Notes from Nanjing

The following notes (relating to my time in Nanjing in 2009) were found in an old notebook, unearthed this week while I tidied my office.

Day 1, in the airport (Frankfurt)
The smoothest landing coming into Frankfurt that I have ever experienced (I almost slept through it). Going through security I had to remove the 99p bottle of water I had bought in Bristol and drink it before I was allowed into another dingy booth. The German security people thought this frightfully funny and laughed like very efficient drains. I couldn’t see the joke, but perhaps it had been an unusually boring day (or perhaps the national stereotype is inaccurate, and the Germans are a nation of childlike, humorous people). Security in Britain resulted in my incredibly dangerous sun-cream and deadly deodorant being confiscated. The man was unmoved by my argument that sun-cream is too thick to be considered a liquid as such; he was also unable to explain how placing the deodorant in a plastic bag rendered it harmless. As soon as they let me through, of course, I was free to stock up on other, more sinister fluids at the duty-free Superdrug.

I rode the travelator, but this turned out to be a lot less fun on my own. Now I am reading A Dance to the Music of Time (which, so far, I don’t much like), sitting on a comfy chair by a weird bakery (pastry the size of your head, madam? How about if we encrust it with unidentifiable purple crap?), from whence ‘Tainted Love’ is blasting out. The bakery also serves beer (because this is Germany and there is a probably a law about it) and a Chinese man, who might even be on my onward flight, is wearing a purple cardigan that almost matches the pastries, visibly more relaxed than when he arrived and with three empty steins in front of him. Opposite me, a woman is reading the most German newspaper in the world: an edition of Das Bild, with the headline ‘HITLER IN BERLIN SCHATZ STOLLEN’ and a picture of a naked women crouching over a Bratwurst in the middle of a field. The TV cycles ads for HDTV on mobile telephones, urging us to watch CNN on a screen the size of a golf-ball. Don’t they see how they undermine their own sales pitch by telling us this via a screen nine feet long?

Day Six, Nanjing
Signs I Have Seen: ‘Dagoba’ as a misspelling of ‘pagoda’ (‘we can’t possibly repel a Buddha of that magnitude!’) and a sign in the hotel clamping down on guerrilla sewing cells (‘No Smocking’).

Day Ten, Nanjing Holocaust Museum
P [Chinese colleague] suggested that we [myself, colleague James, and John, the husband of our American colleague] might visit a museum together on our day off, which we thought sounded like a fun and educational way to spend the day. The taxi pulled up outside an enormous building with a statue of a weeping woman on the pavement beside it. This should have told us that ‘fun’ and ‘educational’ were the wrong words entirely.

The signs in the holocaust museum, commemorating the Rape of Nanjing in 1937, are confused about how many people were killed – it might be 30,000 (all the students in Bristol), or it might be ten times as many (the entire population of Bristol). Either number is plausible in a city of so many millions of souls.

First there are piles of dusty bones in fish-tanks (almost all adult femurs. They do not look real). Then we move into a darkened room with illuminated glass boxes around the walls. The signs, as I say, are curiously uninformative. There is no mention of the thousands of (actual) rapes perpetrated by Japanese during the (metaphorical) rape of the city itself and I wonder if this is because they simply don’t ‘count’ in the face of so many murders. P seems largely unmoved, and I think James and John are more surprised at being taken on a fun day out at a holocaust museum than anything else. I am comparing this room with Pit 1 in Xi’an. The terracotta warriors marching away in perfect silence are creepy after a while; one keeps expecting them to step forward (all of them, all at once). They don’t, of course.

