October 21: Kuala Lumpur

Petronas Towers, obv.

Malaysians know how to queue. I know that much about them after being in KL for half an hour. Waiting for the light rail to KLCC, I see a dozen queues. These are not the ill-formed rucks that pass for queues in Shanghai. No, lines of people wait patiently to board their train. Two or three trains pass, and a few people get on.

Then, all of a sudden, there's a rush, the queues break down, and the whole platform makes a mad scramble for the doors. It's an empty train, which swiftly becomes a sardine can.

I find it surprising that women who are decorous and modest in dress don't mind being pressed up against men. I suppose that if they, or their husbands, really minded it, they'd stay at home. Malaysia doesn't seem like that kind of place, although there are lots of women in hijab.


I queue some more at the Petronas Towers. Apparently, one just must ascend to the skybridge and take photos of the surrounding city. The queue is long and wearying, and the ticket is timed, so here I am at Starbucks waiting for my turn. I am in the KLCC Suria shopping mall, which is enormous (yes, even bigger than Garden City). It's somewhat reminiscent of Whiteleys (many of the same shops even) but on a far grander scale.

KL seems to have several "city centres". I think it's like Singapore in that there is no one CBD. This is the district that's called KL city centre, but that's a vanity thing afaik.

The centre is beginning to wake up. When I first walked in, about 9.40, it was close to deserted, with most of the shops closed. KL is obviously not an early-to-rise city.


The woman at my hostel says there is no checkin till two, so I go to look for something to eat. Which is harder than you’d think. Malays seem to have no confcept of food without meat. To be fair, most of the rest of the world doesn’t either.

I am caught in a rainstorm, and, tiring of waiting in a shelter for it to pass, I walk through the rain to the Indian quarter. Here there is what might be veggie curry if it wasn’t for the bones.

I walk back through the colonial district. KL is curiously muted as far as monuments go. I suppose this is an outcome of being a British colony. We were basically in it for the dollar, and didn’t like to waste too much on buildings.

Outside Puduraya bus station, I stop to rest. Two men in a tie approach me. They are Mormons. I am not in the mood for a discussion of theology, but it seems neither are they. Maybe they have grown tired of trying to sell their hokum to the natives. Oddly, they say their names are Elder Crane and Elder Osborne. I resist the temptation to make a crack about what a coincidence it is that they have the same first name. I mean, Mormons are crazy, right? They believe some seriously crazed bollocks. So best not rile them.

October 22: Kuala Lumpur

I am woken by the dawn chorus of the mobile phones of the Japanese girls who are sharing my dorm room. Yes, I am getting too old for hostels and will have to age gracefully by accepting more comfortable accommodation in future.

This morning I walk around Chow Kit, a busy commercial district with a market tha smells more interesting than it looks, and then Kampung Baru. This is a Malay village that is incongruously placed in the shadow of the big buildings of KLCC. It is the definition of sleepy: the odd person doing yard work, chickens scratching in the dirt, a thin uncared-for cat slinking across the road. It is hot: yesterday’s clouds have given way to blue skies (although as I type this the rain has come in again from nowhere and it’s bucketing down). So I slouch along at the same pace as efveryone else. I am mooch personified; but this is what I have come for: the opportunity to walk through the places people live, where they are unguarded and real, to spot the tiny truths of lives.

Now I am eating my thali in one of a row of Indian veggie restaurants. There is a large Indian population here (a bit more than half the population of the city are Malay, there are many ethnic Chinese of different sorts, some Eurasians and people from all over India: each retains their ethnic characteristics, but so far as I know, there is little conflict, although this hasn’t always been true).

Chinatown is rough and busy, its main drag pedestrianised to permit a market that is somewhat reminiscent of the one at Shepherd’s Bush, but with a more Chinese flavour. The South Indian temple is an oasis of calm in the centre of the commercial storm. Sadly, the main shrine was locked, so I didn’t get to see the chariot that carries some mad god to the Batu caves, followed by men carrying buckets of milk with their faces as a sign of their devotion. It’s not just Mormons who believe crazy shit.

Kampung Bharu

Petaling Street Market

Sultan Ahmed Building

Philosophy, Malay stylee

The Equator Hostel

October 23: Kuala Lumpur

I am drinking black coffee (milk lost in translation) in a kedai kopi in Pulau Ketam. This is a Chinese fishing village, built on a mangrove swamp (or rubbish tip, depending on how you look at it) on an island off the coast of Selangor. I took a train through the distinctly unattractive Klang valley to get to the evocatively named Port Klang, and a speedboat, which, as all Chinese transport is wont to do, featured violent and loud entertainment (US wrestling in this instance). Curiously, on the return, it featured a 'making of' video that looked at the video clips of an ageing pop star. I can't tell you whether he was any good, because I had the ears in.

