The most fascinating historic person I ever met.
Profile published in High Life magazine May 1998, then updated. Have used old spellings, still more familiar, apart from city of Xian, formerly Sian
An elderly Chinese gentleman and his wife, both in wheelchairs, are leaving the morning service at a Protestant church in Honolulu, Hawaii.
The woman is still beautiful and elegant. Her husband, behind his thick glasses, is alert and soldierly, his features a mask of dignity. The congregation watches reverently as he and his wife are wheeled into their waiting transport.
Later that day I catch sight of him again, in Honolulu, being wheeled out of a luxury apartment block. He passes a line of taxi drivers, waiting by their cabs: they stand to attention and bow.
He might have been a last emperor – and he once ruled a state. He was also once a playboy, a gambler and a drug addict. He is Chang Hsueh-Liang, also known as Peter Chang, or the Young Marshal, or the Dancing Despot – and one of the most fascinating people of the twentieth century.
In 1936 he changed the history of the world. He kidnapped China’s ruler, Chiang Kai-Shek and forced him to abandon his civil war against the Chinese Communists and form a united front with them against the invading Japanese. This event in December 1936, the Sian Incident, led to full-scale war between China and Japan: it opened World War II in the East.
The Young Marshal became the hero of China. But, in his moment of destiny, he sacrificed himself for the sake of his country and spent more than 53 years under house arrest, so becoming the longest-serving political prisoner in history.
At the age of 90 he was set free. He remains revered as a patriot both in mainland China and Taiwan. In his current home in Hawaii, he is visited by leading politicians from both governments, seeking his blessing.
Chang Hsueh-Liang was born in Mukden, capital of Manchuria, on 2 June 1900, the first son of a hunter-turned-bandit-turned-warlord, Chang Tsolin. Young Chang and his eight brothers went to school in Mukden. He learnt English with a Scots burr from his best friend, Jimmie Elder, son of the Mukden railway director.
At 16 he was married, at 17 a father, at 20 a general in his father’s Manchurian army. At 24, he captured two great cities, Peking and Tientsin, and helped to make his father the arbiter of China. But later his father retreated back to Manchuria from Chiang Kai-Shek’s advancing Nationalist army. He never made it. The Japanese had designs on Manchuria. Through their secret agent, Major Giga, planted on Chang Tsolin as his military adviser, they blew up his private train and killed him.
He left his son a fortune of $50 million (untaxed, in 1928 values) and a state the size of Western Europe, with 30 million people, and an army of half a million and huge, largely untapped mineral and agricultural wealth. At 28, Chang Hsueh-Liang, now the Young Marshal, was the youngest ruler in the world.
Sixty-two years later, on his release from house arrest, Chang told Japanese TV interviewers “My father loved me a lot. He had his first victory in a war on the day I was born and it was on my birthday that he was killed. Since then I have never had a happy birthday and I have changed my birthday. Still, every year I remember him.”
Under the ancient Chinese code, it is a supreme duty for a son to avenge a murdered father. It took ten years, but in 1938 a Manchurian hit squad, paid by Chang, finally caught up with Major Giga in Japan.
The Japanese, already pursuing their aggressive and ultimately catastrophic policy of military expansion, expected young Chang to become their puppet in Manchuria. They knew him already to be an opium user (like many Chinese generals he found it relaxing between battles). Another Japanese secret agent became his doctor and gave him a “cure” – morphine.
But Chang was determined to resist Japan. When he found two of his generals plotting with the Japanese he invited them to play mah-jong and then gunned them down over the tiles. The assassination made him massively popular with his subjects.
For the next three years, Chang struggled to modernize Manchuria and rid it of foreign influence. He donated most of his father’s fortune to found training schools. He used his army to suppress civil war and support anti-Communist Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek as sole ruler of China. It was the start of a long relationship as Chiang Kai-Shek’s disciple, brother-in-arms – and sacrificial victim.
Handsome, energetic and affable, Chang attracted admiring profiles in Western media. In his spare time he drove fast cars, danced, held all-night poker sessions for huge stakes, bought gadgets, wore excellent clothes, took up golf, collected beautiful works of art and calligraphy, loved many women and tried to give up drugs.
He also enjoyed his twin-engined silver monoplane, the Flying Palace, equipped with giant sofas, an ornate desk and an icebox. With a long Chinese robe tucked round his knees and his purple bell-boy cap askew on his head he would perform hair-raising stunts and drop messages to his prostrating troops.
But in September 1931 the Japanese carried out their long-prepared plot to conquer Manchuria. They replaced Chang with Pu Yi, the Last Emperor, as puppet ruler. Ironically, Chang himself had encouraged Pu Yi to return to politics. “I told him ‘when the time comes when China elects its President you have just the qualifications to run’”.
When the Japanese struck, most of his army was out of Manchuria, fighting for Chiang Kai-Shek: Chang himself was in hospital in Peking. He appealed to Chiang Kai-Shek for help, but Chiang order him not to resist. He was counting on the League of Nations to act and was in any case determined to fight the Chinese Communists in preference to the Japanese.
