Review of Gittins: On Track

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Gittins, Paul, On Track: Henry Gittins – A Rail Pioneer of Siam and Canada, Journal of Shinawatra University, Vol.2, No.3 (Sep-Dec, 2015), pp.66-8.

Bangkok: River Books, 2014; 151 pp.; ISBN: 978-616-7339-429

The decision whether or not to upgrade Thailand’s rail services to incorporate high speed links, double tracks and improved connectivity with all important places of production and consumption across Asia rather tends to cause people to disregard the existing system and focus on inadequacies and lack of investment. This is rather unfair as the original act of building the system was not just a significant feat of engineering through terrain that was in many places thickly forested and mountainous, together with the difficulties posed by monsoon rains in a muddy part of the world but, also, because of the persistence needed to overcome the high rate of fatalities among the labour force resulting from numerous diseases and dangerous wild animals. Those who participated in the work needed almost certainly to be young and fit and could expect a relatively short career before the dangers of working in such an environment required cessation before permanent illness or even death would be the result. There are many examples of records kept by western travellers in their explorations of the Mekong region, even into the twentieth century, that retell in prosaic terms the stories of individuals, local or international alike, who fell ill in the afternoon and then were dead before morning. It is hard to imagine that many people today would accept such conditions without duress.

The railway system that was built may have had its limitations but it did have a an important role to play in the modernization of Siam, under King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and notables such as Prince Damrong. Transportation infrastructure is an enabling technology and, as such, enables other people to do things which they might not otherwise have been able to do or, at least, with the same level of efficiency. There is a tendency to think about economic activities when talk of enabling begins – farmers able to bring their produce to market and consequently are able to move beyond subsistence forms of agriculture – but there are benefits to be had in terms of familial and social relations and, in a more modern country, benefits to a properly functioning democracy, as the example of independent India shows. In this memoir of the work of his grandfather Henry Gittins, author Paul Gittins includes extensive extracts from the diaries of the eponymous pioneer and some of these demonstrate his opinion that the ability of provincial governors and local rulers to kin muang (eat the state) had been reduced since the railroad linking their provinces to Bangkok:

“The governor … controlled the gang of thieves or if they did not control them, ‘twas their retainers, who never receiving any pay for their services, took to gang robbery to recoup themselves and the governor winked the other eye. The poor labourer in those days got little in the way of cash or anything else except stripes for his labour (p.104).”

However, in some ways, there has been precious little improvement over the course of a century: “… almost invariably it was useless for a poor man to bring an action against a rich one, as bribery and corruption was just as rife now as it was in the old days (p.109).”

A family memoir such as this relies for its interest and value almost entirely on the quality of the original memoir and exclusive access to it. Author Gittins seems to know very little about Siam or indeed Canada that is not revealed to him by his grandfather and if he has done any background reading then this is not evident in the text and there are very few citations of any other authors, whether for the purpose of comparison or triangulation. So, therefore, what is the quality of the memoir and the way it has been presented? In answering these questions, it is necessary to consider the purpose and objective of the book, the author and the publisher. The book intends, it may be deduced, to entertain and educate to a certain extent and not to outstay its welcome. The author clearly wants the chance to show the career of his grandfather to the world and not to write a serious piece of history. Everything told to him by his grandfather is presented seemingly at face value and, although the editing process might have been quite different to the way it appears, it looks like Gittins has used pretty much all the material he could reasonably hope to include. The publisher, meanwhile, is River Books from here in Bangkok is known for a range of publications on local interests, including memoirs and books based on photography. This book sits within that catalogue and it is notable how many photos are included, mostly from Henry Gittins himself but also from othr sources. An uplifting story from a good family man well-rewarded by his appreciative and wise Siamese hosts and employers would seem to fit the bill and, by and large, the text delivers this. There are some examples of comments about the rival Germans that test the limit of what an exasperated English person might reasonably make but there is nothing negative to be found on individual members of the establishment. The grandfather’s prose itself is a little plodding in nature and presumably not originally intended for publication:

“This consisted of laying logs side by side the full length of the bank and putting the earth on top as a sort of floating construction. As it slowly sank, more earth was piled on and eventually a good road bed obtained. These swamps had to be crossed slowly on foot, stepping from tuft to tuft of matted grass. If you stepped between, you might go out of sight, after the manner of a Dartmoor bog (p.46).”

There are some gems of information in this book but not too many of them. It would be interesting to know what a historian would have made of the original material.

John Walsh, Shinawatra University

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