Sunday, August 31, 2003

Conurbation of Lost Plots #2065

Today they will be celebrating again in Brickendonbury in the ancient county of Hertfordshire directly north of Greater London, for the umpteenth year, for this celebration that has gone through many names. First it was called Hari Merdeka, then it became our Family day, then, last year, in a fit of misjudgment, it became both a Malaysian Carnival and a day of uncertain mien. Its usual organisers - staff of the High Commmission and the Students Department - just sat back and gave the day to some business people to organise in a way that only business people could, for plebs like us. Many plebs like us just hit back by staying away.

This year, thankfully, it's back again in the people's hands, but it still is a Carnival.

I think I'll stay home and watch the grass grow, on this our National Day.

[But just between us, Happy Day Malaysia!] ß

Friday, August 29, 2003

Talking Telephone Numbers

Of all the modern gadgetry that I don't have, the one that irks me most is the mobile 'phone. No, not by my not having it mind, but by people who keep reminding me of this fact in accusing tone. You can't move around without it they say, the darndest of modern shibboleths. Maybe they need reminding that it's not those little 'phones that make you walk, but them little feet.

But today I was walking around with head ringing and mind flustered not just by the thought of mobile telephones but telephones in general because I had to look up some telephone numbers. In the days of steam telephones, and until very recently, this used to be an easy thing. All you had to do was ring up Directory Enquiries, give them the name, street address, or the town you're looking for, and presto you're on. And then BT, that old behemoth, started to charge a flat rate of 40p for the service. Grudges were heard, but things moved on, and soon it became an accepted thing. And then in the wee hours of 24th August, in a fit of deregulation, the powers that be decided to open up the whole Pandora's box of telephone numbers and let all manner of folk set up their own Directory Enquiry service, at rates that vary from a 20p flat rate to £2.50 per minute, depending on which of the 15 or so numbers you choose to call and from what telephone, mobile or landline. So you traipse warily now in a veritable maze, and a five minute enquiry for a number can now cost you anything from 20p to £5.00. This may be choice, but it isn't as clear as that. Needless to say, it's pandemonium.

In many ways the free-marketeers are the Luddites of our day who smash the system when it ain't broke, all for an ideological bird, and, more than that, the quest for gold at every turn. In this place now, in this old town, the Postal Service, the Health Service, the railway system are all memories from a golden age; and all that's left of them are now in the throes of deregulation, and a lot worse for that.

They know better though across the pond where they've kept the Directory service, at least, intact, because they know no matter how hard an ideology is pressing, certain things just don't make sense. After all, as some wag's pointed out, if deregulation is such a wonderful thing, why is there just one Monopolies Commission?

Today also sees the loss of another familiar thing from London streets, the old No.15 bus which used to run from our doorstep to outer reaches further East, past the Law Courts and Fleet Street (now transformed) and then onwards to St Pauls and the Tower of London, which is appropriate, because it's a good few years now since they chopped the service at its head, but kept it running still from somewhere else to stations on the other side.

I am talking of course of the old 15, the red double-decker Routemasters that once revelled in the invitation to the public to Hop on A Bus. This slogan was stopped for public safety reasons, and then it was made impossible by the arrival of buses that closed their doors between stops. The new No 15 will still be double decker, will still be red, but will now come sans conductor and doors that close.

So a farewell then to all that. ß

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Little Known Facts About Mars [And Earth]

Hold on while I get this right, and launch this at the precise time of 10.51 Blighty Standard, so we'll collide nicely with Mars coming up close to us, a mere 34,646,418 miles, they say, and it's taken them just 60,000 years. So despair not all you weak earthlings who've ever despaired of getting close to your little dearies.

But hold on dear, let's get this telescope right, and let us see if those little Martians are also looking at us. Ah, so they are, on the red planet they're ogling down, Sphinx-like but steady gaze, looking, looking enigmatically at us. Pull the curtains a bit my sweet, I do get a certain chill I feel, or do I see, out there... a message? S-R-A-M....oooh, seram,* that's it, that's exactly what I get.

Oh shush my sweet, you're looking at it from the wrong end. Let's turn the telescope the right way round.

Ah so it is me dearie dee, Silly Billy little me. What's near was far, but it's so much nearer than that now, now that I'm looking from the other side. Is there water on Mars me dear? I see a ripple, perhaps a tipple, out there on the other side.

That's why perhaps they're so wobbly, moving in an 'eccentric' path they say, as they come up here close to us.

I have a funny feeling now my heart, that glaring face in the shadows, isn't he that man we saw in the Ba'ath?

