The Memoirs of Major R.J.H. Sidney

The V.I.'s Second Headmaster

Extracts from his Malay Land


Major Richard J. H Sidney was Headmaster of the V.I. from 1923 to 1926. He was born in India in 1893, the same year the V.I. was founded. His mother - she was born in China - died when he was two and a half years old. He was sent back to England by his barrister father at age seven for his schooling. He entered Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, in 1912. However, his studies were interrupted by war in August, 1914. He enlisted in the army, trained troops behind the front and later served as a major in Egypt and the Dardanelles. He took his degree of B.A. in absentia during the war and returned to Cambridge in 1919, eventually earning his M.A. as well. For a few years Richard Sidney taught at King Edward's School in Birmingham and commanded the school's Officer Training Corps. Then in 1922, he met the first V.I. Headmaster, Mr B.E. Shaw, and heard a lot about Malaya - and the V.I. - from him.

He succeeded Mr Shaw as Headmaster in February 1923. Mr Sidney was an innovative administrator, introducing new ideas to the V.I., amongst them the Prefects' System, the School Magazine, the Conversazione (a whole-day annual open house when parents and guests were treated to exhibitions of school work), annual school plays, a revamped house system, and the annual Prefects' Dinners and "At Homes" at his bungalow. The first two institutions have survived to this day.

Mr Sidney played no small part in agitating for reforms in the Malayan education system as well. He wrote prolifically, helming a weekly column on education and reviewing books for the local papers. He travelled widely throughout Malaya and wrote up his experiences in two books, Malay Land and In British Malaya To-day.

He tried to infect V.I. pupils with his own love of reading, debating, writing and dramatics. He encouraged the mixing of his Asian boys with members of the European community. He involved himself in every school activity and even took a stage role in the school's production of Henry IV. He was an occasional member of the school cricket team.

After leaving the V.I. in 1926, Mr Sidney went to England for a brief period (he took his Chinese servant, Ah Siew, with him!) and subsequently returned to Malaya to teach at the Penang Free School. By some accounts he also taught at the Methodist Boys' School, K.L. The post-V.I. literary future he had set his sights on apparently never materialised. During World War II he was interned by the Japanese at Sime Road camp. After the war, in 1946, he started Young Malayans, a monthly youth publication distributed throughout Malaya. Its early issues were filled with his reminiscences of his V.I. days. Mr Sidney returned often to the V.I. to give talks to the pupils. When government funding for the paper dried up in the early sixties, Young Malayans folded. He passed away on 31st January, 1966.

Following are extracts from Malay Land which paint a fascinating portrait of V.I. life in the early 1920s as seen through the eyes of its second Headmaster. He does not let on in his account that he was the headmaster of a school (but we know, of course!) The headmaster's bungalow which he describes is in the premises of the old VI about 100 yards from High Street and hemmed on three sides by the flood-prone Klang River. It is the same abode occupied by the acting Headmaster William Proudlock in 1911 when his wife shot dead her lover on the front steps. The bungalow is about fifty yards from the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station; hence the railway noises that he mentions. The "large green field" that Sidney looks out at from his bungalow is, of course, the V.I. padang.




PROLOGUE

THE man was evidently very busy. He was surrounded by papers, and was so immersed in his job that he did not hear the door open, nor was he aware of it until the porter put a letter on the table beside him. This letter, however, seemed in one moment to change the whole outlook of his life. He had pictured himself remaining in England for many years, and yet he was certain that the letter was going to be the means of sending him away he knew not where, nor did he know for how long — the offer of an appointment in a faraway country of which he had scarcely heard, and in a town whose whereabouts even an up-to-date Atlas did not reveal. The salary sounded attractive, but it would be necessary to see friends and find out from them whether it really meant what it appeared to say.

* * * * *

During a period of six months negotiations for the appointment were carried on. On many occasions he determined to withdraw from the whole affair and to remain comfortably where he was in England. Fate, however, willed otherwise, and one wintry day he found himself saying farewell and leaving England. It is curious for him to reflect now upon the early forebodings. The country to which he was coming was Malaya; and about that country he knew no more than he had learned from reading Tartaran de Tarascon, in which the Malay kris is mentioned. His chief had told him that the climate was damp and hot and that no books could live in such an atmosphere, and so he took nothing with him except a little necessary kit.

* * * * *

He had spent many years in various quarters of the globe, and in war time under especially trying conditions, so that he did not look forward to going out again into the wilds. How he feared the unknown! It would mean again heat and dust; insects and flies of all kinds; and perhaps wild animals. There would be few of the amenities of civilisation, he supposed. On the voyage he tried to discover what the cost of living was likely to be in his new home, but everyone spoke with a different voice. To some the salary which he was to receive appeared sufficiently adequate, but to others it did not seem that there would be much margin. There was no exact information to be obtained about servants, or clothes, or food, and he decided that he must wait and solve all these problems for himself. During this period there were many moments of intense home-sickness, and if jumping overboard had been really feasible it is likely that he would have tried to regain the homeland.

