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Short Review by Patricia Herbert: NB - Britain-Burma Society members are advised to hop straight to the full length version of this review, in our Members' Area.
Last of the Guardians
by David Donnison
Publisher Newtown: Superscript.
369 pages, map, illustrations, bibliography.
Britain-Burma Society members of a certain vintage and every Burma historian will know the name of the subject of this book, Vernon Donnison (1898-1993), and some will have been fortunate enough to have known him in person.|
The book follows the Donnison family's lives in roughly chronological order, with the emphasis switching back and forth from one character to another like actors on a stage each speaking their parts, drawn in this case from their own written memories - with David both playing his young self with quotes from his own diaries and acting as the link narrator. One of the book's chapters Paradise Won and Lost eloquently expresses the bliss for a young child of the family living together in a great cavernous house in Mergui followed by a year's home leave, and of "learning to survive" when his parents returned to Burma in 1933, leaving eight year old David and his three year old sister Annis behind, and having to face the fact that it would be another eighteen months before they saw their mother again, and three years before both parents could return on home leave.
A particular virtue of the book is encapsulated in its title: that interlocked with the story of one family's fortunes is the story of an empire - how the British came to be in Burma and its consequences and legacy. Donnison is to be congratulated on his masterly and reflective presentation of Burmese history and society from the establishment of British rule through Burma's "journey to independence" via the gathering storm of World War 2: the Japanese invasion and collapse of the British administration, the drama and suffering of the retreat from Burma - including his parents' own experiences - and the "Pyrrhic victory" of the reconquest of Burma and the emerging new world that is the ending of an empire for some and a beginning for others. Out of the many questions that Donnison poses in his thought-provoking account of imperial guardianship, his final one is: "Did Vernon and Ruth throw away their lives - abandoning their country and their children for no great purpose?" He thinks that Vernon's answer would be that: " you can only do your best in life - drawing on the knowledge, the opportunities and the traditions of your own time." Donnison's own conclusion is that: "Living now in a society that is in many ways as deeply divided and as unfair as the one my generation inherited - a society engaged yet again in wars of conquest against brown skinned people - can those of us who have tried to create a better world claim that we have done anything more than pass on to a few people some of the kindness, hopes and the ideals that others gave us?"
Lastly, one should mention that the author is, like his father, an accomplished and elegant writer so that in addition to its many qualities this book will be enjoyed alike by both those who know Burma and those who wish to learn more of an era that although now past, still has contemporary resonance.
Patricia Herbert, December 2005
Great Tey to Rangoon -
a Farmer's Story
by Roger Browning PB £7.75 + £1 p&p
from Roger Browning
Review by Lewis Shaw - who was himself also an engineering officer in the same campaign.
| This is the story of an Essex farmer's son who in spite of not doing well at school, finished the war as a Major in the Royal Engineers and later became Mayor of his home town, Colchester.
Roger Browning was so unhappy at his Quaker boarding school that he ran away home, and eventually left the school with no qualifications. He was articled to a firm of Land Agents and Surveyors in Colchester, during which time he took a correspondence course for qualifications with the Auctioneers Institute. On achieving this, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers.
In May 1943 as a junior officer, he was sent to India, where in Lahore, he was introduced to all manner of heavy mechanical equipment which he might expect to use in the field, and he had to learn Urdu, the official language of the Indian Army. From here he was posted to 751 Indian Mechanical Equipment Platoon. At the end of 1944 his platoon moved into Burma and joined 17th Indian Division in their action to trap the Japs who were being driven south from Mandalay by 7th Division. This was a bold move into Jap held territory, which succeeded in taking and securing the important town of Meiktila. His main task was to clear obstructions, and prepare landing strips for light planes and Dakotas to land. Stage by stage this was achieved, and Roger's part in it is described in some detail.
Before Rangoon was taken however, he was promoted to Captain, and posted as OC of the 7th Indian Mechanical Equipment Platoon, located to the north at Tamu. Getting to his new unit was an arduous venture. Even with several maps taken from Slim's Defeat into Victory it is difficult to follow the action and the author's movements. However by August 1946 he was commanding 652 Indian Mechanical Equipment Company in Rangoon, and it was from there that he sailed on the troopship Corfu back to Tilbury.
Settling in to civilian life, Roger was taken into partnership with his father at the family farm at Great Tey.
Roger still kept his interest in Burma, and in 1986 he he took his wife, son and daughter to Burma, but he was disappointed in the lack of progress since he left Rangoon 40 years previously. He visited again in 2002.
The book is well supported by photographs.
