Friday, 3 July 2009

CHIN,CHIN! CHINAMAN......................

The fact that China is about to take over the world worries me not a jot. Not because I will have shuffled off this mortal uncoiling before it happens. I have been besotted with Chinese culture for as long as I can remember.
I love Chinese food, which tastes good and has such lovely names. I have a small collection of Chinese objets d'art and a large collection of Chinese literature. I have just finished a Japanese garden with a koi pond and shrubs so costly I dare not publish them. I am slowly gathering to my bosom a Bonsai Forest. I admire and endeavour to understand Zen: I prefer it to Confucionism which is a sort of socialism with chopsticks.
The result, I thought, of reading in early youth three books: “The Importance of Living” by Lin Yutang, a collection of Chinese poetry made by Arthur Whalley and the works of Leonard Cottrell which brought a number of ancient cultures to life.
Dr Lin is the Eastern equivalent of the incomparable Western essayist Robert Lynd. He was a refugee from China, living in America, who wrote books about the ancient culture which was being crushed in his own country, something the present rulers had learned from the first Emperor, Cottrell's 'Tiger of Ch'in' who burned every book in the land.
“Living” is an anthology of ancient masters. Its chapters include “The Feast of Life”, “The Importance of Loafing”, “The Enjoyment of the Home”, “The Enjoyment of Living” and the “Enjoyment of Culture”, with sub-headings on lying in bed, growing old gracefully, wine and food, games and the inhumanity of Western dress.
It has a serious purpose. Dr Lin explains: “The Chinese philosopher is one who dreams with one eye open, who views life with love and irony, who mixes his cynicism with a kindly tolerance.”
I warm to Chinese poets more readily than I do the pallid 'greenery yallery' poets of the West. Frankly, if were sitting on a bus and Shelley or Browning or Keats got on, I would get off at the next stop.
Modern poets? R.S. Thomas, as disagreeable a man as any I have ever met, once said to me that modern poets were no more than gifted copy writers, about the only thing he said outside his magnificent poetry I didn't quarrel with. He was a man who could not express himself in prose.
I will never forgive Dylan Thomas for getting drunks such a bad name and I have spilt more ale down my shirt than he supped.
The Chinese took wine with infinitely more grace. Su Tung Po, the recluse of the Eastern hillside, Dr Lin's 'Gay Genius' (using both words in their original sense), is my favourite drunk of all time. A civil servant constantly in trouble with his bosses, he wrote a poem “Pine Wine in the Middle Mountain”:
“How much have I drunk today? Ah, I feel I can escape now from the fetters of mortality. I soar over running deer in the mountain peaks and join the leaping monkeys on the overhanging cliffs. Thence do I plunge into the billowing clouds of a vast ocean - Heaven in tumult.”
Those books were seminal, yet they were not the reason. Somewhere among the sad slab of prose about the death of Jackson was the proposition that if you want to know why Christ was betrayed you should look at the childhood of Judas.
In a shop last week I saw a tiny pottery model of a Mandarin fishing, and I remembered my mother's bowl. Pottery and filled with sand. A lake was represented by a mirror, by which just such a mandarin sat, perennially fishing. There was a porcelain pagoda, bushes made of loofah, a wooden bridge over the mirror and a tea house with tiny geishas. I thought it was the most marvellous object in the world. In those days you could buy the components from Woolies and they were all the rage on our council estate. At No 5 the Chinese micro world was in a constant state of flux as lake, geisha, mandarin and tea house suffered endless regeneration at my hands.
On that little bowl, which must have cost all of half a crown, I have built my intellectual life. I wonder what Tao Te Ching would make of that.
Height-wise, there is not a lot of my Chinese friend Josie Fung. She could pole vault with a chopstick. But, as Lloyd George pointed out, we measure people from the neck up.
On that basis, Josie was a giant. She ran three restaurants, lectured on oriental cuisine, and, as liaison officer for a Sixth Form college, she toured China and Hong Kong recruiting oriental students. Yet she still found time to commute between her sister in Hong Kong and her daughter at university in the States. And went into business as a champagne importer. A Chinese champagne importer, would you believe?
I have long complained that Chinese food, which I love, kills the taste of most wines known to man. Purely academic to on-the-wagon me but selflessness is my watchword.
I did not expect my little Chinese cracker to come up with an answer to bring universal pleasure to punters both on and off the wagon. Non-alcoholic Chinese champagne, which not only lifts the heart (its prime ingredient is ginseng) but also fills the mouth with springtime. Stand on me. If they could bottle a bouquet of your favourite flowers, it would taste like this delicious brew.
Ginseng shares with the grape a very impressive power of spirit elevation. It would make the Merry Widow even merrier.
For some inscrutable oriental reason, this ambrosia is called Happi Camper. A wine of such quality deserves poetry. Ambrosia? Printemps, perhaps? Merry Widow, even?
Josie, as I say, is not tall - around five feet in fact, four feet, nine inches of which is heart. On her last visit to the States she saw a statuette of the Chinese god of Wealth and Health, who, with the dwarf Boboli in the eponymous Gardens in Florence, is a rare representation in art of a spinnaker belly bigger than mine. This particular statue is about a foot high, and heavy. So I was greatly touched that she lugged it across the Atlantic to the UK, where she presented it to me. It stands at the rim of my Koi pool, a constant reminder of a happy friendship.
THE UNKINDEST CUTTING...................
In 1972, the Sunday Express carried a story about a wedding that went wrong. The vicar had objected when a bagpiper marched down the aisle playing Amazing Grace, drowning the organist who was playing the theme music from Dr Zhivago, at the bride’s request. The organist responded by playing louder. It was not this the vicar objected to but that one of the guests was filming the bagpiper.
The cutting continues: “The bride’s father - a former paratrooper - intervened to say ‘if the Queen can have her wedding filmed, so can my daughter. The bagpiper is a relative. This do cost me a tenner and I have thrown it away.’ So saying, he challenged the vicar to a fight.”
It was from the Daily Telegraph that I culled this tale of a young soldier obviously destined for High Command.
“Henry ......, aged 17, set out a week ago from his home near Rhayader (Powys) taking the first train ride of his life to the Army Centre at Sutton Coldfield near Birmingham.
“He arrived at Birmingham and then got lost. On Saturday, after four police forces had been alerted, he was found walking along a road near Wimbourne in Staffordshire. He told a policeman he was trying to find the Army Centre.
“Henry’s mother said: ‘He could not find the right train from Birmingham. After a while he gave up and decided to get back home and start all over again.'
“But it took him three days to get out of Birmingham. Even when he was found, Henry was walking in the wrong direction.
“Accompanied by relatives he will report to the Centre today. He is hoping to start a career in the Army’s administration service.”
Another newspaper reported:
“Zimbabwe’s Minister of Finance Bernard Chidzero upset a number of Harare luminaries when he failed to turn up after agreeing to be the guest of honour at a business luncheon. When the organiser phoned his office for an explanation the Minister’s secretary told her: ‘He was not hungry.’”
And finally in the paper last week:
“Swansea artist Sue Williams has been given a lottery grant to study women's bottoms.”
It reminded me of the column I wrote in 1984 mocking the Welsh Arts Council Sculpture committee attending a luncheon dished up on a service created by sculptor Beryl Cheame from mouldings of her body. “My breasts did for soup bowls and my tummy for plates,” she said. “Later I added a casserole made from a cast of my buttocks.............................”
The ultimate anal retention?