Ruffled feathers at MCKK

By Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad


The colonials were disappointed with the new arrival who turned up in crumpled clothes to teach at the Malay College Kuala Kangsar. Abdullah Ahmad remembers the author of the Malayan Trilogy.

He arrived at the college, I think, during the second or last term of the 1954 academic year in a crumpled shirt and trousers and without a tie. We knew right away that he was not a typical colonial.

The tell-tale incidents that showed the non-conformist streak in John Burgess Wilson occurred inside as well as outside the classroom.

They were exciting and scandalous by both local and British moral standards.

The circumstances in which Wilson found himself at the college, in addition to his own experiences and talks with his pupils, inspired him to write the Malayan Trilogy.

And when it was published in 1965, his expatriate colleagues who did not like him felt betrayed.

I have not reread the Trilogy, but what I can recall is that he did capture pretty well the spirit and life at the MCKK and the society in the Kuala Kangsar colonial enclave. Perhaps, with a bit of exaggeration.

The truth, I suppose, is somewhere between what really happened and what he imagined as having happened.

Wilson, until he reinvented himself as Anthony Burggess, the novelist and critic, taught English to the 1954 Cambridge Class for an eventful one term.

The senior students were stirred by the Umno-led merdeka movement but were generally unsupportive of the vanguard militant rebellion spearheaded by the Malayan Communist Party.

Several politically conscious students were quite unhappy with the unenlightened school administration.

I recall the first morning Wilson came into class, red faced, (must have been the result of too much beer and gin the previous night), perspiring and smoking.

He was in many ways a throwback to a social class the British colonials had scrupulously tried to shield us from.

We were being trained to join and enlarge the small Malay administrative-cum aristocratic establishment.

Apparently with some reluctance, he scrawled several essay subjects on the blackboard for us to choose from, one of which was “communism”.

A day later when he returned our work, it turned out I was the only one who wrote about communism.

I got seven marks out of a possible ten for my effort. Only years later did I discover that he was once a communist.

He complimented my knowledge of the subject and advised me to pay more attention to my English and spelling, and said that I appeared to have a gift for left-wing polemics!

He made it all look very easy and I thought he was rather generous to praise me based on an essay. He did not know how I had struggled during that 45-minute period to write it.

I was elated by his remarks about my knowledge of comparative politics and grateful for his advice.

Wilson did not teach the fifth form long.

He moved on to teach English to the fourth formers which included my former classmates in form one, Abdul Rahim Ismail, the current vice president of the Lake Club and a great Rotarian, Ahmad Rassidi Abdullah, a retired banker whose hobby is travelling around the world with his wife of 36 years, Zainal Abidin Nordin, a retired senior civil servant, Tunku Zuhri Zakaria (a lawyer, deceased), Ariff Shafie, an lpoh sportsman and a sometime emcee.

By all accounts Wilson was a good and simultaneously, an unconventional teacher.

Rahim knew him rather well. I was told they corresponded with each other long after Wilson left Malaysia, and when both had become rich.

I read in an English tabloid – The Mail On Sunday (Sept 21) – that a Roger Lewis has spent 16 years working on the biography of the novelist, and had recently spent the summer visiting Wilson’s old haunts in the Far East, including the “whole length and breadth of Borneo”, and presumably also Kuala Kangsar and Kota Baru.

I look forward to reading the biography of my sometime English teacher who said, “Brunei was a kind of prison, walled in by sea and jungle”. If I may add, also by great wealth.

Lewis has this to say about the Brunei Sultanate: I have been to Brunei. No wonder the Sultan and his family spend as much time as possible at the Dorchester Hotel (The Sultan owns the hotel in Park Lane, London). It is an Islamic state (you can’t do this, you can’t do that) and though it is wealthy from its oil revenues, the population live in hovels and stilts above mud flats and raw pollution.”

The headmaster of the MCKK during our time was J.R. Howell or “Jimmy” or “Jim” to his close friends; a feisty Welshman, a disciplinarian who clashed with the intellectual Wilson soon after they met.

It did not surprise the students that Wilson’s stint at MCKK was relatively brief.

He mocked Howell and other fellow expatriates as philistines, obsessed with sports and the latest American movies and in the case of Howell, with rugby in particular.

Howell and the others were disappointed with him for lowering their “society and mores” in the estimation of the locals.

They had carefully turfed that as if it was a neat British golf course.

Before I left college in December 1954 1 asked for his autograph, and he obliged by writing it in Jawi.

He loved, as Roger Lewis says, “word-play and linguistic showing off ” but then he had much to boast about, like passing the government’s compulsory Malay examination in record time, unlike his nemesis Howell who took much longer.

My contemporaries knew that Howell and I were not the best of friends but we made up in old age.

Adhha and I visited him and we stayed in his house in Newport, Wales. His charming wife Mona and Howell were gracious hosts.

Howell, who by then insisted that I called him Jim, said to me: “Wilson lets the side down badly Amoral and a liar”.

“Why don’t you write about him?” I asked. “Maybe”, was what Jim said.

But what Lewis said of Wilson appears fairer. Lewis said: “After labouring at his biography off and on for 16 years, the conclusion I have reached is that, though he wasn’t exactly a pathological liar, what went on in Wilson’s life did tend to get glamorised, exaggerated, reinvented and generally improved in Burgess’ books”.

I agree with my old headmaster that Wilson was unconventional, controversial, infamous and occasionally a liar, especially when he needed to extricate himself from troubles he could no longer hide.

Howell should know. After all he was Wilson’s boss, and wrote the latter’s confidential report.

I think Wilson, like many writers, great and minor, was an ambiguous figure, and as Lewis found out, he easily contradicted himself.

“Is there any likelihood of a vacancy in the English Department at Banbury (Grammar) School?” Wilson, who was a teacher there before coming to Malaya, pleaded in a letter to a former colleague.

“I’m serious about this,”‘ he added in his letter prior to his first home leave in 1957.

Lewis continues: “Burgess later seemed to forget this – his dissatisfaction, his restlessness, his desire to be done with the East and come home. Burgess, in his memoirs, Little Wilson And Big God, says that when he revisited Britain he hated the place and felt a stranger”.

“The mess of post-war England”, Wilson moaned in 1987, “all television, fornication and a rising generation given to rock music-and violence”.

Lewis continues: “Thirty years ago, he’d wanted to be part of the excitement. Espresso and cappuccino, Teddy boys and layabouts. He’d spent a week in Banbury trying to get his old job back. Fat chance.”

Lynne, his Welsh wife, who had accompanied him to MCKK, was always a handful.

The expatriates in Kuala Kangsar were well aware of her and all about the happenings that occurred in the lives of the Wilsons. She died in 1968, according to Lewis, because her liver exploded.

Wilson returned to Malaysia twice and revisited MCKK. He married an Italian woman later and died in Monaco, I think, in 1993, aged 73.


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