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Myths of the MacArthur Suite

17 Apr

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When the tour guide throws open the doors to the Douglas MacArthur Suite, I’m fairly sure what to expect. The American general it’s named after was known for astutely managing his public image, concealing his weird private foibles and rebuilding his hero’s reputation after professional fiascos. Likewise, the Suite he lived in for six years has been impeccably restored to a supposedly Edenic moment in Philippine history, before World War II levelled Manila, before the Japanese destroyed the entirety of the Suite just to get back at MacArthur and before the country fell under the hammer of martial law. Although there’s nothing original about the mahogany chaise longues, the slightly musty sampaguita scent or the gently sparkling brass chandeliers, the impression of 1935 is persuasive and beautiful enough.

What is the most iconic image of World War II? Britons might think of Herbert Mason’s photo of Blitz-era St Paul’s Cathedral framed by thick black bomb smoke, yet somehow undamaged and bathed in a heavenly light. Russians would likely recall the hunched silhouette of a Red Army soldier waving the Hammer and Sickle from the roof of the Reichstag, the tower blocks in the background shelled down to their rafters. Americans would nominate either the US Marines hoisting the Stars and Stripes into the gloomy skies of Iwo Jima or the picture I spot on the wall on the MacArthur Suite’s sitting room.

It’s a spontaneous snap of the General strutting ashore at Leyte Island in October 1944, at the start of the American liberation of the Philippines. He is fulfilling the highly quoted promise — ‘I shall return’ — he made to the Filipino people two years before, when his spirited and tactically adept resistance to the Japanese failed and he was forced to flee to Australia.

Although the claims in the preceding paragraph are widely believed to be true, they are largely false. The tour guide tells me that the photo was far from unplanned. ‘It took them three attempts to get it right,’ she says in a lilting accent that mixes American stressed vowels with rolling Spanish “rs”. ‘The first time, the General believed that he did not look good. The second time, he tripped and fell in the water. The third time, it was a success.’ Moreover, as Professor Vicente Villan of the University of the Philippines has discovered, by the time MacArthur arrived at Leyte on that “historic” day, indigenous guerrillas had already driven the Japanese out of the island. MacArthur chose this particular beach precisely because he knew it was safe and secure. He could step Christ-like from water to land and play the courageous saviour, but without actually having to save anyone or be in any way courageous.

As we turn to a glass cabinet displaying the “Decorations & Medals of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur”, I’m reminded that he made some disastrous military decisions, especially during the early phases of the war. The historian James Hamilton-Paterson observes that, in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), MacArthur ignored a ten-hour invasion warning, failed to provide his troops with basic rations and clothing, and relied on an outdated war plan that resulted in the surrender of 76,000 Filipinos and Americans at Bataan in April 1942. Yet none of this ever came back to haunt him. On the contrary, as Hamilton-Paterson puts it, “Douglas MacArthur’s most remarkable achievement was to turn this whole unpropitious series of events into a mammoth public relations triumph such that he ended the war a national hero, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honour for his defence of Bataan and Corregidor.”

When the tour guide tells me these ‘are not real medals’, my heart skips a beat as, for a moment, I entertain the notion that MacArthur’s entire war record is bogus. Then she justifies her allegation: ‘What we are seeing here are just facsimiles. The actual medals are inside the General’s tomb at Norfolk, Virginia.’

MacArthur’s weakness for whitewashing his career went hand-in-hand with an inflated sense of self-importance. When he accepted the role of Military Advisor to the Philippine Army in 1935, he demanded to be put up at the 100,000-square-foot Malacañang Palace. ‘This was not possible,’ says my guide. ‘The Palace is special for Filipinos. Only our governors and presidents had ever lived there before.’ MacArthur’s second choice was the whole of the fifth floor of the deluxe Manila Hotel. When the government complained that the bill would be too high it was agreed that, alongside his military duties, MacArthur would be made General Manager of the Hotel. Somehow MacArthur was able to finagle exactly the same salary as the then President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon.

I glance back at that photo of MacArthur wading ashore. It reeks of theatrical self-consciousness. Like a Hollywood stereotype of a military leader, the powerful curve of his chin advances out beyond ritzy sunglasses and taut, stoic lips. The uniform unbuttoned at the neck denotes both rebel individualism and Lotharian glamour. As his torpedo-like legs crash through the sea, his beefy hands are clamped to the waist of his billowing khakis. The body language says: “Nothing will stop me.” In Ermita, F Sionil José’s superlative novel of post-war Manila, a chauffeur names his newborn son MacArthur in the hope that “the General’s good looks, his noble visage and everything worth emulating about the Liberator of the Philippines would somehow be transmitted to the baby.” That this oft-photographed flabby and sour-faced old man could be popularly regarded as good-looking is a testament to the power of propaganda to generate intense affection for the MacArthur myth amongst Filipinos and Americans alike.

A textbook narcissist, MacArthur needed such hagiography to buttress his somewhat rickety ego. During bouts of depression, he would call prostitutes up to the Suite, but instead of having sex with them he demanded they tell him repeatedly what a wonderful human being he was. He often threatened to commit suicide, only changing his mind after sufficient amounts of flattery from colleagues. In Michael Schaller’s biography MacArthur: The Far Eastern General, MacArthur aide T.J. Davis tells of how, during one train journey in the US, he finally got sick of the General’s histrionics.

