Here’s a biggie, folks. The Year So Far… is some of Mr. Wingrove’s journal entries from 1993. Evidently scanned and OCR’d from handwritten notes, it’s been a long process to edit this beast (and some of it in the last half was completely indecipherable), but it’s been worth it for the most personal of DW’s writings here in The Vault. Particularly interesting, about halfway down, is his mention of a camping trip to Dorset, not far from Corfe Castle (ring a bell to anyone…?).
The real treat, however, is the last third or so of the text, containing the amazing details of Mr. Wingrove’s first trip to China.
Enjoy the full text after the break…
The Year So Far…
January… do I remember January?. December had ended with me taking Jessica and Amy to see the Muppet Xmas Carol film, which was fun, but… well, it had to be uphill all the way after that.
Since mid-November I’d been working sporadically with an American friend, John Patrick Kavanagh, on a film treatment of Chung Kuo, working three or four evenings a week on it and keeping the faxes humming into the early hours. At this stage we hadn’t even got the story sorted out and were still working on a long version of what they call a “treatment” – a story overview. But it was fun and made a real change from the novel writing which wasn’t going well. I had a long spell last when I simply couldn’t face working on the sequence at all and didn’t write a word, and I guess I was still feeling rather hung-over from that. The novel was less than 65,000 words long and was due to be delivered by the end of the month!
Another of the things engaging much of my time and attention was the progress (or otherwise) of my team, Queens Park Rangers. This season I’ve had not one but two season tickets in the main stand — right at the front beside the directors’ box — so that I could take friends along to most matches. I rediscovered my childhood passion a few seasons back and have been getting more and more into it ever since. On the 4th we played Swindon Town in the glamour game of the 3rd Round of the FA Cup and won the game 3-0. For me this a good omen.
Another good omen was a fax I received from Singapore, from Sylvie and Nicolas Chapuis, a French couple working for the French Embassy there who wanted to translate the Chung Kuo sequence into French. They’re two academics who’ve spent time in Beijing – he’s one of the foremost French classical Chinese scholars and has done lots of translating. Delighted, I agreed. France is one of the few places where I’ve not yet sold the books!
Sue had bought me a CD Discman for Christmas and (it may surprise you) that was a great help with my work, especially when I’d had enough of sitting in front of the wordprocessor down in my room and wanted to be upstairs in the living room with my girls. Discman in place, I could sit there, cuddling up to one or other of them and — even with the TV on — be able to catch up on same research reading or work through something I’d written earlier.
Another thing that arrived in the first week of the new year — and which conspired to keep my spirits high — was a copy of the Public Lending Right printout for 1992, showing that some 24,000 people had taken Chung Kuo books out of the libraries last year, earning me £440! The figure seems to grow exponentially each year. Two years ago I earned £15 or thereabouts, last year £150. And next? Jeffery Archer watch out!
A day later and my friend Stewart Robinson, from Edinburgh, sent me a tape of a track his band – Tranceport (a Tangerine Dreamish three-piece) have made of “A Spring Day At The Edge Of The World”, the first of a number of proposed Chung Kuo tracks. A really wonderful piece at 14 minutes! Mind you, the same post brought the galley proofs (the stage before printing) from America for Book Four, The Stone Within, which they’d given me a full week to get back to them! As you might imagine, I had four days with very little sleep in my attempt to comply with their request. It was done, but again the it meant neglecting the new novel.
About the same time Saturday the 9th – I had the bad news that not one but two of my team, Wilkins and Penrice, had suffered broken legs up at Middlesborough. It was the beginning of a long bad spell for the Rangers, which only really ended when Ray Wilkins came back into the team in April. It began to look like my new year optimism had been a touch too like post Christmas hysteria!
By the fifteenth the decks were clear again and the big news was that Bow Tie, our kitten (we also have Cherry, an older male cat) was spayed. She seemed fine after the operation, but for a time ran about with a shaven side that made her look very odd and rat-like. The girls were upset at first, then thought it great fun. The screenplay – which we’d now begun in earnest in the evenings – was going well, too. We were 45 pages in and coasting!
Monday the 18th saw another stage in the downturn of Rangers fortunes when we went down 3-1 at home to the ultimate champions, Manchester United. I took Sue’s best friend Sara – a United fan – who bought me a beer to console me afterwards.
I got back to the novel – Book Five, Beneath The Tree of Heaven – but it was going no easier. It was proving a real uphill struggle to get into it. However, plans to repackage the other books by my UK publishers, Hodders, were proceeding apace, with the new jackets — much better than the old — for the Autumn re-launch. Sue had been involved in this for some months — since last summer, in fact — when Hodders took her on as my personal publicist, paying her a monthly retainer to do the job she used to do at Faber & Faber years ago. Around this time she also took on another job for the Sunday Mirror, as their book scout. Both jobs could be done from home, and the income was welcome, but Sue found herself working all hours to fit everything in — the girls being as demanding as ever!
As far as the girls are concerned, it’s interesting to see how their interests have developed. Jessica (8) is as horse mad as ever and beside going for her weekly ride on a Wednesday evening, now spends most Sundays — between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon — at the stables grooming the horses, cleaning out and tacking up. She adores it and doesn’t mind the hard work. At home, however, she’s a different creature, lazing about. She’s also turning into a great little story-teller.
Amy (6), this year fell in love with astronomy in a big way, so much so that she’s now for huge star charts on her bedroom walls, globes, a telescope and countless books on the subject. She’s a walking encyclopedia of astronomical facts! She and Jess also go to drama and singing classes, which they both enjoy hugely. More of which later.
Georgia (3) began to come out of her shell this year — she was extremely shy — and began nursery part-time, moving to Jess and Amy’s school in Islington in the Easter. She’s perhaps the most self-reliant of the three and can play alone for hours without a fuss. She’s also the comic of the family and loves being the centre of attention. They’re all bright kids, but she seems a lot sharper as a child than the other two maybe because she’s had them about so much and gets a lot of attention and genuine teaching — from Sue’s mum, Daisy when she comes round to look after her twice a week.
Where were we? Ah yes, came the 21st I receive my NatWest Gold Card statement only to learn that some bastard is using a forged card on my account — I phone up and get it stopped at once, but they’ve got away with 3 or 4 thousand pounds worth of transactions before the stop registers. I suspect it’s an inside job, but you never find out these things, do you?
The novel had limped along a little — about another 8000 words — but was still bogged down. And I was still some 125,000 words short of finishing it!!
Ian, my brother, had, for the first time in a long while, got himself regular employment, buying a DHL van and franchise and working for the company in the City of London. I think he enjoyed having a regular salary for the first time in his adult life and put a lot of effort into making his “patch” work. Long hours, but satisfying.
As January ground to a close QPR went out of the cup — hugely unlucky against a brutal Manchester City side (I was depressed for days afterwards) — but John Kavanagh and I had managed to push the film script well past the halfway stage of the first draft. Financially, too, things could have been a whole lot better. Huge tax demands, both for Sue (mid-eighties) and me (the year of the big earnings) and the fact that I’d tied up so much money (so as not to waste it, ho ho!) in investments, meant that we were running a large overdraft. Daft, when you consider how much I’ve been earning. Sue being at home hasn’t helped either, though I’m glad for her that she’s had the opportunity (at least with one of our girls) to be a full-time mum. When you reduce your joint income by more than £30,000 a year it hurts. As you find out a year or so dawn the line! But this month saw me steps to deal with the cash-flow problems.
