Not This, Not That ~ ENGLAND AND
GERMANY AND BACK
after visiting Kuching, I left Malaysia for England
in April, on the same plane with Ganeshan Chitty,
who I’d known from SKE, Malacca, and who was
a steward with Malaysian Airlines (MAS). He happened
to be flying that route, and took me to have a look
at the cockpit, a thing I’d never done before,
and there’s no chance of doing it again after
9/11. It was fascinating!
Arriving at Heathrow airport next morning and unwilling
to face the hassle of the Underground, I caught a
bus to Manchester, but oh, wished I’d braved
the Tube after all, as it took many hours, and from
Manchester, I had to get a train to Crewe any-way,
as there were no buses; living in Australia and other
coun-tries had spoiled me, and I expected too much.
Before going to England, I knew Harold had been diagnosed
with Alzheimer’s, but I’d never been close-up
to anyone with this terrible disease before; I was
soon to learn what it was like. Glen welcomed me warmly,
but he couldn’t remember who I was, and soon
took an active dislike towards me. All attempts to
explain were in vain; he’d made up his mind
that I was Glen’s ‘toy-boy.’ He
was not yet violent, at this time, but still in and
out of lucidity.
It was still very cold when I got there, so I postponed
my plans to retrace my footsteps, and in the meantime
started doing various jobs around the place for Glen,
and once started, there really was no end, as one
thing led to another, as it always does. Glen was
happy about this, and worked with me on many of the
pro-jects, including leveling out parts of the lawns,
which sloped down towards the railway lines at the
bottom of their garden, across from which was the
Rolls-Royce plant. She kept a few hens for their eggs,
but her hen-shed, right down at the bottom, had become
almost buried by the slippage of the soil, and was
like a fall-out shelter, so that she had to crouch
to get inside for the eggs. I couldn’t allow
her to go on using this, so suggested building a new
one; she eagerly agreed and we set about it. The finished
result was a great improvement.
We had a glorious summer, quite unusual for Britain;
in fact, there was virtually a drought, and I don’t
remember any rain at all. This was great for our jobs
Glen’s eldest daughter, Deena, had married some
years before, but both she and her farmer-husband
treated Glen very rudely. They had two children, a
boy and a girl, Wilky and Emma, aged about 7 and 5
at the time. Karin, Glen’s second daughter,
was living at home, and at 23, was still single but
promiscuous. Glen had always spoiled her kids, and
so, not surprisingly, Karin did not know the value
of things and was very wasteful. Much more about her
later, but let me just say here that she had a dog
~ or rather, a bitch ~ who she called Ella.
Needless to say, I renamed her several times, until
finally, she became ‘Sniffy,’
which was quite appropriate because of her sniffing-habit.
I became very fond of her, and she was fond of me,
From Crewe, I made forays to the scenes of my childhood,
25 kms away. My home-village, Burwardsley, had changed
quite a bit, and wasn’t as well-kept as I remember
it; the grass verges at the roadsides ~ which used
to be so neat ~ were overgrown with weeds and briars.
Wandering around the village, I saw some new houses,
and gaps where others ~ like ours ~ had been. I met
several people who remembered me; some had even heard
that I’d become a monk; looking back now, I
guess I was always odd; whoever would have thought
that a village-boy like me would wander the world
and return as a monk? But I didn’t find the
hospitality I’d grown used to in S.E. Asia;
no-one invited me to stay with them. Again, Philip
Benson talked to me outside his gate without ask-ing
if I’d like a cup of tea! Would I have done
that to him, if it were he coming back after almost
thirty years away? Maybe his home was so messy that
he was ashamed to ask me in.
In the church-yard, I came upon the grave of Mr. Ravenscroft
and his wife; thinking thoughts of “Thanks for
your efforts with me; even the canings were good!”
I moved on. Names of other people I’d known
stared up at me from the stones; I read their epitaphs.
“Rest in Peace,” David Dodd and Eric Chesters.
Because the slope on which the chapel was built was
subsiding, it was closed until funds were raised to
strengthen and make it safe; meanwhile, the church,
had offered to share their premises with the chapel-goers,
until their own were again usable ~ quite a development,
considering how at odds they used to be.
The forest surrounding my rocky eminence had become
a game-reserve to breed pheasants (for shooting in
the autumn; cruel sport!), and was out-of-bounds.
Having come so far to re-visit it, however, I wasn’t
going to allow a few signs to deter me; early one
morning, therefore, before the game-wardens were around,
I went there and sat pondering on how my life has
been like a river, twisting, turning and meandering
its way into the dis-tance, but to no perceivable
end. My name was still there, scratched into the rock.