* * * * *

There came a morning when the boat stopped early, and he was advised to run up on deck and see the sight before the sun became too hot and the early-morning freshness was lost. Truly it was worth getting up to see! The ship was in a channel separating an island from the mainland and the island was bathed in gladsome sunshine, though its hill was wreathed in mist. The soft, early tropical sunlight gave colour to buildings which would soon reflect the glare and heat of the day. Reminiscences of Punta Arenas in the Azores, of Norway itself, and even of Madeira, flashed through his mind; but this was a unique beauty. On the mainland there rose a fine peak whose outline could never be forgotten and about which there is a tale. He was one day discussing this peak with an editor who had lived for many years on the island, and the editor had said; "Like the Traitor's Gate—abandon hope who sail by Kedah Peak." At the time he was told this he had laughed, but since then he has learned that the editor was right. And now he remembered that in the few days before coming to this wonderful island he had noticed a type of scenery which seemed peculiar to this part of the world. The hills were forest-clad to their very summits, and no island which put its head above the sea did so without a clothing of trees. He was to realise that these jungles were typical of Malaya.

* * * * *

It is obvious that the island was Penang, and though this was not his eventual destination he stayed there, and from it obtained his earliest impressions of Malaya. Penang itself was a great surprise. It is impossible fully to appreciate Penang unless one has come to it from dusty Rangoon. The contrast between the two towns is enormous, and to land at Penang in the freshness of the early morning and to drive up any of its tree-sheltered roads, and past the beautiful villas of the Chinese, is to feel that here at last one has reached a fairy city. On this morning the streets seemed so clean, compared with the din and bustle and dust which had been left behind in Rangoon.

The house to which he went was a charming two-storey bungalow, quite different from anything that he had conceived possible. It was nearly twenty-five years since he had been in the East, and conditions had changed considerably during that time. . . . And now the heat of the day is over and the evening draws near and it is time to bathe. He is told that he may have hot water and that he will find all that he requires in the bathroom. The bathroom? It seemed to contain nothing for bathing, and had only a sink in one corner — a rather high sink, but one which perhaps contained much water. He was not then conversant with the Malay idea of bathing. He got into the sink!

The first night spent ashore was the hottest that he or anyone else could remember for some time, and it was quite impossible to get sleep of any sort. His room was as cool as it could well be, and every window and door were open, but underneath the mosquito net the air seemed to refuse to penetrate. In addition to this the bath-tap (being annoyed at the misuse to which its brother the sink had been put during the course of the evening) played a mournful tune, "Drip! drip! drip!"

On the day following he was taken for a walk and saw for the first time a rubber plantation. This was in no sense of the word a real rubber plantation, but it gave him the first curious sight of trees to which were attached little porcelain cups.

At length — after six weeks' journeying — he has reached the town which was not to be found on that map so many months ago in England, but which he discovered was an important town in the centre of Malaya; and the more he saw of the country the more surprised and gratified was he. Everything was so entirely different from what he had imagined. There were well-made roads, along which hundreds of motor-cars passed daily. There were railways which might have appeared without disgrace in any English setting; the railways were essentially English in every respect, for their platforms were up to the level of the train; their flower gardens were reminiscent of English country stations; and, though the name of the station was in other languages as well as English, the notices, and the way they were printed, were essentially home-like. The very signals seemed to say, "We have come from England — look at us !" and the level-crossing gates offered similar words of welcome as he flashed past them in his friend's car. Very soon he turned into a drive and came to rest before a bungalow which was to be his abiding-place for many months. What he saw therefrom, whither he went, whom he met, will be told in the pages which follow.




A MALAYAN BUNGALOW


t first it will be as well, perhaps, to try to acquaint the reader with early impressions gathered in Malaya. The reason that so many people who spend only a fortnight in a country decide to write a book about it, and get the book actually published, is because during the early days — and during those early days alone — are the impressions most fresh. Very soon, unless a real effort is made to go out and see with wide-open eyes, it is difficult to recapture one's first early thrills. I know the difficulty well, and shall try to show you in some measure how the town of Kuala Lumpur appeared to me after my first arrival here.

First of all let me show you my bungalow, so that we may be at home from the start, and you may imagine this book being written either on its wide verandah or in one of its cool rooms, with a fan playing on the writer and a subdued electric light shining over his left shoulder. Even the act of writing is a difficult one in a country where the moist heat is so great, and readers seated comfortably before the fire in England should try to realise under what conditions some of this book may have been written.


