The Blog

Manorbier Castle Chronicles

We were late for dinner with the British ambassador, Sebastian Wood, amiable and not in the least pompous, we talked about the theatre and the Chinese art exhibition at the V and A, and kept off politics.

I have been in Beijing for my exhibition at the Liu and De Biolley Gallery situated in a Qing dynasty temple in one of the last remaining quarters of old Peking proper. There I could sense the demon fox spirits stealing the souls of Manchurian warlords at night. By day, in the brilliant sunshine, the sparkling and dry Peking air was like petillant champagne. In the Hutong courtyard, I listened to the cook, a singing along in descants to Chinese opera while my host, Liu, an actor and a baritone belted out arias, and in the distance came the lingering plangent sound of Aeolian harps; the pigeon flutes, that owners fasten to the wings of their pet birds before they take flight and then return to their cages. I lingered in the hutong courtyard amongst dangling pumpkins and feathery acacia trees swaying in the gentle zephyrs as walnuts fell on the ancient flagstones.

I was in an oasis of calm at the Buddhist temple compound, outside the gates, there was a squalid teeming populace in the labyrinthine lanes of pavement industries, lined with Acacia trees and Chinese lanterns dangling from the eaves carved with figurines and demons. But beyond the old city walls and forts was the new booming Beijing. Although the city is modeled on a medieval compass axis, it is a seemingly never-ending metropolis; a futuristic blueprint for hell. The air is almost a matter; dense with grit, smog, and mephitic fumes. Every time I breathed it was as if I had wrapped my mouth round an exhaust pipe. Dust blows off the Gobi desert clouding the sun and most people wear masks.

Eight lane highways cut swathes through miles upon miles of monstrous towering, gleaming glass and concrete behemoths and only a few skyscrapers have architectural merit. In China's capital, leviathan hotels are so vast, there are mini trains to transport guests and their shopping malls make Westfield seem like a village green in contrast. And whats more Shanghai is even more gargantuan and metroplitan, while over China, cities are springing up the size of London in a matter of two years.

During my stay I made forays to have intense massages and to dull embassy evening entertainments. I glimpsed Tiananmen Square, which to me was just a hundred pointless empty square acres flanked by the Chairman's tomb and his great pudding face looming up at the entrance to the Forbidden city; these sights I had seen 17 years ago and I had no inclination to revisit them.

For the first two nights I stayed in a hotel occupied by Tibetan lamaseries. Pillows stuffed with barley husks did not allay my jetlag, which improved when I decamped to a four poster bed with snug flannel sheets and a battalion of Chinese teddies to keep me company at Jehanne de Biolley's and her husband Liu's rickety and bucolic hutong; a traditional house with hand-blown glass fenestration, built around a courtyard shaded by acacia and walnut trees.

Still jetlagged and severely culture shocked my first port of call was to the British Embassy, who had opened its steel security gates to allow me in, as the ambassador had graciously invited me to sketch a view of the residency

Here was a reassuring chunk of blighty, a tray of tea and scones on the verandah, and a verdant lawn with well stocked flowerbeds. The reception rooms, hung with an Auerbach canvas, a circus by Duncan Grant, a Chrisopher Wood Brittany landscape, a vase of flowers by Winifred Nicolson and a WWI trenches view by John Nash was scrupulously tidy, not plumped cushion out of place and nare a book or photograph anywhere while the dining room was painted oxblood red and hung with 18th and 19th century portraits of dignitaries and Sino-philes.

The next day was vernisssage day; the hang of the exhibition, the gallery space was in a 16th century Qinq pillared temple with high ceilings of ancient rafters painted with calligraphic insignia. However it was cluttered up with Qing lacquered furniture, China white buddhas, ziggurats of red silk boxes, Liu's ingenious contemporary furniture, precious Ming vases and Han pots, huge portraits of Mao as a young man and some large Ikat looms. There was a battery of painters and decorators, cleaners, an Egyptian secretary, an Austrian assistant and my god -daughter Constance, who was on a brief internship to learn how to run a gallery and to be my assistant. But in spite of all hands being on deck, it was chaos, the price list and titles were a mess, written and mistranslated in all sorts of different languages and scripts.

It was a herculean task to de clutter and feng chiei the place, which is a traditional Chinese custom to design spaces that usher in air and light and keep out the demons, which cannot enter via straight angles and lines.

Minutes before the gallery threw open its doors, the price list and labels were still a muddle, and had to be written out by me, not being very monetary minded, I left noughts off the long denomination Chinese Yuan currency on some of the labels, so that some pictures were either £40, 0r £400 when they were supposed to be £4,000, and to add further confusion I had scribbled the Japanese Yen sign.

