(Glimpses from behind the lines organising the first KL Litfest, taken from my notebook. This was written August 2, 2004)
I meet British author Paul Bailey for the first time at a dinner arranged by in a local the director of British Council on the first evening of the Litfest. One day down and two more to go. I’m exhausted and in terrible need of a cold beer. A quick shower and a change of clothes. Jalan Ampang is so choked with cars that I’ll never get a taxi, and decide to walk briskly to the restaurant (which I know is in the road behind the twin towers, in an old colonial bungalow). The rain starts to fall gently and I am afraid that I will arrive both wet and late. Fortunately I am neither.
The British Council people are there already with Paul. (The first impression I have of Paul is what remarkable blue eyes he has!). Raman and wife join us – very late because they decided to drive. We sit down for a meal of local Malay dishes – very nicely cooked beef rendang, pumpkin in coconut milk, chicken curry – everything served so ethnically (on a banana leaf in a little woven tray) so that it looks more authentic than real Malay food. And the beers – everyone else drinking wine – slide down really easily, dissolving the tensions of the day.
It’s a little strange sitting down to talk for the first time with someone in whose head you have been living so intensively for the past couple of months – or is it has he been living in my in my head? (The uncanny alchemy between reader and read.) I’ve read six of his novels and enjoyed them greatly, his two books of memoir and one of his biographies. He’s been short listed twice for the Booker - that holy grail of literary success – making him one of Britain’s most significant novelists.
We’re all a little formal and polite, but Paul is amusing company, a great storyteller – we laugh at his descriptions of previous trips for the British Council, especially his account of his trips to Romania, a country he loves for it’s sheer absurdity. It’s strange though, I smile through the stories but already know what he is going to say – could even finish them for him because I’ve read his memoirs …
At the end of the evening worried that I won’t have much chance to see much more of Paul who has a very full schedule for the next few days, I pour the pile of books from my bag and ask him to sign them, which he does, graciously, taking time to put a different inscription in each. Raman and missus have agreed to give me a lift back to the hotel and just as we are walking out wife hisses at me, did you have to keep him talking so long, some of us want to get to bed. Anyway, I don’t know what you find so exciting to talk about in books, she adds. And I fix her with a very deliberate glare and say – listen, this is my reward for all the hard work I’ve put into organising the literary festival. (She didn’t think I was in it for the money, did she?)
Back a the hotel I drop by the bar. We’ve organised a songwriter’s round with four singer songwriters taking turns to play and tell the story behind the song. The music is excellent (Mia has a voice that makes the hairs raise on the back of your neck) and the bar is full of enthusiastic listeners. And just as I get there I find Paul Bailey there propping up the bar already, (goodness, he doesn’t waste much time!) and we both laugh and resume our chat over a drink feeling much more relaxed by now.
And Paul asks me and I know he’s going to (because didn’t I just read his memoirs?) – is there a gay scene in Kuala Lumpur? I laugh and say that I don’t know much about it, but I’ll introduce him to some friends who will … and I catch Pang and Jerome as they come off stage and there’s Bernice and Zedeck and Lorna and so many others to introduce to him as well. I make my excuses because I’m exhausted and need to sleep (but as it happens I have my second almost sleepless night thanks to an equal measure of excitement and anxiety.) And I know I’ve left Paul in good hands.
Apparently, after I left, Paul did a reading of an episode from his memoirs – his first gay encounter (with a London bus conductor), which went down very well. Singaporean poet Alfian Sa'at also read. Paul was so taken with Alfian’s writing (and perhaps with him???) that he said he wants to help him find a UK publisher. Hey, how’s this for networking!
Over the next few days I get to know Paul rather better. The British Council has him scheduled in for a number of things: there’s the meet the author session where he reads from his books and talks about his work, a forum on the state of literature and publishing, book signings, and a talk at the national library which I have organised. But in the evenings, he’s back there at the bar. And I have such a great time talking to him about his books and how they were written. I’m really chuffed when he tells me that my interpretation of “Sugarcane” (the novel I liked the best) is an excellent reading of the book. But there’s a strangeness in having the puppeteer tell you how he manipulates the strings. I was so fond of Gabriel in “Gabriel’s Lament” – don’t really want to know where the idea for making him a cross-dresser came from – believe in the character’s authentic separate existence and as a reader really don’t want to know more. (Though as a writer …)
Saturday night and the last night of the Litfest, I’m too exhausted to move, to even go home although all my work is finished. I have dinner with Jean in the hotel coffee shop – can barely even eat because I’m feeling so exhausted. Paul joins us, and his company is enough to make me feel much better. We meander back to the bar for a while. He’s anxious to see Pang, Jerome, Zedeck and Alfian … the lovely young men … but tonight they aren’t around. We sit and have a drink with a couple of local writers and film director Sean Walsh (the guy who directed the James Joyce film “Bloom”). I SMS MissFixIt who tells me that the whole gang is at a night club across town and asks us to join her. I’m shattered but Paul wants to go, and I’m so worried about him not being able to cope with taking a taxi and look after himself that I end up agreeing to go along with him to Frangipani.
How long is it since I went to a nightclub? Paul’s a pensioner and much more into wild nightlife than I am. We pour into a taxi. The driver tries to rip us off thinking that we are tourists but I get angry and chide him in Malay and he agrees to stick to the meter plus the after midnight charge.
Frangipani is a small, very intimate nightspot lit by candlelight. There’s a private party going on but no-one minds that we gatecrash. The party has an Indian theme; everyone is wearing bindi (the dots on the forehead) and garlands of jasmine and dancing to Indian music with a heavy beat. All our friends are there having a good time. It’s the nicest possible end to the festival. MissFixIt and I laugh about how we want to stage a coup and make a future Litfest our own – both of us loving to work with writers and be in the centre of things, but knowing that we will never work with Raman again a because of his rudeness. And we're so high this night that everything seems possible.