The Roads I Travelled by Paul Theroux – A Singapore Writers Festival 2014 Lecture



I'm truly humbled and I'm truly honored to be moderating this guest lecture by Paul Theroux and I've been told that I have three minutes to make this introduction so I'm gonna make every moment account so there are some authors that you've never met but you feel like you know them like they've been a part of your life forever and that they've traveled with you this is how I feel about our guest speaker you could say that he really inspired me to become a traveler and by extension a travel writer when I read the opening lines to the great railway bizarre how many of you have read that book fantastic right he said ever since childhood when I lived within earshot of the Boston and Maine I have seldom heard a train go by and not wished I was on it I fell in love with trains with that line and I hopped on the train from Penang my home to Singapore the first chance I could and then when I read the sentence on page two of the book and it said I sought trains I found passengers he opened my mind to travel through people through encounters not just to see but to meet and to get to know people so you don't need me to read out his biography because the number of books is written the movies that's been made the number of copies his sold because that's all on the Internet which I read in an interview is a place that Paul doesn't really visit before he visits a place but the man to me can be found in his words the line that says well the like just winner okay the man can be found in his words in his cutting width the line from st. Jack he's so shifty the light doesn't strike him that was funny with the light going off just now right it was funny with a light did you didn't know that I was gonna say that in his wisdom travel is both a desire to flee and a desire to pursue in his humanity and compassion the greatest writing he says describes difficulty hardship crisis awkwardness oppression despair in his enduring moto his mantra for now which is all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience there was an email that he wrote to me before the session in his irony and pathos the men of 50 has the most to say but no one will listen that was insane Jack well Paul Theroux is now 73 I read that in an interview in an article he's now 73 and I'm sure he has a lot to say today and I know all of us will be listening intently tonight so Paul will be sharing with us his journey for 45 minutes and after that we will open up to Question and Answer please give a hand big hand of applause to okay thank you very much to whom she quoted I said all genuine knowledge originates in direct experience she quoted me as saying that who said that John does that sound like a familiar quotation to anyone uh a great well a very big man said that maltitol it he melted tongue said that you really don't understand anything and you don't understand the world unless you have direct experience of it that you need to get up the Cultural Revolution was based on on that go into the countryside we want to find out how farmers live grow rice I mean I'm not advocating the Cultural Revolution but I'm just saying that Jesus didn't say that Mao said it and you know you could it's called the sa is called on practice on practice so I'm very pleased to be here I used to live here as you probably know I was a teacher at the University of Singapore and I'm delighted to be at the Singapore at this writers festival because writing reading are the most civilized things that you can do and in this connection you know we we had an election in the United States last Tuesday and about excuse me two men were vying for the congressional seat in New York City and one called mr. Grimm and mr. O'Neil I think it doesn't matter with their names out but they were on and they were in a debate and they were asked you know get to know the potential congressmen how many children do you have and you know where do you live and what's your favorite recreation and there was a question what's the last book you read each man who says what's lost book you read what you supposed to answer was they couldn't remember they couldn't remember in other words they had read one his two guys who are gonna be in the Congress in the United States and they asked the last book now you could answer that question any intelligent person should be it's so not only they couldn't remember the name of a book and they're going into politics so that's a 1 got elected but you know the idea that if you can there are that many illiterate people in the world and maybe they learn to read it maybe not but the idea that you can read and you don't read a book is a disgrace that's it that's it it's absolute disgrace it's shameful and anyway there you are I don't want to make a meal of that but I'm delighted to come back to Singapore I first came here in 1968 in November 1968 so this is as significant as November I came on November 4th 1968 and this is a city transformed as you know was anyone here in 68 and raise your hand if you were here in 1968 I see about I see about 10 hands oh and you you were there in 60 in 1968 you were in Singapore ok good so you know that it's been transformed in 1968 the Singapore that existed then was a Singapore that had existed since the turned the century really I mean that if Joseph Conrad came with me in 1968 he would he would have been able to find he would have recognized Joseph Conrad you know he he was here in the 1890s and wrote about it he wrote about Singapore in various stories one is the story called the end of the tether has anyone read that the end of the tether is it captain Whaley in the end of the tether and it describes Conrad describes captain Whaley walking through Singapore and there's from the harbour to the seaman's home and to the made on the Cricket Club and it's it it the Singapore that he describes still existed in 1968 it had even you know Singapore had rubber rubber States on it into the 1950s I believe and and there were even when I lived here going to Jurong was a trip into the countryside into the jungle really you know it was wild untamed there empty beaches and even coming at late at night around Dhoby Ghaut bras Basah Road certain roads there were no people there was no no car maybe one or two cars going by but no people just empty streets not something would happen now it's I'm not reminiscing what I'm describing is a transformation so Singapore has been transformed completely transformed from what it was it's certain areas are recognizable others not and this is a really useful thing for a traveler one of the one of the most enlightening things about travel is to go back to a place go some of you may not be from Singapore you might be from a place in England or Australia or Germany or the United States and you have a hometown going back to your hometown is always instructive the hometown might be much bigger or it might be smaller or it might not exist anymore many many towns are not on the map you begin as a traveller to understand what the world will look like when you see a place transform and I think Singapore has been more profoundly changed more profoundly physically transformed than any any city that I can think of certainly than any city that I've been in people say well Shanghai and maybe that so I've seen I've been back to some places in China and there's a certain level of transfer transformation but but nowhere to the level of Singapore and that's quite very interesting thing because when I first came to Singapore I was 27 years old I was just a young guy and I was looking for a role I suppose to play in life I was wondering what my life would be I had spent the previous six years in Africa so I had a little family by I one of my children was born in an Africa another was born in Gleneagles my son Louie was born in an Eagles hospital so I had I have a a very close connection to you if you have a child born in a place you have a very fond feeling of it but I was trying to find out what it was what was in store for me I knew that I wanted to be a writer but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it I had published some books but just to publish a book or write a book isn't enough I didn't really know at that point what my subject was and you know that Sigmund Freud says that our childhood experiences form us for life but another psychologists academic and not a close student of Freud but a post-freudian it's called Erik Erikson have you ever heard of