Hamish Brown is best known for his writings on mountaineering and outdoor topics, but now in his eighties he has taken the time to write a memoir of his early life. He was born in Colombo in Sri Lanka in 1934, where his parents were stationed due to his father’s job. The family relocated to Japan just before World War Two broke out at that end of the globe, and this book details their escape into Singapore, then fleeing from there following its surrender and eventually returning to settle back in Scotland on a permanent basis. Additionally, Hamish’s older brother Ian was separated from the rest of the family during this time, remaining in Scotland with his grandmother.
The story is something of an epistolary, told through a number of documents, including letters between his parents and grandmother, as well as a selection of family photographs. The detail of the letters brings to life the world and time period that Brown and his family grew up in – however there is inevitably poignancy to them because of what is to come. In between these documents, Hamish narrates the story to fill in any gaps and to add his own take on what was happening at that time as best as he could understand it. In doing so, he is able to interpret his adulthood through particular memories from his childhood, from smaller details such as sleeping behind mosquito nets to his time at school and the friends he made, one of whom would end up at Dollar Academy with him upon his return to Scotland. Likewise his father’s own written account of leaving Klang and moving on to safer pastures filled in many more gaps. The Brown family would go on to be refugees in South Africa for two years before arriving safely back in Scotland.
Hamish Brown’s account of his childhood abroad during a time of enormous political upheaval is colourfully described, touching and absorbing. The insightfulness he provides here will prove to be an essential account of the Second World War from outwith Europe.
Photo courtesy of Dave MacLeod.
East of West, West of East is out now, published by Sandstone Press.