What I've always feared my sweet, exactly what I've always thought: a bad planet daubed in red, spinning on its own axis of evil.

Meanwhile, in Bush House, Washington, the Leader of the Free World speaks:

Get Powell, get Condy, get everyone you damn well see in this here place, we've got a national emergency here on planet Earth. I see an evil eye there on planet Sars

Condy [for it is she]: Er, Mars, Mr President.

Mars, yes, my ass...

Condy [interrupts] That's Uranus Mr President, Sir.

Damn, Condy, whatever, what does it matter? That's that Sad Damn Man there I see looking at us. Action station in the Pentagon, get out those Weapons for Mars Destruction!

Cheering and loud chorus in Bush House: Hooray! Let's roll out the WMDeeeeee! ß


Tuesday, August 26, 2003

I was once, very briefly, in Earls Court Square, an area in south-west Londra then known as Kangaroo Valley, living in digs that had been vacated by a Japanese person named Otsuka. I knew this because his name was on the door-bell on the day I moved in, and it was still there on the day I left.

This was the Earls Court of raffish years, when the magazine Private Eye ran a hilarious strip around a picaresque character named Barry McKenzie, an Aussie to the core, right down (or up) to his hat of the dangling corks. McKenzie sprang from the imagination of Barry Humphries, now infamously known as Dame Edna Everage, or the vile Australian cultural ambassador Les Peterson when the mood suits him; and the pictures were drawn by Nicholas Garland, a cartoonist whose work appeared regularly then in The Daily Telegraph, which to me was the only shaft of light in this sad newspaper. Barry McKenzie was a colourful character who cheered me greatly in those dark years, and his base was in Earls Court, of course, from where he embarked on many epic journeys in Pommieland. He also gave the English language a great many wonderful phrases in what I suspected to be fake Strine which sprang mostly from Humphries' imagination. Anything being better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick is typical Bazzaspeak. On another occasion, Bazza was described as being lonelier than a bastard on Father's Day. Fascinating language, wonderful times.

Because of my laid back attitude towards the name on the door-bell I have always been known as Otsuka-san by my friend R, a Pom who now lives in Brazil with J, his wife. R has visited Malaysia many times, and has made many friends there, mostly from the rank of my former schoolmates. When I was back in Malaysia briefly in the early eighties to take up a career which didn't work [sic], we used to exchange voluminous letters. But now that he's in Brazil and the eMail has arrived, our exchanges have become shorter and shorter, but we still do keep in touch, sometimes in urgent terms, when R needs a quick translation of some Bahasa instructions on a Malaysian food pack sent to him by friends from KL. He is now moving house and has sent me this cry for help --

Dear Otsuka-san

J and I, as is our wont, were discussing the plants on our balcony and there are many of them, including a banana plant/tree/bush and a flourishing curry leaf bush, the father of which (or should that be the mother) is in Professor Doctor L's garden [in Malaysia]. There is also a mangosteen sapling and a durian sapling, the fathers (or mothers) of which we ate. All of these plus lots more, have to be taken to the garden of our new house in Teresópolis later in the year, we are expecting to sign the final contract within the next couple of weeks. We think we will have to hire a van just to take the plants.

Anyway, all of this plant talk led to J claiming that you told us a story of a plant which died because its owner died. I don't remember such a story, but its a good job that this doesn't happen the other way around as we tend to have a number of plants die every year.

Can you throw any light on this yarn or is J dreaming?

Best wishes from a wet Rio de Janeiro.

P.S. Has Z gone to Malaysia yet?

eMail to R --

Dear Mr R La Plante,

I'm sorry I do not recall telling J any story abt a plant that died in sympathy with its planter, but I attribute this amnesia to my advanced age than to anything else. I do recall though a story in a Hong Kong newspaper about a man who denied that a body found in his backyard was his doing. BODY IN GARDEN WAS A PLANT the headline read.

What an array of plants you do have in your garden. I hope they travel well now that you're moving house. I hope you're also aware that the durian tree sheds its fruit with a great big surprise, not to mention a thud, on the heads of passers by. This is something you'll have to bear in mind in positioning the durian in the compound of your new home. The other durian attribute is that it'll make your sarong defy many laws, but especially gravity. An old Malaysian saying explains this succintly: When durians fall, sarongs rise.

Z is this very moment in Malaysia shopping and perhaps, eating a durian or two, more likely two. And oh, should you come across an unripe mangosteen, do try to prise it open as the fruit is at its most delicious and crunchiest at that stage. I tried this many, many times in Trengganu, but this was many, many years ago so I do not think I do still have the knack. So if you ask me how to open an unripe mangosteen I shall say with great difficulty.