Erik Erikson maybe not he but you've known the word he had an identity crisis you say someone had an identity crisis you recognized that identity crisis well Erik Erikson came up with the expression identity crisis he also said very interestingly Eriksson that different phases of your life form you it's not just childhood but at every juncture of your life there's a crisis of some kind not a horrible crisis but there's some conflict or some developmental possibility and and those are the things that that form us early in life of course it's it's childhood but then there's they're there in the state he described the eight stages hope will purpose competence fidelity love care wisdom take love for example that in your in your mid-20s you think about love will you be intimate with someone or are you going to be alone is it this is crisis between isolation and intimacy you're gonna find mr. right or mr. on its its care this there's a sense when you're at a certain age might be in your 30s you think maybe I should be doing something maybe I should be generating some writing something what am i giving to the world you might think so it's called you are you gonna stagnate work or are you going to build something make something and so on and so forth and so the interesting thing that that Erickson is different from Freud is that even in old age you know at my age I think what am i doing am i giving anything to anyone am I have I do I have any kind of legacy have I helped the world have I done what I ought to be doing if I have I have I made my life count now you probably came here expecting me to tell stories about travel but what and I will tell you if I can tell you funny stories about travel but what I'm trying to explain to you is why a person travels wide why would you leave home and I know why I left home I left home there's another concept it's a Jungian concept it's called individuation you didn't think you were gonna get a lecture on psychology did you anyway individuation is very interesting it's in this theory Jungian theory is that you don't develop you don't find anything about yourself unless you leave home when you leave home when you go away and you're on your own you find out who you are and you find out things about yourself that you can't find out at home when you're at home people are asking questions they're saying get a haircut get a job get your feet off the sofa sit in the light you're gonna ruin your eyes don't watch television so much and so forth but but but there's a psychic process that takes place when you travel it you develop when you travel people that's why people love to travel and they love to go places and it because they find things out about themselves I come from a family of seven children now do you think that you would get a choice where you come from a family of seven children is is big it fills a house I wanted to leave I did this idea of a big happy family was wasn't something that that possessed me I thought there's a big happy family I want to go away I'd like to leave this big happy family I want to go away I want it I don't want people to ask me questions about what I want to do I want I want to ask myself the questions so as soon as I was able to go I went first I went to university away from home and I think I was 17 then and I think that's when I left home because once I left to study I never really came back so I studied for years later I came back but I worked during the summer and I was on my own I was self financing and then I joined the Peace Corps that the early sixties was a crisis point for me for the world and you know for everyone it was the Vietnam War had started the atomic testing had started in earnest so that was an issue should we test atomic bomb so Tomic testing that's it the the the the Vietnam War the civil rights movement started in 1963 in the States with various events critical events integration of schools there were churches were bombed civil rights workers in the South who were in that southern us who were registering voters were killed killed for getting people to register to vote the forcible integration took place in some places there was a confrontation between soldiers and angry people so that happened in Alabama Mississippi Arkansas South Carolina those so integration so the only Christ and and the Cultural Revolution which I mentioned earlier that you might say Oh what did the cultural revolution have to do with events in America profound profoundly so it was it was questioning Authority so mouse said you need to question authority not him he was he was in charge don't say don't don't question me but but question your teachers so I mean any person who was in China in that period will tell you it was a 10-year nightmare of rebellion and sometimes just people destroying breaking windows destroying schools but also the there was a there was something similar a kind of cultural upheaval in American universities at that time – so the 60s was a very interesting time and in Singapore there were there were ripples from the the Cultural Revolution here – there was the Goldsmith's union was a Maoist Union and so there were there were Maoist elements in Singapore who occasionally would have an uprising they would have a demonstration a promo demonstration right here in the in the streets of Chinatown and in the various in sort of the crowded areas not the countryside but so there are Maoist demonstrations anyone remember that and there were also there were elements of say Maoist cells at nan yang so nan yang was the Chinese language university and so the this was a problem yeah because Vietnam Maoism angry students having long hair being untidy that was also a problem in Singapore so the people but they were there wondering about elements of people who seem disloyal or who were trying to create trouble now this is a this was a very very interesting thing because I suppose in a word you could say it was questioning authority but there was a there was hot there was a wave of rebellion a wave of discontent that was worldwide it was in in the United States it was in Europe and it was in Asia so and it was focused here in various ways among students and and then among in political elements so forth so I was part of that when I came here I had to come from Africa and I was still trying to figure out what was what was my role and in each case in in Africa though it was decolonization that was another thing that that I noticed about travel African countries were becoming independent well you say well what does this have to do with becoming a travel writer everything because I began to identify myself with the people who were trying to find an identity I didn't know what my identity was I didn't know what I wanted to do I knew that I wanted to write but I kept seeing people questioning Authority or authority figures and upheaval a spirit of individualism is very important if you want to be a writer you don't because you're not working for someone you're writing something for yourself and I mean that's that's essential to write what you want to write no one hiring you to write something but you're you want to do it yourself so in order to do that you're questioning Authority and the world is full of father figures so in in in Africa the father figure was the the colonial power it was objecting to being possessed occupied colonized and so there was that here Lee Kuan Yew was a father figure he was a very important figure it still is I mean he he recently had a birthday he's 91 god bless him and he was but he was the mentor and the the authority figure and the father figure in Singapore and so I I was also responding to him and one you know wondering what my role was visa vie political figures my boss was DJ Enright does anyone know DJ and right have you you know who he is you've heard of him and right some of you have okay he was head of the English department here now you might say well I joined the English department I was in the English department I was part of this structure but actually I didn't agree with a lot of things that he said he was a really wonderful man and right and the students loved him and he was a very sympathetic very charismatic man who wrote poetry gave lectures and he was a wonderful teacher but I didn't agree with him on he was he'd gone to Cambridge I'd gone to university in the States he was English educated he had certain favourite authors authors that he favored D H Lawrence was one I wrote I he loved D H Lawrence he thought the H