As February began I was contemplating taking on a new project — a Science Fiction Film book — and did a little work on it, but — as you’ ll see — events swamped me before I could even get a “taster” ready for that. On the 2nd I went to see John Martyn at the Mean Fiddler in Fulham — and a very fine evening it was, sharing a few beers with my old friend Ritchie (a Geordie) while JM played some of the finest music you’d have heard anywhere in the world that night.
The first post-film-fax phonebill came in – at £427.78! – which not only saw off my PLR money but brought home the fact that making films on a transatlantic basis ain’t cheap. Empire of Ice, as we’ve called it, had turned out a whole lot better than we ever imagined and we were both quite excited about it, but it was still highly speculative. The window of opportunity in that field is small and there are many people clamouring to climb through it. We decided we could but do our best, write the best material we could and…
On the money front, I’d also been getting onto my agents to chase my Italian publishers, who — after an 18 month court battle and successful take-over bid by their main rivals — still owe me £20,000 (less agents’ fees). One of the frustrating things about being a writer is that you can do everything you’ve been contracted to do and then have to wait months (years sometimes) to receive your just rewards. My bank manager understands this now and doesn’t bother me too much about it, but he still charges me for the sodding overdraft!
Meanwhile I had decided to come face to face with my problems on Beneath The Tree of Heaven and wrote to my editor, Carolyn, at Hodders asking for a delay in delivery until the end of June. She phoned a day or so later (the 8th) to say no, she wanted it by the end of the month latest. I thought hard, dug my heels in and… agreed to deliver by March 16th.
That gave me all of 5 weeks to write the last two thirds of the novel. Could it be done? Sue agreed to take the girls off my hands full time (I usually help out in numerous small ways, making their packed-lunches, combing their hair, getting their breakfasts, washing up, tidying up, etc.). And so began an intense period in which I would get up regularly at 6 in the morning and work through into the early hours, writing at full pelt most of the time and occasionally collapsing in a heap for half a day.
However, before I began this insane work schedule, I spent a whole day tidying my study, painting the window surround in there (white gloss) and putting up new blinds. That achieved, I begun the next day. It went well mostly. Some days I got 5-6,000 words done, and all of it quite reasonable. It poured out. By the end of the first week I was a quarter of the way there, and though there were a few days when it didn’t go quite so well, most days I managed 3 or 4,000 words. In between times — when I really couldn’t face the novel — I did a scene or two of the screenplay and kept that ticking over. And though I felt physically knackered most of the time I felt satisfied mentally that both things were progressing well
High-points during this period — which felt, mainly, like I was submerged in a submarine out on Atlantic patrol — were the four cards I got Valentine’s day (I wonder who from…), Rangers’ victories at home to Coventry and Norwich, Big Les Ferdinand’s debut for England, and the lovely afternoon spent at White Hart Lane with my Scots mate Andy and the Rangers’ fans chants of “Offside, Offside!” as our boys played like donkeys. And all the while the book grew and GREW and…
The first chunk of the book — Part 3 and Epilogue (totalling some 44,000 words) — was polished up and delivered on Monday 22nd, right on schedule. And Carolyn loved it! In fact, things were now moving so fast that I found myself writing the “blurbs” for both the jacket and the catalogue, even as I was producing the book. Carolyn was talking about an April 13th copyedit date. Talk about tight!
March began with a bang… almost. Sometime after six on the 2nd, Sue phoned to say she couldn’t get back home after having picked up Amy from a friend’s. The High Road was blocked off, she said. I went out and checked. Our road was cordoned off by the police and so I was stuck here with Jessica and Georgia, watching the news to see just what was going on. Meanwhile, in a street not 100 yards from here, the specials were shooting one IRA suspect in the head and arresting another. They later discovered a house full of semtex. Briefly there was talk of a huge bomb and of evacuating us, but as time went on we got the all-clear, Sue came home and — the next morning — I found out from my local newsagent that the two men the police arrested used to be regular customers of his. He always thought it was odd because one of them used to buy lots of batteries — more than he could possibly use for domestic appliances!
Come the fifth I was still four chapters from finishing the novel, but still steaming hard towards meetting my deadline.
The screenplay was almost there — we were editing it between us even as we put down the first drafts of the final scenes. But bad news came through from my American co-writer, John, whose wife Susan miscarried early in her pregnancy. The news hit them hard and I felt for them greatly, as they’d been really looking forward to the birth in the Fall, but that’s life. Just when you think things are flying…
On Saturday 13th I went to see my team get beaten at home by those ace donkeys Wimbledon, then came home and — physically shattered — fell asleep in the chair. I was a chapter short of finishing Beneath. Even so, come Monday afternoon I delivered all but one chapter of Part Two (the final missing part). The odd chapter was one which I wanted to rework. That was done and delivered by the following afternoon. So my target of the 16th was met! I then had to wait to see what Carolyn thought of this last segment. It was a shorter book than the last four, but not by much, and I had written 103,000 words in 33 days, with 3 days break in that time. How did I feel? Pleased but physically done in.
Another reason for targeting the 16th was that Susan was off to Paris, for a long weekend with her friend Sara, on the Friday. By then she needed the break from the girls. I, meanwhile, had a lazy, enjoyable weekend with them. Outside my study the Japanese maple I’d planted some eight years before was budding – back to full health after suffering severe damage a few years back when some moron two doors down re-sprayed his car in the street… and half my tree as well!
Sue enjoyed her trip a lot and immediately started talking about the two of us going back there — maybe in the Autumn. It seems an age since we went anywhere on holiday alone together.
With Sue back and Carolyn happy with the book I got down to finishing the last few scenes of Empire of Ice and even as the cheque came in from Hodders for the delivery of Book Five we got the screenplay under wraps, the final scene written, although the process of re-writing and editing and polishing would go on for another few months. As March ended I had a feeling like I’d run a marathon and come out the other end of it standing and in good shape. It was a good feeling. My new year’s optimism had returned.
On that last day of the month I printed up new (edited) copies of Beneath the Tree of Heaven and had them couriered off to my agents in the USA and Canada, to be presented to my publishers there. For a day or two, I reasoned, I could relax…
April began with John Kavanagh suggesting another three screenwriting projects we might want to work on. I signed up for one, Capital America, and called a halt on the other two. The next task, however, was to read through Empire and get my wits together ready for a visit to the States later in the month — a visit at which John and I would meet for the first time and work through the script to bash it into its final form. DDay (Departure Day) was set for the 21st.
Following up Amy’s newly-fledged interest in astronomy, I took the girls to the London Planetarium on Sunday the 4th – something of a disappointment because the talk in the big dome was about conservation, ecology and the greenhouse effect and very little about stars (which is why we went!). But Amy loved it anyway. Even Jess was impressed.
On the Tuesday we took my parents and Sue’s parents down to Somerset, to an isolated cottage on the edge of Exmoor for a five days. We’d been there before – it’s an idyllic place near Watchet (7 miles away, actually) which is folded into the surrounding hills. Jessica loves it because the house is attached to a riding stables and the horses are allowed into the field facing our cottage. We had a great, relaxing time and all got on very well. We had some good long walks and the weather was great. I came back really refreshed. Sue dropped me off near QPR’s ground on the Saturday and I had the delightful experience of seeing my team beat Forest 4-3, after being down twice, with Big Les getting a hat-trick. Two days later he went and repeated the process up at Everton. Things were certainly looking up!!
As soon as I was back I got down to business and… did my accounts ready for my accountant, Greg to prepare my tax return. Efficient, huh? I usually find myself doing them June or July, but decided this year to get them out of the way as early as possible . It always takes at least a week and can be a real drag if left, so…
Of course, that’s not all I did. I was still working on Empire of Ice, honing and reflecting, and I also produced an “Interlude” of twelve pages to put between Parts 2 and 3 of Beneath The Tree Of Heaven.