‘As we pass over the Tennessee River bridge,’ MacArthur said in a maudlin tone, ‘I intend to jump from the train. This is where my life ends, Davis.’

‘Happy landing,’ replied Davis wryly.

MacArthur got the message and never again talked about killing himself.

According to the diplomacy scholar Laura A. Belmonte, MacArthur’s behaviour was partly a response to his domineering mother Pinky’s yearning that he be a “glorious Apollo, Roland and George Washington all in one”. As his fame grew during World War II, this yearning behind closed doors became a very public expectation. This only upped the pressure on his fragile sense of self.

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            We peek into the guest bedroom which, either by accident or design, contains many shades of the colour brown. The 1970s-style zigzag carpet is ecru, the teak bedside table seal-brown. The centrepiece is an elegant bed made from nara wood, the swirling grains of its four posters starkly sepia next to the fulgent white pineapple-skin duvet.

‘You know that Bill Clinton stayed here?’ says the guide. ‘And before you ask, no he did not bring Monica with him.’

Clinton wasn’t the first philanderer to stay here. One of the other contributing factors to MacArthur’s depression was his catastrophic affair with the Scottish-Filipina actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who was 26 years his junior. MacArthur made every effort to hide her from public view and — perhaps more importantly for him — from his mother, first in Manila and then in an apartment in Washington, DC. After two reporters on The Washington Post wrote an uncomplimentary profile of MacArthur accusing him of being “narrow-minded, opinionated, vain, egotistical, and dismissive of civilian authority”, the General sued for defamation. However, the reporters got wind of Cooper’s existence, tracked her down and persuaded her to stand as a witness for the defence. Terrified of a career-ruining scandal, MacArthur quickly dropped the suit and paid $150,000 to Cooper to keep quiet and get out of his life.

        In MacArthur’s study are a number of personal affects that epitomise both the man and the myth. Predictably, neither the trademark corncob pipe nor the statesman-like marble-topped desk are original. The brass gilded chair is, however, and dates back to 1939.

‘Sir Tom, do you want to sit down where the great man used to sit down?’ asks the tour guide.

‘Are you sure?’ I frown. ‘I probably weigh more than MacArthur and I don’t want to go down in history as the visitor who broke the only authentic item in his Suite.’

‘Please don’t worry sir, we have had many thousands of visitors sit there, some of them even bigger than you.’

I ease myself down into the chair. It feels as sturdy as a gun emplacement. If there’s a secret centre to the MacArthur Suite, an axis around which everything else revolves, then this chair is it. From here, I feel I can start to understand Douglas P. MacArthur’s life and its close connection with the wider story of Manila, the Philippines and the United States. I look out the north window over Manila Bay. In 1900, just as Douglas’s father Arthur MacArthur Jr. was being sworn in as Governor-General of the US-occupied Philippines, the American architect Daniel Burnham was busy re-designing Manila Bay for the twentieth century. His stated aim was to sanitise, modernise and morally improve the area by building new parks, streets, railways, waterways and a lavish Classical Revival hotel – the hotel I am sitting in right now – overlooking the bay.

But, like MacArthur’s own life story, there were flaws and feints in this narrative of uplift. First of all, Burnham’s civilising mission was seen by many Filipinos as an attempt to conceal the United States’ profoundly uncivilised behaviour in their homeland. While the US was plotting to seize the Spanish Empire’s possessions in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, a nationalist revolution had broken out near Manila. Washington struck a deal with the Katipunan, the revolutionary movement, whereby the US would grant full independence to the Philippines in return for the Katipunan’s assistance in defeating the Spanish. In a scoundrelly move, Washington reneged on the deal and decided that it wanted to rule the archipelago directly as the new imperial overlord. Almost as humiliating for Filipino patriots had been Spain’s decision to sell the Philippines to the US for a paltry $20 million. Furthermore, while mild-mannered American gentlemen were strolling around Manila Bay pontificating about Greco-Roman columns, across the rest of the archipelago the US Army was involved in a counter-insurgency operation that, by 1910, would kill twenty per cent of the population, including thousands of innocent women and children. For the cultural theorist David Brody, the ultimate physical expression of the myth of American benevolence is the Burnham Memorial in Baguio City, a hill station near Manila. The inscription on his bust moralises about “love, amity and mutual respect” which, for Brody, “mitigates a tumultuous history that included the bloodshed, loss and cultural trauma that accompanied the Philippine-American War.”

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Moreover, few of Burnham’s ‘City Beautiful’ plans ever got beyond the stage of blabber about progress and civic harmony. Rather than founding an urban utopia, he was more successful in stamping US cultural superiority over Manila. As Burnham was drawing up plans for the Manila Hotel as an outpost of Western metropolitan luxury amid the colonial boondocks, the young Douglas MacArthur was fast becoming the personification of the abusive and exploitative relationship between the US and the Philippines. After graduating from West Point in 1903, MacArthur joined the 3rd Engineer Battalion in the Philippines, where his father had just been put in charge of the Department of the Pacific. MacArthur was sent out into the jungle to conduct surveys and build bridges as part of the efforts to cement US military authority. During his tour he made contacts within the new American business elite and invested in such lucrative operations as the Benguet gold mines. As Deanna Springola, author of the Power Elite Playbook has observed, during the early 1900s, the US Congress “passed tariff acts allowing free US entry of all Philippine products; this would make the Philippines dependent on the US.”

