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42 thoughts on “Contact”

  1. You were simply right about Malaysia. The letter in the March 16 issue had no value. Many Chinese Malaysians need a chinese dialect, Bahasa and English for life in KL. Likewise for many Indian Malaysians fluent in Tamil (or Malayalam), English and Bahasa. The Malays never were tri-lingual and the policy change from English to Bahasa in government schools has only made it more imperative for the non-Malays to speak both Bahasa and English.

    1. Thank you, Eduard – yes, I was surprised by the reply. (This refers to a recent exchange on languages in Malaysia, in the letters columns of the TLS). My father was Professor of English there in the early 1960s, and this was his account. I worked in Java in the 1970s and often visited Singapore – and it was very obvious how fluidly people (in business, at home, even taxi drivers) switched between languages without a second thought. Later on, when I was working in Thailand/Burma, the same was true even among the rebels in the forest.

  2. Dear Jonathan Falla,
    I have been enjoying True Love and Bartholomew which I’ve been reading to help to contextualise my research on Myanmar’s grassroots literacy movements. This is a very odd question, but on p220, you write “An inscribed metal plate found among the Bwe Karen is said to be a specimen of the old script and the KNU Bulletin reproduced it in 1986”. This is the so-named ‘Karen Inscription Plate’ of Kyebogyi village which a few of us at my institute are trying to analyse at the moment (there are sketches of it in missionary sources, some of which you cited). However, I’ve gone through all the KNU Bulletins from 1985 to 1991 and I just can’t find where it was reproduced! I would really love to know what the KNU made of this artefact. It’s especially interesting because a new nationalist script, the Kayah Li alphabet, was to be invented in Kyebogyi about a century later. I know that this is a long time ago, but if you have any clues I can be contacted at kelly [at]

    1. Odd – not at all. Nice to hear from you, Piers. May I ask what and where your institute is? Are you in Magdeburg?
      I’m afraid I don’t think I can add much to your search at present – it was thirty years ago that I was shown a copy of the inscription while I was living in the 7 Brigade area at Methemetaw (Tenasserim). My now somewhat dim memory is that it had been reproduced (I assume from Bunker’s article ‘On a Karen inscription plate”) on the front cover of the KNU Bulletin without anything much in the way of analysis, but simply as a source of pride. It was all part of the evidence that they clung to, of their being an ancient “pre-Burmese” culture – very much in the manner of the Irish linguistic nationalists of the 19th century, and as discussed by Eric Hobsbawm in his “Invention of Tradition” work. I was gathering all the material I could lay my hands on at the time, so I would have recorded anything else that was said in any caption. One of the Karen I was living and working with simply produced it one day and said, “Have you seen this, Jo? Very interesting old chicken scratch writing.”
      Bear in mind that I was living there from October 1986 to September 1987, so it can’t have been any later than that. I wonder if there was a forerunner of the KNU Bulletin?
      I will have a look through my Karen diaries tomorrow and see if there’s anything more, but I don’t believe so.
      If you’d like to write to my academic address, it is:
      I’d be very interested to hear of any progress you make.

      1. Thanks Jonathan, this is all useful. So as not to further hijack the comments thread on your blog, I will continue the conversation via your academic email address! All the best, Piers

  3. Hi Jonathan, I truly enjoyed the last concert. See my comments under biography section. Cheers, Julie from Penrith.

  4. Dear Jonathan

    Thank you so much for the copy of ‘The White Porcupine’ – I was truly touched that you brought it. I know I will really enjoy reading it – I am a big admirer of your work.

    Kindest regards, Alison

    1. You’re most welcome, Alison. As an expert on the business of publishing you might perhaps blench at that wildly uneconomic distribution model, but it looks nice anyway!

  5. Dear Mr. Falla,
    You have recently viewed a piece that I submitted for one of the writing competitions you judged. I would be really grateful to hear your thoughts about it. I have never written anything like this before as I am not a writer. However, I have always felt that I have so much to share with the world. When I saw the competition ad I thought I could try and put my feelings into words and let someone read it. No one has ever read anything I have written so I really don’t know how bad it was. Do you think I should give up or continue writing? Please email me your thoughts.