On the financial front Sue and I had signed a loan agreement — over five years — to clear the current account deficit and get us back ahead of ourselves. Come next summer I’ll be able to pay off most of what we’ve borrowed, but right now the tax man demandeth, so…
Considering how bad things have been generally in the economy these past few years, we’ve not suffered at all, really, so I’ve no complaints… oh, except for the fact that we got very bad financial advice four years ago and that I was persuaded to tie up too much of my income in fixed term schemes that were inflexible as to withdrawals. Put bluntly, I’m well off but I can’t touch most of what I own… not for some time yet. Maybe that’s a good thing.
April 17th saw the copy-edit of Beneath done and a new manuscript and the accompanying computer floppy discs delivered to Hodders ready for the type-setters. Again, I was bang on schedule!
Rangers had long slipped from being serious title contenders, but were having a bit of a late season renaissance with Wilkins, Ferdinand and Holloway all back. Being without a functional midfield for three months hadn’t helped one bit and some games it was a bit like watching Wimbledon as the defence punted the long ball upfield for the attackers to pursue. The reason I love this particular team is that they play such a wonderful passing game, but without a midfield they simply weren’t the same football team. Next season, though…
With Rangers not playing again until May lst I could concentrate fully on the upcoming Stateside trip. I flew out early on Wednesday 21st and got in to JF’K airport at lunchtime their time. The taxi ride in to New York was sensational, if also hairy. Seeing Manhattan for the first time from the other side of the East River was really something. I checked into my hotel, the Elysee on East 54th Street and Madison Avenue, made a few phonecalls – to people I was going to meet — and almost immediately went out to walk the streets and see the sights. I left the hotel just after three and got back after eight! I walked all the way down to Wall Street, through Greenwich Village and Chinatown and Soho and Washington Square, then all the way back up to Times Square. By the time I got back to my hotel, my feet were sore. I realised then that buying new shoes for the trip had been a mistake!
There was one real find, however, on my travels about NYC and that was a bootleg record shop in the West Village. I could have spent thousands of dollars but limited myself to the $100 I had in my pocket, buying the CDs of two Led Zeppelin concerts I’d been too (in 1971 and 1976) and two Van Der Graaf Generator live CDs from 1971. On one of those I finally got to hear the finale of a concert I’d come away from on 14th August 1971 at the Lyceum in London. How time connects back up!
The hotel — arranged by Julie through Recorded Pictures, the company she works for — was great. Small but luxurious. Almost Italian in its style. I went out to get a bite to eat — a meal I could barely manage, it was so huge — then came back and settled in to watch American TV for a few hours, determined not to let jet-lag get me. Baseball, more baseball and lots of information channels… Hmm. I finally tuned in to the British Comedy channel and had a good laugh to Blackadder, then switched over and watched an old episode of ‘Thirty Something’ (where all the characters looked Twenty Something) and finally drifted off to sleep at 11:30. Hello, America!
Thursday 22nd didn’t start too well. The copies of The Stone Within Dell had promised would be there for me to take around the bookshops hadn’t arrived, and still weren’t there when I went out at lunchtime. They finally got there at 1:30 in the afternoon, which meant that I’d lost a good three hours at least in which I could have been “pressing the flesh” with New York booksellers. But I did have a good lunch with my agent, Ellen Levine. I went into her offices, on the 18th floor of a big building in East 26th Street, overlooking Madison Square Park. A spectacular view! We sat in a small restaurant nearby and chatted for an hour, then I headed back to the hotel and off about the bookstores finally with a stack of books under my arm.
Pressing the flesh was okay. I didn’t feel too embarrassed about it even, perhaps enjoyed it — and one really good moment was when I went in to Forbidden Planet on Broadway and gave the young manager — who’d just finished Book Three and was clearly a fan – a pristine copy of Book Four. His jaw, literally, dropped. To think that I was actually in his store! It doesn’t happen often like that, but you have to enjoy it when it does!
That evening I had a drink or four with Brian DeFiore, my ex-editor, who took me to Peacock Alley in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue. A very impressive place, slightly Egyptian in its feel and very definitely five star! As ever I enjoyed Brian’s company hugely. Like New York, he always seems slightly larger than life! He’s in charge of Hyperion Books now – a new company backed by Disney money but autonomous. We talked books, music, films… and parted far too soon. I went back to my room, watched TV – baseball, more baseball, a bit of MTV…
I woke early on the Friday and down for breakfast New York style – reading the New York Times while stuffing myself with pastries and coffee. Yep, I could live here, I thought. I did a couple of hours visiting the bookstores then, at 10:45, went in to Dell, my publishers at 1540 Broadway, overlooking Times Square. It’s a big new building that Bertlesman, the parent company, have just bought. I met my new editor, Jeanne Cavelos, and had a chat. The view from her office is sensational. Real-life Blade Runner! A trip round the telemarketing department brought home to me just how big Dell are and how good the back-up system there is. I’m just surprised that I’m not mega over there, that’s all!
Lunch was with Jeanne, Larry Hughes, the Director of Publicity (early thirties?) and Carol Lappin, Director of Marketing for Trade Paperbacks. We went to a new place directly across the street from them — don’t ask me the name! — where I proved once and for all what a meat-eating, beer-swilling barbarian I really am by rejecting the vegetarian fare and the offer of Perrier! Hell, when your publisher’s paying the last thing you want to do is NOT enjoy the meal! There was a lot of interest, it seemed, in the fact that I was doing a film script. A lot of promises of help were made…
Well, after a pleasant hour we went back to the offices, where I met Leslie Schnur, the Editor in Chief, and, unexpectedly, Carol Barron, the Publisher of Dell. She’d been away ill, but as James Clavell was in the office being wined and dined — I sure pick my times, don’t I? — she had come in for the first time in several months. It was nice to meet her.
I got back from doing the rounds at Dell just in time for my interview with Rob Killheffer, one of the Assistant Editors at Omni. We chatted for the best part of 3 hours, two hours of which went onto tape — a long version of it should be appearing in SF Chronicle, an abbreviated interview in Omni itself. But we’ll see. I liked Rob — physically he looked a lot like Martin Sheen, only with the intellectual credentials to back it up!
Friday night was my last in New York and so I went out and had another walk, soaking up the atmosphere and looking at the bright lights. Then it was back to shower and pack ready for the morning.
Saturday 24th I got up early, settled my bill and got down to Penn Station in time to catch a local train an hour earlier than the one I was planning to be on. The New Jersey Transit gave me a new view of things American. Coming out of New York you see the down-side of all that hectic City activity — and you see the great industrial wastelands that surround it. The journey as far as Trenton is as ugly as you’ll find anywhere. After that it gets prettier. By the time you get to New Brunswick you’re finally into Suburban USA, and Princeton Junction, where I got off, was actually very nice. John Kavanagh met me there — on the bridge by the station. After years of exchanging letters and phonecalls, it was nice to meet him in person and we got on straight away. He drove back through Princeton itself — to give me a glimpse of an Ivy League University — which I liked a lot, then we drove on to Monmouth Junction, where he and his wife Susan live, and I got the first glimpse of the Kavanagh Mansion.
Okay, so we’re slobs… but John and Susan’s house was just so damn immaculate! Everything polished and in its place. I mean… the floors alone cost $20,000! Hell, I felt like I was disturbing the arrangement just by being there! That’s not to say I wasn’t made to feel at home straight away — with a Newcastle Brown (special American diddy size) and my own “suite” — bathroom, bedroom and dressing room… oh, and neon-lit telephone, too!