On the marble-topped desk is a reminder of MacArthur’s other significant encounter during his early visits to the Philippines. It’s a photo of him shaking hands with a slight, nervous-looking man in a cream suit. This is Manuel Roxas, MacArthur’s close friend, military aide and, later on, political crony. The official history goes something like this: after World War II the Philippines lay in ruins and the US government tasked Roxas and MacArthur with disbursing $2 billion in aid. The enlightened Filipino humanitarian and the Hollywood hero of the Pacific spent the money on reconstructing the nation, raising living standards for all. However, James Hamilton-Paterson’s account is closer to the truth:

[In 1945] … MacArthur was given a free hand to arrange

his former fiefdom according to his taste. His personal

support was crucial to getting his old friend Roxas approved

by Washington and elected. So also was his capricious

withholding of US aid for the reconstruction of the Philippines

after the election, thereby making the aid virtually contingent

on Roxas becoming President. Thereafter, the $2 billion in aid

was fought over by various groups of vultures who had good

links with the new ruling elite of MacArthur and Roxas. Only

very little of this fabulous sum (at mid-1940s value, too) actually

went into rebuilding the Philippines’ shattered infrastructure

and economy.

 

There was understandable public outrage. Backed by the Office of Strategic Services and later the CIA, MacArthur and Roxas ruthlessly crushed dissent in the media, the intelligentsia and the rural poor. In some ways, such gangsterish autocracy blazed the trail for future US interventions throughout the Cold War, from Iran to Vietnam, Chile to Nicaragua. In 1946, the Hukbalahap guerrillas (nicknamed the Huks), who had boldly resisted the Japanese during the war, tried and failed to overthrow the central government in Manila.

I rise from MacArthur’s chair and shuffle closer to the window. Down on Bonifacio Drive — named after Andres Bonifacio, a founder member of the Katipunan — a homeless boy, barefoot and caked in tar-black dirt, is holding a frail and quivering hand up to passing cars. It’s a grievous reminder that the injustices that shocked the Huks into rising against the MacArthur consensus persist today. Costing $3,300 a night, the MacArthur Suite in 2014 is just as alien to the experience of the 30 million or so Filipinos who live on less than $1 a day as it would have been to the pickpockets and panhandlers of MacArthur’s time. 76% of the Philippine economy is still owned by an oligarchy that can trace its roots back to either Spanish or American colonisation. The Philippines remains in the grip of “dollar imperialism”, as proven by the ubiquity of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, basketball, and rock and hip-hop music. Having just become the country’s number one trading partner, Japan is now arguably exerting more influence over the Philippines than at any time since the war. The Huks have metamorphosed into the Maoist New People’s Army, which struggles — often violently — on behalf of landless peasants and urban squatters.

I sit back in the chair where, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, General MacArthur did much of his thinking about war, history, politics and business. If this mythical figure were somehow to be resurrected and to find himself in this chair again, would his thoughts about the contemporary Philippines be all that different?

(Originally published in The London Magazine Dec 2014-Jan 2015)

 

 

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Unequivocal Gent? Review of The Setting Sun by Bart Moore-Gilbert

8 Feb

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Bart Moore-Gilbert has argued of the Jamaican-British author Mary Seacole that she sought to gain greater self-understanding by blending autobiography and travel writing in her magnum opus, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. By reflecting on her lived experience of death, migration, racial prejudice and the excesses of imperialism she was able to make some sense of her own identity and how it had been shaped by the world. There are shades of Seacole’s approach in The Setting Sun, Moore-Gilbert’s own new book about a trip to India to investigate his late father’s conduct as a colonial policeman during the chaotic final days of the Raj. In the often painful process of learning about his father, Moore-Gilbert discovers much about himself, and he is forced at every turn to question his own values, theories and memories.

The thirteen-year-old Bart wakes up one night in the dormitory of his English public school, cringing at the cold as much as at the racist epithet a fellow pupil has just mouthed: ‘Get up, Nigger, quick.’ Having recently moved to Britain after a childhood spent in colonial Tanganyika, Bart sees himself as a ‘white African kid’ exiled to a country he can barely comprehend. Marginalised by his peers, he longs for the natural colour and boy’s own excitement of his life in East Africa, playing with his beloved boxer dog Tunney, defending chickens from assault by safari ants, and taking jaunts through the bush to find honey with his minder Kimwaga. Most of all, though, the young Bart misses his father Bill, a gentleman game warden with the debonair integrity of a John Mills or David Niven. That night, Bart is led from the dormitory to his housemaster, who nervously informs him that his father has died in a plane crash. As Bart breaks down, the housemaster’s wife offers him a caramel éclair, in a pathetic act of consolation.

