‘The East of the ancient navigators’
The Cahill-Brooke Concert Party were exhausted from their Indian tour as they again boarded the SS Montoro in Calcutta bound for a reappearance in Rangoon (Yangon), Bangkok and Singapore on the return voyage to Australia. The tour of India was reported to be one of the most successful ever attempted by Western classical musicians. They looked forward to resting on the ship in the cool sea breezes. However the water was as still as glass, the sky leaden and the air oppressive. The listlessness, irritable moods and lack of sleep engendered in the deep tropics enervated them, yet Eddie enjoyed the sense of impermanence created by travel. It gave him a heightened sense of reality. George, a more grounded personality, often found himself irritated by the closeness and Eddie’s fluctuating moods.
Rangoon. The heat, humidity and thunderstorms of May 1920. The opulent Golden or Shwedagon Pagoda nestled among the palms, its pinnacle dominating the skyline of the city from every angle. Somerset Maugham referred to it as the ‘sudden hope in the dark night of the soul’. Eddie wrote in his travel journal of the vibrant colours of the city, crammed to bursting with golden pagodas and Chinese temples:
I feel I have entered a sort of paradise. The Queensland coast is beautiful but the sense of the exotic East is very strong here.The air itself seems perfumed. How Debussy would have loved this place and painted it in impressionistic sound pictures! The refined Burmese dancing girls wear lilac, pink, green and lapis lazuli silks and ornaments. They have a natural elegance of carriage, graceful hand movements and seductiveness imitating mystical birds or guardian spirits, all moving in a manner as beautiful as a musical phrase.’
During the Calcutta season Josie Westaway had met an admirer, the dashing Captain H.A. Keywood. Unknown to the boys they had become secretly engaged during their appearances in Quetta in Balochistan (now Pakistan). Keywood ardently followed the party to Burma (Myanmar) where the couple were married in Rangoon in a small but picturesque ceremony.
Reluctantly the happy party broke off touring the resplendent sights to prepare for the concerts at the Gymkhana Club. The Rangoon News wrote of their second concert: ‘Saturday night’s audience was larger and even more enthusiastic than that on Friday … Cahill showed his mastery of the instrument.’ Eddie and George slept on board ship for the few nights of their stay. They impatiently waited for the stevedores to load fuel, mail and supplies before sailing on to Singapore and a short season at the legendary Raffles Hotel. With the marriage and departure of the femme fatale their own relationship resumed its usual friendly course.
* * *
Although certainly no intellectual, Eddie had always been a great reader and was particularly fond of the novels of Joseph Conrad. Lazing in a deckchair on a rare sparklingly clear day at the beginning of the southwest monsoon of late May 1920, he marked a passage in a dog-eared copy of the narrative story Youth as they sailed close to the coastline of the Malay peninsula to take up their engagement at Raffles.
The fronds of palms stood still against the sky. Not a branch stirred along the shore, and the brown roofs of hidden houses peeped through the green foliage, through the big leaves that hung shining and still like leaves forged of heavy metal. This was the East of the ancient navigators, so old, so mysterious, resplendent and sombre, living and unchanged, full of danger and promise.*
*Joseph Conrad, Youth (London 1902) pp. 45–6.
When in 1819 Sir Stamford Raffles signed a trade treaty with Sultan Hussein Shah on behalf of the British East India Company, the current idea of Empire was rather more idealistic than our later corrupted perception of it.
If the time shall come when her empire shall have passed away, these monuments will endure when her triumphs shall have become an empty name.’*
Raffles remains one of the great symbols of British imperial colonial life and yet it was founded neither by Sir Stamford Raffles or any other British national. Four sharp entrepreneurial Armenian brothers, the Sarkies, recognized the trade potential of the port. They purchased the Raffles Girls’ Boarding School in Singapore to convert to a hotel. Raffles opened in 1887. Rudyard Kipling, an early distinguished guest, commented ‘the food is as excellent as the rooms are bad.’
In time the port of Singapore grew to become the seventh biggest in the world. Opium dens rubbed shoulders with luxury hotels. Between 1897 and 1899 Raffles was extensively renovated transforming the modest hotel into ‘The Savoy of Singapore’. Renaissance-style architecture with cool verandahs, a vast columnar dining room paved with Carrara marble, bronze statues and sweeping staircases illuminated by ‘decadent’ electric light. Fans circulated lazily although punkahwallahs† were retained to foster an exotic Eastern atmosphere. Fortunately the last Singapore tiger had been shot under the billiard room in 1902.