John and I talked for an hour or two, then got things ready for the party, which kicked off at four and went on into the early hours. A lot of nice, interesting people turned up — mainly Sue’s friends, but with a smattering of locals John had chummy with. Four of Sue’s sisters were there and one of her brothers, so I met most of the Hart clan! After New York, it was good to get in touch with the “real” America and the ‘survivors’ at the end of the evening – about eight of us – finished off drinking liqueurs and black coffee…
Sunday the 25th, and I was up bright and early, feeling good. When was jet-lag going to hit? I wondered. I put on the coffee, made breakfast, got the New York Times from where it lay in its plastic cover on the path and waited for John to come down. About an hour later John surfaced, not too much the worse for wear — fortunately, as he was going to drive us more than 160 miles down to Avalon on the New Jersey coast. We had another coffee, sorted out our stuff and set off — getting down to Avalon midafternoon. The Harts share a beach house down there, which is where John and I were going to stay for the next four days while we bashed out a final version of Empire of Ice between us. We had a walk along the shore, then went back, cracked open our first beers of the day and got down to work — setting down our ground rules that first evening and establishing beyond any doubt that we could work together. It felt good…
The next three days were INTENSE. Each day we’d get up and get out to the diner by ten for breakfast, taking the same window seat. After that we’d have a walk and then return to the house and get down to work. We averaged 30 pages a day, but to do that we’d be working a good 8-10 hours, rewriting practically every line of the script. Somewere along the way we started writing a second, shadow movie, too – EMPIRE OF RICE, the spoof! which from time to time broke the tension and had us rolling about with tears of laughter. But we got on amazingly well and the script benefited hugely from the changes we were making. Evenings, to wind down, we’d crack open a few beers, eat some of the leftovers from Saturday’s party, and watch a hired video, usually stopping it regularly to debate some point of the script-writing. It was all HUGE fun!
Thursday morning – the 29th – we packed up and, just after twelve, left the shore, our work done. My flight back was from Newark at 7.40 and John drove me all the way to the airport, dropping me off just after three. I was going home…
Friday morning, 7am, found me sitting on the Piccadilly line, heading east towards Kings Cross, having slept not a wink on the flight back and feeling DREADFUL. I hadn’t suffered jet-lag at all while in America. Now I seemed to have been hit with a double dose of it. I went round Sue’s mum’s, where, sometime after ten, Sue arrived, with Georgia, to welcome me home. The next few days were to see me falling asleep in chairs at the drop of a hat…
It was now May. Rangers were playlng up at Leeds. There wasn’t baseball on the TV any more and… well, I soon adapted back. But the experience of America had been momentous. It felt like a watershed in my life. Being away from home and family I’d had a chance to look at what I was doing and what I wanted and I came back subtly changed. I was determined to put all the petty stuff behind me and focus only on what was important to me – family and writing. I was tired, sure, but I also felt re-energised.
That first weekend home I spent with my girls. We had a day out in the garden just tidying and cleaning up the play things. Then, on the Sunday, we went out to Greenwich to the Observatory and the Cutty Sark.
Rangers, meanwhile, were having a good end of season and I saw their last three games, away to Arsenal, and then home to Aston Villa and Sheffield Wednesday. That last game (on May 11th) saw us established as London’s top club, fifth in the league. The celebrations at the end of that game were really something, with the team out into the director’s box to say thanks to the fans down below. It was a great moment, and the mood in the crowd coming away from the ground was wonderful – just like I remembered from the Sixties. That night I had a few beers (too many, really) with my friend Andy Muir to celebrate. Suffice to say that I suffered for the next few days…
Those few weeks also saw me working solidly turn-and-turn-about on the copy-editing of Beneath The Tree Of Heaven and the re-write of Empire of Ice. I was also beginning to put together notes on the new book, too. By now it seemed like I’d not had a break for ages and while I was enjoying getting the work done, I was also beginning to long for a fortnight in the sun beside a pool…
Then, out of the blue, YOU magazine phoned me up and said they wanted to take me to China. When could I go? Early June? I said. Sure, they answered. Where do you want to go? Xi’an, I said. Fine, they answered and rang off. I thought I must have been dreaming, but sure enough, over the next few weeks the magazine began to put the trip together. I was to go with a photographer and journalist from the magazine. Certain it wouldn’t come off, I put my head down and got on with the work. If it happened, it happened…
On the 10th May we went out with my brother Ian and his girlfriend Helene to see the Kodo drummers at Sadler’s Wells — Japanese aestheticism taken to the limit, but really mesmerising and first-rate entertainment. It reminded me of the German rock band, Can, when I saw them back in 1972 — there was the same kind of power. One particular “tune” with seven drummers playing metronomically really sticks in mind.
By the 11th the Empire of Ice re-write was finished and I sent off a new copy to John Kavanagh in the States. Jessica and Amy, meanwhile, were auditioning for the Royal Shakespeare Company, for parts in The Winter’s Tale. They didn’t get them, but the R.S.C. has put them on their “possibles” list for future productions requiring child actors.
Coincidentally, a few days later we got a phonecall from the casting director for the new Neil Jordan film — a version of Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire — and went along to meet her at her home in Hampstead with a view to playing what we found out was one of the lead roles – as a 500-year old child vampire, acting opposite Brad Pitt. The woman seemed to like Jess, and they got on well, but as she said, they’re looking all over Europe and America, so it’s not likely that anything will come of it. Don’t phone us, we’ll call you…
By the 21st my China trip was confirmed and I was having my typhoid shots and preparing to take a course of anti-malaria tablets. A Hepatitis B shot was next on the agenda. Oh boy, oh joy! I love injections…
John Kavanagh and I were keeping the fax-lines hot preparing all of the material for the presentation of Empire of Ice to a film agency — overviews, treatment, script, CVs, etc. — but were almost there. However, Hodders, my UK publishers, had suddenly become super-efficient and I had galley proofs back to check and six days to do it in. I knuckled down.
Hodders had also decided that the Jim Burns cover for Book Five wasn’t nice enough and – bless ’em! – had decided to commission another. I got the rough through from Jim on the 25th and liked it. Right back at the beginning of the sequence, before a book was published, I told Hodders that I wanted Jim Burns covers – now, at last, I’ve got them. And very nice they are, too.
By the end of the month the Empire material was almost ready and we were about to parcel it all up and send it off to Amy Ferris at I.C.M., the second biggest of the Hollywood agencies. Before we did, however, we decided to get things as tight as possible and spent a lot of time crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s, knowing that if I.C.M. (agents to such as James Cameron, Schwarzenegger and Joe Esterhaz) take us on then the chances of a film being made will increase a thousandfold. But who knows? It’s all speculative, ain’t it? Light the blue touch paper and…
Well, I wasn’t going to retire just yet, not with a trip to China and the writing of Book Six ahead, but I did have a long weekend down in Dorset at the end of the month, at a camp site half a mile from Corfe Castle that we’d discovered last summer. Beside ourselves, some of Jess and Amy’s school friends came along. It was enjoyable, but the weather wasn’t great and what with the wind and rain I came back feeling not so much refreshed as exhausted. But the girls enjoyed themselves. The camp has a stables attached and Jessica and her schoolfriend Elly (who came with us and shared a tent with Jess) went out on treks every day and helped look after the horses. We had one truly idyllic moment going over the paths over the hills to Corfe — walking along a broad flower strewn path at the side of a hill, the fields stretching away to our right, the ancient castle framed in a fold of the hill up ahead of us and the sun shining down on the wet grass — it was like a scene from the Middle Ages, not a sign of the modern world in sight! It was breathtaking!