In the centre of the room is a partially excavated mass grave. Not a reconstruction, but an actual mass grave. The skeletons lie where they fell in 1937. There is a skull with no jaw. There are numerous children. There are couples huddled into each other’s arms. There are several with nails driven through their joints, bright orange with rust. The earth is grey and the bones are brown, and the whole thing is lit up with festive fairy-lights. The colour of each light indicates the gender and estimated age of each victim. There is no explanation offered anywhere of what the Japanese hoped to achieve or why the Chinese did not fight back, and that lack of narrative makes the museum feel pointless and not like a museum at all. Nobody is trying to educate me. No attempt has been made to understand any of these awful deaths and I don’t feel equal to the task. I turn to P to check that he is OK; the whole thing is utterly bewildering and I think I might cry out of sheer frustration. P is fine and takes my question as more P-centric than I intended. He was not there, he says, and there is a reason that he was not there. So, he is OK. I was not there either, and I’m now even less sure why it bothers me so much (and him so little). All of the bones look like children to me and the illuminated panels give more gory details of impaling, bayonets and possible drowning, as the site of the grave appears to have been a shallow pond. This is based on the discovery of snail shells, some of which are on display, rather than the testimony of survivors. Were there any survivors? The Japanese escaped with their lives, I assume? Or, perhaps, some of the Chinese were allowed to live, or some escaped, or were too ashamed to say that they surrendered their weapons on request, but did nothing to reclaim them when they saw what was going to happen. This is what P tells me, when I ask how a force of a few thousand soldiers from a small country can invade a much larger country, march through the middle of the land (Nanjing is not a coastal city) and murder thousands of people in broad daylight. Did the Japanese have superior weaponry, I ask? No, says P. They are better mentally. What does that mean? When the Japanese tell them to put down their guns, they do it, he says. And when the killing started, I asked? P shrugs and I have learnt nothing today.

Day Twelve, Nanjing
Today a student told me that he wanted to broaden his ‘horizontals’ by investing in the ‘stocking market’. I said, ‘I hope your plan holds up’ and nobody laughed. I miss home.

No Means No

One of my jobs when I work in China is to conduct mock Oxbridge interviews with those planning to study arts or social sciences, and I make a point of praising them for answering a question directly, rather than using it is a peg on which to hang their knowledge of a given subject. This is for several reasons:

i. I want to help my students practise some intellectual and verbal discipline;
ii. it isn’t polite to avoid a topic you’ve just been asked to address;
iii. I want them to get used to leaving their comfort zone; and
iv. I have a simple, wholesome appreciation of a direct response to a direct question.

This last applies to other areas of my work, too. For example, consider what an honour and irritation of the first order it must have been to be T.E. Lawrence’s copy-editor for The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The introduction to my edition contains the following telling exchange, under the comment, ‘I reprint here a series of questions by the publisher and answers by the author concerning the printing of Revolt in the Desert’:

[publisher] Slip 28. The Bisaita is also spelt Biseita.
[Lawrence] Good.
[publisher] Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on Slip 40.
[Lawrence] She was a splendid beast.
[publisher] Slip 53. ‘Meleager, the immoral poet.’ I have put ‘immortal’ poet, but the author may mean immoral after all.
[Lawrence] Immorality I know. Immortality I cannot judge. As you please: Meleager will not sue us for libel.[1]

Worse, over the page we find this:

[publisher] Slip 78. Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein, el Mayin and le Muyein.
[Lawrence] Good egg. I call this really ingenious.[2]

I had an interview myself recently, and found myself reflecting as I waited to be called in on how much more comfortable I would have been asking the questions. This is partly because I have had so much more practice in that role, and partly because I am still haunted by the spectres of interviews past. On one occasion (I was a mere stripling of twenty-five ), I was asked, ‘and when do you think you might be taking maternity leave?’ I replied (somewhat tartly) that I could only assume this was a trick question to test my knowledge of employment law and that clearly they didn’t really mean to ask me about my future womb-related plans, because that would be illegal. There was a horrible silence, which I broke by picking up my things and leaving.[3] Today, as I was tidying my desk (thereby unearthing, among other things, the nail scissors, a dozen curtain hooks and several hundred dead shopping lists), I found the notebook I took with me to Shanghai in 2013 and 2014. This included notes from two interviews I conducted with Chinese students, one at either end of the quality spectrum.