Lawrence was and and he and he thought Lawrence was the visionary I didn't so anyway I I was I won't say I was uncomfortable but I didn't agree with him so we were with with his point of view on a lot of the subjects that we taught American literature was was not taught but I was you know I was raised studying Shakespeare also studying Mark Twain or you know Emerson Thoreau I thought that that we should teach Henry David Thoreau you know I mean by thorough he wrote Walden now Walden is a really a useful book I thought it'd be useful here because it seemed insular now the Singapore is an island and when you live on an island you you have this impression that it's a vast place actually it's not vast the world is vast but on your island you can get the impression that your island is the world what Thoreau did which I recommend was he left home he built a cabin and he lived in it for two years and he wrote about being away being disconnected from your home it's like individuation going away from home it's a very helpful thing in finding out who you are what what you're meant to do so I thought we should teach Thoreau he and white said the home he wasn't interested in it the by the way Thoreau was 28 years old when he did that the rest of the time he lived at home if you look at the life of Henry David Thoreau you see he's a man who grew up in a house went to Harvard came home lived with his parents and only spent really two years away in the cabin writing Walden Walden took him six or seven years to write so he's a very interesting case study in a guy that lives with his parents and a cellar dweller as they call it estate so I came here and I realized that there were a lot of authority figures in the world and that the direction that we were going and was it was clear to anyone that the Vietnam War was a big mistake it was clear to anyone that the civil rights movement was a just movement it was clear to anyone that experimented that dropping atom bombs into the Pacific Ocean was a bad thing it was clear to most people that the Cultural Revolution was a bad idea but this was all happening today there's a lot of bad ideas there's this there's a plenty of them out there at the same time you you wonder you have this feeling politicians are making mistakes but what's my role in this Who am I where am I going what am i doing what am I meant to be what am I meant to be writing or seeing and I thought I couldn't have put it into words at the time but it seemed to me that what I needed to do and I suppose the the insight that I had in Singapore was that I needed to see things as they are I felt that in Africa to a certain extent but I was persuaded you know but the anti-colonial movement it was very passionate so I was caught up in it but see I needed to see that I di I decided that my mission as a writer was to see things as they are to describe things as they are not as I wanted them to be nor dispute old me that they were but I needed to see things as they are and that would be make me free and would also that telling the truth writing about what I saw would be enough of enough of a mission in life and it was out of that that when I joined the University of Singapore I had I developed a reputation in in Africa as a troublemaker well by troublemaker I used to write for magazines and when that when the university got wind of that they really didn't like it so I was forbidden what part of my contract was I had to promise not to write or publish anything for the three years that I was on the English department well okay I mean he it was it's very hard to enforce writing publishing well who knows you can poke Madrid that but I was told not to write anything because what I wrote seemed to be inflammatory what I had written in Africa but that didn't stop me from seeing things and it didn't stop me from from from writing i didn't publish what i write but the first thing that what i wrote i began i wrote a novel about africa i didn't publish it but then i started to write about how i felt i felt in singapore then that i was underpaid i felt sort of old I felt very burdened and then I felt also that that Singapore was about to change but I didn't know how it was going to change and so the decision that I made was to describe the Singapore that I knew and that I could see so I wrote I began to write the novel st. Jack when I was here that would have been probably midway through 1970 at the end of 1970 I left in November 1971 so say for the for the last eight months that I lived in Singapore I described the streets the names of the streets the smell the sights the sounds the sound of a funeral for example of people blowing trumpets and and that the symbols people selling flowers sailors going back and forth Booga Street the university the Botanical Gardens and the empty streets at night so I and also the shop houses I remember the first time they put they tore down shop houses the first big building at that time it was probably 1969 or 70 was the Hilton on Orchard Road Singapore Hilton that was the first big building and I really when they built it they tore down rows of shop houses and I realized no one soon there will be no shop houses I could it was pretty clear that the shop houses were taking up valuable land so in the book no you can read the book or not as the case may be but that book was a deliberate attempt to write about Singapore as it was as it was as it looked so you could say well what did I have a theme in mind did I have a moral and mind did I have a message in mind no I didn't I didn't I was writing about a man who was 50 years old that seemed to be old at the time and I thought what I'm to write about this man and I write about his relationship with women with his friends with drinking with with the place itself he said a kind of misfit and that was a big a big decision for me to describe things as they were because we tend in in fiction a lot of people in fiction describe things as they wish they were or as they want them to be and I and I didn't and so soon after that I left I went to England where my wife got a job and I lived in England and finished st. Jack then I wrote another book in another book in another book and then I decided to travel I wrote my first travel book I thought I know what I'll take a train I'll leave London I'll go to Paris I'll go to Istanbul I'll go to Tehran I'll go to Afghanistan I'll go to Pakistan I'll go to India then I'll go to Burma and then I'll somehow I'll go to Thailand then I'll go to Singapore and then see what happens so but I on a map I could see I could do I could do that my wife said what are you doing I said I realized that I could get a train in Victoria Station in London and I can get to Afghanistan just get on the train and go to Afghanistan I could take a train to Afghanistan you know I don't have to drive I don't have to fly I won't get jet lag I'll just get on this train I'll go to Afghanistan and then realize there's no trains in Afghanistan but I took a bus Afghanistan and then anyway I actually went to Thomas cook in London I got a a ticket from London to Turkey to Ankara Turkey then when I got to anchor but so I took the Orient Express then took another Express then I got to the edge of Afghanistan and they said there's no train there's no bus so I took a taxi from my shed in Iran to Herat now controlled by God knows a warlord I guess but at that time it was just a funky town in the west of Afghanistan took a bus went down the Khyber Pass took another train another train another train and I ended up back in Singapore and I went to Burma and then I flew to Bangkok I went up and down with the Laos took the train and arrived back in Singapore and I this was 1973 and my friends were still here they said what did you do how did you get here I said I took the Train so remember we're sitting at the does a Singapore swimming club still exist yeah so I remember I was at the Singapore swimming club having a beer with my friends I was a member at one time and we were talking this is where you're going I said I'm gonna go to Vietnam I'm gonna fly to Vietnam and I take a train in Vietnam which I did and then I went to Japan and I went home on the trans-siberian Express so I kept to my mission which was described things as I see them known as I wish they were not criticizing them but just reporting on what I saw it will it liberated me it gave me a subject and sometimes it's shocking to describe things that you actually see can be very shocking and upsetting for people I was