The Jupiter journey lasted four years. There were far too many stories for just one book. Riding High tells the rest of the story, and also why it was so difficult, afterwards, to come home.
Here are some extracts from . . .
Sailing Across the Bay of Bengal
The ship drew nearer to the old man, and I saw him plainly. Only his head and naked shoulders were above water. He was a well-built, quite striking figure, with skin the colour of a hazelnut, a completely bald head and a pair of bushy white whiskers.
The most extraordinary thing about him, though, was his absolute immobility. The ship came within thirty yards of him, I could have ringed him with a quoit, but he never raised his head nor let a flicker of emotion change his expression, which was one of total resignation, as he floated by, more like a waxwork effigy than a man.
I watched this with great surprise, feeling sure that in his position I would have had to laugh or shout or, at least, acknowledge the hundreds of spectators gazing down at me. Then we were past and leaving him behind.
“Why aren’t they going for him?'” I asked indignantly. “Why don’t they get a line out?” Every new episode in this affair astonished me.
A passenger leaning over the ship’s rail shouted excitedly in his own language, pointing down. Whether he had heard my question or not, he provided the answer.
Below us, beautifully visible in every detail and circling lazily beside the ship’s hull was a shark. It was eight feet long or more, dark brown in colour shading to white at the tips of its fins, an elegant and menacing fish.
People all around were calling out now. “Look, look, shark! Oh dear! White finned shark. Most dangerous . . .” and so on. A juddering vibration ran through the ship as the propellers went into reverse. The loudspeakers began to bark.
“. . . Number three lifeboat,” I heard. The derricks rattled and a boat, with several men inside, swung out over the side on the two cables and slowly descended. What then followed was a scene of danger and violence I would never forget…
This lovely little girl was the daughter of an American couple living a very simple, rural life at a religious community in Auroville.
Opium in Penang
I was sitting on the bed thinking about how to use the days before my ship sailed for Madras when there was a knock on the door and a thin blond man of about twenty-five came in.
“How d’ye do,” he said, with a New Zealander’s stifled drawl. “I’m Jack. The Indian bloke told me you were just in from Thailand. I’m in number seven next door.”
After a little while he asked me if I’d like to smoke some opium.
“Where?” I asked. “Here?”
“Nah,” he said. “There’s a den round the corner. The trishaw Johnny here can fix it. It’s okay. I’ve been once.”
“All right,” I said. “What’s the damage?”
“Four dollars a packet Ç Malay dollars, of course. You pay the driver when you come out. I had one packet last time. I might try two tonight.”
I could not visualize a packet of opium, let alone the inside of an opium den. I imagined slumped bodies, vacant faces, a fetid smoky haze and dim dragons with ruby eyes.
The den was in Aik Seng Bazaar, which ran alongside Rope Walk behind the hotel. It was a rather formless, intriguing area, a jumble of stalls, huts and cheap eating places. It might have been a last remnant of old George Town, a fit subject for an engraving. It was also a haunt of the more villainous-looking trishaw drivers who rested there at crude benches under the trees, where I imagined they did their business and extracted their commissions from the heroin dealers. I had long ago christened it Smack Alley.
In the darkness, long angular faces, glittering eyes and bare skin swam in pools of lamplight, with just a hint of danger . . . Jimmy stopped the trishaw and pointed to one of several board shacks with flat tar-paper roofs. We went inside.
The interior was all in shades of cream and brown: the bare wooden walls, a small darker wooden table, the even darker floor, a solitary candle flame in an unusually thick glass lamp, and the creamy torso of the man who stood behind the table beaming at us. He was short, plump and Chinese, and wore only striped pajama trousers with pockets, and sandals. A pair of small gold-rimmed spectacles was embedded in his fat cheeks.
“Come-ha, please. Sit down-ha. How many packet you like-ha”.
Through his manner and his gestures he managed to convey an extraordinary courteousness and respect. He waved us to the bunks that filled the back half of the shack. We lay down facing each other, about a yard apart, and watched the preparations. He bent down to reach for a shoe under his desk, and from this he extracted two packets of opium.
From a drawer he took out a pipe, and then brought these objects over to us, carrying the candle as well, so that strange shadows moved around the den emphasizing our intimacy. He knelt between us and assembled the pipe.
It was a most beautiful object: a dark wooden tube bound by silver rings like a flute. The wood’s deep lustre glowed in the candlelight. The pipe was blocked at one end and had a mouthpiece at the other. Into a hole near the blocked end he fitted the bowl, which was another piece of polished wood shaped somewhat like a mushroom with a small cavity in the top. Then he picked up a packet.
It was made from a single leaf, folded once across the middle and then once along each side. He opened it to show us the button of dark brown tarry matter it contained. We lay with our heads resting on shaped wooden blocks, and his hands and the candle were between us, though a bit farther from the wall, so that our faces and his hands made a triangle with the candle in the center. The world beyond the edges of the triangle faded from sight and everything within it became very intense, charged with a calm excitement such as the best rituals always produce.
