Scraps of Wool

29 November 2017 // Books

An extract from Scraps of Wool: A Journey Through the Golden Age of Travel Writing by Bill Colegrave, published by Unbound.

JON SWAIN
River of Time (1996)

Having had a brief flirtation with the French Foreign Legion, Jon Swain (b. 1948) was working in Paris for the English desk of Agence France Presse when he got the chance to move to Phnom Penh as its correspondent. It is hard to imagine a better posting for a twenty-five-year-old, single, aspiring journalist than Indo-China in 1970, with few firm responsibilities, no immediate boss and the right to roam.

Jon wrote to me when he heard that I wanted to reprint this passage: ‘I am at this moment sitting in a soulless hotel in Johannesburg so hearing that you are using the section on the 482 fumerie opened a window on my past that has been closed for a while. I allowed myself to be transported back and could visualize being present in the fumerie again with a pang of longing because, of course, it no longer exists, nor does sweet Chantal who always made me so welcome to smoke a pipe or two, escape from the war and dream.’ 

I felt I had entered a beautiful garden… I forgot about Paris and began a love affair with Indo-China, to which I have been faithful ever since … I stepped into an enchanting world of tropical scents, the evening silence broken only by a bevy of girls in the cyclos who crowded round offering to pass the night with us.

‘Indo-China is like a beautiful woman; she overwhelms you and you never quite understand why,’ his companion said with unashamed tenderness. ‘Sometimes a man can lose his heart to a place, one that lures him back again and again.’

*

In those hard-bitten days, a number of us smoked opium. It seemed natural to do so after a day at the front. Opium had been legal in Indo-China just a few years before, and while it was now officially prohibited, was still widely smoked among the French colons. The most famous fumerie in Phnom Penh was Madame Chum’s. Madame Chum, a one-time mistress of a former president of the national assembly, was Cambodia’s Opium Queen. She ran the fumerie for more than thirty years, until her death in September 1970, aged sixty-seven, and earned a small fortune from the pipe-dreams of others.

Madame Chum sent her two children, a boy and a girl, to France to be educated. She also adopted a host of abandoned Cambodian children as her own, paying for their food, housing and education from her profits. Her generosity made her as well known for welfare work as for opium and she was accorded a national funeral, her body wrapped in a white cloth, holding three lotus flowers as an offering to the Buddha. People said she had never forgotten how she suffered when she was young and poor and had made a vow to help others all she could. I wrote her obituary for AFP and was pleased when Le Figaro published it in full.

Her fumerie, in a residential part of town near the Independence Monument, was used mainly by the French. They were jealously protective of it and resented other westerners smoking there. When it was briefly closed at the outbreak of war by the authorities, one of the women who worked for Madame Chum decided to do away with the friction this resentment had caused and opened her own den. Her name was Chantal.

The den was called 482 after the side street in which her wooden house on stilts was located. To reach it we pedalled by cyclo through the curfew-stilled streets, past the road checks, past the soldiers lounging at street corners, past the snapping dogs. We pedalled down the centre of the road, afraid that the sentries might shoot us in the darkness. Chantal’s first three clients were Kate Webb, a journalist, Kent Potter, a courageous young British photographer, and myself. Our pictures were pinned to the wall; we were part of her family. Chantal was a beautiful woman, soft, smooth and round like a plum. We adored her.

Her house was partitioned into four rooms. Naked except for a sarong, we lay on the coconut-matting covering the bare wooden boards and smoked. Sometimes we had female company. Sometimes we had a traditional Cambodian massage. Sometimes we just talked among ourselves, reminiscing and reflecting on the adventures of the day. Often, one of us would launch into an impassioned soliloquy about the war. One recurring theme was who was the greatest war photographer – the late Robert Capa, Larry Burrows or Don McCullin?

There was a lot of common ground as to why we were in Cambodia. With opium, our inner thoughts took wings. And it turned out that for most of us the enemy was not the deadly carnage in the Cambodian fields but the tedium of life itself; especially the perceived dreariness and conformity we had left behind in the West, to whose taboos and musty restrictions we dreaded having one day to return. During the day we might have experienced terrifying incidents and made life-and-death decisions as to where to go, and how long it was wise to stay on a battlefield. But the war also provided us with a certain freedom, which is why we liked being here. We felt we had broken loose and were accomplices in an escape from the straitjacket of ease and staid habits.

Lying down and smoking, eyes closed, we were scarcely aware of the outside, even when, through the open window, an occasional flash and boom of artillery reminded us of the battles raging in the countryside. Later on, when the American B52 carpet-bombing came closer to Phnom Penh, we would feel a sullen rolling vibration as though we were on the periphery of a great earthquake. The whole house quivered. Yet, thanks to the soothing balm of the opium, I recall a strange, almost childlike, satisfaction, a feeling of absolute content in the mysterious certainty that we were utterly secure where we lay. Then at some stage, at two or so in the morning, our thoughts drifted away and we sank into an ocean of forgetfulness. Time did not exist in the limbo of the fumerie.

Graham Greene, in Ways of Escape, said of the four winters he spent in Indo-China, it was opium which ‘left the happiest memory’, and I understand what he means. I took opium many times in Cambodia. It was sweet and left a lingering acrid fragrance on the palate. The ritual was seductive. I remember very well the old man who made us our pipes. He was spare and the skin on his face was wrinkled like crépe. With a metal spike, he turned a small sizzling ball of sticky opium paste the size of his fingertip over and over in the flame of a little oil-lamp until it was cooked; then he inserted it into the ivory pipe and handed the pipe to me. Little bluish clouds puffed as I drew on it. There were no great visions; just disembodied contentment. It brought tranquillity to the mind and spirit as we lay cocooned in this sanctuary Chantal had created for us in the intimacy of her home.

All manner of people visited her fumerie – French planters and their Cambodian mistresses, Frenchwomen and their lovers, diplomats, journalists, spies. None stranger, perhaps, than Igor, the resident Tass correspondent. Igor was an important KGB officer in Phnom Penh, a product of the new generation of sophisticated young Soviet spies who graduated from the Moscow spy school. A natty dresser with well-cut suits and wide flowery Italian ties, he spoke Cambodian and French. He cultivated the western press and was a good friend of Jean-Pierre Martini. But no one had ever seen him commit an indiscretion. He was too much of a professional. It became something of a challenge to get Igor drunk or, better still, into the opium parlour. Even when his skin was full of a fearsome concoction of vodka mixed with marijuana, a creation of some American journalists, he remained as solid as a rock. I have seldom found a drink more corrosive. The Americans loved it. And unlike them, Igor could take it.

On New Year’s Eve 1970, Jean-Pierre and Igor organised a joint party. Jean-Pierre offered the champagne, I offered a tin of caviar saved from a stopover at Tehran airport, and Igor provided the food and vodka. Indicative of his rank and the respect in which he was held by the embassy was that he was given the Soviet ambassador’s personal chef for the evening. There followed a memorable Georgian meal of meat skewered on swords, roasted and flambéed, washed down with much vodka and champagne. Afterwards, Igor drove me back to the studio at Le Royal. I proposed a visit to Chantal’s. To my astonishment and delight, he accepted. Now, I thought, perhaps I can tickle some of those KGB secrets out of him. It was not to be. We each smoked a pipe and passed out on the mat. In the morning when I awoke, Igor had vanished.

*

Scraps of Wool is out now. We have three copies to give away on this week’s newsletter, courtesy of Unbound – make sure you’re signed up to our mailing list before Friday for the chance to win.

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