Fast forward five decades to 2008 and the adult Bart Moore-Gilbert, now a professor of postcolonial studies at Goldsmiths College, receives an email from an Indian academic about Bill’s ‘significant role’ in suppressing nationalist rebels in Satara District, western India. Moore-Gilbert is shocked, as ‘this is the first independent reminder in ages that I once had a father.’ Questions start pinging around his head. What exactly was this ‘significant role’ his father played in this infamously dark chapter in British imperial history? What if, like the policeman characters in George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Bill was guilty of intimidation, torture or worse? Moore-Gilbert decides he must fly to India and discover the ‘father I did not know’.

But the truth is fiendishly hard to pin down. Moore-Gilbert searches for it in police archives, university libraries, and takes testimonies both from Bill’s now-elderly colleagues and from some of his enemies, such as the stormy, self-described ‘freedom fighter’ Lad. ‘Gilbert was the terrorist in that campaign, not us,’ Lad blurts out during their interview, which understandably upsets Moore-Gilbert. But after hearing a condemnation of this sort, Moore-Gilbert’s research will throw up a source that suggests the opposite: that Bill was, by community standards, a good cop. This feeling of oscillation provides one of The Setting Sun’s many dramatic propellers.

The son’s mental picture of the father keeps altering as new facts come in and hitherto buried memories resurface. Earlier in the narrative, Moore-Gilbert remembers Bill in almost heroic terms: protecting a local woman from domestic violence, guarding the environment from poachers, or volunteering for a humanitarian mission to save beleaguered Tutsis in what has since become Rwanda (where his plane went down). However, the more he finds out about Bill in India, the more morally hazy his reminiscences of Bill in Tanganyika become, making him wonder, finally, whether his father was such an unequivocal gent after all. Amongst many other things, The Setting Sun is a penetrating comment on the ambiguity not only of subjective memory, but of other supposedly more “objective” forms of knowledge.

For a scholar with Moore-Gilbert’s interests, this very personal quest is bound to have wider political and intellectual dimensions. To his credit, though, the professor eschews theoretical abstraction, instead using his dramatic encounters with people and places as a device for examining complex issues, from the Kashmir crisis to the double standards inherent in Western attempts to define terrorism. In one chilling sequence, Moore-Gilbert visits a tree beside Shalini Lake from which Sepoy mutineers were hanged after the 1857 rebellion and their corpses left out for the crows. ‘I have an awful vision,’ he writes, ‘of tar-black silhouettes against the blinding sky, hands tied behind their backs, rotating slowly in the putrid breeze.’ While his ‘postcolonial political ethics’ are rightly offended by such atrocities of empire and their long-running consequences, he is also worried by vulgar brands of nationalist historiography that try to blame all of India’s contemporary problems on the Raj.

Another of Bill’s former adversaries, a cheerful old-timer named Nayakwadi, has a more nuanced perspective. Despite having been a committed nationalist, he praises the British for dismantling the caste system (even if their motives had more to do with realpolitik than egalitarianism) and argues that Indian independence still hasn’t delivered basic ‘education, health and justice’ to working people. His country’s current malaise is mainly the fault of ‘the capitalist classes’ and he feels ‘no bitterness’ towards the Raj now. To Moore-Gilbert’s relief, Nayakwadi holds no grudges against Bill either, and even seemed to enjoy escaping from the policeman once by dressing up as a woman.

As his journey wears on, Moore-Gilbert starts to accept the impossibility of constructing a full and fair picture of his father. However, what he does find out, what little he can claw back of the Bill he never knew, has a definite healing effect.

Originally published in The London Magazine, October 2014

Review of Calcutta by Amit Chaudhuri

31 Mar

University of Calcutta by wikimedia.org is licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Read my new piece for the London Magazine here

Saints and Cheeses in the Philippines

25 Nov

More of my Philippines ramblings appearing now on the London Mag site:

http://thelondonmagazine.org/tlm-blog/saints-and-cheeses-in-the-philippines-by-tom-sykes/

Review of ‘A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’ by Dervla Murphy (originally published in the London Magazine)

21 Aug

When the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said was asked about his hopes for justice for his people, he paraphrased Antonio Gramsci: ‘I’m a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the spirit.’ While it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the shattered landscapes and tragic encounters of Dervla Murphy’s remarkable new book about Gaza, there are reasons to be optimistic too.

Arriving in the shadow of Operation Cast Lead, in which the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) killed at least 700 civilians at the cost of 13 Israeli lives, Murphy’s worst fears about the plight of Gazans are confirmed. Wherever she turns are bombed-out ruins, shanty towns, desiccated lands, and malnourished and wheelchair-bound children. Shatti Refugee Camp has the worst human living conditions she has seen in seven decades of world travel. Everywhere on the Strip, the tap water is so contaminated that it can penetrate egg shells. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade has made ghost towns of once lively business districts.

