Harold Gill (1919-2003): Reading & Writing – Writing Lives

Harold Gill (1919-2003): Reading & Writing

It was at the age of four that Harold Gill ‘vividly recall[s]’ (Page 2, Section 1) the first time he had ever written in an exercise book. Those words were “Little White Lily sat by a stone, drooping and waiting until the sun shone.” (Page 2, Section 1) These words are from a poem by George McDonald written at some point during the nineteenth century. It is interesting that the very first words that Gill remembers writing in an exercise book are those from a poem as it becomes clear later in his memoir that he also begins to write poetry. The question arises as to whether his creation of poetry comes from his childhood and as a result of his love for poems that he would have read as a child.

Much of Gill’s reading was for educational purposes however he explains that when he was off school for nine months and therefore read his ‘first ever book’, (Page 9, Section 1) which was written by Silar K. Hockings. The reading of this book could be for educational purposes or for pleasure as this is not explained within the memoir however we believe that he read this book for both reasons as he was missing school and therefore did not want to fall behind but that he wanted to begin reading as he soon found that it was something that was enjoyable for him.

In Harold Gill’s memoir his account of Singapore is written in a poem form, similarly to some of his paragraphs within his memoir. Some parts of Gill’s Memoir appear to be in stanzas showing that Gill’s interest in poetry as a child continued to write poetry whether it be a poem or simply a few stanzas within his memoir. Therefore we believe that Gill’s influence of poetry came from a young age from poets such as George McDonald and his experiences led him to read poems from Joseph Kipling, whos name also appears in his memoir. For Gill, reading and writing was not something that could be expected but instead it is something that must be continued in order to ensure no loss of form, style or creativity. We believe that Gill believed that in order for his reading and writing to progress he must ensure that he is continuing his poetry in any sense that he can.

Harold Gill’s Poem about his experience of

Singapore 1942

We were a group of British soldiers, taken’ from all walks of life.

Conscripted to all serve together at the hub of World War strife.

The press acclaimed that we were gallant and the ‘cream’ of British youth.

We modestly all agreed it was a gross distortion of the truth.


We said ‘Good-byes’ to all our loved ones, when we sailed to eastern spheres

There were voiws of staunch fidelity pledged amid the parting tears.

We spent 6 weeks upon the water, -it was like a peace time cruise.

And listened to good radio music, ignoring all the war-time news.


We sailed into tropical waters, watched the flying fish at play,

Tanned our pale, and British bodies ‘neath the sun, and cool sea-spray.

We knew not our destination, where we all were due to go.

Nor even whether German troops or Japanese would be the foe.


One day we reached the straits Malacca, -our morale was riding high

When the ‘look-out’ sad he’d spotted Japanese war planes in the sky.

We all turned our faces skyward, each man reaching for his gun

As he saw that each plane carried the emblem of the ‘rising sun’.


Then the bombs began to fall with a terrifying sound

And the ship began to shudder as though she had gone aground

The Australian sloop ‘The Yarrow’ fast unto our aid had raced

For our ship was now afire, and the inferno fiercely blazed.


We all lined up on the top deck, ostensibly still on parade

But beneath the tough exterior almost all confessed they prayed

We then jumped onto the ‘Yarrow’  to escape the creeping fire

Forgotten for the moment were King George the sixth, and his Empire.


We landed later on Singapore but it was at heavy cost

All our equipment had submerged, and almost all our armoury lost

We vowed that we would take revenge in the action still to come

But, in our ignorance, unaware we were beating a hollow drum.


But our chance came two weeks later when the Japs poured troops ashore

When with shell, and bomb they pounded the little isle of Singapore

We stood fast at Bukit Timor, hoped the Japs would then ‘turn tail’

Here we suffered our first causalities, deaths that were to no avail.


All around were soldiers lying, from countries near, and from afar

Some were dead, and some were dying, victims of the gods of war.

What had once been human beings, -now no more, – lay around.

Ants and flies and the loathsome maggots made of them a breeding ground.


Was this the cost of far-flung Empire, to die for a care-less Singapore

To sail away from beloved home-land, with the German enemy at the door

What were  the thoughts of those brave soldiers in their despair before they died

Surely their death had been more worthy if the German foe they’d defied


In the defence of beloved home-land, in the protection of kith, and kin

And not for capitalistic interests to preserve Malayan rubber, and tin.


The poem above, however, does not only indicate his commitment to writing but also shows his love for the way he chooses to express himself. For Harold Gill poetry is not just a writing style but a way of life. Gill can truly express himself and explore his feelings on certain matters to do with the war. It could be argued that he turns to poetry to save his life, as it gives him hope when there is none.

Before Gill was captured as a P.O.W he explains how he was on board an American Ship in ‘warmer waters’. He remembers the time when the men on board were not used to the sun that they had on them therefore in order to get an all over tan they would ‘lay around in their birthday suits’. Although Gill enjoys this difference in weather he explains how he remembers the poem about loving England and believes that although the sun was something to be enjoyed he could also never leave England behind. ‘I thought of the poet (William Cowper) during these later days who wrote “Though thy climb be fickle, and thy years most part deformed by sudden frosts, and fields without a flower, I would not yet exchange for warmer France with all her vines, nor for Ausonia’s groves of golden fruitage or her myrtle bower”’. (Page 18, Section 1) Throughout Gill’s memoir he constantly recalls poets, poems and forms some of his sentences or paragraphs into poem form. It becomes clear from reading his memoir that he is well educated and that he learned to read in school at a young age and he continued to love poetry throughout his life.


By Joanne Gibson and Alexandra Meadwell


Gill, Harold, Untitled, TS, pp.66 (c. 31,000 words). Brunel University Library, July 1987.


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