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On down the line

Arch Flanagan, a retired school teacher living in Tasmania, was in his 70s before he began to write about his World War II experiences on the Thai-Burma Railway. His story is published in The Line, a collaborative project with his son, writer and journalist Martin Flanagan.

Arch believes in writing succinctly, allowing the spaces, the things he does not say, to illuminate that which he commits to the page. His voice is unmistakably old Australian, marked by two world wars and a strong sense of humanity.

The Line is made up of four pieces Arch wrote. Throughout the book Martin provides commentary, offering insights into who his father was before and after the war, and reflections on his own visit to the Thai-Burma railway with Weary Dunlop—who Martin never heard of until 1985—and a group of old diggers. That tour brought the line vividly to life for Martin. It was a son’s attempt to understand the defining experience of his father’s life.

We also get a sense of what it was like growing up in a family where his father’s war experiences, although never explicitly talked about, permeated the household and the lives of each of his six children.

In the introduction, Jo Flanagan, one of Arch’s daughters, writes: ‘My brother is right. We are children of the line.’ She recalls other ‘children of the line’ she’s met whose fathers were prisoners-of-war but died either during the war or in the decade after. Jo writes:

I’ve sat in my parents’ kitchen on the occasions when they (children of the line) have visited, listening to Dad tell them whatever he could recall of their father—a song sung at campsite, a joke, a glimpse of the face—words to try to fill their lifetime of longing. And even those of us who grew up with our fathers will probably spend our lives trying to understand the nature of this experience.

The story begins in Cleveland, Tasmania, at the start of World War I, when Arch Flanagan was born.

‘If the onset of war heralded my birth, its aftermath marked my first remembered years,’ writes Arch. It would also mark his adult life. He’s not keen to talk too much about himself before the war, but Martin’s commentary fills in the gaps.

The second chapter is Arch’s account of his war years. We travel with the young soldier—one who for several days after enlistment wonders if he’s done the right thing—from the Suez Canal, Palestine and Beirut, to Java, the prison camps of the Thai-Burma Railway and the Japanese mines; through bouts of malaria and cholera, appalling living conditions, a mounting death toll and waves of inhuman treatment by Japanese prison guards.

When Arch says, in his unassuming voice, that something was tough, you sense it was so back-breaking, so soul-destroying, that many would not survive the experience.

Of Weary Dunlop he writes:

Colonel Dunlop kept devotedly to his rounds. His leg bandaged for ulcers, his face etched with responsibility and sleeplessness, his cap as ever defiantly askew, he was our symbol of hope. ‘If Weary goes, we’re all done.’

While in a subsequent chapter Arch writes a ‘Tribute to Weary’, his description of the war years pays as much attention to unknown soldiers—like Mark Crisp and Ian Wynne who volunteered to assist in the cholera camps, or Les Grimwade who stopped to help anyone barely able to make the journey back from the day working on the line—as it does to Dunlop.

In the book, Arch’s war years are followed by Martin’s reflections. Standing on the Hintok cutting, the son realises he still cannot imagine what it was like for his father in these prisoner-of-war camps. And that makes it even more important for Martin, when writing about that trip and the characters he encounters there, to get the shades and shadows just right. He sets about searching for fundamental truth. It is an onerous undertaking, one that permeates his writing in The Line.

Over time, Martin gets to know three key characters from the line: Weary Dunlop, Blue Butterworth (Dunlop’s close mate) and Tom Uren. Uren becomes like a second father to him. The last part of the The Line includes stories of these three men, and how Arch influenced his son’s life and his writing.

We find too that other children of the line did not hear their fathers speak of the war years, not until they were in their 70s, if at all. Such was the case with Harry Stevens.

Stevens believed that if you weren’t there on the line during the war, you could never really understand. And perhaps that’s why his daughter only found out her father had been a prisoner-of-war when Stevens was in his senior years. Even then, she had to ask.

The Line is not just about the prisoner-of-war camps. It is also about how we carry our stories, as individuals and as a culture; the shades, the colour and the integrity with which we hand them down through generations; what is spoken and what resonates in the silence.

This is what makes it such a unique book that will appeal across genders and generations. The authors have already received a stream of correspondence from readers whose parents were on the line. 

The Line: A Man’s Experience of the Burma Railway; A Son’s Quest to Understand, Arch and Martin Flanagan. One Day Hill, 2005. ISBN 0 975 77081 0, RRP $22.95

Michele M. Gierck is a freelance writer and author of 700 Days in El Salvador, to be published by Coretext in May.


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