Cathy was very unusual, for two reasons. Firstly, she wanted to study Archaeology and Anthropology (the only Chinese student I have ever worked with to choose these subjects). Secondly, she was effortlessly good in interview. My notes give a flavour of the conversation:

– C notes that ‘official history’ is written by the victors and therefore not to be trusted [I asked her where she had read this; ‘I didn’t read it; it’s obvious’, she said]
– Asked to discuss the Rape of Nanjing and how it is described variously by Chinese and Japanese historians. Excellent examples; thoughtful, non-judgemental answer. Pressed on snails in Nanjing Holocaust Museum [see my own thoughts on visiting this museum in Notes from Nanjing and The fish that is black]; responded by drawing a snail to check that she had understood the word correctly and speaking eloquently and thoughtfully for nearly two minutes on why the snail shells could be viewed as poignant rather than macabre.[4]
– Asked to distinguish between Arch and Anth. and demonstrate how old things can still teach us things. Eloquent example using Chinese characters.[5]
– Asked to contrast political systems appropriate to small and large countries. Excellent example comparing China with Sweden. Knew more about European political systems than either of the PPE students interviewed earlier in the day. When asked how she knew so much about it, she said simply, ‘I read’.
– Asked to compare capital punishment as used in modern-day China and as used in an ancient culture. She chose imperial Rome and described the Tarpeian Rock as more appropriate in her opinion than current methods, on the grounds that death was likely to be quick, but that it retained ‘an element of spectacle and therefore fulfilled the state’s aim of deterrent’ (her words!). Asked to name current methods of execution in China, she listed hanging and the firing squad. Unprompted, she then observed that these methods haven’t been used in Europe for several decades and that she felt the way in which a country treats its prisoners is a good benchmark of how civilised it is.  

Contrast this with the weakest student from 2014. He was so terrible that I’m not going to use his name: let’s just call him Bozo. He wanted to study Music (‘I want to sing like Michael Bublé. I may need to study for long time to achieve this dream.’ You’re right, Bozo. Singing like Michael Bublé is an unattainable ambition). As my notes make clear, his week began inauspiciously (‘I have had to wake this student several times during lectures. He is reluctant to show his Personal Statement to any of the staff, because, I assume, this would make it clear how little he has done, and how many times he needs to be told to do something before he does it’) and came to the ignominious conclusion that ‘[i]f [Bozo] succeeds in attending a good university, it will be down to the work put in by people other than himself.’ I was, therefore, not looking forward to interviewing him.

I usually try to put students at their ease by (initially) asking them about things they know about. This was not a success, because, as I wrote in my notes,

[Bozo] knows very little about his subject. I tried to focus on vocal music because he doesn’t play an instrument (!). He made numerous factual errors … [for example] when asked to describe the differences between European and Chinese opera, he stated that Chinese opera is ‘more sadder’ and characterised European opera as inherently comedic (!?). I asked him to name an example of a European opera that he would describe as a comedy. He named Carmen (!!), which he thought was written in Latin (!!!).[6] He also expressed an interest in American opera but could not name a single opera, composer or singer.[7] He did better with an exercise about composing for an unusual ensemble, although he didn’t know what a ’cello is, how it is played or what it sounds like. To crown it all, when asked how he might go about composing and/or arranging a piece of unaccompanied vocal music to help singers keep in tune, he said he would simply add a piano <facedesk>.

We had several more false dawns, each of which made me die a little inside. In desperation I asked him to talk about the only piece of music he had mentioned specifically in his PS, Mozart’s first clarinet quintet (K581). What follows demonstrates why I described this student in my final reports as ‘the weakest and laziest student I have ever had the misfortune to teach’ (and also, in a very strange context, that while ‘yes’ doesn’t always mean ‘yes’, ‘no’ really does mean ‘no’).

Me: You mention polyphony in your PS.
Bozo (laconic): Yes.
Me: Can you tell me what polyphony is?
Bozo: Yes.
Me (after a short pause): Can you tell me what polyphony is right now?
Bozo: No.
Me (mystified): Why not?
Bozo (reassuringly): Because I forgot.
Me: I see.[8] Well, since you’re intending to specialise in vocal music, can you tell me anything about vocal polyphony?[9]
Bozo (sorrowful): No.


