Reviews / September 2015 (Issue 29)

A Singaporean Man in Dublin: Ireland's Elusive Cosmopolitanism of the Fifties

by Michael O'Sullivan


Goh Poh Seng, Tall Tales and MisAdventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman, Ridge Books (NUS Press), 2015. 214 pgs.


Goh Poh Seng (1936–2010) was one of the founding fathers of the tradition of Singapore literature in English. His first novel, If We Dream Too Long, a coming-of-age novel set in Singapore, is widely regarded as the first Singaporean novel ever published in English. Goh was a distinguished novelist, poet and playwright, a writing life he combined with a successful medical career. He published four novels and five books of poetry. Goh also maintained throughout his career what was often regarded as a somewhat radical perspective in regard to Singaporean politics. He emigrated with his family to Canada in 1986.

Tall Tales and MisAdventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman is a collection of short stories that feels like a truncated memoir. (It was initially intended to be a novel.) Goh was working on the collection when he passed away. He spent the summer months towards the end of his life, after he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's, writing in a rented house in Bay of Islands in Newfoundland, and later, in a house in the fishing outport of Lark Harbour, working on these, his "Irish stories." The somewhat desolate and isolated environment of Newfoundland's west coast took him back to his days spent at Cloch na Rón in Connemara in the fifties where he had first realised he was destined to be a writer.

This collection is a warm and personable account of the coming of age of a young writer. However, the collection is also infused with enough critical self-reflection and irony—something that is evident in the Tall Tales of the introduction—to allow us to detect the wry sense of humour of this mature recollection on youth. We are ever aware of Goh's framing of the authenticity of the artistic trajectory he relates. The older voice is often all too aware that the younger man is too in love with his precious vision and with his embodiment of the "portrait of the artist." However, since youth is wasted on the young, the older reader is also accepting of the fact that such giving of oneself up to the vision of artistic practice is possibly a necessary condition for those who wish to ensure that they have the wherewithal and the resilience to go on to practice art for the long haul.

Martin Ware's introduction describes the collection as one that recounts Goh's "discovery of his call as a writer to faithfully record the crippling and confined (though sometimes comic) reality of ordinary people caught in the traps of oppressive circumstance or exploitation." However, considering that these are Goh's "Irish stories," I cannot agree that the author describes the lives of "ordinary [Irish] people" of the fifties in the face of oppression and exploitation. The characters of Goh's tall tales are either the greats of Irish literature (Kavanagh and Beckett), visiting students (Tom Pierre), upper-middle class Irish students studying abroad (Jean Robinson), visitors to Ireland from the UK (Steve Millan) or the US (Maryanne O'Neal) or members of a somewhat privileged Anglo-Irish community in Ireland (Ruth Tension, the descendant of Alfred Lord Tennyson), who, it has been argued by critics and writers from this community such as Elizabeth Bowen, lived on the fringes of "ordinary" Irish life. In fact, one might argue, that the only people we do not meet are the "ordinary" Irish of the fifties. We do meet Paddy the farmer in Cloch na Rón in Connemara for a few pages, an Irish farmer who Goh makes rail against the need for travel and the "outside world"—"There's only one lifetime a man has, enough maybe for him to get to know his little bit of the world if he be lucky." However, despite Goh's touching description of their farewell, one can only but feel that this poor Irish farmer, Paddy, is being made to shoulder the burden of his nation's "ordinary" and somewhat impoverished populace in a slightly stylised and Synge-like manner. If Goh's characters are "ordinary" subjects experiencing exploitation and oppression, then they are the jet-setting, expat community of Ireland in the fifties, a relatively small group that was at a remove from the "ordinary" Irish. The overriding sense of oppression one finds in the book is the sense of oppression that Goh's alter ego, the budding writer, feels in having to forgo his writing due to the fact that he is an international medical student, who although being fully funded by his family, still believes the demands of his medical coursework are too great.

This reviewer does not feel, therefore, that Goh's aim is to describe the lives of "ordinary" people who feel oppressed and exploited but instead to describe chance encounters with somewhat extraordinary people. As a Westernized Oriental Gentleman in Dublin, Goh's tall tales are pieces of travel literature that combine the charm of the exotic with the thrill and chance of brief encounters. This reviewer struggles to think of a collection that describes a life in Ireland in the middle of the twentieth century with such lightness of tone and with such a spirit of cosmopolitanism that manages to avoid being drenched by the familiar morbid paralysis or gallows humour that we have come to expect from the Irish writer describing these times.

