A Taste

The Old Rectory, Thornton, Berkshire. August 1985

I have known John Slater all my life. Perhaps you remember the public brawl with Dylan Thomas, or even have a copy of his famous book of ‘dirty’ poems. If it’s an American edition you’ll discover, on the inside flap, a photograph of the handsome, fair-haired author in cricket whites. Dewsong was published in 1930. Slater was twenty at the time, very nearly a prodigy.

That same year I was born Sarah Elizabeth Jane to a beautiful, impatient Australian mother and a no less handsome but rather posh English father, Lord William Wode-Douglass, generally known as Boofy.

Slater’s own class background was rather ambiguous, though my mother, a dreadful snob, had a tin ear, and I know she thought Slater very grand and therefore permitted him excesses she would not have tolerated from the Chester grammar-school boy he really was.

It was Slater who carved my father’s thirtieth birthday cake with his bare hands, who rode a horse into the kitchen, who brought Unity Mitford to dinner during the period she was stealing stationery from Buckingham Palace and carrying that nasty little ferret around in her handbag.

I cannot say that I understood his role in my parents’ marriage, and only when my mother killed herself — in a spectacularly awful style — did I suspect anything was amiss. In the last minutes of her life I saw John Slater put his arms around her and finally I understood, or thought I did.

From that moment I hated everything about him: his self-absorption, his intense angry good looks, but most of all those electric blue eyes which inhabited my imagination as the incarnation of deceit.

When my mother died, poor Boofy fell apart completely. He drank and wept and roared, and after falling down the stairs the second time he packed me off to St Mary’s Wantage in Berkshire, which I did not like at all. I ran away, was returned in a post-office van, fought with the headmistress, and adopted the perverse strategy of writing with my left hand, thus making almost all my schoolwork illegible. I was so busy being a bad girl that no-one noticed that I also had a brain. But even while I was receiving D’s in English I somehow managed to see that Slater’s celebrated verses were nothing so much as bowers constructed by a male in order to procure sex. This was far from being my only insight and I was not reluctant to let the Great Man know exactly what I thought. Somewhere in his papers there may still be evidence of my close reading of ‘Eastern Oriental,’ with its impertinent corrections, its queries about his heavily enjambed lines, all of which I archly hoped might be ‘helpful to him.’

I was, in short, a precocious horror and you will not be at all astonished that John Slater and I did not become friends. But, London being London, I did keep on running into him over the years, and as he continued to write poetry and I had ended up as the editor of The Modern Review, we knew many of the same people and had reason to sit at the same table more than once.

Time did not make the association easier. Indeed, as I grew older his physical presence became more and more disturbing. I will not say that I was obsessed with him, but I could not be in the same room without looking at him continually; I was drawn to him and repulsed by him all at once. He was an appallingly unapologetic narcissist and so full of iconoclastic opinion and territorial enthusiasms that there was not a dinner party, be it ever so packed with the Great and the Good, where one could escape his increasingly bardic presence. Of course I could not look at him without thinking of my poor unhappy mother.

In spite of the fact that we were so very intimately connected, it took all of thirty years for us to speak with more than superficial politeness. He was then sixty-two and while perhaps better known for his novels — The Amersham Satyricon had been a huge bestseller — he was still generally referred to as ‘the poet John Slater.’ Which was exactly how he looked: rather wild and windburned, as if he’d recently returned from tramping over the moors or following Basho’s path all the way to Ogaki.

Slater does seem to have worked very hard at the social side of literature, and there was scarcely a British poet or novelist whom he could not call his friend, or for whom he had not, at some time, done a favour. The Faber crowd he cultivated particularly and it was at a Faber dinner party, at the home of Charles Monteith, where we finally came to talk to each other. Our conversation aside, I don’t recall a great deal about the evening except that Robert Lowell — the guest of honour — had inadvertently revealed that he didn’t know who Slater was. This, one could hypothesise, is why Slater chose to turn and talk to me so urgently, calling me ‘Micks,’ a name belonging to my family and all that lost time at Allenhurst at High Wycombe.

