Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 17. Shanghai Express |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 17. Shanghai Express


In Shanghai we spent only two weeks, which wasn’t enough. But it was a start. An ancient Chinese curse runs: ‘May you live in interesting times.’ June 1989 proved to be more interesting than even the Chinese leaders had bargained for. In Beijing, Tiananmen Square filled up with protestors, often billed in the Western media as students. The same sort of people filled the Bund in Shanghai and it was clear that they weren’t all students. Everyone who could read and write was out on parade. Had we been a news crew, we could have filmed nothing else all day. But we had a carefully prepared movie to make, so we knocked off the sequences one by one. We went to the circus and watched incredible feats of skill until our senses were numbed. How many people in silk pyjamas can stand on the head of the person below? The number is astonishingly high, but not as astonishing as the shape of the head of the guy at the bottom. Either he had been born with a cranium like a foot locker or, more likely, he acquired it under pressure. A fixed smile went with his flat skull but he seemed happy to be interviewed, although he would probably have seemed equally happy if we had set fire to his toes. We went to the opera and watched men pretending to be women pulling faces while other people of various sexes and sizes turned midair sideways somersaults to the rhythm of garbage-tin lids being struck with sticks. Our numbed senses were benumbed all over again. A man behind me in the crowded theatre blew his nose onto the floor in the standard Chinese manner and I lifted my feet so that the river of snot could slide by unimpeded. The river of snot wasn’t all his: a couple of hundred guys had contributed to it. As I sat there with my knees around my ears, I reflected that the commentary for this programme would be no cinch. A whole society was being shaken to its foundations in the streets outside and here we were, stuck with this stuff. Even when the topic had a bit more heft, there was a limit to the extent we could explore it. A woman at the music school told me what it had been like to be included in a representative sample when the Gang of Four sent people of suspiciously elevated accomplishments (the policy was called Three Famous, Three High) off to the fields to have their hands ruined and their pride broken. (‘They would lecture us all the time. That was the worst part.’) But she wasn’t allowed to say that it was all Mao’s idea. Nobody was allowed to say that. We talked to a young man called Yi Bin who had managed to assemble a small collection of ancient ceramic fragments and who had published a paper about them. He kept all his collection at one end of his parents’ bedroom, on shelves around ‘my little bed’. The bedroom was divided by a thin curtain. The thin curtain looked heavier to me than any iron curtain I had ever heard of. Yes, I knew what I would say when I got home: but there was small prospect of saying any of it on the spot, or even of setting up a scene that might imply it. The spooks were watching, or else listening to someone who reported to them, perhaps the guy that drove your van. They didn’t have to watch or listen very closely because everyone else knew they were watching or listening. This was a society that was censoring itself. Except, of course, for the demonstrators.

Every night we were in Shanghai, the crowd on the Bund grew bigger. Since the whole mile-long sweep of road was already jam-packed the first time we saw it, growing bigger was a hard thing for the crowd to do, but somehow yet more people were always managing to fit themselves in between the people who were already shoulder to shoulder. Many of the banners were decorated with little bottles. Our interpreter — a nice girl who dressed up to the nines Western style, with an expensive pair of imported shoes — explained that the little bottles were a pun on the name of Deng Xiao Ping. My remaining hair stood on end when she told me that, and I told her to be careful what else she told me. But in her quiet way she was high on a sense of adventure like everybody else: whatever their age and walk of life, the people in the streets were ecstatic. Many of them thought our film camera was a news television camera and they struggled towards it to deliver their message, which was mainly about freedom. They thought I was a reporter. One of them thought I was Winston Churchill. Even if our footage was not impounded, it would be an age before it got to London, so there was no news value in any of it. Nevertheless I thought myself quite the ace. Some of my friends had a knack for getting into the historical action. (Saddam Hussein, when he dived into his last funk-hole, was lucky not to find Christopher Hitchens already down there holding a notebook.) This was my moment in the crucible of destiny. I was as high as a kite from Weifang in Shandong province, where the best kites come from.