The Bungalow

The bungalow itself is an old one, but all the better for that, in that it has wide verandahs and the wall space is cut up by many doors and windows. It is a real bungalow, for there is only one floor, unlike nearly every modern bungalow, to which there are two storeys. In front of a wide porch is a beautiful green field bounded by a low hedge, across which at night it is possible to see the twinkling lights of the traffic. These lights are a never-ending source of fascination to the new-comer, for the lights of rickshaws seem to glitter with an unexpectedness which the lights of no other traffic reveal. (I well remember, when first coming out of the theatre here and watching many rickshaws dashing to the scene to try to pick up a passenger, how fascinated I was by seeing their small lamps constantly "dip" as the rickshaws were lowered to admit the passenger.) Behind the house, and, in fact, surrounding it on three sides, flows a sluggish river, which at times gets into flood and threatens to come up to the house itself. At the back there are wide lawns, and except that the house is situated in the flattest part of the town, and in a very noisy area, the situation is ideal.


The "noisy" railway station (1927): Sidney's bungalow (not shown) would be to the left of the sinuous
Klang River. In the early 1930s the bungalow was demolished to accommodate a straightened river.

It would be as well to explain the noises. Behind the river is the railway, and during many hours of the day shunting takes place, with so much noise that conversation is difficult sometimes in the house. Those who live on or near railways will remember how difficult it was at first to sleep, but how quickly the nerves got used to this extra sound. There are, of course, all the usual noises of the tropic night, to which the ear soon gets accustomed, and which it soon seems scarcely to hear. From another direction come the noises of the town, and these are mainly sellers of food, who shout out their wares with never-ending persistence. Many of the cries are reminiscent of those heard in English streets when a new edition of some evening paper has just come out and the newsboys are shouting as they tear down the street. Still farther in the distance one can hear the hoots and roar of motor traffic, which at times is very heavy along the main street that runs past the hedge of which I have spoken. (This should not give the impression that there is always intense noise and bustle, but it is very seldom that there is extreme quietness.)




GENERAL KNOWLEDGE


eus take it!" said I, trying to find some word beginning with Z with which I might begin this chapter. What would my boys think if they imagined my difficulty? However, a small dictionary gave only two pages to this letter, and what can be done with such words as Zoogony, Zingiberaceous, Zoomorphism, etc. ? I like better Zambo, which means, apparently, bandy-legged; or Zeugloden, an animal seventy feet long! But Zeus will have to do now, and anyway, is he not . . . ?

Do not be afraid, reader, that I am going to break the rule which I have kept sternly with myself throughout this book about talking "shop." In this chapter I may say something which concerns my present work, but I do not intend to bring it in very much, except purely incidentally. The recent efforts, however, of nearly two hundred boys, to solve what seemed to be a fairly easy General Knowledge paper has led me to try to give the reader some of the amusement which we enjoyed when correcting the papers. You ought to try to imagine that nearly two hundred boys are gathered together in a school hall, and there is one master reading to them from an upright desk. The windows on both sides of the hall are wide open, and through them one can hear in the distance the screech of trains, the cries of birds as they wheel to their nesting places in the roof of the building, and the shrill cries of small boys playing somewhere in the compound. Every few minutes the watchful observer outside will hear a roar of genuine laughter, and he will think, perhaps, that this is a queer sort of school, wherein so much humour is apparently tolerated during lesson time. Let him, however, go into the hall and take a seat and see whether he does not think that occasionally it is good that two hundred boys should laugh as if they were attending a humorous play.

"I had thought," said the person who is standing up at the far end of the hall and reading from a paper in his hand, "that this paper was sufficiently easy for every boy to get at least fifty per cent. I find, however, that very few boys have got more than twenty-five per cent., and some of the answers are so amusing that I thought it worth while to let you hear them. Those of you who have papers will perhaps get them out and refresh your memory with some of the questions which were asked."

There is now a rustle of papers and a certain amount of excitement as the boys make themselves comfortable to listen to what is coming next.

"First of all," the speaker continues, "it should be the duty of every boy to know a good deal about his school, and so I asked the following questions:—

" 'On what day was this school opened ?' This produced fairly correct answers, though, as the school is only just over thirty years old, and as one boy put down 1809, there is still something to be learned, apparently, on this point ? " (Slight laughter.) "The next question, 'Who laid the foundation stone?' produced many rich answers. . . . One boy suggested that Dr Loke Yew had done it in person; another that the Sultan of the State had been present on the occasion and had himself lifted up and laid the stone; while another, thinking that one person could not possibly lay a foundation stone by himself, said Mr —— and three others!"


The School Hall with Sidney chairing a debate

This seemed to tickle the boys enormously, and it was some time before the laughter subsided.

"If you are amused at that," said the speaker, "what will you think of the boy who said that Queen Victoria herself laid the foundation stone?"

This completely bowled them over and they were unable to restrain their mirth, even though the master did his best.

