Friday, January 18, 2013

Mrs. Peel, Zero Dark Thirty and Amazon Ebooks.

A video capture of a March of Time from 1951, showing my grandmother, Dorothy Nixon, scoring cricket at the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur.

Well, I've posted Looking for Mrs. Peel on Kindle and removed the drafts from my website. The background to the story, including lists of internees and a long bit about the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, is still there.

I tried to give the cover a Straits Chinese look, but I'm no artist. I do like my subhead.. A story of Family and Torture.

War Torture is big in the news, once again, what with Zero Dark Thirty and the Academy Awards. Waterboarding.. and waterboarding plays a part in my story.

Mrs. Peel, she's being waterboarded in November 1967, when my grandmother is leaving for home in Kuala Lumpur after a long (too long?) visit. It was kind of torture for us and for her...

(She actually left after Christmas, but I changed that to suit my play.)

My grandmother was involved in the infamous Double Tenth Torture Incident at Changi Prisoner of War Camp in 1943.

Here she is shortly after returning to Malaya after the War. She is with a bunch of cricketeers.

Here's a 10 minute documentary I posted on YouTube about her visit and her life. It's too long to post here:

And here's my information on the Kuala Lumpur Book Club:

I hardly knew my grandmother. She visited us in Canada just once in 1967. I wrote about it in a play, Looking for Mrs. Peel. You can find it by clicking on the link at the top of the page.

We didn't get along back then. I was only 12, and, sadly, we failed to discover the one thing we had in common, a love of books and good literature.

In 2003, I stumbled upon an online mention of my grandmother and the KL Bookclub which started me on this family project. Today, 7 years later, there are many many mentions online, especially in Google Books and Google Scholar, for many books on Malaya and Malaysia cite my grandmother and the Book Club as a source and resource.

Just this past week, in February 2010, I found yet another scholar/writer who admired my grandmother, Dr. Peter Moss.
He writes in Distant Archipelagos" Located beside these chambers (Selangor Club chambers) was my own personal Mecca, the Kuala Lumpur Book Club, established long ago to provide books for planters leading solitary existences in remote parts of the country who needed to keep their minds off the lack of sex and all to readily available booze. It was run by a wonderful old librarian whose name now escapes me, most of whose time was spent responding to requests for books which she packed in cardboard boxes and mail to outstation destinations via the post office.
I remember with great affection her astonishing knowledge of everything you needed to know about the history of british Malaya. As a girl she had personally known Frank Swettenham and my hero Hugh Clifford, whose books, in their signed author’s editions, graced her private collection. Sometimes if the library itself didn’t have the same work she permitted me to read her own copy, valuaable as it was, so long as I remained on the premises. Many a pleasurable afternoon I spent in her reading room over A MALAY Romance or a Further Side of Silence." Dr. Moss's books are available at and he has a Facebook page.

Now here is the article my grandmother wrote, followed by many other bits of info I have uncovered over the past 7 years.
The Kuala Lumpur Book Club:A Pioneer

By Dorothy Nixon PJK (Malaysian award for meritorious service to society)and Gerald Hawkins OBE

Copyright the Malayan Library Journal July 1961. Reprint Rights Pending.

It faces the Padang and its neighbours are distinguished. The Padang is a major focal point in the Federal capital and has as its edges the main and impressive Government Offices done in Moorish, a Bank in Bombay Victorian, a Church in Victorian Gothic and a Club in the Pie-Temiar Long-House manner. Hard by and within brassie-shot are the dignified Supreme Court and the latest government multi-storeyed office which excuses its architecture by the adjective “functional”. These satisfy the needs of man for Faith, Order, Justice,Money and Society.

The largest library in Malaya stands erect and four square with this varied company , in it and ofit, to satisfy the intellectual needs of twentieth century man. It is a sodality as much as a library and for many years made it a point of honour not to possess the “Encyclopedia Britannica” because that was a reference book and the Club wanted books for comfortable reading. Also under the ban was and is Propaganda Literature. The Club refused to commit any such mental aggression and the members were expected to choose their books for themselves and form their own opinions without any external pressure or even guidance. Happiness has no history and like the Pickwick Club our origin is wrapped in obscurity.