And another thing of course, which you will know already. Durians do draw more than a passing interest in tigers that happen to be passing by during their ripening season. And I know very little about tigers to offer you and J any advice on how to ward them off. Tigers are fierce creatures that inspire terror in the beholder. Another reason perhaps why sarongs do rise and fall during the season.

Regards to you and J,
-Otsuka ß

Monday, August 25, 2003

To the emailer who commented on the implausibility of my jump from 'Red Indians' (I prefer native Americans myself) to Iraq to the trains not running on time, I must say that I'll stick to my guns, inappropriate though the phrase may be seeing as how our world is getting even more violent. Yes, I do believe there is a link between what is happening in Iraq and the tenacity with which the gringos are holding on to it and the direction that the rest of the world is going. Just as Iraq is now being shaped so is the world being moulded to a new Order. And while we're there in Iraq, let's remind ourselves that it came rolling along even before that, in Afghanistan. We may have forgotten perhaps that the US spoke to the Talibans before they attacked them, and it wasn't their hatred of the Talibs that drove them to the attack but their frustration at not getting what they wanted most there, i.e. an oil pipeline across Afghanistan. Is it a coincidence that the top figures in present day Afghanistan all used to be oilmen or advisers to oilmen?

Globalisation with a capital 'G' is theDajjal of our time - if you ask me what I'm getting at - the One Eyed Monster that promises you comfort and things, and desecration in the name of thelord of things, the monster whose one-eyedness sees only one course and nothing else in life. It is the abandonment of the spiritual for the material, and I mean by the spiritual here a broad spectrum of goodness, not just a belief in the Oneness, but all that emanates from that too. If this means the putting of spirituality into the business of economics, then so be it, it isn't at all an undesirable thing. Then we may be able to put some proportion back into what we're doing - this quest for material gain for its own sake, this quest for progress, growth for its own sake, this quest for things as things devoid of meaningful purpose. We may be able to rein in our sheer quest for self-gratification over everything else. This is an old song sung anew not because it's still tuneful but because it still contains real meaning for the goodness of ourselves and our children.

In my own modest way I have always tempered my view of the world, of what's happening to the world, within these parameters. I have no influence of course, beyond the control of the animal within myself insofar as I can, so God help me. The world as I see it is becoming a dangerous place, a selfish place where giants strut around in many guises, many names, for their selfish greed, but their art is that they're appealling to your greed too, to mine, and are able therefore to make it sound like common cause. But I fear more for myself, and for those other little people like me who ought to be raising their little voices as much as they can, but who are not. They're instead jumping onto the bandwagon, for as the Beast says, follow me and I shall make you comfortable, and all your worries shall be banished.ß

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Some native American man said this a long time ago, that you couldn't own land, catch the wind or fence the grass on this big wide earth because they were all common to us or something daft like that. Now that the native Americans have little left to be wise about, the ghosts of their ancestors are still coming to haunt us, and can they like what we have done? They've laid claim to the elbows of some old primitive tribes in the name of medical science, they've broken down the structure of cells and are trying to patent basmati rice, and some Japanese prats have tried to make curry powder their sole and exclusive right.

Soon, my dear little Brave, the air we breathe will be privatised by every Hopalong Cassidy that comes our way and every Sundance Kid that will come to pass in this MacWorld we're living in.

And now that Cancun will soon be upon us yet again, it's time to reflect on why we're here in the first place. Look at the tradition of all religions, the folklores of all nations even and we'll see the blood type that is coursing through our veins, all bonded by one common cause of humanity, of good neighbourliness, of basic common sense in order to survive as good, reasonable, neighbourly beings, of the essential goodness of men and women.

I'm writing this on a Sunday in Blighty when trains - privatised trains - aren't running in what is perhaps the busiest holiday weekend in the calendar because the whole system is broke (in both senses of the word) and needs to be repaired. Funny how it never went this broke when it was run simply as a public service. I'm sitting in the capital city of a once brave nation that once took the decision to look after its citizens from cradle to grave. But lots have happened since then.

We're all drunk on this crap of individualisitc winner-takes-all fixation that goes by many names. But most of all it goes by cant and deceit. On the radio the other day, a group of talking heads were discussing Iraq,and they were all very smart people coming all cute and smug about the despatch of Saddam Hussein, and how the people or Iraq - Eye-raq - must let them all get on with this business of rebuilding a new, post-modern, working democratic nation. If only they'll let us get on with it, instead of attacking us and lobbing bombs and things that do harm to our innocent army children.

