The Fall of Singapore, Greg FreemanThe jacket is a full colour picture of a war cemetery, showing lines of flat stones, some grass, trees at the back and some sort of building. The sky occupies about one third and is a whitish colour. On this area the title and author's name appear in black lower case, left justified. The title is bigger but neither is huge.

Dempsey and Windle, 2022   £8.00

The nuances of remembrance

Like Eric Lomax, Greg Freeman’s father was conscripted into the British Army from his job as a railwayman and sent east to become one of the eighty-thousand troops captured by Japanese forces at Singapore. This pamphlet contains thirty poems: eleven set before the war and six after, sandwiching a core of poems largely relating to Freeman’s father’s wartime experience and Freeman’s travel to Thailand in his footsteps.

It would be understandable if these poems were full of bitterness, but Freeman is too subtle a poet for that. ‘A Job on the Railways’ neatly prefigures his father’s predicament — ‘My dad never planned to go very far’ — as does ‘The Reluctant Volunteer’: ‘My old man, no hero, didn’t look / for punch-ups.’

The title-poem opens with a satisfying obliqueness:

Imagine it as the Isle of Wight;
same size and shape
but with mangrove swamps,
jungles, plantations, golf courses,

swimming clubs, all barred to conscripts.

A highlight of the pamphlet is ‘Learning by Heart’, a sestina addressing the tricks which Freeman’s father used to sustain himself while he was a prisoner-of-war on the notorious ‘Death Railway’, including memorising Wordsworth:

It was that time of year; there would be daffodils
at home, beside hedges, glowing in the rain.
Labouring in the cutting, he saw them dancing.
A poem they had been schooled to learn by heart.
An ”inward eye” . . . that was the trick. A railway
journey back to Raynes Park shut out the darkness,

the despair of Hellfire Pass.

‘Eating in Private’ is equally poignant, from its opening (‘It wasn’t long before food replaced sex / in their fantasies’) to its almost unbearable ending:

They witnessed boys turning
into old men, heads shrinking, teeth growing,
pelvis and thigh bones standing out until

their bodies bore red, raw marks; yearning
for a proper beano, eyes dimly glowing.

‘Liberation, 1945’ details the challenge of demob:

There was bunting down the street
when he returned. He hid indoors for days.

In these memorable poems, Freeman reminds us that remembrance isn’t just about those who died in war, but those who survived and bore witness.

Matthew Paul