the humidity and heat.

Fowler gave the portrait to my mother, who sent it back to her parents in India. She went on to Singapore, where she lived in Changi prison and recorded POWs’ testimonies. After the bomb was dropped and Japan surrendered, she left for Ceylon — and then my grandparents left India for ever and settled in East Sussex. The portrait went with them, but, since it was not liked, it was hidden under a bed — where it stayed for the next 65 years. Had Aunt Beryl not been ‘sorting things out’ the painting might have stayed under the bed for another half-century.

I took a photograph of the painting, and when I returned home to Kenya I went to see my mother at her house on the beach. Mum is an excellent painter herself, and at 86 years old she is furiously turning out canvases of the ocean she can see from her front window. A few years ago her seas were calm and azure blue with birds flapping through sunny skies. But as her sight dims and eternity stretches before her, the paintings have become larger and larger. They are of dark-green, storm-tossed waves, ever more abstract, ever more powerful.

As she sifts through the black and white photos of her WAS(B) comrades, I realise she is almost alone among them in the world now. When I bring up the subject of the portrait, she produces a clipping from the South East Asia Command newspaper in 1945. There is a photo of the painting — grainy and now yellowed with age. My mother, the caption announces, has ‘seen much service in Burma...’ What seems so sad is that no histories of the WAS(B) unit have been written — and now it’s too late.

I have hardly appreciated the contribution made by women in the Burma war, but Commander of the 14th Army General Slim said my mother’s unit ‘showed the highest standard of devotion and courage...’

I ask, ‘Mum, why didn’t you like the picture?’ She laughs, ‘I didn’t think it was very good. I thought it made me look flat-chested. And he has me looking off to one side in a funny way.’ I show my mother the photograph I took of her portrait. She squints and studies the image up close. She sees herself in full colour, a beautiful teenager again. ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘It’s not so bad, after all — is it?’