A Diplomatic Storyteller – interview with Andrew Barber (2 October 2009)

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Introduction

My new columnist, Brenda James, brought to my attention Andrew Baber’s books (see below) and I was fascinated. I was determined to interview him and made my request. He agreed and I’m glad, for the story he told in the interview below has been very entertaining to read. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing to you, Andrew Barber …


Aneeta: Andrew, thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Andrew: Well it is very kind of you to offer me this opportunity – my first ever interview of this type!

Aneeta: Let’s start with something about you: where were you born, where did you grow up, what do you do for a living and where do you live now?

Andrew:  This question rather dates me, as I was born in Uganda in the last years of the British Empire!  My father was a colonial civil servant and worked as a District Commissioner in a very remote district of Uganda on the border with Sudan.  It was all very exotic and we were a very small British administrative cadre surrounded by pastoral farmers and tribesman – the Karamajong and Turkana peoples – who fought tribal wars with spears and shields.  Much of this life has now gone, thanks to the spread of automatic rifles and war throughout the region.  As I said, it was an ageless, harsh and very simple form of existence centered mostly around cows.  Unfortunately I don’t remember anything about it, though the experience is all part of my family lore and photo albums!

After Uganda my family moved around Africa and Australia, where I first went to school.  I do have some memories of early school years, though not many. I think I must have one of the worst memories out there.  I know some people who can recall incidents from the age of two or three.  Mine start around the age of seven, and even then they are pretty flaky.  This could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, though if this is true the onset of memory loss at the age of seven is quite an impressive achievement.

My family finally settled in UK and after two years in Devon we moved to the small county town of Bedford.  Here the natives were not particularly warlike and I spent my formative years at school there.  My mother has kept my school reports, much to the pleasure of my daughters, as they make brutal reading.  I was clearly an idle and not very successful student; my math’s teacher for example describing my efforts as “practically worthless”.  On the back of such encouraging comments I actually did quite well and to my, and I’m sure the school’s, surprise I got a place at Cambridge to read History, getting a scholarship along the way.  The moral to this story is “every dog has his day” and a brass neck often gets you places that hard work and diligence don’t though if my daughters should ever read this interview – this philosophy of life is not for them!

Otherwise, growing up in a small English town in the 1970s was entertaining. I was somewhat socially hampered by liking John Denver while all around me were into the Stones, Led Zepplin and rather cooler groups.  My family football team is Everton and I guess this enthusiasm for lost causes was part of that psyche, though a preference for the underdog may also have been a little self-serving.  I have to say that the years have been kinder to the Stones and Led Zepplin than poor old John Denver, suggesting that if in doubt, it’s always good to go cool.  I’d turn John Denver off the radio now if I heard him but would certainly listen to the Stones and Led Zep.  But the damage is done and my reputation as a social loser remains, as my older brother still makes frequent reference to my nerdy choice in music.   Failing to be cool apart, as a teenager I chased, but failed to snare, lots of girls but managed to enjoy myself hugely in the process.  It was a good time.

Aneeta: I understand, from your website – http://www.barber-assoc.com/index.html – that you worked in the British Diplomatic Service. While I’m sure there are many stories there, I’m more curious about why you’ve chosen to be based in Malaysia.

Andrew:  After Cambridge I joined the British Diplomatic Service.  Travel had been part of my earlier life and I fancied the idea of the life of the diplomat, and it proved to be a great career choice. I have to say, and never believe any diplomats who claim otherwise, it is an extremely comfortable and priviledged life.  Lots of perks, not a huge amount of stress, high status and not really so much work, unless you end up in a ‘hot spot’ or one of the busier diplomatic missions.  It remains a mystery to me, and many others, why I chose to give such a career up at the age of 41.  I’d like to say that there was some profound crisis of conscience.  In fact, I’d become stale and a little bored and wanted to move on.  So I set up my own consultancy company in KL which is everything the Diplomatic Service is not – minimal status, stressful, usually rather uncomfortable and certainly little in the way of priviledge.  But, if I was asked to return to the Diplomatic Service (inherently a rather unlikely scenario) I would think long and hard about it and then say “no”, though I’d probably try to squeeze a lunch out of them to discuss the option.

