Reviews / May 2010 (Issue 11)

In Remembrance of Things Past: Verner C. Bickley's Footfalls Echo in the Memory

by Alice Tsay


Verner C Bickley, Footfalls Echo in the Memory: A Life with the Colonial Education Service and the British Council in Asia, Radcliffe Press, 2010. 314 pgs.

A memoirist who writes about decades of experiences rather than cashing in on his 15 minutes of fame or leeching off the star of his celebrity "best friend"? One who spares us the usual pert motto and takes his title from lines by T.S. Eliot? A writer who eschews the timeworn formula of family dysfunction and substance abuse—perhaps with a touch of dramatic elaboration, later to be hedged and defended—in the crescendo to a personal success story? Sounds like a throwback to a bygone era.

In a way, that's precisely what Verner C Bickley's new book is. Sponsored by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and published by the London-based Radcliffe Press, Footfalls Echo in the Memory begins with the author's birth in 1926 and concludes its action for the most part in 1971. During these forty-odd years, British-born Bickley sees places such as Ceylon, Malaya, Burma, Indonesia and Japan while serving stints as a navy man, English teacher and later, an employee of the British Embassy and British Council. The world has changed since then—and not only in ways that can be conveyed through the capital letters and bounded colour-blocks of an atlas. Even if the locales do not create the same exotic impression they may have offered young Bickley and his compatriots in the mid twentieth century, the lifestyles and landscapes he invokes are often foreign to us in the present day.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1817 Biographia Literaria listed amongst the attributes of the ideal poet an ability to harness "a sense of novelty with old and familiar objects." Time thus provides its own poetry of regeneration, and Bickley should certainly be credited in Footfalls for recognizing the narrative potential of this fact. Describing the simple crystal radio receiver built by his father when he was a child, he treats it as a curator might approach an artifact while giving a museum tour:

What came out of this machine? News items and entertainment were broadcast by the National Programme and the Regional Programme, in our case the North Regional Programme. For children, 'Auntie Muriel' (Muriel Levy) and 'Uncle Mac' (Derek McCullough) presented 'Children's Hour'…

The passage zooms in from general to specific while Bickley simultaneously conveys what it feels like to be a child then, an adult now, and vice versa. Elsewhere, we get bits of poems and songs, facts and photographs, fragments of skits that Bickley performed with others on air: as it turns out, he goes on from those early "Children's Hour" days to sit on the transmitting end of the radio waves at several points in his career. Bickley's previous book, Searching for Frederick: and adventures along the way, comes to mind as a model for the methodical precision here. A record of the experiences behind his wife Gillian's research on the life of Frederick Stewart, Searching for Frederick systematically lists contact details for hotels, libraries and other institutions that he and his wife made use of during their travels at each chapter's end.

The authorial knowingness is less charming when it leads to unimaginative filler, some of which offers insalubrious moments of déjà vu:

a) Understandably, the Cardiff of 1944 was not the Cardiff of 2009.
b) The Singapore of 2009 is understandably very different from the Singapore of 1959.

Admittedly, these sentences are not offensively bad, but they do pedal over the subject matter on low gear. By and large, however, Bickley gathers his materials to lively effect. Dinner parties around the world have surely benefited from his being there. Of Indonesia, for example, he wryly notes that the syllabus he was assigned to teach to local students "included Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman and Chaucer's The Nun's Priest's Tale." Some of the choice morsels of Middle English literature, to be sure, and a glimpse as well into the shadowy bowels of cross-cultural educational policies—or perhaps the lack thereof. Music lovers will enjoy the story of his hunt in Japan, per composer Benjamin Britten's request, for the original score of Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas; enthusiasts of theatrical and monarchical royalty can seek out Bickley's sightings of Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart or pore over an old photograph of HRH Prince Charles. Though devoid of famous faces, the other black-and-white pictures are fascinating in their own right as indicators of change. Stiffly posed shots collected during Bickley's early years gradually give way in the book to more casual snaps in which the act of photography ceased to constitute an event in itself.

Divided into "Steps" and further broken into short narrative blocks, Footfalls is almost more like an annotated scrapbook than a book. This selective style can have a disconcerting effect, because much is assumed on Bickley's part. Readers might be surprised when a previously unmentioned figure suddenly arrives on the scene on page 115 with no hint of a back story but quite a large claim on our narrator: "On Tuesday, 10 November, my wife, Lois and I enjoyed a farewell dinner in London." This, you may recall from before, is not the same wife whose book he plugs seven pages later: that would be Gillian. The names of these two women drift in and out of the narrative with little to give them substance; at times it is difficult to tell just who is meant in the oft-invoked "we".

