The Death of Distance


It was the economist Frances Cairncross who coined the phrase “The Death of Distance” She used this to demonstrate how the concept of distance has been annihilated due to modern communications technology.

This was brought home to me recently when reading my grandfather’s journal. Douglas James Gibson fought in the First World War 1914 – 1919, survived typhoid in 1921, went out to Malaya in 1923; and by 1942 was managing five rubber plantation estates until the Japanese invaded and captured Singapore. He was taken prisoner and held in Changi Jail as an internee from 6th March 1942 until his release on 3rd September 1945 – losing 90 lbs (41 kg) in the process.

Over his three and half years in incarceration he kept a meticulous diary in his passport, in almost microscopic writing. Looking at this diary seventy years later it’s hard to relate to how communications have so shrunk our world.

When my grandmother Jess boarded the Empire Star, one of the last boats out of Singapore, my grandfather didn’t hear if she was safe until 14 months later. The letter he received to give him the news of her safety had been dispatched nearly 9 months earlier. In the course of this period he was aware that the Empire Star had been struck by three directs hits in the Straits of Durian,  just off Singapore, although he never gave up hope of her survival. 

He started sending letters to her immediately on his internment and continued to send these off into the ether – not sure if they would get there or if there was anyone there to receive them.

Through the lens of 2011 it’s hard to believe that we would have to wait 14 seconds – never mind 14 months to hear the news of a loved one. With mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, 24 hour rolling news we expect to be informed immediately – and there’s hell to pay of we aren’t.

Yet who am I to criticise? For in one of those lovely quirks that happen in life I spoke to my son yesterday, via Skype, nearly 66 years to the day that my grandfather was released. And where was he calling from?……………………….Singapore.

What would my grandfather have given for such an opportunity?

Douglas J Gibson, Changi Jail – sketched by Rupert Pease (Died Changi 1944)

 Diary entries March April 1942

2 thoughts on “The Death of Distance

  1. Fascinating about your grandfather, and lovely sketch of him too. Understand he knew my grandfather Henry Mervyn Parry, a fellow rubber plantation manager in Malaya, and his wife Dorothy Armstrong Stokes Parry. I believe they are both mentioned in his diary in Feb 1942 when HM Parry died, and my grandmother was presumed killed when the SS Kuala was bombed having just escaped Singapore. Can you verify this? And if so, my father would be so moved to see a copy of this entry. Can you help?

  2. Fascinated to see the picture drawn by Robert Pease of a fellow prisoner in Changi I have a head and shoulder picture of my Grandfather Dr W H Watson drawn by Robert Pease in 1942 in Changi, my Grandfather came out at the end of the war alive I did not meet him until I was 11 years old as we were living in South Africa, my mother was his only child and he was working as a Doctor in Malaya when he was taken prisoner and out into Changi.

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