"So much for school history. We now come to a general knowledge question which seems to have puzzled a great many. Be careful in future not to be led astray by these apparently simple questions, answerable only by common sense. One of the questions read: 'How many apples make five, if one of them is green?' This seemed to puzzle many of you intensely. One boy, evidently a Shakespeare scholar, answered: 'Five apples, one is a peascod'; another, not to be outdone, replied: 'None; it is already five!'; while another Shakespeare scholar said: 'Four and one codling.'" (Laughter.) "Other boys became mixed up with the question of colour and replied: 'Four apples plus one red one!' Another answered emphatically; 'Apples are not green!' So you see how difficult it is to answer such a simple question as this one.

"The next question produced almost as many humorous answers, for you were requested to answer this apparently easy question: 'What is the colour of the yellow flag?' It seems to me that there must be many colour-blind boys in this school, for replies read as follows: 'White and black'; 'Something like brown'; 'White'; 'The yellow flag is now becoming white'; 'It is like the colour of a piece of brass.' While another boy suggested 'Jealousy' as being the colour!" (A delay of some seconds while boys chattered to each other about colour, one pointing to another and asking various rude questions as to colour-blindness.)

"Thinking that you must all know something about our local coat-of-arms I asked: 'What animal represents Malaya?' in it, and was surprised that you thought it necessary to go through a whole menagerie in order to tell me. The following animals were suggested: 'Bear,' 'Elephant,' 'Porcupine,' 'Tapir,' 'Sheep,' 'Horse,' 'Monkey'! And one boy even went so far as to suggest a 'Rhinoceros,' which would certainly be nearer to the feeling of the country. This is a surprising answer, because every one of us practically every day sees the Malayan tiger in some form or another, either on a box of matches or on a stamp or even on a railway carriage."

The question of the animal seemed to amuse the boys very much, and they were now thoroughly warmed up to this game and seemed to be prepared to enjoy it for a long time. The reader should remember that a sense of English humour takes some time to develop among boys to whom English is merely a foreign language, especially verbal humour. These boys were "all over it" by now, and thoroughly enjoying the fun.

"And now we come," said the master, "to one of the most amusing questions of all. 'What do certain initials stand for?' All that I had asked are familiar in this country, and nothing has been asked which every boy should not know well. Listen, however, to some of the results. Quite lately a prominent Government official was created a K.B.E. Little did he expect, however, that this stood for 'Knight before elected ' (sic), or that it stood for 'King's Bench Evidence'! While I am certain that in his wildest dreams he could not have imagined that it stood for 'Knight Bachelor of the Royal Ensign'!" (Laughter.) "But even this was not the highest title for K.B.E. One boy boldly suggested that it signified 'King of the British Empire'!"

This was too much for the assembled throng of boys, who let themselves go and continued to laugh as I have seldom seen boys laugh in this country.

"I shall be glad if you will not interrupt the proceedings by laughing more than you can help, otherwise it will be impossible to carry on with our work. . . . Another series of initials which came in for much attention was the D.S.O. One boy, thinking that it had to do with examinations, suggested that it meant 'Distinction in Sums and Oral'; and when this was explained to a distinguished officer who holds the D.S.O. he was much amused and said quite truly that he had never obtained such distinction, either in sums or in oral! C.M.G. was the next, and one boy thought it was obviously an address in heaven, for he suggested that it meant 'Care of St Michael and St George.'" (Laughter.) "Other boys suggested 'Commander of the Malayan Government'; 'Chinese Malay Government'; and 'Chief Manager to Governor.' There were a great many amusing initials, but I have not time to tell you of them now.

"Another question consisted of a demand to know in what games such terms as 'rook,' 'magpie,' 'maiden,' etc., occur. Here many of you seem to think that you are on sure ground and you answer boldly in consequence. For a 'rook' the answers were 'Gambling,' 'Marbles,' 'Robbery,' it being evident that you had mistaken the noun for the verb in the last. A 'maiden,' however, produced some of the most luscious answers. One boy coyly suggested that it meant 'A shy person'; another that in the game of 'Sewing' a maiden would occur, or perhaps in the game of 'Dancing.' Another, bolder and perhaps more experienced, wrote the one word 'Love'!" (Loud laughter and cheers.) "Other boys suggested the games of 'Weaving' and 'Spinning,' 'Badminton' and the 'Maypole dance'; while one boy hazarded 'Milking.' Another term which seemed to puzzle many of you, though you play hockey, was a 'bully.' One boy suggested this answer: 'Who plays ruff' (sic); others: 'Fights,' 'Boxing'; and another, who had evidently suffered: 'Roam about in the street.'

"The difficulty with many of you was that you would not bother about what the question said and so you made all sorts of ridiculous answers. Asked, for instance, to name the town farthest away from Kuala Lumpur with which you can now communicate by telephone, one boy boldly suggested 'London'!"

Looking up I discovered that the time was drawing near when this amusing business must cease, and so, opening the door, I stole out gently, having been pleased to witness an exhibition of humour with which I had not credited boys in Malaya. It might be of some interest to try to compare boys in this country with those in England, because there is really a very great difference, and one which can hardly be conceived by those who have never left the shores of Great Britain.

