Go east for a new beginning.
My Dad drew a line through his life. In 1952 his mother Polly died. Two weeks later his daughter Jackie was born to Margie, an event he was not involved with. A year later he left the UK and didn’t look back. And everyone who knew him before that time – his father, brothers, Margie – never really knew him after that, and everyone who knew him after that time – including me – never fully knew who he was before.
He joined the army and went to Malaysia – then Malaya – where he spent 2 years. He’d already done 2 years national service (obligatory then) and at the time joining the regular army was seen as a pretty good option to learn a trade, travel, open a poor lad’s horizons. It was one open to my Dad at least – not a militaristic man at heart – and he took it.
Malaya was a British colony and this was the tail end of colonial times. Independence was being fought all over South Asia in the 1950’s and 1960’s mixed with post WW2 embers and rising Communism. The British preferred to call this particular situation ‘the Malayan Emergency’ (1948-60) rather than a ‘war,’ so it could be covered by some kind of insurance you can’t get for war!
Malaya was – and is – a mixture of ethnic Malayans, Chinese, Indians and Europeans. Chinese Communists from within the Chinese population began a guerrilla war from inside the intense Malayan jungle, picking off British rubber tree plantations and tin mines, with the aim of ousting the British and creating an independent communist state. The British wanted Malaya to become independent but didn’t want it to be a communist state. So that’s what my Dad was doing there.
Broadly. I don’t really know what he was actually doing himself personally, or where he was based or anything. He was in the Intelligence Corps but I’m not sure what that means. There are a lot of spies in a guerrilla war situation and the British were trying to identify who were supporting the guerrillas in the civilian population with food and information. Maybe he was involved in that. He may have fought in the jungle at times, I don’t know.
Of course I wasn’t the slightest bit interested when my Dad was alive so I never asked. Except once maybe when I was a child: ’Did you kill anyone?’ (The child’s lovely question.) I think he replied ‘I may have done’ meaning he had shot at the ‘enemy’ in the jungle but he didn’t know if he’d hit anyone. When my sister asked him the same question years later he said his time in the army was mostly a desk job. So I don’t know where he was stationed, what he did, if he could speak Malay or anything. He did have a beautiful hand carved chess set that his cousin said he’d got in Malaya. I knew he got it when he was in the army, he told me he bought it from some prisoners of war he was transporting somewhere, they carved things to earn money. I had always thought they were German prisoners of war but perhaps I’d got muddled. (Were there German POW’s in Malaya in 1953? )
I didn’t just watch Fiddler on the Roof as ‘research’ for this trip, oh no. For this leg I watched ‘A Town Like Alice,’ the classic about Malaya when occupied by the Japanese during WW2 with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch. It was filmed on location there in 1956, near enough when my Dad was there. He recognised a stretch of a road they’re on at some point. I also watched ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’ about a British squad stuck in the Burmese jungle during WW2 partly because it was filmed in Malaya, partly because my Dad had a part in the stage production of it by the local amateur dramatics group we were in when I was a child. Unfortunately he had his first major episode of epilepsy at that time (1980’s) and was unable to do it (the director stepped in) playing the part of the unpopular sergeant of the troop. (When I re-watched it I was flabbergasted to see that there’s a line in it about a soldier who leaves a girl ‘up the spout’ in Aberystwyth! Honestly!)
Now I am in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, unable to sleep after several thousand miles and at least 48 hours since I last slept. And in the middle of this jet-lagged wide awake night in a strange hotel in Chinatown Kuala Lumpur I am struggling to know what it is I hope to find here? To remember why I am here…
The journey really started in France. That’s where Jackie lives. I visited her and her husband in their beautiful, simple self-built home in the Pyrenees a few months before. (Pete is an architect.)
I saw the reality of this lovely woman who has lived a whole life without my – her – father. A palpable absence. But what did he feel about her? Did he know she’d got married? Had children? (2 beautiful grown-up daughters) Lived in France? My Dad’s brother always kept contact with Margie through his wife – she and Margie were cousins. My uncle said my Dad was always an entirely closed book on the past in the limited contact they shared in the 57 years since he left the UK in 1953 – their childhood, Jackie and Margie – he wouldn’t talk about it. Despite this perhaps my uncle did tell him something in the occasional phone calls they had – ‘You know Jacqueline’s married now?’… Who knows? What did he know of his child?
I felt so sad when I saw the life Jackie has made for herself because ironically / ridiculously / tragically it is a life my father would have heartily approved of and identified with. She too loves to travel, he too lived abroad, they both married ‘out’ of the Jewish community, interested in books, other cultures, the world of ideas… He even studied architecture himself for a bit as a young man (while he was courting Margie in fact) and dreamed of building his own house though never did. What a silly sod, I thought, not for the first time, at how much he had lost in never having this child, now grown-up woman of nearly 60 years – in his life.
Why did my father come to Malaya? I am sure now that it was his inability to deal with the situation of Jackie’s birth that made his continued proximity to it impossible for him to bear and caused him to flee (not merely, or even mostly, the death of his mother at around the same time). Why not? Running away is a grand plan. I’ve been rather fond of it myself.
Did it work though? Did it enable him to ‘draw a line’?
I doubt it, long-term anyway. From what I knew of him (later in his life) he was ultimately a sensitive, feeling person, if unexpressive. As he became older and a family man it is clear to all of us who knew him then that something ate away at him – ‘something’ caused him episodes of depression, a none-too-healthy relationship with alcohol. There was a silence, a sadness at the heart of him. Surely it could it have been this?
The next day I stumbled out, jet-lag or not. Kuala Lumpur was warm, colourful and friendly. I went to Central Market and bought some lovely batik. I went to the Old Kuala Lumpur Railway Station, the British fantasy version of Moorish architecture that’s been a landmark for 100 years. I went to Merdeka (‘freedom’) Square surrounded on one side by the pseudo Tudor Royal Selangor Club and a cricket pitch, and on the other the Sultan Abdul Samad Building. That’s colonialism for you. Malaysia’s mix of cultures and British leftovers secretly appealed to me, the way it is ‘a little bit British’… I like the way they drive on our side of the road and have English plug sockets! (Who’d have thought such things would be the legacy of empire?!)
Independence was declared in the Square in 1957 and is very important to Malaysians, they are very proud of it and have the biggest flagpole in the world! The creation of Malaysia as an independent nation built on an ideal of all ethnic groups equal and united as Malaysians, was one of the more successful transitions in this region it has to be said if you think of Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea..
The excitement, the adventure, the other worldliness of exotic lands, the food he always loved – the gorgeous women – being away from everything and everyone who’d known or defined you. Medicine to put the past behind you? It’s worth a shot.
Malaya was where my Dad ‘ran’ to. Maybe it was an accident of the army that he ended up here, but it became a place he loved. He talked occasionally of living in the Far East again and he and my Mum did finally make a visit when they were retired in the 1990’s, though he said himself then that it was unrecognisably changed.
I finished the day with a beautiful Malaysian meal at a restaurant the walls of which were covered in old photos of Kuala Lumpur in colonial times, probably my father’s era, looking extremely old.
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