But just hang on, aren't you chaps talking out of place at every turn? Now that you've done the humanitarian, civilised thing that you so revelled in as the reason for war, can you now just withdraw thank you very much and let them get on with their lives that were interrupted by that monster Saddam Hussein? They'll be magnanimous I'm sure and not let discussion stray into areas of who put the damned Saddam there in the first place, and now what? They've been under oppression for so long you say that they'll have problems understanding how to put democracy back into the works? Well, that's as maybe, but do you think that you and your little chads in the 'democratic' calculation in Florida know any better than them for a start? And do you think that the Iraqis, some of the smartest, highly educated citizens in the region, are so out of their depths that you have to stay back to sell their oil for them, and control their coffers, and dish out work to your family and friends? Why really must you remain, my friends?

It seems a great many things to be jumping about with, from native Indians, to Iraq with an 'Eye', and then a bit of Blighty on a Bank holiday weekend too in the interregnum. But there is a question that I meant to ask: what is happening to the world, and us?

It seems to me that all these things are inter-related: that we have moved on from the possession of self to the possession of things. We have all moved from the mere goodness of being into the sheer goodness of things - in politics, in our daily conduct, in our view of life. Of land, or wealth, of brand names, of people and places, of supply and demand. We are all unto ourselves, all conquering.

The world hasn't changed one bit, our basic virtues haven't, but we have. And we are changing the rules to fit into that, with all the attendant logic that's skewered, and all the control freakery that's mustered. We shall be swept along for as long as we lie in slumber in the cradle of self-gratification above all else; and as for them, they shall continue to hack the world into shape, their shape.

And hell, it shall be a better place! ß

It is an indisputable rule of life that as soon as things go chug-a-lug, a little bug will soon land in your biscuit tin and leave you nothing but crumbs.

Last Thursday I was lunching in a strange but not at all unpleasant place. It was the brightest of summer days: intense light pouring down on the vast lawn in the quadrangle, turning the grass luminescent green, sending tourists into the shade while mad dons and Englishmen soaked in the midday sun. Greater miracle than this was that I, a man of little education and worse, being neither town nor gown; was sitting at the table in the senior dining room of Trinity College, Cambridge, doing some polite post-prandial conversation.

At my end of the table was the editor of a learned journal, looking back to the charm of her native Liverpudlian scouse (which tongue she'd of course long abandoned), while I, in expansive mood, lamented the sad state of the language and the encroaching, unbearable lightness of bling. Only one thing could have fuelled this kind of talk, the crème brûlée, for which Trinity is justly famous, and which it still wears today like some badge of honour, after having rejected it the first time when a student tried to introduce it as College fare. Then, when he - the student - came back, this time as don, he raised the crème again, making sure this time that it was adopted. This was the kind of serious thing that got discussed in the eighteenth century senior common room of Trinity College, Cambridge. Just desserts, crème brûlée...out of sweetness, as they say, comes strength.

Into the twentieth, Trinity College held fast to this ethos of fame. Many famous names emerged from its serried ranks, among them Philby, Maclean, Burgess, great spies probing into the darkest recesses of the Western cupboard, all for the other side. Today, into the twenty-first, it is famous still by being the richest college in Cambridge. Sweet, rich crème brûlée on the river Cam.

Later in the day as I was sitting at home mulling these thoughts and trying to crystallise them into a reasonable blog, everything that I put to screen came crashing down, Windows and all. The Blaster worm had eaten my day, the flow of menial thought unblogged. Sweet crème brûlée, sweet Fanny Adams to all that...ß

Thursday, August 14, 2003

As I emerged blinking from the crypt yesterday, when the sun was still shining brightly in mid afternoon in Trafalgar Square, I couldn't remember why I had gone into the crypt in the first place. It was a dim dungeon, with the full weight of St Martin in the Fields above, and it was full of dead people that were laid to rest mostly in the 1700s. Well, the ones I could see at least. One of them was John Hunter, said to be the founder of "Scientific Surgery", but they took him away in 1859. A plaque said that this was done after a "long and diligent search initiated and carried out by Frank Buckland" and they reburied him in Westminster Abbey, about half a mile to the south. So you see, even in death they could still summon you in the service of the establishment. The poor man had probably chosen to be buried in St Martin's in the first place, or as his last.