On the last day — literally in our last hour there — however, Jessica managed to have one of the horses tread on her foot and bruise her big toe. She limped back with a boot full of blood and we bandaged it up. She was very brave and did everything she ought to for the next five weeks until the nail finally came off. Nor did it stop her going riding again the day we got back! Oh, and it was her ninth birthday the day before we went away and we had a little party for her down there. It feels weird having a nine-year-old daughter, but she’s a real beauty and — if demanding — great company.
June began with the fax humming and the edits arriving from my Canadian editor, Alyssa Diamond. It’s always fun to get Alyssa’s news about her ten-month-old son Evan and what’s been happenig — but again I set aside my Book Six file with a sigh and knuckled down. Oh for a clone! I [illegible] another me who could get on with all this other stuff while I just spend all the time writing!
On the 3rd a letter arrived from Hodders to tell me that they’d [merged] with Headline, a much smaller but more dynamic [company]. In effect it’s a take-over, with Headline dictating the terms and there are bound to be huge shake-ups in the months to come. My first instinctive reaction was that it could only be a good thing.
On the 4th we f inally sent off all of the Empire material to I.C.M. in New York, less than 7 months after John and I agreed to work together on it and a good 3 or 4 months ahead of schedule. That same day I got off the Japanese and German editions of Book Five to Linda, my foreign rights agent at A.P. Watt. They’re special versions because they have to be cut into half-books for their markets, and that I have to write introductions and different contents pages etc, etc.
The China trip was now scheduled for the 9th and there was still much to be done before then. Alyssa and I were [illegible] back and forth across the fax-lines and by the 5th we’d just about wrapped it up and agreed on the nips and tucks she wanted me to do.
Next on the list before disappearing off to China, was the matter of Permissions letters for Book Five. For every quotation I use in the books I have to get permission (and usually pay for it) from the publishers concerned. It’s a task I always put off until last and I spent half a day on the 7th getting these in the post. By Tuesday the 8th — 24 hours before I was due to get on a plane and finally go to China — I’d actually cleared my desk of all outs matters (a very rare occurrence!).
The visas for the trip only came through on the Monday, the 7th — so right up to the last minute we weren’t sure whether we’d actually be going — but suddenly we had a green light and all I had to do was get myself to Heathrow Terminal 4 by 12:30 on the Wednesday. It still seemed totally unreal.
12:45 Wednesday lunchtime I was still wandering about the Departures lounge at Terminal 4 trying to find Brian James, the reporter YOU had sent along with me. Brian had the passports and tickets, so it was crucial I found him. Finally we met up – probably after passing each other several times — and he introduced me to Geoff Wilkinson, the photographer. Both were older than me , experienced, world-weary travellers who’d worked together often, and they had a nice humorous repartee between them. By the end of the day I was included in that. Brian’s [illegible] particularly fascinated me, as he’d covered football for the Sunday Times from the midfifties and knew many of my youthful heroes, Rodney Marsh and Charlie Cooke among them. He also used to write the column in one of the Sunday papers for Geoff Hurst, after that famous World Cup hat-trick, and Geoff Hurst, apparently, would mow Brian’s lawn every Sunday in payment!
Okay, so we were up and we queued up and — as British Airways had agreed — managed to have our tickets upgraded to First Class, which meant that we flew out to Hong Kong – a 12 hour f light – in the very lap of luxury. Not one but two new movies – I found myself watching Groundhog Day twice, and laughing just as much second time round. Time flew. So did we.
My first glimpse of Hong Kong was through a mile-deep layer of cloud. Brian and I d[eparted] from the plane for an hour and a half, wandered round the duty free, stared out the windows and took a lungful of the none-too-pleasant air, then [illegible] to the First Class lounge, where he did an impromptu first interview with me – about my expectations of China.
The flight over China itself was fascinating, like watching a living map spread out beneath you. It was bright sunshine all the way up over Wuhan on the Yellow River, then directly up to Beijing where we were warned it was 36 degrees C. This, for me, was a lifetime’s drealm come true. Finally I realised that I was, if not in China, then certainly over it! It looked wonderful.
We got in to Beijing at about 1:30 local time, just over 16 hours after setting off from Heathrow, but weren’t supposed to get a connecting flight to Xi’an until later that day. A Mister Xu Wei Xing was there to greet us from the Chinese Tourist Administration. I [illegible] have been happy to have us sit in the airport lounge for five hours while we waited for our connection, but Brian [illegible] button-holed him and persuaded him that we had time enough to get into Beijing proper (to the south-west of the airport) and look around for 2 or 3 hours. This we did. We hired a taxi and set off , very cramped into the back of the modern car, while the driver played [illegible] Richard Claydennan tapes. The road in to Beijing was slow-going, single-lane with a lot of local traffic, but it was all rather pleasant, the trees lining it reminding me of a French boulevard. All around us we could see building work going on — a new motorway from the heart of the city, [illegible] buildings everywhere: all of it, we were told, in preparation for the Year 2000 Olympics. Bright banners lined the road, proclaiming the new “Openness” and friendliness of China. “Open” was a buzzword we were to see a lot on our travels, and it to quite accurately reflect the mood of China as we experienced it.
What struck me most about Beijing, then and now, was how much like a Mediterranean town it seemed, like [illegible] in Greece, even down to the half-finished buildings and the smell in the air. It certainly didn’t live up to the literal translation of its name – North City – though I guess it must be very different in the winter.
Beijing wasn’t pretty by any means, but it was big and different and I have NEVER seen so many bicycles anywhere. It was one of the things I was expecting… even so, the sheer number of people about was still something of a shock. That was a constant all our time in China – the sheer [illegible]. The individual can feel drowned amidst such numbers!
We headed – naturally – directly for Tiananmen Square. The Forbidden City was closed, we were told, but we could still look about the buildings surrounding it and walk about the square. This we did, Geoff beginning the serious business of “snapping” everything in sight, while Brian posed questions to Mr. Xu. Me? I just gawped and wandered about, occasionally stopping to be “framed” in front of something by Geoff, who also took a picture on my camera of me in front of the portrait of Mao outside the Forbidden City. Definitely one for the album!
We walked through the outlying buildings, where I stopped to touch the gate where, in The Last Emperor, Pu Yi, found the doors barred against him and threw his [illegible] against them. It didn’t seem so odd a thing to do, as most of the tourists (most of them Chinese) were touching the doors, too, as if for good luck.
[Illegible] up our taxi again, we drove round the back of the Forbidden City which in itself was an eye [?], as I’d never imagined what it was like, with lots of canals and old buildings there — and then we visited Beijing’s branch of acDonalds – not to eat, I hasten to say, merely to look at it – and then wandered through a street-market where all manner of take-away food was available. We didn’t risk any… yet, but we were beginning to get the distinct impression that Beijing, at least, had entered the modern capitalist world with a vengeance. Private enterprise was definitely everywhere we looked.
Back at the airport Brian settled (in dollars – they were all keen to have dollars!) with Mr. Xu for the internal flight while we had coffee. The flight, we discovered, was supposed to be at 8:45 that evening, so we had three and a half hours to kill. We were glad we’d gone in to Beijing — the thought of seven hours in Beijing airport (which didn’t have the greatest of facilities) was a daunting one. As it turned out it was also an experience we were to have… and more.