Aneeta: Knowing how business is done in Malaysia, there will certainly be a lunch. The more important question, I think, is where this lunch will take place: at a coffee shop or Carcosa Seri Negara? Now, let’s discuss your books – I know you’ve published 3 and they are Malaysian Moments, Malaya and the Making of a Nation 1510-1957 and Penang under the East India Company 1786-1858. Please describe each one.

malaysianmoments makingofanation eastindia

Andrew: They are all focused on aspects of Malaysian history.  They are designed for the non-academic reader and are hopefully quite light and easy to read.

Malaysian Moments is a richly illustrated compilation of stories that have enriched Malaysia’s historic development.  Originally written as articles for an expatriate magazine, the book offers sometimes quirky, sometimes amusing, insights.  It explores the economic pillars of colonial Malaya, the plantation and tin industries, and Malaysia’s complex and vibrant communal mix. Other chapters explore the arrival of the colonial Portuguese, Dutch and British and some are focused on the often bitter and tragic events of the Second World War. Malaysian Moments is a light and easy introduction to a rich and complex nation.

Malaya the Making of a Nation 1510-1957 offers an illustrated account of Malaysia’s colonial heritage, looking in depth at the forces, motives and individuals who shaped the colonial period.  The book starts with the Portuguese seizure of Malacca from the Malay Sultanate of Malacca and then explores the Dutch and British eras.  Finally, it examines the defeat of Britain in the Second World War, the short period of Japanese control and the return of the British.  The final chapter explores the complex communal and political considerations leading to Merdeka, or independence, in 1957.

Penang under the East India Company – 1786-1858 is a lavishly illustrated account of the British acquisition of Penang by Captain Francis Light and the history of the settlement under the East India Company.  The book outlines the strategic and economic motives behind the settlement; British trickery in its dealings with Penang’s historic suzerain, the Sultan of Kedah, and the subsequent political, communal, economic, architectural and political development of George Town and Penang.  The book ends at the point when the East India Company’s interests were assumed by the British Raj following the Indian Mutiny, and looks briefly at the transition period leading to the formation of the Straits Settlements and direct colonial rule from London.

Aneeta: I understand that the proceeds of the sale of this book are channelled into various charities. Can you please explain how this works and how my readers are able to purchase these books from you?

Andrew:  The proceeds – or rather profits, as I take off the production costs – go the Lighthouse Children’s Welfare Home.  The first book made a lot of money, largely from corporate sponsors.  Unfortunately I write rather quicker than my sponsors can get rid of their books (they buy e.g. 100 copies and then have their logo on the back, and thereby make a contribution to the children’s home) so getting sponsorship for the latest book has been a struggle.

Aneeta: Am I correct when I say that these books were self-published? If so, what was the most challenging aspect of self-publishing for you?

Andrew: I have actually found the publishing side of things relatively easy, largely because I have handed over all production, design and print issues to my partner in crime, the wonderful Lileng Wong.

Aneeta: As you know, this website caters to storytellers. I have not yet had a chance to look at your books. I assume that there was an element of storytelling involved in your work. If so, what aspect of storytelling did you have to focus on when writing your books?

Andrew:  I try to tell an historically interesting narrative.  I guess that is a story.  It is not fiction and I try hard to make sure that what I write is accurate – that is the challenge for historians.  But I also try to make the account interesting and dig beneath the dry facts to offer an account and an analysis.  Some history books are just so boring and so detailed that they lose the reader.  Mine, however…

Aneeta: Andrew, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Andrew:   Just to say thank you and my best wishes for your splendid web site and your own efforts.

Aneeta: Andrew, thank you very much, once again.

Andrew: Kembali


This piece may NOT be freely reprinted. Please contact editor @ howtotellagreatstory.com for reprint rights.

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