The Neilson Hays Library - A Christmas Card


Bangkok in 1869 was much like Venice. Built on a swamp on the inside curve of a huge bend in the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok had then no roads at all, but only alleys (called 'soi' here) connecting a vast network of canals. All transport was either by foot or by boat. The Thai equivalent of the gondola plied these canals then and still exists; a sharply-pointed prow sits high out of the water of this long, thin, gold-and-red-painted boat. It is still a highly efficient working boat and one sees them hurtling along those canals which have not been filled in, or up and down the Chao Phraya every day, their prow thrusting through the water at now motorised high speed, carrying sometimes vegetables, sometimes mysteriously covered boxes, but most often tourists. On these boats Jennie Neilson Hays with a straight spine travelled round Bangkok, or perhaps she walked doggedly with a parasol to protect her fashionably pale complexion from the fierce sun. Walking was not easy. As she strode along the sois, her long skirt a la mode would have dragged in mud for half the year. She would have arrived home with the hem caked in brown slime had she not jauntily lifted it to reveal her ankles peeping out from her long, black leather boots.

What a life Jennie Neilson Hays must have had! You received this in seconds, but she waited at least twelve weeks for a reply to her letter of the 25th inst. Her mother would be dead for at least a month-and-a-half before she learned about it. She lived, as many other British ladies did, in a hot, foetid swamp far away from home - not from choice, but because her husband had business here; opium perhaps or that catch-all description 'import-export'. Her tight, whale-bone corsets must have been insufferably hot, her high lace collar did not allowed what little breeze there was to cool her shoulders. Her hair, piled high into a cottage loaf and weighed down with hat, hat pins and veil, would itch with perspiration, but Mrs. Neilson Hays would never been seen to scratch it.Mrs. Neilson Hays was a lady, indomitable but bored.

What did ladies like Jennie do all day? There was the house to run, of course; a wooden house here with termites to eradicate, snakes to exterminate, lamps to trim and top-up, gardens growing an inch a day to tidy, daily butter to churn, imported ice to crush, vast quantities of water to boil - and the laundry! Imagine how many of those perspiration-soaked, mud-encrusted skirts and blouses, shirts and trousers she and her husband must have gone through every day. But she had an army of servants inside and out. I know from my own experience servants can be a mixed blessing; there is always at least one of them in lovelorn tears, another about to resign and a third doesn't get on with the fourth and is about to take the carving knife to him. Nevertheless a one sentence command sees the linen washed, starched and ironed. Just a word gets the hibiscus cut back. A finger run along the edge of the sideboard would see a servant scurrying away for the feather duster. So after those curt commands were done, what did she do all day?

Such ladies still endure in the expatriate community here, but they go shopping in Louis Vuitton, watch VCD's of 'Absolutely Fabulous' and queue up in air-conditioned Honda Accords to collect the children from Harrow International School to while away the hours until their husbands return with the chauffeur-driven BMW from offices around Bangkok. They might even get in their cars. and drive down to Jomtien for a couple of hours sunbathing on the beach. Not so Jennie Neilson Hays. There were wet and dry markets, but few shops which stocked anything she might want to buy. Travel was not an option; it was slow, difficult and dangerous. She might have visited a temple or two in her early days but once you've seen one you've seen them all. Perhaps word would get around that a ship had been sighted sailing up the Chao Phraya and perhaps she would, with her friends, go down to the quay to meet it to see first hand what latest fashions and new inventions from London the ship might be bringing. A wine cooler! What a splendid idea! What excitement!

Mrs. Neilson Hays was a feisty young woman. She was capable of anything, including following her rather dull husband to live in a swamp on the other side of the world where, if malaria didn't carry her off before her time, typhus surely would. She was intelligent and her brain needed stimulation. She took to reading. I imagine her stretched out on her rattan chaise-longue on the veranda, a coolie standing by to fan her gently, devouring book after book: some early short stories of Guy De Maupassant, the latest Trollope, Mrs. Gaskell's newest offering and travel books about old Siam by 18th century French explorers. But too soon! Too soon she had read them all - and twice over! Via a servant (it was raining cats and dogs and the lightening was making her nervous) she sent a note over to Anna Leonowens, the governess of Crown Prince Chulalongkorn and the other 87 children of King Mongkut: Did my dearest Anna have any books Mrs. Neilson Hays might borrow that she hadn't already read? 'Dearest Jennie, I fear you have quite exhausted all my stock of books. We await a new shipment, but the packet boat seems to be delayed...' Jennie wrote to the British Ambassador's wife. 'Alas! Dear Mrs. Neilson Hays, I have nothing new to offer you, but might I borrow from you that lovely book by Miss Bronte you recommended?'

Jennie stamped her booted foot in frustration. 'There's no system! What we need is a system! What we need is a LIBRARY!' She wrote round to all the ladies she knew, which was every lady in Bangkok except for that odd missionary woman who had gone native and married a Siamese. 'Mrs. Neilson Hays wishes to establish a committee of ladies for the express purpose of starting a subscription library in Bangkok for the edification, moral education and religious illumination of the British community in Bangkok.' 'Hear! Hear!' They all wrote back, met one day for tea and gave birth to 'The Bangkok Ladies Library Association'.