Euphoria crashed when the manager of our hotel told us what would happen next. He was a Dutchman. Like everything else in the hotel except the service staff, he was imported. The hotel was the Shanghai Hilton. It was a modern building that had been dropped into the decaying city like a shining probe from space, complete with its own water-recycling system. Even the food was flown in from Hong Kong. (These were still the days when the last place you could safely eat a Chinese meal was China.) The standard of service in the hotel was fabulous. When I opened the door of my suite, there were always a couple of young ladies in black pyjamas crouched outside ready to rush in and change the flowers, the toilet rolls, the wallpaper. They called me, in their language, One Fat Important Man, and equipped me with a tiny cup of red wax and a jade seal (called a chop) on which the name was carved in Chinese characters. They also joined in the task, gladly shared by every local we met including senior members of the Communist Party, of teaching me quite a lot of the Mandarin dialect: a very pretty way of speaking Chinese, as opposed to the Cantonese dialect, which is impossible to mimic unless you have the vocal equipment of a dying dog. Today, if you’re asking, my Mandarin vocabulary has shrunk to the words for thank you, goodbye and One Fat Important Man, but for a while there, surrounded by these glowing sylphs as they corrected my grammar while rebuilding my room, I had visions of myself conversing fluently in their musical tongue. Alas, it never happened, but they behaved as if it was already happening. They were world-class flatterers, that bunch, and no doubt they went on to help organize the Olympics in 2008. But in 1989 all this Eastern-Western luxury was definitely a message from the far future. In the present, the manager told me, the demonstrations could end only one way. In Beijing, he said, Tiananmen Square would be cleared by force, and then everyone in Shanghai would go home. ‘There, they will kill a few people. Maybe not here.’ I was reluctant to believe that there would be a crack-down. But then the eerily lacklustre Li Peng appeared on television and started to speak. An hour later he was still speaking, even though he hadn’t said anything except that the counter-revolutionaries, if they did not disperse, would be suppressed by force. Next day, in Tiananmen Square, they were, and everyone in Shanghai did indeed go home. The Bund emptied in a matter of minutes.

We went home too, on the last plane before Shanghai airport closed. At the time, I would have said that nothing could ever break the monolithic grip of the Chinese Communist Party, and in fact, even now, nothing yet has. But the Shanghai Hilton had already started to change the country. It just never occurred to me that the hotel we were staying in was the real story. Blind to the implications, I felt that our only course was to make the best possible movie out of what we had, and I was all too conscious of the subjects we had been unable to explore, for fear of getting innocent people into trouble. We had met a wonderful young woman who ran a small theatre company. I can’t be more specific than that even now, just in case some sharp security officer gets the urge to track her down and re-educate her. (If you think it unlikely that someone could be punished for what they might have said out of turn twenty years ago, you have a very rosy view of how a police state works: the spooks are never off the case, and they have nothing else to do.) When I was safely back in England I got a letter from her saying that she was in despair for her country and wanted to leave. I was all set to send her a reply and an air ticket when a Chinese refugee I knew said: don’t. ‘They’ might conceivably have not read her letter on its way out, but they would certainly read any reply on its way in. I managed some direct help for exactly one person out of a billion. Our amateur archaeologist Yi Bin got a scholarship to London and he defected when he arrived. My family made a friend of him and I wrote the occasional reference. In return he gave me a set of Chinese classical poetry anthologies which are still on my shelves, closed books that I will never now learn to read.