What he had to say was not in the least personal, but his use of the nickname had already touched me and his voice, perhaps as a result of the famous American’s careless judgement of his life, took on a wistful, elegiac tone which I found unexpectedly moving. For the first time in years I looked at him closely: his face was puffy, its colour, uncharacteristically, a little grey. When he began to talk about revisiting Malaysia, a country where so much of Dewsong and its successors had their roots, it was hard not to wonder if he might be tidying up his affairs.

Come with me, he said suddenly.

I laughed sharply. He grasped my hand and held me with those damned eyes and of course he was such a Famous Crumpeteer that I looked away, embarrassed.

We should go, he said. Don’t you think?

It was impossible to guess what he meant by ‘we’ and ‘should.’

We must talk, he insisted. It is very bad that we never have.

This sudden intimacy was as off-putting as it was wished for.

I have no money, I said.

I have tons of it.

He watched me closely as I poured more wine.

You’ve got a boyfriend, he suggested.

I have a very jealous cat.

I adore cats, he said. I will come and talk to her.

And suddenly his cab arrived and he had to go on to a very glamorous party where he was expecting to meet John Lennon and as he rose there was a general clamour of farewells and it was my understanding that our conversation had been of no great moment — merely a cover for his embarrassment at the hands of Robert Lowell.

But he telephoned me, at home in Old Church Street, at eight o’clock the next morning and it was very quickly clear that this journey was not at all impulsive. He had already arranged for the British Council to pay for one ticket, while two thousand words for Nova would fund another. He would be delighted to foot all of my expenses.

My father had died just the year before in circumstances that were not at all happy — a sulky sort of estrangement on my part — and it was not in the least dotty for me to think that John Slater was offering this trip as an opportunity for us to talk, for me to understand my own unhappy family a little better. Of course he never said so, and even now, all these years later, I cannot be sure what his intention was at the beginning. Certainly it was not sex. Let me dispense with that immediately. It was well known that I had no interest in it.

John, I said, I am an awful tourist. I have no intention of slogging through the bloody jungle with binoculars. I am an editor. It’s all I do. I read. I have no other life.

You love to eat, he said. I saw you polish off that curry.

Well, it was very good curry.

Then Kuala Lumpur will be paradise for you. Darling, I’ve known K.L. for almost as long as I’ve known you.

Of course he did not ‘know’ me at all.

What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll make a pass at you? Micks, for God’s sake — it’s a bloody week of your life. We’ll all be mouldering in the ground soon enough. Do come.

That did it — the mouldering. After lunch I burgled our safe and took the last of the magazine’s petty cash. In the King’s Road I purchased forty-five pounds in travellers’ cheques, a pair of sandals, and a summer frock. So prepared, I entered that maze from which, thirteen years later, I have yet to escape.

In those days it was a thirty-hour flight from London to Kuala Lumpur, but we suffered a long delay in Tehran due to fog in Dubai, and then an interminable wait in Singapore. You would think that forty-two hours would be a sufficient opportunity for the two of us to begin our conversation, but it seemed that Slater liked to sleep on aeroplanes and he was so drugged with Phenobarb and whisky when we landed in Singapore that the air hostesses thought he was dead.

He passed through Malaysian Immigration in a wheelchair and so my very first memory of Kuala Lumpur involves the difficulties of transporting a large and meaty man into a taxi and from there into the extraordinarily kitsch foyer of the Merlin Hotel, and there his fame preceded him, thank God.

Apart from the awful gold and tartan decor of the Merlin, my only impressions of this foreign capital were heat and smells, sewage, floral scents, rotting fruit, and a general mustiness which seeped into my skin and permeated my large plain room where someone had written ‘Fuck Little Duck’ in grey pencil beside the toilet bowl.

The next day Slater did not answer his telephone and I became concerned that he really might have died. Then, on the off-chance, I checked with the desk and discovered he and his luggage had departed the hotel. No message. Just gone.