talking to whom about my book about I wrote a book about traveling around the Pacific very upsetting to a lot of people because I went to a New Zealand I went to Australia I went to in Solomon Islands Trobriand Islands Fiji the Marquesas Easter Island and I each place I describe what I saw in in Australia I was interviewed by a number of people I was I wasn't like semi booked or and every person who interviewed me and described me was someone that I chose to describe so when they asked me questions I asked them questions so they were doing a piece for the newspaper you know the Australian The Sydney Morning Herald whatever and I described them and they didn't like it actually because and same thing in New Zealand no one interviewed me in the Solomon Islands or places like that but they thought it was okay for them to describe me but they didn't like you know a journalists I was describing well you know what what the kind of shoes they had in their funny hat and the kind of questions you know that they'd asking about Elvis Presley or you know all sorts of questions I so I put that in the book very shocking and the book was seen to be kind of well very upsetting but what I was doing was I was describing what I heard what I saw what they said and that can be surprising to some people it was my it wasn't a form of rebellion really but it was an assertion of you know I described father figures authority figures but it was a way of asserting what I was doing who I was and what I was doing and it was a asserting my view of things and I suppose it was my way of seeing things as they were enough as a form of disagreement that instead of seeing the world the way the authority figures wanted me to see it I was seeing it myself and this is in a way it's a very liberating thing to see things the way you want to see them I've recently been travelling in the southern United States and it's it's it's very very enlightening to travel in your own country as though it was a foreign so you find let's say Bill Clinton has something called the Clinton Global Initiative he tries to create better conditions for people in India in Africa clean water childbirth safety malaria eradication literacy he comes from Arkansas I was traveling in Arkansas well there's a county in Arkansas called Lee County where 25% of the adults cannot read or write Lee County Arkansas Lee County Arkansas also has a very high rate of child hunger and it has a very high a rate of people who have no insurance and no access to medical care so it's interesting to me that's Arkansas Clinton was governor of Arkansas for almost 12 years he was president the united states and his arkansas is like a third world country not really third-world but it's certainly a country that's has many challenges so I didn't know that till I went there and I thought well I'm gonna publish this next year traveling around the South it was very enlightening to travel in the South in a way that I had traveled elsewhere traveling go to Angola or Brazil or Kenya or India Singapore for that matter and you you're a stranger I'm not a stranger in the United States I speak the language you know and I so that that was my mission after after two trips to Africa I went from Cairo to Cape Town then Cape Town to the Congo to the top part of that Angola and I thought I want to see my own country and it's a way of it's a mode of inquiry I guess you could say travel is writing fiction you sit at home and you ponder it's like a form of Prayer you ponder what what happens next and it's very difficult to actually writing fiction because it's there's a lot of anxiety in it a lot of suspense and a lot of uncertainty you're not quite sure where you're going or where the book will end but with travel travel itself is a mode of inquiry you a traveler asks people questions and they go about their business and you begin to discover this world by physically going out and and encountering it so there's two ways of being a writer that one is stay at home write poems or fiction the other is you might travel or you could do both which is what I've done but what I wanted to describe to you in in the in this little talk was how Singapore altered my perception of the world it gave me it made me question authority and it made me wonder who I was what I was doing and whether what I was doing mattered and so when I came here I was I would I would say an unformed individual and it wasn't till I left when I left Singapore and I left a salary employment that I discovered that I was out on my own and all the lessons that I had learned that what the experience is that I'd had here not like the Freudian thing of childhood influences you but might the experiences that I had here profound though that they were seeing Singapore about to change but not knowing where it was going formed my perception of the world and it made me think we have to see things as they are cling to what they are right about that don't write about how you want things to be you know people go to England and they say they look for Charles Dickens England or Henry James England or Jane Austen's bath or whatever and they look for elements of the past that's a kind of nostalgia but seeing England as it is is very very interesting say with the states but England more so because the England's been written about much more London for example but Dickens London doesn't exist what exists in London is is a is a much different place from the one that you read about in books in much more interesting and complex Singapore is the same I feel about Singapore now that beneath all the the the big buildings the glitter at the restaurants the the shops this so much merchandise again but beneath that are people who remember what Singapore was if someone said to me what should I write about Singapore I would say talk to people over the age of 65 or 70 and asked them about their experiences did they grow up in a big family where did they live what did they eat where did their parents work what was the Japanese occupation like what was the presence of the British if talk to a very old person they might remember something or they'd heard story an oral history would be great maybe someone's done it I don't know but Singapore in appearance is one thing but its heart is more complicated in that and there's so Singapore and memory so when I come here I remember I look for landmarks the landmarks are disappearing but I look for them to find my way around and also to see well what remained what has remained of the Singapore and I would say that all writers do that that's what I've done and I've written about 50 books and in all of them what I've tried to do is describe the world that I see people that I've met I'm not interested in in architecture I'm not interested in I go to museums I go to churches I go to events and so forth but I don't write about them I write about people and I try to find out what people's stories are like I got a hint of this when I first went to Africa it was 1963 so I was in the African bush in 1963 and 64 I was there six years altogether now the old people in where I lived there were people who were 65 70 75 I mean life expectancy in Africa is not long but there were old people there if I had been really smart I would have talked to people I did talk to the makasian but I never tape-recorded them or anything like that but there were people there who were born in the 19th century there were people in Africa who remembered who had never seen a white person who or they remembered the first world war that you know the first world war was also fought and in in in Kenya and Tanzania Uganda and in Mozambique so the people who remembered 1895 they're people who remembered the first colonialists there were people who remembered the war amazing now it seems like ancient history but it's it's part of my own my own personal history is that I I met these people so what are the gifts of old age is that you have this link to the past and those of you who think about writing think about that that writing it is also about the world as it is and the world as it was the one that were the older people are eyewitnesses to that to that age and then you know Japanese occupation in in Singapore was amazing they they saw local people saw the British rounded up and put into Changi Prison that's quite a traumatic experience if you've been colonized by one group of people then you see the people who prove colonized rounded up and put it in mate into prisoners and suddenly there's an occupying force