The blockade is just one reason why Murphy comes to view Gaza as a prison, more literally than figuratively. Israeli soldiers make for sadistic wardens, brutalising and humiliating the inmates on the pretext of ‘collective punishment’. Farmers risk being shot by snipers from watchtowers as they walk through a free-fire zone to tend the crops their communities rely upon for survival. The enforced isolation of Gaza from the rest of the world has compelled its people to build a network of tunnels for the importation of essential food, medicine and equipment. Weapons are smuggled through “Tunnelopolis” too, but they are nowhere near as sophisticated or numerous as those at the IDF’s disposal.

Near the Israeli border, Murphy visits one particular family who personify this condition of national captivity. They are living a nightmare of perpetual harassment by jeeps, helicopter gunships, warning shots from snipers and taunts through megaphones. Seemingly for the IDF, it is not punishment enough that two of this family’s children have already been seriously injured by shelling.
A Month by the Sea skilfully segues between eyewitness travelogue and external analysis of the social, cultural and political complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Murphy eloquently deflates the myths of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) and its ‘confusing misinformation that makes outsiders feel that they can’t really understand what’s going on – so they lose interest’ (37). While the United States and much of the rest of the world accepts Israel’s disingenuous casus belli – that its very existence is threatened by Palestinian terrorism – the reality on the ground, as Murphy sees, is exactly the opposite: ‘For decades they [the Israelis] have been attacking defenceless populations through curfews, closures, sieges, house demolitions, olive-grove bulldozing, well poisonings, shootings, bombings, torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial’ (162).

In considering the international response, she accuses ‘the duplicitous Tony Blair’ (107) – now Official Envoy to the Quartet on the Middle East (consisting of the UN, US, EU and Russia) – of personally enriching himself by brokering business deals between the Israeli government and the ‘quisling’ Palestinian Authority, whose collaboration with Zionism has driven so many Palestinians into the arms of Hamas and even more extreme factions. The Quartet is nominally committed to a two-state peace process but, so Murphy argues, this is in fact a smokescreen behind which Israeli settlers continue to steal land from the Palestinians.

While Murphy records the testimonies of many Gazans – including the erudite Hamas politician Dr Mahmoud Al-Zahar – it would have been interesting to have heard the opposing view in a close encounter with, say, a leading Zionist. All the same, she is even-handed enough to criticise those tendencies within Gazan society that inflame the conflict and inhibit international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. For Murphy, Hamas’s rule has a ‘flavour of dictatorship’ about it, buoyed by strong currents of Islamic fanaticism and anti-Semitism that have been flowing since the secular Egyptian occupation ended in 1967. However, such immoderation appears to be stoked by Israeli false flag operations intended to divide and rule the Palestinians. When an extremist Syrian imam blew himself up in a Gazan mosque in 2009, the police found Israeli-made explosive vests in the rubble.

Murphy is also concerned about the rights of local women, a quarter of whom are reported to be victims of physical violence. One of the most poignant encounters in the book is with Yara, a twenty-six-year-old who has suffered public ignominy after escaping from a forced marriage and losing custody of her children. One comes away with the sense that, for many Gazan women, there are other kinds of prisons within the prison.

It is a testament to Murphy’s character that she remains brave and upbeat in the face of all this danger and misery. This eighty-year-old grandmother has no qualms about accompanying a group of protestors into a free-fire zone because she has been told that, for PR reasons, the Israelis are less likely to open fire when they see a Western face. Her positivity is more than matched by that of the Gazans themselves, whose philosophy of samoud is a ‘quality not understood by the Zionists, comprised of courage, obstinacy and a calm sort of pride’ (52). The bright young activists whom Murphy meets on Gaza Port’s breakwater believe that a combination of samoud, binationalism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (in the mould of the global campaign against South African Apartheid) will finally achieve freedom and justice for all Palestinians.

(Originally published in the London Magazine)

Travels in Old Asia review (originally published in the London Magazine)

14 May

Western travel writing on Southern Asia may have become a crowded market, but Eland Books has recently republished three of the finest titles in the canon. Dervla Murphy’s Where the Indus is Young is an arrestingly vivid account of one stoical woman and her even more stoical six-year-old daughter’s treks through the Karakorum Mountains of Baltistan, an under-explored province of northern Pakistan. Travels into Bokhara concerns the adventures of Alexander Burnes, the Scottish spy, polyglot and orientalist who is regarded as a prototype of both Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger. An altogether more humorous – but no less evocative – read is Travels on My Elephant, Mark Shand’s quest to discover India from the saddle of a flighty but affectionate elephant named Tara. Although these books differ in many ways, they share preoccupations with cross-cultural encounters, unlikely or unusual itineraries, and the impact of modernity on natural environments and ancient civilisations.

Originally published in 1991, Shand’s travelogue begins on the kind of whimsical note that one associates with the English gentleman traveller-writers of earlier that century: ‘I had decided on a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant.’ After failing to buy an elephant from the wife of one of India’s greatest actors, Shand promptly heads to a small town in Orissa, follows a trail of dung to a camp of saddhus (holy men) and finds Tara, a young and fit – if malnourished – female of the species. It is love at first sight: ‘I knew then that I had to have her’. Recruiting a rum-sodden mahout (elephant master), Shand sets off on a six hundred mile ride to an elephant mela (market) in Bihar. Despite the centrality of elephants to Indian civilisation (we are told that throughout the 13th and 14th centuries AD, epic wars were fought to secure ‘superior breeds’ in Orissa), the sight of one being ridden in the India of the late 1980s by a half-naked Englishman causes children to panic, moped riders to crash and men to literally collapse with laughter. Such scenes prompt one to wonder how Britons might react to a half-naked Indian man exploring their country on the back of a shire horse.