    The title of the prose is “a What happens now?”

    Kind regards,

    1. Dear Noor – yes, I recall the piece, I think – I believe it’s still on my desk and I’ll be down in Haddington to present the prizes in a couple of weeks. I’ll reply via your email but please for give me if this is not for a day or two as I’m in the middle of another task just now.
      All the best,

      1. Thank you so much for your reply. Yes unfortunately I won’t be able to make it to Haddington since I am from Bahrain and living far from Scotland. I am really looking forward to your email. That’s fine you can take as long as you need.

  6. Dear Jonathan, I’m an ex Bedalian, I live in Buenos Aires and as it happens I’m reading The Physician of Sanlucar. It’s truly a very very good book, well done!!! I often travel to Tierra del fuego and your descriptions of the place as are vivid as it gets. I’m also touched about the story of the indians, I remember reading The Utter Part of the world by Bridges, and many years ago I met one of the last descendants of the Onas in Puerto Williams. Sad, tragic and too easily forgot!!!! I’m very glad your book talks about it again but unfortunately the destiny of Indians in South America does not look tot bright!!

    I still haven’t finished reading the book but I felt like writing to you.
    I hope that we can keep in touch, maybe you are planning a visit to Argentina!!

    King regards

    Pierpaolo Olcese

    1. What a very interesting contact – thank you! (When were you at Bedales, I wonder?)
      And what do you do in Tierra del Fuego? Lucas Bridges was, of course, one of my sources. Some years ago my wife and I went walking in the Torres del Paine national park, so went via Punta Arenas of course. The following year my niece also went to the Torres and, half way round, met a group of Argentinians walking in the opposite direction – one of whom she married. So, I too have extended family in Argentina. I’d love to come and visit one day.
      One of my musical heroines is Mercedes Soza, whom I sure you know.

      1. Dear Jonathan,
        I left Bedales in 1990. I’m Italian but I moved to Bs As eights years ago, with my wife and three children. I’m a theatre producer and moved here because of it’s great vitality and creativity. We produce shows for all over the world, one Forza Bruta is at roundhouse in London until March 2. I go often to Tierra del Fuego walking, sometimes skiing. It’s still quite a fascinating place!! I’m still very attached to my Bedales friends, who are more than brothers to me, they come here, I go there. No oceans can separate us. In fact, just recently I was back in Petersfield, I had lunch with Alaister Langlands one of my teachers and his family. Indeed It’s a school which creates strong bonds.
        If you ever plan to visit this side of the world remember that you have a guide to this quite extraordinary city!
        Hope we can stay in touch and maybe meet one day.

  7. Hello Jonathan,
    I believe we will be appearing, together with Mary Hamer, at an event at the Chelsea branch of Daunt Books on September 18. All three of us have written novels about real people, as opposed to imaginary characters, so that will be the theme of the evening. I will be talking about my seventh novel, ‘The Fairy Visions of Richard Dadd,’ which will be published soon by Peter Owen. I live in North London but will be in Scotland from August 6 -13, staying with friends near Dundee, and wondered if it might be possible to meet and discuss this. If not, perhaps we can exchange ideas by email.
    Best wishes,

    1. Oh, what miserable luck and timing – it would have been very easy, except that I’ll be in Canada just then! But by all means let’s exchange notes. My own characters often start from a real figure but I feel entirely free to make many changes, usually starting with the name and proceeding through the rest of the career. Generally, I think about fiction what Dryden said of poetry: “The chief if not the only duty of the poet is to give pleasure” (or words to that effect). Beyond that, I’m concerned with the moral interest of a situation, but not so much with individual histories.
      What’s your starting point? Tell me more.

  8. Hi Jo, thank you for a most enjoyable day in St Andrews on Saturday. I would recommend “The Craft of Fiction” book and course to anyone – a most stimulating day!! Best regards Alasdair Busby

    1. Delighted you enjoyed yourself, Alasdair – come back in the Spring! Mind you, I talked so much I was hoarse all Sunday.

