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Somerset Maugham: The Eastern Gentleman

Somerset Maugham set sail for British Burma in 1923 expecting tigers, pythons, headhunters, and strange exotic fruits; instead, he found a power hierarchy tottering under the weight of self-importance.

Colonial hopes were twisted to despair as the thudding bitter gin hangovers manifested in the Burmese clubhouses.

Playwright, novelist, and short story writer William Somerset Maugham was born 25th January, 1874, at the British embassy in Paris. His father, Robert, a lawyer, feared French military conscription faced Maugham later in life thus securing the necessary consular arrangements to have Maugham born on British soil. Followers of Maugham’s work often consider the prolific literary figure symbolic of the British Empire, and all things English, yet he entered the world and left it on French soil and remained a Francophile his entire life.

Following the death of his parents (mother from consumption when Willie was eight-years-old, and father of stomach cancer two years later), Maugham was raised by Uncle Henry, a vicar, in the Kentish seaside town of Whitstable – later to be disguised as Blackstable for exploitation in his novels Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale. Like most authors of note Maugham’s childhood was an unhappy one. He attended the world’s oldest school, King’s (established 597 AD) in nearby Canterbury, where the boys teased his poor spoken English in a heavy French accent peppered with a disturbed, awkward, stammer. By age sixteen Maugham left Kent for Germany where he enrolled in literature, philosophy and German language before returning to Britain once again, less vulnerable, more confident, and somewhat worldlier. A brief spell in an accountancy office bored Maugham senseless before an internship at Saint Thomas’ hospital equipped Maugham with the required material to begin life as an author proper.

ABOVE: Baroque Author’s Lounge interior of the modern Mandarin Oriental Bangkok.

Despite his father’s wishes Maugham served with the army, but British rather than French; the Red Cross embraced the troubled soul as an Ambulance driver. He, along with Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and E.E Cummings and others collectively known as The Literary Ambulance Drivers drew material from their war experiences. Like Graham Greene, Maugham also practiced espionage recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service. Maugham traveled widely, experiences illustrated in numerous works, and by the 1930s Maugham was said to be the highest paid author in the world.

Maugham and his traveling companion and lover during his 1920s travels, American Gerald Haxton, set sail for Rangoon via Colombo in 1923 expecting tiger encounters, Burmese pythons, headhunters, and strange exotic fruits instead meeting with a power hierarchy tottering under the weight of imperial self-importance.

ABOVE: The Strand in Yangon, built in 1901.

Colonial hopes were twisted to despair as the thudding bitter gin hangovers manifested in the Burmese clubhouses. Future dystopian George Orwell policed Burma at this time, but there is no record of the two men meeting. While Orwell embodied the jaded expat describing the British controllers as both a dull and vicious breed, Maugham was indifferent to the social-political jostling, favoring instead Far Eastern adventure in these new exotic, challenging lands.

Up the Irawaddy the Maugham Haxton party traveled to sunlight shimmering upon the Shwedagon Pagoda. The porters, servants, cooks, and miscellaneous team journeyed by steamer to Pagan and Mandalay and on to the Shan states of Kengtung where conditions toughened.

Sometimes rowing on rafts, or trundling along dirt roads upon the backs of buffalo, and often resorting to foot through thick jungle before reaching teak stilt-houses, paddy fields dotted with wading cattle egrets. Streams were busy with kingfishers darting in flashes of neon blue returning with silver fish wriggling between their bills – the party pushed on toward Siam, exhausted, enthusiastic, and propelled by an excitement difficult to conceive in these days of global tourism, travel guidebooks, and GPS devices.

Crossing Burma to Siam the party found the topography agricultural rather than wild, the inhabitants hospitable, kind, and accommodating to their plight. A Thai village headman welcomed the party to rest at his villa before driving them in his red Ford to Chiang Mai where they took the bone-rattling train 688 kilometers south to Bangkok.


ABOVE: Old illustrations and images of the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, where Somerset Maugham took extremely ill.

It was here at what is now known as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, in Bangkok, where Maugham’s legendary fever took hold. The icy chills, the soaring high temperatures, the vivid audio and visual hallucinations that are symptomatic of malaria gripped the author.

“I heard the manageress of the hotel, an amiable creature but a good woman of business say to the doctor: ‘I can’t have him die here, you know,’” And the doctor replied, ‘Well, we will wait a day or two yet,’” Maugham wrote, confined to his guesthouse room.

ABOVE: Angkor Wat, a stop on Maugham’s Cambodia journey.

A day or two they waited and recovering from the fever Somerset and Haxton traveled by land and sea to the Cambodian town of Kep before heading to Phnom Penh and onto Angkor where the remains of Khmer Kingdom were being excavated from strangling fig branches and the ghosts of distant dynasties.

From Cambodia the team travelled to Saigon, to the sun drenched terraces where French cigarettes were smoked and daily news digested in both English and French. Francophile Maugham would have felt as equally at home here as fellow scribe Graham Greene did some thirty years later. From here they travelled on to Hong Kong before the long sea-journey to Shanghai, Vancouver, and finally New York.

Maugham’s ashes were scattered near a library next to his old school, but a small part of him has been enshrined in Southeast Asia where his travel books on the region continue to be read and enjoyed by travelers almost a hundred years after his groundbreaking explorations.