At the turn of the century there was a small Government library in a room behind the Town Hall. It contained a few old reference books and was available only to Government personnel. A permit to use the room and take over the reference books was sought and granted. A group of European residents started to buy books and exchange them and, tired, perhaps, of lending books to friends who never returned them, cleared their bookshelves and dumped them in a common pool in the room and thus the Club was formed. The Selangor Government gave a grant of $1,8000 a year on condition that existing members of the Government library and all subordinate Government officers should be allowed to join the new Club on payment of 50 cents a month and without entrance fee. The Club grew slowly; the ordinary membership being, at the time, almost entirely European. After World War l it became more popular and in 1922 a part-time secretary was engaged.

In 1925 the Club moved to a room in the Mercantile Bank Building and nine years later to the Hardial Singh Building and it soon out grew these premises and in 1939 resolved to have a home of its own. The Selangor Government, well-disposed as ever to any sound educational project, granted a loan of $20,000 and the club moved to its present abode. The first instalment of the loan was repaid in June 1940, and, in spite of the war years which intervened, the payment of the 4% interest on the loan, and the heavy cost of rehabilitation, the final installment was paid back in October, 1945. Among the Presidents of the Club have been Mr. C Boden-Kloss, Dato F. W.Douglas, Mr. G. P Bradney, Rev. M. Harcus. Mr. C.W. Harrison, Mr. T. D. Ensor, Mr. C. G. Sollis. MR W. G. W. Hastings (clarum et vererablie nomen); Mrs. F.G. Flowerdew; Miss A. M. Doughty; Dr. R.S. Hardie; Mrs. C. Mills; Mr. Gerald Hawkins and Mr. C.H. Lee. Mr. S.W. Jones too a great interest in the Club, especially in the erection of the building. The present Secretary/Librarian (Dorothy Nixon) has held office since 1937.

The Club has expanded enormously since 1945, the membership having risen from 704 to 3,600 of whom 2,900 are Asian by April, 1961. A feature of the Club is its sight, on Saturday, of crowds of Asian children downstairs, and the reference section upstairs, full of students poring over reference books.

The club survived the days when reading was rare and when most of Selangor had little literacy, let alone English. If it has done nothing else, it can boast that it has fostered the habit of reading and cultivated a taste for good literature. It has blazed the trail for subsequent libraries. Te British Council, The USIS, the leading Schools and the University all have collections of books. Many Community Halls in the New Villages have well-filled book-shelves. The generosity of many kind members presents the Club with a large number of books. It has also been possible to pass on to newly-started libraries, clubs, and hospitals volumes which are surplus to requirements. Outside the Fiction section the many books (of the heavier type) are classified as follows: Philosophy, Religion, Social Sciences, Philology, Applied Science, The Arts, Games and Sports, Literature, Travel, Biography, History, Reference and Malaysia. There are also French and Malay sections. One of the best collections of Malaysiana in Malaya is available for reference.

The picture in the library shelves has changed considerably over the last few years as the Non-Ficiton section has expanded tremendously. In 1960, 5,210 volumes were added to the shelves, of which 2,310 were Non Fiction. The total number of books in the club is approximately 130,000 and yet there are members who say “There’s nothing to read. I’ve read them all.” Our members are 1) local residents 2)district members residing from five to fifteen miles from Kuala Lumpur and 3) outstation members living more than fifteen miles from Kuala Lumpur. Delivery of books to outstation members is by rail and post, where necessary by air freight. Boxes or parcels of from four to seventeen books, according to subscription are sent to these members. We send as far North as Thailand and South to Singapore. Before the war we even sent as far afield (perhaps ‘asea’ would be more appropriate as Brunei and Christmas Island. During the “Emergency” we received many grateful letters showing that the Book Club was also helping fight the bandits in sending tidings of comfort and job to many isolated and beleaguered people all over Malaya. The bandits looted quite a number of our books and could balance their share of Marx, Lenin and Stalin with Shakespeare, Sheridan, Shaw, Conan Doyle, Julian Huxley, Dorothy Sayers, Lewis Carroll and Enid Blyton.

Subscriptions for members whether local or outstation are as follows: $14,50 per quarter for from eight to 17 books at any one time according to distance from Kuala Lumpur. Entrance fee $5.00. $10,00 per quarter for from five to 14 books, Entrance fee $5.00. $4.50 per quarter fro from three to seven books. Entrance Fee $2.00. Persons earning a total, in salary and allowances, of $200 or less per month pay $3.00 per quarter and no Entrance Fee. Students and School-children pay $1,00 per quarter and no Entrance Fee. For the convenience of members the premises are open for borrowing from 9:30 to 1:30 and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. In 1959 a scheme of Group Subscription for schools was inaugurated with special terms to foster reading among the local children and it has been encouragingly successful. There are 870 children in these groups.