The exhibition 'Travels in Ancient lands', that consisted mainly of etchings and paintings of ruins from Asia Minor, Yemen, and the Maghreb, was alien to the Chinese audience, who were nether the less fulsome in their praise and took hundreds of photos and posted them immediately out onto Weibo a Chinese version of facebook which is forbidden there. While google and world wide web is like watching paint dry as emails are monitored by a massive surveillance machine. The mobiles are so advanced that all you have do, to join Weibo with another, is rub mobiles together, which then instantly signs them up.

The private view began at two, teeming with expats, (who were mainly Italian and one English aristocrat, Michael Cecil,) and ended around midnight with Liu's opera troupe singing arias around the grand piano in the drawing room while the children in the courtyard did a rendition of Saturday Night Fever

It was a long long day. Before the private view in the morning we kicked off with a Royal Asian Society talk on which I was a panelist about the preservation of ancient buildings. My friend Jane Mulvagh, my god-daughter's mother stressed the importance of establishing something akin to the National Trust. So little of old Peking stands as the building boom continues unabated.

So far as I could see it was still the wild-west in the east, where private affluence hovers indecently above public squalor; Fleets of Rolls Royces purr along the roads past armies of rickety motorized tricycles. Many families live in tenement blocks with one bathroom and kitchen to share among four other families and one landline to share among a hundred. The Chinese have had a massive social upheaval in tandem with equally massive growth in GNP and in inequality. A vast country with a quarter of the planets population, that underwent a collective nervous breakdown during the cruelties of the Cultural Revolution has gone from famine to Slim fast in 4 decades.

One morning I climbed up onto a corrugated iron roof to attempt a drawing of a Buddhist gong tower, the preserve of hundreds of bats hanging in the multi tiered eaves while by day mynah birds in their cage chirruped heya heya meaning hi there, (the only word I am ashamed to say I learnt), where I could observe life close up.

There has been an exodus from the country to the cities, country folk had moved in to work at the printing co operative and had simply built cement block work shops in the ancient courtyards, while the printers had put up ramshackle tin shacks for their homes, tacked onto the exterior walls of the temples, so the temples were all but obscured from view.

There were little makeshift tables outside and a one ringed burner to cook and the ground was littered with empty bottles of strong liquor. Families weaved in and out on their tricycles balancing their wares or babies precariously in the handle bar baskets. They all appeared contented, carefully tending tomato plants and pumpkins with watering cans as water is scarce and used sparingly and wrapping up cabbages in cotton for the winter.

This mushrooming shantytown squeezed in amongst the temples and hutongs was webbed with washing lines and ante- diluvian electrical wiring, while hammer and sickle flags and banners fluttered defiantly in the breeze. There was no evidence of televisions, just radios to which they all gaily sung along to. They watched me quizzically, as I clambered onto a roof armed with sketchbooks, a rug and thermos flask, puzzled by this crazy foreigner drawing the drum tower.

I gave a lecture to the Academy of art and Ornamental Engineering about etching and even got some laughs, when I quipped that my sons had learnt the facts of life when they studied a book of Picasso's erotic and explicit Vollard suite of etchings that I had unintentionally left lying around. I dined with, a clever young Engish educated Chinese man, James Chau from the BBC and an urbane man from the Tesco family, both of whom bought my work. At every meal served on a rotating lazy susan were the obligatory noodles, and tofu floating in a fish bone soup washed down with red wine and a lethal drink of fermented liquid drained out of sawn off antlers from deer.

On the last day a charming expat and old hand at China, drove Jehanne and I out to the Silver Pagodas and the Great Wall in his Chelsea chariot. In the countryside all my images of Chinese landscapes melded into one glorious vision and fulfilled all my expectations of the beauty of the Chinese landscape. Jagged mountains and hills punctuated with Sino pines form extraordinary silhouetted shapes and willows spin fine-leaved golden patterns against the bright blue autumn sky and shed them on the quiet waters of the canals, in the soft autumnal light there were subtle hues of yellow and grey with a few blue figures stooping in the fields.

The Great Wall is something to behold, it defies the sheerest of heights and stretches out into the distance, east and west along the contours of the mountains. I developed a new set of leg muscles as we scaled the steepest steps which were almost vertical to have a picnic that I shall never forget, peeling hardboiled eggs as the wind howled round the parapets and I felt well and truly transported back to the world of Marco Polo and what he would have seen, with only the company of Mongolian finches.

On the way back the Chelsea chariot drove off the road and into a deep ditch. I airily said can we pay the peasants to help us to prop the car with bricks from their village. But out here they still adhere to Maoist principles and everything is equalitarian. We had to carry all the bricks down to the ditch and then all the way back up to the village. Mercifully we got the chariot on the road again otherwise we would have had to spend the night in Jehanne's unheated unplumbed kitchen less cottage and miss my flight home.

We were late for dinner with the British ambassador, Sebastian Wood, amiable and not in the least pompous, we talked about the theatre and the Chinese art exhibition at the V and A, and kept off politics.