This non-resistance policy was deeply unpopular. To spare Chiang Kai-Shek’s reputation, Chang accepted the blame, as he did later when the Japanese pushed south in China and took Jehol and Peking. Chang announced his “retirement”, aged 36.
He went to Europe, met and admired Mussolini, and set up with his wife and family in London’s Dorchester hotel. He tried to enter Oxford University and had the same hope for his teenage sons, who were given the English names of Raymond and Martin and a tutor in Hove. Chang visited aircraft factories, bought Savile Row suits, went to nightclubs (earning the title of The Dancing Despot), watched Mickey Mouse films and turned up uninvited at the 1933 World Economic Conference. Asked if he expected any result from the Conference, he remarked that “it was a great benefit to hotels”.
Above all, during his British stay Chang finally cured himself of drug addiction.
In 1934 he returned to China, at the head of his exiled Manchurian army, fighting Mao Tse-Tung and the Communists on behalf of Chiang Kai-Shek. Observers noticed that he had dropped his playboy habits for a Spartan regime, and that he spent more and more time with young radical officers. They wanted to fight the Japanese and return to their homeland, not to fight fellow Chinese thousands of miles away. Many of his officers admired the discipline and apparent patriotism of their opponents. Under their influence, Chang opened contacts with the Reds, especially Chou En-Lai, whom he later described as “an intimate and trustworthy old friend.”
In October 1936 Chang appealed to Chiang Kai-Shek to reverse his anti-Communist policy and lead a united front of all Chinese against the Japanese invader.
Chiang Kai-Shek flew to the Manchurian army headquarters in the remote provincial capital of Xian (home of the Terracotta Warriors). He intended to give Chang a dressing down and order him into a final offensive against the Communists. But on 7 December 1936 Chang kidnapped him in his night shirt, and forced him to negotiate with Chou En-Lai and to agree to accept the Communists in an anti-Japanese coalition.
Chang then amazed China by releasing his prisoner. In his Japanese television interview he explained why. “If I had kept Chiang Kai-Shek there would have been a war between the civil government and us. We kidnapped him to avoid war, so I decided to take the responsibility of releasing him.” He also faced heavy pressure from the Communists: Stalin was anxious to preserve Chiang’s authority.
Still more amazingly, Chang left his army and accompanied Chiang Kai-Shek back to his capital in Nanking – as his prisoner. Like Stalin, he still believed that Chiang Kai-Shek alone could lead China, and sought to save his leader’s face as he had before over the Japanese invasions. He gave Chiang a public apology. The sophisticated ex-resident of the Dorchester said “I am naturally rustic, surly and unpolished. This has led me to commit an impudent and criminal act.” He offered to accept any punishment, even death, although he expected a nominal sentence.
Chiang Kai-Shek had him put under house arrest. A month later, Sam Goldwyn offered him a starring part in a film epic about Marco Polo. He was unable to accept the engagement. Although he did not know it, Chang had begun 53 years of imprisonment – comfortable, but still imprisonment. He was joined by his lover – Edith Chao. Eight years earlier, as the beautiful teenaged daughter of a privileged family, she fell instantly in love with him as his dancing partner at a ball in Shanghai. Two years later she caused a society scandal by running away to join him (a married man) in Manchuria. She chose to follow him into captivity and in 1964, after the death of his wife, they were able to marry.
Chang remained under house arrest during the war and the subsequent Chinese civil war. In 1948 the Americans and his own advisers urged Chiang Kai-Shek to release him, as the only man who could save Manchuria from the advancing Communists. But Chiang Kai-Shek refused, and instead sent Chang in an aeroplane to Taiwan, where he remained a state prisoner, never allowed to tell his story.
Chang occupied himself by writing poetry and taking up photography. He played a lot of bridge. Most important, he became a Christian, adopting the name of Peter. On Sundays he was sometimes seen worshipping at the church used by Chiang Kai-Shek. The two men were reported to have retained their staunch friendship, although each still claimed that he was right in the civil war.
In 1990, when Chiang Kai-Shek’s son died, his long captivity was ended. He went to Hawaii, where his younger brother Henry had settled. He moved with Edith into an exclusive apartment block.
When I met him, in 1997, his eyesight and hearing were failing and both he and his wife were wheelchair-bound. They worshipped regularly at their Protestant church in Honolulu but otherwise rarely appeared in public. Whenever he did so, he commanded instant attention and respect. His friend, Hawaii’s first senator Hiram Fong, told me “He is very popular and regarded as a great hero of modern China. When Chinese people see him they want to take his picture.”
He has refused all requests for interviews in Hawaii. In October 1996 he gave personal papers and a history of his life to Columbia University in New York, but at his request they are sealed until 2002. They are housed there in the Peter H L and Edith C Chang Reading Room, in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library where there is a small permanent exhibition of his life.
Mr Chang has spoken to his congregation and written about his discovery of Christianity. Their faith clearly meant much to him and his wife: he was a benefactor of his church and she wrote four books about Christianity and Bible reading.
