Obituary: Oswald Wynd

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The Independent Culture
OSWALD WYND was a modest man who had little to be modest about. As Gavin Black he wrote superior and literate thrillers - school of Stevenson and Buchan - which were at the same time witty and clever, and moved at a by no means gentlemanly pace. In the real world, away from the typewriter, he was a man of courage and immense fortitude, whose experiences during the Second World War were not only harrowing but, due to an accident of birth, heart-rending.

Wynd was born in Japan, in 1913, in the foreigners' quarter of Tokyo. His father was a Baptist missionary from Perth, in Scotland, who found himself "churchless" when he arrived in Tokyo in the 1890s - due to the mission having gone bankrupt - and transferred to the American Baptists (in no danger whatsoever of any money problems, since they were backed by the Rockefeller family). Oswald Wynd, thanks to his father's status in the country, had dual nationality, a boon during the carefree 1920s but a potential death-trap only a decade or so later.

Wynd passed his childhood amongst the British and American children of the foreigners' quarter as well as the Japanese, and was educated at the American School. The Scotland of his father was not even a memory, and on a trip to Perth in 1923 he was heard to remark that although Scotland was "very nice" he wanted to get back to his real home in Japan. Ironically, this trip away from his much loved "home" coincided with the appalling earthquake that devastated Tokyo and turned much of the port of Yokohama into a wasteland.

Despite his family's love for Japan, a move was made to the United States in the 1930s, where Wynd attended High School in Atlantic City. Another move saw the family back in Scotland, and Wynd took up studies at Edinburgh University, which was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.

Wynd had a natural facility for language, which was certainly to stand him in good stead much later on, and although he (somewhat inevitably, given his background) joined the Scots Guards, very soon he was commissioned in the Intelligence Corps and, since Japan was now a member of the Axis powers, sent to Malaya.

Here disaster struck. In 1941, with the Japanese army pouring through Malaya and the British army (utterly unused to jungle warfare) in full retreat, Wynd's unit (he was attached to the 9th Indian Division) was virtually destroyed near Johore Bahru. Wynd himself escaped the carnage, but was captured in the jungle within a week and, under interrogation by the notorious Kempei Tai, the Japanese secret police (whose brutality was dreaded even by the Japanese themselves) it emerged that he had dual British/Japanese nationality. This enraged his captors, who informed him that he would be summarily executed, for treason.

Luckily he was instead imprisoned, then transported across to Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, where he was put to work in the mines. His linguistic skills now came into play, saving not only himself from further brutal treatment but his fellow prisoners in the camp as well. Wynd was not only able fluently to communicate with the camp officers and guards, but even to a certain extent intimidate and dominate them, thanks to his knowledge of upper-class and court manners and mores, and his faultless and aristocratically accented Japanese.

For his work on behalf of his fellow prisoners and as an interpreter Wynd was mentioned in despatches. It has been said that he was baffled by the Japanese treatment of prisoners (in many ways atrocious and inhuman). Doubtless the happy hours he spent as a child amongst the Japanese would have influenced this view, but he would certainly have known that in the code of Bushido those who resist to the last are a valiant foe, whereas those who surrender are accorded rather less than human status, for to surrender abjectly is the ultimate disgrace.

Wynd's experiences, nevertheless, over three and a half years, were bad enough, and, having left Japan after the war, he swore not only never to return, but never to recognise his erstwhile "fellow countrymen" in civilian life.

Writing came to him out of the blue. In America he thought he would try his hand at a "first novel" contest organised by the publishing giant Doubleday. His novel Black Fountains (1947, about a young American-educated Japanese caught up in the war) won him not only first prize, but the astonishing sum of $20,000, a fortune in those days.

He wrote a number of novels, including the 1949 fantasy When Ape is King (only ever published in Britain by the obscure firm of Home and Van Thal, and impossible to find now), but his fame, and to a certain extent fortune, was made by his riveting thrillers - or "entertainments" in the classic Graham Greene sense - writing as Gavin Black and featuring Paul Harris, a young man (in the early books, such as Dead Man Calling, You Want To Die, Johnny? and the excellent A Dragon For Christmas) with a Scottish background making a living out East, and later taking Malayan citizenship as his business prospered. Perhaps like Wynd himself, as he would have liked his life to have developed.

As it was, though he travelled, he was now firmly anchored to Scotland, first on an island in the Hebrides, then to a house overlooking the harbour in Crail, in Fife. He wrote radio plays and a couple of television scripts - one an adaptation of what was later to become his most famous work, The Ginger Tree (1977, televised 1989), a bitter-sweet story of a young Scottish girl in the early 1900s who falls in love with Japan and the Japanese, but who is, much like her creator, in the end betrayed by both land and people.

Jack Adrian

Oswald Morris Wynd (Gavin Black), writer: born Tokyo 4 July 1913; married; died Dundee 21 July 1998.