Thursday, December 11, 2008

Let Rome in Tiber Melt

Using the Paul Theroux yardstick: "A traveller doesn't know where he is going. A tourist doesn't know where he has been", Norman Lewis (1908-2003) was one of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century. In his early book Golden Earth: Travels in Burma, he had the last word on expats, a strange breed of homo sapiens that has been around as long as our discontent with civilization. It was Mark Antony who uttered the title of this post, in Shakespeare's Antony & Cleopatra. He was with Cleopatra in Egypt, and wished never to see Rome again.

“There was something of a party on the Menam that night. A couple of tin-miners came aboard and were entertained by friends. The Captain made his first appearance, and later came over to my table. He had heard that I was a writer, and would like to know what I proposed to write about. Burma, I told him, knowing infallibly what was to come. And what were my qualifications? . . . How long had I lived, or would live in the country? I had arrived a week before, and might stay a few months.

The Captain found it hard to conceal his exasperation. For twenty-eight years he had knocked about these coasts, and he seemed to feel that anyone who had spent less time in the Far East than he, had no right to write about it. The things he had seen in his days! The stories he could tell if he felt like it! And what did this rare information amount to, when finally after a few more double whiskies the process of unburdening began? A little smuggling; a little gun-running; repetitive descriptions of homeric drinking bouts in which the Captain had justified his manhood and his race against all comers; fun with Burmese ‘bits of stuff’. Of this material were his Burmese memories composed.

And this was the common, almost the invariable attitude. The old hands seem to feel that they possess a kind of reluctant, vested interest in the place of their exile. Without having suffered with them the long, boring years of expatriation, it was an impertinence to have an opinion. And yet when questioned they would often boastfully display their ignorance, their contempt and distaste for everything about the country. As soon as the central streets of Rangoon were left behind there was never another European to be seen.

It has always been the same. Of all the Europeans who visited Burma, from earliest times down to the days of Symes’ Embassy at the beginning of the last century, only eight troubled to give any account of the country, however brief. Hundreds of factors of the East India Company resided in Syriam, Pegu or at Ava, yet none of them in his letters shows any evidence of curiosity about the strange life that went on around them, or that he ever thought of Burma other than in terms of ‘Ellephants teeth, Pegue Plancks, Tynn, Oyle, and Mortavan jars’.”

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