But even so, the tea in the crypt couldn't have been the tipping point in Mr Hunter's pre-humous choice. In the brief moment that I was there I was able to pass a grave judgment that the chefs in the crypt cafe under the church of St Martin's might have been excellent in many fields, but certainly not in scone making. It was hard as a rock and crumbly in your hands, and the cream tasted like it'd come out, not from a cow, but from a can, and the jam was very, very indifferent. As I was sitting quietly contemplating these points, there was a sudden kerfuffle and an elderly lady came to me and asked if I’d seen a man leaving in haste with her daughter's handbag. Which I hadn't. And then a rude German sitting with two young ladies at the next table started to break wind, which fact prompted my immediate decision that the cream tea was no more than a lost cause. And then I saw an Irish Blessing imprinted on a tea towel in the window of the crypt shop for tourists. It said in part –

May the road rise to meet you, May the wind be always at your back...

I didn't know if I'd been blessed or farted at.

I should have known better, of course. This was my second visit to the crypt in as many weeks. The last time was with a friend who was flying back to Malaysia and had wanted the taste of cream tea in his mouth before finally leaving for Heathrow airport. The visit was also a disaster cream tea wise, which was why when I resurfaced into the daylight I couldn't remember why I had chosen to be there again in the first place.ß

Sunday, August 10, 2003

So they're tinkering again with our national anthem. What is it they're looking for?

Some years ago I met someone at the Malaysian legation here in London, a modest gentleman who listened patiently to a story I'd heard, about a visit by one of our Sultans to these shores of Blighty. They needed a tune for the reception, a sort of state anthem, which of course we didn't have. But as the visitor royal was from Perak, whose predecessor in title had seen exile in the Seychelles, an appropriate tune was soon found from the memory of a man in the entourage who'd heard it sung in the faraway isle. He whistled it to the reception committee, who played it back to the arriving Sultan; and that was the birth of Negaraku.

After my story, the man sat up and said calmly, "Yes, the whistler was my grandfather."

Negaraku, perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful of them all, has its origins in a tune that was heard in a moment of exile. Its may have been a French folk tune, but its spirit and sentiment have now become us, Malaysia. In its slow, lilting way it embodies the longings and the pains of a nation, in exile and safely returning ashore. It encapsulates, in short, our memory and history.

It has done us well in all these years, why do we want to change it now? If they keep changing the tune, how shall we know how things will be? This uncertainty about ourselves is what most bothers me, this hit it in the face , sock it to me stance that rails against any subtlety. It is reflected in our public life now, a rejection of gentler aesthetics for the rip-roaring, ostentatious whim. We are an uppity nation looking for some spurious identity - it's not here, it's probably there, oh let's move the furniture around a little bit more. Think of all the noise we make in the process, assaults on our senses in public places, loud music or television sets blaring out in airport halls, television noise in public eateries blasting decibels down below, to people who're trying to out-talk one another. In long distance travel they keep you awake with whatever happens to be hit of the day, drums beating in your head, drums beating in your head, drums beating in your head till Padang Besar.

Do we need to be hyperactive all the time, do we really need to be on a permanent high? Do we need drum rolls to send us into patriotic frenzy? Then why, we need volcanoes, not moonlight, tornadoes, not the refreshing cool of a gentle breeze, but would that necessarily make a better picture? Think of all those countries that have goose-stepping timbre to their little songs, and think of the company you’ll have for tea.

Negaraku in its original, pristine form has brought tears to many a stout heart, longings to many a homesick traveller. And that is its inherent strength, power in its gentleness. Please let us keep it that way. ß

Today I was transported back to another place. I was standing in the bus, and the sun was beating down with extreme heat. Outside the temperature was touching 35°C, some passengers were fanning themselves pointlessly with limp brochures, children in prams were getting restless, and the English were slowly, silently, melting in the enervating heat.

I was there many years ago in the Kuala Lumpur of the Tong Foong Omnibus and the Len Seng sardine cans plying their way back and forth between Gombak and Kuala Lumpur at the speed of madness; leaving would-be passengers stranded beneath some shady trees. Those who could be packed in cheek by jowl were grateful for the transport out to town, or for being speeded back home again. But at least those buses that were wheezing past had open windows that let in the breeze that ruined hair-dos but dissipated the heat. For a moment today, on the bus, I was there again, but that was then...

...And this is London. Now. Beginning of August with scorching heat, rising superlatives, excitable newspaper scribblers. Hottest day EVER, one said two days ago when the mercury was rising. Last Wednesday it was hot indeed, at 100°F, but that was in the London tube, the Underground. Passengers were given free bottled drinks.

