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Singing With Kipling

  • Written by Phet
  • March 29th, 2007
  • 12 min read


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It was the choir’s conductor announcing the next number that bought me from my reverie. The last thing I remembered was Ken, our baritone soloist pounding out “On the road to Mandalay” in his own inimitable style. One of the lines of the song evoked a memory that triggered my day dream but what it was escapes me for the moment.

I have sung in this male voice choir for more years than I care to remember. I joined as a lad of 18 which must be over 25 years ago. Do I get a long service award? Oh yes I remember getting an inscribed pewter tankard a couple of years ago.

Mind you, it was a much bigger and better choir in those days; we used to sing in town halls with an audience of hundreds. I remember singing at the BBC and the records we made sold very well. But as the members have got older and we have not attracted younger members to replace them the standards have fallen. The smell of urine on stage is stronger than the voices of most of the ensemble now.

Ah I remember the first lines of what whatsisname was singing;

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,

There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say;

"Come you back, you British Soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"

Great stuff old Kipling wrote and he makes exceedingly good cakes. God that’s a stupid comment, it shows how advertising campaigns can influence your mind.

Where was I? Oh just a minute we are getting up to sing again. What are we singing? “A Portrait of my love”, which is an old Matt Munroe song. That’s ok I know this one by heart, I can sing it on autopilot. Mind you we have been performing the same repertoire for so long it is easy to sing without thinking like driving a car when you arrive and can not remember the journey.

Jeez it takes these old buggers longer to stand up than it takes to sing the bloody number.

For some reason I still can not get Rudyard Kipling off my mind

Ship me somewheres east of Suez,

Where the best is like the worst,

Where there ain't no Ten Commandments

an' a man can raise a thirst;

Yes there are definitely places in the east that fit that description, Thailand for one; you can certainly raise a thirst in a place like Pattaya. Bloody hell, where did that thought come from? I haven’t been to Thailand for years.

Here we go, the opening chord, I had better hit the first note with gusto and hopefully drag these old farts with me.

I remember being the youngest member in this choir for years and by the state of some of them I probably still am. I can not believe how this choir has gone downhill. From fully sponsored tours of the south coast of England not so many years ago, we have ended up performing in small church halls and chapels with only a handful of old wrinklies in the audience.

We soon finished that number and now we are into “Comrades in Arms” blimey they were singing this when I first joined the choir.

I remember I would always scan the audience for a pretty face. Occasionally I would spot one, and from the stage you could quickly establish if she had a bloke with her or not. If not you could give them the eye, flash a smile or tip them a wink. If it got the desired effect and I got their interest I could always manufacture an excuse to chat them up in the bar after the concert. “Did you enjoy the singing” was always an easy opening line. This technique proved quite successful for a few years. But with our audiences getting older the opportunities have reduced with the passing years. The amusing thought is these days we don’t have groupies waiting outside just ambulances and care nurses for the aged audiences. I don’t recall seeing anything vaguely eye-catching at a concert for some time

Except tonight that is. In the third row from the back, I spot her, she is an Asian lady. She is probably the wrong side of 40 but she looks interesting from here. I must put my other spectacles on when we have finished singing this number so I can have a better look.

'Er petticoat was yaller an' 'er little cap was green,

An' 'er name was Supi-Yaw-Lat jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen,

An' I seed her first a-smokin' of a whackin' white cheroot,

An' wastin' Christian kisses on an 'eathen idol's foot:

I remember now she caught my eye just as Ken was singing old Rudyard’s lines. I wonder what the minister of this church would make of an Asian beauty in a yellow petticoat and green hat sitting in the pews smoking a cheroot with a heathen idols foot made from mud poised on her lap for when she felt the urge to kiss it.

Applause, goodness we have finished singing, did I sing that number completely on automatic? We are sitting down now. I have the chance to change my spectacles. Damn, now we are seated I can not see her. She is quite petite and she is hidden behind that fat woman in the floral frock. Do women still refer to their dresses as frocks? Maybe not, but that shapeless thing is definitely a frock. I still can not get that perishing Kipling out my mind

Tho' I walks with fifty 'ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,

An' they talks a lot o' lovin', but wot do they understand?

Beefy face an' grubby 'and–

Law! wot do they understand?

I've a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!

I feel an empathy with old Rudyard about English woman especially if that

Overblown Hippo blocking my view is anything to go by.

An' I'm learnin' 'ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:

"If you've 'eard the East a-callin', you won't never 'eed naught else."

No! you won't 'eed nothin' else

But them spicy garlic smells,

An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells;

On the road to Mandalay…

The smallest thing can encourage the most evocative images. I only had a cursory glance at that oriental lady but suddenly the smells and sounds of Asia engulfed my senses. Maybe she is not strictly oriental, not Chinese more south East Asian. Could she be Vietnamese or Malaysian? More probably she is from the Philippines or maybe Thai?

What are we singing now? I missed the conductor’s announcement again but mai pen rai, I can pick it up from the piano introduction,

Now we are on our feet again ready to sing and now I have my distance spectacles on I can now better observe her. I have plenty of time whilst the conductor waits for the geriatrics to creak themselves into the vertical. A closer look, wow she is quite a stunner, very slim, her raven hair is cut short but it is silky and shiny. Oh and her face, even from here I can see she is lovely, if she is over 40 she has aged incredibly well.

