|Richard Cloue, Laure Michel and Robert Raymer at Fort Margherita|
Three weeks after receiving an out-of-the-blue email from France, I found myself being filmed in Borneo talking about Somerset Maugham for the Franco-German Cultural Channel Arte for a program called “The Invitation to Travel” or L’Invitation au Voyage. I was filmed in three locations (not counting outtakes in the jungle) over two days: Fort Margherita, my office, and on the riverbank at Kampung Git.
Having read Trois autres Malaisie, the French translation of Lovers andStrangers Revisited, Laure Michel, French journalist and cultural documentary filmmaker contacted me with the help of Shan Iman, a Production cum Location Manager & Fixer, hired to liaise and organize their two week trip to Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and Sarawak. Their initial goal was to film a segment on “Sensual Malaysia of Somerset Maugham” (“Sensuelle Malaisie de Somerset Maugham”) and also “The Pepper of Sarawak” since it’s venerated by the great chefs of Paris.
I knew nothing about the pepper industry, even though my neighbor recently started to grow it next door, but I am vaguely familiar with Maugham, having read a collection of 65 of his short stories more than once, his autobiography The Summing Up, and numerous accounts of his life and his visits to Malaya and Borneo over the past several decades…
I first became intrigued with Maugham back in 1980 when I visited the old Raffles Hotel in Singapore, before it was heavily refurbished, aware that Somerset Maugham had stayed there.
Then in Penang, at the old E & O Hotel, inside the 1885 Room, I once wrote, “I glanced around at the other hotel guests and patrons…the Westerners, in particular. They all seemed to have a somber, yet dignified look about them like characters stepping out of a story by Joseph Conrad or Somerset Maugham, both of whom had reputedly stayed there.”
After deciding to take up the challenge, I needed to brush up on my Maugham, so I reread The Summing Up, his Borneo stories, others set in Malaya including “The Letter” and a few celebrated stories like “Rain” set elsewhere.
Unlike Anthony Burgess who taught in Malaysia and Rudyard Kipling and EM Forster who lived in India, Maugham was just passing through, so he had no vested interest; therefore he could be objective and critical of the British Raj, even poke fun at them.
I knew I could never be a “Maugham expert” in a few weeks, so I decided to focus my attention on his two visits to Sarawak in the 1920’s. That’s when I discovered a gem…that back in 1921, Somerset Maugham nearly died in Sarawak.
While paying a visit to the third White Rajah Brooke of Sarawak, Maugham traveled by boat with his friend and companion Gerald Haxton downstream near present day Sri Aman, when the sudden rush of the ten-foot wave from a tidal bore swamped their small craft and sent Maugham, Haxton, and the native crew into the river where they barely survived.
Had Somerset Maugham drowned in that tidal bore, he would never have written the short story “The Yellow Streak” based on that very near-death encounter. Nor would he have written any book after The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands. There would be no The Painted Veil, no The Casuarina Tree, no Cakes and Ale, no The Razor’s Edge, and no Ashendon—and possibly no James Bond since Maugham’s spy stories had inspired Ian Fleming!
Instead of living to be 91, Somerset Maugham would have died at age 47!
Suddenly I became excited by the possibilities.
Then I thought if I could write an article on Somerset Maugham in Sarawak, beginning with that near drowning episode since it was so dramatic, it would help to crystallize my thoughts and prepare me for my talk.
I Googled and read nearly two hundred pages on Maugham from dozens of interviews, book reviews of several biographies, and a few critical analyses of his Borneo stories and his writing style. I also consulted several books on hand, including a full chapter on Maugham’s writing in the South Seas, and my set of Britannica encyclopedias (from high school)—researching not only Maugham, but also Malaya, Sarawak, Borneo and other related topics, plus I spent a full afternoon at a library…. Afterwards I had ten single-spaced typed pages of usable notes.
This was taking far more time than I had, so I decided to abort writing the actual article until later, and just focus on the task at hand—being able to talk competently about Maugham, not as an academic presenting a paper at a conference, but as a fellow writer (which was why they chose me instead of a historian) giving a lively account of his time here and the stories he wrote.
Having written extensively about Malaysia and having lived in Sarawak for ten years, I now had to make this personal connection to Maugham and have that come across on film.
So I broke down those ten pages into five distinct parts: Maugham Country; Maugham the traveler; Maugham’s ideas for his stories; Maugham being criticized; and Maugham’s jail-bound characters (and those that should’ve been)….I distilled these into five handwritten pages in a medium-size notebook.
Then I underlined the key phrases and quotes and tossed the rest until I got the essential down to two index cards (front and back) that I could practice off camera and elaborate more freely while being interviewed. I knew that, unlike a presentation, these five parts were not going to be in order—even within the same part—since I would be fielding questions from an interviewer.
