Friday, July 3, 2015
In researching a book such as A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA one longs for a holy grail to be discovered, and preferably before it goes to print. Even so, I'm not complaining about a major find that has just fallen into my lap.
Conciseness as an author was never one of Jack's virtues and sometimes he writes at length. He often loved his drivers' wives, especially 'Mrs CMS' and she is accorded a long newsletter article that appears in my book as Chapter 5. It tells how dashing driver Chan Ming San and his lovely wife put on a public performance in the next village that is open to the public and intends to make money. Jack and his friends join the crowd and watch.
This chapter is no less than seventeen pages long, though there is hardly a dud sentence. But could I find any illustrations to break up the mass of text? I have no photos of Mrs CMS and have no idea what she looked like as the drivers' wives only seem to have been photographed in wedding pictures. So we know her by words alone, though there are plenty of these and nice ones too.
But now, out of the blue, a treasure trove of images has surfaced in Seattle.
In Chapter 7. Jack writes extensive letters to Spencer Coxe at the China Desk in Philadelphia about plans for the Transport Unit's closure. He also sends Spencer several articles about China that Spencer is trying to get published in the USA. Now, sixty five years later, Spencer Coxe's son in Seattle has sent me scans of nine pictures drawn or jotted by Jack intended to illustrate these stories. Three of them seem to be of Mrs CMS and her theatrical show and would perfectly illustrate Chapter 5.
A newly discovered Leonardo, a Titian, a Constable... they would have nothing on this. Not one but a hoard of unknown and undocumented Jack Joneses.
I knew Jack was artist as well as writer and a photo of him drawing appears at page ix of the book, and this and another of his pictures are at page 320. But the new pictures have progressed to new heights and are full of life and energy and I love them.
One is of a bearded Jack feasting at a table while his Chinese friends around him, including some nice looking women, drink and play 'the finger game'. It has a wonderful feel to it.
As you have all bought the book with a bald and unillustrated Chapter 5., let me now show you three of these 'new' pictures with an extract of Jack's text that they should have illuminated.
First of all, could this be Mrs.CMS? I think it is.
And this is how Jack describes her...
... "By this time I had got to know Mrs. CMS well. There were three reasons for this, all connected with our clinic. First of all she had a cough, which she said was TB and I said was too many cigarettes. Then her younger daughter, a tiny child as pretty as a doll, had a persistent eruption of sores on her legs and back which I always was treating. Thirdly, Mrs. CMS recently had a severe attack of mastitis, during which I had been in constant attendance. (See FAU News letter No. ??? for an interesting and authoritative account of this case.) [The question marks in the brackets are in the original Chronicle.] I appreciated Mrs. CMS warmly. She had a grace of carriage which is not often attained by Chinese women; with her dark brown skin, her strangely sleepy eyes, her large un-Chinese mouth, she seemed more like a Balinese woman than a daughter of Han. Often I imagined her sweeping onto the opera stage in gorgeous stately garments, her eyes asleep in a face painted to a dead-white mask, her slim agile hands garnished with rings and long false fingernails and contorted in the preposterous but pleasing gestures of the stylised dance. I longed to see her on the stage. And the first time I was invited to do so I went expecting to be dumbfounded by her grace and beauty."
The first part of the show was dancing... but which one is MRS CMS?
This is what Jack thought of the dancing...
"Progams at CMS theatres always are divided into three parts, like Gaul. First, Les Girls, dancing and singing as a troupe, in solos, in duets, in trios, and in a variety of fetching costumes, all industriously sown on the FAU treadle sowing machine we still keep in “Jeanette’s room”. (Mrs. CMS, that amazing woman, makes all the costumes, too.)
Reluctantly I must admit that she comes nearer to a Baranova than a Schiaparelli. [Irina Baranova, 1919-2008, was a Russian ballet dancer and Elsa Schiaparelli, 1890-1972, an Italian fashion designer.] Some of her ideas are really rather weird: for instance, why was her sister looking extra-ordinarily pretty in spangled blouse and ballerina skirt allowed to appear in shorts that were too, too Chinese, (and moreover had one leg red and the other black?)
After Les Girls, drama. Finally as climax, the Thrills – the tight rope or trick cycling or conjuring tricks. The ritual is fixed inexorably like that of High Mass and woe betide any innovator who dared meddle with the tradition.
