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The man on the verandah December 16, 2008

Posted by Jenny in literature, travel.
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W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham

“I was at Pagan, in Burma, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay, but…when the boat tied up for the night at a riverside village, I made up my mind to go ashore.  The skipper told me that there was a pleasant little club in which I had only to make myself at home; they were quite used to having strangers drop off like that from the steamer, and the secretary was a very decent chap; I might even get a game of bridge.  I had nothing in the world to do, so I got into one of the bullock-carts that were waiting at the landing-stage and was driven to the club.  There was a man sitting on the verandah and as I walked up he nodded to me and asked whether I would have a whisky and soda or a gin and bitters…”

And so a story begins.  We have entered the world of the languorous tropics, where the men and women of the Empire sought commercial opportunity or romance or escape.   And those people thrived or stagnated or sometimes abysmally failed, dying of fever or languishing in opium dens.  Just as rot sets in quickly in warm climates, the pace of spiritual decay seems to accelerate when it occurs in Singapore or Jakarta.  Fate seems to have brighter colors, harsher consequences there.

W.  Somerset Maugham based the story “Mabel” (excerpted above) on a trip he took to Burma in 1923.  His travels in the tropics began in 1916, were interrupted by what he simply referred to as “the war,” and continued through the 1920s.  His methods of travel were entirely different from what any tourist would experience in the 21st century.  He did it by boat and by rail, finding a berth on a small freighter steaming to Singapore, or hiring a rickety Ford with a driver to take him to a railhead in northern Siam.  And the web of the Empire made it all possible.  The little Polynesian island would be inhabited by the “D.O.” (the district officer) enforcing some version of a British notion of order, and perhaps there would be a tattered missionary or two.  Maugham could count on finding a room at the D.O.’s house and a club where a few sun-darkened, topee-wearing planters or merchants would be having their gin and their hand of bridge.

He seems to go everywhere, and in every little stop he makes there seems to be some person impaired by moral confusion or recovering from the whiplash of circumstance,  in a place where the sun flames as it sets over the palm trees and the jungle is full of ominous noises.

“I had been wandering about the East for months and at last reached Haiphong.  It is a commercial town and a dull one, but I knew that from there I could find a ship of sorts to take me to Hong-Kong….”

“I left Bangkok on a shabby little ship of four or five hundred tons….”

“When I left Colombo I had no notion of going to Keng Tung, but on the ship I met a man who told me he had spent five years there….”


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