A good & righteous man

“O dark dark dark, they all go into the dark, the vacant interstellar places, the vacant into the vacant.”

I see from the news that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX of the remarkable Chakri dynasty, has died after seventy years’ reign in Thailand. He had been key fixture of the national life, on the throne since long before most of his subjects were born; beloved, indeed revered. He was already generally acknowledged as, “King Bhumibol the Great.” So fine a monarch, so admired a man, so long-lived — his image on all coins and stamps, his portrait hanging everywhere (including private houses), the royal anthem sung at all public events — leaves a terrifying void.

He came to the throne in 1946, at a trying time in the national life, and departs having been the indispensable guarantor of unity in a society ever more ravaged by the overbearing demands of our cheap globalism. He stood above faction, and could command a loyalty different in kind from that of any self-seeking politician. (Several times he knocked the politicians’ heads together.) He was a living symbol of continuity between past and future, and a bond between the heavens and the earth, as almost any Thai could tell you. He was noble: a reminder that in some high place — somewhere, detached from the omnipresent bureaucracy — was a man of paternal kindliness, a good and righteous soul. This was how things were, and the cynicism towards “authority figures” that afflicts all moderns could, in Thailand, never reach the top.

To his adulators, King Bhumibol explained that he was a man, capable of making mistakes, and no “god.” He asked them not to insult him by suggesting that he wasn’t human. A man can only be a man; yet he may be a good and righteous man.

The outcry of grief, heard throughout his country at his passing, is to my knowledge utterly sincere. It is for no superstar or starlet, but for a power and benevolence that reached down, and touched the soft earth of old Siam. Every family in Thailand has lost the equivalent of a grandfather in him.

At the age of eighteen, by his elder brother’s sudden death, he came into an office that he never sought, nor practically could have expected. Now his son comes to it at the age of sixty-four, after a life not entirely edifying. My Christian prayers are with the Buddhist prayers, that King Vajiralongkorn will rise to the example of his father, and understand as his father did that his task is to serve, in a cause far more exalted than his own pleasure or convenience. The very safety of his people now depends on him.

For there is a profound constitutional wisdom in these words:

“The King is dead, long live the King!”


My own connexions with Thailand go back to childhood. Self-indulgently I link (here) a version of the Thai Royal Anthem, arranged and directed by Somtow Sucharitkul, my old school chum from Bangkok Patana, when we were eleven and twelve years old. (We used to write Greek tragedies together.) It is typical of “Cookie,” as I then knew him — that skinny child who is now that high-born, fat old man in Siamese royal yellow — that he ignores his orchestra and turns to conduct his audience instead. A half-century passes, but he is just the same.

To the passing of His Majesty the King, I think Somtow would have reacted in just the way I did: with tears, and that final, senseless, bravura, “Chayo!”