I should say that the first and most noticeable — though superficial — difference lies in the question of dress. Here we shall find very few boys in dark clothes, and none in caps. Though a growing uniformity is spreading, and European clothes are becoming much more popular, it is still possible to see very diversified forms of dress among the various nationalities. In a school of one thousand boys there will, perhaps, be Malays wearing sarongs and bajus and soft oval caps, and altogether making very picturesque figures. The question of dress is described elsewhere and so I will not worry you with it here. The Chinese in Malaya, at any rate, do not wear their national costume, but are mainly dressed in tunic and trousers. Many, however, wear shoes but no stockings, and many wear no shoes; while the head-dress may be anything from a topee to a felt hat, with the school band round it and an enamel button bearing the picture of Charlie Chaplin stuck in the back just to show there is no ill-feeling! The Indians, again, do not wear their national costume and are similarly dressed to the Chinese. The colours, however, vary. Many boys are in white drill; many in khaki; while some favour green. You can imagine that a class made up of the three nationalities in a room which is already bright with the reflected light from outside will wear a much more charming air than the usual sombre schoolroom which one associates with Europe.

Not only are the boys quite different in their dress, but in their habits of work. Some teachers have even complained that they are too apathetic and have not enough mischief in their composition. Certainly there is a great contrast if one knows English schools well. Here there is no difficulty about discipline. A master has not to fight to keep discipline, for the boys are so keen to work that it almost keeps itself. And though they do not always show the maximum amount of intelligence at answering original questions, their application for any set work is enormous, and most gratifying. It has been said that they lack humour, but this is mainly because the speaker does not know how to appeal to them, nor does he use sufficiently simple words to come within the compass of their vocabulary. The scene which I have recorded above does away with the mistaken notion that they are devoid of humour, even in a language which is foreign to them.

Not only are the pupils different, but the masters also differ very much in the schools here. We shall find no caps and gowns, and the master is generally clad in white, this being the coolest form of clothing which he can wear, and it must be remembered that it is hard work teaching in such a climate. A few hours of such work in the day is quite enough to make the average man very tired, and glad of a long rest when the work is over.

Owing to the fact that the inmates of buildings must be protected from the glare of the sun and from the tropical rains, round all the rooms are large verandahs, while the roofs are brought down very much lower than is the case with the ordinary English house. This means to say that all buildings take up far more room than they would in England.

* * * * *

In view of the problems which are now confronting statesmen with especial regard to educational matters in China, and the East generally, it is perhaps of some interest to know what observers think of the young generation which is now passing through their hands in the schools of Malaya. It is generally agreed, I believe, that the youth of all the peoples under charge of the British is especially good so long as it remains in the youthful stage. Unfortunately, boys mature very much earlier in tropical countries than they do at home, and the consequence is that very often, at the age of fifteen or sixteen, boys have begun to get intolerable and to assume the airs with which we associate young men of twenty in England. It is in the years just after fifteen that the trouble begins. Ideas of disloyalty may now enter in and receive a ready welcome; while there is no proper balance of thought to consider the fresh ideas, there is a ready seeking for any sensation which may give extra excitement. We must not be blind, however, to the extraordinary charm of all the young of the peoples that make up the motley collection in British Malaya. (One man has aptly said that the Chinese smile is almost a caress.) If, on first arriving in the country, one finds it difficult to distinguish between one Chinese and another, and is inclined to think that their features are not so good as those of the nations of Europe, to which we are more accustomed, all this soon fades away and we find ourselves not only recognising different persons among the Chinese, but realising how essentially fine and, in some cases, beautiful are their faces. Characteristic is the smile which never seems to come off. Be the circumstances ever so depressing this smile seems to carry on and to lighten the way. They will turn their smile into anger and back again in the twinkling of an eye; but the angry side is rare — more especially among boys.

And of the Malays we can say the same thing, both about face and smile, which is disarming in its entire frankness. There is something else about the Malay not, as a rule, possessed by the Chinese, and that is his naturally fine carriage. Even as a youth the Malay seems to realise that he is a gentleman and must bear himself as such, and he will walk upright and fear no man and hope that no man will fear him. He is always ready to stop and talk, or to stop his work and admire beautiful things, and this is all reflected in his dress, which expresses his mind perhaps more than any other outward symbol could possibly do. Just before the great feasts one will see the Malays turning over silks in the shops and not being satisfied until they get the exact type which will suit them.

About the Indian and the Eurasian it is more difficult to speak, because one has had less experience of them; but here, again, in the youth, at any rate, we have the same charming simplicity which makes one feel that nothing can be too good for them. That this may turn to hatred in later life is a sad thing, and is, perhaps, a reflection on the educational methods employed by us during the past fifty years.