Thus Tara becomes a symbol of the old India in conflict with the new. Perhaps the funniest demonstration of this is when she, a representative of the most traditional form of transport in the Subcontinent, encounters a typically contemporary coach load of Russian tourists. Amid the cries of excitement, Tara proceeds to steal a bottle of vodka with her trunk and empty its entire contents into her mouth.

But there is a serious overtone to Shand’s story too, a real melancholy about the destruction of India’s heritage. He shares his brother-in-law Prince Charles’s distaste for modern architecture and is saddened to find the once-grand Maharaja’s palace of Kheonjar looted and stained with graffiti; ‘an opulence long gone’.

Similar themes permeate Where the Indus is Young. One of the remotest parts of Southern Asia, Baltistan in the late 1970s is a society resisting progress, and this is to author Dervla Murphy’s delight: ‘my reactionary heart throbs with love for Baltistan’. Lack of outside influence has kept Baltis scrupulously honest, as Murphy realises when she is trusted to pay for some bootlaces by simply putting her money in an unsupervised box. When she opens the box she finds out that 500 Rupees – a considerable sum – is inside and that no-one would think to pilfer it. Homes are left unlocked and there is no need for watchdogs, ‘local standards of honesty being so high’. Every village Murphy and daughter Rachel arrive at they are showered with hospitality, even when the inhabitants are in ill health and have only meagre food supplies.

However, this is not a state of affairs that can last, as an enlightening discussion with a local Raja reveals. He is concerned that the central government in Lahore’s road-building and tourism development schemes will bring ‘disease-carrying’ aeroplanes and jeeps. Indeed it is the sudden approach of a jeep – a rare glimpse of modernity on a ‘rocky wall rising sheer out of the [River] Shyok’ – that causes Rachel’s pony Hallam to rear up and almost throw her over the precipice. This chilling moment will forever be engraved on her mother’s memory.

Alexander Burnes also travelled in the Indus region, although he did so some 150 years before Murphy and in very different geopolitical circumstances. The ‘Great Game’ between Russian and British imperial interests in Asia is afoot and Burnes is sent by the Empire to chart ‘a route so unfrequented’: the course of the Indus River beyond the borders of British India. His knowledge of local languages and customs, his talent for disguise (so effective that Turkmenistanis mistake him for an Afghan) and his literary skills (his cousin was Robert Burns, even though the surname is spelt differently) make him the perfect man for the mission.

In an act of what the travel writing scholar Graham Huggan calls ‘shadowing’, Burnes compares his own experiences of these lands to those of his hero, Alexander the Great, some two thousand years previous. At first, the comparisons are unfavourable. With an almost Byronic nostalgia for the oriental civilisations of yesteryear, Burnes regrets the ‘gradual decay’ of the ‘celebrated’ ancient city of Tatta, its beguiling architecture, substantial silk industry, and fertile land having tragically ‘passed away’. Earlier on in the journey, such an attitude seems to go hand-in-hand with patronising judgements about contemporary Asians (‘the cringing servility of the Indians’/‘ignorant barbarians’), but the more Burnes sees of this part of the world, the more impressed with it he becomes. By the time he reaches Kabul he is moved to declare, ‘I do not wonder at the hearts of the people being captivated by this landscape’. To the erudite and open-minded Chief of Kabul he even goes as far as to admit that he has become something of a cultural hybrid: ‘I informed him … that I was an Englishman, and that my entire adoption of the habits of the people had added to my comfort.’

Much the same can be said of the other two writers. After seeing India astride his darling Tara, Mark Shand falls in love with Indian wildlife in general and with Indian elephants in particular. Of visiting the eccentric Eurasian enclave of McCluskiegunge, he writes, ‘perhaps the term Anglo-Indian represented what I was when I rode in’. Dervla Murphy starts integrating into Balti culture as soon as she arrives, embracing the ascetic lifestyle – dried apricot diet and all. Meanwhile, it takes Rachel several gruelling experiences – including a fall into a glacial torrent – before she is ‘completely adjusted to the oriental way of life’.

From great travel writers we should expect great powers of physical description, and this trio does not disappoint. Dervla Murphy is a little hard on herself when she claims that words cannot do justice to the sublime wonder of the Karakorums, as she consistently succeeds in rendering the otherworldly formations of the frozen landscape in the intensely detailed and lapidary style she is rightly famous for:

Much of the track was covered with thick sheets of ice, and

waterfalls had become towering, transparent columns,

surrounded by the bizarre elegance of giant bouquets

of icicles formed around clumps of thyme. Fantastically

convoluted masses of ice hung from roadside rocks…

 

In a similar vein, Mark Shand has a nature lover’s eye for the delicate balance of Southern Asian ecosystems, and how – at least for the time being and in certain locales – peasants in ‘bright lunghis of emerald green’ can live in harmony with ‘piebald and blue’ kingfishers and ‘clumps of bamboo and palm trees’.