For reviewers and writers, Goh's encounters with Kavanagh and Beckett are revealing opportunities to eavesdrop on the private moments of great writers. Patrick Kavanagh is "Paddy" for Goh's young medical student/aspiring writer. The devil may care attitude that the young Malayan student demonstrates in striding up to the poet in Stephen's Green is refreshing—as it must have been for Kavanagh—and it serves to bring out a more personable and more rooted Kavanagh than the one that is bandied about through the stories and folk myths of his drinking exploits in the bars of Dublin. Paddy comes to sound very like Paddy the farmer we meet in Cloch na Ron. Goh's description of Kavanagh is wonderfully witty alongside the somewhat staid hagiographies Irish critics like to hoist on him:

The most noticeable feature about Paddy was his hat, which sat on his head all the time. It was a brown, battered thing, time-worn, sharing all the vicissitudes gone through by its owner. Like a pet dog, it followed him around loyally. I found it peculiar that he kept it on his head all the while he was in the Coffee Inn and I wondered whether he kept it on all the time, even to bed or when bathing. My curiosity was piqued as to what his head really looked like beneath his hat, the structure and shape of it, its physiognomy. And his hair. Was it plentiful and untidy, or thinning? Was he going bald? 

On one occasion when Goh feels that he has been snubbed by the great man in the Coffee Inn, Goh spends an hour "devising devilish ways for his [Kavanagh's] demise," only for Kavanagh to return, place a hand on Goh's shoulder and say, "Sorry, me lad. I was grappling with the muse, you see." Goh later tells Kavanagh he wants to be a writer, only for Kavanagh to quote, "Child, do not go / Into the dark places of the soul." Kavanagh then launches into a rant when he hears that Goh doesn't "care whether I am rich or poor, so long as I can write poetry": "There's nothing romantic or redeeming about poverty. It hurts both body and soul. And poetry, why you will throw poetry out of the window if, in exchange, you can eat." In this regard, it is interesting to note that the collection ends with Goh explaining to the Dean of Medical Studies in Dublin—a moment that takes us back to Stephen Dedalus's confrontation with Mr. Deasy in Ulysses—that he is giving up medicine for the life of the artist. However, one of the captioned photographs that is included in the book shows Goh standing in the Dublin campus with his graduating gowns and scroll, revealing that he only spent a year in London as a struggling writer before he returned to take up his medical studies.

However, it is when Kavanagh is trying to soften the tone of his admonishments against the literary life, as he is struggling to keep up with the young student in their walk across Dublin "where every step I take gives me pain" (what again recalls Bloom's and Stephen's walk across Dublin), that we get perhaps the most revealing and profound insight into Kavanagh the man and into that most favoured of Irish literary themes, exile:

Speaking solely for myself and no other, I should have had the guts, the integrity, to live where I was born. Placed there originally by an incredible act of Providence, I had to run after the imagined glitter of the city, the suspicious glamour, the fake power and glory. I should have stayed put amongst my own people, unique and special, the dirt poor farmers of Monaghan. And to be a poet, and not accept this true locale, this true source of inspiration, is as bad as to be a poet and not know his trade. And I have done that to myself, turned away from my birthplace, my ancestral land, and daily I am punished for that.

And this from a man and poet who had moved no more than 70 miles south from his homeland in the same country.

There are too many insightful, witty and wry accounts of this portrait of the artist as a young man for this reviewer to recount. However, one last literary anecdote for the budding writers who might read this review is Goh's meeting with Beckett. Goh went three nights running to a performance of Beckett's Endgame at a small theatre in Trinity College Dublin in the fifties. The director of the play invited Goh to their final show where Beckett was to make an appearance. In doing so, he commented on Goh's reactions to the play: "Never before in my experience [...] have I encountered such emotional response, the crying, the desperate laughter, all on display. Pretty remarkable." The next day the same director introduced Goh to Beckett as "the young Chinaman who laughed throughout your play!" The few words Goh gives to Beckett in response makes us hope that these were indeed Beckett's own words: "Well, then, he is one who understands the play. I thank you."

Tall Tales and MisAdventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman is an engaging treasure trove of anecdotes on the Dublin artistic and literary set of the fifties and an at times profound contemplation on the emergence of a writer in the isolation of the west of Ireland. It is not a book about ordinary Irish people suffering under the weight of oppression and exploitation. The Irish canon has already given us too much of this. Goh's collection allows some of the Singaporean sun to break out over what he does once describe as the "dull and drab life" of Ireland at that time. He offers us a travel writer's perspective on the all too elusive early cosmopolitanism and mindfulness that were written into the fabric of life in Ireland in the fifties, what inspired one young man to take up the pen as well as the scalpel. 

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