Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The End at the Beginning

The Levantine airs waft sombrely through my half-closed louvred windows, faded blue and peeling paint. I relight the fat stub of last night's bedtime joint and inhale a thick lungful of stale, noxious grey. My throat is croaking dry and the first swig of cheap vodka courses along the fissures and cracks like acid to hit my empty stomach like a fire bomb. Too bored to lift my sodden head from the sweat-soaked pillow I let my thoughts drift back to those days of bliss when all I had ever hoped for in life was mine, mine until I fucked it all up, that is. 

My sole guide to the passing of the hours is the call to prayer five times a day, and Maghrib, at the setting of the sun, is the only time I feel able to leave the apartment and then just briefly to grab the essentials from the twenty-four hour mini mart at the corner of the block, before returning almost unnoticed to the familiar warm gloom of my rented rooms. 

The young girl at the till watches me each evening, unsmiling and gravely serious, as I make my way around the store. She has only been moved to conversation once, to ask me why I wear my sunglasses at night. I told her I was a vampire and sensitive to bright light, and she, disappointed with the fatuous answer I gave, has kept her curiosity in check from that point on. I place my items on the counter and she tallies the bill. It is always the same. I hand her the money and as ever tell her to keep the change, which she does always without a murmur of thanks.

Is this the end? Am I really trying to kill myself? I no longer know. But this is going to be a long suicide given my propensity for drink and a liver that has taken a repeated hammering over the years from all manner of tropical diseases and bounced back on each occasion. I tell the doctors with a feigned smugness that a fondness for exercise is my saving grace and they  shake their heads and resign themselves to a lost cause. 

I could not have chosen a better location. The fatalism of Islam, coupled with an antipathy for all things Western provides me with all the anonymity I could wish for. My apparent lack of wealth, size and soulless demeanour deters anyone foolish enough to think of petty thievery, so I leave my door unlocked with utter impunity. I take no guided tours to touristy spots, neither do I seek the company of the local prostitutes. I keep to my rooms and pass the days scribbling down snatches of memories, venting my spleen in incoherent vitriolic bouts of self recrimination. 

This morning though, as the weed takes hold and my mind drifts off on the current of fond expectations, I think to myself how wonderful life is even when it isn't.

Why I Like Painting Nudes In Ink

With all my nudes I try to capture a fleeting moment, an effect of (sun)light on skin and the unique contours of a woman's body it delineates. I paint without a preliminary drawing and quickly, though I will usually have done many drawings beforehand in order to work out the most pleasing (to my eye) and most natural-looking pose.

I then place my model in that position and execute the painting in about fifteen to twenty minutes, which lends a certain freshness and unpredictability to the final outcome. Ink, by its very nature, is difficult to control, (rather like herding cats) especially so on canvas, which makes it an exciting medium to work in.

You can never be certain of how it will look until dry, when all the subtle, accidental nuances of ink come into play. No touching up can be done once the ink has dried completely without ruining the painting, so concentration must be maintained at all times.

Painting in ink, for me,  represents the culmination of my expertise as a draughtsman and painter, gained over many years. It requires an assured and practiced hand, especially so when painting the female body, in which case weight and poise are paramount in creating an image which appears (hopefully) perfectly balanced and natural.

A Mind Mined

The thoughts fantastical of my mind are not constrained by any common measure. No box, or cube, nor rigid square have form enough to tame their fretful flight.
No purpose do they ever serve, save only to amuse an idle addled head, made sour by Fortune's fickle favour. By little and little of her good looks   degraded, then bleak of hope and sorely jaded.
Yet hope - foul and wretched word - is still the force that drives them.
And by its nature bound are all hapless souls beguiled to blissful schemes of mad invention,Which ever fruitless fly 'gainst Fate's contrary winds.

The Promise

Think not upon what might have been, or what there ever was,

But rather take my hand and walk with me a different path,

And if the future holds nothing more than a promise of bliss,

Then how fortunate are we that caught a glimpse.

Foolish Me

If all we have is life, and this life is all we have,

Then how foolish of me to look for love,

When love looks not for me.