  9. I am only 108 pages into a copy of “Poor Mercy” which you signed and gave to my brother George.
    Wow !
    More people back here in Scotland need to read your books.

    Perhaps I share with you and Mahmound Abd al-Haq strong feelings about this huge divide we have in the world at the moment.

    To the extent I took my daughter out of school at aged 10 for half a year to show her the “rich” (spiritually, emotionally poor) in the US (Oklahoma and California) and the “poor” in the highlands of Peru.

    All the very very best in your work.

    And maybe one day you would consider coming down to our neck of the woods for the Wigtown Book Festival held here in Dumfries and Galloway every autumn. Or maybe you have already and I missed you !



    1. Joe, can you give me your email address? I have been in contact with my cousin Natalia in Spain and we need to talk about business.

      Apologies for the intrusive comment in this blog with unrelated matters!

      Best wishes


      1. Hi Carlos – not unrelated at all. I’ll email you. I’d love to published in Barcelona!

    2. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm, Cecilia. I appreciate it.
      I’d be delighted to come to Wigtown – tell them to ask me! I was at Gatehouse-of-Fleet just before Christmas reading some poetry translations (see the “Velarde” page) and I did a reading at Wigtown a few years back, but it was too long ago.
      I have a new novel coming out in the next few months. Maybe I can present it at next year’s festival.
      All the best, Jo.


    So, I am currently preparing for press the new novel, ‘The White Porcupine’, set in Java in the 1940s and Holland in the 70s. Checking one of the central set pieces, I remembered its origins – and what a long process of digestion was involved.
    I was working as a VSO for a publisher in Java. I kept a detailed diary of everything I did. One weekend, my Indonesian employer took me to Cirebon, on the north coast, to witness the ‘Sekaten’ celebrations for the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday at the local “kraton” or palace. It was an extraordinary occasion, with vast crowds assembling in the courtyard of the crumbling building, hoping to see the sultan’s procession and to absorb his beneficial radiance. I got caught up in the crowd, and only escaped at last by riding out on the rear bumper of a departing army general’s car.
    A couple of years later, I wrote this up as a short travel piece called ‘Gate-crashing the Kraton’ which was published in the New Statesman. Later again, it became a short story called ‘Sekaten’ which I published privately and sent out to friends at Christmas. “But I want to know what happened next!” complained one recipient.
    At much the same time, I was writing a play about Indonesian terrorists in Holland. It wasn’t a very good play, but at least it had me thinking about the source material. Next, I began to write a novel combining Sekaten and the terrorists. After a while I thought it rather a good tale, and I proposed it to my agent as a film script… but that never happened. Now I was back with the novel, which I have just finished: ‘The White Porcupine’ will be available on Kindle shortly.
    How long has all this taken? I was working in Java from 1978-80. So from the initial diary entries in 1979 to this month’s first edition has taken a mere 33 years, several changes of format and a dozen drafts.

  11. JAVA PRINTING (no, not the programme…)

    One of the unexpected pleasures of launching into e-book publishing is that one has to learn – or re-discover – skills that had long since gone to sleep.
    In the late 1970s, I had a post as a volunteer language assistant with an educational magazine called Window on the World. This was in Java. I was involved in every aspect of the magazine’s production, not just the writing and editing, but also the graphics and design. We had a computer-typesetting machine – which must have been very advanced for 1978. But in the huge and crumbling print hall, there were also vast cold-metal flat-bed presses, mostly German and dating back to c.1910. When they were in action, the concrete floor trembled.
    Illustrations were laboriously photographed in a big darkroom and we would spend one long evening each fortnight seated round a table glueing everything into place. No internet for sourcing our pictures; we stole what we could find in old encyclopedias or we drew anything else.
    Meanwhile, I was being taught typesetting by dignified and very patient old Javanese gentlemen, using trays of ancient metal type; some of the fonts possibly existed in few other places in the world.
    Now, in order to put together covers for e-books and Lulu editions, I’m having to learn to manage computer programmes that are quite new to me, with no old gentlemen (except myself) to turn to for help.