[1] T.E. Lawrence, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), pp. 18-19.

[2] One has little difficulty imagining what the copy-editor called it. Ibid., p. 20.

[3] There was also the time when I fluffed a really easy question (‘what is your ideal job?’ The correct answer is clearly, ‘This one, of course!’) because I was too busy trying not to say ‘I want to be Colin Sell’.

[4] This question referred to the Nanjing Holocaust Museum, which is built on top of a mass grave from the Rape of Nanjing massacres. Some of the victims were thrown into a pond (where those that were not already dead then drowned, or suffocated under the weight of other bodies), and one of the museum exhibits consists of the shells of pond-snails excavated when the grave was discovered.

[5] This involved drawing the ancient characters for ‘wife’ (looks very like a woman kneeling) and ‘slave’ (the same figure, but with a male-looking figure holding her by the hair). ‘This tells us much about their society’, she observed. No kidding, Cathy.

[6] I don’t wish to imply that an experimental production of Carmen in which all the characters enjoy fulfilling relationships and nobody dies, proclaiming their joy in starry-eyed, resolutely major-key Latin wouldn’t be worth seeing.

[7] Bozo (confident): American operas are my favourite.
Me (an offbeat answer, certainly, but one can name enough American composers who have written operas for this to be a plausible answer rather than a random guess e.g. Gershwin, Philip Glass, Robert Ashley. Maybe he’s going to name John Adams, and we’ll talk about Nixon in China and this morning will not have been a complete waste of time): What an interesting answer. Can you name a particular American opera that you like?
Bozo (looked doubtful)
Me (wheedling): Or maybe a singer?
Bozo (confident once more): Michael Bublé is my favourite American singer.
Me: He’s not an opera singer. And he’s Canadian.
Bozo: That’s just your opinion.

[8] I really didn’t.

[9] I say ‘specialise’, but that implies he had other options. He didn’t, because, ‘I have also learn saxophone for maybe eighteen months’ isn’t going to cut it at university level. Also, his only Associated Board examination was Grade 5 Theory. He was astonished to hear that this was not the highest grade available.

Indecisive Cake

I grew up in rural north Cornwall, on the outskirts of a tiny village, with no pub, shop or post office, but a medieval church, a village green, and an abundance of cows, foxes and old people. From time to time, we would make an expedition to what passed for civilisation, so as to purchase shoes, duck food and other necessities. Our destination of choice was, occasionally, Launceston (pronounced ‘Laaaaance-un’), where I could get my hair cut in a place called Tangles for £4.50, my mother could buy some curtain fabric she didn’t need, and my father could take us all to the Mad Hatter’s café on Church Street for coffee when being in a conurbation of more than twenty houses got too overwhelming for us.

I mention this because the Mad Hatter’s café (and the cake menu in particular) has passed into family folklore. The café itself is still there, complete with a hundred-strong teapot collection and Alice in Wonderland décor, but it has changed hands and sadly no longer retains its original menu. In the early ’nineties, this included a bewildering list of homemade cakes, all displayed temptingly under glass. If a customer found himself unable (me) or unwilling (Father) to choose just one kind of cake, he could order Indecisive Cake, which consisted of a trinity of slightly smaller pieces of cake (unless they were ‘getting towards the end’ of a cake, in which you got extra), chosen at random by the proprietor. I don’t think we ever ordered anything else.

On the subject of indecision, I read The Mandelbaum Gate recently, which quotes the Book of Revelation in a way that seems relevant. The same passage featured in a service my beloved choir sang in over the summer, at Lincoln Cathedral. In The Mandelbaum Gate, Revelation is quoted as follows:

‘Do you know,’ said this passionate spinster in a cold and terrifying voice, ‘a passage in the Book of the Apocalypse that applies to your point of view?’

‘I’m afraid the Apocalypse is beyond me,’ Freddy said. ‘I’ve never had the faintest clue what it is all about. I can cope with the Gospels, at least some parts, but –’

‘It goes like this,’ she said, enunciating her words slowly, almost like a chant: ‘I know of thy doings and find thee neither cold nor hot; cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other. Being what thou art, lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, thou wilt make me vomit thee out of my mouth.’

