Tag Archives: Letters

“Living with My Absent Father”

By Toby Norways, Senior Lecturer for Scriptwriting at the University of Bedfordshire and PhD Candidate in English (Creative Writing) at Newman University, Birmingham.

Toby Norways passed the viva for his PhD English (Creative Writing) in March 2020 and is currently finishing his thesis ‘corrections’ required before graduation. He has been researching his FEPOW father William ‘Bill’ Norways (1918-86) since 2015. His research took him to Singapore, Thailand, and to Japan where he met the family of one of his father’s camp guards. Toby’s thesis includes a 70,000-word creative manuscript Living with my absent father, a memoir of his father, and a corresponding 20,000-word critical commentary of the creative work.

Bill Norways was a commercial artist prior to World War II, before enlisting in the 2nd Cambridgeshire Regiment. He was taken prisoner in Singapore when the allied forces surrendered to the Japanese on 15th February 1942. In May 1943, he was transported to Thailand to be used as slave labour on the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. Bill suffered great hardship but survived the war. He rarely talked of his experiences.

Close-up of an illustration drawn from memory while in captivity, by Cpl Norways (© courtesy the Norways family)

Toby’s research begins with a study of the artefacts his father assembled from the Far East (including the above illustration). The collection includes Bill’s original artwork and photographs from the prison camps in Singapore and Thailand. Amongst these items are a series of post-war letters. They reveal the unlikely friendship between Bill in Cornwall and one of his former prison guards in Japan, Kameo Yamanaka. He disapproved of Japanese hostility. During Bill’s captivity in Singapore, Yamanaka would share his food rations and supply Bill with pencils so he could continue to draw. The two men expressed a wish that their families would remain friends, but the correspondence ends with Bill’s death in 1986.

The memoir has three plot strands: Toby’s research journey to discover a father he scarcely knew; his father’s history as a prisoner of war; and a Bildungsroman, as Toby comes to terms with the absence, then the death of his father. Alongside these storylines, a correspondence between two opposing soldiers is gradually revealed as Toby travels to Japan to track down the family of the Japanese guard.

Toby Norways with the Yamanaka family, 2015. A poem written by Bill Norways is engraved on the Yamanaka family shrine (© courtesy the Norways family)

On completion of his PhD in 2021, Toby hopes to publish both the memoir of his father and an illustrated book containing the 200+ photos, paintings and sketches that his father Bill managed to bring home from the Far East.

Toby’s research and Bill’s artwork have been featured twice in the Guardian newspaper. Toby’s research journey is described here.

Bill’s artwork is featured in the Guardian gallery found here.