After 15 years of hard labour at Marlborough College I was eligible for a sabbatical term and used part of it for travel, birdwatching activities and examining.
Dr. Nick Maurice had invited me to join him on a trip to Gunjur in the Gambia as part of an official M.B.G. visit and I had a wonderful time not only with the birds but also with the community there, initiating some impromptu music-making. He mentions this visit in his splendid book “Never Doubt,” referencing the fact that I wrote a piece called “Gambian Sketches” to mark the occasion. In it I introduced some of the bird sounds I had heard in the “Marlborough kitchen garden”, adding a flavour of the music performed outside my compound by musicians playing the Drums and the Kora (a plucked string instrument) and quoting the melody of the Gambian National anthem. The result was a 15-minute piece for Brass, Piano and Percussion destined for a future performance in Marlborough College Chapel.
In the same year the International Department of the Associated Board deemed me ready for the rigours of examining in the Far East and I took up the offer of a 12-week tour to Malaysia starting in June. It was clear at the briefing day at Portland Place that this would be rather more taxing than four days in Westward Ho, and that Sir Hugh Allen’s advice to examiners of the need for unwearied patience and an elastic vocabulary and much else would be worth bearing in mind.
A thirteen-hour flight with Malaysian Airways and a number of other examiners focused my mind on the forthcoming challenge. I knew why I was going: I had a term off work, was due to earn some money and experience life in the Far East for the first time. I did wonder about my fellow examiners, some of whom would be going on to further extended tours in far-flung locations. Were they escaping unhappy marriages, needing money for alimony or house improvements, trying to reduce a whopping overdraft or just imbued with the Wanderlust? I was to find examples of all these motives, and as for the location it sounded good to tell people you were staying in a five-star hotel in K.L. with all expenses paid. But what of the lonely feelings experienced 7,000 miles from home, thirteen floors up in the steamy Malaysian air?
The first few days eased us into the task ahead, with multiple distractions along the way. The Hyatt Saujana Regency exuded a smooth and opulent air: a large kidney-shaped pool was banked with hibiscus and bougainvillea in the spacious gardens, where Sunbirds, Mynas and Magpie Robins hovered and flitted and perched. We explored the adjacent Golf Club, which was heavily manicured and had endless staff, some of whom were literally hoovering up leaves as they fell! My obsession with natural history was already infecting my colleagues: when I pointed out a White -throated Kingfisher and an adjacent Monitor Lizard on a lake to one of them he resolved to tell his wife to bring a pair of binoculars when she joined us the following week.
A trip into K.L. included an obligatory stop to see the Petrona Twin Towers: standing 452 metres tall they were, at the time, the tallest buildings in the world. It was also a shopping expedition to buy whisky, soda and several packs of cards all on behalf of a newly formed quartet of bridge players. As the day wore on I began to realise that the temperature was a steady 28 degrees, day and night.
On our third day we finally had a briefing with our Overseas Representative in a wooden conference room by the pool. A few of us were posted the next day to Shah Alam, a satellite city 30 kilometres away and the state capital of Selangor, where we would be billeted for the next 5 weeks. The Holiday Inn Shah Alam resembled a vast office block, devoid of any character: half of the air-conditioning in my room was on the blink, likewise some of the lights. Late evening inspection of the corridor walls sometimes revealed the presence of a cockroach or two. Nevertheless, the room suite set-up included pleasant living quarters and bedroom in one half and an exam studio with a Yamaha piano and sitting room area in the other. Looming in the distance was the Mosque, a fairy-tale blue and white creation with four towers like giant firework rockets. It reminded me of its presence almost every day at 5.30 a.m. with the call to prayer amplified through loudspeakers.
It was a novel experience to be examining “from home” as it were, convenient in some ways, but liable to induce cabin fever after a while. My first day was challenging: 31 candidates ushered in by Zeah, my steward, an Indian lady in a colourful tunic and white headdress who was charming but arrived 10 minutes late. Various comings and goings confused me so much in the next few minutes that when a similar looking lady walked in to take her piano exam I mistook her for the steward and asked her to check something on my candidate list: she was understandably traumatised. I was to discover over the next few weeks the full range of banana skins likely to trip up a rookie examiner.
