“Well, you need a nice, clearly written piece setting out your feelings about being a writer, and your achievements, and your views on literature and society generally,” she said, a bit plaintively. I looked at her goggle-eyed, this time not because she was attractive (although she still certainly was), but because I couldn’t believe I’d paid serious money to get ‘expert advice’ on how to post stuff about myself on the net and in return had been hearing that I should turn out bland verbal candyfloss, with a little dollop of how-good-I-am-for-society on top. What follows here, then, competent or otherwise, at least aims to get away from the sort of finely tooled smooth-talk that flows forth when crooks try to persuade you to put your money into their investment schemes. Please look on it instead as a collection of pages from a scrapbook, more truthful than most (and that includes the picture below).
(ii) My first memory of international geopolitics is of hanging out of a window watching enemy rockets coming over from points southeast; occasional loud explosions as one came down nearby. I am sorry to say that I treated it all as a wide-canvas firework display, but I was very young at the time.
(iii) Somewhat later I got into education in a rather good school which led eccentrically – the school prefers not to remember the precise circumstances – to teaching there for a couple of terms, and then on to Oxford; a miserable experience, heavily blighted for five years by severe obsessive-compulsive condition, with me repeatedly counting down the time to the end of term. I do not doubt that treatment now would be incomparably better for people in such states, and it would need to be. At that time others fared even worse than I did, but let me record that despite fairly useful contributions in the sporting sphere and rather good results elsewhere (sandwiched admittedly between rotten results), I was aware of only one expression of concern and one single actual move by the collegial authorities to react to a condition so severe it led to some mockery from other students, and isolated me from most benefits of university life (including studies); that move was in the last month of my years of residence when they arranged a consultation with a physician. (Low-intensity and both cost- and benefit-free).
(iv) Surprisingly soon afterwards, there was a year messing around in classrooms with malodorous youths and nubile girls (nubile they were, but I was already engaged – we had morals in those days), teaching subjects in which I had absolutely no official qualifications. I am inclined to think the teaching wasn’t too bad for the pupils; it certainly benefitted me. Then, even more surprisingly, I found myself applying for university posts in linguistics despite not having started doctoral research. Around here we see a fine example of how a single remark, or in this case question, can drastically change the whole course of one’s future existence. Having made two or three applications and still being on the outside, I entered for the last job going in that field in that year, and went down from London to Exeter by train. I noted that there were (and are) two stations in that city, and so carefully avoided getting off when the train stopped in the one called St.David’s, waiting for it to set off again for Exeter Central. After a minute or so, it occurred to me that where I was now might be closer to the University, so for once I broke through my usual diffidence to ask another passenger who happened to be sitting nearby. He told me, correctly, that Exeter Central was (and is) a small station on a side line going down to the seaside; I was already at the only place the train would stop in Exeter. I grabbed my bag and leaped out of the train just before it set off. At the interview, I was the only candidate who turned up. As the train was an express with its next stop far down in Devon, it is near certain I would not have made it to the interview, and heavy odds on that I would not have contacted the University before the time scheduled, had I stayed on the train. (Only the army had mobile phones in that era.)
(v) My linguistics veer towards the theoretical (i.e. useful) end of the spectrum so I fitted fairly well into a small but excellent philosophy department for the first ten years, led by Dan O’Connor, a highly respected philosopher, whose conversation, when he overcame his diffidence, was full of off-beat interest, for instance the information about Napoleon’s personal hygiene, which he got from his friend Bertrand Russell. Russell, born in 1872, had been brought up by his grandfather, who at the age of fifteen had travelled as a pageboy on a British mission to Paris, and came back impressed as much as anything in France by the dirty state of the imperial fingernails.
(vi) In 1986 I left that University. By then I was in a rather loose-jointed outfit called a language centre (in the same sort of way that a zoo might be called an animal centre), and I was struck by the contrast between the appreciation I was getting and the work I was putting in; at home I was struck by divorce proceedings. (Although we parted on bad terms, my former partner was the best academic administrator I ever came across, and why the University let her get away is a dark mystery.) I headed off to Singapore, pausing only to spend a semester as an academic advisor in Thailand, during which time I met the admirable and talented lady who became my third wife, who has now managed to put up with me for more than 25 years.
