A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
We sometimes played hockey on the padang at Tanah Rata, the nearby township where I quickly learned to play on the wing after my first attempt at playing centre. As we bullied with our hockey sticks in the slight dip where water had collected, my legs became covered with small red leeches. Trying to prise these horrifying bloodsuckers off was a practical demonstration of the phrase ‘he stuck to him like a leech.’
I also played fast and furious tennis with three teachers (one who had been a Junior Wimbledon champion) who needed a fourth on Saturday afternoons, and as head girl started the school magazine; I made a wonderfully arrogant and stupid Lady Catherine de Burgh in the school play of Pride and Prejudice, arranged the flowers for church every week, and ignored various nice boys (in retrospect) who tried to get my interest.
My best friend and I also enjoyed infuriating two young but frumpy teachers who we knew thought we were bumptious and too big for our boots. Apart from this friendship with my best friend which has lasted our life-times, the greatest gift I took away from this school was the ability to write clearly.
The man who tried to teach me to write was a very patrician academic, who wrote book reviews for The Times and was also an army officer. He was our charismatic headmaster – tall, elegant, witty and charming. He didn’t normally teach but he decided to coach me himself for the newly introduced A levels.
I quickly discovered that I was a sloppy thinker, with very little idea of how to write. This uncomfortable realisation hit me after my first essay, when I referred to ‘the naked truth’. Robin (I learned to call him this later) made me look up the meaning of the word ‘naked’ in the dictionary, and it was a lesson I never needed to learn again – to make sure I actually knew the meaning of a word before I used it and forget about clichés!
He taught me to write short simple sentences, to use short Anglo -Saxon words, and never pompous, pretentious Latin words. He’d say chuck instead of throw and tried to teach me not just to write good direct prose, but to think for myself too, and once when I had written an obsequious essay on Anthony and Cleopatra, he teasingly wrote at the bottom: “Beware too slavish an adulation of the Bard!”
The best training he gave me was to write a précis nearly every day, of a piece of weighty Elizabethan or Restoration prose, reducing each piece to a third of its length. It was a rigorous exercise, which trained me to express meaning in the most efficient and simplest way. It taught me to understand the meaning of words so I could translate them into a simpler briefer version and sharpened up my whole writing style. And that was it – the nuts and bolts of writing.
When I hear or read of people’s experiences with gifted teachers today, I marvel at the creative opportunities they have; but on the other hand, these simple rules he gave me have been a useful scaffolding on which to build a writing life. Yes, I missed out on the metaphors and similes, and creative flights of fancy. I just had simple guide-lines for communicating clearly, with no tiresome tics of speech or writing, no frills or clichés, no worn-out phrases, un-necessary words, purple passages or exhibitionist long words.
I learned to write truthfully, and to avoid sentimentality – I think! And this for me, is still the challenge of writing, over half a century later; truth means finding the exact word with no compromises, which means knowing how I truly feel.
Every holidays, I seemed to go back to a different house or hotel. One Easter, my parents met me at the station, and I was whisked back to the rest house at Port Dickson, situated right on the beach. We spent a week here, with the usual routine of lazy morning, tea and bananas served after siesta, shower and change for dinner, dinner, post -prandial stroll along the empty moonlit sands, before moving to Malacca and a government bungalow on a cliff edge outside the town.
It was a big, two-story house with magnificent views. At night, looking out over the sea, and up into the clear night sky, my father pointed out to me the North Star and the Southern Cross in the same starry sky as we stood almost on the equator.
Malacca by daylight had the charm which was missing from every other Malayan town. The Malayan kampongs in jungle clearings were attractive, traditional communities constructed from indigenous materials, wood and coconut leaves, and composed of small groups of dwelling places on stilts. By contrast, the towns were simply concrete shells with shops in the bottom usually owned by Chinese merchants, and crude dwellings over the shop.
Garish signs and raucous music from the radio were also elements of these depressing environments. To enter these un-attractive townships, or rather, small tropical slums, one ran the gauntlet of terrible smells from rubber factories, and then from durian, a fruit whose smell is legendary. Brave people said it tasted delicious, but few were brave enough to battle past the smell.
Malacca had an architectural European past, both Portuguese and Dutch. The Portuguese buildings, dating from 1511, included the old fortress, parts of which were still standing when we explored in 1954, over four hundred years later. Eventually Protestant Dutch traders arrived in 1641.
The Dutch built much of the old town that remained when I saw it, a little corner of the Netherlands transplanted to the tropics. Fifteen years later, when I stayed in Macau, occupied by the Portuguese in 1557, it too had the same charming atmosphere of an alien architecture dreaming far from home.
But whereas Macau was Portuguese and Mediterranean, and the architecture had a certain suitability for the climate, the little Dutch red-tiled buildings were derived from a northern style designed to keep the warmth in. It was strangely incongruous in the humid sunshine of the old sea-port, by then silted up, trade gone and only Malayan fishing boats crowding the moorings.
