IF READING IS ENJOYABLE because it partly awakens the autobiographical memory, then that's recompense enough for the reader. I recently re-read James Kirkup, in life a man of many parts – teacher, poet, translator and no mean autobiographer. He is largely forgotten now but in an episode of his life best forgotten now, he gained notoriety for a blasphemous take on the crucifixion, in poetry, in a gay newspaper. He went from there into obscurity in a self-imposed exile in Angorra, resurfacing now and again rather bizzarely as an obituary writer in The Telegraph newspaper.
It is in his travel writing that Kirkup has touched me poignantly, still afternoons in familiar alleys, jalousies hanging half unfurled in the arches of walkways, assorted people both annoying and affable, taking you back to moods that nudge at dormant remains of distant days. Kuala L'Impure as Cocteau called it (he did?) for which Kirkup devotes a whole chapter, rude and charmed in equal measure - Skuala Lumpur, Stuff it up your jumpur – but you can't help but feel that somewhere in there is a liking for the capital that everyone who lives in it, loves it or loathes it, calls Kayel (KL).
Kirkup, in life, played many parts. A dramatist was one, but he became renowned, briefly, as a poet. His autobiographical writings were savoured by the cognoscenti, and he travelled and became a competent translator of Japanese literature and he taught in Japan and Kayel at the University of Malaya where he lectured, among other things on James Joyce, an author he enjoyed only in small doses who nearly drove him off his head with heavy internationalism and ponderous urbanity.
Kirkup in Kayel is hilarious and annoying with a will to fascinate. And this is where reading becomes autobiographical: I saw the tail end of the Kayel that he describes, slowly going to the dogs, felled, relics and trees, to make way for a new, robust capital. And like him I too was a failed teacher at the University of Malaya, heart throbbing still as I read Kirkup describing his entrance to the Arts Concourse, skirting the 'muddy, weedy lake' and the faculty buildings and the Library, 'all in severely modern style, quite impersonal'. It is a shame though that he pulled his pen away from descriptions of characters within – and there were many – who would have enlivened his sometimes scabrous jaunts in
Tropic Temper is a panacea for hearts wrenched from the true nature of
because it turned into a gleaming capital. This is Kayel when horses were still racing on the
racecourse, the very ground where today stand the Twin Sisters. It is strange
though that Kirkup does not mention that at all, the horsey folks I mean, and
the book was written, for goodness' sake, in 1963. Kuala Lumpur
A capital, any capital, is best approached without company. Alone, that is, with mind uninterrupted, to ponder and legs to wander and head holding conversations with self about things and wherewithal. Kirkup was very much a loner, so internal conversation is rife in this little gem that comes to us from the Kayel that was there not so long ago but now seems to be aeons away. Readers become of like mind, wandering, and into these old nooks and crannies come a warm glow. Never mind what you thought of Kayel, Kirkup, but this is Kayel once again now. Thank you.
It is funny how old, lost colonials in search of soul end up at the Majestic. The place where Kirkup 'lived' is indeed The Majestic (even if he doesn't say so), a hotel now severely damaged by 'restoration'. The Majestic drew odd people, another, an Englishman who stayed back after the end of Empire also carried quite a tail. No, that's no spelling error, he did, by reputation, have a vestigial tail, but that's another story. Journeying every day from his hotel, Kirkup sees the beginnings of the new Masjid Negara, he walks to the Masjid Jamek and then he speaks of the Nabokov that he picks up from the Universal Book Store. The smarmy man there urging him on to further delights, including an invitation to look into salacious words like 'vagina' in, bless his heart, an English dictionary that holds those words in store.
I know the Universal Book Store. It stood teeming with rubbish and books (the rubbish part were books too I should hasten to add) just at the entrance to the Masjid Jamek where now stands in ugly nondescrepitude, a station of the LRT. I think I may have met the smarmy man too.
Here's Kirkup's visit to the Pasar Minggu (the Sunday Market in Kampung Baru):
"A narrow wooden bridge over a stream can take only two single files, moving in opposite directions. A notice says that the city council will not be responsible if the bridge collapses. The packed crowd moves very slowly across the bridge, giving rise to opportunities for discreet attouchements. This is one of the haunts of the "billy-boys," the name given to young male prostitutes, and of one or two elderly female touts. But for the most part it is the scene of happy family outings, where groups of modest, gentle, friendly country people in gay sarongs can stroll and eat before catching the last bus home to their country kampong."
Once Father took me out of school for a week for a visit to Kayel where he was to attend an important career-enhancing interview (he was aspiring to rise, from telegraph operator to Special Grade Clerk). The son of the family we lodged with took us, one night, to a teeming place of foodstalls and pandanus mats and milling people. We walked slowly, in a very narrow lane, forward, as others were also moving, slowly, towards us. It was called Jambatan Gesel, the son of our hosts told me as I blushed in my reluctant-to-be-enlightened schoolboyish way. Ah yes, the bridge, I may have known it too.
Tropic Temper, Kirkup, J., Readers Union, Collins, 1965. First publication, William Collins & Sons, Ltd, 1963.