It wasn’t of course the hottest day ever, but who’s to know? None of us was there on creation day. As far as records are concerned, the hottest day was in Gloucestershire, in August 1990 when the temperature rose to 37.1°C (98.8°F).

What is happening to planet earth?

Winters in London are becoming milder, summers hotter, tropical plants abound in the gardens of urban tillers. In the winter chill trains are rarely delayed by falling snow, but in autumn they’re halted by leaves – wrong kind of leaves as they say – on tracks. And now, in summer, they’re forced to slow down by tracks that are buckling under the heat.

Why don’t they bring engineers in from the Indian railway? One wag asked in a newspaper. Well, in India they’ve extreme heat too, but then only that, no dipping to minus 20°C in winter. So British engineers now contend with extreme cold and extreme heat. Shade the tracks then, with trees, came another riposte. No, certainly not; wrong kind of leaves might fall…

…in the wrong kind of place.ß

Friday, August 08, 2003

On a bright day early this summer, Z travelled to Kent and came huffing and puffing back with a flat pack of something the size of a standard poster, all wrapped up in brown paper. When her excitement abated and her breath gathered again, she unwrapped a most precious piece of history that we were most happy to see come home to us.

In the picture frame that Z brought home was a letter written by some obsequious residents of old Johor - well, not really that old but it was 1877 - in beautiful golden Arabic-Jawi script, to the outgoing British Governor Sir Andrew Clarke and his wife who were leaving the then Straits Settlements. It was a fulsome farewell couched in the flowery language of the age, wishing the couple God-speed to wherever it was they were both going.

The letter is by no means the finest example of Malay letter-writing. We have better and finer ones now kept in repositories across Europe. The British Library and the Royal Asiatic Society, both in London, keep some fine examples dating even further back than the Johor letter; and in the Berlin Museum für Völkerkunde is kept one of the finest illuminated Malay letters in existence, the Trengganu Letter of Sultan Ahmad bin Zainal Abidin to the Dutch Governor General of Batavia Baron van der Capellen, in 1824.

But this letter is important even if it lacks the elaborate illumination of the Trengganu document, and Z is justifiably pleased with her discovery as with the letter comes a yellow silk ‘purse’ the shape of your ordinary envelope but slightly bigger. And this is what makes the find extraordinary: it is a rare instance when such a letter is found with the ‘envelope’ which carried it to its original recipient.

We do not keep many original records of our history in our museums and archives, and of those that still survive, the best are kept outside Malaysia, by museums, scholars, or private collectors. At home we are too busily turning everything topsy-turvy to make ourselves ‘modern’, and so relentless is our pursuit of the latter nowadays that we sometimes appear to be quite reckless. Take Melaka harbour for instance, where veritable treasures may have been buried in the deep from times past, but where no excavations have ever been done. Instead, the whole area has been covered up with some daft land reclamation project, and the view of the harbour obscured by an equally daft shopping mall, the pride and glory of our present day civilisation. But enough said as I do not wish to go further into this for now.

Just that there is something else to add to this find as an interesting footnote. The man in Kent who had kept this letter for so long told Z how he came upon it decades ago when he was still in short trousers as a young Boy Scout. While collecting for a jumble sale, he was summoned by an elderly gentleman who wanted him to collect some bits and bobs for the fund-raising. And then, as a by the by, the man asked the lad to help him dispose of another box marked simply ‘trash’. Happily for us, he was a curious boy who peeked into the garbage box and found within the silk envelope that contained the Johor citizens’ letter to Andrew Clarke.

He sensed it was something important, kept it like a talisman, and carried it with him into his adulthood when he got it translated by some old Malaya hand, and framed and hung it in his marital home. And then, in his mature years, he felt it was time for them to part.

Quite by happenstance Z heard of him and made immediate contact. It was how the letter came to us, and soon it will travel home again to its land of birth after having been away for more than a hundred years.ß

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

White House burning, Bush whacked. God has sent His wrath on this nation of tansgressors. There’s drought over America.

“Go easy on those pretzels, Sir!” Condy Rice, pencil skirted, perspiring to the shins. Gollom voiced. “Water’s preciousssssss!”

“Gotta do something Condy, our democracy’s driest in the world,” President wails.

“But you’ve visited Belgium, Mr President, Sir!” Condy the wag, dogging her master’s tale.

Then Condy shifts hither then thither, thinking clever thoughts, drawing on pool of knowledge gathered from years in academia. She was once a ship too, her name emblazoned on an oil tanker courtesy of a grateful oil company. Condoleeza Rice. But this is no time to talk of oil.

