Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Suzhou: St Patrick's Day

My last day in China: it's an odd feeling. It rained during the night and the trees are dripping and the car park is wet and glossy, the air damp and chill.

The news this morning was the election of the Chinese premier and vice premiers. The news all week - or rather the non news - has been the riots in Tibet. These started out as a rumour someone said in Beijing. 'Have you heard about the riots in Tibet?'

Nothing more.

In Chengdu the only foreign news service was CNN, and it took me a day to realise that when the signal blanked out it was because it was a report from Tibet.

In Shanghai the censor was much more relaxed. And there was the BBC as well, covering the news in much more detail: namely rumours that a hundred have been killed by Chinese police/army. ('CNN is not covering this for fear of losing the Olympics' someone told me. )

In Suzhou there is no foreign news, just CCTV channel 9, which is the English language channel. They mention the Tibetan news, and the report is full of words like 'insurgance, seperatists, Dalai Lama clique'. 'Tibetan seperatists will be crushed' is a phrase that sticks in my memory as I go out to my talk with Brian Keenan. I'm a little hung over from St Patrick's Day the day before - but it is good to celebrate a good English saint, even though the Irish like to pretend he's there's. A great guy, by the way - Brian Keenan - and despite the fact I promised myself an early night I find myself at the bar chatting till midnight.

I was fourteen when he was kidnapped, and nineteen when he was released. 'Who's Brian Keenan?' my wife asks when I tell her - in fact most of the people can't really place the name. But I knew, and I read his book An Evil Cradling when I was in China: it's a great book, that goes beyond the experiences of a man who was a hostage, and says something profound about the world.

This blog was originally written March 18th, but this blog site is banned in China.


I spent yesterday afternoon on the roof terrace of M on the Bund, having lunch with Madelein Thien and marvelling at the sight across the river, which looks like Hong Kong Island, viewed from Kowloon.

Spent a very pleasant night last night, watching the last day of the six nations rugby, and England beating Ireland at last. And beating them in the line out. At last.

This blog was originally written March 16th, but this blog site is banned in China.


It struck me on the plane down here that I grew up in a medieval city, and that I find this scale of city comforting: which may be one reason why I so much prefer the hutong to the highway. I like tight and overhanging streets, full of people you can reach out and touch.


Chengdu is the only inland city I'm visiting on this tour, and not surprisingly I've been here more times than the other places put together: and I find these moments and 'me's crowding around me demanding to be heard, and remembered.

The first time was in 1994 when I came on a Shanxi Province Teachers Trip when we went to see some old dams and then took the Three Gorges. I came here in the summer of 1995, on a thousand mile trip from Lhasa to Golmud, to Xining, to Chengdu, to Kunming, where I was meeting my parents. I remember meeting my girlfriend then on a warm steamy night, just off the train. It was the last summer I saw my father. Two months after he left he killed himself in a cottage in the Lake District.

And I came here in the summer of 1998, drifting home from Hunan, with the seed of a novel in my head - the opening scene - where a factory closes, a man dies and it starts raining. And that seed grew like a weed, or a tall straight shaft of bamboo - into The Drink and Dream Teahouse. And I became a novelist. And I wrote a book I was really proud of.

This blog was originally written March 14th, but this blog site is banned in China.

Leaving Beijing

Thursday 13th March

There are moments when you wonder how you got here, like this. If ask myself this when I attend events and find myself standing talking or sitting on stage with famous writers.

I guess a large section of my personality is the budding writer, still trying to work out how to get published, so when I sat on a panel in Hong Kong with Colin Thubron a few days ago, it made me a little giddy. There have been more of these moments here in Beijing: bumbing into Arundati Roy and Hari Kunzru; being asked to moderate Brian Keenan (Justin - do you mind chatting with Brian on stage in Suzhou?) - Do i mind?! Hell no!

And then I interviewed bestselling Chinese author, Jiang Rong, about his book Wolf Totem. What do I know about China? I feel, but then I talk to other people, or read other books and it's only then that I realise that I know alot about China. And a lot more than other people who claim to know everything. No names mentioned. ;-)

It's also been nice to come back to Beijing and wander around the place with no destination other than lunch or tea. I don't like much of the new Beijing, but I've been taking lots of notes, and I see a lot of stories around me. I have just starting writing short stories, a form which has either alluded me or puzzled me before. I find it hard, I guess to start a story and then close the window on it without exploring the characters at novel length.

