On visiting the sins of the fathers

Opinions - May 1st, 1998
Henry Scott Stokes

by Henry Scott-Stokes

Does anything stir the heart of a father more than messages in a bottle from a son? I get these faxes and emails from my 13-year-old in London, and they have to do with their Himperial Majesties forthcoming visit to the UK and the wrath of our ex-POWs. War, asks Harry, wotsat? Prisoners of War, how, what? Hmmm. The thing of it is this… the lad happens to be Japanese (both Japanese and British, and proud of both) and he is asking himself for the first time what transpired on the Bataan March and on the Burma Railway. He never heard of these matters while safely ensconced on the Good Ship Nippon, up and until 18 months ago.

Now over there in Chelsea SW3 he keeps reading these terrible things about his mother’s country in the newspapers. “Please explain to him what this is all about,” cries out Akiko, “when you come over here.” Which is actually in a few hours time.

Neither of these two chickabiddies can BELIEVE what they read in the papers, that’s the thing of it. All of a sudden the veil of the temple has been rent. They were having a quiet Easter of it over there in the King’s Road, and then—crack, damn and break my Easter bunny—the storm burst on the boy’s head. There’s a chap so gentle that he would cross a busy street to convey a ladybird, harmless beetle or the like to the safety of a shrub rather than let it risk being mashed by a passing tire… a boy so beautiful that when he hears that we over here in Tokyo had, say, crab soup for supper suddenly gets a pain in the stom­ach (crab? crab? who…?)

I mean, when he was smaller, I made the mistake once of reading out to him in bed the famous lines from Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter, wherein the oysters (with the exception of one wise old chap who stayed in the deep) innocently go for a walk on the beach with those two retrograde souls, the walrus and the c., who promptly get out their brown bread and butter. Wot? Not us? say the oysters.

Harry read this stuff about Singapore in the papers and, conscientious boy that he is, he hefted his grow­ing thighs—the boy’s turning into a huge creature, destined to be two meters tall if he’s a day—over to the Chelsea Public Library. “I just got some war books on Singapore,” he reports in his latest message-in-a-bottle, a fax that came in during the night.

Fine, but what am I supposed to say, getting on a plane in a few hours, when I arrive in the UK? I tell ya, this experience has brought home to me the existence of a Huge Problem here on the Good Ship. I simply had not appreciated the extent to which they put up the shutters on board… to the point where a lady who happens to be my wife had never in her slightly less than 50 post-World War Two years, of course, the slightest inkling what transpired in 1931-45. And this lady is a blue stocking, the kind who spent her teens in the Hibiya Public Library, not running after pubes­cent boys in the park; no, straight into the library on a Saturday morning, the moment it opened at 9 o’clock. All weekend she’d be there.

One took it for granted that there was a certain common stock of knowledge, right, only to discover that it ain’t so. Ain’t so at all. So I have a little proposal for Hash the PM, and that is look, baby, when you’ve finished blowing up the Ministry of Finance, once you’ve taken apart the Okurasho, brick by brick (believe that when I see it) under the Big Bang, and put it all back together again, would you mind moving next door to the Mombusho. These are the guys, these Ministry of Education mandarins, you have really got to get to. Somehow or other, they have succeeded in choking up the nation’s educational system with weeds to the point where a boy and his mum, albeit not stupid, name of Scott-Stokes, have not the faintest idea what happened in our fathers’ times—neither in the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, China OR in Japan herself. The whole thing, the whole slew of mid-20th-century history is a tabula rasa, which is Latin—Harry’s best subject in school, how did you guess?—for “a blank.”

Listen, here’s the simple truth: I hoiked Harry and his mother out of Japan and sent ’em back to the UK for his education. That was an instinctive “call” I made a couple of years ago. Thank God I did, I sud­denly realize. Opening up the educational system here is going to take another Era, I regret to say.

Tell me I’m wrong.

henryss@gol.com