British author in Manila: A conversation in Solidaridad

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James Hamilton-Paterson


James Hamilton-Paterson, if National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose’s word is to be taken as it is meant, is one of the few non-Filipino authors who has written about the Philippines with a very level view of our people and this archipelago of fractious yet happy souls.

According to the Faber & Faber publishing house website, James Hamilton-Paterson “is the author of the bestselling ‘Empire of the Clouds,’ which was hailed as a classic account of the golden age of British aviation.”

The same website goes on to say Paterson “won a Whitbread Prize for his first novel, ‘Gerontius,’ and among his many other celebrated books are Seven-Tenths, one of the finest books written in recent times about the oceans, the satirical trilogy that began with Cooking with Fernet Branca, and the autobiographical Playing With Water. Born and educated in England, he has lived in the Philippines and Italy and now makes his home in Austria.”

This writer got to meet Paterson at the Joses’ sala above the Solidaridad bookshop in Malate, Manila. The British author has been described as “reclusive,” though he was gracious, friendly and not at all the grumpy hermit-type person one expects to meet after Google’s search result includes “reclusive” in the adjectives describing him.

Paterson can pronounce such Pinoy bon mots as “Dedbol na siya,” “grabe,” and “susmaryosep,” all in keeping with the context of these phrases and words, and it was a delightful little gathering with plenty of good food and even better conversation as evening fell.

Paterson had given Manong Frankie (yes, we call F. Sionil Jose that) a keen look as he approached the table: “I thought this was a PEN meeting and I’m not a member of the PEN.” He said Manong Frankie hadn’t warned him he had to say anything to an audience, one as avid as our little group of writers and journalists was. He’d first visited the Philippines in 1977 and he’d written “Playing With Water” in 1987.

“Playing With Water” is a memoir chronicling Paterson’s sojourn on the island of Marinduque, where he’d formed firm friendships that have survived the decades of separation. This new edition was published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press.

“All I can say is, however badly I wrote in ‘Playing with Water,’ whatever I said in ‘Playing With Water,’ that’s a 30-year old book,” Paterson said as he surveyed the small audience in Manong Frankie’s sala. “I haven’t re-read it, but I did write a new preface for this edition saying how much I appreciated the friends that I made in Marinduque, which is where it really is set.”

In the book’s new preface, Paterson said that, at 77, “I look back to the adventures of my younger self with mixed feelings. Among these is astonishment that I simply wandered into a Southeast Asian fishing village, knowing no-one, and took up residence while learning the skills of spear fishing to feed myself. Another is regret for the inevitable loss of former physical capability, not to say insouciance, although this yields to the banal reflection that such is the natural order of things.”

At Manong Frankie’s round table, Paterson tells us that he “wrote that [preface] before I went back last week and I stand by everything that I said in that new preface. I was amazed how warmly I was received and I’ve not been back there in 13 years. Of course, anyone under about 16 wouldn’t remember what happened back then—but that is not surprising—but everybody else was so kind and so welcoming. It was as if–this is very Filipino–it was as if I’d never been away. It was very strange and I’ve never been in a place—and I think the Philippines in general—where so much comes back so quickly.”

Paterson noted: “I’ve had a very strange life wandering through other countries. I now live in Austria. I’ve lived for 23 years in Italy, and I’ve been all over.”

In the preface to “Playing With Water,” Paterson wrote that one “central, unifying element I blithely took for granted all those years ago” has changed: “the sea itself. In the last decades its health everywhere has declined alarmingly. It is now a matter of urgent international concern, whether for its rising temperature, dying corals, ravaged fish stocks, disrupted food chains or—most photogenically of all—its pollution by plastic rubbish of all kinds. In the Philippines, an archipelago of thousands of islands washed by divisive currents and periodically swept by typhoons, there have always been places where flotsam tends to collect.”

Paterson also said he had fond memories of his time in this archipelago—including strong recall of the warmth of the people who’d seen past his rather bashful mien and befriended him.

He said that “when I go back to one of the countries I’ve lived in, it takes me some time to go back, remember the vocabulary of the language, the names of friends—as you get older it gets harder to remember. But, when I got back to the Philippines this time, it all came back but once. Yeah, there’s a lot of vocabulary I’ve forgotten in Tagalog, but it’s strange, it was as if I’d never been away. And I’ve never ever been in a country that’s been like that before.”

Despite his admission that his Tagalog has gotten rusty, his grasp of the context in which to use the Tagalog words and phrases he remembers is impeccable and that fluency in context, if not in full sentences of one of our native languages, endeared him to the passel of writers in the room who’d just met him.

He spoke of his arrival just days before he’d sat down with us: “I was driven about, it was dark and it was beginning to rain a bit. It was a bit like being lost on the set of ‘Blade Runner.’ You’ve got these great sort of flyovers, and it was sort of sinister. If I’d been on foot, I would have been lost. So, yes, it has changed a great deal, in obvious ways.”

Paterson also observed how some things just didn’t change: “I saw some sari-sari stores in Burgos yesterday, inside which they were selling bibingka. I was reminded of Nick Joaquin’s essay on the making of bibingka, how to make it properly, and they were making it properly, with the coals. But whether there was gata in it I couldn’t tell. In Marinduque, gata is a must in your bibingka.”

Paterson, it seems, is the kind of person who goes native when he settles in a place for a length of time, and his memoir speaks of just how clearly he’d looked at the Philippines, particularly the fishing village in Marinduque that welcomed him into its community. G



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