of Japanese I mean that's pretty amazing traumatic but there are people in Singapore now who remember that and so that that that to me when people say have you read Harry Potter I say well no because I'm not interested in the end fantasy or that kind of magic or you know kid Easter I understand that there's something to it but I'm interested in the world as it is the world as it was what really happened what forms people and also where are we going you think when you see development you think the places just keep developing and developing and developing and developing and it's straight north and they just keep developing until they become a utopia all the things fall apart I tend to think if you've lived a certain length of time you say eventually things fall apart they're never it's not straight north for development it's not straight North that you know man is an invasive species so we tend to destroy a habitat and that happens traveling in the south in the southern USA there are some roads in the south that were once main roads main roads north to south but then and so they had restaurants hotels motels petrol stations that were highly developed roads two-lane highways one is highway 301 it goes through the Carolinas to Florida it was the road that everyone took if they went to Florida now if you go down that it looks like doomsday the restaurants are all closed the motels are all closed the petrol stations are closed there's just a couple of little shops it looks like Mad Max it looks like the end of the world what happened what happened was a different road was built route 95 and it does it doesn't so the main road that used to go north-south isn't used anymore they put in a an interstate highway and this road is is full of derelict towns and derelict shops and it seems when you see that you see oh I see there was a big success until 1960 something 66 or 67 then this whole Road you know maybe a thousand miles of it fell apart and the route and that and the towns died that's pretty interesting you also realize as a traveler that money doesn't make a difference I was traveling in Angola Angola has it's an oil-producing country they produce in US dollars about eighty billion dollars gross a year in oil revenue eighty billion let's quite a lot of money eighty billion you would think oh they must have lots of schoolbooks great roads great hospitals well it's not the case Angola is a very poor country they they have oil they have diamonds they have gold gold mines but the average person in Angola has nothing so you wrote about this I don't want to be I mean you can read it's called the last train to zone of reading but so the revelation in travel is what I was after and it began here when I was on the English department at the University of Singapore living on just off bukit timah road and very happy with two little children but wondering what's going to happen to me what's going to happen to singapore what will happen to my children what will the world be like all you do is wait another in this case it 68 another forty years was that forty years I guess and now I see the answer to that question that's why it's wonderful to be back here thank you very much know from him that the profound impact that Singapore really had on you you know that really formed you as a as a writer as a human being you know so I was busy taking notes in the dark and what was interesting was what you said about how you describe things as how you see that right so how would you describe Singapore today I know you arrived yesterday and you had some time how would you describe to Singapore today what you what you see in Singapore is what you see as a city can you hear me okay a city is all surfaces its it its surfaces so what you what you see is it's the Emerald City it's it's tall it's beautiful it's it's new it's still rising even I was here six years ago and it's changed since then in six years Singapore was not a high-rise City when I first saw it it was shop houses with the Hilton and the and the shangri-la Hotel was built in about 1970 that was it so it was a city without a tall building so you also say that you know like I just want to say so I don't know I don't know the answer well what is it I just see a surface but sometimes surfaces reveal the inner state of a place so I don't know you really don't understand a place through its architecture you understand it through its people so the more I I arrived yesterday morning I had to get my shoe fixed I went to Orchard Tower there's a shoe mandir in the basement of orchard tower mr. t oh he's at his name is terry teo and he's a very interesting man he's highly intelligent and while he was fixing my shoe we were talking we're talking about Singapore as it was he's a man probably 60 years old extremely knife you want to shoe fix go there because not many people fix things anymore they throw things away but I was just to add to it that you what you won't understand anywhere by being dazzled by its buildings the only way that you will understand is by talking to the average person all right to a person someone trying to raise a family get a job struggle live find love find romance and get on I mean that's the way you understand it so I have but I met him and I met another man at an antique shop also he the other second man that I met well lived on not bras Basah Road but he was one of nine children living in two rooms big is your family bigger than your family than my family but I said how do you where did you he said in those days people had a lot of children we slept in the hallway we know – in the room and but he said he's a a connoisseur of antiques now but he grew up in Singapore with nine children that's unheard of now does it no one has nine children oh no I think not he'd be arrested if you hadn't do you have in total now how many children do I have two children so but but so so you say what is it Singapore look I talked to these two well say three or four people I spoke to yesterday and I'm and I was talking about the present and the past with them so that's how you find out that's why a travel writer needs a lot of time to talk to people yeah and time is something that people don't have this days you know they just go in and in and out of a place you know we live in a world with so much distraction right now so time is something that is really very hard very hard to find it in our life that's true I think people have time but they they they use it differently people are focused more on on what they're doing that looking at their phone or looking at television but it depends you know if if someone's fixing your shoe you can have a half-hour conversation with them that's quite good I'm curious you know you talk about how different phases of your life form you and so how have the different how do you feel like you've changed as a writer as you've gone through this different phases do you write differently now that you're older versus when you are writing st. Jack is there that has I don't think I write differently well I would say that but first thing about phases is I'm talking to to you some of your writers some of you are selling insurance some of you work in a bank some of your teachers whatever don't think because you're 30 40 50 60 or older that your life is not going to change all through you you might be 50 years old you will still change your still you'll still be learning you'll still be developing you that was why I was saying that it's not a Freudian thing of you're fixed in childhood all of you if you're open to suggestions open to experience you will change now it has my right so there's hope in that and also you need to say what am I am i how am i using my life what am i doing with my life what you don't have to become a writer but this there's many things that that you can do to give yourself a perspective on who you are what you're doing or what you should be doing perhaps so don't despair that that means that there's a crisis for each of you or an opportunity for all of you my writing you can examine it you could look at something that I've written in the 60s at something that I wrote last year I just published a book called mr. bones it's a book of short stories you could but I wrote short stories in the 60s they were when I lived in Singapore I wrote short stories and I wrote a whole book of short stories about Malaysia about a man it's called the consul's file he lives in a town called ayah he Tom there is a town called ayah hit'em it's near Penang it's inputing yeah