An English Boy At The London Book Fair

David just sent along a blog post – a retelling of an… interesting… experience at the London Book Fair. It’s a good read. Thanks David!

Full text continues after the break…


An English Boy at the London Book Fair

A blog – Saturday 21st April 2012

Wednesday (the 18th) was the third and final day of the London Book Fair, held, as usual, at Earls Court. It’s a massive venue and, with all the stands and all the people milling around, does much to convince an author that they’re the smallest and least important cog in this great machine we call publishing.

Now, I’m not a regular attendee of these gatherings. Someone has commented that taking an author to the Book Fair is rather like taking a cow along to view the abattoir, but that aside, I was there this year – paying my £45 fee – because the guest of honour for this year’s Fair was China.
And, you see, I have this little series of books with the totally unique idea that China is going to rule the future of this planet, and I thought maybe I could meet up with a few publishers and get some interest. I mean, it would be really neat to have a Chinese edition of Chung Kuo, though what the hell they’d call it I’m none too sure.

So anyway… I went along on Tuesday , late afternoon, to get my ticket, and as there was an hour before the thing closed, thought I’d have a brief wander around to orientate myself for the next day. Passing through the huge hall that’s Earls Court One, I was impressed – as I’ve been before – by the sheer scale of the event. It’s huge. And when I finally found the Chinese section of the Fair, bang in the centre of Earls Court 2, I was impressed by its presence. It was like someone had set a huge bright red pavilion in the midst of everything, from which vantage point the CPC (the Chinese Communist Party) could keep a wary eye on all the regional publishers who were there under its umbrella.

I had a look around at various of the individual stalls and was mightily impressed by what I saw. There were a lot of very nice-looking, beautifully designed books, showing what skills the Chinese have on the design front. I also noted that there was a ‘performance’ area, where various writers (English and Chinese) debated various topics to do with modern China. All of it made me very keen to return the next day and try and make some contacts. I made a mental list of those stalls I wanted to visit again, then I went home.

I spent that evening running off copies of my Chung Kuo synopsis – a twenty six page document that includes twenty one-page synopses of the novels in the sequence, complete with a colour photo quality cover of the first three titles – and rehearsing in my mind what I was going to say; how I was going to introduce the subject. I mean, it had to be of interest to them, no?

The plan was to sow the seed of interest, and hand over a synopsis document and a copy of the mass market paperback of SON OF HEAVEN to anyone who seemed the least bit interested. I was especially keen to get in touch with whoever ran the Anhui Publishing House, because they’d already taken on TRILLION YEAR SPREE, the history of science fiction I co-wrote with Brian Aldiss. That, surely, would be a foot in the door.

So imagine me, ten o’clock Wednesday morning, there at the Fair, noting already (at some subconscious level) that it seemed less busy than the day before. Undaunted, and weighed down by the materials I’d taken along with me, I ventured through to Earls Court 2 and the China segment of the Fair. And was immediately knocked sideways by the fact that there – on stage, so to speak – was one of my favourite Chinese authors, Mo Yan, author of the magnificent RED SORGHUM, which was made into my all-time favourite Chinese film (by Zhang Yimou) of the same name. For me, it was a bit like finding Thomas Hardy sitting there being interviewed, and all thought of visiting book stalls fled from my mind until his event was over. Mo Yan, of course, is a pen name. And a wonderfully ironic one, at that, because it means “Don’t Speak”.

Half an hour passed, and, having indulged myself listening to what Mo Yan had to say (some wonderful stuff about Rural China), I decided to get down to the business at hand. Selling Chung Kuo. It was at this point that I hit my first snag.

Imagine. I calm myself, then approach the first stand, where a small group of young Chinese seem more interested in talking to each other than to passing potential customers. “Excuse me,” I ask a young Chinese male in casual wear, “but could you possibly put me in touch with a publisher who specialise in science fiction?”

