(post­war)

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ju­dith Crabb Re­view this­life@theaus­tralian.com.au

It was the mid-1950s and I re­mem­ber, as a small child, hold­ing my mother’s hand and look­ing up the curve of a tall ship at my fa­ther and some sailors smil­ing and wav­ing from the deck. We had been walk­ing along the Port Ade­laide docks, our des­ti­na­tion for that week’s Sun­day drive in our al­most new Vaux­hall.

My fa­ther had called out some­thing to a sailor on a Ja­panese ship and sud­denly a crowd of sailors ap­peared, wav­ing and invit­ing him on board. My mother and I kept walk­ing while my fa­ther joined the young Ja­panese.

I didn’t know much then, and it didn’t sur­prise me. The war was just a hand­ful of trin­kets sent back be­fore the fall of Sin­ga­pore.

Then there were the fraught sou­venirs from later on, when my fa­ther was (as he and oth­ers put it) a guest of the Ja­panese em­peror: his rice spoon, which be­came our cus­tard spoon, worn down to half its ca­pac­ity from years of scrap­ing out the last rem­nants from the bowl, and the ra­zor strop into which he had neatly in­cised records of sig­nif­i­cant events within the prison.

His body bore the shrap­nel wounds. And as for his mind, there were days when he just sat and my mother told me not to bother him. I would smile at him from a dis­tance (dis­con­cert­ing, I should think) and wish I could help. On the brighter side of things, though, I was the only kid in my class who could count from one to 20 in Ja­panese.

When I was a lit­tle bit older, I asked my fa­ther what the Ja­panese were re­ally like. He thought for a bit and said he sup­posed they were just like us — some good, some bad. I must have looked dis­sat­is­fied be­cause he added, “You must treat ev­ery­one with re­spect, be­cause if you don’t, you don’t give them a chance. The Ja­panese were no dif­fer­ent.”

I have since won­dered how the in­ner sub­urbs of Ade­laide pro­duced this quiet and cour­te­ous man who “didn’t take to school­ing”, a char­ac­ter­is­tic he rue­fully at­trib­uted to his pri­mary school be­ing staffed with men fresh from the trenches of France. He was a man who had mal­ice to­wards none.

Re­cently, decades af­ter my fa­ther’s death, a young rel­a­tive re­search­ing fam­ily his­tory con­tacted me. She had found out that my fa­ther was men­tioned in dis­patches. Did I know? (I had asked my mother once but she didn’t know, and it was too late to ask him.)

Ap­par­ently, ac­cord­ing to some record, while in Changi prison, in an act of great per­sonal courage, Arn Crabb (an NCO) had put his life in grave dan­ger by stand­ing up to a Ja­panese of­fi­cer. I shall prob­a­bly never know the full story — would he have told me even if I’d asked? — but re­spect might have had some­thing to do with it. Self-re­spect.

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