The village is interesting -- all built on piles driven into the swamp -- but so ugly it's a wonder anyone can bear to live here. If you're familiar with mangroves, you'll know that they are not themselves attractive either. But there is no traffic, except for the ubiquitous bike, and the island is slowpaced and tranquil, except for the televisions that most people are indoors watching, escaping the noon sun, which I am of course -- a mad dog or an Englishman -- out in.

There are lots of children here. It's quite striking, because in China, of course, children are disproportionately few. I pass a school, and it must be close to the end of its day, because a man is firing up an ice-cream machine on his forecourt.

I was thinking, how strange it must be to live in a place that really has no seasons -- bar the wet and dry (not that the dry is dry, because it rains a lot here) -- to be hot every day, never to feel cold -- and one supposes there are many people here who don't ever leave Malaysia -- or even perhaps this village (after all, there are people in Newent who have never been outside Gloucestershire). But of course it is not strange at all to the people here. They belong in this climate, and live a life that fits it. Thinking about that leads me to reflect on how fortunate it is to be rich (and we are rich, even if we have times when payday seems impossibly distant) and to have the opportunity to see other places, to indulge our curiosity. Sometimes I regret a little that I did not travel more when I was younger, but my life has taken the course it has because of who I am and how I am constituted, just as the old man who has never left 'Crab Island', his life has been shaped by who he is and where he fits.

Shrine, Pulau Ketam

Arriving at Pulau Ketam

Chinese house, Pulau Ketam


Main drag, Pulau Ketam

Street, Pulau Ketam

October 24: Melaka

On the highway, there are rain shelters for motorbikes. I don't suppose it would be pleasant to be caught out in it, particularly in the monsoon. The journey to Melaka is much more pleasant for having an iPod. I don't think I would have enjoyed two hours of Malay radio, and it seems no one else did, because about half an hour in, they are all asleep, except the driver.

The Discovery Guest House could not be better situated -- right by the river in the heart of the old town of Melaka, which is the kind of place you can fall in love with. Maybe I'm just feeling that way because I've had a few beers with Teng, the Discovery's genial host, and a slapup banana leaf meal at a restaurant a few paces away. Tonight, the Discovery celebrates Deepavali, which is a holiday here. I am not so good at parties in places I do not belong, but I will loaf around and hope to latch onto a group.

I am looking at my photo of Zenella and the twins. How soft and fragile Naughtyman looks. And how beautiful my girls are. I wonder how my dad must have felt when the thrill of parts distant had worn off. Did he look at my photo with the same deep wish that I be well?


Even drizzle cannot spoil Melaka's Chinatown, which is quite well kept. It's nice to walk around and soak it in, but I try not to do too much because I plan a big day of walking tomorrow. I stop by a tattoo shop. The guy has a huge pile of books of flash, but nothing that really appeals. He doesn't seem all that keen anyway. Maybe he thinks I look too old and staid for it. I do look old. It has caught up with me in the past couple of years: I have piled weight on and the sun has aged me some. I resolve to lose some pounds, but you can't get younger! I suppose old is something you feel, but I only really feel it when I see others look at me. How desperately vain that makes me sound.

It probably isn't worth the risk to get tattooed, so I walk back down along the river. It's somewhat reminiscent of Suzhou, although prettier (more money spent on it, likely, because there are certainly more tourists here than in China).


Teng's friends are discussing the merits of poker against mahjongg. Which they prefer (and isn't it the same for all of us) is a function of which they can make money at). One of them has an enormous wad of notes that he says he has won at stud. You should teach me, I say. Simon, an American guy I have been talking with, wants to play them. He is itching to play poker. Dude, I say, they are probably better than they look, and even if they aren't, they likely deal from the bottom.

Meanwhile Teng is pouring us more beer. He is a generous host. We are wondering whether there is going to be a huge bill at some point -- 'you bought beers for the bar' -- but you can't worry about that when you're downing the Tigers and watching people who, you have to think, don't dance much bop jerkily to Smoke on the water, which the truly bad covers band that is entertaining us is murdering.

All in all, having laid on a buffet too, Teng must have spent a fair bit on his Deepavali celebrations, but I suppose he made a bit too, because I saw one of his minions (there were more people working than celebrating for a lot of the evening, although it took off later in the night) counting a stack of notes. And perhaps the goodwill is worth a lot too. If word gets around that yours is the place to drink, you will, I suppose, reap what you sow.

Shophouse, Melaka

Chinatown street, Melaka

Christ Church, Melaka

Riverside, Melaka

Melaka River looking towards the Discovery Cafe

October 26: Melaka

So I am chilling out today, doing some work and watching the world go by. I was planning to go to Pulau Besar, an island off the coast of Melaka state, but it's a shlepp to get there, and I wasn't feeling up to it this morning. I couldn't find my towel (went off to the dhobi wallah's, apparently) and my buddy went on to JB yesterday, and none of the other travellers has seemed friendly, even though there was football on. I couldn't find the veggie restaurant I was hoping to eat at (stupidly didn't take my guidebook, which has a map in it, because I thought I would just for once just remember where I was going -- but didn't).