It seems a fairly innocuous enquiry, and the young publisher seems extremely fluent in English, but there’s one part of what I’ve said he doesn’t understand, and when he repeats the words, his eyes seem to bulge with the struggle to understand just what I mean.

“Science Fiction? What science fiction?”

I realise he means “What IS science fiction?” And, thinking that maybe he’s heard me wrong, I repeat it, then say “You know, rockets and robots and time travel and…”
“You want science books?”

Realising that this is probably about as close as I’m going to get, I nod and let him lead me over to another stall where, I quickly realise, they specialise in books on modern science. Technical volumes of some complexity with titles I (as an SF writer) don’t even understand.

I smile and turn away. Half an hour and several similar enquiries later, I come to the conclusion that, even though the leading science fiction magazine in China has a million subscribers, the guys here at the Fair haven’t any idea what I’m talking about. Fantasy, yes – they know Tolkein and J K Rowling – but science fiction…?

I decide to make a different approach. By now I’ve noticed that there are three basic models here at the Fair. There’s model one – the guys who are in charge; probably CPC members – who are immaculately dressed, and who, I realise with a certain degree of wariness, appear to be cloned. All of them bear a very strong resemblance to each other (and to Hu Jintao, I note with a start), and all of them are quite clearly men of great importance, attracting attention from their underlings in the same fashion that a hive attracts bees. And those underlings are of two distinct kinds – model two – which seems to be a group of middle-aged men and women of clearly rural origins (their teeth and skin are signs of that), and model 3, which is the highly fluent youngsters – in their twenties, I’d guess, and far more comfortable in the West than model 2, their English much better, their interest in the West clearly reflected in the way they dress and how they behave.

Anyway, to cut things short, I make a bee-line for one of the Hu Jintao look-alikes. Who completely ignores me. In fact, he looks right through me as if I were transparent. Which maybe I am. And I know I haven’t got an appointment, and that I’m probably breaking eighteen kinds of protocol, but the man might just smile politely and tell me to go to hell. Being looked through – in that fashion – is really quite unpleasant. And then, a moment later, a group of bees return, buzzing about him excitedly, while he, his back to me now, exudes calm and competence.

Only he has seen me. But we’ll come to that later.

Okay. Now you’re probably asking, why didn’t I try the middle ground – the rural Chinese with the bad teeth? Well, I’ll be honest here. I studied them over the space of a couple of hours and decided I wasn’t going to go that route either. Why? Because just looking at them I sensed they’d take one look at me and my project and… well, laugh, I guess. At my audacity. At me thinking I could possibly write something that could get anywhere near to describing what a world run by the Chinese would look like or feel like to be in.

I could imagine it. That mocking laughter. The sniggers, and the mocking comments from one to another, delivered in some rural accent and meant to disparage, while their knowing eyes looked at me with scorn.

Yeah, okay. I’m probably going over the top a bit there.  I don’t know how they’d have reacted – not really – but there was an air about them that made me not want to expose myself to them; not give them the chance to mock my twenty eight years of work on CHUNG KUO. And besides, my hours of wandering round and studying what was going on had persuaded me that I wasn’t going to get anywhere here at the Fair. This was the wrong venue for making the contacts I needed to make. And, with that in mind, I set about getting as much information as I could from the individual stalls – especially those which seemed to have good lists with British titles on them. Half an hour later and I had collected a big bag full of publishers’ catalogues. This was going to be my way in. I was going to write letters to the editors of these companies  – to go to them direct, and not while they were under the scrutiny of the CPC.

Because by then I’d experienced something that I really didn’t think I’d encounter at a Book Fair. Now, call me paranoid, but I was being followed. Looked at.  Watched. Maybe it was the inordinate amount of time I’d spent, just wandering about the Chinese section, but…

The first time it happened I thought I was imagining it. I was standing by one of the stalls, looking (with great admiration) at how beautiful some of the books were – especially the Chinese history books. Picking them up to look at them and then putting them back, almost reverently. And at that very moment, as I moved back, away from the stall, I realised that there was someone right behind me, no more than two paces away. A young Han. And as I moved, so he moved, never more than two or three paces distant from me – directly behind me, so I couldn’t see him, only sense him. And then, suddenly, as I came away from the stall, he went, so that when I turned, to see more fully who he was, he was gone. Like he’d vanished.

