“I suppose you could say I have lived my life something like a line from Kipling, ‘Walk with kings nor lose the common touch.’ I’ve tried never to look down on people, and then again, I’ve tried not to look up much, either. At one point in time my two best friends were a crown prince and a tradesman; that’s the way it’s always been in my life. I’ve lived rich and poor, I’ve lived with the rich and the poor.” Tony Buxton told me over a dish of pork noodles.
Driving along a sinuous country road pockmarked with potholes and road kill I thought about the man I was about to interview: Tony Buxton, so I had heard, an ex Tarzan of the jungle, intrepid explorer, shark wrestler and husband to starlets. It has to be said that I was a tad nervous at the prospect of having to interview, then condense what I had heard was an intriguing seventy old man’s life into a brief couple of pages.
His vast farm was literally in the middle of nowhere and when I finally managed to park the borrowed car I was driving, I stepped into the grassy driveway and a long dark green snake flew at me. Luckily it flew past my flapping trouser leg into the shrubberies. It would have been ironic had I gotten bitten by a tiny snake on Tony’s property, considering his previous vocations. The snake’s lousy aim ensured that I would not get to see if Tony still had the ability in older age to swing through trees screaming, clutching vines, then scoop my snake bitten body off the farm floor. The farm was so quiet that you could hear cows snapping twigs with their feet a hundred yards away and when I finally managed to locate the right door the silence continued, even after a few tentative knocks. Finally after shouting Tony’s name a few times, he emerged. “Excuse me,” he said,
in an inscrutable English accent; I thought you’d be coming later. I’m just taking down a few notes for you, go on inside while I put my hearing aid in.” He soon returned with a beer in hand and informed me of how years of diving had not been kind to his ears.
he placed my beer on the table, I noticed that his hands were double the size of mine, his gait, though slightly bent, was bulky and it was easy to see that he had once been a very muscular and strong man. We first talked about his childhood in England. “The war and pre war years were a terrible time to be young in England. I was evacuated from Dover to Bristol. I hated everything; I remember vividly the rationing and how little food we had back then. I couldn’t stand school, the only thing I excelled at was languages, and my early hobby was learning languages. I can speak four languages fluently and another six quite well. When I think about it, it’s knowing these other languages that has really gotten me such a great life.” Tony, the polyglot and recalcitrant student, then sat back and started what was to be a conversation that would take usthrough the morning and afternoon, (he wasn’t keen on my taking notes, which is just as well as I would have easily filled two notebooks). “Well, being fluent in French had its advantages. I told my father at seventeen that I had had enough of school and wanted to travel. He let me go and so I started a journey travelling around Europe. I was actually born in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) where my family had a business, but it wasn’t until many years later that I would return there. Europe, for the most part, was amazing, although,” now he smiled at me knowing I was brought up in Leeds and Bradford, “my time selling lady’s underwear in Bradford had to be one of the lowest points in my life.” I agreed that it certainly was ‘grim up north’ and selling lady’s underwear can’t have helped matters. He went on to tell me how he had worked in France for the tourism authority and how he had fallen in love with scores of Swedish girls on holiday there. It was also at this juncture that he let me privy to a questionable litter of romances, liaisons and marriages.
“I married three times in three years, two models and one beautiful Italian actress. I learned a valuable lesson from those years — that beauty is not everything and definitely can’t sustain a relationship.” How he had managed to wed three stunningly beautiful rich women was one of many sub plots to the narrative of his great big life adventure. Tony returned to the family business in Sri Lanka after his jaunt around Europe and quickly realised that office work was not for him; so picking up a spear he jumped into the tropical waters and that is where his diving career started. “ The locals would stand on in amazement watching this white man diving into the waters and coming back with big fish. It wasn’t long before I became quite well known. I exported all kinds of tropical fish; one of my customers was Jacques Cousteau who gave me a contract to supply the aquarium in Monaco. After some time Jacques invited me to Monaco and he also gave me his first underwater camera, ‘The Calypso’. That year I was appointed to the Ceylon Government Tourist Board, organising underwater andjungle safaris. These were quite popular with the rich and famous, and well, you might say I met a lot of beautiful women.”
It was in Ceylon that Tony rubbed shoulders with celebrities, and with invites to parties all over Europe he managed to meet, date, wed and divorce threewomen, one of whom was a famousishItalian actress called Claudia de Rossi. Although once these seraphic beauties got ataste of beach life they were somewhat putoff by the lack of luxury and modest living arrangements. “None of them could stand that life, what they expected of me was totally different from what they got. I was a beachcomber living on nothing, or at least very little. Life on a beach in the tropics didn’t really agree with super models and actresses; needless to say the relationships didn’t last long.” Whilst in Ceylon Tony also became friends with the great sci-fi author Arthur c Clarke, who, having sent a letter to the tourist board asking about diving, received a reply from Tony, who helped him to locate good diving spots in Ceylon. Eventually, the author moved to Ceylon, where he was accompanied by Tony on countless dives. Arthur c Clarke proceeded to write three books on the subject. “We became very good friends until I left Ceylon, and we’ve always kept in touch. He sent me an email the other day; he told me he receives 60,000 emails a day and employs three staff to read all of them. He invented the satellite system but he didn’t patent it. If he had patented it he would be one of the richest men in the world. He told me it was the only thing he regretted in his life.” It was also in Ceylon that Tony met Lex Barker, who was at that time ‘Tarzan of the Jungle’. “I looked like Lex and I had become quite well known in Ceylon so they asked me to be Tarzan’s stand in. He was actually once engaged to my second wife, too . . . You have to understand,” Tony tells me, not quite lamenting the past but rather looking back with fond appreciation of his bad decisions, “I was completely out of my depth, the parties, the women, the fast cars. I was a skin diver and I suppose that had a certain amount of appeal, but I wasn’t one of the celebrities I was friends with.”
