An interesting story emerged during an episode of the Antiques Roadshow which aired recently on the ABC.

Joseph Bampton – appearing in a July 2011 episode of the Roadshow held at Hartland Abbey in North Devon (that’s how far behind the ABC programming schedule is) – took along the letters and paintings that were passed down to him by his late grandmother, Isobel Grist.

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A watercolour by Isobel ‘Vimmy’ Grist

Donald Grist was working as an agricultural chemist in the Far East when the Japanese took Malaya in 1942. He and his wife Isobel (known affectionately as “Vimmy”) were imprisoned at Changi Jail in Singapore where conditions were horrendous, with 5,000 people packed into a prison meant for 600.

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Donnie and Vimmy were able to pass notes secretly to one another with the help of sympathetic guards. Incredibly, news was also spread around the camp by resourceful inmates who risked execution to put together a prison newspaper, the Changi Guardian.

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Cartoon by C Jackson

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Changi Guardian, Issue 95

The typewriter used clandestinely to produce the newspaper may well have been one of the typewriters used by the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) Concert Party to write theatre programmes like this one …

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During his imprisonment at Changi, the late Australian comedian, actor, songwriter and playwright, Slim De Grey, starred in and wrote many of the entertainments produced by the AIF Concert Party.

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(De Grey is pictured top right)

In his book Changi: The Funny Side (1992), De Grey describes a lighter side to life in the camp.

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According to a 2013 article by Valerie Jones, Humour amid tragedy at Changi Prison:

De Grey “wrote the book over 18 months, writing it laboriously in longhand before transcribing it two-finger style on a typewriter. He worked typically Gold Coast style, often on a floating lounge in his pool, or in the shade of the poolside cabana.”

A writing style that was well and truly deserved! Slim died on his birthday, May 20, 2007, aged 88.

The artwork for the Changi AIF Theatre production of Shooting High; A Western Farce was produced by Lance Bombardier Des Bettany from Burnley, Lancashire …

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A talented artist before the war, Bettany fashioned a paintbrush out of human hair and a bamboo cane and used different coloured soil mixed with rice water for paint.

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You can see more examples of Bettany’s work in an online article for the Daily Mail (Australia): Sketches from hell – Humorous cartoons drawn by British PoW in Changi prison

After the war Des Bettany married and had three children. He eventually emigrated to Australia were he died in 2000, aged 81.

Perhaps the most famous artist to have been imprisoned in Changi was Ronald Searle. Searle, who went on to produce an extraordinary volume of work during the 1950s, survived Changi along with approximately 300 of his drawings.

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While De Grey and Bettany employed humour as a way of countering the horrors they were faced with, Searle tackled it head on and his artwork is more confronting. Most of these drawings appear in his 1986 book, Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945. In the book, Searle also wrote of his experiences as a prisoner, including the day he woke to find a dead friend on either side of him, and a live snake underneath his head.

“You can’t have that sort of experience without it directing the rest of your life. I think that’s why I never really left my prison cell, because it gave me my measuring stick for the rest of my life… Basically all the people we loved and knew and grew up with simply became fertiliser for the nearest bamboo.”

Ronald Searle died on 30 December 2011, aged 91.

What kept Donnie and Vimmy Grist alive during their time in Changi? Art, a sense of humour, and their  love for one another. It’s all anyone of us have to live for really.

(For more about Changi, see Robert Messenger’s post: Typing the blinkers off sea-blindness)

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