Of the three parts of the program, the part I liked best is the second part, the drama. The first part is just crude; frankly, it brings home to you the fact that the antics of chorus girls are merely exhibitionist and therefore obscene; they turn their bodies about like trumpets to catch the light, forgetting that a trumpet is not beautiful in itself but only becomes so when it is used by an artist to express his emotions in music. Even Mrs. CMS herself, if she did but know, is a more pleasing object to the eye as she crouches over the washtub in an old sack of a blue gown than when she turns and twists her body to catch the light, even though her twists and turns are done with a considerable and saving grace. For over her washtub she is expressing something (albeit unconsciously) – her concern for the family perhaps; but dancing on the stage she doesn’t know what she is supposed to be doing. She is not interpreting the music, because she could go through the same routine without any music at all; she isn’t doing it to amuse herself, because obviously she is bored; she has no idea of arousing concupiscent ideas in men’s minds, because she is too Chinese and therefore essentially modest. As far as I can see she just dances because it is the thing to do. It’s part of the game."
The next part of the show involves a performance with a bicycle...
And this is the verbal account of the trick cyclist in the book...
"His is an apparently normal bike with two wheels, but when he stands in the middle of the stage and swings it around him with one hand on the saddle, he can make the front wheel and handlebars rotate like a top. Then he vaults into the saddle. He does one lap of the fifteen foot square stage in that conventional attitude, but that is all. For the next five minutes he rides the bike in every conceivable manner except the orthodox one. Impossible to describe his agility. To anyone familiar with Chinese cyclists he appears to be a miracle. (It will be recalled that in the Olympic games the Chinese cyclist was so amazed at completing the course without mishap that he fell off after crossing the line for no reason whatever, unless it was sheer surprise, and was carried off unconscious on a stretcher, and never heard of again). For five minutes this hero continues to give as polished an exhibition of trick riding as I have ever seen, even at the Finsbury Park Empire, where I used to have a regular sixpennorth of the gallery on Saturday nights in the winter, and saw all the marvels of my age in the early thirties. The audience watches spellbound. Like Americans I think the Chinese are always more readily bewitched by virtuosity than by art. But the climax is still to come.
Enter the cyclist’s two wives bearing three ordinary fan-t’ien stools apiece. They pile them up in two piles close together, one pile being at right angles to the other. (“I see some reckless foolishness is about to be indulged in,” says Peter.) When the two piles have passed certain tests of their rigidity the two wives squat down beside them to hold them steady.
It is instructive to see them, the big swaggering wife who plays the handsome bully on the stage and in real life, the little sullen rather pretty wife whom one has often heard sobbing her heart out for hours on end, thus combining to assist their lord and master to put on his great piece de resistance. Soon he lifts his bicycle and stands it on the two piles of stools, which are placed like a capital T, which is towards the audience. Balancing it carefully, he stands on one pedal. He maintains his balance by allowing the front wheel to move an inch or two to the right or left; if it went much further it would run off the stool altogether and he would come down in a fine tangle of bike and stools, probably maiming the small wife in the process. (One feels that the bigger one would have the good luck to get out of the way).
Now slowly he lowers himself to a squatting position on the pedal and with infinite difficulty, the front wheel jerking backwards and forwards along the top of the front stool, he begins to thrust his head under the cross-bar. It is an awful struggle to get his head through, a struggle which holds all watchers breathless. The small wife has dropped her head on the thin arms with which she is holding the front pile of stools steady; it looks as if she is praying, praying that the trick will succeed. At last his head is through; cautiously one hand comes off the handlebars, follows his head through the frame, reaches blindly up for the handlebar again. The hand gropes and jerks foolishly; people begin to laugh, but there is anxiety in their laughter; the front wheel moves dangerously far to one side and back again.
Suddenly the hand closes on what it seeks. It is easier now. The rest of his body follows through the frame; then one leg arrives and is placed on the pedal; then at last the other leg, and he strikes a triumphant pose, standing on one leg on the far side of the bike from which he started. There is a light spatter of applause which in China amounts to an ovation. One hopes that he will descend from his perch satisfied, and rest on his laurels. But he hasn’t finished yet. He intends to subject our nerves to an even more violent strain.
Carefully he lowers himself to a squatting position on one pedal again and begins to repeat the trick backwards. The sweat is pouring from his face. He has an even fiercer struggle to get his head under the cross-bar. The gropings of his hand are more prolonged and almost frantic; the bike wobbles so violently that he comes within an inch of disaster; his hand is raised jerkily again and again like that of a drowning man. There is something ludicrous about that fumbling, desperate though it is; impressive; and one sympathizes with the laughter, though unable to join in. Suddenly he has snatched what he was seeking. The trick is as good as over. With a sinuous movement he snakes the rest of his body through the frame and strikes an Eros pose on one pedal again. There is nothing stagey about his smile; he is genuinely pleased with his achievement. “That is all for tonight, please come again”, he cries, and then he leaps lightly to the stage, catching the bike as it falls after him. The three-course meal has been served: part one, Les Girls; part two, the play; part three, the thrill. The show is over."
I told you it was long, but at least there are now some illustrations. I guess it means I'm going to have to do a second printing of the book including the lost sketches.
Am I too, as well as Jack, qualifying as a 'heroic nobody'.