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Love & war

Ever googled yourself and been surprised by what you find? Last month, Rae Shaw did just that and within hours found herself reading the diary her late father had kept while imprisoned in Stanley internment camp. Simon Parry recounts the extraordinary story of how a daughter stumbled upon the truth

 

On June 7, Rae Shaw settled back into bed at her home in Nottingham, England, with her morning cup of tea and the new iPad her teenage grandson had helped her to buy. She tapped a few keys and inadvertently threw open a window on a secret chapter in her family's past.

"I'd been out the night before and there had been this discussion about googling people," says the 72-year-old widow. "My daughter-in-law asked me, 'Have you ever googled yourself?' So I thought I'd find out if there was any record of me from my time in Hong Kong."

Shaw grew up in the city after her civil servant father had been held in the Stanley internment camp through much of the second world war.

"I put in 'Rae Marjorie Jones Hong Kong' and up popped this list, and at the top of it were the words 'R.E. Jones Wartime diary'. I froze. And everything that has happened since has been so emotional and exciting and wonderful."

What Shaw had stumbled across was a digital version of the wartime diary kept by her father, Raymond Eric Jones, from December 1940 until October 1945. During that period, Shaw's mother, Marjorie, lived as an evacuee in her native Australia. She had been married for less than a year when, pregnant with Rae, she had fled as the Japanese closed in on Hong Kong.

Jones, a prisons officer, remained in Hong Kong and, from 1942 to 1945, was held in Stanley camp, home to some 2,800 mostly British and Commonwealth citizens who suffered 3½ years of hunger, boredom and occasional brutality from their Japanese guards.

Throughout his captivity, Jones risked his life by sleeping with a Union flag sewn into his mattress. Then, after the Allies retook Hong Kong, he achieved a moment of fleeting fame when he hoisted the flag over the camp to mark the colony's liberation.

His diary, written in neat pencil, is by turns a mundane, poignant and mildly scandalous account of day-to-day life as a civilian prisoner of war in Hong Kong - and what makes its survival remarkable is that Shaw and her family were certain it had been destroyed during a row between Raymond and Marjorie 68 years ago.

Jones was sent home to Britain, where he was reunited with his wife and met his young daughter for the first time in late 1945. But soon after his return, the discovery of a love affair he had had with a fellow internee, called Gwen, in the final months of the war nearly tore the family apart. Gwen had posted a farewell gift and a letter to Jones - who was clearly still besotted with her and possibly intending to start a new life with his prison-camp lover - telling him to forget about her and to instead devote himself to his wife and young daughter.

"Gwen sent my father a parcel containing an atlas, which I still have," Shaw explains. "My mother opened the parcel and it contained this 'Dear John' letter, which she read, and she was totally shocked and horrified and heartbroken.

"Then she read his diary, which contains details of not one but two affairs he had during the war years. They had this massive row where she ripped up all their wedding photographs and all the letters that had passed between them during the war.

"Mummy said she destroyed everything and that the diary was destroyed as well. Subsequently, as I was growing up and as Diana, my younger sister, was growing up, she said on more than one occasion, 'It is the biggest regret of my life.' She had been told by other people who had been internees at Stanley camp that it was a wonderful record of camp life and it should have been in a museum."

The Joneses' marriage survived the revelations of his affairs and in 1947, after he had recuperated, they returned to Hong Kong, where, four years later, Diana was born. They remained in Hong Kong until 1957, when Raymond was diagnosed with cancer. They returned to Britain, where he died at the age of 52.

Marjorie lived until 1985, believing to her dying day that her husband's wartime diary had been destroyed. Unknown to her daughters, however, the diary turned up in Scotland in 2010, among the possessions of a late Hong Kong civil servant called Colin McEwan, who had died in the 1980s.

McEwan's daughter, Alison, had transcribed the journal and, realising that Rae - who is mentioned throughout the diary - might still be alive, tried without success to trace her. She posted her transcription on a Stanley camp discussion blog.

When Alison gave up hope of tracing Rae, she sent the diary to St Stephen's College, in the grounds of the former Stanley camp, to be displayed in its wartime museum with the condition that it be returned to the Jones family if they ever surfaced.

Last year, David Bellis - who runs Hong Kong blog Gwulo - began posting extracts of the diary online. And it was on Bellis' website that Shaw, to her astonishment, stumbled across herself when she went online last month.