We went through to Internal Flights some time after seven, checking in our baggage. Duty free shut down at eight, the last little shop (where we bought some beers) at nine. Still we’d no news on our flight. Sometime after ten we were told it hadn’t even left Xi’an and that the pilot was refusing to fly both legs of the flight (to Beijing and back) that night. Brian stepped in, trying to get some sense out of the officials at the desk — all of whom suddenly seemed to have great difficulty understanding English. Saying that, it was the only time in the whole trip that we encountered this kind of thing. Brian prevailed. A plane was to be made available, but it wouldn’t be leaving until 11:30. That flight – on North East China Airways – was a real experience, a roller coaster of a flight where the air-coniitioning consisted of hand-held fans (you got your own fan in a CNEA box!). We also got dinner of a kind – a packet of mixed nuts and a fizzy orange drink. After 14 hours in a British Airways First Class cabin it seemed, at last, that we were really roughing it! We got in to Xi’an airport (with a real bumpy touchdown) sometime after 1, where Yu Tao (pronounced You Doe) and his driver (another Yu – “but with a different character” he quickly said) met us and drove us back down the highway south to Xi’an.
The night was dark, hot and beautiful. Suddenly I I was in China. I could smell it and feel it all around me. The road from the airport was as good as any in the west, but as soon as we hit the outskirts of Xi’an it was like being in Stoke Newington, with pot-holes everywhere. The driver had a great technique. He [illegible] the middle of the road and swerve to the right to avoid an in his path. It [illegible] work.
I couldn’t stop looking at the houses, signs, people who were about cyclists on the road even at 1:30 in the morning, peasants walking about, vans taking produce here and there. Not a lot of activity, compared (as we found out) to daytime Xi’an, but still more than I expected for that hour. One of the vivid sights I recall is the giant power-plant to the north of Xi’an (south of the road as we sped down it) which loomed like a opening to Hell in that blackness, its fiery mouth topped by a huge black spire of a tawer. Even in the daytime it looked threatening, but in the dark it was truly fright . The kind of you tell stories about to scare little children into going to bed.
Xi’an, much more than Beijing, looked like the China of my imagination. Here were those architectural styles familiar frcm the books I’d read. Driving through those early morning streets was truly like arriving on an alien planet. Or, as Brian later said to me (repeating something his daughter, an SF fan had remarked to him) it probably how Frank Herbert would have felt, arriving on Arrakis. It sounds cliched, but it’s absolutely true. It felt perfectly analogous, and from that moment I knew that I wanted to come back to this place again and again.
We arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at 20 to 2. I don’t know about the other two, but I was feeling rather high after that drive and not in the least sleepy, despite the fact that we’d been travelling now in excess of 32 hours, all told. Even so, sleep we had to at some point, and so we told Yu Tao and the driver to collect us at ten to start the official tour Brian warning him that we’d be quite a few changes to their official itinerary. Yu Tao didn’t seem to mind. “Whatever you want,” he said, in his excellent English, wished us good night, and left us to it.
The Hyatt is a five-star hotel and has an amazingly attractive lobby. It was all very Chinese, but with every convenience a Westerner could ask for. Indeed, I’ve not been in a better hotel in the West. You had a sense that, like the Japanese, they wanted to do everything perfectly, and the standard of service was first rate throughout our brief stay. At reception I was given a message that had come through – a fax from Sue and the girls welcome to China — which I took up with me in the lift, grinning to myself. The room themselves were also great. I settled in, showered, watched half an hour of the BBC news, then settled down in bed with the novel I’d been reading on the flight aver – Liu Heng’s The Obsessed [filming (at Xilan Film Studios!) by my favourite Chinese film director, Zhang Yimou, as “Ju Dou”]. It was well past four when I finally got to sleep.
It was now Friday 11th June. I wake early, thinking, “Yes, David, you’re in China.” I’d slept three hours, but it was enough. What I wanted to do now was see more of China.
I’d been dawn at breakfast an hour before Brian joined me. Geoff surfaced half an hour later, in time only to sip a mouthful of coffee before Yu Tao arrived and whipped us off to our first destination – the tomb of Ch’in Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor, and home of the terracotta army. The daylight drive – some 30 kilometres or so – was, again, fascinating. There was just so much to see – so much that was different, or that was like things I’d read about or only seen in pictures. The countryside itself, with its [illegible] “yellow earth” soil, was totally unlike anything I’d ever seen before. We passed whole villages (dressed in uniform blue) crouched at the roadside, and were told that they come in after their own harvests to find casual work bringing in other farmers’ harvests. The countryside, it was immediately evident, was much poorer than the city — even so, we saw signs everywhere of new building… of extensions to farmhouses and small signs of the new affluence that is sweeping China like a tidal wave.
The approach to the terracotta army site is unexpected. Shops selling all manner of tourist items crowd either side of the broad approach road. The van pulls up at a gate, and then you go through into the site itself. It was here, [standing] in front of the terracotta army for the first time, that we had our second (and last) battle with Chinese officialdom. Geoff wanted to take a reel of photos of me in front of the life-size terracotta figures. The guard wouldn’t let us. We went to the official in charge of Security for the museum. He wouldn’t let us. Who can give us permission then? we asked. Finally we got to the head of the chain of command — the Director of Archeology himself, who came down to greet us personally and give us a handwritten permission (which all the others countersigned). I
posed, Geoff snapped, and we had our shots. It had taken, in all, just under 3 hours to achieve it.
Lunch followed, at a restaurant down the road, where we [ran] into two young American girls who were – bravely, we thought – travelling about China on their own. It was perfectly safe, they concluded. It was something we queried at the time, but were later to agree with profoundly. China does seem curiously unthreatening. That, too, was unexpected.
The restaurant was also part of what might be termed a “tourist trap”, with gift shops and stalls inside, selling all manner of craft objects, most of them really very nice. Arid it was there, among racks of other beautiful old silk clothes, that I found something I’d been looking for for years – a [illegible] blue Ch’ing Dynasty officials jacket – the genuine article, with embroidered sleeves. The stall-keeper clearly thought me mad when I didn’t haggle about his price — $350 (£240) — and a small crowd of local Chinese gathered about him as if to [illegible] at his good fortune, but I knew it would have cost ten times that much if I Id bought it back in London — not that I’d ever seen one there! Curiously enough, Sue had bought me a Ch’ing officials “chest patch” for my last birthday and that 12×11 [?] square piece of embroidered material had set her back £180. This, then, was a bargain and I made sure I had a proper receipt for it in case I was stopped at customs.
Our next stop – a few kilometres up the road – was the Huaqing Hot Springs. Doesn’t sound much, huh? Hot springs… well, in essence this is the most beautiful and fascinating place I’ve EVER been. Hua Ch’ing is the palace of the T’ang Dynasty Emperors, where they used to take their courts and concubines for the months. Nestled in the shadow of Mount Li, which soars 1200 metres over the springs, its a complex of palaces and bathing pools, walkways and balconies, climbing the hillside. The present buildings were built back in the 8th century, but it’s been a site for the official family’s leisure for 2500 years, and – to cap it all – was the place where Chiang Kai Shek was captured by the Commmists in 1936. This one place had enough in it to have kept me busy looking for a good three or four days and we had about 3 hours there. As before, we found the place crammed with Chinese tourists — few Westerners — but despite that I could easily picture the ancient emperors and their courtiers strolling these paths, and the beautiful Fei Yen (the 8th century courtesan who seduced the great T’ang or Huang and made him forget his official tasks) bathing in the heated pools. Nuff said.
If anywhere seems to represent the very heart of ancient China, Huaqing does. For once my expectations were reached and surpassed tenfold. It was this aspect of China, I realised, that I’d fallen in love with, and it didn’t disappoint me. I felt content to have been there once, but want to go again — and this time take Susan and my daughters with me.
