Caroline Repton (International Journalism, 1986) wrapped up her 27-year journalism career in 2009 but has just published her most personal piece of writing yet. In the memoir Lotus-Eating Days, Caroline tells the story of her parents’ unlikely meeting and marriage in Singapore, and how ordinary men, women, and children lived around the time of the Second World War, in England and the Far East.
“It is the story of how my parents grew up on opposite sides of the world, survived the Second World War in Asia, met after the war in Singapore and married there in 1959,” Caroline Repton says, describing Lotus-Eating Days, From Surrey to Singapore 1923-1959: Letters, Diaries and Recordings of Theresa Repton (née Pang Kim Lui) and Geoffrey Christopher Tyrwhitt Repton (The Book Guild, 2022).
“Despite very different backgrounds, Theresa being the 13th daughter of a Chinese immigrant family in British colony Singapore and Christopher, the eldest of seven from a middle-class English family in Surrey – they had a common bond. Both were devout Catholics, came from large close-knit families and had endured hardships in the war; Christopher as a prisoner on the Burma-Siam railway, Theresa a young woman in Japanese-occupied Singapore. “
A letter by Caroline’s father as a young British soldier in Malaya in 1941, inspired Caroline to write about her parents. She was lucky to have audiotapes recorded by her mother and uncovered more letters, telegrams, diaries and photographs as she worked to piece together a time before she was born.
“The initial challenge for me in writing this memoir was finding a way to fill in the gaps in my knowledge because my father never talked to me about his war experiences or about his time in the army in India and Malaya before being captured by the Japanese, nor his time in Java after the war nor in fact about anything that happened before I was born. I had only heard a few anecdotes from my mother. I was also rather nervous about finding out harrowing details of the ‘death railway’, but once I started reading more and more books and seeing films about it, I kept going.”
After Caroline’s father died in 1998, she wrote to Jack Shuttle, a former POW comrade of Christopher’s on the ‘death railway’. Mr Shuttle sent her his war memoir, which gave a detailed account of their war experiences. The memoir, together with a book, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, by Australian army medical surgeon Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop, allowed Caroline to make many helpful connections and tell her father’s story.
Caroline hopes that readers of Lotus-Eating Days will learn how ordinary men, women, and children lived in the period leading up to, during, and after the Second World War, not only in Britain but also in the Far East.
“This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore, which is remembered more widely in Australia than in the UK,” Caroline explains. It was however commemorated at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire by Children & Families of the Far East Prisoners of War (COFEPOW).“It (Britain’s surrender of Singapore to the Japanese) occurred on 15th February 1942 and is a pivotal moment in the book. I hope older readers will be able to reminisce about their own childhoods and youth during the early part of the 20th century. Younger and middle-aged readers could glean a timely reminder about the horrors of war and the importance of avoiding war whenever possible.”
For Caroline, writing about her parents was therapeutic.
“It brought me closer to them, even after they had died. Once I started seriously writing the memoir, I felt as if my parents were guiding me every step of the way, making things easier for me,” she says. “Every day, sitting at my writing desk, escaping to the world of my parents when they were young, I felt that I was very close to them, especially as I could listen to Mum’s voice on tape and look at photos of them.”
Writing about the lives of real people has its own set of challenges. What is Caroline’s advice to anyone who wants to write a memoir?
“Firstly, do you have an interesting story to write about, with a beginning, middle and end and a narrative arc? You have to ask yourself the question – would outsiders be interested in this story and why?“ Caroline says.
“Secondly, read a lot of memoirs, to get an idea of what you like to read. I was particularly inspired by several memoirs – e.g. A Notable Woman: The romantic journals of Jean Lucey Pratt, edited by Simon Garfield; Dadland by Keggie Carew; Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo; Where the Past Begins by Amy Tan; and a novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Last but not least, if there are any people still living who are featured in the book or whose parents or other relatives are in the book, make sure to ask for their permission to include them, unless you are sure they wouldn’t mind. Also ask them questions that may enrich the story and ask if you can quote them on their answers. If there are any scandals, where there may be a risk of you being sued for libel, make sure to disguise or remove any incriminating names.”
Before retiring, Caroline Repton worked as a journalist for 27 years, both in the UK and abroad, and has fond memories of her journalism studies at City in the mid-1980s.
“I still remember the noisy bustle of our mock newsroom in the old Journalism Department which was then in a separate building on St John Street, with the loud clackety-clack of the typewriters going as we student journos bashed away feverishly at our stories on carbon copies in triplicate, typing to strict deadlines,” she says.
“We were lucky enough to have had the late Bob Jones, a co-founder of City’s journalism programme and founder of XCity magazine, as our chief lecturer. Mr Jones was a very enthusiastic teacher. Somebody once described him as ‘the denim-clad lecturer’, which he didn’t seem to be very amused by at the time.”
According to Caroline, the Postgraduate Diploma in International Journalism at City was one of the best steps she ever took. It convinced her that she wanted to continue to pursue journalism as a career, and now, almost 40 years later, it has helped her write her parents’ memoir.
“It gave me the ability to write snappy chapter headings, select the most interesting or salient material to use, while leaving out the irrelevant or dull parts. Writing concisely and succinctly. Not imposing my editorial presence too much on the narrative,” she explains.
In Lotus-Eating Days Caroline’s parents get to tell their story in their own voices.
“Towards the end, there is a dialogue of letters between Christopher and Theresa when they were courting in the 1950s, in which their caring, respectful personalities shine through in movingly understated language. It is quite romantic, in a 1950s way.”
Big thank you to Caroline Repton for sharing her and her parents’ story! Her new memoir Lotus-Eating Days can be found here.