It was at church that I met them both after the Chinese language service which they attended on the first Sunday in Advent. Mrs Edith Chang was still beautiful in her 80s, with dark hair and neat features. She had respiratory problems but appeared bright and composed. Her husband, in his 98th year, kept the soldierly air of the Young Marshal. A figure of great dignity, wearing a check shirt-jacket and a black skull cap, he followed the service attentively. One of the hymns (in Chinese) was Fight The Good Fight.
He shook my hand firmly and when I said slowly and loudly that I came from London, England, he broke into a radiant smile – perhaps recalling happy memories of the Dorchester. He had great personal magnetism, equal (in my experience) to Nelson Mandela. I also sensed a vigorous mind – an impression confirmed to me by his regular mah-jongg partner, Robert Woo: the pilot who flew him to Taiwan on Chiang Kai-Shek’s orders nearly 50 years earlier.
Apart from mah-johngg, I was told that he followed the news each day. His wife’s great-niece, Mrs Li, visited him each day and read him newspaper stories, especially ones about China, international affairs and American politics. She told me that his memories were still vivid and accurate and that he was still in touch with people he had known 70 years before, including Mussolini’s daughter.
But she also told me that he was constantly baffled by his reputation for being a dancer. “I never danced,” he would say, “I was always marching”.
At the end of May 2000, Chang Hseuh-Liang had an advance celebration of his 100th birthday, with his wife and family members, and many prominent visitors including representatives of the Chinese and Taiwan governments. A film crew recorded the celebrations and his thoughts on a long and crowded life, which he predicted to last another five years. (Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, widow of his captor, is still alive in New York, aged 103).
But a month later his wife Edith died of pneumonia, aged 88, ending a loving relationship of 72 years. Heartbroken, Chang Hseuh-Liang held her hands tightly as her life ebbed away. A few months later he died peacefully, aged 100.
unpublished letter to Daily Telegraph
Three servicemen face prosecutions for manslaughter over highly-disputed allegations against their conduct during the aftermath of the Iraq war.
No penalty of any kind has been imposed on the people who sent them into an unnecessary and unlawful war, failed to plan the occupation of Iraq and gave them tasks with totally inadequate means. Led by Tony Blair, many of these people were roundly condemned in great detail by the Iraq inquiry.
If this situation continues, service personnel and indeed the whole nation are entitled to conclude that there is one law for frontline soldiers and another law for brasshats and politicians. If anyone should face charges of manslaughter in Iraq it is Tony Blair, for causing the death by gross negligence, or by misconduct in office, or by an unlawful enterprise, of both British and Iraqi people to whom he had a duty of care.
In praising the Prime Minister today (August 16th) for her attempt to improve relations with Putin’s Russia, Sir Christopher Meyer gave a long list of issues where he evidently expects no concession on Putin’s side: aggression in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, rearmament, threats to our allies in the East, shielding the prime suspects for the murder of Alexander Litvienko. He could have added the shooting-down of the Malaysian airliner (almost certainly by his proteges in the Ukraine), systematic cheating and corruption in international sport and the creation of a huge lawless state apparatus based on lying, bribery, extortion, repression and violence. He listed no potential advantages to our country or our allies from “normalizing” relations with the Putin regime.
Sir Christopher is alarmed that we have entered a second Cold War. Why? The West won the first Cold War outright against the mighty Soviet empire at very little cost. If Putin wants a second, we can win it in short order.
Cuts restored in italics
A REMAIN vote in the EU referendum is for people who are afraid to argue with the wine waiter.
We’ve all met the worst sort of this species. The one who sneers at you and thinks your opinion is worthless compared to his and tries you feel stupid or guilty about anything you choose from the wine list. Someone like Peter Mandelson.
If you listen to him, you end up buying an over-priced bottle which you don’t even enjoy.
The EU is not only over-priced – it’s corked.
Send it back with the wine waiter and order a pint of good British bitter instead.
Austria play Hungary in the European football championships today (June 14), There is a capital story about an earlier such encounter, featuring Otto von Habsburg, former heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also an MEP for 20 years, who died in 2011 aged 98. A football fan in the European Parliament asked His Imperial and Royal Highness if he knew the score in the Austria-Hungary match. He replied “No, who are we playing?”
Every time I hear a REMAINER talk about reforming the EU from within, or simply about British influence over it, I am reminded of the famous story from the 1920s about Lord Curzon’s only known journey on a London bus. When the conductor (all buses then had one) came to seek his fare, Lord Curzon demanded that the bus take him to 42 Berkeley Square. His lordship was surprised to discover that the bus had a fixed route and destination, which did not include 42 Berkeley Square.
The Remain campaign is full of Lord Curzons. The destination of the EU bus is clearly marked as EUROPE: FEDERAL TERMINUS and as a passenger we cannot induce it to go to Berkeley Square, no more than to go to Xanadu or Shangri-la. In fact, very few of our fellow-passengers want to go to Federal Terminus themselves: they got on the bus thinking that it would take them to the big Market or the Peace Garden or Speakers’ Corner or just to a better neighbourhood. One or two in the past rang the bell to stop the bus short of Federal Terminus, but the conductor and driver ignored them.
