Sunday, 12 July 2015

So Long, It Should Be A Book...

THERE WAS A TIME when KL looked and felt like a town of booksellers. There were book vendors everywhere, especially on the five-foot way of those colonnaded walks in front of shops. You could walk – as I did almost daily, after school – from Baden Powell House in Jalan Davidson at the foot of the hill, down Jalan Sultan and then along Foch Avenue and beyond and meet at least five booksellers, many in shops but some outside of shops.

Kuala Lumpur, 1884. Not many bookshops here.

I am not sure if I should count the Sun U on Foch Avenue (Lebuhraya Foch) as a bookshop though as they were actually stationers but when I looked, I saw books in there too, perhaps textbooks for Chinese schools. I always walked past Sun U hurriedly as people were always milling about in front of the shop, seldom stationary. They were punters for buses that came one after another, to Sungai Besi to Kampung Pandan to Petaling Jaya. Crossing Foch Avenue was a chore and a half and it was always a relief when you reached that road that led to Naina Mohamad, the pharmacist, in the corner, in that whole new world of Market Square.

But before Naina was a row of shops, a gaggle of bookstores all meeting in a row. I remember one was called M M Ally and the rest, well, you don't really need to know as the books they stocked were mostly samey. Magazines hanging from pegs on a line as you enter, and on tables were more magazines, books and more books in cases in the back of the shop and on the side walls. They were mostly American paperbacks, local publications, school text and the daily newspaper. As you entered a shop, on the front left, you'd see a man sitting behind a till looking at you warily, reading you for sure, to see if you would be a potential shop lifter. Now, why would anyone go out and lift books from a bookshop? Then you'd have to read them and that's too much bother anyway.

Sometimes, during a downpour, I'd dive into one or all of these shops, waiting for the rain to go away. On other days I'd walk into them too because this was right in the middle of the day and the sun was almost directly over you head and some of these bookshops were really cool. I always avoided the last shop going on my route towards Naina Mohamad as it belonged to the father of a boy I knew at school who wernt by the name of Mohamad Jaafar Sadiq Maricar, I think, looking back now. It was enough seeing him at school and to see him again now would have been like two lightning strikes in a day.

My journey along the walkways would continue until I came to a corner – I can't remember now if it was Jalan Bandar – where two South Indian brothers stood before a wall of books and more on two revolving displays. This was where I'd stop to browse and chat with one or both of the brothers and ask if they had any Thurber. I got almost all my Thurbers from them though now I see that they have moved into the mainstream, opening as a 'proper' bookshop among the eateries and shirts and silk and carpet stores in Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman with their stock in trade of prayer books, religious tracts, school textbooks and magazines galore.

Three more book stops would engage me before I hit lucky and manage to jump aboard the Len Seng Omnibus in Jalan Melaka unscathed and unmolested for the struggle to go home was stiff in those days. But we'll leave the yellow omnibus for now and go across the bridge to the building on the corner of Jalan Mountbatten/Jalan Melayu where, on the first floor of a banking house was the University Book Store. This was a proper bookshop to make all other bookshops look improper (well, save for one we shall go to later). There were shelves and shelves of books you could get lost in. (What I mean is you could hide behind those shelves; I have never got lost in a book, have you?) There was a proper gentleman in there too, I mean someone wearing old-fashioned baggy pants and a properly ironed shirt such as to prompt you to call him uncle.

Once, when I was hidden among the bookshelves, browsing things from the top and bottom of the myriad rows, out popped a little sniveling guy I used to know at school and we said hello and got into a long and loud conversation about Vietnam as the little sniveller had turned into a right Vietcong in his ways. In the heat of the conversation, and from the corner of one eye I saw Uncle coming around pretending to be checking the shelves and giving us furtive glances now and then in case we broke into fisticuffs and turn his bookshop into a post-harvest padi field. See what I mean about meeting some schoolfellows in a bookshop?

Across the road from the University Book Store was Universal, the book vendor mentioned by James Kirkup in Tropic Temper. It was at the entrance to the Masjid Jamek, with books on table-tops under a corrugated roofed old shed. There were books too behind glass-fronted cases gleaming under the fluorescent glow.

But we'll cross the road and walk again along Jalan Melaka to Jalan Ampang by the river flow, down below from the monumental AIA building on Bukit Nanas was a row of old fashioned shop-houses with names that commuters on the Len Seng omnibus rides will remember, Ong Yoke Lin, selling Carrier air-conditioners, and the head of the infamous Black Cat jutting out from above a shop-house that became famous in a scandal that woke the town one fine morning to headlines about assorted women who went to work in this joint with their clothes uncollected from the laundry.  

All right, all right, we're digressing, it's a book shop we're looking for here, for there, between the sleaze and the air-conditioning was the City Book Store, another 'proper' bookshop. The City was in a strange place to be for a book store, away from the pedestrian flow and away from the centre of it all. But there you are, my dear, I went there looking for a book but the police came and bundled me away into the van with some semi-clad ladies of unknown provenance.

But we must go now. The Len Seng bus has just trundled past from the direction of Gombak, going back to the dust mill of Jalan Melaka and I must be going home.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Going Back to Tropic Temper

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 Malaya.

Tropic Temper is a panacea for hearts wrenched from the true nature of Kuala Lumpur 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.

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.