Eddie and George were collected from the ship by hotel jinricksha for their concert season. Their suite had its own sitting room, bedroom and dressing room with an attached bathroom and direct telephone, luxuries unheard of outside the great European capitals. They looked forward to ‘all the comforts of home’ with an English breakfast of porridge, bacon and eggs or kippers followed by tea, toast and rough-cut Seville orange marmalade. Later in the day a tiffin‡ would be served.
*Quoted in James Morris, Pax Britannica (London 1968) p. 154.
† A ‘coolie’ who moved a large hinged fan attached to the ceiling above the hotel guests via a pulley system. At Raffles they were operated with sublime lethargy by way of a string attached to the big toe.
‡ A light afternoon meal often of delicately curried dishes originating in British India.
The ‘Bright Young People’ of Singapore had begun to patronize Raffles in the 1920s and tea dances had become de rigueur. An orchestra played every night. The atmosphere of the city tended to the morally casual. In the exaggerated class-conscious atmosphere of the Straits Settlement, white tie and tails together with long ball gowns were insisted upon even in the stifling humidity. Eddie and George with their vaudeville experience kept everyone entertained. They sweated through the night and failed to sleep in the afternoons. In competition with their classical repertoire, jazz was the predominant musical passion at Raffles.
The entertainment provided by the Cahill-Brooke Concert Party was particularly welcome in an atmosphere of colonial ennui. The sheer enthusiasm that greeted these two talented musicians, the relief from boredom they offered, comes as no great surprise. The Singapore Times wrote:
‘Because his name does not end with a ‘ski’ or a ‘vitch’ some people would think that Mr Cahill’s playing would not compare with that of the great foreign pianists but the pitch of enthusiasm aroused last night soon dispelled this idea. He is undoubtedly the best pianist heard in Singapore for many a rainy year.’
Eddie and George were a close team both emotionally and musically, discussing and noting accounts of the formidably eccentric colonial characters they encountered. Many distinguished writers were to paint literary portraits of such bizarre personalities. Somerset Maugham described the White man in Malaya as ‘a pale stranger who moves through all this reality like a being from another planet … they are bored with themselves, bored with one another.’*
One such eccentric they encountered was a commanding figure who haunted the Raffles Bar of an evening. The archaeologist and anthropologist Professor Pieter van Stein Callenfels was a distinguished graduate of Leiden University.† He was rumoured to have eaten human flesh when living among the cannibals of Sumatra. This giant of a man entered Raffles mythology by insisting on quarts of beer and consuming ten bottles of gin at breakfast. According to one report ‘his monstrous body heaved and shuddered like a shaken blancmange’. Arthur Conan Doyle modelled Professor Challenger on him in his novel The Lost World. Raffles was probably where Eddie also first made the
*Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook (London 1949), Readers Union Edition, 1951, p. 169.
† Pieter van Stein Callenfels (1883–1938).
acquaintance of the notorious and glamorous Russian physician Dr Serge Voronoff who grafted monkey glands (thyroid and testicles) into humans in pursuit of the secret of eternal youth. Little did he realize at the time what an important role this mournful-looking individual, accompanied in the tropics by a statuesque young blonde, would play during his own declining years on the Côte d’Azur.*
* * *
After this entertaining season of concerts the Cahill–Brooke Concert Party took passage in late May 1920 on a Danish freighter from Singapore to Bangkok. Officials in white ducks and solar topi leaned against the rails of the promenade deck, gazing vacantly out to sea. Siam (Thailand) had held its mysteries in the European imagination for centuries. Eddie was increasingly attracted to the high social status and luxurious lifestyle of the aristocratic audiences that patronized them in Southeast Asia. They had been summoned by His Majesty Vajiravudh Rama VI, King of Siam (Thailand) to play Chopin and sing at the Grand Palace in Bangkok.†
As Crown Prince, Rama had led a remarkably cosmopolitan life, opening up his previously isolated country to foreign influence. He represented his father in Europe for the first time at the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria and subsequently at her funeral. He also attended the coronations of King Alfonso XIII of Spain as well as King Edward VII and his consort Queen Alexandra in England. He invited many crowned heads of Europe to his own coronation ceremony in 1911, the first time foreigners had been invited to any royal event in Siam.
Educated at Sandhurst and Christ Church Oxford he was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club and read law and history. Unusually fascinated with the eighteenth-century history of Poland and the piano music of Fryderyk Chopin, in 1901 at the age of twenty he published the recondite volume The War of the Polish Succession.
