Guns and exams, ancient peoples and bandits

A life – an0ther instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs

The first eclipse I ever watched was at school in the Cameron Highlands in Malaya. School was on a plateau surrounded by tea plantations and hill farms, and we had a clear view. They were dangerous times, the hundred and twenty children who attended the school were transported from all over the Malayan Peninsula in the greatest secrecy so that ‘the bandits’ wouldn’t ambush us. ( ‘Bandits’ were Communist Chinese guerrilla/freedom fighters who wanted to take over the country). We never knew the date of the beginning of term or the beginning of the holidays until the last minute.

When I lived in a remote jungle station in the middle of Pahang, I travelled in a convoy especially convened for me. The army sat me in an open jeep (stupid in hindsight) with my officer escort, in the middle of a long convoy of armoured cars escorting me to Kuala Lumpur. Here I stayed the night, before joining everyone else on the school train to Ipoh. We were then taken to Tapah, the staging post at the foot of the Cameron Highlands, where we gathered from all over the country.

After lunch at Tapah we were all packed into what were known as ‘coffins’ for the forty- mile drive. The coffins were armoured boxes on wheels with a few narrow slits about a foot wide, which could be opened when it was supposed to be safe. There were low, narrow wooden benches to sit on, and a dozen of us would crouch on them, sweltering in the tropical heat, locked up in these metal cages with nothing to eat or drink. Between each coffin in the convoy was an armoured car, and overhead a plane patrolled back and forth, until one term it crashed, so the authorities decided that one danger outweighed the other and didn’t replace it.

Halfway up the 600 or so hairpin bends of the mountain road, the convoy stopped for us to crouch behind clumps of pampas grass on the side of the road to have a pee. Since we were ringed with soldiers with their rifles cocked, ready to spring into action when the bandits fell on us, I could never muster much enthusiasm for this so -called break. I was never sure that I would actually be in private for the occasion. We’d finally reach our destination after dark, having travelled for two days. When my family moved to Kota Bahru up on the East Coast, the journey took even longer, beginning with the flight to Kuaka Lumpur in an Auster light plane via Bangkok, where I caught a connecting flight.

The bandits had a more sinister effect on our lives than anyone realised. It was only after I left, that the authorities discovered that our cook, Mr Su, Mrs Su, his wife. Ah Yu his son, and his two minions Wong and How, were feeding the bandits our food. Every term we were weighed at the beginning and end, and I would always have lost half a stone. I nearly died of hunger, I felt so ravenous all the time. But the food we were given was inedible. I realise now that everything was mixed with water or oil, to stretch it, so that the bulk of the rations could be sent to the bandits who invisibly surrounded us m the deep jungle.

Some children managed on this diet, but those of us who were accustomed to good food couldn’t stomach what was served. Mr Su and his team were several times given an in-depth cooking course, and while the team of instructors were there, we feasted like kings. But as soon as they left, we were back to watered down baked beans, butter that tasted like lard, grey- black potatoes, thin watery jam and stale bread. I used to hang around the staff room after break and afternoon tea, in the hope that the teachers had left some of their dainty sandwiches. A quick dive in before Wong or How came to clear the table, and the raging hunger might be momentarily cheated. But not for long.

Every night a platoon of soldiers arrived to guard us, and the thud of their boots as they patrolled past our dormitories in the moonlight punctuated our sleep. In retrospect, our food guaranteed our safety much more effectively than their guns.

One of the few privileges of being a senior girl was that one could get permission to go for a run before breakfast. Our route went around the golf course overlooked by the Cameron Highlands Hotel. My best friend and I did this, not because we had the slightest interest in athletics, but because on our return we could ask for an extra piece of toast to keep us going till breakfast.

Early one morning while dawn was still breaking we were stopped in our tracks in the cold mist. From out of a thicket a single file of  very small people emerged from the trees, like no others we had ever seen. We were riveted to the ground with fear. We didn’t know whether if they saw us there, they would raise their blow-pipes and dispatch us with their poisoned darts. There were half a dozen lean, long-legged, warriors leading the tribe carrying their long blow-pipes, the women and stick-like old people following, bearing large loads, while the children kept up in the middle of the group.

They moved swiftly and silently, practically naked. Unlike the known indigenous Sakai tribes, this tiny handful of people were a much older race, the Senoi, a tribe of Orang Asli, and were long-limbed, delicately made, almost pygmy people. We had heard of them by repute, but they were rarely seen back then. Looking neither to right or left, they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, and we were released from our spell of fear and amazement. And I think we forgot about them after we’d eaten our hot toast back at school.