Freddy did not reply. People should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one. It was quite absurd.[1]

It seems to me that religion, religious ceremonies and religious texts, while obviously holding value in and of themselves in terms of structured, collective connection with the Almighty, the consolations and comforts of routine, beautiful words, expressive music and the company of friends, also have a practical purpose that is often overlooked: that of providing direction and assistance with the problems of one’s daily life. Freddy’s assertion that ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one’ is, to me, absurd. What is scripture for, other than to be spoken to other people? This passage from Revelation, for example, has wide application. For one thing, it describes beautifully (and succinctly) the problem of indecision, writ both large and small, and the impatience experienced by the more decisive observer. Had we been able to call it to mind, it would have been a wonderful thing to quote to each other in the Mad Hatter’s café. ‘Father!’ I might have said, ‘I know of my doings and find myself neither lemon drizzle nor coffee-and-walnut; I would I wert one or the other.’ ‘Fear not, my child,’ he might have replied, flourishing the menu. ‘For lo! Behold the wonder that is Indecisive Cake!’

We moved to Cornwall[2] just as the village church was entering what Anglicans charmingly refers to as an interregnum i.e. a compulsory pause between vicars.[3] This meant that the parish passed into a sort of Indecisive Cake period of its own: instead of one vicar conducting all the services, we had several celebrants of various flavours, chosen at random by a higher power.[4] They were mostly aged, well-meaning retired vicars who could be relied upon to read the notices clearly and stay calm in the face of the organist (Father again) playing the tune for ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ as we all opened our books to sing ‘Love Divine’ or similar. Two stand out in my memory at either end of the quality spectrum, rather like the angel/devil figures so often used in cartoons to illustrate moral conflict. On the angel shoulder was the late lamented Peter Coster; on the other, a man who we always referred to as the Hobgoblin.[5] Peter Coster was a lay reader of great gentleness and charm. He gave thoughtful, well-constructed sermons about whatever topic had taken his attention that week, and kept to a length and subject appropriate to a tiny congregation of elderly villagers. On the other shoulder, the Hobgoblin was somewhat stronger meat. I think the period I’m talking about here pre-dated Eddie Izzard’s ‘cake or death’ routine, but either way the Hobgoblin did not conform to the notion that you can’t have strong points of view in the Church of England.

I don’t think I ever knew his real name, and in any case the Hobgoblin suited him much better.[6] Top hat notwithstanding, he looked remarkably like the Hobgoblin from Finn Family Moomintroll, with a vigorous beard and dark, menacing eyebrows. The original Swedish title of Finn Family Moomintroll is Trollkarlens Hatt.[7] Trollkarlen (even less recognisable in the Finnish, Taikuri) means ‘Magician’ and the Swedish title (literally ‘The Magician’s Hat’) refers to the Hobgoblin’s search for his magical, transformative top hat. Our Hobgoblin (who may or may not have flown through the air on a panther and may or may not have mislaid the King’s Ruby) had spent some considerable time in the Holy Land, and treated us to wild, distinctly-made-up-sounding declarations, declaimed in Foreign with outstretched arms and blazing eyes.[8] Presumably some of these were blessings and Biblical quotations, but how were we to know? He could just as easily have been translating the parish magazine on the spot. One might modify Freddy’s sentiment accordingly: ‘people should definitely not quote the Scriptures at one in a language one does not understand’.