As a result, Footfalls Echo in the Memory ends up being less about Bickley's life than the clippings from the lives and events that he came across as he circled the world. Figures outside his own family, after all, are unfailingly introduced to the reader with laconic but telling details. In Indonesia, we meet the accountant and acquaintance John, whose "wife and two small children [the author believes] suffered from persistent diarrhea and septic prickly heat." The disclosure is evocative, though curiously invasive. Writing of a Karen couple that cooked and cleaned for his family in Rangoon, he confides, "Every month on pay day and as regular as the best clockwork, he would beat his wife. She did not seem to resent it. Or if she did, she didn't let on." We can be amused as well, but only if they remain anecdotes on the page.

The same goes for another passage, which provides a typical example of a Bickley character sketch. He relates the later life of C.E.M. Joad, formerly a Professor of Philosophy at the University of London:

Joad disgraced himself in April 1948 by attempting to travel on a Waterloo to Exeter train without paying for a ticket. He was caught, brought into court, fined two pounds and banned for life from the BBC. This episode was said to have had a severe effect on his health. Thrombosis and cancer followed later.

The tone is matter-of-fact, summing a fate in a handful of words. Bickley seems to frame it as a tragicomedy in miniature: for "irascible, pedantic, and…precise semanticist[s]" like Joad, life is hard, and the descent is long, ha ha.

The writer gets a lot of mileage out of the distance he cultivates from his subjects. As demonstrated above, however, sometimes his comfortable position up top comes at an uncomfortable price. He will have a particularly difficult time winning readers over with his oblique condemnation of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's decision not to leave Burma in the 1990s to visit her terminally ill husband, Michael Aris—a decision, likely agonizing, that was made out of fear that she would be denied re-entry by the oppressive military regime. "This does seem to be a case of placing country before family," he writes. A firsthand account of the 1963 mob burning of the British Embassy similarly grasps the details but misses the mark:

Now the rioters have advanced to the Box Club. What are they doing? Look! They've smashed the windows and torn off the front door. Vandals! They're pushing the Club Secretary's car onto the best cricket pitch. What now? They've set the car on fire! Ganjang Malaysia! Ganjang Malaysia! Ganjang Malaysia! Who are these people?

Regrettably, the urgency here channels more of an excitable patter than the escalation of confusion and fear. We do not learn much, even retrospectively, about the motivations of the mob, while more than intended is revealed about his status as a white man posted to former colonies, many in political flux. On a related note, Bickley might reconsider the progressive rhetoric he uses in referring to his work "with the multi-racial peoples of Singapore" and while reflecting on what a pleasure it was "to lecture on English literature to bright young women of Chinese extraction" in Indonesia. Though he clearly means well, it doesn't quite work.

Japan, the last of the Asian countries extensively covered in the book, moves the author to his deepest engagement with questions of culture and inter-cultural interaction. He muses over the Japanese value of persistence and its possible connection to the memorization of kanji, which occupies a considerable part of a child's education in Japan. The gift-giving culture and business negotiation practices receive attention in Footfalls as well, their treatment giving evidence to the "gentle humour" that Sir James Hodge cited in Searching for Frederick. Bickley's writing style, which strains at points in the sections on Southeast Asia, largely regains its footing when inspired by the land of the rising sun. He seems to have enjoyed his time and his work there, and this comes through.

Let's return now to those lines from the beginning of "Burnt Norton"—the first of Eliot's Four Quartets—that Bickley alludes to in the title and uses as an epigraph to his "Preface". They are good ones, and I've taken the liberty of appending in brackets a few extra lines that he doesn't quote:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
[Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
                            But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do not know.]

This passage, which comes from the first stanza, is remarkable for the powerful clarity with which Eliot evokes the hypothetical—through the gentle pile-up of negations, the transience of footfalls and rose-gardens, the quiet echo of "echo". The real, the abstract, and the projected co-exist, though the poet refrains from claiming that it all makes sense.

When one turns to Footfalls, however, it is almost as if another poem served as the inspiration for Bickley's first sentences: "There were alternatives but I did not take advantage of them. There were doors that remained shut. But I have no regrets." Some of the key ideas are retained. His reading of Eliot, however, truncates the enjambment in "Burnt Norton" that leads the mind through the closed door and reveals the garden on the other side. Though valid enough as a philosophy of life, the exclusion is a telling one in this narrative about a man's experience of a changing world. At times for better and at times for worse, the confidence of the resulting declaration sets the tone of the work.

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