NEW BOOK – THE FLIGHT OF BIRDS – ALAN HOWARD (OUT NOW)

Friday, 18 March 2011

How a Witch on art sparked a sudden blog biog.


Recollections of family artistry (sparked by a comment from ‘Bookwitch’ on the random distribution of her own family’s artistic endowments)

Strange, the way particular talents hop in and out of families – my dad’s sister was a superb draftsman and painter; my dad – useless; his mum carved in wood and leather, created paintings with ground rocks baked on bronze and painted too.
On my Mum’s side she and Dora (of the illustrated letter, which I will post soon) were natural artists but their brothers were too stiff and manly-serious for that or music.
Dora ended up a bent and crooked old thing with facial hair sprouting out and could have made a good witch model except that she had a personality that invited little kids to nestle round her, blind to her deformities, and be entertained with her stories and wonderfully witty observations on life.
The three sisters together, even in infirmity, were the source of successive waves of hysterics washing through the house and generations so that by the time they separated everyone was exhausted from laughing.
She could even get away with upsetting the precise routines of my grumpy old father with her “stuff and nonsense, Gilly, it really is not that important” (later, at her husband’s funeral the coffin-bearers were appalled to discover, on opening the front door, the whole house in hysterics and afterward, as friends approached in deepest sympathy at her terrible loss she laughed and said, “I’m glad he died,” adding, to calm these poor shocked souls, “if you loved a man as long and deeply as I have, how could you bear to see him suffer as he did, and not be overjoyed at its ending?”)
My father had actually originally been in love with this extraordinary woman and only married my mother, Mary, as next-best after Dora married his own best friend, an event he could little influence, being half a world away in the steamy jungles of Malaya to which he had been sent as a trainee rubber-planter (his uncle I think was a grandee in Singapore at the time). He only discovered his friend’s treachery when he arrived back on leave and, being a practical man, seized quickly upon my mother and hauled her off to the tropics before she had time to realise the implications of being transported from her large victorian merchant’s mansion – peopled by servants and so many siblings and spinster-aunts upon its several stories that the prospect of solitude was as unknown and romantic to a young girl as that of being swept off her feet to a tropical paradise. This turned out to be to a large-windowed but glassless, two storied ‘bungalow’ in the humid, stifling heat of a tropical rain forest with little entertainment but her books and radio. A house full of servants, granted, and with the frenetic banter to which she was accustomed in her childhood home, but in tongues incomprehensible so that during the day she was as a stranger in her own home. In the evenings, as sunset fell like a curtain drop into sudden darkness, my father returned from his rubber-estate duties to reenact the established rituals of colonial togetherness, clinking ice in gin and tonic glasses to the swirl of cigarette smoke, rising to the ceiling across which incessant “chee-chaa’s” stalked or plopped unexpectedly onto the floor or laps. And from the purple pitch outside, the eerie prattle of crickets and squeaking of bats was only interrupted occasionally by the hoot of owls and more sinister howls.
She had brought her collection of books, beautifully illustrated by Arthur Rackham, Edmund, Dulac, Charles and Heath Robinson, and her own art materials to while away the days until that the day they announced the invasion, precipitating a sudden frantic chaos as they hastily packed all they could carry, drove to Kuala Lumpur for rushed train journey to Singapore 300 miles to the south ahead of the advancing horde.
My mother embarked, with little but her suitcase on one of the last civilian ships to make it out of Singapore and back to India, leaving her collection of books to its fate at the hands of the Japanese (one worm-eaten Dulac, survived, aptly named ‘The Tempest’, which I have to this day).
My father, as a rubber planter, volunteered to join the rearguard defending the exodus of their loved ones and, joining as a private machine-gunner, was promoted to lance-corporal in the days before Singapore fell. He was was offered a commission (they did that in those days, to save the planters from the worst excesses of the Japanese) but refused and started the arduous journey in the company of the working class footsoldiers who were to be his companions for the next three years on the Burma Railway. He never spoke of those times, except of his admiration for the sheer grit of the boys from the Gorbals.