Alexander Burnes’s cartographic expertise may have won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, but he is equally adept at bringing to life such sumptuous spectacles as Maharaja Runjeet Sing’s meeting with Lord Bentinck, the Governor-General of India. Burnes writes beautifully of gold and silver-clad noblemen, ‘a lofty arcade of yellow silk’, ‘the richest carpets and shawls of Cashmere’, and a velvet tent ‘glittering with every ornament’. The event concludes with the Maharaja offering the British fifty-one trays of lavish gifts, as well as the finest horses and elephants.

These three books may have been written in different historical moments, but their observations remain of interest today. Burnes, in particular, is sometimes prophetic. He discerns a kind of globalisation taking hold in the ‘commerce extending uninterruptedly over such vast and remote regions’ and upbraids both the African and Islamic slave trades for breaching ‘human rights’. His curiosity about Southern Asia’s melting pot of unique cultures and subcultures prefigures the work of modern travel writers such as William Dalrymple, who fittingly provides the prologue and epilogue to this edition of Burnes’s book. In the afterword to Travels on my Elephant, Mark Shand explains how he set up the Elephant Family, a charity that is still campaigning for the conservation of Asian elephants today. As for Murphy, it would seem that Baltistan has changed little in almost forty years, and its ‘diamond-brilliant summits’ and ‘fearsome peaks’ not at all.

(Originally published in the London Magazine Feb-Mar 2013)

Animal Avenue – Surviving a Megacity with a Four Year Old

18 Jun

Had Darwin lived long enough to visit 21st century Manila, he may have been intrigued by Katipunan. Day and night this anarchic, six lane boulevard is the arena for a lethal competition between diverse species of vehicle and pedestrian. Only the fittest survive. Just before my arrival, there’d been a few hairy incidents. A massive pile-up had demolished several cars and a trendy cafe. An official of the National Prosecutor’s League had ploughed into two teenagers, killing them instantly. A street kid had been squashed by a yuppie reversing his Toyota Fortuner outside the International House of Pancakes. I’d been warned that Manila drivers seldom check their wing mirrors.

Traffic police are a rare sight on Katipunan, but when they do pull someone over they’ll say something like ‘I am Noynoy Aquino’ or ‘I am Jeric Raval’. Such assertions might seem mad; Noynoy Aquino is the President of the Republic and Jeric Raval is a film star, the Filipino Arnold Schwarzenegger. The unsuspecting motorist will wonder if the policeman is suffering from a personality disorder. The more savvy motorist, on the other hand, will know that this is coded language for a bribe. The amount you’re expected to hand over depends on the fame of the celebrity mentioned.

My friend Joel told me about his own perilous encounter on Katipunan. As he was crossing the junction with Esteban Abada Street, a yellow taxi squealed to a halt. There was barely a cockroach’s antenna between its bumper and Joel’s knee. A policeman bounded over as Joel realised that this was his fault for jaywalking. The policeman drew his pistol. Joel started to beg: ‘Please, please, po. I have a wife and young children. I’m a Professor of English Literature at Miriam College.’ But rather than getting Jeric Raval on Joel, the cop stuck his gun through the window of the taxi and told the driver to watch where the fuck he was going. The driver yelled an obscenity back and sped off.

As J G Ballard proposes in his classic novel Crash, there’s something about the automobile that unchains the id, reduces men to beasts. Speeding, road rage, car crashes – hardly the behaviour of evolved, rational beings. But on Katipunan, the naked violence of animals can spread beyond the cars and into nearby places like the Greenbelt Mall. A week into my stay, this was the scene of a tragicomic shootout. The local mayor and his bodyguards were eating lunch when a posse of small-time crooks ran past. Mistaking them for potential assassins, the minders opened fire, killing one. The other crooks ditched their plan to rob a Rolex shop and fled the mall. This, sadly, was not a singular occurrence. A cursory surf of Google News will throw out such cheery headlines as ‘Hell hath no fury: abandoned wife kills 2 in mall shooting’ and ‘Love triangle shooting in mall leaves boy brain dead’.

Katipunan’s history is soaked in blood. The word itself means ‘association’ in Tagalog and refers to a revolutionary cell founded in 1892. Having lost faith in peaceful protest, its leader Andres Bonifacio was committed to the violent expulsion of the Spanish. After several disturbances in 1896-97 – including a massacre of Chinese-Filipinos close to the modern site of the avenue – Bonifacio sort of got his wish, but not quite. The Spanish were driven out, but rather than the Philippines achieving independence, the United States arrived in 1898 as the new colonial authority. Half a century later, Katipunan was reduced to rubble as the Philippines changed hands between the Japanese and the Allies. As the historian Jose S Arcilla writes, ‘Manila was the second most devastated city after Warsaw during the Second World War’. This explains the plethora of postwar, Art Deco-ish tower blocks all along Katipunan. They remind a philistine like me of Gotham City.