Lewis Shaw, Jan 2005
Review by Noel Holmes:
by Colin McPhedran
Publisher Pandanus Books,
The Australian National University,
Available (paperback) from Amazon, University of Hawaii $17.00 ISBN: 1740760174
The author was only 12 years old when he, with his family, were evacuated from his beloved Maymyo to escape the Japanese advance in May 1942. Like thousands of others their aim was to get a refugee plane from Myitkyina. They failed and instead joined the trek to India via the dreaded Hukawng Valley. The sole survivor of his family. Colin, recovered in an Assam hospital. For the next 4 years in India, Colin, on his own lived with Christian missionaries which, at times, proved dry difficult.
He eventually found his way to the UK and linked up with a controversial father with whom he had little in common. Loneliness in Britain plus the cold weather were factors which steered him, by chance, in the direction of Australia. He landed, aged 21, in Sydney almost penniless. Struggled initially, but then found another 'Maymyo' in New South Wales where he married and happily raised a family for his last 50 years.
The Australian minister for foreign affairs described the book as 'A compelling, moving and very human story of struggle and survival'. |
Noel Holmes, October 2004
Burma - The Forgotten War
by Jon Latimer
610 pp, 32 illustrations, 125 maps
Published by John Murray
ISBN 0 7195 6375 8
Review (Oct 04) by John McEnery:
In the wake of Slim's magnificent Defeat into Victory of 1956, the first non-official history of the war was Louis Allen's 1984 classic Burma: the Longest War, which introduced a mass of Japanese data. This was followed in 1992 by Michael Hickey's good but relatively undetailed The Unforgettable Army, which drew on further new information. In his turn Latimer, with an immense range of sources, has been able to build on the past with the many new inputs of recent years.
In the result we have a detailed narrative of all the significant military operations which is unlikely to be surpassed or ever attempted again. While setting out the complex political background, the book also clearly describes how the British in India built up and re-trained their armies and developed their tactics and strategy. An especially graphic picture is painted of the human factors involved.
As this will be a book of record, two points should be made. On p134 the Burma Regiment is wrongly given five, not six fighting battalions; the sixth was the Chin Hills Battalion. War diaries of four of these battalions are extant. On p. 146 the reference to dud ammunition at the Bonbaik battle lacks contemporary support.
The new history will have a key position in the literature on the Burma campaigns and will help to ensure that they will never become "the forgotten war".
Review by Patricia Herbert:
Textiles from Burma
edited by Elizabeth Dell
and Sandra Dudley
192 pages, map, illustrations, glossary, bibliography
ISBN: 0 85667 569 5.
London: Philip Wilson Publishers, in association with
The James Green Centre for World Art, Brighton.
£29.95 From the Green Centre
Some Britain-Burma Society members will already know of the Burma collections at the Brighton Museum, thanks to their visit there in September 2003 when the Society was given a special tour and lecture and also treated to a Burmese meal prepared by Eleanor Clarke. The Burma collections - comprising books, photographs, diaries, artefacts and textiles - are located in the James Green Centre for World Art in the care of the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and were formed by James Henry Green (1893-1975), whilst he was working as a recruiting and intelligence officer in Burma's frontier regions in the early 20th century. The collections have not remained static, but in recent years have developed by donations and through the work of the Centre's gifted Curators who have built new links between Burma and Britain by, for example, commissioning new textiles in Burma. |
For those who wish to study the collections in depth and to gain some appreciation of the more remote and less well-known regions of Burma, this sumptuously-illustrated book is indispensable. It is in fact the second work on Burma that features and is inspired by the remarkable James Green collection at the Brighton Museum. The first, Burma: Frontier Photographs 1918-1935 (published in 2000, edited by Elizabeth Dell) reproduced a selection of Green's 1,600 photographs and explored ways of interpeting these images. Textiles from Burma takes as its starting point the textiles, costumes, dress accessories and weapons - approximately 230 in number - collected by Green in Burma and points out that Green wanted to record how styles of dress reflect group identity and can be used to classify people, whereas the Museum today focuses on individual textiles and on documenting the individals who make, wear and sell them. The book does not claim to be a comprehensive study of Burmese textiles but addresses with great sensitivity issues such as identity, ethnicity and tradition, and also the role and responsibility of museums. The textile collection has expanded to some 550 pieces mostly as a result of recent new acquisitions from Burma that have enabled the Museum to explore how the traditions of dress recorded by Green are interpreted today, and to continue to build records of textile design and production in Burma. Other pieces in the collection have come from people of Burmese origin who have come to live in England or are pieces that have been brought back by people who have lived, worked or travelled in Burma, with perhaps the most notable recent additions to the collection being Shan family heirlooms donated by Eleanor Gaudoin (Clarke - Sao Nang Sum Pu) and Sao Hkam Hip Hpa.