And that was it. Apart, of course, from the movie, which turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. There was plenty of comedy as One Fat Important Man rode around on his bicycle, its tyres dutifully bursting when the scene required. And there was the resolutely cheerful yet infinitely sad face of the music teacher, back from such a living hell under the Gang of Four that she thought the China of 1989 a miracle of liberalism. Beyond help, beyond hope, her tired eyes were a reminder that pity was useless: and she would have been the first to say that she was the lucky one, when so many of her friends had died of heartbreak, pounded into despair by Madame Mao’s insane vision of the future of mankind. And behind Madame Mao had been the old man himself, now long dead but still preserved in his full corporeal splendour inside the mausoleum that occupies the centre of the same square where that lone student faced down a tank, immortalizing himself in a stretch of footage which has since been screened a million times everywhere in the world except China. The significance of that last fact didn’t become fully evident until somebody invented the World Wide Web. The Chinese leaders had kept the pictures out because they were scared of the possible effect. It followed that if the day arrived when they could not keep the pictures out, they would have to modify their behaviour. They still do everything they can, however, to slow the pictures down: the Web routes into China are more closely guarded than the Great Wall ever was. As of this writing, the Great Helmsman’s shining corpse is still the touchstone of authority for each new batch of gerontocrats preaching modernization. Until they melt that waxwork down for candles, you can’t trust them for a thing.

Being a good Samaritan is a calling for some, and truly they shall see God; but I have always been too selfish with my time. There are occasions, though, when keeping yourself to yourself will shrink the space that you are trying to protect. As the weekly show’s satellite interview slot became more flexible, we got into Russia, where the system, agitated by the benign example of Gorbachev, was breaking up with increasing speed. A stocky young journalist called Vitaly Vitaliev became our regular correspondent from Moscow, and quickly earned the love of the British and Australian public. Vitaly’s English was pretty good but it never modified the inexhaustibly abundant personality that so many Russians bring to the task of celebrating victory in war, or the birth of a new baby, or just a new day. He always looked and sounded as if he drank vodka for water. He could throw an arm around you from three time zones away. From a clapped-out Moscow TV studio still decorated to match Stalin’s personal warmth, Vitaly grunted, chortled and gurgled the story of what was really going on. It was better than anything on the news. After the Chernobyl disaster he walked into the area without a protective suit and still came out glowing with energy, although by rights he should have been glowing with radioactivity and lying on a stretcher. It seemed remarkable how much he was able to say, but it soon turned out that the new freedom of speech under glasnost had its limits. The KGB was phoning him in the night, and in their fine old style they reserved their most obscene threatening calls for his wife and little son. Vitaly was hard to scare, but anyone can be scared by a threat to his family, and the day arrived when he felt it prudent to do a runner. When he came to us in Cambridge on the weekends he was a huge hit with both our daughters. He made ‘avuncular’ sound like a Russian word, but then, he did the same for every word in the English language. His accent was so catching that even I caught myself wishing him Myerry Chryistmas. Like the refugee dissidents of the old regime, however, those who fled the new one were bound to encounter employment problems. For a while Vitaly was in demand by the BBC and the upmarket press for his opinions on the new dispensation in Russia, but it soon emerged that his opinions did not suit. Nobody knew what he was on about when he said the next big thing in his homeland would be gangsterism, not democracy. He would be proved dead right in the course of time, but for now he was thought to be a bit of a crank, and he soon decided that his chances might be better in Australia. At this point my celebrity status came in handy for once, because I was able to get him fast-tracked through the immigration process. My recommendation read like science fiction but it was all true. Off he went to the future, from which we were later saddened to hear that he had started another family along with another life. It often happens that way: when the pressure that a couple faced together relaxes, it turns out that they were never quite as together as they thought.

