Then and Now
Somerset Maugham begins the fourth Volume of his collected short stories with this preface:
In this final volume I have placed the rest of my stories the scene of which is set in Malaya. They were written long before the Second World War and I should tell the reader that the sort of life with which they deal no longer exists. When I first visited those countries the lives the white men and their wives led there differed but little from what they had been twenty-five years before. They got home leave once in five years. They had besides a few weeks leave every year. If they lived where the climate was exhausting they sought the fresh air of some hill- station not too far away; if, like some of the government servants, they lived where they might not see another white man for weeks on end, they went to Singapore so that they might consort for a time with their kind. The Times when it arrived at a station up-country, in Borneo for instance, was six weeks old, and they were lucky if they received the Singapore paper in a fortnight.
Aviation has changed all that. Even before the war people who could afford it were able to spend even their short leave at home. Papers, illustrated weeklies, magazines reached them fresh from the press. In the old days Sarawak, say, or Selangor were where they expected to spend their lives till it was time for them to retire on a pension; England was very far away and when at long intervals they went back was increasingly strange to them; their real home, their intimate friends, were in the land in which the better part of their lives was spent. But with the rapidity of communication it remained an alien land, a temporary rather than a permanent habitation, which circumstances obliged them for a spell to occupy; it was a longish halt in a life that had its roots in the Sussex downs or on the moors of Yorkshire. Their ties with the homeland, which before had insensibly loosened and sometimes broke asunder, remained fast. England, so to speak, was round the corner. They no longer felt cut off. It changed their whole outlook.
The countries of which I wrote were then at peace. It may be that some of those peoples, Malays, Dyaks, Chinese, were restive under the British rule, but there was no outward sign of it. The British gave them justice, provided them with hospitals and schools, and encouraged their industries. There was no more crime than anywhere else. An unarmed man could wander through the length of the Federated Malay States in perfect safety. The only real trouble was the low price of rubber.
(W Somerset Maugham, Collected Short Stories, Volume Four)
I am a big fan of Somerset Maugham. I have always loved his stories and since coming out here have liked them even more. So many are set in this part of the world. Living as I do now, as an expatriate, I am interested in how expats in the past have lived. What he writes here in this preface is true now only more so. Aviation, so to speak, has taken off even more in recent years. There are many direct flights from Hong Kong to London each day, all full. Then there is the telephone and the internet and all the other means of mass communication.
During my recent holiday home to visit family the School situation exploded. I was able to talk with everyone I needed to on my mobile standing in a forest in Scotland and deal with letters, read reports, answer the Press, etc, etc, all from hotel room as if I was in my study back here. The time difference was a little inconvenient, and it was not how I would have chosen to spend the holiday, but geographical distance made little difference.
It’s the same now I am back. I can phone family for less than it used to cost me to phone from Scotland and email is always there. I am a child of this global village no less than anyone else, but reading these stories of an age now gone does make me wonder if we are any happier and fulfilled. There is a charm about the life they lived. It was slower, but I wonder how much more we achieve with all our rushing around and constant communications.
One thing is for sure though, it’s not going to get any slower any time soon!