James Hamilton-Paterson is delighted when he sees the drinking glasses we have at Fred’s Revolucion. “Ladies Choice!,” he says gleefully. “Cheez Whiz,” I correct him. “My God yes, Cheez Whiz,” he acquiesces. “Just how much Cheez Whiz do you use?” “We use a lot of it for Marvin’s Cheezy Fries—but I think you can buy the empty jars in Divisoria.”
Such is how my first real conversation goes with the British literary exile, poet, novelist, winner of the Whitbread Award for his first novel Gerontius (touted “one of the best British novels of the 1980s”), Man Booker Award nominee for Cooking with Fernet Branca, author of two dozen or so celebrated fiction and non-fiction works. He looks around, takes a seat by the window. “Maganda ang hangin!”
Having lived on and off in the Philippines from 1979 till the ‘90s, James H-P knows some Tagalog (“I still can’t speak it, no,” he says, when I ask him how long it took him to learn the language), and is familiar with many staples of day-to-day Philippine life. It was his time on an islet in Marinduque that defined his experience in the country and which he chronicled in Playing With Water (1987), now considered a classic memoir. To celebrate the book’s 30th anniversary, Ateneo de Manila University Press is doing a reprint.
I actually invited myself to the launch, having known of it from Apa Ongpin, my editor at Asian Dragon and longtime colleague from ABS-CBN Publishing. He had texted me a day earlier, telling me that James H-P was his houseguest. The author had a speaking engagement at Ateneo, Apa said, and after, he **might** drop by Cubao to take James to Fred’s and Black Cat, a bookstore owned by his friend Bob Araneta. “Can I come? Need to infuse my brain with new things,” I said.
So I don’t sound totally ignorant, I download James’ Playing With Water on Kindle and try to read up before the event. But I don’t stand a chance with the people in the room, who look like a curated section of Manila’s culturati and literati and who all seem to know James on a personal and fangirl/fanboy level. It’s a small crowd, though, and I wonder why James isn’t as well-known as he deserves to be. “He’s a recluse,” Apa explains. Later, I learn that he refuses to work the literary circuit, shunning publicity and not minding at all if publishers and critics scratch their heads at how to categorize his books. “Travel? Autobiography? Fiction? ‘I suppose it has elements of all three,’" reads a line from an article from The Guardian.
Thankfully, I didn’t need to know much about Playing With Water to enjoy the evening.
What do you talk about when with James Hamilton-Paterson? The obvious things: food. After long spells in the Philippines and Tuscany, James now lives in Austria, so his estimation of Boondock’s Brewery’s Beer No. 1 Witbier and our Pork Schnitzel has me more nervous than my cluelessness about his work. (Verdict on BB1: He liked it. He had two pints. Verdict on the schnitzel: “Filipinos can take anything in the world and make it theirs. It’s good.”) He particularly liked our Grilled Pork Strips. “Does it have cumin in it? Divine!”
We—he, Apa, Neal Oshima, and I—shared the oysters, rauchwurst, salted egg wings, and beef stew. James had the Thai Crispy Noodles to himself. Polished the plate. He didn’t want to try our Thai Scotch Egg, though. “Too exotic,” he says.
We talked more about food: palapa, the spicy condiment found in Maranao dishes. Toasted coconut, Minola cooking oil, sugar, coffee.
We talked about our micro and multi-racial histories: Apa’s Chinese and Spanish roots. The desertion of Sepoys from the British Army, with most of them settling in Rizal in the 18th century. The White Russians who sought refuge in Leyte after the 2nd World War. “Do you remember (actor) Ronald Remy? He was a white Russian,” Apa says. The migration of Lebanese youths into Europe and Australia to avoid being conscripted for World War 1, with some of them disembarking at Manila and finding their way up to Tuguegarao. We learn Apa’s wife, Ana, and I, are both Ybanag-Ilocano. “You have eyes like this,” Apa tells me, pulling down the corners of his eyes. “That’s Ilocano. Marcos was like that.”