I hit them means black water yeah so I hit them I invented the name I hit them then I realized something actually exists so inventing the truth is also part of right but yeah I'm a bad judge of how I've changed as a writer but I I'll tell you this though that to become a writer or to do anything well takes a long apprenticeship sir hoon can tell you you don't become a journalist overnight you don't become a writer overnight after a year or two you start getting the hang of it after five years you're getting a hang of it so someone asked me the other day in how I live at Hawaii and they said so do you work everyday I said yeah I said everyday I'm sort of saying at your age do you work everyday well that's how that's how you get you that's how you improve that's how you get good at something you're not gonna you're not gonna be good at something just by doing it one day a week are doing it for a couple of hours a day you really have to do it every day maybe every weekday if you do it every day for 50 years you'll probably improve so there's so either than writing I mean which is you know what what's the one thing that you want to improve your skill I know that in Hawaii you now have a farm you're I call him a gentleman farmer now it was a gentleman farmer you have a farm and you kept bees and you know I was a beekeeper for a long time and I have chickens and geese ducks I go bamboo I've got different varieties of exotic bamboo bamboo is the plant of the future you can make textiles from bamboo you can build houses you can put floors it's it's a building material you can do everything I grew up in a bamboo hut so I'm living in the house of the future I was telling Paul about a resort now that's gonna be built in in binson and it's gonna be made completely of bamboo you know and no kids allowed but the poor soul oh that's not that's not an issue I think so I think it's declining yeah yeah it's the birth rate is declining in there having campaigns now to sort of have people fall in love and make babies it's good but politics won't solve that problem what will solve that problem what do you think I think I think you need space and time you know Japan Japan has a low birthrate Germany has a low birthrate Italy France has low birthrate Russia has a low birthrate it's it's it's one of them it's people look in the future and there's a reason for it but it's not gonna be solved by by an edict the law or anything like that you have to give people a reason to have children I think and and and the capacity to have them takes money space love you know all those things all those valuable things but I can't solve that problem it's not gonna be so politically all right we have time for questions as well so if you have questions to spit up your hands and we have people roving with the mic so so in in the meantime though I mean you came to Singapore to kind of find your role in life right I can't wait because I I objected to the war in Vietnam and I refused to join the American army but I thought I can't simply be negative I wanted to be positive and I wanted to do something useful so I became a teacher in Africa and then I came here then eventually I did go to Vietnam as a journalist and I realized and there was something valuable to see but people's questions somebody up there okay I'm firstly going to embarrass myself so I'm gonna take my glasses off so I can't see your faces okay so basically if I were I love traveling as much as you do and I usually go around and when I come back I write my memoirs and stuff like that and I would definitely fall in love with the personality like yours so my actual question to you is how did your marriage survive the travels I know it's a very personal question because everywhere I go every time I go my husband is like are you going again and all my friends are like are you loopy you just left him last week as well so my question to you is how did you manage survive all the travels you know that's a very good question that if you're away from home a lot it puts a lot of pressure on a marriage and as a matter of fact my marriage did lat or what lasted 20 years what 20 plus years but it didn't fail because I was away from home my wife understood that I was traveling and that was my job if if if being away from home is a problem for a marriage you know what about fishermen what about people who pilots what about soldiers they're away for a year two years I mean an American soldier might have three or four unless three or four tours in in Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere so that's not the issue if a marriage should be able to sustain absences and and and and travel and work and so forth so mine didn't fail for that reason my marriage fail for other reasons but I remarried and you know I'm away from home now it's but I'm not I'm not being flippant it it's a test of love of fidelity and of trust if you can be away from home sometimes people need to be I mean when I left I told you I come from a large family of seven children I didn't leave home because I didn't like them I left home because I wanted to find out who I was I told you there's this theory of Jungian theory of individuation I wanted to find Who am I why am I on earth what am I gonna do what am I good at how could I want to meet people I don't want people just introducing me to the family friends I want to go out and be and find out who am i but but you also said in the interview that I read it was like travel is above a desire to flee as well as a desire to pursue yes but I also I wanted to get away from I mean don't you have that you come from where in Singapore now Singapore is an island how many people have never left Singapore how many of you have never left Singapore okay I think we'd be insane if we didn't leave you know there are some play that there are some places where people never leave yeah there are places that people never leave and I know people in Hawaii who not only have never left Hawaii but they've never left their Island I mean I know people on Oahu the island I live on who have never been on the island of Kauai or they've never left the aunt so it's but in Singapore I mean that's a testament to your curiosity about the world and your capacity to get a perspective on it you leave Singapore and you suddenly see the plane takes off you see oh there Singapore oh my goodness there Malaysia there's Indonesia so that you realize that your you're surrounded by other people other places other issues other conflicts and so it it's a very helpful thing to leave and when you leave and you then you have a perspective on where you came from and some people leave home and never go back you might leave Singapore and think I think you know fine fine meet someone find another life and keep you just keep going so this travel is flight and pursuit you're fleeing and you're pursuing and sometimes you never come back or you come back a lot later but in all travel you're looking I think that one of the secret desires of travel is to find out whether you're destined never to come back maybe you're destined to find another home you know thank you that's true so many people leave that place right I couldn't see their hands but I think traveling is a big business but most people leave and they go on a holiday so what you see that's at the same thing going abroad during holiday or traveling is there a different tension would you draw the line mister oh okay this question is is interesting because it's a very sharp distinction there's travel and this tourism if you're just if you're going to go to Europe or Japan or Africa on a safari as a tourist you're a way you have a time constraint you have a week or ten days or two weeks you're tourists and you know where you're going and you know what you want to see a traveler has no idea a true traveler does not know where he or she is going and they know where they've been but they don't know where they're going a try a tourist has a very very good idea of what they want to see and when they're coming home the travel that doesn't have a very clear notion of that there's also there's the comfort factor a lot of travel is about having a very bad time a lot of tourism is about having a very good time so where do what do you find out what's the tests of personality bad time are a good time generally speaking a hardship tells you a lot about yourself doesn't it and I'm not talking about a nuisance or a delay we all get delayed one of the problems with some travel books is they write about