Since the majority of divorces are instigated by wives rather than husbands, a man with feminist sympathies — I count myself as one such, despite my Neanderthal instincts — is bound to take a liberal view of the subject, and try to believe that the liberating effects often outweigh the destructive ones. By that time, a lot of the people I had known when I was young were moving into their second marriage, leaving the first in ruins. From a philosopher’s viewpoint, this could only be a welcome development in the propagation of human rights. But I couldn’t help noticing that my own children cared little for a philosopher’s opinion. What they wanted was reassurance from their father that they were living in a proper house and not a bouncy castle. Divorce was getting so fashionable that it wasn’t a surprise even when Charles and Diana showed public signs that all was not well. Young people couldn’t be blamed for wondering if their parents might not catch the fashion too. I did my best to sound like a man who would always come home no matter what, but it’s not an idea that can be very convincingly projected from a distance, and all too often I was away. Being away when I had to be away was perhaps forgivable, but being away when I didn’t have to felt like treason even to me. I had become so caught up with learning to read Japanese, however, that I would stop off in Tokyo even if I was flying home from Valparaiso. In a Jin Bo Cho coffee shop I would sit down with my latest batch of second-hand books about the Pacific war and transcribe characters until my eyes bled. Why was it so hard, and how would I ever get anywhere unless I gave it everything?

Somewhere about then, I was having my portrait painted by a prodigiously gifted young artist called Sarah Raphael, daughter of the writer Frederic Raphael, who was of an age with me, which meant that Sarah was not all that much older than my elder daughter. I had seen Sarah’s first exhibition and written a piece in which I said that for her to be called Sarah Raphael didn’t quite meet the case: she ought to be called Sarah L. da Vinci. She liked the joke and offered to paint my portrait as a reward. After a long taxi ride I arrived at her far-flung studio to discover that she was good-looking far beyond the job description. She had all the intelligence and wit of her famous father, but they were contained, if he will forgive me, in a more disarming package. Married, with a couple of children of her own, she was pushed for time if she was going to get any work done, but I soon learned to value every visit. I hoped the portrait would take forever, like Penelope’s tapestry or the tale-telling of Scheherazade. My admiration was apparent but she sweetly put up with it. She’d had plenty of practice. Quite apart from her suitably handsome young husband, her admirers were countless: William Boyd, Terry Jones, Tom Conti, Daniel Day-Lewis, the list went on and on, all of them helplessly, hopelessly doting on her beauty and genius. That last word was, for once, not excessive. Clearly she was going to be a great painter. She was well aware of this — the great always know they are, because they are never unaware that their gift comes from heaven — but she could be charmingly apprehensive about the burden of her duty. ‘You really think I’m quite good, don’t you?’ I did indeed, but I loved her for the question.

Stewing in the turmoil of a Platonic vision was made easier by the fact that my family loved her too. My wife owns more pictures by Sarah than I do, including the portrait of me, which I have to ask permission to look at. When, a few years later, my elder daughter, after taking a Ph.D. in molecular biology, turned from science to painting, she made it clear that Sarah’s towering example was one of the reasons. Sarah brought out the best in everyone who knew her. Her father and I had been literary enemies before I met her — the quarrel had been my fault, not his — but when I became a proponent of her work he forgave me my sins. For me, apart from the intoxication of her delightful company, the example of her dedication to her art was a constant lesson in how to focus every tension of your life into a single task and make something of it. She suffered terribly from migraines but she found a way of working even through the pain. When one of her daughters needed eye surgery she would put down her brush, take the patient off to hospital for a harrowing day and pick up the brush again when she got back. She valued everything that happened to her because eventually it would go into her work. Time had improved me anyway: when I was at home, I was of more use around the house. But Sarah’s example made me happier about pulling at least part of my weight in a domestic context when there was no camera present to watch me doing so. When my younger daughter and I set off every Saturday morning to do the weekend shopping — a ritual expedition that we still pursue today — I felt blessed, and doubly blessed because it gave my wife a vital extra hour at the computer to nail some crucial point in Dante’s Monarchia. No wonder she and Sarah adored each other: they were of the same stamp.