Our memories of that time are merely tangible: his black G-string, the kit provided to cover modesty when his uniform perished; a complete set of chess-pieces he carved from packing crates and other bits of wood salvaged; his letters to Mary, those that reached her heavily censored, and the line of ulcer-scars up his legs in summer when he walked about the garden in his baggy tropical shorts. And his delight in elaborating details the perquisites of a prisoner’s diet: the luxury of monkeys and snakes and the tastiness of rats; the nutritiousness of slugs when you you could get them (he never missed a chance to shock guests by salting a slug that somehow escaped being rinsed out of our home-grown salads and popping it into his mouth with glee).
But of the times there, of the misery, he would never speak; except through his refusal to buy or have in his home anything Japanese.
When my mother returned to Malaya and her emaciated husband, her house ransacked and books ruined, for what must she have thought she had exchanged her affluent upbringing?
Her father had just bought them an eighteenth century French games box with a silver relief of the ‘last supper’ on its lid. This became in the depressed post-war years their treasure – relieving so many exhausted lonely evenings imprisoned again, but this time in their own armed compound in the jungle in what became known as the ‘Emergency’ in which the Chinese coolies whom the British had supported in their jungle hideouts terrorizing the Japanese, turned on their former masters. Their house was surrounded by twelve-foot high barbed-wire fencing with spotlights at intervals that would suddenly light up in a blaze when the guards in the sand-bagged pill-box, with its machine-gun and searchlight, were alerted by some suspicious noise from the peripheral treeline.
Their main link to the outside world was a two-way radio through which the police routinely crackled to check on their safety. Apart from the garrison of twenty SC’s (Special Constables) armed with rifles, my father had an armoury cupboard inside the front door that housed a secondary Bren gun, my father’s Sten gun and .45 revolver, my mother’s .38 revolver, and copious ammunition.
My mother learned the necessary skills of the planter’s wife, the use of the silver cocktail shaker, the recipes for Pink Gin, Stingers, Singapore Slings and other amusements to while away the evening hours over the bridge or canasta tables on those rare occasions that visiting couples graced the huge ground or first floor living rooms under the slowly rotating blades of the ceiling fans. More often though these poker-faced four-sided combats were held in the Royal  Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur or the Royal Klang Club.
When I was born in Bungsar Hospital, K.L, on the seventh of January, 1949, my mother was horrified when she saw a creature she described as a ‘tadpole’ with large head, shaped like a football at the moment of impact with a wall, flattened on one side by the forceps with which the doctors extracted me from the comfort of the womb, and too-long thin body.
My elastic skull shortly resumed its intended sphericality, and I grew from that tadpole into a relatively normal infant, toddler and then small boy without further mishap on the rubber estate to which my father had been appointed manager, Seafield, midway between Kuala Lumpur and Klang near a kampong of stilted houses known to us as ‘Puchong Puddle’ on account of its flooding annually so that we had to drive along a submerged causeway marked by posts to reach a main road, passing occasionally upended vehicles semi-submerged in the ditches beside.
We always travelled in a large American car from the 1930’s, Al Capone style, with steel wind-up windows and a steel visor over the front that, when let down to cover the windscreen, sported a narrow slit through which my father had to peer to drive. It was the only vehicle robust enough to carry all that armour-plating which my father tested one day by firing a rifle at it point-blank: it only dented a little.
My mother’s artistic propensities were largely directed at constructing medieval castles for our knights, frontier fortresses to defend our cavalry and cowboys, or providing us with the most elaborate costumes for the annual children’s fancy-dress balls held at the Planter’s Club (whose proper name escapes me) such as King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. Lancelot was my younger brother, who had made his appearance cheekily one year to the day after my christening, resulting in my bewilderment at having my name adorn various silver mugs, spoons and spirit-measures along with his birth date. “Didn’t anyone know which was which?” I asked myself for years afterwards.
These balls were the scene for the yearly resolution of the artistic rivalry between my mother and the mother of our best friends, whom we saw three or four times a year until old enough to go to school in the prize-giving for best fancy-dress.
(more later, no doubt, of this spontaneous outburst of unedited memories
This actually leads into my earlier Potted Blog Biog in three parts, below, starting on 02/08 - 02/15 (2)

No comments:

Post a Comment