An Englishman lost in Kuale Kangsor

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Neil Sedaka‘s “One Way Ticket” lyrics that goes “Choo, choo train chuggin’ down the track. Gotta travel on, never comin’ back…. Oh, oh got a one way ticket to the blues.” was on my mind as I made a beeline into Kuala Kangsar on my journey back to my hometown up north.

I cannot think of a better place to begin a journey of discovery, hoping to understand how trains and railroads were a significant mode of transportation in my early years especially making my journey to and fro from Alor Star, Kedah during my boarding school days in Kuala Kangsar…. yes, that particular school whose existence was even intertwined with the history and legacy of the British Empire. Nostalgia notwithstanding, there remains something unbeatable about rail travels those days.

Incidentally, Mr. Michael Portillo, TV host of Railway travelogue shows such as BBC’s Great British Railway Journeys, Great Australian Railway Journey, Great Continental Railway Journey etc., is currently in Kuala Kangsar filming part of his Great Asian Railway Journey travelogue. It is great to know that my former boarding school, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) will be featured as part of the itinerary of this BBC TV travelogue show. One of the attractions of his programme is nostalgia. Nostalgia of two sorts – first for the past, but also for [viewers’] own pasts including mine. But being nostalgic is not to be confused with going back to the past, which I don’t want to do at all. None of the those DMT (During my Time) thingy.

The tentative original programme is to start with Mr Michael’s “welcoming do” near the gates of MCKK at about 8.30a.m., then an interview with the HM at the Quadrangle followed with a mock teaching in class full of students on a Sunday morning, interviewing the selected students (the High Council reps and Student Union reps). After that they will move to the the Big School, together with the students to sign on one of the balloon captions at the Peace Wall and finally to the Fives courts whereby Mr Michael will be playing Eton Fives with the Headmaster, Mr. Anand Baharuddin and the students to the roar of the cheering squad. I supposed the flamboyant Mr Michael, being an Englishman, would dress appropriately for the allocated segments of his 3 hours of documentary filming. However, probably after editing, those allocated hours would just be reduced to a mere 10 minutes upon final screening.

When it comes to dressing flamboyantly, it is not often that Mr. Michael Denzil Xavier Portillo, ex-Conservative MP, ex-Defence Secretary of UK, author, journalist and TV host feels he’s in danger of being upstaged. In addition to sporting his natty jackets and shirts, Mr. Portillo pushes the boundaries even further in this series, extending his have-a-go sartorial bravado to adopting local attire, a sort of 21st-century Peninsular chic. For almost all throughout this filming, he was dressed in blue top and pink trousers. The man was even dressed up exuberantly in the School’s Quadcolors for the game of Eton’s Fives.

And yet there were times during the filming of his latest series based on train journeys – this time around, now in former British Malaya vis-a vis the Malay College Kuala Kangsar – when the man noted for his lime green jackets, pink shirts, and stripes of all shades felt positively eclipsed by the colours of Red, Black, Yellow and Red of the school.

Michael Portillo is actually a weirdly compelling TV host. In fact, there might not be a presenter as gleefully unselfconscious working on a Sunday like today.

Watching any of his train shows on YouTube and Netflix and his passion for their twin subjects – railways and history – is evident. This was no fluke appointment, a receè and research team came a month earlier. Mr. Portillo got this job because his undiluted joy for railways radiates from his very being.

Admittedly, it does sometimes radiate out of him a little too aggressively. At several points in this new series, his passion spills over and he becomes a weaponised version of an embarrassing Anglo-Saxon lost in the Lost British Empire.

And he does it in public and on camera , where people can see him, and you can see them starting to form unshakeable opinions about all people based solely on this moment, and you want to crawl inside your TV and your smart devices and plead with them that some of us are actually OK, but you can’t and it’s all hopeless and Michael Portillo has ruined everything forever.

But it’s exactly that type of attitude, the attitude that assumes the world is merely a backdrop upon which you can smear copious bucket-loads of Yut Loy’s beefsteak, that makes him so watchable as a host. He leaves nothing on the table. He’s giving the show everything he’s got, good and bad, and you’re left with the sensation that this cannot possibly be a facade.

To watch Michael Portillo on this railway programme – addressing the camera as if he’s trying to re-enact those things that the British did and left, done up and play-acted for the cameras as how he plays the ancient sport game of Eton Fives with the Headmaster of MCKK and the boys – is to peer directly into the soul of the man.

It tells you something about the energy, the vitality, the colour, the exuberance, the uninhibitedness of MCKK blending into Michael’s narratives Everywhere he goes, there are steadfast crowd who immediately welcome him into their midst. The energy is irrepressible. Everyone wants to know what is going on. Everyone want to be the gracious hosts to the TV host. There’s this tremendous curiosity that people have about each other even amongst the MCKK crowd. Behind the scenes, for nearly a week, the teachers and the students did their best endeavours to make sure that MCKK was in tip-top condition, ever ready to welcome the BBC guests. No blade of grass was uncut and no rubbish was left lying around .

In between the light-hearted witty exchanges and swashbuckling bravado, Mr. Portillo does squeeze in some of the weightier themes and historical facts any visitor to British Malaya (now independent Malaysia) will encounter, particularly if that visitor comes from Britain where his documentary would be broadcast.

So his journeys certainly touch on the legacy of the British Empire and he does not attempt to gloss over some of the more controversial episodes of that period.

The long-term integrity of the British Empire would not be assured by warm words alone. Britain’s own position in the empire had changed. Once, the country has been the engine room of empire, the productive heart of the beast. But with Britain becoming more like a boardroom, investing money, taking decisions, with the ‘No Sex please, we’re British’ identity and attitude but essentially living off the labour and resources of others, and off the earnings of the past. At some point in the future, one might even see this role wither away, and maybe the Mighty Great Britain become little more than a repository of British idolised traditions, a common idealised land into which British once ruled – in India, Uganda, Ceylon, Malaya or South Africa – could retreat, a collective memory of Big Fields, Big Schools, Peace Walls and Fives Courts.

Today it’s about filming a documentary about what Britain has left us.. heritage buildings, trains, sanitation, warts and all. It’s about a “Ketuanan British” (British Supremacy) nation that keeps a stiff upper lip, takes it on the chin without complaining, plays fair at all times and is by and large: “to be the gentleman of the world.” Anything else old boy, just wouldn’t be cricket …”a legacy purportedly left to the MCKK and the Old Boys of Malay College.”

This is the image of itself that Britain likes to promote, at home and abroad.

So, Fine and Dandy! But I really hope Mr Michael Portillo never stops making these shows. What more as Britain is in turmoil due to the unsolvable Brexit, he is ever most welcome in ‘MCKKenter’ today. Mr Michael Portillo is now more focused on his railway documentaries than enthralled about Brussels and Westminster politics and power struggles. Today Michael Portillo, tries to dig up Hidden History of British Empire and we, the ‘natives’ were totally bemused! Cor Blimey! The BBC corporation would surely gets the collywobbles whenever a programme is controversial as Railway Journeys.

After the 3 takes of the Fives game, Mr Portillo and entourage were served with tea and scones with jam at the IB Complex.. Nothing like cuppa of tea before saying goodbye. Cheerio, Old Chap! Mr. Michael had to catch the 11.20 a.m. train from KK train station to his next destination and I continued on my trek back home to my place of birth…by car.

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