    1. I’ve received an invitation to speak at an evening session at Edinburgh central library, linked to Scottish “Refugee Day”. For some time now I’ve supported a charity that used to be called The Medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture” (now Freedom From Torture) so this is going to be a benefit gig. When I considered it, I realised that four of my books, including all three of my published novels, concern exiles or refugees in one way or another. George Steiner once called the 20th century “the century of exile”. So it is in my books.
      My co-reader will be Leila Aboulela, a remarkable Sudanese woman and a novelist whose work I’ve reviewed two or three times. She is remarkable because it cannot be easy writing fiction that sees the world from the point of view of a Sudanese muslim woman living in Aberdeen whose main concern in her fiction is not murder mystery, or spying, or disaster in some sense, but far more subtly the difficulties of preserving one’s foreign religious idenity in a Scottish town.
      She’s as fine writer. I’m honoured to work with her.

  12. I have launched out into an unknown sea of imponderable extent – which is to say, I have posted two books onto Kindle. Like most professional authors, I have very mixed feelings about this. In the case of the first book – a collection of short stories – it is a result of frustration. For years I have tried to sell this collection, and for years publishers have said, “No thanks. What else have you got?” The market for story collections in the UK is minuscule, although in the USA it is somewhat better. Again and again, there are “initiatives” in Britain to “support” story writing, and I have done quite well in competitions, but finally nothing seems to change; I’m told that the average print run for a book of stories here is just 800 copies.
    I write a story every year by way of a Christmas card for family and friends, but that little edition seemed to be the end of the road for those tales – until a Society of Authors colleague suggested Kindle. So, as of a few days ago: there it is, yours for just over £2. The cover design even incorporates a piece of original music, as featured in one of the stories.
    The second Kindle book, which I completed just yesterday, is a play. My first play, Topokana Martyrs’ Day, was quite a hit some years back, with a number of productions in the UK and USA. But it was never published – until last week an American university got in touch asking if they could use the play as a set text for a course on drama and peace-building. How to make it available? Kindle was the obvious answer; students can have it for $2.99.
    All this makes me happy – glorious, to have an afterlife for that play! But would it not have been nice to have a book? Again, there is a technological answer: print a few copies through Lulu or the like…
    What a fast-changing world!


    A new experience for me this month: a public reading at the admirable Bakehouse of my poetry translations, from Italian and Spanish. Ten years of expensive and privileged private school education left me with the conviction that I was incapable of learning a foreign language, something that I’ve fought against ever since. After university I spent two years in publishing in Indonesia, and when I at last returned to Europe, it was to stay with a friend in Venice. I did my best to learn some Italian before arriving, and discovered the lovely – but difficult – poems of Eugenio Montale, the 1975 Nobel winner. One of these especially: “Due nel crepuscolo” describes the difficulty of returning to former friends and loves after a long absence:
    Non so se ti conosco. So
    que mai diviso fui da te
    come accade in questo tardo ritorno.
    (I don’t know if I know you. I know
    that never have I been so divided from you
    as at this belated return.)

    The chief poet of the evening was Ramon Lopez Velarde, who died in Mexico City in 1921 (see elsewhere on this site). My interest in Velarde began in Nicaragua in 1986, where I bought a fat anthology of Latin-American poets. Twenty-five years later, it is still a puzzle why I should find Velarde sympathetic: a small town Mexican lawyer, a bit of a dandy but profoundly conservative and Catholic, he was never much like me. That, though, is one of the benefits of working on translations: one works hard to get into the head of the other, to the point of identification.

  14. Hello, I bought a copy of your book “The luck of the Devil” and after reading your introduction in the book and the description here on the website I was expecting to see some photographs somewhare in the book but there are none!
    Could you please tell me if this is right or I have bought a dodgy copy?
    My father also served on HMS Tracker as a Leading Air Mechanic in the Fleet Air Arm so they must have meet at some stage, he has very fond memories of the Stringbag and still tells stories when we meet up.He has quite a few photos but I am always looking for more information and photos if I can find them.
    I will buy him a copy of the book asap but I wanted to know about the photos first.

    Regards, Pete.

