In the letter below, J. R. Ackerley writes to Francis King from Thailand, sharing impressions of Bangkok interlaced with grisly, unabashed racism and pretty turns of phrase.
To Francis King
I have been here since the 5th. Make a firm resolution never to come. The temperature was 90 degrees when I arrived, in two sweaters and three vests from the cold of Tokyo; and this is the Siamese winter. Naturally, I fell ill at once, diarrhea and sudden vomiting, and [—] has been most awfully kind I must say, giving up his bed to me in his air-conditioned room; but even for his sake, don’t come.
The heat is stunning and humid, the place is a network of mostly stagnant waterways, all breeding mosquitoes galore, the terrain is perfectly flat in all directions, a low skyline, no higher than the length of palms, and banana and rain-trees that hem one in. Moving away from dear Japan towards India, all the disagreeable features of that latter country, as I remember it, begin here: the muddy complexion (often diddy-daddied), the muddy eye, laziness, stupidity, dishonesty, betel-chewing, dirt and filthy smells, bad and mangy dogs, hairless and emaciated, whom no one will kill, and no one will feed. You would detest it, my dear. It is true that certain features deserve praise: the rice is better and better cooked than that sticky white pulp the Japanese are so fond of, and flowers everywhere are of a tropical beauty and (though I do not praise it, for I don’t care, but I know you do) the male human figure is somewhat larger and better built than you find in Japan. Also (unverified: I couldn’t even raise a finger, let alone anything else, to investigate in this boiling, sweating atmosphere), sex is said to be easily obtained. The large, lazy conceited dunderhead whom [—] has kindly delegated to show me about might please you with his biceps, but only enrages me with his ignorance and lumpishness, and all this ambition to improve one’s English when it’s perfectly plain that one is quite unfitted for any job in which English could be of the least advantage. The noodle prostrates himself three times, head to ground in front of every Buddha he sees, thinks he’s a Moslem perhaps. And ‘You’re welcome’ he says to everything. ‘Do you mind paying the taxi?’ ‘You’re welcome.’ ‘Well, home at last.’ ‘You’re welcome.’ ‘God! It’s hot.’ ‘You’re welcome.’ I am now so nervous of hearing that phrase that even if it were 20 degrees cooler, I could not unbutton his flies. One or two of the temples here are worth a look at in their baroque way, mostly they are tawdry,—gold, glass and porcelain—and dilapidated, and since they are mostly built of brick and stucco, their decay is far from impressive. Dirty, white-washed pillars. In Wat Po today a young bitch was dying in one of the courtyards. She was quite young, I could see her teeth, she had some filthy disease, bloody pustules and orange swellings all over her legs and stomach. Lying in the full sun she could not get up, and uttered piercing and heart-rending cries whenever she tried. People everywhere, a soft-drink café where they lounged, a monk was addressing some children ten yards away. Her screams were audible all over the temple precincts, no one gave her the least help, people just skirted round her. I bought her an ice-cream which she feebly lapped, and tried to locate a vet later but even the vets won’t put animals out of their misery: against their religion. The temple contains a Buddha, 50 yards away, ‘reclining’ on his elbow. Wretched piece of nonsense.
Well, I hope I shan’t leave my bones here too. I must say I feel much diminished and can hardly wait to get on to Tehran on Thursday. Even England seems a refuge. How in the world could [—] have pretended that this was nicer than Japan. Perhaps he feels differently now, for he was visited by the police yesterday. When I walked in I thought he was holding one of your conversation classes, such masses of shoes in his porch—but they were police shoes. A van was waiting outside to convey him to the Police Station. He was suspected of nefarious activities in the antique line and of being a receiver of stolen goods. I wonder if he is. His protests of innocence have been so vehement and prolonged. This happened yesterday and I really assure you that it has formed a single topic of conversation since, we eat and drink it, he has been on the phone about it all evening to all his friends. Sleeping pill last night. I must say his house is perfectly crammed with Buddhas (what on earth can he want with them all?) and it was perfectly crammed with policemen too, far from polite. He managed to avoid the van. Ah well, come Thursday. ‘You’re welcome.’
Love to you and Ando-san
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