Playing the stalwart might have been easier if I had always been on the spot, but even if my temperament had allowed that, my trade seldom did. From that angle, a new format called the End of the Year Show had the merit of pinning me to the ground for the three months it took to write. The weekly show had always been a taxing job to script, to such an extent that a professional had finally been brought in to help me. His name was Colin Bostock-Smith and he was an inspired appointment on Richard’s part, because he wasn’t only a fountain of skilled gags, he had a practical sense that kept me to schedule. An awareness of timing, in the show-business sense of putting words in the right order, and an awareness of time, in the horological sense of little hands advancing around the clock’s face, are two things that very rarely go together in the one personality. Bostock, as I immediately took to calling him, could do both. In addition, he was hilarious company, and we both looked forward so much to being locked away together in my inner office that some of the women in the outer office started to wonder if we weren’t getting our rocks off in there — the snorts and giggles sounded like a bath-house bacchanal. I never met a man who entertained me more. More important, what we wrote together entertained the public. I still took the responsibility for the script. My power of veto was unquestioned, and if something unsuitable had threatened to get into the script I had the authority to keep it out. But it was an authority I never needed to use because Bostock’s taste was impeccable, like his ear: working together, we created a complete grammar for putting words to images that is still, today, in such wide use throughout the industry that it is taken for granted, and although modesty dictates that I should disclaim my share in its invention, duty demands that I credit Bostock with his painstaking ingenuity. It was meticulous work, but in short order we were motoring at such a rate that Richard started wondering whether we might not need a bigger format to soak up all the scintillation. Hence the idea for an annual round-up was born. The show would be broadcast on New Year’s Eve, ending as Big Ben struck twelve. It would be built around all the news footage that we could rake in and suitably misrepresent. Computers could already do a lot but they couldn’t yet sort images. If you wanted to choose the right (i.e. wrong) moments from the recent history of Ronald Reagan, you had to collect miles of footage and look at it in real time. Elementary calculation revealed that it would take at least nine months to process the footage and the actual writing would have to start in September. Entrusted with the mission of framing every prominent villain, buffoon or misguided celebrity, a whole team of ferrets was assigned to tracking down the last potentially usable frame of such natural stars as our old friend Yasmin Arafat. That mission, though huge, had a clear aim. Another aim was less clear, but potentially just as rewarding. If Bostock and I could build a sufficiently portentous context, a perfectly banal statement from one of our gallery of the questionably famous could yield rich results. We wrote a test link about the ending of the Cold War, speculated as to the identity of the single historical voice that had brought this desirable termination about, and followed up the paragraph with some footage of the deeply beige Australian pop star Jason Donovan declaring that there would be less war if people stopped hating each other. The results were uncanny. But the idea was very hard to research, because the ferrets would have to see, in an incongruous historical context, the possible resonance of statements that otherwise meant next to nothing. Statements or actions: any footage of Ronald Reagan walking through a doorway, or just picking up a glass of water, might be the start of something: so fill out the forms and get hold of it. We expected such prodigies of endeavour from the researchers that it was sometimes easy to forget they were a bunch of kids. Their den-mother, who I shall call Jean Twoshoes for purposes of respect, was a whiz at digging stuff up and getting the permissions, but she had a tendency to witter on. Richard made a gag out of looking at his watch while she wittered, and it made her witter worse. But she could do the business and I loved her for it. An excess of zeal is exactly what you want from a researcher: too great a sense of proportion and they come up short.

Months before it went to air, the first New Year show felt right, and I even got home on the weekends, radiating the contentment of a balanced life. Or I would have done, except there was always a new Postcard to be prepared for early the year after. It had been noticed that my lack of ability to drive a car could sometimes be a limitation when we were filming me getting about in a foreign capital. Riding on the subway system looked OK in Tokyo or Paris — in either city, only an idiot drives — but it would be a problem if we ever went to Los Angeles, which obviously we would one day have to do. How to find time to have driving lessons was the question. I had always had a theoretical interest in cars — provided I don’t have to fix it, there is almost no form of technology that doesn’t fascinate me, garbage-disposal units included — but for some reason I had never learned to drive. Probably the reason was a sound professional instinct: a writer might possibly read at the wheel, but if he did much writing at the wheel there would be a crash. From the practical viewpoint of filming, however, the inability to drive was a severe handicap. How to eliminate it?