The British got here in 1795, and in spite of the modern tendency to sneer at all colonial activities, the policy of the British then was to preserve the sultanates, the Muslim faith and the Malay way of life, and those aspects of Malayan life still dominate the modern country of Malaysia today. We visited the Malacca museum and listened to a music box playing Mozart which Dutch exiles would have heard nearly two hundred years before, admired the Dutch-built church, now Anglican, the old Dutch government offices, and explored intriguing little shops for jewellery and non-existent treasures.
In the afternoons while every-one else slept, I read dog-eared orange and cream -covered Penguin books left behind by previous visitors, including the unforgettable Ambrose Bierce and, in cheap editions, Helen Waddell and Mary Webb, Robert Graves and Stefan Zweig. Or I’d play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on 78’s, piling them up on the long central column, so that they plonked down one after the other.
Or I’d walk along the golden, empty sands below and swim, till one day I foolishly swam half a mile out to a fish trap, not realising that it was sited there precisely to catch the current. I slowly became aware that no matter how much I swam, I was getting no nearer the fish trap, but a very long way out to sea.
Trying not to panic, I remembered that to get out of a current you have to swim with it, and across it. It took me over an hour to get back to shore, miles away from the rest-house, pursued, I was quite sure, by sharks. Jack London’s horrible book ‘ The Sea-Wolf’ had already made an indelible impression on me. That afternoon, it haunted me, with every splash of my tired feet probably being the snap of a shark’s jaws. Once back at the rest-house, I kept this escapade to myself.
The next holiday was spent in an army quarter in Mentekab, a garrison built in the middle of a clearing in the jungle, it seemed. Now, I felt I had finally emerged as an adult. I was sixteen, and one of the subalterns in the regiment asked my father if he could take me out. I didn’t know him at all, apart from a dance the previous week, but I jumped at this opportunity for my first grownup date.
The day arrived, and so did he. My stepmother had provided us with a picnic basket. He drove to Temerloh, where we embarked in a long Malayan rowing boat, and he rowed us down the wide, muddy brown river edged with endless palm trees down to the water’s edge. Mile after mile was the same.
Two complete strangers faced each other in the boat, with nothing to even remark on as the miles slipped past. I sat, apparently entranced, as he described in a self- conscious monotone, stories about Japanese opera which he had seen while on leave in Tokyo. Now I’ve seen some myself, I’m even more amazed that he should have bothered to watch. The women’s magazines I had read said that men liked girls who listened to them, and who hung on their words.
They also said men liked a touch of white at the neck, and the daisy- fresh look of white gloves. No hope of that in this dripping heat, alas. I sweltered in a tight, waist- cinching, fashionable, elastic waspie, and a frou of frilly white petticoat I’d made myself – all the rage in northern climates, but as unsuitable for the tropics as the Victorian crinolines and Edwardian bustles of previous memsahibs and missies in this sticky climate.
The young man suddenly spied a small patch of what passed for grass in this part of the world and rowed across to it. By the time we had tied up, spread the prickly wool tartan rug, undone the flask and poured the hot tea which brought out fresh beads of sweat on brow and upper lip, the inhabitants of the nearest kampong had materialised and stood around us in a circle, giggling and chattering in Malay.
They must have thought we were deaf, or that they couldn’t be heard in a foreign language, for they called out to friends who hadn’t yet arrived, and generally carried on as though we were the afternoon’s entertainment. As we were. They were obviously deeply interested in European courting rituals, observing every bite of our picnic, and commenting loudly to each other on our every movement.
Finally, I opened the raffia box in which my stepmother had tastefully packed an iced chocolate cake and started back horrified as a horde of ants tumbled out with it.
At this, we abandoned the whole expedition and followed by waves of what felt like derisive laughter from the indigenous peoples, made our way painfully back up the river. At the other end, my father was waiting mischievously with his speciality, dinner of spaghetti Bolognaise made with the longest spaghetti he could find – extremely difficult to eat with dignity, his subtle plan to embarrass the poor young man and sabotage an occasion which was already an anti-climax to put it kindly.
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
I love Caesar salad, but don’t like bought Caesar dressings. This dressing is worth the little extra effort for a delicious salad.
Place the following ingredients in a stick blender: one egg yolk, one tbsp Dijon mustard, two to three cloves crushed garlic, one small chopped shallot, four or five chopped anchovies fillets, and the juice of one lime. I use a lemon if I haven’t got a lime. Gradually add 75ml oil – extra virgin olive oil and canola oil mixed, and continue to blend. When thick stir in a few handfuls of finely grated Parmesan.
If you have time, make the dressing ahead and let it sit for a while so the flavours meld together.
Food for thought
“When a relationship stops working, it usually means that someone has grown.
Someone is now ready to receive more and have more than the relationship offers.
Someone is ready to be loved, honoured, and treated the way they really want to be treated. Could that someone be you?”
~ Iyanla Vanzant