THE SNAKE TEMPLE by Francis King


“The man rolled over, so that his long, skinny body was supported on one elbow.”

Precarious enough for this elbow-trigger to presage his suicidal propensity? The grumpy man (balanced on his one elbow and playing chess with an equally grumpy 12 year old boy called Charlie) is called Jimmy whom Lettice (recently widowed by her husband’s shorn-off head in a car accident) meets on a ship travelling from the Far East to Tilbury, Essex, stopping off in Penang for them to visit the eponymous temple. The circumstances of all these characters, and the local colour, you will need to appreciate on your own without my help. It seems that in those days people were more intense, even if colours like mauve and grey were interchangeable. Except Jimmy saw it as the mauvest mauve he had ever seen, one which you can compare to the colour in the well in which Lettice fell. As to Jimmy’s later attempts at shearing his own head off, you will need to factor in his earlier dance with a large snake around the neck in the temple, after having played Schumann on the piano in a house with MIDDLEMARCH on a footrest, as I recall. A footrest in the house in Penang of the man (living with a gaggle of half-naked boys), a friend of Lettice’s late husband. Charlie later sloughs off his own grumpiness and thanks Lettice for looking after him after Jimmy (not his father) attempted suicide yet again. Unsure where all that may leave you, let alone how Lettice felt. I just thought it is probably a story that I will never forget, but I do not know why! It was that mauve that possibly got me. Akin to Dennis Potter’s ‘blossomest blossom’. Not forgetting the plock-plock-plock of the ping pong in Penang.



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