Bribery: I had been warned there had been historic examples of attempted bribery from parents desperate for their beloved child to succeed. Offers of trips on private boats, free hotel accommodation, the companionship of a desirable young lady…. was I to believe the gossip? Nothing so exciting came my way, though one candidate brought in a box of gifts from his father, who owned a stationery business: pens, pencils, paper and envelopes.
Weather and air-conditioning: We were told that monsoon warnings could result in the suspension of examining, not an unattractive thought after endless days of wall-to-wall pianists. It never quite happened during my time in Shah Alam but we got close. One afternoon there was an incredible storm as a very tall Grade Three candidate went nobly to his failure: the hotel shook, the lights flashed inside and outside, the sky turned indigo, the rain lashed down but he hardly seemed to notice as he plodded through his descriptive piano piece, aptly titled “A little shower of rain- then the sun comes out!”
All examinations were conducted in my air-conditioned studio, an essential requirement but with a built-in problem. In the afternoons, from about 3.00 p.m. a sleepy feeling tended to overtake me, however good the candidates were. To offset this I would pinch myself, slap my thigh, roll up a trouser-leg or kick one foot with the other, all behind the safety of my desk!
Language Issues: Keep instructions short, clear and simple we were told. Asking for scales and arpeggios was simple enough: “C major with the right hand, and now G major with the left” sometimes reinforced by holding up the relevant hand. One young man played with both hands whatever I asked for: in a mischievous moment I said “and now G major Arpeggio with the right toe” and away he went again, undeterred, with both hands.
In terms of addressing the students it wasn’t always clear which was the Christian name: BONG SAU JACK (shall I call you Jack?) was followed by his brother BONG SAU TIT (….?) There were worse names but I won’t elaborate: it was sometimes tempting to repeat them, loudly, just for personal amusement.
Accompanists: These were not always up to scratch. A terrible teenage accompanist played for a violinist and it was so bad and loud I volunteered to take over- strictly against the rules! The teacher, student and accompanist were delighted and I got the boy and the next one through their performance ordeals. It was common for teachers who were accompanying to exaggerate all the louds and softs and slow ups, while the child’s playing by contrast was totally monochrome.
Standards: It was great to hear distinction standard candidates, usually the result of good teaching. At the other end of the scale it was sometimes an endurance test. One Indian lady with a tragic demeanour had us locked into an exam scheduled at 15 minutes for over half an hour. Everything proceeded at a funereal pace. I was finally able to say “Thank you, and that’s the end of the exam!” and she got up totally confused and wandered into my bedroom!
After each exam we issued a gold badge (“RSM Malaysia…50 years of setting the Standards”) which was sometimes ironic. A very weak Grade 5 pianist staggered through his exam, and when he finally ground to a halt I gave him the badge, at which point he said “Where should I put it?” Various ideas occurred to me….
Derilium: A young and charming Scot who I befriended clearly reached a crisis point behind the examiner’s desk sometime after this tour, or so I heard. Without any comment or word of explanation he packed his examining bag, walked out of the exam room, checked out of his hotel and got the next available flight to Glasgow. He had simply had enough, and after a day with 31 Prep Test candidates all playing the same thing I began to register the symptoms. Lack of sleep was another relevant factor: in Shah Alam the call to prayer was a constant trial, whilst in the Federal Hotel K.L. construction work on adjacent buildings sometimes went on all night. Worse still the workers appeared to be living and sleeping high up on whatever level they had reached, illuminated by piercingly bright lights.
Physical and mental well-being: I managed to survive a tricky period after drinking beer from an unwashed glass early on in the tour the result of which was a very upset digestive system and visits to doctors. I staggered on with the marking but it wasn’t a soothing medicine: 29 candidates from the same teacher playing the same jazz piece (marked “with a gentle swing”) with crazy jerky rhythms, like a Scottish jig, and then, right at the end, a Malaysian girl, candidate 30, with relaxed, authentic rhythms…. wonderful!!
I wanted to hug her, but I didn’t.
