Screenwriting Blues

I reach this point in every Screenplay. It arrived this morning in the Lahore Movie.

I have pared down the major characters.

I have wiped out all the colourful but cluttering minor characters.

I have murdered all the little darlings, those cutesy bits of dialogue or business that seemed irresistible on first creation.

The Screenplay’s first hour is now reduced to its essential elements of raw drama.

And it’s a complete turkey.

No actor would want to play any of these characters, even if offered big money. No one would pay money to watch them in a cinema. Opening night and closing night would be simultaneous. In Luke Upward’s memorable piece of theatre criticism (about himself): “One could have stored meat in the audience. Long before the end, the rattle of retracting seats was like gunfire. Even the portly and the infirm leapt over them like young ibex, in search of the exits.” The only audience left in any cinema at the end of my movie would be teenagers in the back rows, too busy “making out” to notice anything on the screen.

And there is no remedy. Not even the sudden entrance of Beppo the Wonder Dog could save this movie.

Now I have had this feeling about every screenplay I have written. Now so too have dozens of agents, directors, producers and actors. And many more serendipitous readers of the screenplays I have left in cricket grounds all around the world or abandoned in the drawers of desks later sold in the shops of exceptionally indigent charities. And perhaps all these people are right.

The Screenplay is a turkey.

Fulham lost last night.

Mandelson still lurks and smirks in our political system.

Woe, woe, woe, thrice woe!

05. April 2017 by rkh
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A Modest Proposal To Help Tailend Batsmen Earn A Draw In Cricket Matches

Proposed amendment to Law 16 section 6
Last hour of match: number of overs
Add at end of first paragraph
“Before that over commences, the batting side captain may on notification to the umpires decline during the next session of play the extra delivery which would normally be awarded for a no-ball or a wide under Law 22 or in the circumstances described in Law 22 (3) (v). This option may be exercised only at that point or at the commencement of a new innings, and shall be irrevocable. When that option is exercised, all references to an over in Law 16 shall mean six deliveries inclusive of any wides or no-balls or any delivery on which penalty runs are awarded. However, in all other respects the Laws related to wides or no-balls or penalty runs shall apply.”

Insert in second paragraph after “scorers.”

“He shall also indicate to them any exercise by the batting captain of the option to decline any extra delivery under the foregoing paragraph.”

Explanatory note (Not part of the Laws)

The purpose of this proposed change in Law 16 is to remove a long-standing unintentional anomaly, which affects timed matches at any level of cricket.

The side batting last reaches the last hour of play. It has no hope of winning: the batsmen are trying to earn a draw. In those circumstances, the extra delivery for a wide or a no-ball is of no advantage to them. Quite the contrary, it means that they have to stay at the wicket longer when the light and possibly the pitch are getting worse. If six wides or no-balls are delivered during the last hour, the batting side effectively has to face a full extra over in deteriorating conditions. A wide or a no-ball is a bad ball and the fielding side should not derive any profit from it. The proposal also prevents them from gaining an extra delivery if their conduct has given away five penalty runs.

The option would be irrevocable – the batting captain could not suddenly change his mind and go for a win after all.

17. March 2017 by rkh
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Simpering, Sidelined Harriet Harman

Published in Private Eye 1439

The otherwise excellent treatment in Literary Review (Eye 1438) of Harriet Harman’s simpering memoirs failed to mention their most astonishing allegation. She claims that as Solicitor-General during the run-up to the Iraq war she was barred from any papers or meetings about the legality of the war on orders from the Attorney-General, Lord (Peter) Goldsmith. She did not resist these orders, although it made nonsense of her responsibilities to the Crown and the House of Commons, nor make any independent effort to involve herself in Iraq issues.

The memoirs express no regret for her behaviour. Like her master, Tony Blair and so many others, she seems incapable of acknowledging error or failure over Iraq.

08. March 2017 by rkh
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Gerald Kaufman 1930-2017

After two attempts in the 1950s Gerald Kaufman became a Labour MP in 1970. He has represented people in inner-city Manchester ever since. I suspect that he could retrieve the details of every constituency case he has handled, with the same facility as recalling the credits of movies and lyrics from musical comedy. Before entering Parliament he was a successful journalist and was part of the golden age of British satire on BBC Television’s That Was The Week That Was. He created the legendary sketch Silent Men of Westminster about the MPs who never spoke. Where are they now when we need them?

Then Labour got into government, and as Parliamentary Press Officer he became a target for satirists himself, a regular cast member of “Mrs Wilson’s Diary” in Private Eye. He was a minister for every day of the Labour government of 1974-79, first in Environment and then at Industry. From that experience, he wrote How To Be A Minister. It is still the essential manual on the subject, and it ought to be a set book for all politics students.


In opposition he was the regular first choice of Labour MPs for the Shadow Cabinet, despite (or perhaps because of) his description of Labour’s 1983 election manifesto as the “longest suicide note in history.” As Shadow Home Secretary he was tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, long before Tony Blair got the idea, or even Gordon Brown. As Shadow Foreign Secretary, he glided the Labour party away from unilateral disarmament.