“Aw dammit, where’s our Saudi friends this time, Condy? Have they forgotten those favours from us?”

“They’ve forgotten nothing, Mr President, they can’t wahhabi what they wannabe. But what’s the use? They’re driest in the world too. Our ambassador’s drinking Coca Cola!”

Brrrrrr! Brrrrr! Lights flashing on Presidential hotline. Condy takes the call.

“It’s our staunch ally, Sir, man from Singalong Isle!”

“Ain’t no time for Calypso, Condy. Tell him to go!”

“Mr President Sir, ain't no time for jokes, this is long distance call!”

Bush sits up, spluttering pretzel crumbs all over sofa. Coughs and splutters even more, but manages to croak a hoarse, puzzled “Hello?”.

A faint voice from across the ether—

“Hello Mr President, plant trees, charge traffic, free water!”

“What the… this an al-Qaida joke? Get Echelon to trace this call!”

Condy mimes little isle, ships a-sailing, fuelling station, staunch ally, entrepot trade, Bugis Street, Raffles Hotel. What an array of difficult things to mime, but her years in academia have benefitted her.

“Ah, no Calypso but it’s a Go-Go!” exclaims the President, recognising an ally. Punning to the fore.

“Mr President, you want water? We have plenty water!”

“Yes,” says the President wearily. “We want water, but no war. We’ve still got I-raq to get over.”

“No war Mr President. We have source of cheap water, all brought to us by treaty, cheap as McDonalds, but all good stuff, even passed by our esteemed senior minister. Send us tanker, the Condoleeza the better.”

Bush: "Gosh, or as my good friend President Blair would say, e bah gum, squire!”

Condy sits up, “O shush, Mr President Sir, don’t you mention that Wrigley word again, ever!”

Bush remembers Gerry Ford, who couldn’t chewand walk. But this is an entire nation of non gummers!

They burst into song, “Majulah Singaaaa…….”ß

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Last Saturday, as I was looking into a cheap edition of the works of Jonathan Swift, trying to guesstimate the distance between Sumatra and the island of Lilliput to its south-west across the Sea of Banda, my spectacles slipped from hand and dropped to the floor with a sickening crack. When I picked them up again I saw that a deep crack was running diagonally down the middle of one of the glasses.

The reason for my curiosity about the position of Lilliput on Swift's make-believe map was to see if all those Little Men that we now have in our country could not have come from there themselves. You know the people I mean: those who stopped all royalty for Trengganu oil with a new argument that it's just goodwill money to be given at whim, those who are now closing down some of the only good schools there because the state government is seen to be unfriendly, and therefore everyone in the state have to be collectively punished, and some jerk chief minister from another state who prevented all travel by his state officials to Trengganu because, well, because democracy showed that the people of the latter state just wanted a change of government. Little People they are, who see the view from their towering height, but have generally, unashamedly lost the plot.

I'm sorry if I'm a bit obsessed by the state of Trengganu at the moment especially as I'm not much enamoured either of most of those people now running it, but I'm merely trying to show how our little country is being run at the moment, by vicious, petty-minded Little Men - Lilliputians - who think that everything that moves belongs to them, that sunshine radiates from the seats of their pants, and then, when all is said and done it is thanks to them, they say, that our country is still a reasonably pleasant place.

This theme park of Little Men is now the state of our green and wonderful land regardless of where you choose to place your sight. Look at Penang Hill now, all ruined and denuded and peopled by the ghastly rich. Take a look at Kuala Lumpur which was once cooler and greener and a pleasant place, but now a hideous clutter of gnarling traffic and overhead roads and unmatching train-lines and everything that an urban nightmare is made of. In the last year of the seventies we tried to save Court Hill, a rare green spot in what was then already a town of mad planners. Court Hillers wanted it preserved as a people's park, a green place in the centre of the bustling traffic, but lost their argument to some Little People in a bank who wanted it 'developed'. The bank's then head man expressed platitudes about keeping it green and trimmed and pleasant for all to see. But look at Court Hill now and see the extent of his sad vision. And I dare say that it was only by the recession that descended upon us not long ago that we were saved from a monstrous project called 'Linear City' that was planned on the pathetic river that we now see running through our capital city. And why is the river now so pathetic? Well, just walk upstream and see what monstrosities are being committed by 'developers' in all our names. Some of us probably have some names for them too right now, but please, please keep them to yourselves.

