Giant Despair. And Doubting Castle

Reading John Bunyan’s `Pilgrim’s Progress’ made a tremendous impression on me at about the age of 13 – but then, for the four centuries since it was first published, it had been a perennial popular classic and read by goodness how many people. Bunyan occupies the opposite end of the spectrum to his great contemporary John Milton. Minimal education, a hard life in the lower echelons of society, and 12 years in prison for his non-conformist religious beliefs. But his book has arguably had as great an impact on public consciousness in the English speaking world as `Paradise Lost’.

Rereading it on a whim (in one of those moments of serendipity I was reading something else, it mentioned Bunyan’s book, and I looked up and there it was in my line of sight on the bookshelf opposite me) I can’t say it quite carries the mighty punch it did almost four decades ago. For one, the allegory is like a sledgehammer – which would have gone down well with me then, but what with the intervening complexities of life in between just sounds like a fairy tale now. And a fairy tale, alas, with a pre-determined happy ending.  Where is the fun in that!?

Even so, the start of the book really did read completely unlike anything I remembered of it. I recall the Interpreter’s House, the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Death – and all these were very helpful metaphorical frameworks within which to see life at a Grammar School on the outskirts of London in Kent in the late 1970s! But the opening moments when Christian is described being stirred to leave his home, his family and his community and head off to the Celestial City sound awfully now like a perfect description of someone having a psychotic fit veering towards a nervous breakdown!

Christopher Hill in `The World Turned Upside Down’ put down in granular detail the historic context in which Bunyan was writing – a world of uneasiness, fervour, division, clashing ideologies. Britain in its history has had these moments of perplexity and crisis. The 1536 break with Rome and smashing of the monasteries, the 1648 revolution and the decade of the Commonwealth afterwards, and then the long trauma of the Industrial Revolution. Odd that a dominant image of British history is so often of it being one of imperial splendour and ever-forward marching progress and conservative placidity, till the calamity of the modern period. Bunyan’s protagonist shows a man pissed off with pretty much everything and striving to get out of it every bit as febrile as someone in a modern setting going into meltdown at the parlous state of the country today.

A recent reading of books by Freud and on psychology and psychotherapy did make the reading of the middle portions on Giant Despair and Doubting Castle have added piquancy. Bunyan’s Giant Despair is a great metaphor for dolorous and heavy spirits,  and for the failing of mood. No medication for this pilgrim though – he hoodwinks the imprisoning Giant, and in the next book, Humility or Mercy or some such slays him. But as we are constantly reminded in the `Pilgrim’s Progress’, this is all a dream, even if, as Freud taught us, dreams do mean. Giant Despair

Stories of a Hard Life from a Skeleton: The Mass Grave at Durham

This is from this month’s `British Archaeology’  ( – the story of an excavation in Durham, where bodies of soldiers taken after a battle in 1650 between the forces of Oliver Cromwell and some residual royalists and their mercenaries ended in buried in mass graves.

The prisoners were not deliberately killed, it seems, but the grave where so many of their bodies was found in digs up to last year showed how tough conditions and maltreatment finished many of them off. Analysis on one skeleton, number 21, turned up some incredible things, and shows just how far science has come today. From tests, the laboratory was able to identify where the person was born, their diet, what times in their life they had suffered illness, and the kind of home they had lived in. The description goes:

`In childhood he suffered hunger or disease, as well as anaemia. In the 1630s he lived in western Scotland and while still a child he moved again. He had chipped teeth and painful dental abscesses. He had herniated a disc in the idle of his back, perhaps by heavy lifting or simply by sneezing while doubled over… He suffered two more episodes of malnutrition, one in his late teens and another at around 21. A few months before his death he was wounded above his left eye… After the battle and march, he spent some time as a prisoner in Durham Cathedral. There be probably fell ill with dysentery before being transferred to the castle, where he died of his illness.’

