My father was born in China and no doubt I caught from him his own boyhood tingle at the idea of ships and their Empire routes, especially long ocean voyages by P&O liner. Excitement, homesickness, the magic of the word 'Orient': to a child growing up in South-East England in the 1940s and 1950s, such elements blended early into a near-poetry of longing for a vertical sun. By the time I was ten I had devoured shelves of adventure books set in the mysterious East. They were full of the clichés of the Raj: flying fish, lascar seamen, coolies, amahs, syces, green-eyed idols and fiendish poisons leached from tropical plants unknown to European science. At 11 I embarked on my first love affair, falling hopelessly for Kim. Never have I yearned so much to inhabit someone else's skin as I did Kim's. Even now, past sixty, I can catch him flitting through some dappled interior and feel again an urge to be up and lurking in hot bazaars, fluent in many languages, chewing betel nut with street vendors and taking tea with governors. At some moment in my first decade my inner compass was irretrievably set. Like Auden, who was never not thinking of Iceland, I have never not faced the Orient.
LRB 1 September 2005 | PDF Download