I immediately felt like someone who has been passionately seduced, fucked, and abandoned. This is not a pleasant feeling at the best of times and all my old animus against Slater came surging back. I was far too angry to read and far too agitated to sleep, and this was how I came to be inspecting the Indian haberdashers on Batu Road. I like to buy fabrics, but nothing pleased me here. The batik was rather coarse and opportunistic, not nearly as refined as the Indonesian fabrics, and yet I purchased a piece, as tourists do. From Batu Road I continued window-shopping, not liking anything, until I found myself in a noisy street of Chinese shophouses with the unlikely name of Jalan Campbell. I did not like it very much either, although the buildings offered a continuous colonnade and I was grateful for the shade, if not the interruptions offered by the shopkeepers who brought their chairs and hammers and plastic buckets out into the public thoroughfare.

It was here, glancing rather peevishly into one little store, that I saw in the gloom — amidst a tangle of bicycles, next to a Chinese woman who was ladling bright red fish into plastic bags — a middle-aged white man in a dirty sarong. He had lop-sided eyebrows and very close-cropped hair which made me think of both a prisoner and a monk. However, what struck me most particularly were the angry red sores on his sturdy legs. He was sitting in a broken plastic chair and gazing out into the street and did not, when I paused, show so much as the slightest flicker of what I can only call racial connection.

I briefly wondered how he had got to this place where his sores were not being treated, but really I was too hot and sweaty, too offended by those Asian fish-paste smells, and generally too bad tempered to wonder about anything for very long. I crossed the muddy Klang River and was soon back in the musty air-conditioned Merlin, again trying to deal with the work of adequately talented English poets. I was still at it at eight o’clock that evening when Slater finally rang.

Micks, he cried. Isn’t it a wonderful city?

How could I tell him that I’d waited all day to see him? He made me feel pathetic, childish.

What have you done? Tell me everything.

I walked a little, I admitted.

Good, good, wonderful. Darling, he said, I was hoping we could have dinner on Tuesday, but I’m rather caught up here. Could you write me on your card for the Wednesday?

John, it’s Monday.

Yes. You see, I’m in Kuala Kangsar. Really just arrived. Outstation, as they say.

Kuala what?

You knew I was going to Kuala Kangsar.

He had said nothing about any such place. I know it. It was the first time I ever heard the words pronounced, and I was sure then — and am positive now — that as usual he had followed some opportunity, and not one of the mind. Recklessness and hedonism had fuelled the engine of his early genius, but they had also, ultimately, betrayed his promise. If he had written more and whored and sucked up just a little less, perhaps Lowell would’ve known exactly who he was.

Well, he said, I’ll definitely be back for Wednesday dinner. Enjoy K.L. I really envy you discovering it.

And that was it. No apologies. No concern for my well being. As I hung up the phone I finally understood poor Lizzie Slater, the second wife, the one who ended up in St Bart’s with alcoholic poisoning.

The thing is, poor ruined pretty Lizzie told me, the thing about dear old Johnno, dear, he always does exactly as he damn well likes.

I am not a good tourist, as I said, but that second night I was too angry to stay in my comical hotel. I forced myself to eat satay in a street market in what is called Kampong Baru, a Malay quarter five minutes’ walk from the Merlin.

The next day, likewise, I grumpily stepped out to stare at the Batu Caves, the Moorish railway station, the stinking Chinese wet markets. The smells were the most challenging aspect of my tourism, not merely the wet markets, but also the alien mixture of smoke and spice and sewer and two-stroke exhausts and all the sweet mouldy aroma of those broad-leafed tropical grasses. I preferred walking the streets very early in the cool morning as the Sikh bank guards were eating sweet barfi and drinking their beloved cow’s milk in the street. The rain trees were lovely, all of Jalan Treacher heavy with green leaves and yellow flowers. Only the sight of a boy cutting a banana tree with a machete reminded me that, not three years before, the gentle smiling inhabitants of Kampong Baru had been butchering their Chinese neighbours. Blood had run along those deep drains beside which I now walked.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpted from My Life as a Fake by Peter Carey Copyright © 2003 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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