illnesses delays and nuisances in my books I never describe illnesses that I've had bad stomach headache got cold or anything like that because we all have them why do you care about I mean wow why would I write about something that you've that you've had yourself or a long delay at the Embassy to get a visa you know everyone has that problem I applied for an Indian visa by the way about a year ago big delay but I paid extra to get the visa and I called up and I said look I paid extra fast-track visa and I and it's now three weeks that's the fast track they said Oh sir let me check so they say oh yes they said here's the problem you wrote down writer I said why is that a problem they said if you write down that you're a writer going to India it goes to a different department I said a writer do you have a problem because I'm a writer what what what's the what earthly problem do you have because I'm a writer and I say furthermore I'm an older man you know I actually had that problem too and then I basically went in and resubmitted my application and I put it on my research and I got in a researcher people think that writers are dangerous Indians thing you don't they're playwright as an Indian well you tell the truth in some societies they put you in prison for that a bigger right do we have five more minutes so really if you ask a question I can I could repeat the question oh you are now that you're finally travelling in your home country how do you expect that to change you how is it changed me to change you traveling in your home country how do I expect the country to check no it just rephrase the question now that you are finally travelling in your home country yes how do you expect that to change you oh okay that's a good question now that I'm travelling in my own country I've been traveling in the south for two years South Carolina Georgia Alabama Mississippi and Arkansas the deep south how has it changed me a lot a lot travel makes you feel small when you go away don't you feel this you leave Singapore you think Singapore I know this straight bras Basah Road dorcette Road Tanglin tanzhong Roo I know the beach everyone knows me hello how are you doing you go to another country you feel very small don't you find it it's a very humbling experience no one knows you you feel small and it's a reminder of how big the world is and how small you are traveling in my own country has humbled me a lot because I realized that the problems that we face in the poorer parts of America are the same problems that they face in Brazil in South Africa in the Congo in India that we are we're all one family on this planet and many people have the same problems whether you no matter you know where you're born you have this the same issues so so how has it changed me is it's made me more compassionate I suppose it's made me understand the world a bit better and it's made me wonder why I met I was in Alabama and I was in a town in Alabama and I was staying at a bed and breakfast and I and the woman it was she was an older woman 84 I'm 86 years old running this bed-and-breakfast very talkative very friendly woman in telling you about her family and she said and my son Jeremy is in Africa I said what's he doing in Africa she said he's helping people I was helping him do what he said oh he's in Zambia I don't know what he's doing helping them well this was in Greensboro Alabama where the schools are still somewhat segregated there's a high infant mortality rate the hospitals are terrible business is terrible and the poverty rate is very high so maybe 25 percent of the people in that town live below the poverty line her son's in Zambia helping people now that to me is that's really interesting it's interesting to write about it's interesting to talk to people but that's the disconnect that you have and so I thought why would someone leave this very very poor town to go to Africa to help people obviously it's more fun it's more fun well maybe he also wanted to find himself you know maybe he wanted to find out something about himself that's true or maybe God sent him there I had the feeling that God had something to do with it God has God has a hand in a lot of our decisions and I think it had a hand in that decision but still it was it so what did I find out about myself was it you know that his I was in this town thinking this place needs help and I read a person I said his he's he's in Zambia helping people so the world is full of paradoxes and I discovered but really a lot and I also discovered great beauty that the America has many many big empty beautiful spaces big where there's nothing the oza in the northern part of Arkansas Arkansas is a state with 3 million people three million people in the whole look at a map see how big Arkansas is there's only three million people there Namibia in in Africa there's two billion people in Namibia Namibia is gigantic it's gigantic look at it there's only two million people there how many people in Singapore four point five point five million so we we have to take another question first of all mr. I reacted thank you not only for your talk but for all the books I think see you wouldn't put it very well that sort of your books punctuate people's lives and sorry bean to say the case for me thank you just maybe my premise is completely wrong so so please tell me if it is I find a sort of common theme of your books what it's Colin Tong happy hours of Oceania civilians cheerio a common theme is sort of pain and loss and I was just wondering that if you write about this theme do you kind of are you able to leave it on the page and sort of take it out of you or does it very much remain still with you okay did you hear the question the the I mean it's a very interesting question which is he finds in my books and he named a few of the subject of pain and loss and the question is do I in writing about it do I leave it on the page if I have I eased my mind I don't know about pain and loss probably I have written a lot about pain and loss there's a lot of pain and loss in the world but I sometimes think that my subject is a person in a place he or she doesn't belong a misfit odd man out odd woman out I sometimes think I think life is like that I think you know um you were very depressed when you wrote the happy hour of Oceania you know and I travel with that book through the South Pacific and it really depressed me so I know what you're saying you know so I think the question is like after you wrote it did you become happy year or you know and then you say about how you tell things as you see them but there you know there's a saying that you we actually see things as how we are and not house how they are so our feelings color what we see definitely yeah so so that book I mean you know when you become happy after you finish a book when you're the you know so do you go from depressed a happy well I can answer the question simply by saying the act of creation the act of making something making a picture writing an article writing a book the act of making making a table making a chair making something makes you happy it's a very fulfilling it's impossible to do anything bake a cake make a laksa someone write a poem it's impossible for that to happen and and not to feel a sense of accomplishment and liberation I mean I think that created that that's the joy of creation that's what I saying that there's a certain point in your life when when you're older most of you are very young people and some of you aren't very old at all but there's certain point your life was you say was it worth it did I make anything did I what did I give the world what did i do did I make anyone happy help my children make my wife happy make myself happy what did I do was my was my life well spent at some point you you have to you get to that point saying what did I do with my life now it's a profound question and might make some people depressed so as Hyun said when I wrote the happy hours of Oceania I had I got a device I'd split up with my wife and I went to find happiness I wanted to see I'd lived in England for 17 years and and I left and I thought I want to find my smile I want to find sunshine and I want to find a connection I want to make a connection so I did at the end I mean very end of the book the trouble in that book people would kept I kept seeing people who were happy and they depressed me because I thought well I ever you know see I'd see two old people holding hands and I thought this is so wonderful it makes me want to cry I