Lately the bus has been very poorly driven and several passengers have been badly hurt. But each crash has only made the driver head faster for Federal Terminus.
The bus has stopped very briefly. The conductor has told us that it is not a scheduled stop and that it would be terribly dangerous to get off. But the rear door is open… we have a chance to leap off and start walking. The journey might be harder but we can find our way to our own Berkeley Square.
A slightly shorter version of this was published in www.politics.co.uk on May 26, 2016 This version has all the origninal zingers.
The Leave campaign has conclusively lost the opening battles of the EU referendum. It now has a bare month to win the war.
It needs very quickly to find a new reason to appeal to voters who normally vote Labour or otherwise line up on the left side of the political spectrum. So far the Leave campaign has offered them almost nothing. It has been beset with factional fighting and ego tripping and the dominant messages are those of the Tory Right.
This is especially and fatally true on the economy. Vote Leave and what do you get? The main answer voters hear is gaining a fanatical free-market government like Mrs Thatcher’s on steroids. This government would leave Big Business free to ignore the EU’s noble efforts to protect women and workers and health and safety and the environment and cute animals with big eyes. This is a free gift for Labour’s Remainers. It makes it all too easy for them to drum up support for an EU whose policies have brought mass unemployment to member after member.
Even without this problem, it is a mistake for Leave to concentrate on the economy. This is a battlefield chosen by the enemy. The economic benefits of leaving the EU are inevitably uncertain. We honestly cannot tell where the British economy will end up after we leave. But the economic penalties (with the help of unscrupulous lying) can be made to seem real and terrifying – and the Remain campaign can wheel out an inexhaustible supply of political, business and media grandees to say so. The Leave campaign can call on some big names of its own but many of them are box office poison to Labour supporters (not many hedge fund owners on our side of the barricades). Anyway, Leave can never win a war of endorsements. It will always be outnumbered by Remain, if only because so many grandees derive power or income or profit from the status quo – or even direct subsidy from the EU.
So why not turn the Leave campaign into a voter insurgency against those very grandees? Make the referendum a judgement on the way they have run our country. Turn a Leave vote into a demand for something better.
Remain’s grandees are led by the last four British Prime Ministers – Cameron, Brown, Blair and Major. They have all told the British people it is essential for them to remain in the EU – although two of them, Brown and Major, had their greatest success by keeping Britain out of key EU policies.
Also urging us to Remain is the political, administrative and business establishment which held the levers of power and influence behind those four Prime Ministers. With occasional changes of figureheads and slogans, the Remainers have given our country its rulers for the last 25 years. The EU referendum puts a simple choice to voters. Will they say thank you to those rulers, and please carry on? Or will voters look at their record and take the once-and-for-all chance to complain?
During that period our rulers gave us the Iraq war and the failed intervention in Afghanistan: hundreds of soldiers killed, thousands wounded, maimed, permanently scarred, billions of pounds spent, no national interest achieved. True, there were some dissenting politicians, but virtually none in the administrative, military and intelligence establishment. No one has paid any penalty for error and failure in these wars and our foreign and defence policies are still based on the same assumptions which led us into them.
During that period, our rulers handed our banking system to spivs or dimwits trading assets they could not value or even understand – and made us pay when they crashed it
During that period, our rulers gave us an economy dependent on colossal public and private debt, with big disparities not only in wealth and income but in opportunity and expectations. Millions of well-qualified people lost all hope of fulfilling work. Millions of parents lost the expectation that their children will enjoy a better life than themselves. Taxation became voluntary for the richest people and the biggest companies but more complex and oppressive for those unable to create fiction around their affairs. The welfare system remained an expensive shambles, maintaining a depressed underclass but continuing to penalize those who tried hardest to better themselves.
During that period, our rulers gave us an overloaded health service, drowning in debt, and in thrall to constant expensive and pointless reorganizations. Millions of older people, children and mentally ill people are routinely deprived of essential care.
During that period, our rulers tinkered constantly with the school system. Under pretence of freeing schools from the supposed shackles of local authorities they delivered schools to a centralized tyranny of arbitrary tests and targets, with illusory successes delivered by devalued exams and marking. Under pretence of increasing parental power, they reduced it. They forced more parents into desperate measures, even outright lying, to find a good school for their children. They made more and more demands on parents for money and support and tried to make them feel guilty for not providing it. They filled our schools with stressed children and teachers. Our rulers gave us a generation of schoolchildren equipped to tick boxes and less and less equipped to learn anything new, to speculate, to invent, to empathize, to communicate.