Thanks to a wonderful music master, music was one of the passions that lightened our days, and we sang to Gilbert and Sullivan, listened with delight to Dvorak and Greig, marvelled over Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, swooned to Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto, danced to Scottish reels, waltzed to popular songs and sang in the school choir. When the music master acquired a copy of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, conducted by Toscanini, we senior girls were invited to listen to the sacred record. It was a Sunday afternoon and we sat shyly and solemnly in the staff-room and were overwhelmed by it.

And when the music master found the art master thundering out the last movement on the piano in the assembly hall, a great feud erupted between them which lasted the whole term, the art master seeing no reason for not extemporising on the piano, and the music master condemning him for bowdlerising and cheapening Beethoven’s masterpiece. It seemed to matter terribly. Those who liked the art master were on his side. Those who didn’t like him were for the music master.

This was in 1954. Music was hard to come by then, and so far more significant than it is today. And we made our own. Some nights during the holidays we sat outside our house by the river at Kota Bahru, when a group of chaps used to come, and all the generations sat and sang to someone’s flute – songs like ‘The foggy, foggy dew’, ‘On top of Old Smoky’. Lots of Burl Ives.

We didn’t sing well, we just enjoyed singing. Where we sat under the stars by the river, the Japanese had passed in their motor boats at dawn, twelve years before, on the morning they invaded Malaya at the same time that they bombed Pearl Harbour. The line of bullet holes from their machine guns was still there in the pink stucco walls, testimony to their random brutality.

Guns also punctuated my exams. Artillery had been positioned on a ridge across the valley from school, and when the guns aimed into the jungle, the thunder of their firing was followed by the terrible crashing of trees, cries of birds and endless echoes around the mountains. It was a continuous and thunderous bombardment which totally destroyed concentration or peace of mind. This went on for weeks.

The firing began again during my A level exams, which lasted for  three hours. When the overwhelming noise began, the head master came quietly into the exam room where I scribbled alone with an invigilator, the only one taking English A levels. He took my paper, noted the time when the firing began, and came back to log the time when the thunder of the barrage ceased several hours later. I always hoped these unusual entries would cause the examiners to deal leniently with me… and maybe they did as I was pleased with my marks.

Living in the remote places that we did, my parents didn’t often manage to get up to the Cameron Highlands Hotel, though they, like everyone else so soon after the war, were tickled by the address book, with its historic page dated ‘January 1942’ and inscribed with what felt like an arrogant flourish: “Nippon”.

There were no further entries until 1945, when British troops re-took the hotel, and triumphantly defaced the next page with the scrawl -” Nip-off”.

My father had now transferred to a Malayan regiment, which like the Gurkhas, was staffed by English officers and NCO’s. So we left Penang and all moved to a clearing in the jungle in Pahang, which was called Mentekab. It’s a thriving town now, but then, it was just lines of barracks, officers and sergeants messes and families quarters.

My father quickly achieved the highest “kill” of bandits, being extremely good at jungle warfare, in spite of having spent the war in tanks. One day, we were shopping at the local Chinese grocery store in Temerloh, Tek Seng’s, the only source of food in the middle of the Pahang jungle. My father was spending the normal six- week spell in the jungle, so we were surprised when he arrived at speed, and with company – a Chinese man in tattered clothes.

He practically lifted the man into the back of our car and told my mother to run back into the shop, as quickly as possible and get a box of oranges. When she returned, he peeled one, and fed segments to the wilting man in the back seat, put the rest of the oranges on the seat beside him, telling him with hand signals to eat them, and then drove off. I had to follow in the army vehicle.

The wilting man turned out to be a Chinese bandit, and the policy of starving bandits out of the jungle was working so well in this particular area, that this one was half dead and suffering from starvation and scurvy. Hence the oranges. With hospital treatment he eventually recovered and went to a rehabilitation camp. Here he recanted his Communist beliefs and then joined the army.  Seven years later, my father was in his office at Whitehall in London, when a Chinese soldier asked to see him. It was the bandit. He was now serving in the Royal Signals in Gibraltar and had got leave to come and present my father with a wrist watch as a thank you for saving his life. We wondered later how he had managed to track down my father.

Gallivanta sent me the link to this photo of the convoys up to school with the coffins and armoured cars

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 Invited for lunch with a group of neighbours, I volunteered to bring pudding. Carrying food is always a challenge, so I decided on a tart which couldn’t spill or spoil. So pear and almond tart it was. This is my quick fix on it short cuts and all. I used some quality bought short crust pastry for a base. Spread a layer of plum jam on this cooked base. Drain a tin of pears, and when about to use, pat them as dry as possible with kitchen paper, and slice horizontally, keeping the shape of each pear half.

