John Stewart: Photographer and Prisoner of War

An excerpt from Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime

Editor’s Note: This week we celebrate the publication of a new book from NR senior editor David Pryce-Jones: Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime, a collection of vignettes of famous authors who over the decades gave him personally inscribed books. In today’s excerpt, David reflects on John Stewart, a popular photographer who signed a copy of his 1988 war memoir, To the River Kwai, for David. Signatures is available for purchase at Encounter Books.

‘For David Pryce-Jones who dislodged a small stone that became a small stream — this memoir — Gratefully.” Before John Stewart inscribed his book with this compliment, all I knew of him was that he lived in Paris and was a photographer whose work was widely published and exhibited. At a chance meeting for drinks in a friend’s house, he told me that he was writing a book and asked if I would read what he’d done so far and tell him why he was stuck. With a sense of shock, I learned from his unfinished manuscript that he had been captured in the war by the Japanese and sent as a slave laborer to the infamous Burma railway. He described the ordeal with astonishing objectivity, but he had refrained from letting the reader know how he came to be so abstract, in short who he was. What should have been autobiographical was historical. What he had to do was give the reader reason to trust him.

He saw the point at once. It was simple. Stewart was an adopted name that hid the fact that he belonged to a very well-known Jewish family and he couldn’t build a convincing memoir without revealing his real identity. His cosmopolitan background, his education in France, his open-mindedness, even his father’s Rolls-Royce, all fell into place and explained who he was in the face of a life-and-death ordeal.

Enrolled in the Intelligence Corps, he arrived in Singapore in January 1942, disastrously timed for the Japanese to take him prisoner. He had learned enough of the language to be an interpreter. “Navigating through the labyrinthine Japanese mind,” he writes, “was, after food, everyone’s favourite intellectual occupation.” In Changi he had an inconceivably far-fetched encounter with Fujita, the well-known painter and a friend in Paris days but now an Official War Artist, who greeted him, “Mon pauvre ami, je ne vous demande pas ce que vous faites ici” (My poor friend, I don’t ask you what you are doing here). Sadism and sentimentality were an incomprehensible combination.

The collision of cultures is recorded in a passage that deserves a place in any anthology to do with human nature and its extremes. Speaking to a cadet, John resorted to a Japanese word meaning “bad, inadequate.” Like someone possessed, the cadet reacted with a rant, frothing at the mouth, sending for his sword and preparing to behead the kneeling prisoner who had given such offense. John in fact saved himself by knowing and reciting what the victim is supposed to say ritually before the sword ends his life. The cadet dropped his sword, burst into tears and invited John to have some cake and a cup of tea, the one and only time when the slave laborer was treated as a guest. John’s misuse of language was wiped away because he had proved his respect for the whole culture.


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