Mark Harris

Mark Harris was born in England, but grew up in Australia and Papua New Guinea from the age of three to thirteen. His was a blissfully happy childhood spent daydreaming, chasing rare and endangered wildlife, which he kept in his bedroom, and drawing pictures of rabbits in the bottom left corner of large sheets of paper.

His parents very sensibly kept their distance from this strange and wayward boy, entrusting his education to a pack of dingoes and the Australian school system, where he learned to play rugby, count to ten and hurl a tennis ball the length of a football field. A great fondness for sports and outdoor adventure was matched by an equally enthusiastic propensity for catching near-fatal diseases, which has since become a lifelong hobby.

On his return to England a reversal of fortunes in the family’s finances forced the young Harris to abandon his ambition of becoming a Mini Cooper and continue with his formal education. A succession of violent and misanthropic pedagogical failures persuaded him that his only escape from the violence and misanthropy of pedagogical failure was to be found in the art room where his talents were nurtured by yet more savage but well meaning miscreants who managed to convince him of the utter folly of pursuing a career in art.

Having decided that art was indeed best left to recovering psychotics and former prime ministers, Mark Harris plunged into the world of languages and linguistics with all the enthusiasm of a Methodist dance instructor. Armed with a degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies and a pile of crumpled bank notes, he began to travel to exotic parts in search of voiceless fricative trills and voiced retroflex stops found only in those languages that cause permanent brain damage.

Upon arriving in Malaysia Mark Harris quickly abandoned a career in teaching for his revived interest in drawing and painting after watching Peter Greenaway’s A Draughtsman’s Contract several dozen times.

Once in Southeast Asia the sharp contrasts of light and dark, the intense heat of reflected sunlight on scabrous stone and brick and the joy of drawing in plein air while soaked with sweat became as addictive as kissing Audrey Hepburn.

Rogue Trader

I have always had a soft spot for rogues, particularly those of the charming variety. One of my particular favourites is Alexander Hare, a resident merchant in Malacca (Melaka) during the Napoleonic Wars, who just prior to the British conquest of Java from the French and their reluctant Dutch allies in 1811, was visited by a representative of the Sultan of Banjermasin in Southern Borneo.

Marshall Daendals, Napoleon's Dutchman on the spot and fervent admirer, had decided some time in 1809 that as the British had destroyed the Dutch fleet in 1806 and yet another in 1807 off Java he could no longer support a garrison in the Sultan's territory and withdrew these troops to Batavia (present day Jakarta).

This was particularly alarming to the Sultan as, although he was reluctant to enter into any permanent commercial treaty with the Dutch, he nevertheless valued their comforting presence which had raised his status in the eyes of the neighbouring sultanates and kept his own subjects in line within his domains. He therefore sought to come to similar terms with the British as he had with the Dutch, and as quickly as possible for there were already growing rumblings of discontent now the Dutch were packed and away.

His representative's visit to Malacca in early 1811 was in fact the second - the first in 1809 having met with a rather lukewarm reception - and much more timely in that now the British were planning to take over all the Dutch settlements in the archipelago and any and all allies were especially welcome.

Hare had himself visited Banjermasin in 1809 on business, but the venture came to nothing and he returned to Malacca. He had, however, made a good impression on the Sultan and his court. When the Sultan's envoy arrived, Hare was the natural choice to promote the idea with his friend, Stamford Raffles, agent to the Governor-General of the East India Company, Lord Minto. Raffles was busy planning the invasion of Java and Minto was on his way to Malacca from India with the troops.

Borneo in those days was thought to possess vast mineral wealth and enormous potential,which the Company was eager to exploit, so Raffles encouraged the Sultan, Minto gave his approval to the alliance and Hare was dispatched with a ridiculously small group of men with which he was 'incidentally' to assist in the general campaign against piracy.

Hare had made a private treaty with the Sultan which gave him the sovereign rights over about 1400 square miles of territory south of the capital. Here he was resident for the company and also an independent prince, which arrangement Raffles had agreed to as a reward for having brought Banjermasin to his notice. Hare had been supplied with a great deal of money by the Company power brokers, swept along by the general enthusiasm that the war and its potentially profitable outcome promised, which he used to build himself a large palace and fill it with women for the harem he was constructing.