He scraped up some of the dark resin on the end of a long needle and held it over the candle flame. I became aware of the extreme thickness of the glass which was itself shaped like a candle flame with just a narrow opening at the top. The glass had been cracked at some time and repaired with a thin wire. Over the heat of the candle the opium softened, coalesced, became shiny and threatened to fall. Expertly, the den-keeper kept the opium dancing on the end of the needle as it began to swell and bubble and make fantastic shapes. In this hot, almost liquid state he thrust it into the bowl, forming it into a plug, pushing the needle through it to form a channel for air and then twisting it out to leave the plug in place.
He gave the pipe to Jack who held it with the bowl inverted over the flame. As the opium burned he drew the vapour into his lungs.
“One big breath-ah,” the keeper coaxed. “Ah. Good. Very good.”
There were four pipefuls in Jack’s packet. Then we started on mine. The trick was to draw all the opium into the empty lungs in one long, smooth pull, and on the second pipe I managed it quite well. Entranced by the ceremony, I could have lain in the den all night, sheathed in its amber glow. I certainly expected to lie there for a while and experience the effect of the opium, but when Jack’s second packet was gone it became clear that we were expected to leave.
Full of the experience but with nothing to say, we let Jimmy carry us back to Rope Walk and paid him off. I walked to the Kedai Kopi and sat for a while with a glass of tea, feeling peacefully perplexed. Perhaps the world did seem a shade more distant than usual, but one packet of low-grade opium was obviously not enough to tilt my perceptions very far. My sense of intoxication, my feeling of satisfaction and well-being . . . came directly from the ceremony itself, from the excitement of having penetrated another of life’s mysteries. . . the opium was irrelevant to my experience. But why should a little fat stranger in pajama pants fussing with a pipe and a candle in an outsize packing case have induced in me such a state of bliss?
Well, that was a deliberate falsification. He did not fuss. Quite the contrary, his skilful hands were a joy to watch, and the dignified and thoughtful way he practiced his craft made him no more a stranger than would be the priest giving Communion. In fact, it was this sense of communion with others, in silence and utter simplicity, which stirred me, and which could happen as well in an opium den as in a church, or for that matter in a Turkish bath, in a barber’s chair or on a masseur’s table.
The joy of it was that it allowed people to come together, to participate in something, in a way to know each other, without the use of words Ç those words which we abuse so terribly to create suspicion and fear, to bully, to condemn, to judge and to alienate others.
I remembered a tea-house halfway across the Atbara Desert in Sudan, where every moment seemed to stretch to eternity.
And the workshop of Delio Quiroz in Argentina, an aromatic treasure-house of saddles, boots, hides and harnesses, where I worked for two days under that genial old leather-aproned craftsman, cutting and stitching a new saddle cover on machinery more venerable even than he.
And being invited, one big black night, to dance with Turkana tribesmen and emulate the stiff shuffle of the ostrich and the soaring leap of the giraffe.
What united all these moments was an absolute authenticity of environment, a sense of the past in the present, a complete identification between people and place, and a sense of mystery partially disclosed within me. In the excitement of such initiations there was cause for a joy as heady as any drug induced ecstasy.
What did that make of me, then? Some sort of cultural Luddite? Maybe. But I knew I could only be satisfied by the real thing, and the more I saw of the world, the more I realized that the real thing was running out. Some people, younger people, would explode with contemptuous mirth and claim that the real thing is being born fresh every minute, but they delude themselves. Things take time to become real, to absorb the mystery. Homes, for example. Who is making real homes any more?
I walked past the Choong Thean to Cintra Street and the Tai Tung, the best affordable restaurant I had yet found in Penang. Goldschmidt, the fat Austrian, was there alone at a marble topped table. I hadn’t seen him since my accident and I sat down with him and ordered pig’s feet in ginger. While he was eating I began to tell him where I’d been and what I’d been thinking about.
“I don’t know what you mean about real homes,” he said, wiping his greasy chin on a paper napkin. “It sounds too romantic. ”
“Well partly, I suppose, I mean a house that your father and grandfather lived in. I can only imagine what it would be like to live with things that were made or marked by my own ancestors Ç old fruit trees, a summer house, carved initials that sort of thing.”
“Pretty horrible. You wouldn’t like it. You’d rip it all out. If they were my ancestors you would.”
“But even then you’d be forced to think about it Ç about them and their lives. You’d get some kind of perspective.”
“Maybe, but it’s impossible. It’s always been impossible. Look, in three generations the house would have to be the size of a village.”
I wouldn’t give up. I was intoxicated by my vision of old wood and stone, of surfaces dented and dignified by use and age, of home-grown food, home-baked bread, children playing with their grandmothers, geese grazing in the orchard and sheets flapping in the wind. My ideal home was a cornucopia, producing not only a flood of good things to eat and drink but a living source of ideas, attitudes and beliefs.
Western life seemed immeasurably bleak to me, the very reverse of my ideal, a sort of vacuum cleaner that sucked up everything indiscriminately, useful and useless alike, and then farted and shat in a bag for the garbage collector to take away. To bring up a child in such an atmosphere would be a crime. . .