Published Date: 02 September 2010
By Jim Gilchrist
"UNSUNG heroes" was a phrase much exercised in reports of last month's 65th anniversary of VJ Day, and in particular the fate of the men of the Lanarkshire Yeomanry who were among some 62,000 British and Empire troops captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in 1942.
Many thousands of them perished amid the barbarity of the Japanese PoW camps, forced to build the Burma-Siam railway or work in the hell of the Kinkasaki copper mine.
Happily, at least one survivor of those unimaginably brutal privations remains unsung no longer.
A new album, Where Ravens Reel, from the husband-and-wife singing partnership Geordie McIntyre and Alison McMorland, combines traditional Scots songs with McIntyre's own compositions, including The Lights of Home, a come-all-ye celebration of Andy Coogan, Gorbals-born painter and decorator, athlete, Lanarkshire Yeomanry veteran and survivor of the Japanese camps.
I must confess to unashamed bias here: Andy Coogan is the father of a friend, and I have heard his vibrant tenor, still strong at 93, enliven many a Hogmanay fling.
As a youth he became a formidable runner with the Maryhill Harriers and, just before vanishing into the maw of the Pacific conflict, slipped out of Redford Barracks in Edinburgh to run in the Ibrox Mile against Sidney Wooderson - "the fastest man in the world then", as Andy himself told me. He came second, only to be put on ten days' "jankers" after a newspaper photograph of his near-triumph gave the game away to his officers.
Where Ravens Reel is dedicated to Coogan, and also to Elizabeth Stewart, of the Fetterangus family of singing Stewarts, whom McMorland has been documenting.
McIntyre's songwriting skills celebrate various other characters and landscapes - notably From Gulabeinn, a stirring evocation of the Perthshire hill which the late Hamish Henderson, patriarch of the Scottish folk revival, loved - and on which his ashes were scattered.
There's also the kind of "muckle sang" at which McMorland excels, the ballad of Thomas Rymer, concerning the 13th-century Border poet supposedly held in enchantment for seven years and shown, among other wonders, the road to hell.
There was no magic to succour Andy Coogan and his comrades as they trudged their own road to unremitting hell. They did, however, have their music. A couple of years back I was privileged - and I use the word advisedly - to attend a reunion of a few surviving Lanarkshire Yeomanry, hosted in Joppa, Edinburgh, by Coogan's daughter Christine Hoy. It was occasionally an emotional business, though most memorable was the irrepressible humour and astonishing lack of bitterness.
At one point, out came the moothies as Coogan and another veteran, John Marshall, serenaded the company.There was Swanee River, Some Enchanted Evening … but also a jaunty march Marshall played which, I was told, had been written by Arthur Smith, the regiment's trumpeter, and which the men sang in defiance as they were marched, living skeletons, into the fetid depths of Kinkasaki.
Harmonica strains were still echoing in my head as I emerged, both elated and humbled, into a peaceful April evening, looking across to lighthouses starting to blink reassuringly along the Firth of Forth. For Coogan and his surviving comrades, perhaps that music, along with sheer resilience, helped keep them alive.
As McIntyre's song goes, "he does forgive but he can't forget". Coogan had a sideline as a golf caddie for many years at Carnoustie, where he lives, and one can only speculate as to his thoughts when he agreed to caddie for the visiting Japanese ambassador, who was taken aback to have his clubs counted out for him in Japanese.
Asked where he learned the language, the former PoW was the height of diplomatic - dare one say inscrutable - discretion: "I told him I was in Japan for my holidays."