I never quite felt at home living in England. I could never put my finger on it – a longing for exoticism, a love of Chinese supermarkets and the wonderful and sometimes wierd packages therein, a fascination with other places.
Some of this lust was satisfied by travel and some of it was sublimated by submersing oneself in another language and culture, in my case Russian during Soviet times.
But I could never explain this non-belonging, but now I think I understand it a little better.
About 10 years ago I was in a taxi in Kuala Lumpur. Stupidly we’d arrived on Diwali, which is a public holiday and the taxi taking us to our hotel took a slightly roundabout route to avoid streets in the city centre that had been closed for a procession. The cab went up a hill, past some old colonial houses and then across Medan Pasar, which had been the old central square in colonial times.
Nothing unusual about that except I recognised the street from photographs in a family album from the 1930’s. Spine tingling. I’ve never been able to find the street again and for all I know I was mistaken, but it was an odd experience.
The same goes for Singapore. I actually know the names of places – again because we have pictures of houses and buildings in family albums. In Singapore it’s easier as places still retain their colonial names, but strangely I know where things are. I knew there used to be a railway halt at Bukit Timah before I ever went there. To my regret, it’s now closed and I never got a photograph of me in the train station. Why?
My father spent time in Singapore and the far east in the nineteen forties and his brother was a colonial official in Malaya and later Singapore, and lived in KL and in later a house off Bukit Timah Road in Singapore. My father’s brother died during the second world war and my father never went back after about 1949.
The consequence of this is that while I have never lived in south east Asia, I know these things, the names of places, even to the extent of a few words of Malay, but the thing which I realise now is because I have heard stories about Malaysia and Singapore from a young age and that this has entered my subconsciousness.
My father and his brother knew some basic Malay (my father’s brother was apparently quite fluent if ungrammatical) and even now my father can still manage some very old fashioned Hindi.
And of course it’s not just language. Like all the British in Malaya they ate Ayam tinned food from time to time, and oddly still bought them after they came back to Britain, they knew a little about Asian food, would occasionally buy some (canned) exotic ingredients and create something like Malaysian food. More importantly, the experience of being somewhere radically different had changed them and made them more open to the exotic and the interesting.
And of course the people that they mixed with socially had much the same attitude and experience.
Now one has the image that colonial officials were narrow minded demagogues dedicated to keeping the natives in check. Doubtless some of them were, but equally some must have gone more than just a little native and develped an understanding and sympathy for the cultures they were surrounded by.
Some came back more worldly, less predjudiced, and with an understanding of cultures other than their own.
Now without wanting to make too much of this I now think some of this rubbed off on me – essentially with parents of a liberal ex colonial bent you absorb a taste for the exotic and end up chafing against the insularity and complacency you come up against.
Thinking about my own experience I suspect – it’s unprovabale – that Orwell must have had some sort of epiphany to turn him from a pukka sahib to someone with an empathy with the culture with which he is surrounded – never truly part of it yet out of sorts with his own.
I’ve previously said that in Burmese Days I thought that the character of Ellis was modelled in part on racist people he knew and in part on his former self. Thinking this through I equally feel that we could argue that Flory – out of sorts with the Poms at the club but not really integrated with Burmese society is modelled on his new, more culturally attuned self, but one that still goes shooting and still lives the life of a Pom, and find himself not really belonging.
Strangely, and I don’t know how much of this is just projection on my part I’ve always felt distant. Part of the reason I feel more comfortable in Australia is that everyone is from somewhere else – not strictly true, but the mix of cultures is invigorating, and yes, you can buy Ayam baked beans as well as Heinz and other brands.
Buried in this is another serious point. When people talk about the legacy of empire they talk about the institutions and buildings that the British left behind. The other legacy is the way it helped open Britain up to the influences of what used to be called ‘the orient’ and its languages and cultures.
And it is important that while these people went there to work, to run palm oil plantations and the like they never went there to settle – they were an alien governing and managerial class and not people who would settle – always aliens in a sea of vibrant cultures.
This different from the colonial experience in East Africa, Zimbabwe, or South Africa where white people wnt with the aim of putting down roots, of farming of settling permanently, but who were for ever a minority watchful in case the dispossesed would ever demand their land back.
And differnt again from Canada, Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand where the dispossessed were so dominated by the alien incomers that they were permanently marginalised.
One thing I notice when I go back to England on a visit is how increasingly narrow and insular its becoming with a segregated society and among the middle and upper classes a remarkable ignorance of everything other than English culture and history (with the French and the Graeco Romans getting a look in).
And, perhaps as a consequence of this, this is not something that is dealt with much in contemporary literature – either by British authors or writers from what was once British India – Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Burma – or Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei – working in English.
And that’s a puzzle – aliens in their own land – I might have thought that would have inspired someone …