Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Arte: Somerset Maugham and Me—Filming at My Office for the French—Part III

As of Saturday the French crew and Karen were still going back and forth as to whether they were coming to my house to film on Sunday or Monday while trying to work out their shoot­ing schedule for the Sarawak pepper story because they would only have access to Michel’s drone until Tuesday since he would be returning to France.  Finally they agreed that after the Fort Margherita shoot to come to my house.

I knew my wife Jenny was getting anxious, so I told her on Sunday morning before I left the house for Fort Margherita, I would text her with the latest details—when they were coming and how many.  Her biggest concern was having to answer a question on Somerset Maugham.  I assured her they just wanted to meet my Bidayuh family.

Dressed for Gawai!
Laure was delighted when I told her about Jenny’s German and French connection—she works for X-Fab, a Ger­man company that had recently expanded into France.  Also my mother’s side of family came from France as part of the Huguenots expulsion in 1572 and eventually arrived in America in 1630. My father’s side mostly came from Germany, having arrived in America in the early 1800’s.  So you can say I am also a Franco-German project, ideal for the Franco-German Arte.

Laure was thrilled that I had another French connection, as a tango dancer in the film Indo­chine. She said she was a big fan of Catherine Deneuve and was de­lighted when I showed her some photos from the shooting.  Indochine was a period piece, between the wars, when din­ner guests dressed up...even in remote corners of the world as they did here in Sarawak when Maugham visited.

The Indochine Tango Dancers.  standing Robert Raymer, Joelle St-Arnoult, Angela and Lee Clark; 
seated Anni Nordmann, Andre Cluzaud, Laurence, Seibert Kubsch

Looking back, I had to admit I seemed rather dashing (wearing a tuxedo, having makeup and your hair professionally styled helped).  I feel far less dashing today with a lot less hair.

After we finished filming at Fort Margherita, after taking another tambang across the river, after some delays searching for a bank to trans­fer money from France and a late lunch, I left early since the others were coming to­gether in a van.  We seemed to be picking up people, too, so I kept updating Jenny, they’ll be four, no make that five, now it’s six—not in­cluding me.  I arrived home with just enough time to take a quick shower and a change of clothes.  In fact, I was step­ping out of the shower when they arrived.

Feeling refreshed and serving them refreshments of orange slices and Danish cookies and a few local tidbits to snack on, I presented myself to Richard who wanted to film me inside my of­fice.  He took some artistic shots of me reflected on the glass of two bookcases, alongside a sketch portrait for a clever double imagine, and additional shots be­hind me.

I was awfully glad that we recently redid my office, adding some nice cabinets and additional light.  I even had framed copies of my books on top of one of the cabinets, including Trois autres Malaisie,  the book that had attracted the attention of Laure Michel back in France.  I was also glad my wife insisted I get a haircut!

Needless to say my children, Jason 12 and Justin 10 were amused; maybe even a little im­pressed….All this fuss over their stay-at-home-writer-father….The younger one, who is the read­er and writes his own stories, took the most interest as I prattled on about Somerset Maugham and the District Officers that he wrote about on those lonely outstations who often took in a local woman as a “sleeping dictionary”, a common practice then in Sarawak, though frowned upon in Malaya.  

These were not women they would marry; they would cohabitate with them, bear children with them, but if they wanted a “real” wife, they would return to England and find one, often on short notice, and bring them back with them, as Maugham described in “The Force of Circum­stance.” 

Guy had a local woman for ten years and three half-caste children, a detail he forgot to tell Doris when he asked her to marry him and follow him to Sarawak, to a re­mote outpost alongside a Borneo river.  When the previous “wife” kept coming around the property, Doris would enquire about her and her children, as to who was their father.  

Guy replied, “Oh, my dear, that’s the sort of questions we think is a little dangerous to ask out here.”

But then she learned the truth—that these kids were his.  Unable to accept this new reality, Doris eventually returned to England, so Guy moved his native “wife” and three kids back in.

Nowadays these so called “half-caste” children are considered mixed or pan-Asian, having inherited “the best” from both parents.  We’re proud of our children and the fact they are bi-lin­gual and have inherited two cultures can be an advantage.

