Finding escape…in prison

As my July bucket list explained, a key element of this month’s ‘vicar school is over – for now’ rejoicing was the reading of books that are not theological.

I do love my current life, vicar school and everything, but I really, really miss my old life’s space and time for non-educational reading. (I also miss singing. That’s a whole other issue.) Whether that’s commuting time spent engrossed in a good read, or the guilt-free pleasure of reading whatever I wanted, it’s certainly not something I have much space for these days. I commute rarely; my bag usually contains some worthy tome; reading anything not on a module guide induces guilt that my time could be better spent working towards the next essay. For a voracious reader who finds their escape in other worlds, this is a sad state of affairs.

So, in preparation for my summer freedom, I ordered a very large book. It arrived the day before my last essay was due (a Friday), so the parcel was hidden under a cushion until the essay was handed in. Saturday morning was spent on the sofa engrossed. Sunday afternoon saw a couple of hours in the sun with it. By Monday night it was finished – all 750 pages of it. Oh. Happy. Days.

Sunshine ReadingSunday afternoon perfection.

The book in question was a blow-by-blow companion to the making of Tenko – the classic TV drama set in a women’s Japanese internment camp during WW2, shown in the very early 1980’s. I’ve written about it before – most recently on how getting lost in a blackhole of its episodes inevitably results in a ‘Tenko Mentality”. It might not sound like a literary masterpiece (it’s not really) but for a die-hard Tenko fan and historian, it was a joy. All of a sudden, I had escaped a world of ecclesiology and taken refuge in mid-twentieth century history and early 1980’s television making.

In the fortnight leading up to the end of term, I’d re-watched all three seasons of Tenko (and the reunion episode) for possibly the fourth time. I’ve definitely written about the show before, it’s something of an obsession amongst the female Clutterbucks – and an reference point for many every day facts of life. (For example, “it’s so humid, my hair makes me look like an extra in Tenko”.) Watch too many episodes in one go and it’s very difficult to re-adjust to the world around you – we are not in a Japanese internment camp (thank goodness!) It’s utterly addictive too. I’m still both impressed and slightly shocked by my ability, the penultimate Monday of term, that I ran 5km and watched an episode of Tenko before I left for college at 8.30am!

It’s total escapism and it’s only struck me in the last couple of days that it seems to have become comfort viewing in times of stress – the last time I watched it all was the week I started vicar school. Like Chalet School books, the world of Tenko is an alternative universe to escape into when the real world is not all that it should be. [As a result, if you ever see me mentioning that I’m watching it, perhaps check that things are ok…]

Back to the book. It was a joy. If you’re slightly OCD about needing know why things happened the way they did; why plots evolved; how things might have happened; and how it all fits together with reality, then this is perfect. For goodness sake, it’s 750 pages long, and there are photos! It includes possible story-lines that never made it to filming, the experiences of the cast and crew, why cast changes happened the way they did and the real-life experiences of life in the camps that inspired the series. It even includes a bibliography for further reading…

…thus, three days after finishing the book, I returned home to another piece of holiday reading – Women Behind the Wire, a collection of experiences of women who lived through Tenko in reality. It really comes to something that my idea of ‘holiday’ reading now that I’m a theology student is historical stuff! Again, it’s not a literary masterpiece and hasn’t aged particularly well – what counted as ‘popular’ history in the early 80’s doesn’t compare well with that written 30 years later. It’s rather sentimental and its references to the Japanese soldiers verge on the patronising, but it does tell the stories of some incredible men and women.

Tenko was the result of the producer’s earlier job researching those honoured by This Is Your Life, specifically Brigadier Dame Margot Turner, who had been interned by the Japanese. After making the first series of Tenko, Lavinia Warner researched the stories of many of the women interned alongside her, producing a book that chronicles the experiences of one community of women throughout their internment. It’s fascinating, heart-breaking and an example of just how horrific humanity can be. At the same time, it provides an idea of where some of the Tenko storylines came from – though it’s abundantly clear than the women of Tenko had things a lot easier than was really the case!

Now, I feel I have something like closure on this episode of history. True, I still need to get hold of a copy of Paradise Road so I can watch it again (this film depicting a vocal chorus in a camp was also inspired by Women Behind the Wire) and there are one or two other books I’d like to read, but I think it’s enough for now. Next on my summer list is a few more titles from that ever-reliable stalwart of my library: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer…

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