"I couldn't move when I saw my father's diary online. I didn't know what to do next. It was a feeling of shock - pure shock," she says. "I was still in bed two hours later when I put a message on David's website saying, 'I'm Rae, his daughter' and within minutes he got back to me and sent me a transcribed copy of the diaries. I couldn't believe that within such a short space of time, not only had I discovered the diary existed but I could sit there and read it. It took me a week to work my way through it all. I just couldn't believe what had happened. I still can't."

A fortnight later, Shaw held the diary in her hands after Bellis had collected it from St Stephen's College under the terms of the donation and delivered it to her home on a pre-planned visit to Britain.

 

"Only two years ago my sister and I went to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. They have a Japanese war section and we went around it. There's a bit about Stanley camp and we both said the diary of our father should be included. We said how terribly sad it was that the diary was destroyed.

"My father never once mentioned the diary and he obviously never mentioned it to my mother, to put her out of her misery.

"I was only five at the time and I don't remember the argument or what happened. I can only envisage a huge row when my mother started ripping things up. I imagine he said, 'Give me that diary and I'll go and burn the bloody thing' and went off with it but didn't burn it and she just assumed he had."

Shaw thinks her father may have secretly posted the diary for safekeeping to McEwan - who, like him, served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in Hong Kong - or given it to a friend from Stanley camp who later passed it to McEwan.

Jones' affair with Gwen appears to have turned him into a man full of regret and resentment and cast a long shadow over Rae's otherwise idyllic school years in Hong Kong.

"I remember a little bit about my life in Australia and I remember a little bit about when we first came to England but most of my vivid memories are of Hong Kong," says Shaw. "That was where I spent my formative years and my education and I just loved my life out there.

"To me it was just a safe place to live, a very social place. All the Brits had a wonderful social life. I went to KGV [King George V School] and I loved every single day of my schooling there. I've been back since and it's a very international place now but, in our day, it was very British."

Her father, however, was morose and sniped at her constantly, she recalls.

"As I was growing up, my mother would say, 'Darling, he wasn't always like this.' She persevered with him. The fact that she made the decision to stay with him in the hope that one day the old person would come back says to me that, before the war, he was the person that other people say he was. They said he was such a charming, witty, loving man, and that is completely the opposite of the man I knew.

"He was difficult. He expected perfection from me and I'm not perfect. And everything I did he picked on. I had a hard time, and I assumed it was because the lady that ended the affair had said to him, 'You must stay with your wife and get to know the baby you have never met.' I was the reason she decided after the war they would not continue their affair. To me, it always seemed as if my existence annoyed him. I couldn't do a single thing right.

"I really desperately spent all my time trying to please him and make him proud of me and I failed hopelessly. I did feel unloved by him.

"My mother was just a wonderful woman, a great character, and she defended him as much as she could. She would say things to me after going out to a party like, 'You should have heard your father praising you last night. He is so proud of you.' But I suspect she was doing it for my ego. He certainly couldn't praise me to my face."

Despite his infidelities, Marjorie remained intensely loyal to her husband.

"She was only in her 40s when he died. She was an attractive woman and I did say to her when I was 18 or 19, 'Mummy, you are young enough to find someone else and have a good marriage'. She replied, 'Oh no my dear, there is only one man I have ever loved.' So I never broached the subject again."

It was with her abiding memory of a distant and unloving father that Shaw read and reread the diary she believed had been destroyed a lifetime ago - hoping it would give answers to some of the questions that have troubled her since.

"I find it quite hard that he didn't ever relent towards me and in the home there was never warmth between my parents at all. And yet, outside, they had a very good social life so … they must have been good company," she says.

"This diary was my chance to find out more about him, and I have found out more about him. I do understand why people had affairs in camps like this. They didn't know if they were going to live to see the end of the war. I suppose I can understand that if he was deeply in love with Gwen, maybe he could feel bitter all his life.

"When you read the diary, you can see he was a very loving husband. He missed my mother terribly. He wrote to her regularly and when I was born, he was thrilled," Shaw says. "He calls mum 'Darling Marj' and me 'Baby Rae' and on my birthday he talks about me. He says, 'You are one today and we will soon be together.' So it tells me that he was a normal young married man, and that he changed.