think these two two people old people walking down the road holding hands and I thought well I ever be old holding someone's hand I mean that's normal that's not depressing that's the question that everyone asks will I ever meet mr. right miss right will ever grow old with them and then people would say are you married and I said well it's a little complicated do you have any children yeah but they're not here well where's your wife well I don't really have a wife well what and what people asked me so I put that all in the book yeah where's your wife well it's a long story okay do we have time for hi sorry I got the mic ahead I just have a quick question I'm here okay CS Lewis talks about longing for a place you've never been to and I was just wondering how that features in your writing or travel writing in general well I think that that the essence of of travel the place that I want to go is the place I've never been obviously I mean that they're fewer and fewer also I it's not just that I mean CS Lewis has a point there but it's also you want to go to a place where no one else has been I mean I think that the that the in the heart the heart of every true traveler is to find a place that no one else has been and no one else knows it's feeling like Christopher Columbus Robinson Crusoe the Conqueror you know the person who just goes to a place and and they discovered they think no one's ever been here that's a wonderful feeling actually but you can get that feeling in a lot of places I mean in New York City there are people who leave New York and go to Shanghai they go to South Africa I meet them all the time and you say have you ever been to and I name a place in Long Island or Brooklyn or you know so and they say no I've never been there so it's possible that a person will leave home go a great distance but not know the people who live next door him who might be pretty interesting people but they don't know a lot of Americans travel I mean lots and lots of people who travel in America or leave America been to China been to Brazil been to Japan been to Singapore but they've never been to Alabama America and so that to me is is well and the essence is you want to go to a place where no one's but it's a question has anyone here been to Alabama if you bend Alabama raise your hand Mississippi Arkansas you I mean the people who live in Singapore never been to mo kio which is like what do you suppose the his question actually I just want to ask you like is that place that you've never been to that you really really want to go I mean you say they're fewer and fewer there are places that I've never been that that I don't want to go to I mean very cold places I read books about Antarctica I wouldn't I have no interest in going to Antarctica yes it's been to Antarctica too cold too far to I don't know what was the last book you read the last book I read I read two books are on the plane from Honolulu on the way from Honolulu to Narita I read a psycho biography of Henry David Thoreau that's why I mentioned Thoreau in my lecture from Narita to Singapore I read a book called Norwood n o RW ood by Charles Portis Charles Portis wrote True Grit was a movie a Coen Brothers movie true grit he's a fantastically good and funny novelist and now I'm reading a book in my hotel it's a biography of the emperor empress dowager sushi from you 19th and to end about 1901 1910 it's a it's a big fat book I'm running out of books but that's it I don't watch TV on you don't read from on the Kindle right you say I don't know but I was going to say in closing there's an airport in Aachen some of you been to Arkansas but eight people have been to Arkansas how many been to Arkansas a lot of people 20 people 30 people well there's well Singaporeans are well-traveled obviously what's the name of the airport in Little Rock Arkansas the name of the airport in Little Rock Arkansas I heard someone say Bill Clinton Airport close you laughed when he said the Hillary Clinton it's called the Bill and Hillary Hillary it's called the Bill and Hillary did you know that yeah the Bill and Hillary there's a pigeon in New York City called the George Washington Bridge it's called the George Washington Bridge it's not called the George okay so I have to wrap up otherwise you know I think we're running out of time I have one final question for you right legacy you talked about asking you know what have I done that matters legacy so epitaph without being too depressing what would your epitaph say I hope it would say something like I produced two healthy intelligent children who helped change things the books are the books you know a book goes its own way you write a book maybe something will happen but my children matter a lot to me and one was born in Uganda one was born in Gleneagles my son Louie was born in Gleneagles he's on TV in here's a TV show has anyone seen his shows okay so the fact that you've seen his shows that I'm his father you've seen his shows I feel as if and by eldest son Marcel is a novelist I feel that's my achievement if I did anything and I feel as if my children I'm very friendly with my trip they tease me and but I we spend a lot of time together and they have children I've grandchildren but I love being with my children and I love writing but rather than writing I I would rather take a road trip with my kids any day just just talk to them and talk about the world do they want to do it with me now yes when they were making their lives when they were there now in their 40s so so but when they were they were busy in their 20s and 30s but when they got married and had children yeah they wanted to spend time with me so it's a legacy has nothing to do in in my view with what I've written I don't know where the books last I mean I I feel as if I've written about the world that I've known what will happen I hope that people have been inspired by the book to travel or to see things differently maybe to understand love marriage children whatever it is war crisis pain politics that would be nice if that if that helps people but that's an imponderable I don't know and I'll tell you something else about Singapore and life in general I was in I was in Shanghai in 1986 and 1986 people were still running around not well-dressed dunks helping was in power and no one knew what was happening but there were cranes in Shanghai and some buildings were I was in the Jinjiang hotel and I I was with an American diplomat who had been to China had been in China for about four years and I said what's gonna happen here and we were looking at the cranes I said what's going to happen to China and he said I have no idea because we didn't know that this was going to happen we didn't he pointed to the way it was build it modest building very modest building but it was building and he had no the Cultural Revolution and destruction he said we didn't know that this was going to happen so we have no idea what's gonna happen next and I think that none of us can see the future but one of the helpful things about telling the truth is the truth tends to be prophetic if you describe things as they are in the kernel of that is what they will become we don't know what it'll be but it tends to be somewhat prophetic if you if you if you all you have to do is tell the truth thank you very much thank you very much thank you so much you

9 thoughts on “The Roads I Travelled by Paul Theroux – A Singapore Writers Festival 2014 Lecture

  1. Theroux is such an interesting person. It's hard to believe that one person has done all the traveling he has. Great moderator, she has real personality and kept it all going. Super show!

  2. A thoroughly enjoyable and informative talk by a brilliant writer. I don't understand the
    criticisms from the comments below: the moderator was fine (she was enthusiastic and
    clearly knows Theroux's work); and the talk itself was interesting, engaging and articulate. I
    just think some people like to complain and expect perfection. What I love most about
    Theroux's work is his humanity and care of ordinary, often poor and downtrodden, people.

  3. My all-time favourite author – thanks for sharing this and for being writers interested in the world.

  4. He once wrote a book about S'pore: Saint Jack is it banned?
    Thanks for the upload. Merci, Johnnie de Bangkok www.pattayatoday.net

  5. VSN liked talkative people near him. They do not mean much anyway. Oh he doesn't think D H Lawrence a great writer.

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