There was one final stop on our way back, and that was at Ban Po Neolithic Village. Ban Po is the site of a stone age temple dating back 6000 years, and because it’s one of the oldest tourist sites at Xi’an (they set up the museum in 1958) it’s also one of the dullest. Well, anything would have been a let-down after Huaqing, I guess, but this was very unimginatively laid out. Even so, I came away with the impression that the Chinese of 6000 years ago were a hell of a lot more advanced (and skilled) than the British of the 5th/6th centuries AD. Their flints looked machine-tooled, and their burial pots were real works of art in themselves.
We got back to the hotel at about 5:15. After early rain, and despite being overcast, it had been hot all day and it was good to have a shower and change before our next “item”, which was a banquet with the local Tourist big-wigs. This was as the T’ang Dynasty centre – a great big modern buildim in Chinese style with theatres and restaurants and offices. In a small private banquet room we met the Director of Shaanxi tourism, a Mao-like man named Kong Qi Sen and his co-Director Yang Dong. Kong spoke no English and Yang spoke only German, so we spoke through a young translator – Yang’s assistant, Sun Mao Qiang. Our guide and translator, Yu Tao, was also there, so there were seven of us at the table. Director Kong allowed us to choose what to eat and — bravely, I thought — we tucked in, using chopsticks and turning down the offer of forks and spoons. It was delightful, and the experience of talking with some of the Chinese face-to-face — even the experience of going through a translator – was an exhilarating one for me. We asked them all manner of awkward questions about rivalry between Xi’an and Beijing, about the effects of the Cultural Revolution on people, about what’s been happening over the past 18 months – and they ducked no [?]. Of course, we had the usual “This is what Shaanxi tourism does/what it plans in future” talk from the Director, but I found that quite interesting. One of the more astonishing facts we gleaned from the conversation – a question Brian put – was that there are so many archeological sites around Xi’an that, even using all their resources, it would take some 1500 years to excavate them all. It all made the pyramids and other ancient sites look VERY small.
Director Kong (in his mid-fifties) not only looked like Mao, he acted like one of the old-time [illegible] in many ways. An engineer, he was very much a man of the people and had a delightful habit of picking his teeth behind his hand (as if we couldn’t see it). I warmed to him and sensed that many of his [illegible] were mildly taking the piss out of us. I didn’t mind — nor did Geoff or Brian. It was all very friendly, and we didn’t feel offended in the least. When we departed – an hour and a half after we had gone into the room, it was with a sense that we were on some kind of banquet conveyor-belt, with the German party next to be ushered in.
What now? It was 7:30 and the evening was just begun. Getting Yu Tao to drop us back at the hotel, Geoff picked up his cameras and we decided to walk around Xi’an and have a look at the night life and the backstreets. It was a good decision. That evening, just walking about among the ordinary people of Xi’an was quite memorable. Xi’an is friendly (all the children shout out “Hello! How are you?” to you as you pass) and — as we discussed among us — it was probably one of the few major cities in the world where you could walk about safely and completely unthreatened. We saw whole families squatting out on the streets, a TV set up on the pavement, historical sagas flickering in garish colour from the screen. Food stalls were everywhere and — at night — Xi’an is lit up with neon, like the West End but ten/twenty times as big and two/three times as busy. Cinemas showed modern Western films, the shops were packed with modern Western goods. Communist China? Again, it was hard to believe we were in a Communist country.
By this stage the [aura?] of China had permeated me fully. I was even beginning to smell Chinese! That smell is distinct and haunting — not like the smells you find in Chinatown over here. It’s itself. I also found myself fascinated by the faces. Xi’an has a big Muslim community and the mix of racial types is strong, even though more than 90 per cent of its populace are Han – i.e., black-haired Chinese.]
We got back after ten and should really have gone straight to bed, but after a quick change we met up again down in the luxurious bar (a massive open space at the heart of the hotel) to have a few beers and talk. It was at this point that I discovered Brian’s football badwound and that subject tenied to [illegible] our conversations from that point. He has such a fund of stories that he really ought to write an anecdotal book on football in the 60s and 70s. It was [illegible] listening to it!
It was around midnight when we went to our rocms and though I got to sleep pretty quickly (after all, I’d had only 3 hours sleep in nearly 50 hours). I woke up at about 3 in the morning, cold from the air-conditioning. It was a strange disorienting moment and was the only time in China that I felt distinctly homesick.
I didn’t really get back to sleep again and was up early and down to the restaurant for breakfast. Even this simple thing — having breakfast — is transformed. Out there I sat watching how the waiters and waitresses responded to their customers and saw — [illegible] for me very clearly that the orient is a very different place frm the individualistic West — a place of strict hierarchies and a tradition of absolute deference to authority. The women were curiously subservient, naturally so, one began to feel. Again, I had the sense that old patterns of Chinese behaviour were reasserting themselves after the failed experiment of Communism. And — of course — this once again confirmed what I’d instinctively written into Chung Kuo. That was one of the real pluses of this trip — that what I’d intuitively gleaned of China from a distance was proving true in reality. The Dragon was waking, and at the same time that it was taking a huge economic step into the future it was, at the same time, taking another giant step backwards, into its traditional past.
By the time Brian and Geoff joined me (we were being picked up by Yu Tao at 9) I was raring to go. Our first stop of the day was to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. Now, this is not just a pagoda, it’s — once again — a whole complex of buildings, including drum and bell towers, Buddhist temples and a Mao museum. The seven storey pagoda is 64 metres tall and was built back in 648 AD. Its an impressive building, but what fascinated me much more was the Buddhist temples that surrounded it. These are active, with prayer wheels and small altars where offerings and wax candles are burned to send prayers up to Heaven. It was from here that Xuan Zang, the first Chinese Buddhist monk, went to India and brought back (in a knapsack on his back) all of the Buddhist scriptures that he and his fellow monks translated. Xi’an is thus the centre of Chinese (and Japanese) Buddhism and we were at its very heart. Xuan Zang himself is buried on the site under a minipagoda. For Japanese Buddhists (especially Zen Buddhists) this is becoming a key site and, we were told, 80,000 Japanese had made the pilgrimage that year alone, with many more coming all the while. That said, there’s still a great deal of hostility towards the Japanese — they’re not liked at all by the Shaanxi Chinese, understandably after what they suffered in the 30s and 40s – but their money is VERY welcome.
The Mao museum was fun, too, with cap badges of Mao made into all kinds of imaginative designs, and a table filled with busts of the Great Steersman. It was outside this that a scruffy looking Han accosted us — we thought he was a pickpocket at first — and showed us his remarkable talent. He’d been following us around for a while. Suddenly he pulled out a tiny pair of scissors and, whipping out a piece of black paper, made an instant (i.e., it took him 20 seconds) silhouette of Geoff’s head. It was perfect. We paid him for it, and Geoff had him do another of me while he photographed it. Brian, looking on, mumbled that Geoff might have got one for him and, lo and behold, the man whipped out one of Brian he must have done earlier. All three silhouettes were photographically lifelike.
A walk up on the City Walls was next on the schedule — once again a remarkable experience, for the City Wall of Xi’an is 24 miles long (7 by 5), 40 foot high and 40 foot wide. You could run a marathon on it. For me this was every bit as impressive as the Great Wall, and though this version of the city wall was only built in 1378, when the Ming moved the City to its present site — I could picture for the first time what Chang ‘An (capital of for 1600 years) was once like back in the 2nd Century BC when it was the only truly great city on the face of the earth — a massive place for that time with a million people within its walls and another million living around them.
Next stop the Bell Tower — for me the very centre of the centre of the world. Ever since first seeing it I had wanted to stand there, beside the bell, and another of my dreams came true when Geoff pictured me beside ancient bell. Again, this is not the original bell tower — like much in Xi’an, it was rebuilt by the Ming, in the late 14th century, but what a place where everything “new” is over 500 years old!