This chapter began with an attempt to tell you something about the humours of a General Knowledge paper and it has drifted off into some account of schools in Malaya, of education, and a short dissertation on the young. As, however, the youth of this country is so important, and as I have met so many of them, it did not seem possible to omit them altogether in a book of this sort. If only we can train up our youth in Malaya so that they may become fine men, the country will remain one of the best governed, as well as one of the pleasantest, places in the world to live.




A DAY ON MY VERANDAH


emark has been made elsewhere in this book that it is not often that one is able to enjoy the early morning hours, because they are the most productive of good work. I have often tried, however, to get Sunday as a day when I can do reading, and enjoy some of the intense beauties which surround me. As a rule one is at work in one's office soon after six o'clock, and obtains only glimpses of what Nature is doing until quite late in the afternoon. On Sundays, however, with no necessity to dress properly, one perhaps lies in bed a little later, and then putting on shirt and shorts goes off to the front verandah with plenty of reading material, prepared to enjoy the day in two ways—one by reading, and the other by observing Nature.

I have said before that in front of my house there is a large green field bordered by a low hedge which separates my domain from one of the principal streets in the town. This green field at six o'clock is most vivid in its colouring, very often in contrast with the sky, which perhaps is a heavy grey at that time. (I have a record in a note-book of such colours only a few days ago.) As a rule, however, on Sundays one does not reach the verandah until about seven a.m., and on the particular day of which I write the air was so cool that it was necessary to have a dressing-gown before one could sit in comfort. The reader must try to imagine a wide open verandah as large as many small houses, raised from the ground some five feet, and jutting forward into a large porch which serves to give protection from the sun all day long. The verandah is furnished quite simply with a red Chinese table, a desk whereon are many books, a reading-table, and several basket-work chairs. The colour scheme is mainly blue and red, and the Chinese lanterns depending from the ceiling help to carry this on. There is a large settee round the outer rim of the verandah, broken only by the steps which admit one to the house. I usually sit in an easy-chair sideways, so that I may see not only the whole expanse of verandah, but also the field and buildings which are near my house. One never tires of watching the different lights playing on this field and these buildings, and the colour vibrations seem to give a wonderfully soothing restfulness.

At seven a.m. the grass is almost entirely covered with dew, and most of it lies in heavy shadow, for the sun penetrates only here and there. The buildings on the right are all in the shadow of the heavy trees which surround them except for one building, which is now beginning to catch the bright sun and shows up a lightish yellow. The air has the feel of an English spring morning, and, of course if one was not sitting here, it would be splendid to take some exercise. The sounds are vivid: innumerable birds chatter and fight and bathe; one can hear cocks crowing, and the answering note is given all along from house to house; the hoots of a few motors show that the world is gradually waking up; while in the distance there is the shunting of trains, with the noises inseparable from such a business, though at the back of my house the trains seem to make a quite unnecessary noise. These sounds have been described in detail, but they are not to make the reader suppose that there is a feeling of unrest. The feeling is one of almost perfect peace, to which these noises seem to add merely a harmonious and fitting contrast. Listening again to hear the sounds, one is able to pick up that of a tin whistle played by some neighbour who for many months was unable to master more than one tune! (Lately he must have been taking lessons, for he seems to have broken out into tunes such as God Save the King and Auld Lang Syne, apart from some of the latest ragtimes. One is certainly glad about this, because the one tune was growing slightly monotonous!) Though the ear listens carefully no sound of the makan-vendor can be heard.

And so I sit back and enjoy the peaceful scene and begin to read, perhaps, the papers for the whole week, which have been lying waiting for many days. There is a certain joy about reading the English paper in Malaya, if only because one has already seen the important news. The local papers supply all the telegrams—or most of them which are really necessary — and one is able to read in full detail what one wishes when the home mail arrives. It is sometimes very interesting to follow up the course of events whose end one knows already. Day by day one can see unfolding the opinions of experts on a subject of which one already knows the result, and the pursuit is quite fascinating. There is also a science in reading papers which those of us who live far away should master if we are to obtain the greatest benefit therefrom. The writer not only reads all the daily papers published in Malaya—in all seven—but also two, if not three, English daily papers, besides many other weekly and monthly magazines. This would be an arduous business unless the matter were taken in hand scientifically. I give my own method, which may be of interest to others. Let us suppose that the paper is The Times. First of all one must make quite sure that one reads only what is of real interest to oneself. Personally I am not interested in all the advertisement pages, nor in stocks and shares, so that I am able to start with the picture page! Very often opposite the picture page, however, there is a very fine whole-page advertisement which is really worth reading, and this sometimes takes a few minutes to get through. Messrs Lyons have had many such delightful pages describing the work of their gigantic firm, and I have never been able to leave those advertisements without reading them through. The picture page having been dealt with, one next turns back (I always read the paper from page 20 to page 1), and perhaps finds a miscellaneous article or so worth reading, or interesting biography of someone lately dead, beyond the pages which immediately follow the middle or leader page. Having arrived at the middle of the paper one folds it carefully in two and then reads any news which may be of interest, and probably several of the leading articles, and perhaps some of the correspondence. There is nearly always, too, in The Times, a special article in the last column of the leader page which is worth reading. Sometimes these middle pages take longer than one could wish, but they are very good and cannot be skipped. The rest of the paper does not, as a rule, take me very long. Turning back once more one finds, perhaps, on the first column of the next page, an interesting article on either Imperial or Foreign politics. On the next page, on Wednesdays, one always must pause for A.B.W.'s article about any miscellaneous events ; and if one is interested in the theatre there is much news on this page which it is necessary to read. Very often, too, though it is an advertisement, one cannot help reading the fascinating talk by Callisthenes about the great firm of Selfridge's. As a rule, the paper is now finished for me, except in the cricket season, when on Mondays it is always worth while to read in full the cricket notes, and on other days to glance hastily through the scores, and especially to follow those of batsmen whom one has known or seen in the past. It will be found that this method of dealing with a newspaper soon gets over the main defects of reading a paper quickly, and at the same time enables the reader to miss nothing — that is to say, if the paper is well sub-edited, and can always be relied on to put similar news in the same place. Of course The Times is so good in this respect that a little time given to finding out where it puts its news is well spent.

