We went to the British Club in Bangkok today. It is oft described as “an oasis in the heart of Bangkok”. I thought oases were places of rich biodiversity surrounded by the harshness of a desert. A watering hole amidst the bleak terrors of nature’s conditioning to prevent humanity from touching its clean, raw purity. A splash of colour on a grey plain or nebulous sands that wails its siren call to anyone within a hundred miles.
The irony is that my first impression was that the oasis now surrounds this bastion of a faded past. Thailand may be the only south east Asian country to not succumb to European colonialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but there can be no denying this “oasis” has modelled itself on all the other oases which have landed like an obtrusive meteorite in those lands which suffered the trading greed of our forefathers. The club is under extensive remodelling of its pool. The result is a swirl of clinging dust that chokes words, cakes sweating faces in a mask that no spa would desire. Each pathway betrays broken tiles, the poke of foliage a testimony to the inexorable march of time. Stray cats lounge indolently in the shade, give no regard to the languid bustle of men and women sipping on lime sodas under the blat blat blat of once-white fan blades.
The main building is exactly as I imagined it would be. George Orwell paints a more perfect picture than I and it is true to say that a border of riotous vegetation sprawls to touch a lawn that is luxuriantly verdant in places, tarnished and arid in others. The main building is stark white; a hundred years old; an architecture that lends to the imperial nostalgia that the official history claims on the website link above. I have still to venture inside these historical walls, to feel the both oppressive and welcome weight of those far greater than I. That is for another day. Yet…the atmosphere is convivial, welcoming. It is a meeting place for all those who crave a place to go that is not their home. It is a welcome retreat for extroverts seeking the dialectic of companionship, a place of careful contemplation for those of us whose introversion lends to solitary watchfulness. There is billiards and pool. There is snooker and libraries. There are quizzes and parties; it has a mournful soul that exudes flashes of gaiety and desire. It is as though we are in Rebecca’s Mandalay, both past and present.
Outside we have a pool for our daughter with a baby slide that she lurches towards, hands outstretched, gurgling happily. The shriek and laughter of children is an ever-present music in this land. I would rather hear that than the electronic discord of a TV blaring Simon Cowell’s latest trite offering. Bread and Circuses, indeed. We are brought a light lunch repast of salad at prices I would envy in Europe. I am able to practice some tennis under the harsh heat. Cooling water dispensers are a must at all these sporting venues and my delightfully kind tennis partner constantly encourages me to drink whilst ensuring I do not have to run about much. It is clear that he could thrash me if he so chose but that is not his aim. He wants me to feel welcome, to let me exert myself yet not walk away in despondency. Indeed, after the practice he stops by a trestle table where some older members of the club are heartily celebrating a birthday. He breaks into a song in French, a small ditty where I pick up the word “amour”. Everyone applauds and he encourages us all to join in. I am not quite ready for such open companionship so I nod my apologies and retreat to the washrooms in order to slough the burning heat from my skin. I have recognized that much time is spent here trying to cool down.
So, this was the first impression of the British club where those who come are from all of Europe, the US, Canada, Australasia. Whether it becomes a lingering impression remains to be seen. It is a faded oasis in the heart of a vibrant city. Yet, within its cracking architecture beats a closeness of human friendship that is all that really matters. People breathe life into the buildings they use and I like what I saw. I felt at home and I walked away realising that the sterile utopia we seek in our British homes with its IKEA furniture, polished mirrors, off-white walls, clipped lawns, obfuscating palette and stainless steel kitchens drain our souls. Here, amidst the louche cats of Bangkok, the weed strewn paths, the dusty drills of a pool under construction, the unforgiving heat and humidity is a faded oasis with a waterfall of vibrant people who offer friendship and conversation to all that seek it. Those that have been here for some time will know that, as strangers in a strange land, we all need it.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?