Our rulers fiddled constantly with all public services and with local government. Regardless of party label our rulers shared a misplaced faith in management science and a rooted belief that the public sector was always inferior to the private. As a result, one service after another has been battered by fatuous initiatives, stuffed with placeholders with meaningless titles babbling managerial gobbledygook, or carved up into pseudo-markets to give businesses an opportunity for monopoly profits at taxpayers’ expense. During that period, our rulers signed thousands of PFI or PPP deals in public services which were no better than expensive moneylaundering – making public finances look temporarily healthier and in reality giving them a long-lasting burden.
During that period, our rulers failed to manage or control immigration. Although our country has become dependent on immigrant labour our rulers have failed to make the British people appreciate its benefits and look down on them when they point out its downside.
During that period, our rulers created cities whose essential workers cannot afford to live in them, cities full of ugly buildings and drably uniform centres and angry frightened neighbourhoods where people do not know their neighbours. Our rulers failed to create any effective control on the consumption of any drug, legal or illegal.
Internationally our rulers still gave themselves the trappings of Britain as a great power, but in the last 25 years there is no country in the world where it has become safer for Britons to visit or work or settle – including their own. They have constantly proclaimed success in negotiations with the EU – most recently in David Cameron’s meaningless concessions – while presiding over a one-way transfer of powers from our country to Brussels. At best, they have turned Britain into the Private Godfrey of the EU – asking permission to be excused when something awful like the euro is about to happen. They prattle about reforming the EU but they have not reformed the fundamentals of the EU and they never will. Private Godfrey is not going to lead the platoon.
In spite of their dismal record on issue after issue, our ruling establishment over the last 25 years have become unshakeable in asserting their right to govern. They do not care very much for democracy and resent debate or criticism. Guided especially by Peter Mandelson, they have awarded themselves the right to lie or cover things up whenever they choose. They feed propaganda to their stooges in the media and know that it will be presented as fact.
They give each other jobs regardless of qualifications or success. The business leaders among our rulers demand world-class remuneration although few of them have created any world-class business. The politicians and administrators among them glide effortlessly after leaving office into lucrative roles with the special interests they were meant to regulate. They have turned public service into a waiting room for the gravy train. While still in power, they pass out public offices to supporters and sympathizers. The EU for them is a convenient extra source of patronage and a parking place for politicians in temporary eclipse.
The ruling establishment constantly insisted that their policies represent a “centre ground” which no reasonable or informed person could reject. In doing so, they minimized the differences between all the mainstream parties. English politics (the ruling establishment actually lost control of Scotland) became a set of dogs fighting for the same lamp post. For a short time it seemed that Jeremy Corbyn would offer a real alternative. But on the EU, this resolution collapsed. He followed the Blairite pack in his party and raised his leg obediently when it was his turn.
Voting Remain entails a vote of confidence in this ruling elite and their record. It means accepting that the next 25 years will be pretty much the same as the last.
Voting Leave means rejecting them and seeking something different. It means taking a chance. There is no guarantee at all of a better future after we leave. Securing it will require a mighty effort, which may be beyond our new rulers. But the British people might just decide that a 10 per cent chance of something new might be better than a 100 per cent chance of more of the same.
One of the joys of being Luke Upward’s official biographer is that I sometimes uncover new information about the life of England’s premier but often elusive man of letters.
I recently discovered that Upward was a diplomatic correspondent in the 1980s, for the influential Noticias Esquitas do Sāo Tomé e Príncipe, while also contributing to Sirius, journal of Thinking Dogs For The Stupid, the charity founded by Beppo the Wonder Dog.
For reasons now unfathomable the two organs sent Upward to a Commonwealth leaders conference in Australia. Upward arrived in time to catch the arrival of Pakistan’s military ruler, General Zia ul-Haq. Recognizing the Terry-Thomas lookalike at a glance, Upward remarked “Ah, I see that General Zia’s here.”
At that stage of his rule, the General was accompanied constantly by a confidential adviser who guided his every decision, an eminence so grise that no one ever discovered his name. Upward saw this man scurry to his master and he commented “Ah, I see the man who has General Zia’s ear’s here.”
The eminence was in his turn guided constantly by a mystic with the purported gift of second sight. Upward noticed this figure come in and noted “Ah, I see the man who has General Zia’s ear’s seer’s here.”
The mystic was clearly beginning to feel the heat and in need of a drink. The Australian hosts seemed to be serving nothing but lager, forbidden to the mystic for religious reasons. However, Upward noticed that a kindly waiter had found the mystic a non-alcoholic version of the amber nectar, which he swallowed in a grateful gulp. This gave Upward the chance to announce: “Ah, I see the man who has the man who has General Zia’s ear’s seer’s near-beer’s here.”
Upward’s despatches were sent in a code so unbreakable that they never appeared in either organ.
Published in the Observer May 8, 1983
My day begins by reading the Man’s mail. It starts with five lunatics and Labour’s National Executive. A box of slides. Letters of anguish: five people want the Man to save the world and 40 want him to save the baby seals. A lady wants him to wear darker suits on TV. Three invitations to lunch. One says feel free to bring his political adviser, and I write “Accept this one” on it in red pencil. An old man urges him to reduce estate duty, which he abolished as Chancellor. An air letter from Hong Kong: five paragraphs of gnomic Eastern wisdom signed “A Faithful Fool”. A clutch of requests for a signed photograph.
