London. Here I Come!

By Chan Bing Fai

(Kirkby 1952-1954)

 

 

My only contacts with the English while in Malaya were my H.M., English language and science teachers in the V.I. On arrival in London in August 1952 we were whisked to Liverpool by train and then by coach to Kirkby. There in Kirkby we were in daily contact with our lecturers, domestic and kitchen staff. All of them were different from those I knew back home. They were more friendly and more approachable. The English in Malaya were more conscious of their position as colonial masters and as such they projected their superiority.

 

My H.M. was a very strict disciplinarian, a no-nonsense kind of a fellow. If one was caught for even a minor offence during a school assembly, like giggling he would shout on top of his voice from the stage and asked the boy to bring his school bag and wait for him outside his office. He threatened to suspend him from school. He also warned that no one should disturb him when the red light lit up outside his office. So much so students kept him at arm’s length for fear of cultivating his displeasure.

 

During the 1st mid-term break in October 1952 my English lecturer Mr A. Walker organized a bus tour to London. I jumped at the opportunity of seeing London, the largest and most dynamic city in the world. It was the seat for the British Empire, the birth place for parliamentary democracy, and the launching pad for the government’s “sponsored” piracy to compete with the Spanish colonies already established in the new world. It was Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596) a buccaneer who defeated the Spanish Armada, and helped establish Britain as the mistress of the seas. From then on it was rule Britannia rule. Many countries in the Americas, West Indies, Australia, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, Malaya and also many African countries came under British rule.

 

Going to London to see the great sights there was an opportunity of a life time. Wordsworth composed this verse on Westminster Bridge:

 

 

“Earth has anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty:

The City (London) now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie . . .”

 

Visiting London gave me an opportunity to unravel the source of her greatness which was founded on her history, science and engineering, industrial revolution and parliamentary democracy.

 

The Houses of Parliament also referred to as the Whitehall rose from the bank of River Thames, a noble symbol for the rights of free man. It was designed by architects Charles Barry and A.W.N. Pugin in Gothic Revival style. The present building was built 1840-1860 as the previous building was burned down in 1834. Its tower housed Big Ben. It had four clock faces and the diameter of each face was about 30ft. But most significant was its hourly chime and the resonance from its 14 tons bell. It had been set in motion since 1859. The deep chimes had become a symbol of Britain to all the world and it was broadcast daily on the BBC radio.

 

The British Empire existed because the British were cocksure of themselves and their own superiority. Britain gave birth to many people with wisdom and vision and their mission was to conquer the world and then civilize them. They held on their colonies through the English language and the introduction of the English Common Law to the colonies. When things settled down trade flourished between the colonies and the mother land. The colonies also provided a steady market for British goods and gave employment for expatriate officers. The British were very sensitive to the needs of the colonies. Sensing dissatisfaction and resentment in the colonies they went about in their consciousness by introducing some form of self government, from representative government to dominion status. After WWII Nationalism raised its ugly head from the colonies. After the war the Labour Party came into power and the Government had to make good the promises to the former colonies for independence. Britain was impoverished by the war and it was unthinkable to be caught in protracted guerilla warfare with her former colonies. India was granted full independence in 1947 and the other colonies followed one by one. Malaysia got her independence in 1957. After the British Empire broke up the former colonies were allowed to form into a group of countries called the Commonwealth of Nations, a loosely affiliated group without any formal allegiance to the Crown. Britain had the knack of doing the right thing at the right moment. But sometimes they had the knack of doing the right thing by the wrong name. Britain is a thriving parliamentary democracy, but they call it monarchy.

 

At the back of the Houses of Parliament was Westminster Abbey. It’s building began in 1245 at the behest of Henry VII. Many additions and restorations were made to it subsequently. The Abbey is world famous as the resting place of Britain’s monarchs and also as the setting for coronations. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place there in 1953 and it was the 1st televised coronation. In its churchyard were the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in WWI and WWII and also the memorials of literary giants such as Shakespeare, Dickens and others.

 

Another London’s landmark was Tower Bridge completed in 1894, a master piece of Victorian engineering. It had become the symbol for London and had appeared in picture postcards and magazine covers. It was no doubt the most photographed landmark. It was an engineering marvel because two drawbridges could be raised to enable ships to pass through.

 

Adjacent to it was the Tower of London. As one approaches it one was greeted by Tower Warders still wearing very distinctive uniforms designed for them in Tudor times. For much of its 900 year history the Tower was an objection of fear. It was created in 1220 by Henry VII as his private palace and it also housed the State Prison. Those who offended the monarch were held within its dark walls. They were tortured and many met violent deaths. Two of Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were executed there.