The original Green collection is strong in Kachin materials, the Kachin hills being the region where Green undertook most of his army work, but the book gives detailed and balanced coverage to other textile traditions of Burma (among them, Akha, Burman, Chin, Karenic [sic], Naga and Shan) with contributions from various independent researchers, scholars and curators. Part One introduces the Green collections and their historical and present contexts and poses the question (in a chapter by Sandra Dudley) Whose textiles and whose meanings? and gives a brief overview of Burma's diverse textile traditions. Part Two examines, firstly, textiles in local contexts with chapters on Burmese court textiles (by Frances Franklin), Burmese manuscript binding ribbons: sazigyo (by Ralph Isaacs), on Naga textiles (by Vibha Joshi), on clothing and courtship: Akha textiles (by Mika Toyota) and on Karenni refugee textiles (by Sandra Dudley) and secondly, textiles in wider contexts with articles on the collecting, commissioning and research of textiles. Contributions in this section are on Chin textiles (by John Barker), on Shan textiles and their stories and on commissioning wedding outfits in Kachin State (by Lisa Maddigan), and on changing textile contexts in Kachin State (by Mandy Sadan). The book includes a useful Appendix of worldwide Museum collections of textiles from Burma (compiled by Sandra Dudley) and an invaluable Glossary and Bibliography. The quality of the photography and the book design is superb, with not just an overall picture of individual pieces but also with many in close up, enabling one to appreciate the intricacy of a pattern or to read the smallest text and design on a woven manuscript ribbon. As well as many of Green's original black-and-white photographs, there are contemporary colour photographs of textile production and of people in ceremonial and everyday dress. This book and the work of the Green Centre and the Brighton Museum are a model of how a collection that has its origins in the colonial period can be explored and developed to illuminate in a wider context themes relating to the history, production, meaning, collection and continuing impact of textiles from Burma.
Patricia Herbert, Jan 2004
Letters from the Chin Hills
by Desmond Kelly
367 pp, 64 illustrations
HB £20.00 (plus £4.00 UK postage)
Published by Tiddim Press,
PO Box 28958,
London SW14 8XE
Review by John McEnery:
In 1942 the Chin Hills District was lightly administered by a Deputy Commissioner in Falam aided by a handful of Assistant Superintendents, one of whom, based in Tiddim, was Norman Kelly. Initially inspired by their administrators, who had no military training, the Chin Levies, who were volunteer irregulars, fought the Japanese from May 1942 to November 1944. This book tells their story and the story of the Kelly family.|
Kelly's wife and two young children fled Tiddim for India in May 1942. Between then and April 1945 he would rejoin them on leave only twice. In the period to November 1944 he was deeply involved, first as Assistant Superintendent, then Deputy Commissioner, in the fighting that see-sawed over the Chin Hills. Throughout this separation Kelly wrote long, informative, and, importantly, for the most part uncensored letters to his wife. Fortunately preserved, these form much of the work's content and paint a unique picture of the Chins at war. They are supplemented by a variety of other contemporary letters and documents and by accounts drawn from what are, one assumes, all known memoirs and histories of the campaign by other participants. These different sources are woven together by the author within a lucid narrative framework of the wider military situation.
Beyond the fighting we see a British family, riven by war, struggling to maintain its unity; an intrepid wife in an Indian hill station with two youngsters, fretful over her husband's health and safety; and a loving husband worried over their welfare and sometimes even their finances.
Despite domestic cares, Kelly manfully shouldered enormous responsibilities. Three incidents show his measure. On 25th April 1942 his rousing speech, happily preserved, to the chiefs and headmen of the northern hills led directly (after some bargaining!) to the raising of the northern levies. At the end of October that year Betty Kelly, under great strain, pressed him hard to take leave; but Norman Kelly, still a civilian and with no assistant, could not contemplate at that point abandoning his Chins. Finally, when the Japanese occupied Tiddim in March 1944 in their drive north towards Imphal, Kelly, then an Army Major, chose not to retreat north with 17 Indian Division but, at the age of 39 plus, took to the jungle west of the Manipur River with a brave rump of his levies.
This book has been well researched by Kelly's son, who finally managed after many years to return to the hills of his childhood. It also has a truly excellent collection of maps and photographs. It presents a definitive account of the actions in the Chin Hills in the context of the larger Burma war, and gives a memorable picture of an outstanding and warm-hearted leader. It seems destined to become a classic.