During the Japanese occupation, the Club was closed for some time and when re-opened no books were bought nor repairs done. Immediately after the arrival of the Japanese the building was used as a cookhouse and the books as fuel. Unfortunately, the books so used were from the new books and History shelves, leaving grievous gaps in the 1941 publications and the valuable history section. Every map and atlas was systematically seized. The doctors operated frequently to remove all medical books.The Malayan section was sadly depleted in fact we had few treasures left. Fortunately, the Selangor Journal 1892-97, though very much worse for wear, is still with us. It has been impossible to replace the books from this section as they are out of print and the cost when obtainable is prohibitive. However a private collection of 900 Malaysiana housed in the Club is available for the use of students and research scholars. Continuous repair is necessary, especially in the juvenile section and this is a problem and often an unnecessary expense, owing to avoidable damage due to carelessness. Once upon a time we said that it was pleasant to record the rarity of theft and defacement, and that our membership included very few persons like Sheridan’s Lady Slattern who had a ‘very obvious thumb’. This cannot now be said. With the majority of membership of young people we now have much heavier wear and tear. The young of Malaya have yet learned that books are precious, to be treated with care and cherished as one of the most important assets in our lives. Our books, are, in the majority, obtained directly form London. We have there a long permanent list of authors whose books are dispatched on publication. To this staple diet we add ingredients of a more eclectic nature. The whole forms a vast meal, like a curry at a Malay wedding, enough to spare for all tastes.

The Club does other service. The Secretary has devoted quite an appreciable part of her time to instructing and training office librarians and secretaries of newly formed libraries. The Club pioneered modern classification in Malaya and is the only library with members in every State and the peninsula. It has therefore, a long and wide experience of the reading public. Though not a Public Library in the “FREE” sense, it fulfils the function of such an establishment by the amount of research done by the librarian for individuals and departments and th e help it gives to students.

A second story was added to the Club in 1956 as the book rapidly increasing in numbers, demanded lebensraum and more space was needed for research students.It now has a roomy reading room, only a small portion of which is air-conditioned. We have many valuable old books, unobtainable elsewhere in Malaya, which should be preserved and protected against our greatest destroyer of books, the humid atmosphere. Some day, when the money is available, we may have a sufficiently large air conditioned space to preserve what is in many respects a unique collection.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Editor's Notes A former rubber company employee who met Dorothy in the 60's, corresponded with me about Dorothy and the book club:

Most readers of my newsletter, he wrote, will have known your grandmother through the Kuala Lumpur Book Club. This was a subscription service and books were despatched to out-station members in a locked box about one foot cube. The Club had a key and so did the subscriber. The service was a tremendous boon, especially when was bottled up on an estate or tin mine during the Communist Emergency. There was no TV, the only good radio reception was propaganda broadcasts from Radio Peking and the press was very poor (now it is far better).

Your grandmother was Secretary during my day (1953 to 1969). One looked forward greatly to the arrival of the box. As well as books ordered it contained mimeographed sheets showing all the books available, with those one had ordered in the past ticked off. One returned it with the read books, with new selections noted. There were, I seem to remember, two rates of subscription, granting perhaps 6 or, alternatively 12 books a time. There was no restriction on the number of times the exchange was effected.

What was particularly appreciated was the way that your grandmother studied members’ tastes. Her study was detailed and subtle. One day, a book turned up in my box with a hand-written slip: “You might like this.” It was the Portugese satirist de Queiroz’ “The Relic”. I think she had noted that I had earlier asked for Ring Lardner Junior’s “The Ecstasy of Owen Muir”, also a satirical comment on Catholicism. On another occasion, the obscure American exoticist Frederic Prokosch’s baroque Renaissance chiller “A Tale for Midnight” appeared.

I don’t know if she was an academic by training but she used to help people engaged on serious research. I met her once or twice and I recall a small grey-haired women with a forthright manner ("Some of our books are bloody!") She was often seen in “The Dog” chatting with a couple of old male colonial hands. I know nothing about her earlier activities which is why I was so intrigued by Shennan’s reference to her.