In the shop outside the Tower we also got a good deal on terracotta reproduction figures, buying eight of the figures for something like p5 total! Prices in Xi’an itself, please note, are something like a tenth of those at the tourist sites.
Right by the Bell was our next destination, the Defachang restaurant, famous since the 1930s for its dumplings. There we had the 16 dumpling banquet — with heated plate after plate of different dumplings brought to us. By now I was begnning to get the hang of the chopsticks and was eating ANYTHING that was put in front of me (a fact that astonished Sue when I told her later). These were really delightful, and three beers and more than 16 dumplings later I left the restaurant feeling well pleased.
It was a hot day — in the upper 90s — and our next trip was to be our last before we had a break. Wanting to see more of the natural life of Xi’an, we had Yu Tao take us to a live market where we got a good glimpse of where the delicacies we’d been eating came from. It was a regular cornucopia of things strange and alien to the western palette but curiously didn’t put me off at all, even the stall selling eight different kind of live snakes!
Brian was ready for a rest, but Geoff and I were keen to see more, so we arranged to have an hour’s break at the hotel and then have Yu Tao take us out to the “People’s Park” that surrounds the City Wall (a thin strip of land that runs all 24 miles between the wall and the 50 foot [illegible]). That visit was, for me, the very highlight of our visit.
Going through a gate we saw a beautifully cultivated stretch of park snuggled under the impressive walls. You couldn’t have designed it better for a romantic historical. However, there was no one about. We went down a winding path between the greenery and there, facing us, was a bamboo gate — locked with a single padlock. Yu Tao called out and a young boy of eight or nine came across. Words were exchanged and then he came back with an older man – Lao Jen (or “boss”) – Lao Jen chatted with Yu Tao a moment then signalled to the boy, who took out a key and unlocked the gate, letting us inside. Yu Tao explained that no Westerners had ever been inside before and that these were Hunanese people who’d come to Xi’an in the 20s and 30s and stayed on. Further on inside was a tea-house where we sat on bamboo chairs and were brought a full tea-pot and a big thermos of boiling water. [Illegible] out the cups, we drank. It was very pleasant. A little later, however, we found out the real reason Yu Tao had brought us here. “There’s a local opera troupe,” he said.
We walked through and settled at a table. Fortunately we were surrounded by curious locals — hundreds of them, it seemed, all of whom wanted to know who we were and why we were there — nothing hostile, just a frank, [illegible] curiosity. I loved it, and put and answered questions through Yu Tao. Further, we “commissioned” various of the opera singers to sing songs for us – 5 yuan (less than a pound sterling) a song. For this they got made up, dressed in full costume and performed 5/10 minute songs in falsetto voices. It was wonderful. Geoff wanted photos and got me to pose for some time with one of the troupe (a male who dressed as a female in traditional manner), getting him to give us his address so that we could send him prints.
Once again, the old China was before me — especially in the way the women of the troupe would keep up, refilling our tea and lifting them to our mouths, as if to serve men was their only purpose in life. That was strange. For the first time on my visit I felt a bit like Somerset [illegible].
When we finally left, two hours later, I felt really happy, really at ease. China was by now ([illegible] literally) singing in my blood. I had to come back.
Nor was the day over. We’d arranged with Yu Tao that, on that final Saturday night of our visit, he would take us to his favourite restaurant in Xi’an and eat his favourite meal. This turned out to be a place in the [illegible] Muslim quarter in the south-west of the town, the Islamic [illegible] soup parcel restaurant. It was one of many crowding a long alley, with an open front and a staircase at the back, which we went up to get to the f irst floor. The stair handrail, when I grabbed it, was slick with congealed fat. Upstairs we settled in. Table and surroundings were very basic. We looked at each other dubiously. Yu Tao ordered “Beef Soup parcels” — more dumplings, in effect — with a ferociously hot sauce (Again I think they were taking the piss our of us Westerners, because they said it was the mildest!). These “parcels”, however, were without doubt the tastiest and most edible things I’ve ever pushed past my lips. We had seconds and then thirds. But the meal was only half the delight of visiting the Muslim quarter, for the roads there were as narrow as alleys and packed with people out enjoying the evening. Stalls, tables, bicycles – the place was like an oriental jumble sale only with twice as many people, none of whom pushed, all of whom were smiling and polite. Walking through there I could feel the pulse of ancient China all around me. Food (and the enjoyment of it) is the dominant thing in their culture, and to our eyes it seemed (as Geoff noted) that 50 per cent of the Chinese were busy in some way preparing food, while the other 50 per cent were busy eating it!
It was almostt over. Our visit had been tightly arranged and we’d seen a great deal. We were due to rise at 4:15 the next morning to catch an early flight back to Beijing, even so, when we got back to the hotel we were reluctant to go to bed and sat in the restaurant until way after midnight, talking (mainly football, again) and drinking.
Driving back to the airport the next morning was every bit as memorable as the rest of the trip. At that hour the City was slowly coming awake and we drove through all the early signs of activity, glimpsing (again) whole villages of people asleep on the curbside, lined up in rows), sweepers moving the dust about, stallholders wheeling their carts into town… As the dawn came up we got onto the airport road. There, stretching away ahead of us — and a really astonishing sight — was what looked like a small mountain chain but were in fact the tombs of the ancient emperors. There are 73 of them, and each of them is massive, square-based pyramids of earth half a mile long and a quarter of a mile tall, most of them wooded. Each has its approach avenues froin the four directions and huge stone carvings of animals on the route to the tomb. But what will stick in mind most is the site of them stretching away into the distance so many of them, so much history. Once again I found myself in genuine awe of this place, and felt that it ought to be the tourist capital of the world and not just a backwater.
I’d given Xu Wei Xing, the travel guide in Beijing, a signed copy of The Middle Kingdom. On that final evening I also gave Yu Tao a copy. So… there are at least two copies of that in Mainland China now. Maybe one of these days there will be a lot more.
The flight back was relatively uneventful. No delays at Xi’an and none at Beijing. The journey back took us ten hours less, thanks mainly to us flying direct to Heathrow from Beijing — cutting out Hong Kong. The flight path took us over Lake Balaton, Ulan Bator and up into the arctic circle, and so — brief ly — we went into darkness again, even while pursuing the sun about the planet. That was weird. I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. I worked out I’d slept only 11 hours in 4 days, even so I didn’t want to sleep. my head was filled to [the brim] with visions of China.
Once again I found myself watching movies — A River Runs Through It and the awesomely dreadful Home Alone 2. I decided the that I disliked Macaulay Culkin more than anyone on the big screen. I was willing the villains to succeed and mentally screaming “Die, you little little bastard!”
How long had we been gone — it seemed like an age, but it was only, in fact four and a half days. We hadn’t seen a fraction of the tourist sites at Xi’an — you’d need a month at least to do that! — but we had got a really good feel of the place, probably better than most tourists have. I’d also had all of my instincts and intuitions about Chung Kuo confirmed. Not for the first time in 1993, I felt re-energised.
For the week following my return I puttered about, not settling down, but getting administrative tasks done. Then, on Monday 21st, the editing notes finally arrived from the USA, a full three months after I’d sent them out. That was to occupy me for the next ten days solid.
All in all, then, whilst I hadn’t got as far with Book Six as I’d have liked, I had had some marvellous experiences, all of which will feed into the writing. If the second half of the year is as rich and eventful as the first it’ll be quite something! Already scheduled are the World SF convention in San Francisco, and the re-launch of the series here and in the states. And then there’s the writing of Book Six, Song Of A Bronze Statue and of the next Kavanagh/Wingrove script, Capital America. So, until next time…
David Wingrove – Thursday 8th July 1993
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