Invitations to speak. Newcastle cannot get enough of him. Two nice letters from children (one with drawings). A stack of letters about foreign parts from pressure groups. The phrases merge: fascist repression, continuing crisis, hypocritical silence of the British government, demand for a clear statement by the party, by the Man. Multinationals. Arms sales. Liberation forces. Destabilization. Unity of democratic and progressive forces. Terror. Massacre. Refugees. Starvation. Disease. All over the world the four horsemen are saddling up.
Some heavy steps in the corridor. The door crashes open. Some hummed vaudeville music on a rising beat: Yah-Dah-de-Dah-dah-DAH. Arms flung aloft to greet the applause for the star of the show.
The Man gazes at me, puzzled. After all, I have worked for him for only 18 months. With a mighty effort of memory he says “Oh, Richard. Good.” Genuine, pleased surprise that I should be at his disposal. Pennies from Heaven.
The Man moves to his desk. The huge EIIR briefcase thuds down beside the stack of mail. “I was brilliant on TV last night.”
“You were rude and omniscient, as usual.”
“I called Howe a sado-monetarist.” He looks at the mail. He reaches at once for the slides. He opens the box and gobbles the contents, holding each slide to the light with intermittent noises of pleasure. One slide holds his eye. He is almost transfixed. I can just make out the subject, a grandchild holding a small bird.
Reluctantly he puts the slides away. “Anything in the mail?”
“Do we have a spokesman on baby seals?”
“Yes. I’ve checked. We are strongly for baby seals.”
“Good. Can you draft me a reply?”
He riffles through the rest of the mail. He gives a running commentary: “that’s old Tom… I took that up with Willie… we tried that when we were in office…” Then he starts to do his mantra. He says in a faraway voice “That goes there… that goes here… that I’m going to keep in my file… that one goes with me…” while shuffling papers from one folder to another. At length he achieves harmony.
Eventually I hear him say “These are for you.” The same words would announce a gift of flowers or Krugerrands. In fact he hands over a thick pile of newspaper cuttings. He has razored all of the English morning national papers, 10 journals, three foreign papers, two financial bulletins and yesterday’s Hansard. The cuttings are to file against future need. There are already three full filing cabinets. One for foreign parts: Afghanistan to Zimbabwe in permanent suspense. One for domestic and economic. One for the party. This contains one drawer labelled “Goodies” and two labelled “Baddies.”
“What have I got today?” He answers his own question by reading from his diary. “Lunch for the King of G-, Prime Minister’s Questions. Then I want to dictate to Harriet. Then I’ve got this new ambassador. The foreign affairs team. The union people. Then I’ve got to see Bugalugs.”
“Francis Pym” [Then Foreign Secretary] He peers intently at the next entry. “At 7 o’clock it says Dracula.”
The telephone rings. He answers as a Chinese laundry. “Hah-loh-er. No. He not here. This Steam Plessing Loom.” Then he puts the caller out of his misery. “Yes, it is me. You could tell by the brows. “ He listens and repeats for my benefit “Statement on Land Drainage in Wales. I can hardly wait.” He
shuts his eyes. “How many votes have we got tonight?”
“Several. They’re trying to push through a lot of clauses.”
“I have to write a major speech for that bloody Institute. I’ll fit it in somehow when we’re not voting.” He opens his eyes towards heaven. Palms upraised he says passionately “What a life! What a life, eh?”, then, complacently, “Rotten really.”
I indicate assent.
“Can you check a number of things? When did I last go to Cheshire and what did I do for Cheshire when we were in office? Remind me what were Carter’s proposals for deep cuts in nuclear weapons. Can you get me some stuff on the Health Service pay dispute? Oh, and can you look into the sea?”
“The Law of the Sea.”
Of course. He continues “I bought a superb record today.” I sit back to learn when he first bought the work on 78s and where, and with whom, and where he first heard it performed live, and with whom, and when he played the piano part and with whom, and what had happened to everybody.
Big Ben chimes and he breaks off. “I’ve got to do this King now.”
“That’s what Hamlet kept saying.” He grimaces and tells an anecdote about a former Danish statesman, whose name, and the point of the story, is pronounced like a mild obscenity. It is funny, but also a reminder. The Gang Boss tells the Bag Carrier: I make-a de jokes.
He leaves for lunch with the King. I start drafting a press release about Central America, about which he is to talk next day. I begin “Central America is a charnel house.” After some sentences I stop. The whole thing is too purple, too “literary”. The Man would never say it or release it. When he does issue a press release it will be plain and direct, a combination of insult, analysis and masterplan. I turn away and draft some routine letters for his signature. Requests for fraternal greetings to remote outposts of socialism. A reply to a clergyman about the Bomb. A nice reply to the child who sent the drawings. I remember to leave a big space at the bottom of the letter.