One such tower block – Loyola Heights Condominium – became home for my partner Donna, my four year old daughter Daisy and I. Our apartment had two bedrooms and a lounge – the height of luxury in a country where even middle class families squeeze into one room. When Donna started working at the Isis NGO, Daisy and I began exploring Katipunan. It was better than its reputation had implied. At first, anyway.

Ribbons of bougainvillea brightened the traffic islands and Spanish Flags burst across the skywalk. By mid afternoon when the fumes had built up to a pallid mist, these flowers would shine through, conveying a sense of hope. Well, to me, at least. All the nasty smells – sewage, particulates, burning plastic – were somehow offset by siopao (rice flour buns) and chicken balls frying in pavement skillets. Well-groomed men in shorts sold cheese-flavoured ice cream from pushcarts and helium balloons of Disney characters. Skin-whitened, jewel-studded old women stopped and asked us if we needed assistance. Students of Ateneo de Manila and the University of the Philippines (the Oxford and Cambridge of the country) thronged in Mexican-style cantinas, their laughter competing with the buzzsaw riffs of The Eraserheads and other OPM (Original Pinoy Music) bands. The students’ bonhomie was infectious: it always cheered me and Daisy up. Even the street kids – half Daisy’s size but twice her age – would beam at us as we approached the glaring, day-glo frontage of a 7-11.

As we strolled, I noticed a contrast between the rumpus of the road itself and the dullness of the buildings flanking it. Insurance companies, autorepair shops, banks, language schools, fast food joints. Only the latter appealed to Daisy. No wonder, given the sneaky ploys these establishments used to lure the kids in. On Katipunan there were in-house fun fairs and failed actors dressed as bumble bees, promises of toys and crayons and children’s parties. I’d like to say that I rose above all this, that I resisted ‘pester power’, that I was a responsible dad… But no.

The best – or the least worst of the bunch – was Shaky’s. Attractive teens wearing red uniforms and Tony Blair grins skittered between Lego-like plastic furniture, serving pizzas the size of lorry wheels. On one occasion, a Tony Blairess called Pixie apologised as she delivered half a pig on dough: ‘Sorry, Mister, this not as big as you have in your country, no?’

‘Actually,’ I replied, ‘I’ve never seen a pizza this big or unhealthy anywhere in the world.’

One lunchtime, our flirtation with Shaky’s came to an abrupt halt. Daisy and I were sitting by the window watching men chainsawing a tree that had got tangled with an overhead line. I handed Pixie the bill, but Daisy wouldn’t turn away from the window.

‘Time to go, bay-bay!’ sang Pixie, but Daisy continued to treat us to the back of her head, which was now bowed against the glass.

More than a bit concerned, I took her arm and gently pulled her round to face us. She’d scrunched her eyes shut. Sweat was dripping off her brow. The window was streaked with multicoloured vomit. It was as luminous and cartoonish as the furniture. A crowd – amongst them hungry street kids – was gathering outside to stare at the brilliant lime green of the peppers, the blinding yellow of the mozzarella and the dazzling pink of the ham.

Pixie went for help. I fed Daisy water and mopped up what I could with a napkin. An army of grins with mops appeared. I made apologies – in the customary English way – and left a 700 peso (about £10) tip. This was three times the cost of the actual meal.

On our way out, Daisy giggled and called me ‘A big fat pooh pooh bum.’ I took this renewed cheekiness as a sign of recovery.

Shortly before reaching home, we were nearly killed. As the pavement was disappearing into two parking spaces outside the Jeff Gonzalez Auto Emporium, an SUV backed towards us at top speed. I picked Daisy up and dodged into the other space, treading in a puddle of oil. The SUV was blaring out the karaoke national anthem of the Philippines: the risible ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler. This only added to our humiliation.

I put Daisy down and banged my fist on the tinted driver’s window. The anger was burning up from the pit of my stomach and into my eyes. I had always thought ‘seeing red’ was just a metaphor, until that moment, when I was literally seeing red. Everything was a bloody hue. I stood there shaking, panting, feeling the control drain away from me, my free will evaporating like steam into the air. Instinct overrode any concern for safety, consequence or the law. I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling, and the feeling was this: a fucking idiot has almost killed my child and he will suffer. As a lefty peacenik, I’m embarrassed to admit to ever feeling like this. But feel like this I did.

I banged again on the window, my knuckles going numb. The window zipped down. Inside was a group of well-dressed yet profoundly frightened people; VIPs, probably big shots in Manila society: off-duty lawyers, actors, executives. They cowered, mouths like black holes, as if I were threatening them with a gun. ‘I’m so sorry, sir, so sorry, so sorry, so sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry…’ Who did they think I was? The only white, unarmed carjacker in Manila? With his four year old in tow?

It was a pathetic sight, and I was appalled by my own capacity to affect someone like this, to frighten. Whatever switch had flipped in me flipped back. It was like instantly sobering up from a state of intoxication. The burning sensation vanished. I caught my breath. I relaxed my fist – which was now hurting like an absolute bastard.

I looked to Daisy. Her back was turned. She was eyeing up Dunkin’ Donuts. I hurried her away, thankful that she had missed this.

 Originally published in the London Magazine, April-May 2012

©2012 Tom Sykes