(vii) The National University of Singapore is a first-rate university, even though some of its management practice in those days might have been thought unusually brusque in the west. A story, for the truth of which I cannot vouch personally, has a chap in one of the medical departments, hoping soon to get a contract renewal, who offers to pitch in when he sees a collection being taken in the staff lounge; this leads to an embarrassed silence and being told he cannot. Why not? Because it is for his own farewell present, and that, the story goes, is how he learns that he will not get the renewal. Singapore certainly can be different, and not just because education is highly valued there. I remember reading a news report of a government minister urging his audience to have fun at work; not just for the sake of having fun, he said, but because fun products sold better. All the same, generally the balance between organising the population and making life better for its members, works out more favourably there for most people than it does in most other countries including at least two that I know in western Europe.
(viii) Regrettably this agreeable lifestyle had to end early because of health problems (not my own, but of other members of my family) which took us back to Europe, specifically Britain. At that time if you were over 50 and not a member of any of the special networks (we all know what they are, but identifying them is seldom wise) one’s chances of a job were dim. Admittedly the situation then was better than now because – whatever official statements say – nowadays it is hard to get a job at any age, if the work can be done instead by a machine, or by forgetting about national workers altogether and outsourcing it to workers on 80p a day in Bangladesh, or by making someone else do twice as much work as before. (There is a fourth device popular in the service ‘industries’ which is to avoid actually providing the service; this is particularly popular with banks.) But even then trying to maintain a family on an income far below the poverty line wrought very quick havoc with savings. That was one reason for considering emigration. Another was dismay at seeing respectably high levels of national culture, and of civilisation, in the broad and very important senses of honesty, self-restraint and willingness to cooperate with others, all leaking out of British society as if somebody had pulled out the plug of a huge drain in the centre of England.
(ix) So re-emigration it was, to Thailand, where we had family relations. At one point, through the intervention of a well-meaning friend, I took a contract with a university supposed to be one of the country’s finest. This involved unfortunately living in Bangkok, and also introduced me to academic standards I had never previously dreamt of. I asked for leave to stop wasting my time (politely avoiding that phrase) and to cut short the contract as allowed for under its terms, giving the written notice specified. In this case it was the management which was taken by surprise when I said my farewells, the day before my notified and announced departure, though they extricated themselves by deeming that I was still teaching, and being paid, for another three weeks despite not actually being present. The desire to become a member of a similar institution here seems since then to have left me.
(x) Tucked into unobtrusive folds in this career have been longish periods living in Greece, Canada (an undiscovered centre of world civilisation, as the travel writers might say), Brunei, and the Netherlands (as well as three months in Brazil) so I am by now well aware of the strain on the nerves, and energy, and financial standing, of moving a household between countries and in any case there would be an insuperable strain on that financial standing in moving to any of the countries I would actually like to go to. Thus, tolerating the disorganisation, hating the climate, shocked by the rampant consumerism, unenthusiastic about the corruption, troubled by the noise and frankly worried by the pollution, we are still in Thailand, where I have enjoyed both writing books of my own and editing books of others.
Editor’s note. The above does not appear to assist much with what a page like this is supposed to do. I shall therefore take it upon myself to intervene and add a few points, but immediately find myself in the difficulty that personal friendship may undermine objectivity. Since my friend values objectivity very highly in personal judgements I believe my best course, as his friend, is to limit myself to citing a number of his less agreeable characteristics where there is less risk of our friendship falsifying the picture. Irascible he is, pedantic if given half a chance, inclined to expect other people to follow rules of good behaviour though not very good at it himself; quick to grumble; prepared to cause unpleasant scenes, as for instance when his detestation of muzak and ‘easy-listening’ ‘music’ has led to incidents of walking out of restaurants with voluble offensive comments; and a man with such a ridiculously weak grasp of human nature that he expects, for example, good behaviour on the part of governments. His views on international politics in parrticular should therefore not be taken seriously, but the same is probably true for most other matters on which he expatiates.