But I'm getting the hang of it now, I think: short stories are like little snapshots of a life or a moment, or in the words of Madelien Thien, when I asked her about her short stories, they're 'little universes all of their own'. This of course is the other great thing about lit fests - you get to hang out with other writers, and suddenly - after spending most of your life in an office, alone except for your imagination - you're not isolated. It must be how the puddle duck feels when suddenly the urge to migrate comes upon him and he seeks out all his fellow ducks and they gather in one vast flock to wing south - and I'm winging to Chengdu tomorrow.

This blog was originally written March 13th, but this blog site is banned in China.

Beijing Lit Fest

It is good to be back in Beijing. I guess I'm odd amongst ex pats who have lived in China, in that I've never lived in Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen - only passed through on the way inland. But of all those big cities, Beijing is the closest to me: it's where I first landed - on a Finn Air jumbo which, when taxiing towards the terminal we stopped abrunptly. It was a little odd, and I peered out of the window to see why, and saw that there was a crossroads at the airport, with traffic lights. Our light has turned red, and as I peered out, the opposing traffic - a lone bicycle - had right of way.

Anyay, that was January 1993, and now the new Beijing airport is open: the largest building in the world, and I doubt there are any bicycles allowed on the airport.

Still - it conveys a sense of how Beijing is changing. I never recognise the place, because most of the buildings - from the ancient hutongs to the dull Communist-era blocks of flats - have been demolished and been replaced with skyscrapers. The only bits I recognise are the streets around Tiananmen, which never really change. The city has undoubtedly deteriorated: it has switched from a city of the pedestrian and bicycle, to a city for cars, where pedestrians are like the little figures at the bottom of vast science fiction canvases, put in at the bottom to give the whole place a sense of scale.

And there's a lot of building going on: and vast holes everywhere. In fact, between my hotel, which was opposite Beijing Hooters, was a vast hole (see the size of the digger to get a sense of the size of the hole), being worked on by short tanned little migrant workers: peasants in effect, in hard hats and luminous jackets and I felt at home around them and their curious and amused looks because they come from places where I have lived, and they looked remarkably like the students I used to teach - who were short and dark little peasants.

But it is great to get off the ten lane highways and find the little streets that still exist behind the modern facades. Each time I go back to Beijing there are less and less of them, and little things or people I used to think would always be there have gone.

One of those is jianbing: a breakfast food that combines egg and crepe and a crispy biscuit thing - all smeared with plum sauce and chilli and coriander and spring onions. It's heaven, and there used to be guys all over the little streets making these: but now they're made - if at all - they are in the supermarkets. Which is not the same.

I knew a guy across Beijing, who I always used to go to and he would always remember me even though it was months between each visit. Sensing that street jianbing sellers are fading from Beijing, I got a taxi the next morning and told my wife that I would video 'our' jianbing man, before he disappeared. But when I went to where he worked he had already disappeared.

I managed to find another, and thanks to YouTube here is a jianbing:

And then I thought I should video what it was like to walk through a hutong, just for me to remember when these hutongs are also gone.

This blog was originally written March 9th, but this blog site is banned in China.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Hong Kong Lit Fest 2008 and a little more Gygax

I have a personal bond with the Hong Kong Literary Festival: I came here for the first time on my honeymoon in 2002. While most newly weds spend their time in bed, I have to admit that my wife spent a number of mornings alone in our room at the Mandarin Oriental: listening to me on the morning Radio Hong Kong talk show. But our week was spiced up with lunches and meals with literary greats (Hanif Kureshi and Amitav Ghosh amongst others) - and more parties and champagne receptions than is decent in one week.

So it was with a little thrill that I unpacked my author's pack for this year's festival: the two week membership of the Foreign Correspondant's Club, the name tag and info pack of when I should be where.

The festival started with the launch of 50/50 - an anthology of Hong Kong writers, and the next night followed up just as well with an exclusive Asian Literary Review party, while last night I was with the Hong Kong Geographical Society, to listen to the great travel writer, Colin Thubron, talk about his journey along the Silk Route from Xian to the ancient Antioch, on the Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, great writers often disappoint, but Mr Thubron was an excellent speaker, and spoke without looking at his notes for an hour, plucking facts and history and story in an almost breathless account. The audience questions were a little dull, with the dullest being one lady who was very concerned to know if Mr Thubron could use chopsticks - but overall a great event.

Meanwhile, to get back to the late Gary Gygax, here's a wonderful quote from him in 2005, which backs up my feeling that storytelling and role-playing are closely related.