In 1992 he abandoned the Front Bench to become Chairman of the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Select Committees are typically cosy and forgettable. Not this one. It was once said of him as Chairman that he was never satisfied until some senior executive was reduced to sobs of contrition. In 1999 he also found time to chair the Booker Prize Committee. After reading all the books, he then studied the books of the BBC, whence his Select Committee held a long inquiry into its resources and future funding. He has been both a staunch defender of the BBC and a stern critic of its managers – and a frequent contributor both at home and to the World Service.
Gerald Kaufman has one of the most powerful minds in British politics – and he has never been afraid to speak it, most notably about Israel and its policies. An evening with him is certain to be contentious, revealing – and highly entertaining.


27. February 2017 by rkh
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Luke Upward Meets Monsieur de Crapaud

As Luke Upward’s patron, the amiable Marquis de Tarpaulin, became more and more devoted to his collection of old cars, his soirées became more and more over-run with old car bores who did not know a salon from a saloon. Upward found himself wasting some of his finest figures of speech on people who thought that adynaton was an old-fashioned type of generator. The Marquis realized that these people were a threat to his reputation as a literary patron, but he was too amiable to turn them away, especially if they came from his part of France. This was the perennially damp province of Lot-Pressure, where the Marquis had served several terms as Mayor of its chief municipality, Aix-en-Toste. When asked where he lived in France, the Marquis liked to shout “A Lot, a Lot!”, a joke which Upward found grating on its 845th repetition.


The Marquis was quick to welcome four visitors from Lot to a soirée where he proposed to unveil one of his most magnificent acquisitions. M Taupe was a short-sighted gentleman, curiously attired in a thick black velvet suit despite the stifling conditions. Upward was quickly irritated by M Campagnol, who was a minor poet. M Blaireau was grumpy and silent. But the youngest of the four, M de Crapaud, was transfixed by the Marquis’ collection. His already glaucous eyes glazed over at each motor car, and he made strange gurgling noises.
Finally the Marquis removed the family tarpaulin from his new acquisition. Even the normally indifferent Upward had a momentary intake of breath. It was a gorgeous 1930s Hispano-Suiza, which had once belonged to the French confidence trickster, Serge Stavisky. Under the direction of Ricky Rubato, the twelve specially tuned car horns within the previous collection sounded a fanfare to the new arrival, the theme for Alain Resnais’s elegant elegiac film Stavisky, composed by Stephen Sondheim (the one that goes Dah-ti-tum Dah-Dah-ti-tum-ti Dah-ti-tum-Dah-Dah).

M de Crapaud’s eyes now began to swivel. Several politicians present begged him to join their party, but he did not hear them. His strange noises merged into a continuous “Poupe-Poupe!” Before anyone could stop him, he flung himself into the driving seat of the idling Hispano, wrenched it into gear, and drove it out of the grounds. A few miles away, still saying “Poupe-Poupe!” he was extricated from the motor, which he had crashed into a ditch. It was still roadworthy, but its priceless flower-holder was beyond repair.


From the regular court, M de Crapaud received sentences of one year for removing the car, and another year for driving it without a licence. The court added 18 years for cheeking the police. He received a matching sentence from the special French Cours d’Élégance, which is responsible for policing the chic.


After this incident, the Marquis lost interest in his cars, and Upward resumed his rightful place as the chief ornament of his collection.

23. January 2017 by rkh
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The future lies ahead… the best and worst to expect in 2017

January Holiday misery as mild weather causes severe disruption to emergency arrangements for transport. Severe delays on roads caused by need to remove stockpiled salt and grit. Prime Minister’s New Year message is redacted to one word “New” on orders of Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, aka Sir Cover-Up, but full three-word version is accidentally exposed by aide to photographers in Downing Street on the back of some cake recipes. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt launches new bid to wipe out NHS deficit: 12 hospitals full of “bed-blocking” patients are emptied and converted into car parks. At inauguration, Donald Trump responds to criticism of conflict of interest by putting the United States into a blind trust run by members of family, leaving him free to concentrate on business and television career. In White House (renamed Trump Central) wife Melania announces first policy move by administration, a ban on all foreign fireplaces to fulfil his election pledge of making American grates again. Brexit threatened by further delay through court case brought by owner of historic house, Toad Hall. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson denounced for gaffe when he says that the world is bigger than the EU.
February Supreme Court rules that Brexit cannot happen before Parliament debates impact on rights of toads, and says that it will shortly consider related proceedings by a mole, a water-rat and a badger, to be represented separately by senior and junior counsel paid from public funds. Clown Peppe Grillo takes over Italian government. Withdraws Italy from EU, saying he cannot match comedy on offer from EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker. Greece, Spain and Portugal follow suit. In France, historic Gaul party makes surprising reappearance and makes strong showing in Presidential election polls. Harper Beckham, age 5, releases debut music video, a “techno-garage-thrash” cover version of Shirley Temple’s Animal Crackers In My Soup. Stung by criticism of his soppy Christmas song, brother Cruz (11) releases follow-up – an edgy, self-parody number called Bank It Like Beckham. Brother Romeo (14) takes over mother’s fashion house. Brother Brooklyn (17) is nominated for Nobel Physics Prize after completing the Theory of Everything while learning to park his Mercedes. David and Victoria Beckham deny that they are pushy parents. “It’s all just a bit of fun for the kids.”