The door crashes open. A snatch of opera. “Dreadful lunch. I had Onslow.” He makes it sound like a sudden illness. [Cranley Onslow MP was a pompous junior Foreign Office minister]. The telephone rings. He answers in the Chinese laundry voice and then again owns up. He listens for a while, then says levelly: “No, it really didn’t happen like that at all.” He runs through the story of his darkest moments as Chancellor, which have acquired a thick layer of legend and shibboleth. He narrates the events with no attempt at retrospective heroism, no denial of responsibility. He hangs up and makes a face. “He’s a baddie. He won’t print any of that in his article.” He looks at the annunciator: “PM’s Questions.” He disappears. I look at the blank folders on my desk, and start writing some letters about baby seals. I try to make them sound friendly and determined. Why should people trust us to save the world if we cannot save baby seals?
He returns with a number of Labour MPs. They are discussing the subject he intends to raise that evening in a meeting with Francis Pym All the MPs are part of a different spectrum in the party from his own. All have invariably voted against him. They all have a great deal to say. One uses the phrase “worldwide solidarity with the toiling masses.” The Man scrawls notes and asks occasional questions. Then he says slowly “Obviously the government are just trying to please the Americans again. None of the Europeans are taking our line. The American policy is self-defeating because it forces people into the arms of the Soviets or the Cubans. Quite apart from the question of double standards on intervention,” he adds hastily as he sees the MPs preparing to speak again. “I’ll have a good go at Pym.” There are smiles and thanks.
The MPs leave. He looks at his watch. A moment of flurry, a touch of the White Rabbit. “I must get Harriet.” He telephones for her. “We can do a few letters but then I’ve got this ambassador. I know… rotten life, really.”
I hand over some of my letters. “That’s very nice,” he says about the reply to the child who sent the drawings. He draws some funny faces in the blank space at the bottom. “That’s a bit hard,” he says about the reply to clergyman about the Bomb. “I don’t really want to say anything like that. The real problems in this area…” I listen to the real problems. They are obstinately practical and political. Can one find a policy which will avoid blowing up the world, the NATO alliance or the Labour Party?
Harriet comes in. She has been his secretary for some years. She is married, with grown-up children.
“Hullo, gorgeous.” He blows her a kiss. Harriet looks harassed but chic. “You look mean, moody and magnificent.” But before he can talk about Jane Russell Harriet gives him some telephone messages, all requests for meetings or interviews. He replies successively “There are no votes in Peru… he’s an old bore… that is a very good constituency… I’ll put it to one side.”
He starts to dictate some letters. The running commentary resumes: “he’s a twerp… she’s forgotten what we did in office… they’re a bunch of baddies.” Quite frequently he says “I’ll put that to one side.” At one letter he stops dead and gives the history of the family in question for the last 25 years. At another letter he sighs, “This chap’s in a hopeless muddle. It’ll take years to sort him out,” but then he looks closely at the address and glances at the street map of the city he represents. Then, beaming, he dictates “Dear Mr -, I was sorry to hear about your difficulties but I am afraid I cannot help you since your MP is in fact Mr –, and I have sent your letter on to him. Heh-heh-heh.”
The piles of letters goes down slowly but there are still a lot left when the ambassador arrives.
The ambassador represents the Socialist Republic of M-. I introduce his Excellency to the Man. It is a “courtesy call” devoid of real diplomatic or political significance. I sit back to watch the performance. The Man rattles off several phrases in the M- language. He gives an account of his visits to M- just after the war. He asks after several M- personalities. He praises the Opera House and a blend of vodka. He quotes Marx and Engels, repeating the best jokes in German. The ambassador delivers an invitation to visit M-. The Man makes a wide gesture with both hands, expressing simultaneously the unimaginable delight of visiting M- and the hopeless odds against achieving it.
The ambassador takes his leave. By the time I return from showing him out the Parliamentary foreign affairs team have arrived to discuss tomorrow’s Foreign Office Oral Questions. They plough through the Order Paper, deciding how to intervene on any particular question, how to embarrass the Government, express party policy or “do something” for a friendly pressure group. The discussion on each question ends almost always with the same conclusion: “we’ll just have to see how it all goes, really.” They settle the world thus in 10 minutes. In another month’s time they will meet and decide to see how it all goes really again.
The telephone announce the arrival of the union delegation. They have travelled from the Man’s city to talk about some government proposals for privatisation. He has a strong constituency interest. I meet the delegation in the Central Lobby and give them a little guided tour on the way to the office. I point out various sights: statues, kings and Alan Clark. I show the delegation into the office. The Man leaps to his feet in a boxing stance. “Now then, young Sid”, and he aims a series of jabs at young Sid, who is about 60. There are equally expansive greetings for the rest. Young Sid hands over a long brief, from which he reads out highlights. The Man occasionally mutters commendations and asks questions: “the government gave no undertakings about jobs or pension rights?” Then he runs through several pages of financial projections. The proposed privatisation appears completely pointless, with no gains to competition, efficiency, investment or public revenue. He lets young Sid finish and asks the other members of the delegation to contribute in turn. They discuss tactics: lobbying, questions in the House, a short debate, use of the media, use of the House of Lords. Then they chat. He remembers details of spouses and children. They are well into reminiscences of 30 years ago when I remind him about the meeting with Pym.
