Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dateline: Thailand 1967

A Quiet Noonday beer in Bangkok

Though I had arrived in Thailand as one of a group of twenty or so Canadian journalists on a special round-the-world flight by an RCAF long-range Yukon military aircraft, back in 1967, it was on one particular fine cool morning when, by chance alone, I came across an attractive large café-restaurant set well apart from the more modern parts of the city.

A few hours before, some of the television crew, going off in their borrowed jeeps to take footage of the Floating Market and other typical attractions of Bangkok life, had invited me to go with them. But I declined, saying I would wait to watch their documentary coverage on my home TV in a week or two, when we were back in Canada.

So, after leaving the hotel I had wandered aimlessly for an hour or two through the colourful Bangkok streets. I enjoyed being an inconspicuous part of the bustling life around me.

Then, nestled away from the noonday sunshine, far from the hotel, the peaceful uncrowded expanse of a shaded and well-kept café, its tables facing the large city square, had enticed me to sit down in quiet solitude and order a cool beer.

Back then, forty-two years ago, in 1967, Bangkok was still largely very ordered and peaceful. For half an hour I sipped beer, smoked my pipe, and watched the colourful pageant of passers-by: cyclists, street hawkers and the many charming young women busy with babies and market produce.

Suddenly there was a well-rehearsed stir of activity among the café staff. The head waiter himself, bowing importantly, bustled out to the terrace entrance where several large limousines had arrived. The café staff opened the car doors and deferentially assisted thirty or more passengers to alight. At once I understood the reason why the long central table, with other smaller ones grouped around in satellite fashion, had until now been kept strictly unused in pristine reservation.

From my small table a dozen yards away, and seated with my back to a flower-bedecked lattice screen, I could discreetly enjoy what was obviously a large family event to the fullest extent. For a large family gathering it most certainly was. And a very loving family. As soon as the feeble patriarchal figure of the old gentleman was placed in his seat at the head of the table the rest of the party cheerfully settled themselves into their places with much animated chatter, mostly in the Thai language but often interspersed with snatches of English. And I was delightedly intrigued to hear one of the lissome young matrons, as her young son spilled a glass of juice over his bare legs, exclaim: Oh, Crumbs! Obviously, I thought to myself again, an intriguing story lies here.

With no delay, and requiring little interaction with the guests, waiters were at once placing food and drink in front of this large, pleasant, and handsome group.

This gathering, my own waiter informed me, after I asked him its meaning, was a regular happening. Every one or two weeks, he said, for many, many years past.

The old gentleman? He was a little surprised by my question. Why he said, that is the English Lord. His name? He gave the Siamese version of a shrug of his shoulders. He is the ‘English Lord’, he repeated, once again seemingly surprised by my ignorance.

As I watched I saw that the old man was truly frail and unable to help himself. The venerable old lady at his side, still proud and lissome, with superfine oriental features and a bearing that told of superb past beauty, had to superintend and often delicately taste, every small morsel of food administered in turn by two of the younger women to their father figure. The old lady reserved for herself the task of dabbing his mouth with one of a pile of snow-white serviettes. She also periodically held, with loving care, as if nursing a favoured child, a thimble-sized whisky glass to his lips each time he sent her some secret sign. And with all the cheerful chatter around him, the old man was silent, his hands motionless in his lap and with his age-dimmed eyes never leaving the handsome face of the woman he had undoubtedly loved so well for so many years.

Yet suddenly, the old man said something and slowly half-turned his head in my direction. And then I saw that several of the family had also turned their heads in my direction. I was caught off guard. Embarrassed for a reason of which I was unaware. Had I been rude in my role as rapt onlooker, had I broken some obscure rule of etiquette? But the looks the group gave me were quizzical, not hostile. Then one of the younger men rose up and came to my table. In perfect English he asked me to excuse his intrusion but grandfather had caught a whiff of my pipe smoke and had exclaimed that there must be an Englishman nearby. Would I be willing to come over to the big table and pass a few words with the old man?

Naturally, I was more than ready to comply with the request. At the table I instinctively bid as polite a good morning, sir, to the old gentleman as I could, and then, somewhat un-Britishly, bowed to the old lady and then to the gathering. A waiter seated me and in a tremulous but cultured voice the old man, straining to meet my gaze, asked me if I was indeed an Englishman. I told him yes, but had lived in Canada during the past fourteen years. Then I mentioned that earlier I had been in Canada during the war when taking flying training. So, he asked, you were in the Royal Air Force? No, I replied, the Fleet Air Arm. At once his poor useless arms and hands moved in excited spasmodic jerks and his already quavering voice pitched higher. In his faltering voice he told me that fifty two years before, in 1915, he had left his rubber plantation in Malaya to go home to England and join the Royal Navy. And he added, he himself soon became a member of the newly formed Royal Naval Air Service. He had himself been flying in the Royal Navy. In fact, he had been one of the pioneers who landed Sopwith Pup biplanes on the makeshift of early makeshift aircraft carriers. For several minutes he was back to more youthful times.

Then, with an effort, he continued. With the war over, he said, in 1919, he had returned to the east, met and married his lovely Sophie. They had started their large family here in French Indochina, and he had never again visited Britain. His eyes twinkled faintly, as he called himself a social outcast. At first, a family blacksheep. A remittance man. But he had prospered in business and now his sons and their sons were prospering in turn. Then, worn out with so much unaccustomed conversation, he drooped down, and at a word from his wife, and after a feeble shake of my hand, he was helped out to one of the waiting motor cars, followed by his cheerful and animated tribe of descendants.

A few moments later, his son returned to my table to ask if I could come to luncheon at the family home next day. Regretfully I had to reply that our party was flying away to India early the next morning in our RCAF Yukon.

What an interesting opportunity I missed there.

For some reason I forgot to even ask the old gentleman’s name. And to inquire if he was indeed a castaway English lord.

Well, he was more than a lord to that large, happy family.

He was a living example of a true patriarch.

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