In so far as I have heroes, one of mine is the late Pierre Ryckmans, better-known as Simon Leys, the great Belgian sinologist who lived more than half of his life in Australia, and retired early from his chair at Sydney University because he said that universities had become mere degree-mills. As a colleague of mine put it with regard to medico-legal reports, from which he made a considerable income, ‘You turn the wheel and the sausage comes out.’
Leys was not only a sinologist of renown – it was he who first alerted the world, contrary to the lazy, corrupt or stupid hosannas of his academic colleagues, to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, in prose of exceptional wit and lucidity for which he was much hated at the time – but a literary essayist of genius. If I were teaching someone to write, I would give him Leys to read.
The other day I was re-reading his essay, The Art of Reading Non-Existent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page (that is to say, the art of deciphering the meaning of information that emerged from totalitarian China and its most hermetic), when I came across the following little passage:
In a period of social and economic disintegration, it suffices for a
tiny handful of men – less than 0.1 per cent of the population – to
launch eloquent appeals to arouse popular indignation against brutal
and corrupt authorities, to mobilise the generosity and idealism of
youth, to rally the support of thousands of students, and finally to
present a miniscule communist movement as the incarnation of the
will of the entire nation.
With what result is now only too well-known.
Does this passage call to mind anything in the current condition of Great Britain? Of course, analogies are never quite exact (which is why they are only analogies). Mr Corbyn is no Mao Tse-Tung: he washes more regularly for one thing, and unlike Mao I doubt that he has the courage of his cruelty. It is going too far to call the British authorities brutal. Finally, I do not think that anyone who knew them would call British youth generous or idealistic. The mess left behind by British youth at Glastonbury after the festival should be enough to disillusion anyone on that score.
And yet, all the same, the passage has a certain resonance. If we are not careful, we shall soon experience our own Great Leap Forward – into the abyss, of course, though more gently than the Chinese.
By great coincidence, I read Simon Leys’ essay on Evelyn Waugh before sleep last night only to wake this morning to this piece. Everything Theodore Dalrymple says about the former is true, and the Waugh essay seems particularly poignant given the troubled times in Britain. Here is what I mean:
‘”The written word obsessed Waugh,’ Martin Stannard notes in his biography, ‘and in this he lived entirely. Words on paper were to him almost tactile, malleable, subject to control. He thought in words, in perfect sentences.” A young American scholar who visited him in his country residence retained a vivid memory of an inscription which he found in the bathroom affixed upon the cistern of the toilet; handwritten and initialled E.W., the notice provided instructions on how to operate the toilet’s faulty flush:
“The handle should return to the horizontal when the flow of water ceases. Should it fail to do so, agitate
gently until it succeeds.”
One feels as if the exquisite precision of wording was designed to overcome the chaos and the rebelliousness of brute things. Waugh would have fully appreciated the famous anecdote from the life of a great Chinese calligrapher: as a ferocious tiger was terrorising a certain corner of the country, at the request of the local population, the calligrapher wrote a large inscription: TIGERS NOT WELCOME. The sheer magnificence of his calligraphy had such authority that the beast relented and left the district.’ (from ‘The Hall of Uselessness’ by Simon Leys)
Corbyn’s saving grace is that he’s too English, with his eccentric and modest hobbies and his country origins. It’s a question of what opportunities his revolution would give to others unlike himself.
It’s a pity his socialism isn’t of the colliery brass bands, Methodist, and Co-Op sort.