It is reasonable to expect a congregation of Cornish pensioners to find the Hobgoblin somewhat off-putting, with his outbursts of Hebrew/Aramaic/Yiddish/whatever and mad sermons (some violently anti-Semitic, some only mildly so). I remember one in particular based around the Book of Revelation (possibly even chapter 3, as quoted above), which was almost entirely unintelligible as, channelling Amos Starkadder, he bellowed at us that we (fourteen-year-old me, my parents, and a handful of septuagenarians) were sinners of the first order and should turn aside from the path of fornication before we were gobbled up by the Beast.[9] We took our tongue-lashing in what I assumed was a bewildered silence, but as Father quietly fed a voluntary through the mangle of the tiny, ancient organ to indicate that the Hobgoblin could, if he so wished, sweep magnificently down the aisle and into the vestry, trailing his spotless vestments in a white, cleansing wave behind him, it became apparent that perhaps he knew his flock rather better than I did. He emerged from the vestry, divested (de-vested?) of his vestments, to shake hands with us as we obediently returned our minute hymn-books to the bookcase, and was greeted by Rex, one of the oldest and most Cornish people I have ever known, with a deep bass voice and a handshake of such age-defying vigour that exchanging the peace with him was fraught with danger (‘Peace be with WHAT THE HELL?’). Grasping his hand (the Hobgoblin didn’t flinch as his knuckles were ground into finger paté) and looking him straight in the eye, Rex rumbled, ‘Nice sermon, vicar.’

I don’t know how to apply the Indecisive Cake metaphor to this situation. Should one assume that, were Rex ordering vicar-cake, he would be content to dine on Mad Ranty Sponge every Sunday? Or is it more likely that, just as a broken clock is right twice a day, the random vicar-selector was bound to match up with the theological preferences of one of the shuffled inhabitants of the village sooner or later? I’m talking here about style rather than content – I don’t think for a moment that our tiny hamlet was a hotbed of Jew-hating fornicators (although there may have been one or two), but rather that perhaps the Hobgoblin’s fire-and-brimstone style is an example of what the passage from Revelation is driving at: being cold or hot, rather than lukewarm. I take this to mean, in some sense, having the courage of one’s convictions to either be what one is, or to choose what one will be, however distasteful this might appear to others. The Hobgoblin, regardless of what he actually said, did at least fit one set of ideas about what religion ought to be: passionate, taken seriously, and declaimed without shame or self-consciousness. I said earlier that I didn’t feel his Sodom and Gomorrah sermons had much overlap with the needs of his parishioners, but perhaps that isn’t right. Perhaps from time to time, one feels the need for someone who knows whether they are cold or hot. Cold or hot, I would thou wert one or the other.


[1] Muriel Spark, The Mandelbaum Gate (London: The Reprint Society, 1965), page 16. Biblical Quotation from the King James translation, Book of Revelation, chapter 3. As I noted in a previous post (see Why Don’t You Do Right?), one should always give one’s sources.

[2] When I say we moved to Cornwall, we actually did. We sold our house in Henley-on-Thames and moved to Cornwall. I mention this because people sometimes assume that the house in Cornwall was a second home, and that therefore we were contributing in some way to the gradual evisceration of the countryside and the communities that live therein. We weren’t: we actually lived there, all the year round. This assumption used to annoy my father so much that sometimes he would bellow at tourists, ‘get out of the way! I’m a LOCAL!’

[3] I don’t know why the church uses this word. Since it refers to a sort of lull, between the acts rather than between kings (and one rarely meets a kingly vicar), ‘intermission’ might be a better term.

[4] The Rural Dean, according to Father, although I think it’s clear he was merely the Lord’s instrument (as are we all).

[5] Discussion with Father revealed that he always assumed Peter spelled his surname ‘Coster’ as in costermonger, and I always assumed ‘Costa’. I have used ‘Coster’ here as a. Father is more likely to have seen it written down and b. this makes the whole name closer to Paternoster, which pleases me greatly.

[6] Father comments as follows: ‘None of us knew the Hobgoblin’s name except the senior churchwarden, who didn’t share as if we might be contaminated.’ Father does not indicate whether we would contaminate the Hobgoblin or he would contaminate us.

[7] Tove Jansson, while Finnish, wrote her books in Swedish.

[8] The first time he did this, I whispered to my mother (both of us cowering in the pews, unable to look away), ‘is he speaking in tongues?’

[9] From my maternal grandmother’s diary, Sunday, Jan 24th 1929: ‘Screaming minister at church’. Nothing new under the sun.