Naturally she was made Chairwoman, and for the next fifty years Jennie Neilson Hays ran the The Bangkok Ladies Library Association. Every passing traveller was cajoled into giving up his dog-eared copies; publishers received pleading letters to send over remaindered stock; fetes and garden parties were held to raise money to buy the latest editions; no-one could ever leave Bangkok to return home without giving up their precious books to the indefatigable Jennie. Any book placed into its maw would be gobbled up into the catalogue of Mrs. Neilson Hays's Bangkok Ladies Library Association. She started English classes for upper-class Siamese courtiers and their children destined for small private boarding schools in Eastbourne or Surrey. She arranged exhibitions of water-colours to amuse her compatriots. Impatiently she would stand on the dock, waiting for the tide to turn or the wind to veer so the boat, tantalisingly in sight, could be safely tied up and which carried in its bowels another box from the Army and Navy Stores for a servant to bear triumphantly to her house. There she would unpack it to discover what new delights awaited her within. Oh! Another from Mr. Dickens! Oh! And the George Meredith she had waited so long for! And at last the Marie Correlli for which Mrs. Hunter has been pestering her! And, bless me! The Illustrated London News! Three months out of date of course, but news nevertheless of home. How wonderful!

For weeks after Jenny died in 1921, Tom Heywood Hays cried himself to sleep. The space beside him in their bed was cavernous, the silence which had displaced her gentle snoring was insufferable. The servants kept their distance and crept about the house fearing his inconsolable anger would be directed at them. In the watches of the night he could only imagine she was still with him, immortal and beloved. One particularly dark night, when sleep was only to be procured through the patronage of his deceased wife's laudanum bottle, the widower had a revelation. My darling Jennie shall be immortal! No ordinary grave-stone to crumble away in the humid heat and overgrown with weeds was good enough for her. She shall have a memorial like no other that her name might live for evermore. He gave everything he had.

The noise from the tuk-tuks, the badly tuned buses and the motor-bikes is terrific down Surawong Road. Loudspeakers in front of every concrete shop thump Thai pop music and fill the thick, polluted air. Hawkers yell, brakes squeal and dogs bark. If you are not concentrating you can miss it; but down at the far end of Surawong Road - the oldest part of one of the first roads ever to be built in Bangkok - stands in a quiet, shady garden the most beautiful, cream stuccoed, Palladian edifice. Like some 18th Century folly or a delicate, small-town bank, tall, arched windows with green shutters punctuate Corinthian columns round the thick walls. A low, tiled roof is all but hidden by a strong cornice crowned with pediments at each corner. Hidden from the road at the back, a porch with sturdy double doors and stone steps shelters from the rain the discarded shoes of visitors. You are about to enter one of the most miraculous buildings in Bangkok: The Neilson Hays Memorial Library.

Inside, the thick walls ensure that Surawong Road in all its banality is forgotten and all is deadly quiet. The stockinged feet of subscribers glide noiselessly over - and polish as they go - the glassy, teak floorboards. Round the walls of the main library hall, and arranged at right angles to create peaceful alcoves, are tall, impeccably crafted teak shelves enclosed with glass doors to keep out tropical pests. Ingeniously designed ducts allow air from outside to circulate through them to prevent the many thousands of books from succumbing to that bane of the tropical bibliophile: mould. The vaulted ceiling is supported by rows of double Doric columns. Only the hum of the recently installed air-conditioning disturbs the silence. Someone at the far end clears his throat. A mobile phone trills and people glare. A young American lounges with one leg over the arm-rest in a green leather chair and rustles today's Bangkok Post. The entrance porch is balanced on the other side of this H-shaped building by a high domed rotunda in which two whispering middle-aged ladies are peering closely at the latest exhibition by a contemporary Indian artist. Noiselessly two small girls on the floor of the children's section are flipping over the pages of a pop-up book. Their mother stands in front of a book-filled cupboard staring vacantly but contentedly. On an old mahogany table are displayed the latest acquisitions. Someone has donated a splendid, leather-bound, two-volume edition of Gibbon; another has given over a book of old print-maps of Cambodia. Joanna Trollope nestles with Gore Vidal who shores up yet another unopened book on how to succeed in business. At the librarian's desk a Thai lady 'wais' each subscriber before removing the cards and stamping the date of return into the books. You can take out as many paperbacks as you like; hardbacks are limited to three.

If it was in Britain this privately run, subscription library of English books would be a treasure. That this little spot of quiet manners and gentle erudition is in Bangkok and only a stone's throw from one of the most notorious red-light districts in the world is nothing short of magical. What energy those Victorians had! What vision! Without any of the inventions which make our lives simpler, without modern transport to facilitate grand designs, and surrounded by an alien culture which can frazzle even the most hardy of expatriates, in the enervating heat and torrential downpours they created around them the best of their own culture to make their isolated lives bearable. Unique among South East Asian countries, Siam was never a colony. The Hays family were immigrants. Perhaps to the proud Siamese they were even unwanted and mistrusted immigrants. Is there somewhere in England now a veiled version of Mrs. Jennie Neilson Hays stamping her foot in frustration and boredom, and dreaming of setting up an Arabic library in that alien, cold, damp air?

[That was written in 2003. Oddly enough the last paragraph was prescient; 'Coronation Street' had just that storyline in 2014.)