Fools Gold

The Malayan Life of Ferdach O’Haney

By Frederick Lees

Rye Writer featured in Kuala Lumpur Litfest.

Rye resident Frederick Lees journeyed to Kuala Lumpur for the launch of his new book Fools Gold at the recent Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival (July 29-August 1)

Fools Gold is the first in a trilogy set in what was then called Malaya during the time of the Communist Emergency. The “hero” Ferdach O’Haney, is a young, anti-colonialist Anglo-Irish man whose Malayan adventures in a time of great excitement and danger closely resemble those of a younger Frederick Lees.

Fools Gold covers the first two turbulent years of Fredach’s life in Malaya. Almost at once he is made responsible for the resettlement into new villages of thousands of Chinese squatters who during the war had fled Japanese rule and been obliged to support the Communists. He is heavily dependent on the support of Malay soldiery and Chinese resettlement officers, relating to both with the outlook of an Irish anti-imperialist and a man who understands communism. On a personal basis, Ferdach becomes deeply involved with one of his Malay friends, though this does not prevent him from also becoming entangled with the volatile wife of a fellow British officer!

In the next two books, to be published shortly, Fredach is drawn into the complex and murky world of inelegance and there is an episode involving Chin Peng, the Communist leader, who has recently published his version of events in “My Side of History”. Freddie Lees held a number of interesting posts beyond the period covered in the trilogy, not least as organiser of the country’s Independence celebrations in 1957 and his Malaysian publisher has suggested there are more books to be written!

“I felt like a time traveller” says Freddie of his visit which included 360 degree overview of the remarkable changes from the 421 metre high telecommunications tower Menara Kuala Lumpur. Skyscrapers, including the famous Twin Towers, state of the art shopping malls, expressways and cars in their thousands replace much- but unfortunately not all – of the KL and the surrounding rubber estates he knew. The vast and stunning new administrative capital of the country, Putrajaya, is nearing completion to the south of Kuala Lumpur.

If spotting the occasional architectural relic – such as the Moorish government building where he once worked and the school sharing the Menara hill, where his sculptress wife, Marie, once taught – was one delight, another was to meet the distinguished “children” of those he worked with the period 1950-62. For example, one important character in the book is Tuan Hajo Mustapha Albakri, head of the Election Commission at the time of Independence (when Freddie was the Secretary) and whom Freddie recently described as “the most civilized man I ever worked for”. By a stroke of good fortune, he was able to renew contact with Tuan Haji’s family, show them the complimentary passages and mutually reminisce about people and events nearly half a century ago. Tuan Haji’s architect son has designed some of Kuala Lumpur’s most striking and prestigious buildings.

Freddie was in distinguished company during the LitFest week as writers from all five continents attended. They included Paul Bailey (UK), Ken Wiwa, son of the executed Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, Oscar Hijuelos (first Hispanic to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), “Olympic poet” Mark O’Connor (Australia), Amit Chaudhuri, Commonwealth Writers prizewinner (India), filmmaker Sean Walsh (“Bloom”, based on Joyce’s Ullysses), journalists such as Michael Vatikiotis, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and prominent Malaysian and Singaporean writers.

Before and after the LitFest, Freddie stayed with Ryer Barry and Jean Floyd who still spend most of each year in Malaysia where Jean is a consultant to the Ministry of Education. * * * * * *Book

Frederick Lees book is available from The Martello Bookshop, High Street, Rye.

“Rye’s Own” September 2004

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