"He had one affair [with a woman coincidentally referred to in the diary only as G] and it seemed to take over his life, which disappointed me a bit, but I understand. Then she is repatriated to Canada and the diary continues and then suddenly this other G [Gwen] appears and she is the one we always knew about.

"It has given me an insight into him being a perfectly normal young married man. They had only been married for about nine months when they were separated. At first he is communicating and thinking about Mummy. But somewhere in the diary, on their fourth or fifth wedding anniversary, he says, 'I can't remember what it's like to be married.'"

Shaw had hoped the diary would explain her father's change in personality, and that she might find in it reasons other than the ending of the affair to explain his distance and coldness. She was to be disappointed.

"Reading the diary, I don't get the impression he was badly scarred by events in the camp," she says. "He coped with camp life. There are ups and downs. There are jealousies and problems and certainly hunger. But I didn't get from it that that is what changed him. I can only believe it was the disappointment of this love affair.

"After the war, nearly all our close social friends were people who had been interned with him and they had perfectly normal lives and were perfectly normal people and they had been through what he had been through. Everybody is different and some are more sensitive than others but I don't think he was of that nature that his whole personality would be changed by his experience in camp."

There is a plaintive note in Shaw's voice as she admits: "I didn't want to be the reason he changed and I have read the diary and I have concluded I am exactly the reason.

"I was hoping it was camp life that changed this man [but it was] down not just to me but to the fact he no longer cared as much for my mother.

"I always knew that, deep down. Mother told me the story. She didn't say, 'It's because of you that this woman wouldn't have him.' She just said, 'This was what was in the letter.' I grasped what the reason was.

"When I was young I was quite determined that once I was older - maybe in my 20s, with more emotional experience - I would sit down one day and talk to him and maybe we could have a truce. And that's the sadness I feel, that I never got that opportunity. Because I longed for him to care and I longed to be able to care back."

The appearance of the diary has been an extraordinary journey of discovery for all of Shaw's family, not least her younger sister, who was just six when her father died.

"Mummy regretted destroying the letters and wedding photographs but she was clearly heartbroken at the time. She would be delighted that the diary survived," says Diana. "Mummy said that if she could have the time over again, she would do exactly the same - she clearly loved him very much. What a pity their plans to retire to New Zealand never materialised. I think Daddy was a lucky man. He married a real lady who was full of grace."

Diana's son, Phil Dowson, who played rugby for England at the Hong Kong Sevens from 2003 to 2005, says: "It has been a tough and emotional time for Mum and Rae. Clearly not everything in the diary makes pleasant reading and the war did have an extreme effect. But I think having the diaries gives an insight into some of the reasons for the changes and also gives them a better indication of the sort of man their mum fell in love with."

The return of the diary to a member of the family appears to complete the story of Raymond Eric Jones and the effect his time in Stanley camp had on him and his kin, except for one key character: Gwen, the woman he spent those intense final months with before the Japanese surrender.

Although she is referred to as G throughout the diary, except for one reference to "Gwen", a loose note in the back of the journal on a piece of cigarette paper suggests she may have been a nursing sister called Miss Gwen Flower. Alison's efforts to find her have failed, however.

Shaw could perhaps be forgiven for feeling bitterness towards the woman who robbed her of her father's affection. Instead, she speaks of her with warmth and admiration.

"Diana and I talked recently and wondered where this woman Gwen is," she says. "Because of what she did, all our lives have been different to what they would otherwise have been. If my father had gone off with Gwen, my mother would have been left in England, my sister would never have been born and I wouldn't have had the wonderful, wonderful childhood I had. We would like to have contacted her to say, 'Here we are, as a result of your giving him up.'

"We both wish we knew what happened to her and we hope she found happiness."

David Bellis is collecting stories of Hong Kong during the wartime years for his online Wartime Diaries project. People who had family in Hong Kong during the war can contact him at david@gwulo.com. Anyone who knew Rae Shaw and her family during their time in Hong Kong can contact Shaw using the same e-mail address.

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This article is now closed to comments

WheelsontheGo
Diaries and journals can be one of the most precious keepsakes and can answer questions for generations born and unborn. Also, googling oneself can be a double-edged sword!
serpiente
Wonderful story, deeply human and full of serendipity.

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