Cream 6 ounces of butter and seven good tablespoons of sugar together, then stir in an egg. When smooth, add a teaspoon each of vanilla and almond essence, then an ounce of SR flour, and eight ounces of ground almonds. Mix well and spoon this mixture into the pastry case, and gently arrange the pear halves in the almond mixture – don’t press them down or they disappear during baking. Bake for 55 minutes in a moderate oven or until cooked. Good hot, cold, or warm with cream.

Food for thought

 “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Lao Tzu, reputed author of the Tao Te Ching






Filed under army, british soldiers, colonial life, family, history, life and death, philosophy, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

30 responses to “Guns and exams, ancient peoples and bandits

  1. I am so enjoying your memoirs, thank you so much Valerie. What incredible experiences you had during your school years in Malaya!

    When you mentioned that your school was in the Cameron Highlands I was reminded about the American businessman and founder of the modern Thai silk industry, Jim Thompson. He apparently disappeared during a “stroll through the jungle” in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. His body was never found. I always imagined what a lonely death he had and what an impenetrable and dangerous jungle it was…


  2. How lovely to hear from you Elly, thank you so much, and I’m so glad you are enjoying my saga !!!
    Yes, I’ve been thinking about that unsolved riddle of Jim Thompson recently… funnily enough my daughter gave me a beautiful silk scarf a few weeks ago that she’d bought in Thailand from his shop…
    It would have been so easy to get lost and never find a way back in the jungle anywhere in Malaya… and the Cameron HIghlands was no different….and so beautiful back then, unpopulated, no tourists, only two hotels, a few planters houses, the bank manager’s house and us !
    When I was looking for pictures of the Senoi, they had all become westernised, and even the ones posing in their original costume – nothing !- look plump and well fed compared with the lean lovely people we saw that morning…


  3. I have been googling and found a photo of the convoy you describe so well It’s quite a story to tell! I walked up a small hill to get to school and sometimes I diverted through a track in the cane fields. I thought that was quite heroic. My journey was the proverbial “walk in the park” compared to your trip.


  4. Hello Valerie,
    I have been following your blog for some years and I find your life story fascinating. Your recall is amazing. I wish could recall my wanderings through my early years at boarding school in Germany and later in Malaya..


    • David, how wonderful to hear from you, thank you so much for the generous things you say about my blog.
      It’s so encouraging to know that someone who was ‘there’ finds my story interesting as well as my other lovely blogging friends…
      So good to hear from you… and keep up the good work on the school web-site you do such a great job


  5. Jane Sturgeon

    Ohh Valerie, this chapter is gripping. I am so glad you led me to your blog. I recall my boarding school days and chapter during a guerrilla war in Africa clearly. I can feel a strong resilience and flexibility in you. Hugs Xx


    • Jane, how lovely to read your comment, and know that we’ve connected…
      have been trying to work out which war you were in in Africa…. was it Zimbabwe???..

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jane Sturgeon

        Yes Valerie, it was Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. I went out there with my family when I was twelve. We were out in the bush and then moved into Bulawayo when things got really sharp. I am the eldest of three and as adults in varying stages of middle age now, we all agree that it taught us much. My Mum and Dad are still with us and I am adventuring to Anglesey with them in September. Well into their eighties now, that’s enough adventure for them. I am so glad you found my blog. I will go back and read your memories from the beginning. It will be my coffee time treat. Hugs for you. Xx


  6. The combination of tenacity and resilience were the characteristics which allowed you to survive the incredible hardships of the boarding school in Malaya. How tough life must have been for you being on a starvation diet of watery soups! It makes a lot of sense that the food allocated for the students was funnelled to the guerrillas by the cook and for that reason the school being a critical food source was never attacked by them. A most gripping story rich in detail, Valerie!


    • Oh Peter, it’s always a pleasure to read your perceptive comments, thank you and thank you for your ongoing enthusiasm and support for this saga…I enjoy writing it, and it’s so good to know that you enjoy it too !

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Valerie,
    I tried to private email you at the address I have on file and it has been returned as undeliverable. I’ll not mention the address here but have you just changed your email address as this is the first one that has been returned?
    Would you please contact me so we can communicate in private regarding the Slim web site.
    Many thanks,
    David W