My correspondent then discussed a recent publication,Murder on the Verandah, about the very same incident which inspired Maugham's classic short story The Letter. A particular passage in the book about the Kuala Lumpur Book Club makes him wonder about the author's motives.

What makes us suspicious, however, is a section featuring Kuala Lumpur Book Club. In those days, it purchased books as requested by its members (it had only 104 in 1909.) Lists of these requests were published in the Malay Mail and thus provide a record of members' tastes. Lawlor homes in with glee on trashy works such as "Adventures of a Pretty Woman" and "Imprisoned at a Girls' School, or The Private Diary of Montague Dawson, Flagellant" to demonstrate the paucity of imagination of local British society. Yet there was always plenty of good literature and works of local history on the lists sent in our own book boxes from the Club.


Gerald Hawkins is the author of a number of books on Malaya, some with Gullick. One title, written in 1958, is called "Malayan Pioneers." I wonder if this book contains my grandmother's story: I will go check. There's a copy in the Islamic Studies Library at McGill University!Whoops. Checked it out. It is aimed at Malaysian schoolchildren and has major historical characters. My grandmother's story has generally been written out of Colonial history. I've found dribs and drabs here and there.

Cecily Williams and Freddy Bloom, who are the women most cited when it comes to Changi Prison, Women's Section, failed to mention my grandmother in their oft quoted biographies and autobiographies,(from all I have read) even when they did allude to incidents my grandmother was directly involved in, like the Double Tenth.

I did find one lengthy account of my grandmother in a very well-written and cleverly observant book by Giles Playfair (published in 1943, while my grandmother was interned) called Singapore Goes off the Air. The book is about the 7 or so weeks this man, a BBC director, spent at MBC radio during the siege of Singapore.

He barely escaped when Singapore fell for good. He spent a lot of time with my grandmother who worked at MBC (she was the room mate of a key employee, Margaret Robinson) and he describes in detail how my grandmother was the only European at MBC who refused to evacuate.Click here and scroll to the bottom for the text.

Addendum: Sept. 2009. It appears the Malaysia Straits Times put its archives up on the web, with teasers.. I found many references to my grandmother, most related to cricket "one of Malaya's cricketeering personalities" and her career as librarian of the KL Book Club.

A woman writes in 51 that she is a new arrival and finds it amazing that there is no public library in KL, just the book club. In 1949 it is said that 'intelligent women readers are now using the book club, with almost half of subscribers Asian.'

In 1951 a book mobile is enjoying success. In 1952 a director complains that most new fiction is of 'poor' quality, making reading 'a kind of opium for the literate.'

Another news item says that University of Malaya students have damaged books at the library and that Mrs. Dorothy Nixon has closed the air conditioned work room." Another article, on the same subject, claims the female students blame the male students... In 1934 subscription fees are raised to 5 dollars a year. That's because, as another article shows, despite being the only library in Malaya, it gets only a small stipend of 1,000 a year from the Selangor Government. (Raffles in Singapore had a library, another article suggests, but few Asians use it. In a letter to the Straits Times someone says that's a pity, that the books should be used for 'entertainment' as that is what 9 of 10 colonials read for, entertainment and pleasure.

The Book Club moves into the new building, beside the Royal Selangor club on May 20, 1940, a year and a bit before the invasion. (My aunt says that every day my grandmother's gentleman friend, a Mr. Hastings, picked her up after work to walk her to the club "all of 15 feet away."

In 1933, there are 14,190 books in the Book Club and the end of year revenue is 85.00 in the black.

In 1966, May, there is a tribute to my grandmother upon her retirement. Yes!!!! So my memory is good. I recall my grandmother showing my mom a press clipping about her retirement from the Book Club when she visited. I wrote about it in the original prose version of Looking for Mrs. Peel, but not in the play. (See below for full article.)

Tribute to a Book Club Pioneer

Straits Times May 1966:Reprint Rights Pending

Members of the Kuala Lumpur Book Club have learnt with regret of the recent retirement of Mrs. Dorothy Nixon, for nearly thirty years its secretary and librarian.

Her advice and help have been constantly available to members, whether in Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Malaya or as far afield as Thailand and Singapore.

Outstation members are particularly grateful for her tireless efforts on their behalf during the Emergency.