Her skin is very dark she could be from Isaan; mind you she could equally be from Laos or Cambodia. However look at the shape of her delightful nose, quite a distinctive shape. Yes she is without doubt from the Isaan and most likely from Buriram.

She has noticed me looking at her; she is looking at me now so I quickly bob my tongue out at her. Would you believe it she has given me a smile in return, and what a smile. I haven’t seen a smile like that for years; her teeth are perfect little jewels. That smile would illuminate this hall if ever the power failed. She is definitely Thai. The piano plinks out the intro to “Entrance and March of the Peers”. I quite enjoy a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan and the intro is very long so I have time to continue my perusal of this lady before I have to burst into song again.

Rudyard Kipling was a contemporary of Gilbert and Sullivan. In on the road to Mandalay he was writing about his time in Burma when it was part of the British Raj. I never went to Burma but I spent a lot of happy times in neighbouring Thailand which was never part of the British Empire and they never fail to let you know that they always remained independent of western occupation for what good it did them.

The seat in front of the object of my attentions is now empty. Mrs Hippo has gone, possibly for a wallow in a hollow? No more likely gone out for a pee but I can see my little orchid much better now. My view is unobscured. She is wearing a smart suit with a skirt just long enough to be respectable but short enough to reveal a wonderful set of pins. She really is quite delectable even from this distance. When a Thai lady dresses well they look breathtaking but I remember most of the bar girls in Sukhumvit dressed like a road accident in cheap tacky tee shirts and very short skirts or the ubiquitous jeans. Oh dear I think I am cracking a stiffy which is most embarrassing considering my position on the front row.

Bloody hell we are singing “Love could I only tell thee “now. I don’t remember finishing the Gilbert and Sullivan piece never mind beginning this one. We are already on the last verse and the climax (unfortunate thought) of this piece is a top B flat, I will sing it fortissimo with some passion (a further inappropriate thought) to take my mind of my nether regions.

The applause ends and we take our seats again. The lady in the floral marquee has returned and once more obscures the view of my Isaan princess. But I notice sitting next to my Asian sweetie is a young girl in her teens, she is a very pretty girl. She is a good 4 “taller than my teerak but is unmistakably her daughter. Her features are clearly Lek krueng so although her mother is Thai her father was evidently western. She has a beauty that is only just beginning to blossom and I have this intense feeling that I know her. Although she is obviously far too young to be of interest to me she has provoked a reminiscence of the shop girls and students I used to observe at the Bangkok shopping malls in their enchanting uniforms.

We are singing a couple of numbers from “Les Miserables”. These go down well with audiences but they are bloody miserable to actually sing. I sneak another glance at the little Siamese sweetheart and I recall some more of the Mandalay thing.

I am sick 'o wastin' leather on these gritty pavin'-stones,

An' the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;

But that's all shove be'ind me — long ago and fur away,

An' there ain't no 'buses runnin' from the Bank to Mandalay;

I empathise and understand what Kipling was saying. I get a very strong memory of a longing I felt being in England wishing I could step on a bus to Bangkok instead of enduring the 12 hour, 5000 mile journey by air.

I am aware of this yearning that once forced me to make a decision that altered my life, the feeling is overwhelming but I can not quite articulate it.

The final number we will perform is the prayer of the Rev Eli Jenkins from Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. We have traditionally finished concerts with this and it takes a bit of concentration to sing correctly.

The applause alerts me that the concert is concluded but the votes of thanks seem never-ending. I have definitely got the attention of my Buriram beauty she has given me at least two breathtaking smiles since the final item and has even tipped me a wink.

As I leave the stage I check my bow tie is straight and brush down my tuxedo. I see she is without a doubt looking at me, my heart is beating faster and I feel like a teenager again. For the first time my confidence fails me and I have doubts about her intentions. God what does she want? I hope she is not a Katoey and wants to join the second tenors. Wow I have certainly had some strange thoughts come into my head tonight but what do I know about Katoeys or Ladyboys and where did that thought come from? Seeing the girl who is clearly her daughter standing beside her there is no doubt she is 100% female. She is deep in conversation with Mrs Hippo in the floral tent who I think organised tonight’s concert. My Isaan princess gives me a little wave and beckons me to her.

As I approach, the younger girl runs to me and gives me a big hug. She grips my hand with both of hers and rests her head on my shoulder. I am so engulfed by an overpowering sensation of love I lose the power of speech for a moment. Her mother walks to me and without halting her conversation with her companion tucks her arm through mine in an unexpected gesture of intimacy. She must know me from somewhere. As she continues her discussion I notice that her English is faultless.

“Tim and I have been married for 20 wonderful years but for the last five years I have had to nurse him through this terrible condition. He has difficulty remembering things that happened recently but can often recall events from years ago as if they happened yesterday. The times when he is feeling ok my daughter and I bring him to concerts. He has been a member of this choir for over 40 years so they let him join in at smaller concerts when he has his good days. But when he has a bad day you realise what a cruel disease this form of dementia is to a man like Tim”.

I look at this charming creature and I am mesmerised by her. She has a graceful elegance and beauty that makes my heart want to burst. I am captivated by the sound of her voice but I wonder who is the poor fellow she is talking about?

Stickman's thoughts:

Very, very well put together!