* * * * *

One may now suppose that the time has moved on, and that we are approaching noon. Looking out one finds a very different picture from that of the early morning. The sun has now eaten up all the moisture which lay so prettily on the grass, and one is reminded of Housman's lines:

" The fairies leave their dances
And quit the printed lawn."

There is no sign now of any printing on the lawn, which has become a harsh dull green, with scarcely any colour left in it. No longer is the grass speckled with shadow, nor are the buildings dull in colour. They stand out in blazing white radiance, and are almost too glaring for the eye to look upon. The sun is almost directly overhead, and save for the clamour from a Tamil temple which is near there seems to be no sound to break the silence of the noonday heat. . . . And so it may continue for several hours, until gradually the cool of the afternoon begins to supervene, and one is able to breathe once more. The day I am recording, however, has a different picture, and is worth noting in consequence. Looking out one sees a bright sun but heavy clouds near, which presage rain. Looking to another part of the sky nothing seems less likely than darkness in a few moments, and the blotting out of all that one can see; but turning to the left there are ominous clouds which so soon will bring destruction on the present scene. The time is now just noon, and it is interesting to watch the shadows. We are here within three degrees of the Equator, and shadows are practically non-existent at this hour of the day. (I well remember on a Sunday morning at Penang looking at a coconut plantation. The time was noon, and the coconut-trees seemed to be planted in pools of black shadow — of course resulting from their high-up branches, the shadows of which were thrown directly round the stem of the tree.)

So it is as I look out from my verandah now; but already the time is passing and a breeze begins to spring up, the sun is obscured and rain threatens at any moment. This breeze is always the signal for a heavy downpour, and in such houses as we live in it is necessary to take precautions before the storm comes. Surrounding the verandah are a series of blinds—which in local parlance are called "chicks" — and they prevent a certain amount of rain from coming into the house when they have been let down from the outer part of the verandah. One's boys have heard the sounds of the approaching storm, and they begin to get busy in getting down the "chicks," and in withdrawing the cushions and chairs from the verandah. I am determined to sit and to see what happens in this coming storm. The time is just twelve-thirty, and the rain cannot be long delayed. Meanwhile one's Chinese lanterns swing to and fro in the breeze, and the "chicks" flap against the side of the verandah. The decks are cleared, however, and the rain may now pour in, and nothing will get damaged. At twelve-forty-two the storm breaks, and the first thing that happens is that the grass springs into a vivid greenness — though it will soon become a lake. The rain begins by driving aslant, and in consequence catches much of the house, and renders my seat on the verandah untenable if I am to continue writing. Soon one hears crashes of thunder and vivid lightning is seen, and in the distance I hear the rending of a big tree and see that lightning has snapped off a branch more easily than the sharpest axe. The verandah becomes flooded, and it is necessary to seek refuge inside and even to shut the doors and windows of the house. At twelve-fifty, as I peer out, I see nothing but a curtain of falling liquid, and the distant hedge is completely blotted out. Soon the field is partially covered with water and in half-an-hour it will resemble a lake in many parts. The storm when it starts in great furiousness does not, as a rule, last for more than an hour, but on this occasion, having started violently, it settled down into a solid downpour, and only at three o'clock was it possible to resume a seat on the verandah once more.

Busy hands have been mopping up the floor; the cushions and chairs are put back; pictures once more adorn the walls; and the field seems to smile at one as if to say: "We shall not have any more of this for another day, at any rate" (at certain seasons in Malaya the rain comes at about four p.m. nearly every day, and one can be quite certain of this). And now, looking out on the grass, one sees that it has become a vivid emerald, and though green is the colour of Malaya, this type of green is rare and very refreshing. A breeze has sprung up, but this time it bears no menace of rain, and will merely help to dry up the land more quickly.

