Monday, February 20, 2012

Tugboat adventure stories off Singapore (Brian Mitchell)

Chun See’s blog on Enid Blyton and other authors he read as a child reminded me of my search for children’s books set in Singapore. In late 1959, with my family about to depart from the UK for Changi, I wondered what Singapore would really be like. All I had as a guide was a thin pamphlet for British forces which rather horrified me with warnings about the heat, humidity and a long list of insects, snakes, and diseases I might now encounter!

So what could I expect to experience in 1960 Singapore? I looked for stories set in Singapore and came across a series of adventure books. When I remembered this a couple of years ago all I could recall was that the books (I had read several of them) featured a tugboat. So I simply googled ‘tugboat Singapore’ and instantly had my answer (what a wonderful thing the internet is).

My almost forgotten books turned out to be by an equally largely forgotten author, Arthur Catherall. The website I found told me that I had read Catherall’s ‘Bulldog’ series of novels which are;

‘all about battles of wits between a two groups of characters who crop up regularly in nearly all of the books. The main setting is the South China Seas for the tugboat "Bulldog" has the Lion City of Singapore as its home harbour.’

I found the novels in my local public library in south London. I could have read only the first four or five adventures which were published before I left for Singapore as the series of 11 novels continued up until 1968.

Good as the books were I probably learned more about deep sea diving, salvage and running a tugboat than I did about Singapore – the adventures took place on and under the high seas and among islands often far from Singapore’s kampongs and city streets.

But the website did reassure me in one respect – these books do not display the ‘colonial’ attitude of so many stories, whether for adults or children, set in the then British Empire. In Catherall’s ‘Bulldog’ books, with its hero seventeen year old Jack Frodsham;

‘the reader is exposed to the behaviour of men from several different races. As Jack operates in this subterranean world his fellow divers are usually Malayan or Chinese and again and again we see examples of their courage, loyalty, endurance and dignity…..

The mutual respect and teamwork shown by the good people of all races is what ultimately sticks in the memory. …… A mere ten years have passed since the end of the Second World War and Catherall is encouraging his readers to look beyond the stereotypical picture of old enemies and to go forward in a spirit of reconciliation.’

I wonder if Catherall’s books are held by Singapore’s National Library or are known in today’s Singapore? Today’s children in Singapore are, I expect, fortunate in having access to a variety of books written by local writers and set in their own island, reflecting their own culture and communities.

Brian G Mitchell


Tim said...

Hi Brian

Thanks for an interesting and thoughtful blog.

I agree with your thoughts about colonial attitudes in literature. Even though the Empire had more or less gone by this time, I think there was a culture of believing that the British mind was superior, and that British rule brought civilisation to the savages.

It's refreshing that you found some books that took a more balanced view.

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