He rises to his feet. Again there is a momentary flurry: where are the cuttings, the folder, the scrawled notes from the meeting with MPs? Then he says “Don’t bother. I’ve got all that stuff in my head.”
He says goodbye. I show the delegation out, making a point of apologizing that he had to go to see the Foreign Secretary. “Terrible week of meetings for him,” I continue, and drop a series of names, stopping just short of the Pope. Is it for their benefit or mine?
I am alone again. The telephone rings. It is a mad person. I promise the voice that the Man will do something about the Beast whose number is 666.
The door flies open again. He is humming “Your Feet’s Too Big.”
“I had a very good go at Pym. They really are in hock to the Americans. I don’t think Pym believes any of it. It’s She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
The Man stretches. “Bloody hell, I’m tired.” The phone rings and he answers. It is his wife: I can tell because he puts on the strangulated German voice. Then he sighs and says in a normal tone that he cannot come home, there is a series of votes, between which he will see people and write a major speech. He gestures that I am free to leave and I nod good night. I hear him say “I am now going to show my face in the Tea Room in a suggestive manner,” and then “I know… rotten life, really.”
Luke Upward could not stand the Prince de Millecrêpes, first husband of Annie Oldiron, who later married his patron, the affable Marquis de Tarpaulin, and helped him create a “big tent” for writers in their regular Friday salons where she poured out the Clicquot with considerable verve.
However, Upward was intrigued by his ancestor, the Sieur de Millecrepes, who was awarded the family circumflex by King Charles VI (the Mad) for his services at Agincourt. Even a deranged monarch (he believed he was made of glass and was terrified of being broken by his courtiers) might be expected to realize that Agincourt was a disaster. Why would he hand out orders and diacritical marks to any of his commanders?
Upward discovered that the Sieur was one of the more clear-headed Frenchmen of his time. Bearing proudly the nickname of Foie de Lys, he rode into battles on his destrier, Pegasu, subject of a ballad by the popular troubador, Boudé Auxlaits. Pegasu had been trained to gallop on the spot, and although Upward did not know it, she was the common ancestor of all the horses he backed on the racecourse centuries later. This equine skill allowed her master to create the impression of a fierce charge at the enemy while being overtaken and passing unnoticed into the rear.
The Sieur and Pegasu very soon realized that Agincourt would end in tears or even in tiers of dead French knights. Pegasu added a few bucks and kicks to her normal repertoire and soon became a back marker, defying the apparently frantic efforts of her master to urge her towards the English lines. When the first wave of English arrows flew, under the expert direction of Sir Laurence Olivier, the Sieur turned tail and Pegasu showed a hitherto unknown speed on the flat and over the jumps. The sight of the legendary Foie de Lys at full gallop inspired a band of other French knights, later immortalized as the Vol-a-Vents (in flight with the wind up). They found him, still on Pegasu, in a clearing some way from the battle, calmly filling in his bank details for his ransom from any English captor. The spectacle inspired the fleeing poltroons to rally and ask him to be their leader. They knew that Foie de Lys would know the safest and swiftest way out of Agincourt.
He took his band on a wide circle to the right of the battlefield, pausing briefly for directions at the visitor information centre, and they arrived without incident at the main road behind the English position. But there they found themselves blocked by the English baggage train. The Vol-a-Vents made ready to turn tail, but their keen-eyed commander rose to the occasion, and rallied them with the cry: “Ce sont des gosses!” (They’re only kids!) The baggage train was guarded only by teenagers displaying designer underwear, armed with a few cans of Taureau Rouge, the local energy drink which Henry V had used to pep up his dispirited army on the night before the battle. Even the quaking Vol-a-Vents realized that these would be no match for mounted men-at-arms whose weapons were still in mint condition.
The subsequent carnage is treated with revulsion in Shakespeare’s Henry V. It moves Fluellen to zeugma: “Killed the poys and the luggage! ‘Tis expressly against the laws of arms; ‘tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert.”
However, its perpetrator, the Sieur de Millecrepes, had prudently employed his own chronicler, Pierre de Mandlespin. In his hands, the incident was re-packaged as a desperate rearguard action in which the Sieur had led a gallant band of French nobles against a rampaging mob of feral youths in clear breach of their Asbeaux. Mandlespin’s version was imposed on all the other French chroniclers with a mixture of blandishments and threats (“je connais votre rédacteur…”). Thus it reached King Charles VI. Although batty, he still knew a bit about spin himself. He knew that a decoration for a national hero would take some coverage away from the disaster at Agincourt.
That is why the Sieur de Millecrêpes acquired his circumflex which the family has sported ever since. Agincourt remained its only battle honour, but its aptitude for banking and a series of loans to cash-strapped monarchs propelled its advance from Sieur to Prince.