Plus I had to plan out which part would be most relevant to where I was being filmed—still up in the air. So I had to be extremely flexible….That was my plan.
Once it was confirmed (the day before the shooting) that we would start at Fort Margherita (and not in the jungle), I knew I needed to start with the last section first and I knew exactly where I wanted to be while being filmed—in jail. I just had to sell that idea to Laure and her chief filming operator, Richard Cloue, to make sure it happens.
In the midst of all this, I was in communication with several other writers so Laure could interview them in Kuching, in Kuala Lumpur, and in Malacca. For some, the timing (and the short notice) was all wrong, so they couldn’t commit. Jerome Bouchaud, who translated my book Trois autres Malaisie and is the author of Langkawi Style, strongly recommended a fellow Frenchman, Serge Jardin, author of Malacca Style, for Malacca.
When Laure filmed him before coming to Kuching, she was impressed that he not only read my book but had it on his shelf next to Somerset Maugham.
I also put Laure in contact with Bernice Chauly, author of Growing Up with Ghosts, for the Kuala Lumpur segment. Like me, Bernice was reluctant to reply to that initial out-of-the-blue email, so I told Laure I’d track her down via Facebook, and then I sent a copy of Laure’s email and attachment, spelling out their filming plans. She came on board and Laure couldn’t praise her enough.
I was relieved that both of those interviews worked out well. They also managed to film inside the Royal Selangor Club, or “The Spotted Dog”, for their segment on cricket as part of the Maugham story and even got to meet a Prince!
For the Sarawak pepper story, I put Laure in contact with Karen Shepherd who writes for Kino (Kuching In and Out). Another writer had suggested that her husband Peter John Jaban could be a big help, and he was!
Thus began a slew of emails between Laure and me, Karen and me, and then Laure and Karen together as I tossed about ideas, including lobbying for shooting at Fort Margherita. Initially Laure was skeptical; she wanted to avoid Kuching town and wanted to interview me at my house and in the jungle…
I then suggested Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, a former orangutan sanctuary, now more like a half-way house, only fifteen minutes from where I live.
Soon Karen took on a heavier role as part of the production team and would get paid, too, which I was glad to hear, unlike the rest of us being interviewed—we had to sign off those rights.
Karen proved invaluable and Laure was so glad I had brought them together. Not only would Karen be interviewed on the pepper trade, but through Peter, who was Iban, they had arranged to visit some pepper plantations and even rent a longboat for a trip on the upper Sarawak River that I would get to tag along with for my jungle shot.
My initial reaction, “An adventure!”
Also, Laure planned to do a third film on Peter, for a segment called “A Personal Invitation,” a discovery of a wild place close to Peter’s heart.
Coincidentally, when Laure arrived in Kuala Lumpur, Karen and Peter were in town for a wedding, so they met to finalize arrangements for the various Sarawak shoots—now three projects at multiple locations spread over five days.
When they couldn’t obtain a filming permit at Semenggoh, since they required a full month notice, I suggested we go there anyways for the morning feeding time; that way they could at least film the orangutans as a tourist and work that footage into their documentary.
I also contacted Liza Sedini, the manager of the Brooke Gallery@FortMargherita. I had done a tiny piece on the gallery for Silk Air for their March ‘17 issue. Years before, I had visited Fort Margherita twice, so when this Maugham project came up, I asked Liza if she had anything on Maugham’s meeting the Third White Rajah. She suggested that I contact Jason Brooke, the sixth generation of the Rajah Brookes, in London, so I sent him an email.
Then I found out from Liza, while making plans to visit the gallery to brush up on my White Rajah history, Jason Brooke was flying into Kuching that same weekend for another event. I immediately lobbied both Laure and Karen that they should arrange an interview with Jason Brooke at Fort Margherita—imagine meeting a descendant of the White Rajahs at the Fort!
Karen thought this was a great idea; like me, she was skeptical of the jungle shoot since neither of us could visualize Somerset Maugham in the jungle. Besides, they would have plenty of jungle on the pepper story, and they would need some town shots of the various pepper middlemen and traders.
Between the two of us, on the day before the shooting, we finally got Laure to agree on Fort Margherita and also Jason Brooke to agree on being interviewed on the pepper trade. Liza and I had been keeping him on standby since we knew this would be great publicity for the Brooke Gallery, which had just opened in September 2016.
Since Jason’s flight back to London was Sunday afternoon, it was agreed that we would meet at Fort Margherita after Liza had volunteered to open the fort two hours early, at 8am for us.
Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in eurasie.net, Malaisie.org, easyvoyage.com, and Petit Futé mag.
The ARTE TV report will be broadcasted on June 5th: http://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/071100-062-A/invitation-au-voyage. It will be available online until August 4th!