And inevitably, politics—or, specifically, political figures…stuff which I will not divulge here.
We talk of relationships as well, or lack of. James was already 37 when he came to the Philippines. “By the time you’re 30 [and unattached], what’s the bother,” he says. “You do think about it, but it’s not for all.”
The conversation is free-flowing, no awkward silences or straining to find something to talk about. Disjointed names, facts and events are strung together by power of association or what information one can contribute. If James has heard it all before, he doesn’t show it; at any rate, I don’t think he’d be one to put up with bullshit or waste his time on boring discussion.
Jose Enrique Soriano, or Derek, the retired photojournalist who shares ownership of the bar with me, joins us for a bit before running off to check on our branch in Escolta. When he learns James covered the Vietnam War, Derek brings up his old friend, Welsh photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, who covered Southeast Asia until the 90s. James is intrigued, takes a piece of paper from me and jots his name down. In this simple act, I find kindredness. No matter how old we get and how much we’ve done, writers will always have this compulsion to take notes—whether we act on it or not is irrelevant. The point is we have the information on hand.
In his address at the Ateneo event, James said: “One of the many disadvantages of being a writer is that in addition to being a professional observer one is condemned to introspection. Not for most writers the strange indifference to what goes on in the world that so many people exhibit. Why aren’t they more interested? one asks oneself in puzzlement. Why aren’t people simply more curious? The writer, being both journal-keeper and journalist, usually cannot help recalling things and people and events as they strike him, and then making all sorts of links and comparisons with previous experiences. This obsessive hoarding and updating of sense impressions, memories and knowledge is not necessarily nostalgic. It is simply a way of making sense of the world, constantly spotting connections and repetitions and inferring likely outcomes. It is a largely pleasurable activity even if it usually leads to bleak conclusions about human behavior, which of course includes one’s own.”
Later, at Black Cat, the conversation winds down—at least for me and Neal. Neal leaves early; poet and Ateneo professor RayVi Sunico takes his place. Bob Araneta has his last copy of Cooking with Fernet Branca autographed. I browse through Bob’s books while listening to the men discuss what they’d bring with them on a desert island. It is unanimous that a good crime story is better company than Shakespeare.
As if noticing that I’ve grown quiet, James asks to see photos of my kids. It’s a very kind gesture; in interviews, whenever I want to “break the face” (i.e., disarm) of my subject, I ask them about their kids. I know, that at his age and with his substantial experience, he knows I have something to say. I also know that he knows that I don’t feel the compulsion to impress. Nevertheless, I do show him a couple of pics.
“These are my twin sons,” I say, “this one’s straight, and the other is gay…he came out when he was 11.” At that moment, I’m not sure why I mention it. Later, I read that James himself doesn’t like being labeled anything in terms of his sexuality (the author of the article writes, “if I must label him, he concedes wearily, 'ephebephile' (lover of young men) might fit the bill."). Perhaps I sensed a bit of this that night, and felt safe to offer that sliver of information.
“Eleven? I’m certain I didn’t know anything about myself when I was 11.”
“Well, maybe with the Internet and everything else, they now know too much.”
“That could very well be true,” he replies.
I settle back. There are many advantages to being a fly on the wall.
James is quite gracious when he bids me good night and goodbye. Beyond the genteel upbringing, uppercrust English accent, there is a palpable sincerity. “I do hope to meet you again,” he says.
The next day, I text James to ask for a copy of his speech. “He doesn’t answer right away,” Apa warns me. “Remember, he is a recluse.” But James does, within eight minutes. It’s a start.
Regina Abuyuan is a Manila-based writer, award-winning editor, and educator. She is chief editor of FAS Maritime magazine, runs Blended Learning Center-Manila, and manages dive bar Fred’s Revolucion in Cubao Expo and Escolta. If you want to know more about James Hamilton-Paterson, here’s a really good profile on him.