That first time I laughed at myself. How paranoid can you be, after all? This was London, not Beijing. And the very way he’d seemed to disappear made me think that maybe I’d imagined him there at my back. Only ten minutes later it happened again, and this time I turned and stared at the young man – different from the last one, I was sure. Which provoked no reaction whatsoever from him.
I frowned, then turned back. Was I being watched as a possible book thief? Were these lovely books so expensive to produce that they had to guard them?

One thing I noted – after this happened a further three or four times – was that it was always some young Han, in his short sleeves, and he would appear and disappear as if by magic, blending into the backdrop almost.

Now, something else was happening at the same time as I was being tested for my paranoia rating, and it seemed to fit in with what I was experiencing, and that was the protests.
Throughout the day, little groups of expat Chinese (Ma Jiang, the famous dissident author among them) were appearing at the Fair, no more than ten or twenty yards from me at times, to make their protests about the CPC and its control over the freedom of expression. If I’d wanted I could have joined one of these little groups and spoken out to the world – via the medium of the news cameras – only I didn’t. This wasn’t my cause. I was just here to sell some books to them. Only the presence of these little groups of protestors made me more convinced than ever that this was not the place to do that. By now I had seen a good half dozen gift-giving ceremonies between groups of Brits and groups of Han, and was growing more and more convinced that, whatever was being said in public, nothing had changed in China’s attitude towards the West. Just wandering about beside that monolithic blood red display that was the CPC’s ‘stand’ you had the feeling that this was not an exercise in diplomacy, in building bridges, but in control. China was keeping an eye on one of its culturally most important exports. Making sure it reflected the party line. And me? Well, I’m pretty sure that they were keeping an eye on me, if only because they couldn’t work out who the fucking hell I was.

Oh, and I almost missed something. At the back of the Chinese ‘stage’ was a big stand that was totally enclosed. The only entrance to it was a small door, from which various Chinese would appear from time to time. Being a curious creature, I wandered past it several times, getting a glimpse inside now and then as someone entered or exited. And inside? A massive bank of monitors, floor to ceiling.
As morning turned to afternoon, one by one the stalls were abandoned. The Han were going home. The expensive books were being packed away, the rest of it… dumped.

Back to China. And I wonder what they made of England, those who came here for the first time? That is, if they managed for a moment to escape the scrutiny of their bosses. Because that’s what I came away from the Fair with. A feeling of being constantly watched. Of the obvious hierarchy at work, and the desire to control what was being shown and said.

And it made me rather sad, because coming away I could glimpse that my CHUNG KUO may never ever see a Chinese edition. Not because it was written by me, a humble Hung Mao, but because its vision of a hierarchical society clashes with what the CPC wants as its ‘message’.

Even so, I’m going to have a go at it. To try and find some sympathetic editor in some regional publisher, someone who loves my vision of things for itself, and who’ll publish it in defiance, maybe, of what Beijing wants. Because the more time I was there at the Book Fair, the more I was convinced that there’s a generation of potential readers who ought to be experiencing the literary world of CHUNG KUO and, even if they disagree profoundly, thinking about the issues raised by the books.

And maybe I do the Hu Jintao look-alikes a disservice. Maybe they are more liberal than they seem. Likewise the model 2’s with their bad teeth. But my gut instinct – which I trust – is that things haven’t changed all that much since Mao was in charge. Superficially, yes. But deeper down? No. They want to control it all. And they don’t want the people to develop a bad habit like thinking for themselves.

Science Fiction? What’s that?

A literature of change. A questioning of what is. A cutting edge critique of modern society, as told through the metaphor of futurism.

Yeah. Now I come to think of it, I was naïve to think they’d understand.

David Wingrove

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