Friday, 11 April 2008


In 1988 I visited Kanchana Buri and the River Kwai for the first time.A modern , black steel and stone bridge now spans the river where the old bridge once stood.Nearby is a bustling railway station and trains frequently cross the bridge.The track snakes off into the jungle , towards the exotically named Three Pagodas Pass and Burma.It is a popular destination for tourists and there is a brisk trade in souvenirs.About two hundred yards downriver from the new bridge are the ruins of a smaller wooden supply bridge also built by the prisoners.Only a few pillars and stanchions remain.There are several museums full of war memorabilia of all kinds. Steam locomotives used in the war, stand near the bridge ,bedecked with Japanese flags.There are giant statues of Churchill ,Hitler and Mussolini with potted biographies of each in bad English,for the benefit of the uninformed.There is a gay ,fairground atmosphere, quite out of keeping with the history of the place.There are even ‘genuine’ Second World War steel helmets on sale- although I would not recommend buying them. To say that their authenticity is in doubt would be putting it mildly.


Again,I was unable to fathom the meaning of this remark.I learned more in 1957 when David Lean’s famous film , ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ came to the camp cinema.It was based on a best-selling novel of the same title,by the French writer,Pierre Boulle. We children all went to see it and revelled in the British bulldog grit portrayed.We loved the way Alec Guinness faced down the Japanese officer,we whistled the ‘Colonel Bogey’ march and cheered lustily when the bridge and the train were blown up.At the same time,the film taught me something about the war and South-East Asia , and made me aware of a wider world , outside my immediate personal experience.


I had no idea where Burma was , nor could I understand why working on the railway would make someone sick.There were mysteries in the adult world to which I was not privy.A little while later, the painters came to decorate our house.They were a jolly bunch and let an enthusiastic eight-year-old boy help them.I had a whale of a time ,mixing paint and washing brushes and I became particularly friendly with Bob,a dark-haired , rather intense man .I asked him one day,
“Oh Bob ,I expect you’re married”.
“Yes, indeed,” he replied, “ I have a very nice wife.”
“And I expect you’ve got a little boy just like me!”
“ Oh,no,” he said, “ The Japanese saw to that.”


I was born just after the Second World War .I was one of the ‘baby boomer’generation , as Bill Clinton described us , a child conceived to celebrate victory,the return of peace and the promise of a better world.I grew up on an air force camp in southern England.Every day,my father mounted his bicycle and pedalled to work on the camp,returning in the evening.Two doors away from us lived the Prosser family.The father,Teddy Prosser,was a rather puny ,withdrawn man who seldom spoke and who was frequently ill.I also noticed that he only worked mornings,returning home at lunchtime.I was a curious child and asked my mother why.
“ Oh,it’s because he worked on the railway in Burma when he was a prisoner of the Japanese.”


Saturday , January 12 th 2008 ,near Kanchana Buri ,western Thailand.

I am sitting in a jungle clearing ,sipping a cold beer and contemplating the river.It is calm now as it flows sluggishly by – you can barely detect a current.On the far bank is more verdant jungle.The whole place exudes an atmosphere of peacefulness and tranquillity.Yet it was not always so.For this is the Khwae Yai river , near Kanchana Buri in western Thailand ,the river the world knows as the River Kwai. Here the notorious ‘Death Railway’ and the famous bridge were built by the Japanese It is said that for every sleeper of the track that was laid,there is a corpse .It is a place full of ghosts of the past and spirits of the departed , and it has a unique atmosphere. I have been here many times,but it never fails to have a strong effect on me.It stirs up powerful emotions and evokes half-forgotten childhood memories.It is like that today.