    1. Pete – hello. Yes, this problem just surfaced at the weekend when I received my own set of author’s copies from Pen & Sword – and it became apparent that the whole lot have been printed without the photo plates.
      You will of course be entitled to a replacement copy, but I’m not sure of the procedure for this. Please either contact your bookseller, or phone Pen & Sword at the number given in the book. They certainly know about it and have placed an order for an emergency re-print, which will take about two weeks.
      I’m very sorry that you’ve had this bother – red faces all round.

  15. Hi Jo
    Its is Wieger. you know , the guide from the Netherlands. Nice website. Looks really good. How is your work going on your book on the Molukken? If it will be available somehow i would be interested to read some day. you can contact me at Well hope to hear from you nd your work Say hi to Rona and Kid for me
    Greetings Wieger

    1. Hi there, Wieger. The novel is with a publisher hoping for approval just at present, so my fingers are firmly crossed. It’s taken a long time to write. I’ll let you know what happens. Thanks for getting in touch!.
      (This is my new novel concerning terrorist train hijackings in the Netherlandsin the 1970s).

  16. Jonathan,

    I was intrigued in your review of Linda Polman’s War Games:

    You offer David Werner and his Hesperian Foundation as an example of a ‘successful MONGO’. David was asked to leave the foundation in 1993 because of sexual abuse charges on minors associated with the foundation. Isn’t this exactly the kind of thing Linda is (rightfully) afraid can go on in MONGOs…?

    Werner has had nothing to do with the Hesperian Foundation for nearly 20 years now.

    1. Yes, you’re quite right. I wasn’t aware of the troubles at Hesperian when I wrote the review, and only found out by chance afterwards. This was a very sad discovery; throughout my early years in tropical health Werner was something of a hero for his efforts, even if he didn’t get everything right. What surprises me is that he was not stopped even though the Hesperian operation in Mexico was, I believe, quite big by the time he left, and hardly a “my own” solo operation any more. And it is still, I think, highly successful; I found myself using a translated version of “Where There Is No Doctor” in the Burmese forests in the 1980s.
      Although I don’t belittle the scandal at all, it’s an illusion to think such things are confined to MONGOs. Examples of gross incompetence are rife throughout the aid business, and I’ve seen some at close quarters. As for exploitation of every sort – well, one only has to look at the churches to see that it is by no means the preserve of MONGOs.
      But your point is well made.
      (MONGO=”my own NGO” = a small self-indulgent so-called aid agency)

    1. Thank you, Bill. I guess it goes without saying that much of the book is coloured by experiences with the OU. An ongoing project!

  17. Iam looking forward to reading your books one day…. especially as I have lived and worked in a developing country for almost 24 years (Nevis; St Kitts and Nevis)

    (You may vaguely recollect we were at Dunhurst together. Do you remember Myfie ? )

    1. I do indeed remember! Good heavens, that’s the best part of half a century ago… How very nice to hear from you, Quentin. What are you doing on Nevis?

  18. Dear Jo,

    This is from another old friend (we’re all getting old now, aren’t we?!) who is also very pleased to know you’re doing so well in life, love, & writing; and also music! I enjoyed “Blue Poppies”, enjoyed “Poor Mercy” even more, and am now ordering “Glenfarron”. And I love the CD “Plaisir d’amour”.


    1. Good heavens, that really takes me back! I still have a book of your parents’ Ruthy – Le Battallion Leopard, about French mercenaries in the Congo. Would you (they) like it back?
      I’ll email you seperately, Ruthy.

  19. Dear Jo,

    this is from an old friend who is very pleased to know you’re doing so well in life, love & writing.
    I have now purchased “Blue Poppies” and I’m looking forward to reading it this summer. So many years have gone by since we met in Nicaragua and Amsterdam – but that does not mean I’ve forgotten you. From Holland with love,

  20. Hello Johnathan,
    I picked up “Poor Mercy” in Dalgety Bay library and found it quite stunning.
    To describe the problems of aid,differences in culture,the horrors of war and a love story into a very readable book is a major achievement.
    I am now enjoying Glenfarron so much that I know I will have to read “Blue Poppies”.
    All the best with your future projects.
    Kind Regards
    Steve Murphy

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