In 1904 he temporarily became a monk according to Siamese tradition. After accession to the throne in 1910 he carried through many wide-ranging reforms, in the face of fierce opposition from the aristocracy.
*Ilsa Sharp, There is Only One Raffles: The Story of a Grand Hotel (London 1981), pp. 101–3
† Vajiravudh Rama VI, King of Siam (1880–1925).
During the Great War this Anglophile brought Siam (Thailand) in on the side of the Allied Powers. He became effectively the father of modern Thai nationalism. A gifted writer and poet he produced modern novels, short stories and plays. He translated three Shakespeare plays into Thai – The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It and Romeo and Juliet. After a remarkably colorful sex life and many tragic love affairs involving various marriages, broken engagements, concubines and homosexual lovers, he passed away in November 1925, a mere two hours after his only daughter was born. Such was the remarkable man for whom Eddie and George were to play and sing in private audience.
The exoticism of the palace and its opulent interiors were breathtaking. Tears formed in the eyes of the King as Eddie played Chopin nocturnes on a fine English Broadwood grand. The nationalist spirit of the polonaises seemed to inspire the king with a curious fervour. He leant forward attentively on his throne at climactic moments. His love and knowledge of European music also became apparent as the unaccustomed harmonies of Schubert and Schumann songs filled the oriental space.
Their concert of undemanding classics was also very successful in the rather less august surroundings of the Bangkok Sports Club. George was singled out for particular praise by the Siam Observer: ‘We have never heard a tenor whose enunciation was so perfect or who so manifestly sets himself to interpret the meaning, the spirit, the message of a song.’ Eddie’s charismatic personality was favourably commented on, but so too was the frightful state of the piano.
The Observer continued:
‘That he should attempt one of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies for example, on a piano which seemed likely every minute to fall to pieces left one aghast; yet he scored perhaps his greatest triumph here. If Bangkok does not pack the halls at the remaining place, then it may be set down as a soulless place and a disgrace.’
Without complaint Eddie always dealt with the unpredictable instruments he often encountered.
* * *
Eddie and George paced the deck of the steamer Kuching taking their morning constitutional. An early morning thunderstorm had cleared the air. The soft tropical sunrise over Sarawak revealed distant mountains framing a wide bay dotted with islands. Mount Santubong rose almost a thousand meters directly from the northern end of the bay. The two friends had almost recovered from their concert a few days earlier at the Jesselton Hotel in Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu), the capital of the West Coast Residency of the British Protectorate of North Borneo. They found the exoticism of the location tremendously exciting. The concert took place on the broad verandah among the British officials of the British North Borneo Company reclining on rattan chairs in white ducks sipping gin pahits.
Western classical music was unexpectedly accompanied on instruments by hundreds of local Bajau people known generically as the ‘Sea Gypsies’. These native peoples, dressed in bright cloth and ornamented with seashells and turtle shell, had come ashore from their boats and were sitting on the grass outside the hotel. The men played drums while the women enthusiastically performed on suspended brass gongs and large wooden xylophones. They completely drowned out the romantic melodies of Chopin and gave Eddie moments of great hilarity. His inborn sense of Irish theatre played up to this ‘spontaneous madness’.The Liszt piano pieces and Maori songs attracted even more frantic beating on the drums and gongs. An unprecedented scene unfolded with dances, singing and general gaiety. The eruption of such wild spontaneity exhausted Eddie and George. ‘What a devilish racket but such fun! This is living! More please!’ Eddie noted in his journal.
* * *
Some weeks before, during one of the regular tea dances at Raffles in Singapore, Eddie and George had encountered HH the Ranee Sylvia Brooke *, daughter of Reginald Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher † and the wife
*Sylvia Brooke née Brett (1885–1971)
† Reginald Baliol Brett, 2nd Viscount Esher (1852–1930) ‘Reggie’ was an historian and Liberal politician. This rather modest description entirely belies the extraordinary ‘behind the scenes’ influence of this éminence grise on virtually every important aspect of British government and royal policy of the day. The marriage had its moments.
of the third and last White Rajah of Sarawak, Vyner Brooke*.This wild eccentric lady was slowly but surely building a reputation for cultivated outrageousness. In later life she adopted a flamboyant Hollywood-inspired social style, wrote books, painted, piloted wood and wire biplanes and led a Technicolor love life of outstanding mendacity. The popular press adored her.