Our castle had been opened to the public as a tourist-attraction,
so this time, I paid to go in, but it was so many
years since I’d last been there that it seemed
different, somehow. But maybe the difference was more
in me than in the place, as I was seeing it with different
eyes this time ~ eyes that had seen so many other
castles and things since then.
I was never very close to our relatives ~ aunts, uncles,
cousins, but when one cousin ~ Ann ~ discovered I
was back, she set about organizing a family get-together
(she’s very much into such things, and together
with another cousin, was engaged in tracing back our
family-tree). Not having seen these relatives for
almost thirty years, I thought it would be interesting,
but the ac-tual event was disappointing, to say the
least. While I did not expect or want to be the center
of attention, I found their topics of conversation
banal; no-one asked me anything about my travels.
Nor was it because they were Christians, either; al-though
they might call themselves so, they are not practicing
Christians, or religious in the real sense, at all.
Maybe my life-style and the things I’ve done
are so different and removed from their routine world
that they considered me a threat to their se-curity.
Their reaction ~ or non-reaction ~ to me was quite
differ-ent than had been that of those other relatives
in the US, who I’ve told about earlier. It’s
probably the last time we will meet.
A visit to England for this purpose would not have
been com-plete without going to our holiday beach.
I went alone, by bike, as I had done to our village.
What a change! The shacks among the dunes had vanished,
as if they’d never existed; only when I searched
did I discover a pathway to one of them, overgrown
with weeds. I was told that the area had been bought
by a con-sortium years before, but the plans they
had to develop it into a resort had come to nothing.
What a pity. Many people had happy times there. Now,
those same people ~ or their children ~ probably jet
off to the Costa del Sol, but are they happier
there than they were in the rustic shacks among the
Nearby was a caravan-park, but as it wasn’t
yet holiday-season, there weren’t many people
about. The beach was deserted, so I was able to wander
and muse undisturbed. The dunes looked much the same,
although some had disappeared altogether ~ trucked
away to glass-factories, perhaps. The lighthouse still
stood, solitary, lonely, unused.
Apart from the cries of a few gulls and the faint
sound of the sea far out, it was very quiet. I sat
on the sand to eat the lunch Glen had packed for me.
There, along the beach, I ‘saw’ my father
with his inner-tube, and two young boys beside him;
I ‘heard’ a black dog barking, happy to
join in the fun (he was so faithful, the black dog
we had so long ago). Of that small group along the
sand, only one remains, and he is no longer young.
I have come a long way since then.
As I sat there, suddenly, a sound I’d been waiting
for came from far up in the sky: the song of a sky-lark.
I lay back and closed my eyes, not even bothering
to search for the bird. Memories welled up in my mind,
of things long not thought of, that if told of here
might mean nothing to others. It’s amazing how
much is stored away in the files of the mind.
Sheila had shown no interest in my desire to trace
my roots, saying, “You can never go back to
the past,” which is true, of course; we can
only go forwards. But the past hasn’t really
gone as we think it has; it is still here, and we
carry it with us; in fact, we are the past; the present
is the past with a bit more added to it. And we can
make sense of the present only by understanding the
past. Without the past, the present doesn’t
exist. So, the more we understand of the past, the
more sense we’ll be able to make of the present.
This is why I wanted to return to England: to take
stock of my life before going any further. I’m
glad I went; I think I understand myself a bit better
than I did before.
While there, without a typewriter, I considered my
resistance to learning to use a computer; several
times in Melbourne, people had lent me one and tried
to teach me, but it wouldn’t register, and in
frustration, I said to them, “Come on, get this
thing out of here,” and stayed with my typewriter.
But now I decided to make an effort, otherwise I’d
become like a dinosaur, so I bought a word-processor,
and managed to figure out how to use it, which was
an event in itself, as I find the manuals that go
with such things so hard to understand that I need
a manual to read them! Anyway, there was no-one there
to assist me with it, so it was a matter of doing
it myself. Eventually, I wrote two books with it before
graduating to a second-hand laptop two years later.