As the article goes on to say, archaeology is a remarkably democratizing force. `We probably know as much about this group of men as we do about anyone who lived in 17th century Scotland.’ Skeleton 21’s story is a remarkable haunting one – a vivid illustration of the famous statement by Hobbes, the almost contemporaneous philosopher, who wrote in Leviathan of the life of man being nasty, brutish and short. The article finishes this account off with a reconstruction of the prisoner’s face. If you think of just how tough this guy’s life was, it is a haunting portrait – the emergence from the great anonymity of history, completely unexpectedly, of a face that speaks to us, tells it story to is, and expresses its pain centuries after its death. 20180611_091406

Blood Letters: The Story of a Chinese Martyr

`Blood Letters: The Untold Story of Lin Zhao, A Martyr in Mao’s China’  (Basic Books, New York, 2018) by Lian Xi, is not for the faint of heart. Lin Zhao was commended by Nobel Laureate, the late Liu Xiaobo, as one of the figures who inspired him. He had been alerted, as had the author of this book Lian Xi, to the existence of her writings from prison. They are particularly distinctive not solely because of the account they give of great deprivations and suffering while incarcerated before and during the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966, but because many of them were written with her own blood. This was for the simple reason that ink was disallowed to her. She had no other choice but to write the way she did.

The manner in which Lian Xi presents Lin in the opening chapters put me in mind of accounts of the life of the French philosopher Simone Weil. She effectively starved herself to death in the Second World (while working for the resistance in the UK) through a combination of asceticism and lack of self-care. Lian like Weil was herself a Christian, after an initial passionate commitment to the Communist cause. In the 1950s she grew increasingly critical of the Mao regime, and this had developed into an almost reckless disdain by the 1960s. Before the Cultural Revolution had even started, she had been repaid for her critical stance by being tried as a counter-revolutionary and put in jail.

Many of her actions should have been diagnosed, in a more enlightened environment, as personality disorders. She was clearly a highly driven, often very anxious and complex person. These were seen initially as indications of her strangeness, and then as signs of political deviancy as time went on. Prison life only deepened her issues, with a constant diet of mindless brutality and cruelty. Far from being in a place where she might have received appropriate care, she was shoved more deeply into Hell.

The treatment of her is not just an indictment of Mao and the particular style of politics he created, with its constant need of victims and marginalised people to blame everything on, but of a society which was, by the late 1960s, deeply traumatised, self-traumatising, and engaged in spiritual auto-genocide. It is bewildering that so many people acted in the way they did, picking on and victimising figures like Lin, and then executing them in the most inhumane and undignified manner. There is no light at the end of this particular tunnel. Lin was treated with such injustice and lack of compassion that even her rehabilitation in the post Mao period only added insult to injury, as though the Party were admitting its period of acting in such an aberrant way were a temporary loss of its sanity, and just awful bad luck for people like Lin to have been collateral loss during it. Like I said at the start, this book is not one for the faint hearted.

Blood letters


On Swimming and Swimming Pools

`Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero’ by Charles Sprawson (Vintage, 1993) is widely regarded as the best account of the culture and environment of swimming written in modern times. The range of references in the book is impressive. Shelley, Byron, Yukio Mishima (with whom the book ends), and then an historic overview, from the views of the Romans into modern times of the benefits, or ills, of taking to the waters.

Reading the book got me thinking about the places I’ve swum in, and which were the most memorable. I did swim in the Baltic once, just near Helsinki, and remember it not so much for the location (near an island on which there was, I think, an old fort) but the way in which because of the water currents and the strength of the waves it was far more challenging than just doing lengths even in an outside pool linked to the sea. You swim with a sense of vulnerability and danger in places like this, because you know you are linked to the great mass of water that covers the rest of the world. An amazing, intimidating and humbling thought.

The pools in Sydney were pretty magnificent – Victoria Park outside where I swum most days going to or from the university; the open air pool by Luna Park on the north side; the one with salty sea water on Bondi beech (Iceberg?). In Canberra, when it is open (which is about half the year) the very fine Manuka swimming pool has a lovely faded feel about it, with these perpetually empty spectator seats around what was, in my experience, the invariably empty water. I did swim in the Collins Bay water once – not too petrified by the idea of sharks swooping in.

