Take this away, Harry. Borrow it for a while. It’s written by my uncle. Tell me what you think of it.’
We face each other across the little lounge of his retirement bungalow in Skelton-in-Cleveland, ten miles from Middlesbrough. I can hear the lifetime of hard work in my old friend’s rich, slow voice. A strong voice, and a forthright one. No beating about the bush with John Pickard, former Merchant Navy second mate, Teesport cargo supervisor, and shop stewards’ convenor. He hands me a tired brown paper folder, its edges curled and brittle. His large knuckles are in keeping with the rest of his tall and rangy form.
An intelligent hand has penned confident words across the cover, in the previous generation’s flourishes:
2nd August 1979. From Mrs N Pickard, 1 Mill Rd, Burnham-on Crouch, Essex. ‘One Jump Ahead’. Yet another escape from Singapore. Set down 10 years after by Lieutenant A J Mann RNVR.
I look up at John; his blue eyes twinkle. ‘Mam sent me that about twenty years back; she’s getting on, though you’d hardly know it. Nearly a hundred, but still fights her corner — and mine. She’s been harassing the housing people up here, wanting to know why they can’t provide her son with better accommodation.
Once back home in Sleights, fascinated, I feel reverence as I dip into A J Mann’s manuscript. The fragile ninety pages of yellowed foolscap and faded typing executed in 1952, probably on an upright Underwood typewriter, amount to about 30,000 words. My immediate thought is that the story should be better known. This memoir of astonishing tenacity for life, of an overcrowded ship, it’s passengers in terror of a cruel foe, and of endurance before the Japanese advance through the islands of the Dutch East Indies, must not be lost. My wife, Beryl Nicholson, types the manuscript into digital form so that copies can be lodged with The Imperial War Museum in Britain and with the Australian Memorial archives.
Then began research into Lt Mann’s career at sea, and into his ordeal following the loss of Vyner Brooke, his survival and subsequent adventures. His story is now published as “One Jump Ahead” under the name A J Mann with myself as editor and second author. The original foolscap manuscript will be lodged with the Australian War Memorial.