He left Ceylon in 1962 and came to Thailand where he started the Thailand Sub-Aqua Club, teaching people how to snorkel and taking them on trips, where the waters in those days were a kaleidoscopic haven teeming with fish. “I later worked on a movie that turned disastrous and left me shipwrecked in Singapore, where I would start my underwater salvage and ship cleaning company. These companies would become very successful. You see no one was doing that at the time, mine was the first company of that kind and everyone wanted my help. It wasn’t long before I was using teams of divers; making so much money I didn’t really know how to spend it. With cash to waste I decided to start playing polo – bought some good ponies, which is extremely important, and started playing at the Singapore polo club.” It was whilst playing in Singapore that the Sultan of Johore in Malaysia invited Tony to play polo for the royal team. “When I arrived in Malaysia I actually thought that I’d be staying in one of the small bungalows for the staff, he actually gave me a palace to live in travelling the forty-five minutes to Singapore a few times a week I managed to keep my business and practice my polo.”
“It was after a particularly bad game that the Sultan told me that I should get married. His son, the Raja Muda of Johore who later became the King of Malaysia said, ‘What about that nice Thai girl that you have seen a couple of times?’ You see, the Sultan thought I was playing badly because I had been dating too many women. I had been seeing a Thai girl who had been over to Johore teaching. The next day we were married. I wasn’t really in a position to refuse a royal command and she accepted. We were married in the palace, and that same Thai girl is my wife today. Thirty-three years we’ve been together!” Whilst Tony was reminiscing on his romantic past, his wife was in the kitchen making ussomething to eat. Exotic stories of sultans, actresses, Tarzans and sweet Thai women became all the more real and inspiring when the cast was in the kitchen chopping vegetables.
“My wife always wanted to return to Thailand, and we did take quite a few trips over here. In 1978 I started making moves to settle in Thailand when I was offered the job of a lifetime.” The Shell Company asked Tony to clean their off shore rigs in Brunei. An enormous job that would have taken 10 years to complete with a large team of divers.
The rigs were becoming dilapidated and rusty, and if they collapsed it would have amounted to masses of oil being spilled into the ocean causing astronomical insurance claims. Tony reckoned that the cost of the whole venture would be about a billion dollars, involve three separate companies and leave him with about 20 million after the decade of cleaning. His choice was either life in the then bucolic Chiang Mai, or years of sobriety and stoical subterranean scrubbing in Brunei.
“I believed I could do it, but all the hard work put me off. I have never really worked that hard, at least not on work I didn’t enjoy. My wife pointed out to me that in ten years I would be nearly 60 years old and I already had enough money to live happily in Chiang Mai. I was never quite sure what to do and when I met with an executive from Holland concerning the job, it showed. He asked me if I wanted the contract and I replied, “I suppose so” in a not so enthusiastic tone. The next day I was told that the job was probably too big for me. I came to Chiang Mai with my wife and have never looked back.”
The prince became a king and still keeps in touch with Tony although he did say that it became difficult after his ascension to the throne. “He used to get his horse to bite my backside when we were playing polo together; things have changed since then. Now I have to wait in line to see him.” Tony also told me that his fortune has dwindled, him and his wife Eed having lost property to dishonest partners and crooks. “I have had money and I have lost it, now I only have a little. Funnily enough the happiest I have been is when I have lived with nothing.”
“I free dived with Jacques Dumas, a colleague of Jacques Cousteau, going down to about 60 feet. We saw tiger sharks and large tuna, almost so close that we could touch them. This is something scuba divers will never see. The government should make one park in Thailand for snorkelling only, no fishing. The fish would come back again.” Apparently it’s the bubbles that scare the fish when using breathing apparatus. Sitting across from this Jack-of-all-trades and man-of-many-an-hour, having listened to a marathon of marvels, I tried to imagine him skin diving as a young lad, partying with models in Monaco and taking snaps of colourful fish with Arthur c Clarke. It’s just as hard to see the boy in the man as it is to see the man in the boy;and you don’t know whether, when confronted by such an amazing life, to feel sympathetic for such glorious times ended and memories faded, or to congratulate someone for having succeeded inunconventionally beating the stink of impoverished normality and sucking out of life every last drop of happiness. A life lived to the full I think, a life full of nuance and irony, sub plots and narrativeshifts.
“At sixty I went to Nepal trekking in the Annapurnas. At that age it wasn’t easy, in fact a friend of mine became very ill whilst on the trip. But I knew I could do it and I did.” We ended our chat on his trip to the Himalayas and walked around the farm, Tony illustrating the structural changes since he had bought it all those years ago. “Must be strange,” I murmured to him, “having all those memories.”
As I backed the car out of the farm it got stuck in a ditch, rendered stationary by a small hole. I glanced back to see Tony looking at me disappointedly, as if to say ‘just pick the bloody thing up and carry it down the driveway’. After such a masculine meditation on life I felt disablingly puny.