Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

9. An Observer In Malaya—1898
In his new volume, Mr. Hugh Clifford, at the beginning of the sketch entitled "At
the Heels of the White Man," expresses his anxiety as to the state of England's
account in the Day-Book of the Recording Angel "for the good and the bad we
have done--both with the most excellent intentions." The intentions will, no doubt,
count for something, though, of course, every nation's conquests are paved with
good intentions; or it may be that the Recording Angel, looking compassionately
at the strife of hearts, may disdain to enter into the Eternal Book the facts of a
struggle which has the reward of its righteousness even on this earth--in victory
and lasting greatness, or in defeat and humiliation.
And, also, love will count for much. If the opinion of a looker-on from afar is worth
anything, Mr. Hugh Clifford's anxiety about his country's record is needless. To
the Malays whom he governs, instructs, and guides he is the embodiment of the
intentions, of the conscience and might of his race. And of all the nations
conquering distant territories in the name of the most excellent intentions,
England alone sends out men who, with such a transparent sincerity of feeling,
can speak, as Mr. Hugh Clifford does, of the place of toil and exile as "the land
which is very dear to me, where the best years of my life have been spent"--and
where (I would stake my right hand on it) his name is pronounced with respect
and affection by those brown men about whom he writes.
All these studies are on a high level of interest, though not all on the same level.
The descriptive chapters, results of personal observation, seem to me the most
interesting. And, indeed, in a book of this kind it is the author's personality which
awakens the greatest interest; it shapes itself before one in the ring of sentences,
it is seen between the lines--like the progress of a traveller in the jungle that may
be traced by the sound of the PARANG chopping the swaying creepers, while
the man himself is glimpsed, now and then, indistinct and passing between the
trees. Thus in his very vagueness of appearance, the writer seen through the
leaves of his book becomes a fascinating companion in a land of fascination.
It is when dealing with the aspects of nature that Mr. Hugh Clifford is most
convincing. He looks upon them lovingly, for the land is "very dear to him," and
he records his cherished impressions so that the forest, the great flood, the
jungle, the rapid river, and the menacing rock dwell in the memory of the reader
long after the book is closed. He does not say anything, in so many words, of his
affection for those who live amid the scenes he describes so well, but his
humanity is large enough to pardon us if we suspect him of such a rare
weakness. In his preface he expresses the regret at not having the gifts
(whatever they may be) of the kailyard school, or--looking up to a very different
plane-- the genius of Mr. Barrie. He has, however, gifts of his own, and his
genius has served his country and his fortunes in another direction. Yet it is when
attempting what he professes himself unable to do, in telling us the simple story
of Umat, the punkah- puller, with unaffected simplicity and half-concealed
tenderness, that he comes nearest to artistic achievement.