 

Elizabeth I and Walter Raleigh were confined in the Towers at one time. Since the 17th century it had been a tourist attraction because the Crown Jewels and the collections of armour were on display there. The Imperial State Crown with 2800 diamonds, 273 pearls was too precious to be put on display. I believe what was on display was just a replica.

 

Another must see site was Hampton Court. It was built in 1514 by Cardinal Wolsey, the Archbishop of York as his private countryside residence along River Thames. It was the most luxurious palace ever built in England. In 1528 he offered it to Henry VIII trying to regain favour from the King. The building itself was a blend of Tudor and English Baroque architecture and later Christopher Wren helped to design the State Apartments, the Fountain Court and selected tapestries, paintings and furniture for the Royal Collection. Hampton Court was also a place for palace intriques and conspiracies. Cardinal Wolsey failed to influence the Pope to grant Henry VIII to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon and thus he fell from royal favour. He died while making his way to face trial for treason. Today Hampton Court is open to visitors and it is rumoured the ghost of Catherine still haunts the palace.

 

In the heart of London was Hyde Park, a huge public park and the entrance was through Marble Arch. It had been a public park since 1536. In 1730 the Westbourne River was dammed creating an artificial lake for boating and bathing. In its time the park had been a venue for duelling, horse riding, political demonstrations. Today many London nannies are seen pushing babies in their prams in the park for a bit of fresh air.

 

In one corner of the Park not far from Marble Arch was Speakers’ Corner. It had become the established venue for budding orators, preachers and a fair number of eccentrics. Since 1872 a law was passed enabling speakers to voice their opinions on any topics of their choice without worrying about the law. Assembled on lookers heckled them without mercy. Here we saw a true democracy at work. If one wandered further one would see in the remote corners of the Park, the worst of western moral decadence.

 

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew was popularly known as Kew Gardens. It was founded in 1789 as a private garden. Now it had expanded to cover a huge area of 368 acres. It had a collection of over 25,000 plant specifies. It had the biggest hot house for tropical plants. In fact the rubber trees in Malaysia today came from the tree Hevea brasiliensis, belonging to the spurge family. Some of the rubber seeds were brought from Brazil and planted in the hot house in Kew. Then some rubber seeds from Kew were brought to the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. Some seeds from Singapore were brought into Malaya. The para rubber thrived in Malaya’s hot tropical climate. Rubber planting became a huge and very successful industry in this country. Rubber, together with tin and later palm oil became the main pillars in supporting Malaysia’s economy for many years in the past.

 

British Museum was the largest museum in the U.K. Its history dated back to 1753. James Watt (1776-1819) a Scottish engineer had often been credited for inventing the steam engine. In fact while working with the manufacturer Mathew Bolton in 1782 he made so many improvements to Newcomen’s very crude working model of the steam engine that he managed to perfect it until it was practical enough for steam to power the factories and industrial plants during the Industrial Revolution. It was people like James Watt with his inventiveness that made the Industrial Revolution a reality and turned Britain into an industrial power in the second half of the 18th Century. Britain became the first country industrialize and for a while became the workshop of the world. His steam engine was on display somewhere in the museum.

 

Madame Tussauds Wax Museum of famous people historical and contemporary was Britain’s “Hall of Fame”. Among the many greats such as kings, queens, former prime ministers and others, was a junior administrator in the East India Company, Stamford Raffles. His figure occupied an insignificant corner of the museum. He took part in the capture of Java from the Dutch in 1811 and while as governor of Sumatra 1818-23 he was responsible for the acquisition and founding of Singapore in 1819.

 

My brief visit to London gave me a glimpse into Britain’s glorious past filled with much dignity, stateliness and pomposity. Her palaces were testimonies to her splendor, glory and excesses. The tower of London was a reminder of her cruelty, brutality and atrocity to anyone who obstructed the monarch. The conquest of the west was based on treachery, arrogance and ruthless plunder by using buccaneers headed by man such as Francis Drake. Consolidation of her many conquests was based on scientific and engineering geniuses like James Watt for supplying steam power for her Industrial Revolution. People like Stamford Raffles who had the wisdom and vision to expand and consolidate Britain’s influence to S.E. Asia. London was too big and fascinating to see, understand and enjoy in one go. As Dr Johnson once said, “When one is tired of London one is tired of life.” So London I promise I shall be back.