"The story of the hero being called forth, usually unwillingly, and adventuring and undergoing a change has been with us probably since stories were told round campfires."

I like that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Magic of Gygax

The news is a fairly dreary procession of events and declarations, but once in a while you see or hear something that stops your little world spinning for a moment. In my inbox this morning was an email that Gary Gygax, co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons, had died.

I was always quite impressed with the name 'Gary Gygax'. While you wouldn't be frightened of a dragon called 'Gary', 'Gygax' seemed a suitably esoteric and strangely archaic sounding name. Tolkien might have called his Farmer Giles of Ham dragon 'Gygax', rather than 'Crysophylax' - or maybe they were related in some way, hatched in the same dragon brood - because dragons lay eggs don't you know. The name also looked neat, and it alliterated: but most of all - I saw that name on the front of my Dungeons and Dragons rulebook. And - in some kind of Pavlovian response - that name began to symbolise that sense of magic, adventure, the feeling of my little village life in York opening up - and me growing up into something more exciting than a schoolkid with a bicycle.

But oddly, I don't think I've seen that name on the front of any rulebook for twenty years. In fact, I only played Dungeons and Dragons for about four years, but it did lead me onto other roleplaying games, onto roleplaying weekends when we would camp out in the grounds of a friend's house (whose parents just happened to own a country house and a theatre production company and so all the cloaks and shields and plastic stage armour any young lad could wish for) - where we cooked over camp fires and sat up late into the night - and I remember, it was then that I stayed up all night for the first time, and the toe of my wellington boot melted. But Dungeons and Dragons inspired me. It filled my hours in a strangely obsessive way. I wrote stories about my character's adventures. I drew maps of their temples and castles. I wrote letters to my brother's characters, and he wrote them back, and we tip-toed along the corridor that connected our bedrooms, late (as it seemed then) into the night. It was an old farm house and we knew that corridor and it's squeaky floorboards like the backs of our hands.

My parents were a little worried, I remember, and they sat in the same room and discussed me - in the way that parents do - while I sat and drew a new castle for my characters. Was it healthy, they wondered. Could it do any harm? Was it Satanic? (At the time D&D was banned by the monks at Ampleforth school for encouraging devil worship). I also remember hearing there was going to be a radio 4 play on called Dungeons and Dragons - and I sat and listened to it and was a little insulted, as (so it seemed to me then) tried and utterly failed the capture - the magic of being 10 or 11, and carrying a sword instead of a walking stick, or school bag.

Now: I had a lot of issues with D&D, but most of them were because it wasn't realistic enough. How could my 22 hit points fighter still fight with the same degree of strength when he had 1 hit point left? Runequest gave me the answers. And when I had enough little lead figures, Warhammer turned up and so my double life as an army general began.

There is no Rod of Resurrection, but there is magic in the name Gary Gygax, and it still brings that thrill of adventure - and the sense of opening, from this world to another where more is possible. And when I think about the events that led me to write novels, there are two that stand out in my memory: when I was nine or ten, hearing one boy give his book report on The Hobbit, and thinking that I should read that; and the year later when the odd boy in the back of the class was going on about this new game, D&D. I remember I begged my mother to get a copy. My school included Saturday morning, and I remember rushing home that Saturday lunchtime, and running in to see my boxed set - with it's red dragon curling on a bed of treasure -and my mother telling me that the lady at the Precious of Petergate toy shop told her that they had sold out - and I ran to my room sulking fiercely.

But there on my bed, lay a plastic wrapped copy of basic D&D.

'They said it was the last copy, but I asked them to check and the lady found one in the back,' my mother rather smugly told me, when I came back downstairs beaming.

And so it all began.

The news today is all about Ian Paisley resigning; the UK Transport Minister's plans to shelve road charging schemes; and the specultation about whether Obama or Clinton will win in Ohio and Texas. I'm actually supposed to be at work, but wanted to stay at home and try and capture this moment. And in my world - the mailing lists I subscribe to, and the message boards I visit - the death of Gary Gygax is the only real news there is. All the men who were once boys, and who sat in the same rooms as I did, rolling dice and staring at the player's side of the Dungeon Master's Screen - and graduating from hack n slay to a more intelligent way of interacting with worlds and monsters you have never come across before.

Gygax is dead, but there is still magic in that name: just seeing it and thinking about it has brought back all these wonderful moments that shaped my youth. And when the world presses too heavy and close, and I stray upon his name again, I know that I will feel that same sense of opening and possibility, and adventure.