Review of Journey Out of Asia by Katharine Sim..
Some books stay with you for a lifetime, some hold memories to be treasured, some sit on shelves gathering dust but to part with them would be unbearable. This, for me, is one of them. Many years ago as a young boy, my father would take me on a Thursday evening after school to the central library, it was my treat for the week. I loved going there and a year before I was technically old enough to enrol in the adult library my father managed to get me in. I had already developed a keen interest in all things South East Asia as well as Japanese, Indian and Chinese cultures and would always head straight for the travel section as soon as we got there. Of all of the books on the subject which I borrowed this, more than any other stood out for me and has remained a quiet, loyal friend to me for some forty years and whenever I pick this up I am reminded of those special times with my father.
I am sure the combination of the title and the cover first attracted me to the book, there was a world waiting for me to discover and the black and white photographs contained within inspired me to find out more of the countries contained within the Sim’s remarkable journey. Katharine Sim was an accomplished author of both fiction and more especially, works on what was then British ruled Malaya. She married Stuart Sim of the Malayan Government Service in 1938 and sailed with him to Malaya where they would live for many years. During the war she was evacuated back to England in 1942 shortly before Singapore fell to Japanese invasion, her husband, who was serving in the M.R.N.V.R at that time was wounded and following an attempted escape, was arrested and taken prisoner in Sumatra.
In 1945 her husband returned to England and they returned to Penang, Malaysia in 1947 where they lived for many years, interspersed with transfers to Kuala Lumpur and Negri Sembilan. Sim immersed herself in Malayan culture, she learnt the language and the many customs of the people she came to love. In Journey Out of Asia her sadness at finally leaving is heartfelt and described in the most touching, old-fashioned ‘British’ way imaginable.
Setting off in their Volkswagen Kombi van, this remarkable journey of some twelve and a half thousand miles took in the most mesmerising of places and associated events, shipping out from Penang to Calcutta, they travelled across India, negotiating landslides in Kashmir, sandstorms in Quetta before traversing the Afghan Pass and down to the shifting sands of what was then, eastern Persia. As a young boy I was transfixed by her account of the incredible Buddhist temples in Rangoon, the temples of Kathmandu to the mosques in Isfahan, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. In Isfahan she describes eating hot nam bread with melon jam for breakfast as she watched her husband sat reading in the sun; “his beard was growing well now, it suited him splendidly, he looked very fit and slim. I thought that perhaps if we found nothing else on this journey we shall have refound each other; the desert had made us happier perhaps than we had ever been, in a new independent way”
Of sad significance is her description of the ancient sites of Palmyra, what, I wonder would she have made of the carnage wreaked upon it in recent years by ISIS? The book smacks of times gone by throughout every page when journey’s such as this, as remarkable as it was, could still be made by two foreigners across so many lands. Before I could find a copy of the first edition with the picture of their van (which they called ‘The Ark’) on it I settled for this Travel Book Club edition with the picture of the Temple of Jupiter at Ba’albeck in Lebanon.
This version lacks the black and white plates but does contain the wonderful maps of the journey which I believe Sim drew herself. Both editions are difficult to obtain and worth keeping an eye out for when you happen across a dusty travel section shelf in a second hand bookshop. If anyone has an interest in travel or more especially colonial rule in post-war Malaya then this and Katharine Sim’s other books are well worth reading. It isn’t all sugar coated, sundowners on the lawn, it is a well documented, honest account of a quite incredible journey back to England. I feel as envious of them now as I did on those school nights in the early 1980s. The spirit of Katharine Sim and her ilk lives on and long may that continue.
Categories: The Reading Room