  8. mike say

    Valerie it seems a very long life time ago that I was at Slim (53-56) having the time of my life. I can remember you and Alaister as head girl and boy and me a mischievous 13 year old on arrival at Slim thinking that I was in heaven after the grey England of that time. My only concern was the complete change of syllabus from my previous Grammar School in Hampshire. I enjoyed the adventures we had with swimming in the river (quite often skinny dipping as I recall) and building camps as only boys can do. I have kept in touch with a couple of people from Slim but of course none of us are getting any younger. Dave Wilmot does a great job with the website and the substantial number of pics now available through his good services is memorable. It is fortunate that people like yourself are prepared to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time with your highly informative blog.
    I note that you went by troopship to Singapore. We flew there and back (the return journey being in a Comet around the time that a number of the aircraft were falling out of the sky. We were diverted to Beirut on the return for “technical reasons” and a great time was had on the beach courtesy of HMG.
    Many thanks for reminding me of an idyllic time.
    Mike Say


    • Mike, I remember you too, aeons ago !
      I know what you mean about the change of syllabus… in a previous blog, I mention that going from schools in Richmond, Aldershot and Swanage over three years, with each school having a different examination board was hard!!
      Yes, we came out of a troopship, but because my father had transferred to a Malay regiment we wee free to choose our form of transport for the way back, and enjoyed the luxury of a blue funnel liner!!!
      It’s so good to know that those years at school were idyllic for others too…
      And so good to read your comment, thank you…


  9. It is always refreshing and enthralling to read your blog installments.

    My family lived through the war years, followed by the Malayan Emergency and, as “locals”, we recall experiences and share certain points of view.

    It’s great to read of these momentous events from the “other side” so to speak.

    Keep them coming, Valerie 🙂



  10. Eric, lovely to see you, and read your comment thank you.
    I remembered that you and your family had experienced all the events and hardships of those times and in those places, and wondered how my account would strike you – (two more installments to go!!! )
    Thank you for your encouragement, good friend…

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Riveting, as always. The logistics of getting 120 of you to school and keeping you safely there seem to have been incredibly complex. It is a wonder that they didn’t, rather, pay for all of you to attend a boarding establishment ‘back home’.
    I wonder how many modern children would have accepted that starvation diet without raising a riot?


    • Starvation diet and modern children – Are we referring to snowflakes here !!
      Paying for us all to attend a boarding school ‘at home’, as you say – would have been just as difficult – we for example, would have had no-where to stay in the holidays, unless they paid for us all to fly to and fro three times a year!!!
      we mostly certainly enjoyed the experience of school in the highlands…


  12. Margot Wilson

    So interesting to read about your time at Slim School. When I went there in 1957 at least we did not have to travel in “coffins” but in 3 ton trucks with an army escort. It was an unique school and we had to learn how to look after ourselves. I always lost weight – I think we all did. The boys once had a big protest about the lack of food and, I think, it did improve for a while anyway. The funny thing is when we had a reunion in Sydney in 2003 the hotel thought we were a slimming group and put Slim Fast products on the bar. We laughed so much about that.


    • Hello Margot,
      So good to hear from you … I suspect that three ton trucks must have been almost as uncomfortable as ‘coffins’ apart from having a bit of fresh air !!
      I suppose it wasn’t considered so dangerous once Malaya got Merdeka /independence in 1956, and the Communist’s raison d’etre no longer existed…
      Love the idea of the slimming products at your re-union… how many people came to a re-union in Sydney? Amazing…


      • Margot Wilson

        There were quite a number of us and, of course, quite a few ex slimmers live in Australia. Previous to that we spent a week in Malaysia and we had a reunion in the Cameron Highlands . We went to the school which had hardly changed and it was fascinating to walk around my old dorm. The hall was just the same. We went back in the evening and the Army had arranged a show for us and we had wonderful food and entertainment. The old caretaker at Slim was there – his daughter was a government minister for tourism and he was very proud of her. We all got presented with a gift. Of the many reunions I have been to that was very special and all of us who were there will never forget it.


  13. Dearest Valerie,

    I never cease to be amazed at the stories you share of your life. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for a young girl to live in such conditions and on a starvation diet. Thank you for your willingness go share.

    Shalom from sunny California,



  14. Hello Rochelle – it must be lovely in ‘sunny California’ – we’ve had days of heavy rain !
    Thank you so much for your unflagging interest in my story , it does make a difference to have that enthusiasm …love, Valerie


  15. I’m incredulous at the life you have experienced Valerie. No wonder you treasure your peaceful life now, surrounded by nature. We leave Friday for a much anticipated three weeks on the South Island. I’ll be checking for the next installment of your incredible life. 💕


  16. Valerie I thoroughly enjoyed reading this snippet of your life – the whole of which sounds as though you have many, many stories to tell. I will look forward to reading more of them. Cheers Irene


  17. I am loving this thread of your life, Valerie! As an amusing aside, we just rewatched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with a marvelous Burl Ives as Big Daddy. I hadn’t thought about him in years. Funny to read your post mentioning him shortly thereafter.


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