For the rest, the hotel pools in China or Hong Kong or Taiwan are often fun. There’s the Tombraider kind of effort in the basement of the Hyatt in Wangfujing. City centre pools in such a dry city though are a real luxury. The School of Governance in the north east of the city where I sometimes stay at the guesthouse has what it advertises as an Olympic Sized pool (as far as I know, almost all the pools in Sydney make that ranking!) where an attendant once demanded when I was getting in the water to see my `swimming certificate’. I said I was living in Sydney, and for some reason that sufficed and he left me alone.  The Friendship Hotel has a much older, historic pool too, built for the Soviet experts in the 1950s before they all got ordered back home.

European pools are not so dramatic, and the British ones I use are utilitarian. I haven’t swum in the sea water around the Kentish coast for ages. Perhaps I should. When you swim, Sprawson makes clear, you get the chance to think. Pools are great thinking places – as long as some aspiring Olypiad isn’t bearing down on you. He mentions the great erotic print by Hokusai of the girl and the octopus. I don’t know if I think about things like that when I swim. But I certainly do think.


Hokusai octopus woman

Random Associations. Or serendipity.

I went to the Garage coffee place in Canterbury yesterday, to read the final few pages of Freud’s `Introductory Lectures of Psychoanalysis.’ A friend had recently taken me around the Freud Museum in North London, and that had inspired the desire to know a bit more than the few cursory looks I had taken over Freud’s works in the last three decades. Fortuitously, I had Freud’s works in English in the Penguin paperback version on my shelf, and the first volume seemed a good place to start.

The key points Freud makes in these lectures delivered during the First World War in Vienna is about the orderliness of the inner world of people, the ways in which there is an economy between conscious and unconscious forces, and the kinds of symbolic grammar that can be applied, to impose a kind of rational sense on all of this. These texts are a hundred years old now, amazingly, but one still reads them with a sense of excitement that here, at last, was someone trying to conquer the world under the waking world. It is all the more extraordinary that Freud does it with such preternatural calm!

This reading is on the back of re-reading Proust’s great `Remembrance of Things Past’. I’d waded through this more as a feat to just say I’d done it than with any real comprehension in the early 1980s, and the sole memory I had of that was the way that Proust’s endless sentences with their sub clauses and sub-sub-sub clauses weave their way in and out of your consciousness. This reading, with thirty years of experience and life intervening, was much richer and more enjoyable. The question of conquering time and bringing the past into the present so that it is ever-present, really resonated with the things that Freud was writing about. In some senses, the past is always alive, and lives in the memory, ignited by things like smells, sights, things that happen through the day that make our waking lives a kind of palimpsest of different times and different intensities of experience.

While I was reading in the Garage café, an extraordinary thing happened. A song came on the iPlayer. I vaguely remembered it, but not exactly. So I swallowed my pride and got up and asked the barista what the name of the piece was. `Different Drums’ he said, by the Stone Poneys. I checked. From 1967, the year of my birth. So not new! But I then remembered how I had come across it before. When I was working in Beijing as a diplomat in about 2000, I woke up in the China World apartments we were living in then, on one of these foggy city mornings, and this music was stuck in my head, which hung there for days. A few bars of it came back to me over the years, from time to time, but I thought it was just something I had dreamed up. But no! In 2018, on a sunny June Sunday morning, I learn this is a late 1960s pop song I have no recollection of ever having heard (but must have) or knowing about. Freud, or Proust, in practice, I guess. Not so sure what this says about my psychology though – the song itself seems a short, sharp complaint about how no-one seems to understand anyone else!

Books, Sites, Sights, and Other Things

So this is an experiment. I have posted many things on Facebook, and other sites, but I wanted somewhere a bit more durable to put up reviews, and other writings, some related to China, and some to other areas.

I write mostly about China, and am Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. But all things have a link with China, in some ways, and therefore my interests stray according to what books happen before me, or what places I visit and people I speak to. So this blog will be an attempt to write about some of these things. Nine_Dragons_Scroll

Without neurotic people, most great art would never have been produced – Marcel Proust