Sunday, January 20, 2008

Remembering Mr. Wilson

Sorry it's taken me so long so get something up about last Monday's event - our Time for a Tiger tribute to Anthony Burgess, sponsored by the Malay College Old Boys' Association with a talk about the author given by Dr. Rob Spence.

I didn't want to rush posting this: it was an event I've wanted to happen for a very long time and the whole evening was very special to me. It went some way to stilling an ache in my heart for the neglect of the author of one of my favourite books The Malayan Trilogy.

It's probably the first literary event I've dreamed up where I've had to do almost nothing at all! When I ran my idea past Mustapha Abu Bakar whom I bumped into at the MCOBA dinner, earlier in the year, he embraced it with total enthusiasm and roped in a couple of very able henchmen, Rashidi Aziz and Ghazali Baherein of the Selangor Timur chapter of MCOBA.

When I turned up with Rob and his wife Elaine (hours early because I was so totally paranoid about possible jams on Jalan Tun Razak) everything was already set up for us in Wisma Sejarah and the caterers were just moving in.

Sponsorship for the event had been obtained from Maybank (who have a tiger on their logo) and CIMB, and even there were even very nicely designed banners for the event. (I thank Azizul Kallahan and his team for these.)

Kavita from book distributors Pansing turned up with a box full of copies of Anthony Burgess' The Malayan Trilogy for us to sell at a 30% discount - and more or less the entire stock of the books in the country got snapped up within an hour! (More have been ordered from the UK, I'm glad to say.)

The crowd began to arrive, old boys who are really perpetual school boys laughing and joking around, many of my good friends who come by to support just about every lit event I organise, and new friends made via this blog and Facebook. I was too nervous to eat, sipped a little fruit punch wishing it were a Burgessian gin-setengah for a little dutch-courage.

First to speak was MCOBA president , Dato' Megat Najmuddin (fondly known as Mac) who gave the opening address.

We'd met up with him and the organising committee for hi-tea (Elaine and Rob blinded by the sight of such plenty in the buffet spread!) at the PJ Hilton the day before, to finalise details.

I was to introduce Rob, but I am afraid I wanted to hijack the event for a few minutes to fill in the back story and explain how everything came to be brought together, which seems no less than a miracle to me, looking back.

I spun the story about how I had gone to teach in Kuala Kangsar because I fell in love with a book, how meeting Syed Bakar fuelled that connection with Burgess', how I got upset because no-one else I met in the town or school seemed to know or care about the author ... or was maintaining a conspiracy of silence (highly likely I think in the light of some of the stories told later in the evening).

I talked about how I had tried to organise an event in 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first book of the trilogy - Time for a Tiger, but how the whole think had stalled when the book was placed on a list of "restricted" books, and how it had become necessary for a certain bookshop owner, bloggers and journalists to make a great deal of noise so that restrictions on the book and some other works of fiction were eventually (silently!) lifted. (This got a round of applause, which made me very happy and which I share with all those other noisemakers.)

And how Burgess is now recognised as one of the important British authors of the second half of the twentieth century, so Malaysians and in particular Malay Collegians, should be very proud of that connection.

The last piece of the puzzle was meeting Burgess expert and enthusiast Rob Spence via this blog, and then asking him if he would come to Malaysia to talk on the author. Was I surprised when he said 'yes'! ... provided I could get an official invitation for him, and Prof. Lim Chee Seng of Universiti Malaya very kindly obliged. (I'm so sorry Prof. Lim couldn't make it as I owe him a big thank you.)

Rob then took the floor and gave a really interesting talk about how he felt a personal as well as a professional interest in Burgess after growing up in the same part of Manchester. He gave an overview of Burgess' life but focussed mainly on his time in Malaya including plenty of gossipy snippets which delighted those who had known Mr. J.B. Wilson as a Malay College teacher.

He also took us through the three books of The Malayan Trilogy in which Burgess had made an effort to depict the whole country in its racial diversity (to an extent I think that no author has managed since). The novel has been largely misunderstood by post-colonial academics he said - my feeling too.

One point that Rob emphasised was that English literature owes a great deal to this country
Malaya made Burgess
as it gave Burgess his start as a novelist. It is a debt perhaps owed particularly strongly to the people of Kuala Kangsar and the boys of MCKK.

Then it was time for questions and for those who had been taught by Wilson/Burgess, the real experts, to have their say.

His former students stepped up to the microphone to tell us what they remembered of JB Wilson, the man and the teacher.

We heard about the rows between Wilson and his wife Lynn in the King's Pavillion hostel, and quite publicly in the bars in town, we heard about the succession of guests to their quarters for drinking parties, including the local police chief.

We heard too about how Wilson was an exacting editor of the school magazine pushing young writers to do their best and offering a glass of what looked like kopi-o but turned out to be stout to one young journalist.

We heard too about how one boy remembered Wilson (who was also a composer) playing the piano, and how he worked with him on a piece of music.

My friend Kamalundran who had been a teacher at MCKK, remembered Burgess from the teachers' college in Kota Bahru and recalled how he was a teacher always on th side of the students.

What emerged was a portrait of a man entirely unsuited to the profession, at odds all the time with the school authorities, but able to relate to the boys and in many ways having a profound influence on their lives.

Most of them, anyway. Datuk Hamiddin Abdullah said that for decades he had hated the teacher and had to stop reading Time for a Tiger at the beginning of chapter 3 when he found his own shameful story (reported in confidence) recorded for the whole world to read. Talk about an author stealing from life.

This evening, said Datuk Hamiddin, he had finally changed his mind about Burgess and was going to finish the book, and I actually feel that he may have been feeling proud to be part of the fiction.

I really want to collect these reminisces (and from those who couldn't make it) and if MCOBA agrees, edit them into a book.

My thanks again to everyone who came, and those who helped organise the event. I don't think it could have been a better event.

(Below, the old boys, with Rob, Elaine and myself.)


See also Rob's posts here and here.

There's also a very nice account by inspigoblog.

Camus (previously one of my MCKK little boys!) has a whole lot of lovely photos of the event. here.


Rob Spence said...

Another great entry, Sharon. I've had a go too!

Rob Spence said...

Hey Sharon- did you know that p.54 of the current Lonely Planet guide recommends the "erudite blog" of one Sharon Bakar? More fame!

bibliobibuli said...

oh my goodness!!!! that's made my day!

Diana Cooper said...

Thanks Sharon for an excellent evening brilliant intro and Bob's entertaining and informative talk was brill.I came away wanting to know more. Treat was you both being catalyst for reminisces from the "old boys". A book yes please!!!

Yusuf/Martin said...

Cooee Mr Wilson.

Apologies once again Sharon for not being able to be with you at this important event.

My step-daughter is now at boarding school, and telephones twice a day making us feel guilty about sending here there - ho hum!

I reiterate......anytime you wish to come see us in Perak you are most welcome.

Anonymous said...

Wow, it's been ages since I heard someone say "telephones" instead of "calls" or even "phones".

And well anyway Bib, as I said earlier, this will be the most prominent blog in the country, if not the world.

All you have to do is not fall into the trap that the other bloggers fall into. Give us enough space, and we can make this #1 :)