But this little-mindedness of our Lilliputians does not just run through our towns, or pollute our streams, or ruin the minds of our little children with the idea that there's nothing in this world that a bit of cash injection will not improve. And you'd better beware for soon there'll be this injection of cash coming somewhere near you too. Why even now they're huffing and puffing already about Kampung Baru, a historic settlement in the centre of KL because it's a waste of such prime land which could be used more profitably for more condominiums, and office blocks, and hotels for the amusement of tourists that come to our little place. Money has blinded them all to the fact that this kampung within a city is a unique thing which should be improved and made greener for ever more. Well, if they can have KLIA and call it, somewhat pompously, a jungle within an airport, why not a kampung within a city? and teach urban planners elsewhere a thing or two?

But I seem to be stuck in KL, our poor, dear KL, a city like any other, choc-a-bloc, copy-cat replica of the worst in urban construction. There is actually another area of Little Peopleness that is even more pernicious, and I have to thank my fellow blogger Sangkelate whose friend told him of a hairy encounter with someone rather 'important'. The important man, apparently, while flying in an MAS airline, wanted access to the cockpit, but as the crew were all busy with this and that, the request had to be refused. At which point, said Sangkelate, the man exploded:

The captain & the first officers were ...humiliated with some abusive language like " Who do you think I am? You must know that I own you guys ...etc"

But this is not at all an uncommon tale in this airy-fairy land or ours. I once approached a guy I used to know quite well from way back when and addressed him by the polite and friendly name that I'd always known him by, only to get this polite, but firm rebuff: "Actually I'm now a Yang Berhormat*."

It is a long way from Lilliput to my broken eye-glass to the Little panjandrums of our present age. But that's how things look for now, for us, and with that diagonal line of crack now running across my sight, the world does indeed look like a broken place.ß

* i.e the Honourable so-and-so.

Friday, August 01, 2003

Quite by chance I was in the Paris hotel when the son of a man named Fauconnier tried to give a copy of his father's book to a Malaysian minister who was then visiting the city on a drum-beating tour. It was a hilarious event.

The minister was not obviously a reading man, and he'd just given a rambling address to a crowd of Parisiennes about the attractions of Malaysia, an experience that reminded me very much of the world according to Garp. When he finished, the Frenchman, who must have been in his seventies, went up to him and presented a copy of Malaisie, the French original version of that one great classic to have come out of our colonial past, The Soul of Malaya.

"I am presenting to you this book written by my father about Malaya," the man said, rather tentatively, as the look on the minister's face was one of apprehension. I know because I was standing close to the man who'd come up from the country specially for the occasion, and I was looking at the minister squarely in the face.

The minister faltered and finally managed to mumble something about his not being able to read French. He gave no indication of having read the book, or any sign that he'd even heard of it; so rather expectedly, he showed little pleasure at this meeting with the son of a famous name. This little ceremony ended very quickly with the minister walking away looking very bemused, the troublesome edition tucked under his ministerial arm. Fauconnierfils and the lady documentary maker who was accompanying him repaired to the palmed lounge of this excellent hotel for a much-needed drink.

When I spoke to him there he was not in the least perturbed by the event and told me about his 'journey' to re-discover his father, Henri Fauconnier, the French planter whose book,Malaisie (later translated as The Soul of Malaya ) had won the coveted French literary award the Prix Goncourt in 1930. He said that a tape-recording of Fauconnierepere's voice was found recently in the house on the Socfin estate where he had lived. And also that the first oil palm tree brought to the country by his father at the turn of the century was still standing in the soil - if not the soul - of Malaysia.

This sad story illustrates the state that we're in where our leaders are concerned. And now with all this talk about making Malaysia a centre of excellence in many things, suspicion is rife if this is not just another money-grabbing thing. Our political leaders are by and large, non readers, and of those who are, the one now in prison made such song and dance of it that it became merely an irritating side to his mien. Even those who have benefitted from an Islamic education, either here or in illustrious institutions abroad, are soon consumed by this parlous game and are soon behaving just like the ummiyyin. The philisitines seem to be holding sway, bungling their way around, generating more heat than light in their gadabout ways.

It is not difficult to see where this is all leading to. The society we're in is an all grabbing, all-consuming machine that has no regard for the human, everyday thing. We're surging forward like a juggernaut, trampling everything that will hold us back in this pursuit of progress for its own sake, driven by the power of greed, and ever mimicking what others have made, without as much as a moment's thought. We lack the compassion, and the finesse, and the thinking that should be its underpinning. Without them, how can we even pretend to have this vision thing? ß


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