MY friend, Nooraini Mydin, has just launched her book Aini’s Railway Odyssey. It has beautiful and enchanting pictures that she took on train journeys over 10 countries, from London right into Kuala Lumpur, covering a distance of 18,200km.
She did the journey as a 60th birthday present to herself two years ago. And now the fruits of her labour are out and she is having a busy time giving talks and autographing the books, which without a doubt would be of interest to travellers and train enthusiasts.
To latch on to her odyssey, I offered to edit videos of the train rides through some of the most beautiful regions in the world. The Trans Siberian Rail journey certainly offered some breathtaking views, the stops along the way gave more insights into the people and culture. The friendship she fostered along the way, too, makes fascinating reading. Her anecdotes of being scammed in China and mollycoddled in cold Mongolia are just some of the stories mentioned in the book.
Nooraini’s train journeys made me reflect on my own short train rides. However, I can’t claim them to be odysseys that crossed many boundaries nor required visas.
Nevertheless, for each train journey that I took, no matter how short a ride it was, it wasn’t without that excitement I felt as a child going on my first train ride from Bukit Mertajam to Kuala Lumpur. And it was always with that heart-pounding anticipation of what awaited me at the end of the line.
The more train rides that I took, the more I realised that these journeys were chugging me back into the past; into some of the territories that were not even covered in history classes nor found in history books.
A train journey that is clearly etched in my mind is the one from Charing Cross to Sevenoaks to the southeast of London, a beautiful place in Kent known as the stockbrokers’ belt. The excitement of getting there to meet someone I had only spoken on the phone once or twice before, was just indescribable. And what he offered when I met him could only be termed as indescribable euphoria, for there in his hands, when we met at a hotel lobby, was a piece of history of my country.
I met Peter Cox, who was then in his 70s in 2003. The National Archives in Malaysia had assigned me to collect a document of some historical importance that had been in his possession since he was about 12.
Before handing over the well-preserved document, he told me a fascinating story about how as a boy scout, he came into possession of the manuscript. It was amongst some of the things that a retired British admiral had wanted him to dispose of. This ordinary looking scroll had “strange” writings, but it held enough mystery for the 12-year-old to keep. At the age of 15 in 1954, when he became an apprentice, he showed it to his supervisor. His supervisor was none other than Professor Sir Wilfred Le Gros Clarke, who made his name exposing the Piltdown forgery. He in turn instantly thought that his friend — a J. Innes Miller — might just know the contents of the letter. And indeed he did. J. Innes Miller was the British adviser in Perak from 1947–1948. He read the manuscript and then transcribed the document into perfect Malay.
So there in my hand, on that summer afternoon of 2003, in the leafy suburb of Sevenoaks, was a letter written in 1875 to Sir Andrew Clarke, the Governor of the Straits Settlements. It was a farewell letter from the leaders of the Malay, Chinese and Indian communities in Johore, to Sir Andrew before he left for his posting in India.
It was indeed the same Sir Andrew Clarke who signed the Pangkor Treaty in 1874, the first to implement the new British policy of Protection in the Malay States and the founder of the Residential System.
It was for the same reason, to delve into the history of my homeland, that I had made many similar train journeys to meet people who offered me invaluable glimpses of their life in British Malaya. I made several train journeys from Victoria to Battle, to meet the late Peggy Taylor whose suitcases of documents and pictures offered me glimpses of the exciting days leading to the independence of Malaya, about her friendship with the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, whose joget and ronggeng movements would leave her in stitches, about her involvement in the short-lived political association — Alliance Direct Membership Organisation (ADMO).
Even at a ripe age of 82, Taylor could mimic in her “kelam kabut Malay”, Tunku’s answer to her about the choice of the Bunga Raya as the national flower. She remembered clearly, too, the day she drove David Marshall to meet Tunku for that important meeting in Baling.
The late former Malaysian Civil Service (MCS) officer turned writer, Fred Lees, too, shared a lot with me. And it was to meet him that I took a train ride from St Pancras to picturesque Rye to hear about his claim to fame when he was approached by the Tunku at Merdeka Stadium.
Lees, who had been instrumental in documenting the minute-to-minute Merdeka celebration programme, said while walking with the Duke of Gloucester for the momentous declaration of Merdeka, Tunku had popped his head into the control room where Lees was sitting with the late Syed Jaafar Albar and said: “Albar, when we are walking back after the ceremony, shout Merdeka into the microphone.”
Of course, Syed Jaafar Albar did this until he lost his voice and the responsibility then fell on the young MCS officer that was Lees.
He added gleefully that in that joyous and happy atmosphere, no one knew any better whose voice it was that shouted Merdeka into the microphone at that historic moment. Lees will go down in history as the Englishman who shouted Merdeka!
There are many more train journeys into the past that I could write about, especially the long journey to Cornwall to read the contents of letters from Malaya that were kept in two biscuit tins under the bed, and the recent one about my train journey to Woking.
I guess, that will be for another week. In the meantime, do buy a copy of Aini’s Railway Odyssey. Get it while the writer is still here in Malaysia, making her rounds to give a blow-by-blow account of the odyssey.