“I can one hundred percent tell you your enjoyment, cultural experience, and general life will be massively enhanced by learning to speak Thai.”
Thus spake Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist in earnest tones, leaning forward, glass of red wine in one hand, gesticulating with a piece of Tasmanian Brie smeared on a cracker in the other.
“Hear, Hear”, chortled The Polyglot, a friend who was over with some other festive-goers for a Christmas wine and cheese evening the diplomat and I were throwing. “I am quite disappointed in you, sir. I thought you would be eager to learn Thai. Tell me, on a scale of one to ten where ten is the absolute enjoyment…how much do you enjoy writing your blog?”
Easy. “Ten.” I offered, as I glanced between the two who had cornered me in a fierce rhetoric. Persuasion was clearly their aim.
“And what about learning Thai?”
“Er…two?” I ventured lamely.
“Precisely!” the thud of a wine glass on a polished table to emphasize the proof of the argument. “You, sir, are…are…are…” he glanced at Canada’s Finest Jazz Vocalist “what’s the word I am looking for?”
“Not enthused enough?” chipped in his comrade.
“A….disappointment!” thundered The Polyglot.
I see. More cheese, anyone?
The very next day I decided to cycle down to the Neilson Hayes Library, a building attached to the British Club off Thanon Sathorn. A quick 10 minute ride from Langsuan to Sarasin, to Rama IX, down Sathorn. A usual blisteringly hot day but I am now comfortable with the Bangkok roads and it’s much faster to go places. Plus I knew The British Club was just next door with the cooling blue waters of a brand new pool. Having arrived, securing my bike to freshly painted black railings, I walked over to the entrance and strolled surreptitiously inside. Much like the Museum Nasionale in Jakarta the building is dated and colonial in style with its dark, wooden, glass-fronted bookcases, sweeping brilliant white columns and high windows designed to maximize the light, but not blind the reader. The origin of the library is the story of one Mrs Jennie Neilson Hays who arrived in Bangkok with her husband, T.J Heywood, the chief of the Royal Thai Navy hospital in 1869 (so two years after Canada got its first Premier, Sir John A.). She co-founded the Bangkok Ladies Library Association and devoted herself to its work for the next 25 years. The library was subsequently built as a memorial after her death in 1920. A single storey building, it was built using the same construction techniques as the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall (a former reception hall within Dusit Palace completed in 1915 which now serves mainly as a museum).
After stepping over the threshold, I saw that there was about five members of the public browsing idly and three Thai ladies whom I presumed to be the incumbent librarians. As with all libraries, there is a sanctified, rarefied air inside. People out do each other to speak in even more hushed tones, the losers are singled out for the glares of the librarians frenetically gliding from cabinet to cabinet, books under an arm, the Dewey classification systems etched into their retinas as they move unerringly from tome to tome. My aunt used to be one of these hallowed priests and I fully appreciate the reverence of the bibliophile.
As you can see a style heavy on the Edwardian influence, cases full of older books, but, I must say, pleasantly up to date with all the normal airport tat and beach novels, as well as reference books, and more erudite literature. To one side is a small rotunda where artistic efforts are displayed. This time there were several paintings by a Japanese artist named Arikawa who indulges in street art and has achieved some notable recognition in galleries in Okinawa. His exhibitions are called “Happy Fantasia”; this particular set is named “Enchanted Soul-stice” with his vision of the fantastical imagination of children and the struggle we, as adults, experience to retain that powerful inner essence and joy. His pictures are designed to capture vibrant emotions on children’s faces.
The library itself is not that large, perhaps 100,000 books all told, but sufficient for the farang to find something of interest and then retreat to the cool pleasantness of the British Club next door. It’s about 2500THB for a single person annual membership and it claimed you can get a blueprint of the library for 250THB. Unfortunately, those were sold out when I visited. Attached to the library is a more modern single story building, housing a small cafe with chairs and tables inside a nicely air conditioned room.
It was a quick visit, but whilst there I was able to pick up a book on learning Thai. The polyglot will be slightly mollified and the desire to learn the language, to enrich my experience will come once I begin to find the language barrier is frustrating what I need to achieve. Time will tell.
For now, I leave you with the legacy of Mrs Neilson Hayes. I suspect when she left the shores of England she did not know her memory would be best preserved thousands of miles away. But…preserved it is…and rightly so.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?