Younger members have appreciated her kindness in opening the Book Club for study during her off-duty days and hours.

The Schools Group Membership scheme has encouraged many boys and girls to cultivate good reading habits which last beyond their school days.

Her valuable personal collection of books and source material on Malaya, interpreted and illumined by her own thorough and extensive knowledge of things Malayan, has been at the disposal of all and sundry

The Book Club is not the same without "Mrs. Nicky" but many members, old and young, will see it as a continuing reminder of her long and devoted service.

signed Two Members.

>From the Straits Times April 1949.

There are many intelligent non-European women readers who have joined the Kuala Lumpur Book Club.. April 9, 1949 (from Straits Times)

This fact was given to me by Mrs. Dorothy Nixon, Secretary of the Club, who added that this increase has been most marked since the war.>

Half of the members of the book Club are Asian, and a representative proportion of this number comprise women.

That people all over the world are reading more and more is well known, but here in Malaya, where most non-European children aspire to an English education and where plans for new schools in English and a University make daily news, the demand for books is a flourishing off-shoot of a widespread growth in the interests and ambitions of Malayans.

The enthusiasm shown by non-European visitors to the Book Exhibition held in Kuala LUmpur gave further evidence of this.

I asked Mrs. Nixon what type of general literature appeals to women members. She told me that their tastes are very similar to Engish children when young, but by the time they leave school they are able to enjoy the classics and novels by such author as Jane Austen, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy. "Somerset Maugham is a very great favourite with them, " she said. Other authors popular with Asian women readers are A J Cronin, J B Priestly, Francis Brett Young, Eden Philpotts, H G Wells. The series novels of English family life are also popular.

The essential thing with Asian children's reading is to provide stories, preferably with pictures, which have a background common to any nation.

Scenes of ice and snow are incomprehensible to a chld whose only idea of ice is as squares from a refrigerator.

April 8, 1951 Straits Times

The Kuala Lumpur Book Club has increased in popularity and gained in membership over the years until it now has a membership of over 1,500 with, for the first time, a majority of Asian Members.

Originally, the library was housed in a room behind the Town Hall, later in the Mercantile Bank building, and in 1937 in the Hardial Singh Building in Ampang Street.

In 1939, it was decided to build a modern library and $20,000 was borrowed from Government. In March, 1940, the new library was opened.

Unfortunately, the library was badly damaged on Boxing Day, 1941 by bombing and many valuable books were either ruined or damaged. Rehabilitation has been an expensive and slow business but most of the repairs have been completed.

The loan from government was gradually repaid and in October 1948 the final installment was paid.

This, considering the Japanese Occupation, was really a fine achievement.

Mrs. Dorothy Nixon who is ever ready with help and advice in choosing or recommending books for members, has been the hard-working secretary of the KL Book Club since 1937. The membership back then was 600. By 1940 it had risen to 1,100 and at the end of 1950 to 1, 500.

Mrs. Nixon said there were very few old records of the club available, but she understood the club had a humble beginning many years ago when two or three people began lending each other books. Thus the nucleus of the present thriving club began.

The club has for many years supplied books to outstation members, which have been sent either by rail or post to the various States in the Federation, including Singapore. Siam too has its members of the KL Book Club, who receive their welcome box of books usually selected by Mrs. Nixon, who hasa great knowledge of the type of book the various members prefer.

Before the last war there were members in far away Christmas Island , also in Brunei, to whom books were dispatched.

"I eagerly look forward to the day, " says Mrs. Nixon, "where there will be mobile libraries going out from the book club to the villages of Selangor and eventually even further afield."

Many books belonging to the Book Club disappeared during the Japanese Occupation, although when some sort of order was instituted out of those chaotic days, the library was reopened and continued to function under the occupation.

At the present time, there are somewhere in the vicinity of 40,000 books in the well stocked library shelves, covering all types of reading, and new books are constantly being added to the shelves.

The success of the book club is due, in many ways, to the undoubted interest and hard working activities of Dorothy Nixon. Nothing is too much trouble, however small the request may be.

Interned in Singapore during the war, her suffering at the hands of the Japanese is well known. She returned to Malaya in 1946 after a recuperative period in Britain. Apart from seeing a mobile library added, Mrs Nixon says there are hopes of adding a second story to the existing building which will provide an adequate reading room.