At length one begins to think, perhaps, of what to do in the evening, whether to go for a walk, or merely for a drive, or even to go to church. Church in the tropics is one of those links with the Homeland which one does not like to lose, and that is perhaps one of the reasons why, if a chaplain has any ability at all, he will always have full congregations. After many weeks travelling it is a wonderful sensation to find oneself again in a typical English atmosphere, and listening to an English service. The church itself may be different; fans may make giddy circles of shadow on the ceiling; the seats may be somewhat harder; but the atmosphere is essentially that of a country parish church.

Meantime the last intense light of the evening has come on and the grass once more is speckled with shadows which have been gradually creeping up from the west and south, and invading the whole field. The grass wears a curious appearance, especially if there is bright sunlight, for this can only filter through the trees, and gives the grass a speckled black-and-green effect. The buildings have now resumed their normal colour, and are once again a dull yellow, while the trees themselves seem to be sinking into blackness. The sky is perhaps a light blue, though there is a curious radiance which appears to be coming. At six-twenty (and that hour is exact for many months in the year here) a glow of yellow-purple light seems to come over the whole field and to tinge the buildings. No doubt a scientist would explain that the sun had got to such a position that the rays were thrown up in a certain manner, and that what we are now seeing is merely refractory rays and not those of direct sunlight at all. At any rate, there is for a period of five full minutes a much more intense yellow light which makes colours quite different wherever one may look. (Actually there is more light for five minutes than there was at about six o'clock, and this I have been able to prove when doing such delicate work as printing, for though I found it difficult to see between six and six-fifteen, suddenly, for a few minutes, I was able to see quite clearly, and then the light went out with a bang !) Even the field itself has become yellow, and the buildings shine out vividly with a purply yellow radiance. The effect soon dies and then one is sure that darkness is coming. This can be most readily gauged by the lights which can be seen fronting the street. A few minutes before they were not noticed; but now they are beginning to take their place in the scheme of things, and in another quarter of an hour all lights will be necessary.

And now, as the darkness grows — and it is still not yet seven o'clock—one can see the twinkle of the rickshaw lights as they pass to and fro just above the hedge which bounds the field. These lights have always a strange fascination for me, and I can watch them for many hours. One can hear the many night noises which go to make up such a chorus in the tropics, and especially the strange groaning noises of the frogs, which have never been better described than in that Greek chorus. If one takes a turn round the verandah there will be seen in the west a dull glow which is a wonderful contrast to the general blackness of the remainder of the sky.

It is now seven p.m. and quite dark, and we have passed through a whole twelve hours on this verandah. It is time to go away and change and get ready for some different occupation.



EPILOGUE


THE man was very sad. Soon he was to leave the country which he had grown to love so well. As he thought of all the friends he had made — Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese, Malays, Indians — he became really heart-sick. Would he ever see this smiling land again and its laughing, happy people? He looked round his bungalow which he had grown to love so well. Soon, soon, all was to be dismantled; at thought of this he quailed. Even though his home in England had perforce to be destroyed, here he had built him another home: and now, alas! all was to be desecrated. Others would tread these floors; others would walk these pleasant fields; others ... He had always hated partings; but he had had no conception that Malaya could have obtained so strong a hold. They said that the East always called. Certainly he would have to come back if he could. Already he was making plans. Another book, perhaps. A honeymoon trip! An author in search of copy. All these thoughts came and tried to stay him, but he could not be comforted.

He went on his beloved walk. This would be nearly the last time. What changes there would be if ever he did manage to return. . . . And then his servants. He had had one staff throughout all his time. They had become a part of his life. It was like leaving an arm behind. And his boys. If he ever returned they would all be grown up and past recognition, and their charm would have gone. They would write letters, they had said; but for how long? And memory is short in the tropics. And to think that soon he would see no more smiling rickshaw-pullers. . . . Ah! but he must come back. And the tall, waving coconut palms, they seemed to bid him au revoir in the breeze. He was certain that it was au revoir! . . . The early mornings of sunshine, even though rain came later. The singing of the birds all round his bungalow. The gay dresses of the Malays. How he hated to part with it all!

And yet . . . would there be no compensations? Did someone say something about England ? . . . England ? . . . England! And would he see England again in the spring? Would he be in a land once again where one could walk without having to change clothes? Would he see the gradual unfolding of the spring blossoms? How lovely to see once again an English cornfield. To hear the cuckoo. To see the days gradually lengthen out into summer. England! There was some compensation evidently. And then the cosy firesides, with the curtains drawn and the relation of all that he has seen. . . . The friends whose voices he had so long wished to hear. The presence once more of his nearest. . . . Perhaps it would not be so bad after all. . . .




Extracts from Sidney's In British Malaya Today


VI The V.I. Web Page


Created on 31 December 2008.
Last update on 31 December 2008.

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