With little exposure to professional concerts, cinema and other entertainment it was not that easy to switch off and experience life beyond examining. High up on the roof of the Holiday Inn was a still blue pool which I nicknamed “Hockneys” after the famous Splash painting. It was an eerie place, often with no one else present and with stomach-curdling views from the edge of the pool, five-stories up. The World Cup dominated television viewing but lost its appeal after Argentina knocked out England. Room parties saw the consumption of much Gin and Tonic and the exchange of daft happenings in the exam room. And then little groups went out for meals: mostly Malaysian, Indian or Chinese cuisine, while the Floating Restaurant at Shah Alam and “Out of Africa” near K.L. offered an escapist experience at reasonable prices.
It was the weekend trips to exciting locations that kept up my spirits. The highlight of two days on the East coast was a close encounter with a Green Turtle laying and then covering up her 110 eggs on the sand above the sea. The bellboys earned themselves useful tips by alerting hotel guests to this unique happening and with torches and a protected corridor for the Turtle, we all watched in awe and wonder.
At Kuala Selangor Nature I got to know the Dollarbird, with its distinctive coin-shaped wing spots and marvelled at the sight of what looked like hundreds of Christmas tree lights, produced by fireflies swarming around the Berembang trees along the Selangor river at dusk.
It was at Fraser’s Hill up in the Montana Forest Zone, whilst enjoying the cooler temperature at 3,500 feet with my Malaysian birding friends Glenda and Ramley, that I experienced for the first time the phenomenon known as “a bird wave.” Appearing in a tree along our path as many as 15 or 16 species were chattering excitedly before moving on after barely a minute. As well as identifying most of them Glenda explained that the birds move in these mixed flocks to stir up the insect life and feed as they move from tree to tree.
I was shown the nest of a Helmeted Hornbill in the Genting Highlands precariously close to a cable car run and I learnt that mother and her chick live inside a sealed tree cavity for five months. Another lasting memory from the highlands was the haunting sound of gibbons across a valley in the late afternoon as we left for K.L.
My most daring trip was into the heart of the Taman Negara National Park, one of the world’s oldest deciduous rainforests. Accessed via a speedy river boat ride, with stork-billed and white-throated kingfishers for companions, it passes through the wildest parts of Malaysia. Amongst various encounters with the birds, animals and creepy crawlies I came across a Great Argus slowly moving through the undergrowth on silent feet, a fantastic pheasant-like creature, and later the delightful Blue-winged Leafbirds with their rich mixture of mimicking calls.
At Sungai Lebok I had hoped to witness the sight of a Bat Hawk predating on bats in a jungle area at first light. No success with this but I did glimpse a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills sailing above my head as I walked along a narrow path with 15 members of the K.L. Natural History Society, this only because one of them alerted me to the “harrumphing” sound they make through their bills when in flight. After this adventure we sheltered from a downpour and then had to quickly make our way back across what had been a little stream and was now an angry torrent of water.
All these weekend escapades were wonderful but I guess I sailed close to the wind at times. Joining a colleague at an East Coast location with another examiner I had taken my pile of mark sheets with me from the previous week. Our so called “Day List” itemised every candidate examined, but since the teachers presented revised lists of their students to suit their preferred order all sheets needed to be reshuffled in accordance with the original one. I laid out my papers on the carpet of my friend’s studio and began to sort out my sheets to get this tedious bit of admin out of the way, whilst he poured out generous portions of gin into three glasses. Out came a large bottle of tonic water from my small rucksack, but following the bumpy bus journey it opened with an explosion of fizz, and many miniature droplets shot into the air and gently floated onto most of my papers. After much laughter and ineffectual dabbing with tissues I was left with nine rewrites, a punishment for being over conscientious.
There were special birds I wanted to see, one of which was the secretive White-rumped Shama. When I found one in a clearing I kept very still,despite the fact that I was being eaten alive by a horde of insects. The next week my puffed-up face must have been an ugly sight to my poor candidates.
Back in the U.K. I reflected on all the highs and lows. I had lost weight, looked exhausted and soon it would be a new term at Marlborough. I was battle-scarred (more like insect-scarred) but grateful to be home, reflecting on a host of memorable experiences. Would I ever want to examine abroad again-more to the point would the Board risk it a second time? After this time twelve week tours became a thing of the past, but for the moment it was time to put my feet under another desk and return to reality.
Robin Nelson September 2020…to be continued