One day, about to go into a post-office downtown,
I saw some-one looking at me in a strange way. He
was still there when I came out, and approaching me,
asked if I were Mike Houghton; he’d recognized
me from the photo that had appeared in the lo-cal
paper 10 years before. This was someone I used to
hang around with in 1964, before I made my first trip
overseas. He was living with his wife and young son
not far from Glen’s; I saw him a number of times
In the mail one day were some tapes of Bhikkhu Hye’s
talks, and a note saying: “If you meet anyone
who would like to listen to pure, unadulterated Dhamma,
you may give them these”. I was astounded, and
couldn’t bring myself to listen to them for
quite some time, afraid the earth might quake or something,
as it was supposed to have done when the Buddha gave
His first sermon! When I finally plucked up the courage
to play them, and nothing extraordinary happened,
I was not surprised to find them dry, scholastic and
hair-splitting, overflowing with scriptural ref-erences:
“Sutta number so-and-so; this Nikaya,
that Nikaya,” and so on. I could not,
in all conscience, have given them to anyone; I don’t
want to scare people off!
Through Betty, I had been in touch with her friend,
Jean, near London, and she invited me to visit, so
I did, but had no idea about her relationship with
her husband, John. They picked me up at the train-station,
and almost the first thing John said was: “I
see you haven’t lost your northern accent.”
I was stunned by his rudeness, but later understood
it when Jean informed me that he was illiterate; at
48, he didn’t know how to read or write,
and he was concerned about my accent! He was
Jean’s second husband, and younger than her,
but he really didn’t love her and treated her
abominably, and didn’t care at all that she
was a very sick woman; moreover, he had a mistress
in London. While I was there, Jean came down one morning
and told me that he’d kicked her out of bed
as she was disturbing his sleep. I sug-gested she
lie on the sofa, but she said she couldn’t do
that as it was John’s! Later, she needed medicine
from the pharmacy, but was unable to go herself, nor
would he go for her, so I went to get it. Why the
heck didn’t she leave him, I wondered? Eventu-ally,
many years later, she did, and was alright living
Now, I’d kept in touch, intermittently, with
Michael over the years. He had inherited $700,000
when his mother died, and with this he took his family
and moved to Portugal with the inten-tion of establishing
a Buddhist center there. His wife was as hopelessly
impractical as he was, however, and soon all the money
had gone and they had to return to Germany, destitute.
Knowing I was in England, he wrote, asking me to visit
him and telling of a friend who was in the middle
of renovating a farm-house to use as a Buddhist retreat-place.
I agreed to go, and in-quired about the train-fare
to Munich, but it was actually more, one-way, than
a round-trip air-fare ~ £140 as against £127,
so of course, I bought the plane-ticket. Saying goodbye
to Glen, but without telling Harold, I left Manchester
for Munich in Septem-ber, and was met at the airport
by Michael and his friend, Ludwig. Michael took me
to his home south of the city, where I met Jutta,
his wife, and Korby, their 15-year-old-son,
who smoked dope every day; their daughter, Julia,
had left home just before I got there and was living
on the streets of Berlin, with her hair dyed green;
I never met her.
It was good to see him again, but he just didn’t
know how to manage, maybe because of his upbringing.
His father had been a successful movie-director, and
always had servants in his large house to do everything
for them; Michael had never learned to do things for
himself, and in turn, had spoiled his own kids, indulging
their every desire as long as his money lasted. Now,
with his money gone, he was in a fix, even though
he and Jutta both had jobs. They were renting a house,
where I stayed with them for 6 weeks, with several
short stays with Ludwig. Jutta often gave Michael
a hard time, and one evening, over dinner, she was
nagging him severely, and he was just sitting there
taking it all. Then she got up and went out, and I
thought she’d gone upstairs, so said to him:
“If only you hadn’t disrobed!
We could have had so many good wanderings together!”
At this, her head came in at the door, and she said,
“What did you say?” Well, she
had clearly heard, and I couldn’t deny it.
In spite of this, he still had his droll sense-of-humor.
Another time, there was a sort of cream-dish for dinner,
and I asked what it was called; he told me, “Quark.”
“Oh,” I said, “the only quark I
know of is the smallest particle of matter in the
With a straight face, he said, “You are wrong,
you know. The smallest particle of matter in the universe
is the brain of a Jeho-vah’s Witness!"
Poor Michael; he’d really tied himself up. Sev-eral
times Jutta told me that he was still a monk at heart,
and he told me that never a day passed without him
thinking of Dharma.
Ludwig was much more practical than Michael, and had
not only built his own house ~ and a nice one at that
~ but owned and operated his own cinema, which was
his source of income. He’d bought a dilapidated
farmhouse, and hired workmen to renovate it; he also
worked on it himself, too, when he had time. His idea
was to get a monk to reside at his center, but I wasn’t
prepared to be the one; moreover, it was already cold
with snow falling, and I felt the need to leave and
return to Malaysia.