Indeed this was about all he did, popping back and forth to Java and other places, snapping up local lovelies with the Company's cash, writing to the Sultans of Sambas and Pontianak, admonishing them to abide by treaty agreements concerning trade and the prevention of piracy, while at the same time politely inquiring about the chances of procuring any spare beauties they might want to dispose of at reasonable prices. He was joined by other Europeans, one of whom, a Scotsman by the name of John Clunies-Ross, he made his assistant. He seemed to be every bit as daft, ambitious and romantic as Hare, though significantly less interested in women.

Raffles was frenetically busy negotiating treaties with all the other sultans of Borneo and elsewhere in the archipelago and had no idea what Hare and his merry men were up to. In the end though, it hardly mattered. After the triumphant campaign to take Java came the dreary business of getting the colony to pay its way and try as he might Raffles, faced by the legacy of years of Dutch indifference to development of the local infrastructure or betterment of the lives of the ordinary folk, and strong opposition from the sultans to any change in the status quo, made little headway and runed his own health in the process.

Had he been given more time he might have made it work, but as soon as Minto left office to be replaced by Lord Moira, Raffles' grand design for British expansion and exploitation of the Dutch Indies fell apart and by and by Hare's slim claims to princely status and legitimacy too. Moira pointed out the costs of the enterprise to the Company and all establishments but Banjermasin were abandoned.

All this while no one appears to have looked into what Hare was up to. He spent most of his time 'holidaying' in Java according to Clunies-Ross. While there he asked Raffles for help in recruiting a labour force to work the pepper plantations he had set up - none of the local Malays were interested in coolie work - and he, as Lieutenant-Governor, responded by passing several ordinances in 1813, first inviting and later compelling ex-soldiers and free-born Javans to cross to Borneo to work. Later still Banjermasin was declared a convict settlement to which convicts, guitly of the most minor offences, could be sent. Hare's 'agents' meanwhile, were engaged in abducting women to become wives for his settlers.

About three thousand labourers, mostly convicts, were transported in the end, which did not please the Sultan, who soon complained that the excesses they committed were driving away his taxable income, i.e. his subjects, from their homes. Hare was an incompetent businessman and worse administrator. He had bright ideas and a skillful tongue, but he was bored silly by routine work, his energies being almost exclusively devoted to his 'luscious harem'. 'His greatest feature' wrote Clunies-Ross, 'was his licentiousness in regard to all bodily indulgences.'

By 1816, Hare's dominions were in utter chaos. Almost no pepper had been produced, no accounts kept, piracy had become endemic (the Dutch fleets destroyed by the British had previously kept piracy in check), and the labourers were disappearing into the interior. Poor Clunies-Ross, left in charge by the holidaying Hare, had had enough and went to settle the Cocos Islands (which he owned till 1857 and his family retained complete control over until 1886). It was left to the Dutch to sort things out when, along with Java, Banjermasin was handed back to them the same year.

Hare remained in Java until 1820, pestering the Dutch for compensation he thought was due to him and generally making himself a real pain in the arse. I have no idea what he did with all his women. Perhaps they all came to Java with him, which would no doubt have outraged the sensibilities of the rather sober Dutchmen of Batavia. Eventually Hare joined Clunies-Ross on the Cocos (or Keeling) Islands, but quarrelled with him over possession of the island and was forced to leave in 1831. Hare died in Sumatra in 1833, still up to no good I imagine and doubtless trying to convince someone, anyone to back yet another of his mad schemes for the betterment of Alexander Hare.

He was the first Englishman to become a 'White Rajah' in the Indies (there were others who didn't quite make it) and not James Brooke as is commonly supposed. It is curious and amusing to think that Englishmen were able to behave in the early 1800s in a way that would have been unthinkable in Victorian times and also to note just how different a race the English were to the Dutch, most markedly so in the East.

I knew all about Brooke's Sarawak adventures as a boy and very jolly reading they made too, but my fervid little imagination would have taken a far greater delight in the tales of Alexander Hare and his 'luscious harem', I'm sure.

What could be more interesting than a book about harems, eh? And don't say cricket.