I have been tasting Teng's wine for him. He gets it from the supermarket. He has Spanish riesling -- omg -- and South African pinot grigio -- the single worst grape evah! and this does not change your mind. I say he should buy Australian (because it should be cheap and you can't go too far wrong). He has. He shows me a West Australian chenin (a rose, not a white) and a SE Australian red (which I don't taste, but I am sure it's pretty foul).


So it turns out my towel was stolen. It's a small thing, but it's put me in a foul mood. I've waited all day for it to come back from the laundry, and I haven't been able to have a shower because I was waiting for it. Yeah, we'll lend you a towel, they say. But no towel. So I have to ask again, and I hate that.

It's a pity. I liked it here. But now for me it will always be the place my towel was stolen.

November 3: Brighton

As soon as I step out into the leaf-strewn streets of Preston Park, I feel at home. I do not mind the cold, because home is a cold country. I do not mind the damp, because this place always was damp: when I was a child, I loved the rain -- and wouldn't our Australian friends love to have the water that falls on us here.

I haven't spent time in Brighton for close to two decades, but it doesn't seem any different. Such is fashion that the students even seem to be dressed the same. Maybe it is scruffier, but it always had an air of faded beauty: perhaps the look of a woman who was never all that goodlooking but used to dress up nicely and did wonders with makeup and now doesn't bother so much.

I am trying not to notice that it is a more expensive place than Brisbane. It's hard to make a real comparison because the dollar is artificially bad against the pound at the moment, but there's no pretending that it would not cost more to live here. I sigh when I think about how difficult it would be to live here, to rebuild a life. But I want to. I feel it enfolding me in its arms.

And it is so beautiful: even these worn streets seem to me the perfection of the urban experiment. These are places people can live in, not those shacks that pass for houses in Brisbane. Here are places where people walk, take the bus, live cheek by jowl with each other, rubbing along together for good or bad.

The other evening, my sister's partner, A, and I had a few beers in a pub on London Road. A pub! Who would not sell their soul for the embrace of the English pub? I know I would.


Seaford, I think

November 4: Canonstown

A fat pigeon patrols the seafront at Teignmouth. He is eyeing my chips, but I have waited a long time to get a good serve of chips, so he will not be adding to his winter cushioning. Teignmouth is a pleasant Regency resort, well kept and attractive. I cannot help thinking though how impossible it would be to live in a place like this, where nearly everyone is somehow left behind. Those educated enough move away to Exeter, or London even, just as we left our home towns when we were younger.

Yesterday, I was in Seaford, also a resort of sorts. It is one of the places I might live in if I return to the UK. It's a nice enough town, although its seafront is not very nice. I think it would be a decent place for kids though, and Brighton is close enough to be exciting for them when they become teens. But I don't know; in some ways, England is a foreign country for me now, hard to interpret, and I will, as always, be limited by money and by the desire to make my family happy.

We stopped over for the night in Dorchester, and had a (very decent) Indian, served to us by a taciturn man, who it seemed to me was not at all Indian but perhaps an Afghan or the like. He did not seem to like my sister, J, although she is perfectly likeable and wasn't impolite to him. Perhaps he was just shy. Dorchester is, literary types will know, the Casterbridge of the Hardy books. I doubt it has changed much since his day, except for the traffic that clogs its high street.

We squabble a little in the car: she thinks that I speed up when approaching danger; I think that she is a bad passenger, always creating drama out of nothing. Well, I suppose it is difficult to accept that someone who has never driven you anywhere, and is new to the country, knows what they are doing, but it's just unfamiliar, not difficult.

Still, we are mostly companionable, sighing at the beautiful countryside of Dorset and Devon, and finally of Cornwall, which shades from the quintessential Englishness of the Fowey valley near Liskeard -- picture postcard pretty -- into the wild moorland of West Cornwall, our end of the county. Almost as soon as we cross the Tamar, the sky clears, and autumn sun sets the countryside aglow, the leaves burnished, russet and gold.

My heart aches with the knowledge that I have this short time here, and then must go back to the moist oven of Brisbane's summer. I was an autumn child and have always loved it: the mists, the failing light as the season turns, the crisp mornings, the damp that you can never quite shake -- all the things that people say they go to Australia to escape!

November 5: Porthcurno

I am walking on the cliffs at Porthcurno and my heart is singing. It resonates with the stones that our ancestors put here, in tune with the wild world. I do not know who I am or what I am made of, but whatever it is, it beats in time with this place. My heart has found its home and I am well.


View from Porthcurno

Lamorna Cove

Houses at Lamorna Cove

November 6: North Penwith

Harvey's Towans, where we spent most of our summers

Hayle beach

Harbour at St Ives

Bethesda Hill, St Ives

Stone house, rear view, St Ives

The stone house of my dreams, front view, St Ives

Cape Cornwall

Priest Cove, Cape Cornwall

View from Priest Cove