I then talked about how Maugham got ideas for his short stories, largely from three sources. 

One:  his notebook.  “I filled my notebook with brief descriptions of their ap­pearance and their character, and…stories began to form themselves...”  He also wrote, “I have taken living people and put them into the situations, tragic and comic, that their characters suggested.  I might well say that they invented their own stories.”

No doubt he had fun writing about the characters he met in Borneo, drinking their gin pahit and stengahs…for example, he pitted a snob against a cad in “The Outstation.” 

In The Summing Up he wrote: “Fact and fiction are so inter­mingled in my work that now, looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other.”

As a writer, I know that feeling, when years later I would bump into someone with startled recognition, only to realize that I had based a character on them and had totally forgotten where the original inspiration came from.  I would suddenly feel embarrassed and think, if only they knew…. Maugham, no doubt, felt that em­barrassment, too; other times, he felt lucky he wasn’t sued for slander!

Two: newspapers.   Maugham got ideas for some of his most sensational stories from newspaper reports about a murder or a juicy trial.  This was how Maugham got the idea for one of his most famous stories, “The Letter,” taken from an actual trial ten years prior to his first visit to Malaya ….Leslie, who was married, was indignant that her lover had recently been living with a Chinese woman.  She invited him to her bungalow (while her husband was in Singapore) and shot him six times.

In the Maugham story she was acquitted after her husband paid a large amount of money for an incriminating letter that she wrote.  In real life, the woman was found guilty, but five months later, during an appeal, she got a pardon.  Like so many of Maugham’s characters in Borneo, she literally got away with mur­der.

Three:  Gerald Haxton.  His secretary, traveling companion and lover, Haxton was an ex­tro­vert, unlike Maugham who was shy and had a bad stammer.  He would head to the club and get the local Brits or expats talking about the latest gossip; then he would return to Maugham and say, “I know I am drunk, but I got a damn good story for you!”

According to the critics, who were rather harsh on Maugham, he was no stylist, unlike other notable writers of the day like James Joyce.  Maugham even wrote, “I know where I stand…in the front row of the second raters.”

He also wrote, “I must write as though I were a person of importance; and indeed I am—to myself.”  And “I don’t write as I want, I write as I can.” 

That gives the rest of us per­mis­sion to write as we can to get our stories down on paper.  What is important is that the story gets written.

Once Laure and Richard got their interview and the shots they wanted inside my office, they took some family shots on our swing, with my wife, and with the children.  The real highlight for our boys was being able to watch Michel guide his drone in front of our house.  He invited them to have a close look at his controls so they could see what the drone sees.

Laure then invited my family along for dinner at Siniawan, an old Chinese town that hadn’t changed much since the mid-1800’s.  They had made arrangements to meet with a fifth genera­tion Hakka, a part of the “second batch” (1880’s), after the “first batch” got wiped out during the gold miners’ revolt. 

Along the way, we sought out a suitable jungle to finish the Maugham segment.  Although we failed, we were rewarded with a nice sunset.

At Siniawan, before we ate a delicious meal that con­­sisted of wild boar, jungle ferns and rojak, Laure asked that we sign re­lease forms for our parts in the filming, includ­ing the boys who were amused at “signing” their sig­na­tures since they didn’t know how to write—only print.

Already though, I was thinking about tomorrow’s adventure, whereby we would go to Semenggoh for the orang­utans and jungle shots, and then upper Sarawak River by longboat to film Peter for the Personal Invitation story and some additional jungle shots to finish off the Maugham story.


Book orders for Trois autres Malaisie   E-book orders

Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in,,, and Petit Futé mag.

The ARTE TV report will be broadcasted on June 5th: It will be available online until August 4th!

         Joseph Conrad and Me 

Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 

         Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part II


sintaicharles said...

OH, what a captivating sharing.

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Thank you!

Ivy Ngeow said...

Fantastic! I read all three parts and I can't wait to watch the series

Borneo Expat Writer said...

Thanks! Two more parts to go for the blog, but the documentary on Maugham will be just one show on the 5 June 2017, though it'll be available on the internet through mid-August or so I'm told.