Opinions could be mixed however as evidenced by two MPs sent from Westminster to sound out local opinion as to the possible cession of the Kingdom of Sarawak to Britain. The Labour MP D.R. Rees-Williams thought she had ‘brought the charm of Mayfair to the Tropics and some of the exotic perfume of the Tropics to Mayfair.’ The Conservative MP David Gammans however objected to her dancing with prostitutes at the Cathay Cabaret in Kuching, remarking in a private memo to the Secretary of State: ‘She has these girls to the Palace and paints their pictures. A more undignified woman it would be hard to find.’ Sex in marriage she once described to her sister Doll ‘As an act it is both ridiculous and awkward, and I take a very poor view of it indeed.’ Despite her physical aversion to ‘the act’ three ‘dangerously beautiful’ Brooke daughters were produced during the marriage. They would add to their mother’s fitful lustre by marrying eight times between them including an earl, a band-leader and an all-in wrestler.†
During the cocktail hour one evening Eddie and George had found themselves chatting animatedly to the Ranee, lubricated by quite a few of the hotel’s notorious Singapore Slings, a drink invented by a Raffles’ barman, a Hainanese immigrant named Ngiam Tong Boon. They were tipsily attempting to trace a highly unlikely family connection via surnames between George Brooke and Vyner Brooke. When she learned of their coming concert in North Borneo and later heard them perform at the hotel, she insisted that they give a concert at the Astana Palace in Kuching, the capital of the Brooke’s jungle kingdom.
*Charles Vyner Brooke GCMG (1874–1963) the third and final White Rajah of Sarawak was born in London. His life is more than worthy of the wildest fiction.
† I am indebted for details of Sarawak and Sylvia to Philip Eade, Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters (London 2007). The detailed history of the Kingdom, the relationship of Sylvia and Rajah Vyner Brooke and the antics of the rest of the remarkable Brooke family is chronicled in this hugely entertaining volume.
The Cahill–Brooke Concert Party thus found themselves on a tramp steamer sailing down the Malaysian coast of the South China Sea. Steaming up the Sarawak River towards the capital Kuching they passed small Dayak villages clinging to the muddy banks. Scattered groups of amber-skinned women and children stood motionless in the sea as the steamer passed, figures in a landscape of mangrove swamps, screeching monkeys and head-hunter’s jungle. Eddie and George were taken ashore to the landing stage by canoe. Sarawak in 1920 was a brilliant and entertaining British colonial anomaly. Originally part of the Sultanate of Brunei, it was ceded to the British adventurer James Brooke in 1842 as a reward for assisting the Sultan put down a local rebellion.*
As the first White Rajah, James ruled Sarawak as his personal kingdom and greatly increased the area under his control. However by May 1946, submerged in an intrigue of bureaucratic smoke and mirrors, Sarawak had become the last colonial possession to be acquired by Britain. The Astana, where Eddie and George were to perform, had been built by the acerbic second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.† The Ranee Sylvia Brooke was musical and played the piano. Before her marriage she was the percussionist of the Grey Friars Orchestra, a band made up entirely of eligible young girls. This band had been cunningly formed by Margaret de Windt, the mother of the future Rajah, Vyner Brooke, in order to provide potential spouses for her three shy sons. The idea was successful.
*James Brooke (1803–1868) the first White Rajah of Sarawak was born in Benares, India. He never married. Like many adventurers associated with the British East India Company his actions in Sarawak were directed to expanding the British Empire, assisting the local people (by whom he was treated as a type of deity) in fighting piracy and slavery and expanding his own personal fortune in the process. Brooke features in much English literature including The White Rajah by Nicholas Monsarrat and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim as well as the Kipling short story ‘The Man Who Would be King’.
† Charles Brooke (1829–1917) the second White Rajah of Sarawak was born in Burnham, Somerset in England. He ruled Sarawak from 1868 until his death. He adopted similarly stern patrician values to his uncle James and improved the lot of the native peoples of the region and suppressed the passionate head-hunting activities of the Dayaks.
The Brookes had a unique relationship with the Dayak head-hunting chieftains and their people. Many hundreds of Dayaks assembled in the beautiful gardens of the Palace in the late afternoon before the concert. Vyner was a passionate gardener and the native people sat almost suffocated by the heady perfume of gardenias, tuberoses and frangipani. Again Chopin and Schubert were accompanied by brass knob gongs, xylophones and drums. Sadly, the Sarawak Gazette has left us no account or critical musical assessment of the concert. Can you imagine this extraordinary scene of an opposition of cultures in 1920 ? Eddie and George were not particularly dejected to leave the poor instruments and the disappointing rooms of the dilapidated Astana.