It’s many years since my career took a surprising, not to say wrong, turn and I found myself catching the train from Birmingham to Solihull every day to my job in the Tax Office. This was in my early twenties and it was so long ago that smoking was still allowed in the office – though only just. I was training to be an Executive Office (Higher Grade). I had taken the civil service exam and, given that I had barely scraped a pass in ‘O’ Level Maths, it’s strange that I was sent to the Tax Office, especially as I had asked for Social Security. I am inclined to think that it was simply a mistake. I lasted four months before deciding that I had better return to academic life. It was a difficult time, and Trollope’s Palliser novels which I read on the train, at lunch-time, and at every spare moment, were a great consolation. I had a parallel life in the world he had created and I loved his authorial voice, so measured and humane. He was like a wise, older friend. Over the next few years, I read nearly all of his forty-seven novels (and have since re-read quite a few). I almost chose to work on Trollope for my PhD.
It’s 200 years since he was born and there was an item in the Guardian a few weeks ago in which various writers discussed their favourite Trollope novel. It set me thinking about mine. It’s not an easy choice. I love the Palliser novels with dear old Planty Pall and the flighty Lady Glencora, a marriage which somehow against all the odds does work. I much admire the stand-alone, The Way We Live Now, sharper, darker in its analysis of various kinds of corruption in both private and public life. I like The American Senator with its merciless dissection of the workings of the marriage market. For pure humour, there’s Barchester Towers and the oleaginous Mr Slope’s hapless courtship of Mrs Bold. Perhaps I could cheat and have all the Barchester novels bound into one volume, but failing that, I think I would have to go for The Last Chronicle of Barset, where lots of old friends appear and so many stories are wound up and Mrs Proudie meets her nemesis. That was the one I slipped into my case on my trip to China as insurance against my Kindle conking out. Trollope himself regarded as his best and who am I to disagree with the master?
This was a great idea for an exhibition: Impressionist paintings connected with the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who was so important in promoting the work of Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, Pissarro and Sisley. Everything here was either sold by him, owned by him or in one of the influential exhibitions that he organised in Paris, London or New York. I’d had no idea quite how influential he was in the lives of these artists. To give just one example: he transformed the fortunes of Manet. After seeing two pictures at the house of an artist friend of Manet’s, he visited Manet’s studio and bought twenty-one paintings for a fabulous sum. Up until that point he had hardly sold anything. Durand-Ruel’s support of the Impressionists was far from being just a commercial proposition. He loved their work, had his and his family’s portraits painted by Renoir, and kept some of their paintings to the end of his life.
The exhibition is fascinating, but it’s also pure visual pleasure. I went on Wednesday and it was the ideal day to see it. I came out into a day of blue skies and trees coming into leaf. Perfect Impressionist weather.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In the case of the First Emperor, plenty does remain, and yet the hubris is the same in the idea that these thousands of soldiers – over 6,000 buried in this one pit alone – could go with him to the afterlife and continue his life of conquest. For over two thousand years, no-one knew they were there and they would probably still be buried if a peasant had chosen to dig his well elsewhere.
Around a kilometre away is the Emperor’s burial mound. It hasn’t been excavated, for fear of destroying fragile artefacts. Legends tell of a vast underground complex recreating the world above with rivers of mercury and ceilings studded with pearls for stars. It doesn’t attract many visitors as the pits containing the warriors because there is little to see. It is just a large mound covered with vegetation and it was peaceful on the beautiful spring day that we strolled along the tree-lined walks around its base, feeling the sun on our faces and listening to the birds singing.
On a cold day in January 1937, the body of nineteen year old Pamela Werner, daughter of an elderly ex-consul, was discovered near the Fox Tower in Peking with her heart ripped out. Paul French’s book, Midnight in Peking, follows the abortive investigation into the crime, brings new evidence to light, and offers a solution to the mystery.
It was fascinating to read this actually in Beijing where some of the old hutong (narrow streets lined with courtyard houses) that are described in the book still remain. French draws a fine picture of life in the capital in 1930s, and his depiction of the sleazy side of the city and of ex-patriate life is very convincing. His research has been very thorough and what makes the book is his discovery of an investigation carried out by Pamela’s father when the official one had failed. He wrote again and again to the Foreign Office detailing his findings and French discovered the cache of letters and it is these that allow him to suggest a solution.
The book was gripping and some of the evidence was compelling, but still I wasn’t quite convinced. Some loose ends were left – perhaps inevitably. This wasn’t an easy read, and rightly so: what happened to Pamela was horrible. Perhaps my unease stemmed from the fact that I don’t read much true crime. I kept reminding myself that these things happened to an actual person – and not so long ago. Pamela’s life was not only very short, but very sad. She was adopted and her adoptive mother died when she was only five. That feeling of sadness is what I am left with.
Here’s a picture of a hutong today.
I had plenty of books on my e-reader (and a little World’s Classics edition of Persuasion, just in case), but what I actually read during my first week in China was a book that I found at the splendid Red Wall Garden Hotel in Beijing. I like the custom that’s grown up of people leaving their holiday reading behind. You can come across some good things that way. Years ago I discovered a copy of Michael Connolly’s The Concrete Blonde in a hotel in Greece and he became one of my favourite crime-writers.
It is always fascinating to see what other people have been reading. A day or two into our holiday we were having lunch in a hotel in one of the hutongs, the old residential quarters of Beijing, and I spotted a veritable library of discarded paperbacks. The books were divided into escapist crime fiction and solid classics, pretty representative of my own holiday reading. Agatha Christie’s N or M ? rubbed shoulders with Kakfa’s The Trial, A is for Alibi with Portrait of a Lady and The Great Gatsby. I was pleased to see a copy of The False Inspector Dew by my friend, Peter Lovesey.
The book I found in the Red Wall Garden Hotel was Paul French’s Midnight in Peking: The Murder That Haunted the Last Days of Old China, highly appropriate reading, and I’ll be saying more about it in another post.
And as for the actual holiday, less than a fortnight ago I was actually standing on the spot on the Great Wall from which my husband took this photograph.