Cecily Blench’s grandmother didn’t think her stories of being a nurse in wartime Burma and India were unusual, but her granddaughter found them memorable. And when Cecily read her grandma’s 1944 diary she found more inspiration to begin her first novel, the prizewinning The Long Journey Home, which is published on 10 June.
My grandmother, Mary Norman (née King), began her new diary for 1944 with the timeless resolutions of women throughout history:
To write decent letters
To be ‘sensible’ about George
To get slimmer, or rather less fat (exercise etc), and fit.
The setting was rather less ordinary. She was stationed at a military hospital in Nagaland, north-eastern India, where she and her fellow nurses were caring for men who had been wounded in the Burma campaign.
Many of Grandma’s diary entries are taken up with social anxieties, descriptions of parties, gossip, clothing, and flirtations with officers. (Who ‘George’ was we don’t know, but he was one of several young men who caused her heart to flutter during her time in India.)
She was 29 and had been in Asia for nearly two years. The work was exhausting, with long hours, and many soldiers encountered in hospital wards and at parties, before they were sent back to fight, did not return.
Small wonder that she focused more on her social life than the misery of the conflict that was unfolding, although she does often mention her duties on the wards, and there are references to the battles that were raging as the Japanese swept towards Kohima.
Grandma died in 2016 at the age of 101. Among her belongings was a trunk full of papers, letters, and diaries, carefully preserved. The diaries, all written in her inimitable, hectic handwriting, are almost indecipherable, but here and there are flashes of sense.
At the very end of her 1944 diary, on Thursday 28 December, by which time she was stationed near Chittagong (now in Bangladesh), is a passage of great significance, although I don’t suppose for a moment that she knew it at the time:
Party – ‘D’ Force
[?] Tony (on an exercise).
Ronald was very nice to me – talked all the evening. Asked to go with him to see elephants!!!!
Took me home – said had ‘arranged’ it.
Ronald was my grandfather. Frustratingly, her diary for 1945 is missing, so we don’t know exactly what happened next, although taking her to see elephants on a first date seems like an excellent move on his part.
Stapled at the end of the 1944 diary is a Movement Order dated 16 January 1945, which orders Sister King (Grandma) to Buthidaung, over the border in Burma. Buthidaung had seen heavy fighting the year before, and she would probably have been working at a rudimentary field hospital.
Ronald, presumably, went back to active service. But they must have seen each other again, for by July 1945 they were engaged. He was 25 but already distinguishing himself as a brilliant officer. He would die in 1963 when his SAS helicopter crashed in Borneo, leaving her with five children.
Throughout my childhood, Grandma occasionally told stories of her time in India and Burma. She did not see what she had done as extraordinary, so you had to really dig to get much information. Her recollections were faded, but she remembered specific things like the pleasure of eating mangoes for the first time and her first journey across India by train.
When I went to Burma, now Myanmar, as a volunteer teacher in 2013, she looked eagerly at the photographs I brought back, and spoke of the jungle, where she had nursed and where my grandfather had spent the war undertaking risky missions behind enemy lines, for which he received the Military Cross.
A year or so after she died, I began to write a novel set in Burma. The Japanese invaded in early 1942 and thousands of people were forced to trek through the mountains towards India (including my grandfather, along with the rest of the retreating army). Many did not survive.
I read everything I could about the period and found fiction intersecting with reality. My heroine, Kate, works as a nurse in conditions that would have been familiar to Grandma, and eventually finds her way to Calcutta, where my grandparents married at the end of the war.
Having a family connection to the place and time you are writing about presents certain challenges. I didn’t want to write Grandma’s story – it seemed presumptuous to assume I could ever learn enough, and some things are best left unwritten. I will never know the rich and intimate details of the relationships and the experiences she had in Asia, although they influenced the rest of her life.
But I was hugely inspired by her. The stories she had told me of wartime Calcutta, of nursing in Assam and visiting Naga villages all fed into my writing. Her diaries added detail about the more prosaic elements – how dreary it must have been much of the time, with nothing to look forward to except occasional days off, and with the constant misery of wounded and dying patients all around.
Many elements of the book have no connection to my family history. The facts that form the backdrop were gleaned from books and from the British Library’s excellent archive, which includes reports written by people who survived the journey out of Burma.
It was also important that the book did not focus purely on a western perspective, although it was inevitable that would dominate; I read everything I could about Burma, including the hardships faced by those who were left behind.
I gave Kate the same birthday as Grandma – 13 December 1914 – and they both grew up on a farm in Worcestershire. Beyond that, their personalities diverge. But Grandma’s diaries provided key insights into what it was to be young and at war; worrying about losing weight, about boyfriends, about what the future held.
If she had lived to see my book published, my portrayal of the war might well seem unrealistic to one who lived through it. But she was never anything but encouraging about my writing and my dreams. I suspect she would be embarrassed but also secretly delighted to know that she inspired my first novel, and to find it dedicated to her.
Cecily is a freelance writer and editor with a particular interest in travel writing, wartime history, intrepid women and Southeast Asia. She has written for a number of publications including Reader’s Digest, Slightly Foxed, The London Magazine, and Hinterland.
The Long Journey Home won the 2019 Wilbur Smith Adventure Writing Prize.
Mary King’s diary, 1 January, 1944: supplied by Cecily Blench
Portrait photograph signed by Mary: supplied by Cecily Blench
Mary’s diary, 28 December, 1944: supplied by Cecily Blench
Photograph of Mary and Ronald Norman at their wedding: supplied by Cecily Blench
Sister L Hood of Auckland, New Zealand, bandaging Subadar Khanda Delvi on the journey from Burma to India, c1944: via the National Army Museum