March Supreme Court rules that an otter may join proceedings on Brexit case, and says it will consider applications from a weasel, a ferret and a stoat, with counsel for each on standard overtime with contingent fees and refreshers. Trump administration announces plans to fulfil another campaign pledge. Instead of a wall on the Mexican frontier, Trump Corporation will build a casino stretching from California to Texas. The jackpot prize will be a green card to live and work in United States. In football, England stumble to a shock defeat against Iceland the supermarket. Gareth Southgate resigns, replaced as England supremo by Watford’s dynamic mascot, Harry Hornet. “He’ll create a real buzz around the England team,” says FA spokesman. Beckham children announce retirements, saying they are sick of incessant exposure and want to enjoy a normal childhood. Agents offer exclusive pictures to media of all four in normal childhood activities. Another gaffe by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson when he claims that Britain will always be ahead of the United States, by at least three hours. The criminal justice system seizes up when a driverless car is tried for speeding.

April Supreme Court admits all the rest of the cast of Wind In The Willows to anti-Brexit proceedings and considers further applications from two well-known bears, a lion, a witch, a big friendly giant and a visiting tiger at a tea party. More counsel appear, charging ullage, pillage and corkage. French Presidential elections won by Gaul party candidate, Monsieur Asterix. He and his Prime Minister, Monsieur Obelix, withdraw France from EU under impression that it is still the Roman Empire. Half of Belgium follows suit, as do Balkan nations and Cyprus, while Malta applies to rejoin the Knights of St John. Prime Minister Theresa May announces new Brexit negotiator – her childhood hero Geoffrey Boycott. He accepts an earldom and sets off for Brussels with her new strategy. Sir Jeremy Heywood orders this to be covered up immediately but an aide accidentally reveals her instructions to Boycott on what to say to any EU proposal: Yes, No or Wait. Sudden economic slump leads Chancellor Philip Hammond to beg Beckham children to end retirements.

May Earl Boycott expresses confidence in Brussels role. “This lot can’t play. My granny could score off them.” He takes guard and makes opening statement. Is still in at lunch interval. And at close of play. Supreme Court rejects application by Peter Pan to join the Brexit case. “Pan has never grown up and is therefore a minor. He is also a citizen of Neverland and has no rights within the EU.” Harry Hornet picks an all-mascot England team, with Pete and Alice Eagle (Crystal Palace) as flying wingers and Stamford the Lion (Chelsea) in central defence. Responding to plea to end retirements, the Beckham children take over the Treasury. Hammond is replaced by Harper (5) as Chancellor, with brothers as junior ministers. They forego official salaries so as to keep more valuable pocket money from parents. Harper revives economy overnight with another Shirley Temple cover, Come And Get Your Happiness. New plan for media regulation is delayed because Sir Jeremy Heywood orders a cover-up of the name of the Culture and Media Secretary. This creates further delay because nobody can remember the name they are supposed to cover up.

June Earl Boycott continues opening Brexit statement, featuring highlights of his early career. Baltic members leave EU to escape remainder. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney predicts total recession if UK proceeds with Brexit and is rebuked by Chancellor Harper Beckham with another Shirley Temple cover Oh My Goodness. Unemployment falls to lowest level since Boadicea, output soars and giant beanstalks spring up beside M25. Harry Hornet’s England team stumbles to shock defeat against IKEA, after Stamford the Lion is sent off for eating an opponent off the ball. Harry Hornet resigns and is replaced by Roy Race, veteran player-manager of Melchester Rovers. FA spokesman says “Roy has an amazing record for Melchester, and is more than ready to step up from the Cartoon League.” In USA, Trump administration soars to new popularity records when Donald is persuaded to return to Presidency and fire one Cabinet minister each week on network TV: this also becomes favourite viewing of Prime Minister Theresa May. Royal Navy becomes extinct when its last frigate capsizes under weight of visiting admirals, defence officials and consultants.
July Earl Boycott continues opening Brexit statement, with more career highlights. Nordic members leave EU. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson says in a speech that “some foreign governments really aren’t terribly nice.” Number 10 briefs that this is one gaffe too many. He is fired by Theresa May in a Trump-style ceremony. Roy Race is criticized for his first selections as England football manager, all from his former team in Tiger comic apart from goalkeeper Billy the Fish. “He’s been outstanding for Viz,” comments Hornet (now a TV pundit) “but it’s a big step up from a two-inch goal to a full-size one. And the whole team is giving away a big height advantage.” Tony Blair gives televised press conference denying plans for a political comeback. As white-coated figures remove him to an undisclosed secluded location he murmurs “I’m ready for my close-up now.”

August Earl Boycott continues opening Brexit statement in Brussels, completing memories of career, but still no sign of a declaration. The other half of Belgium leaves EU. Prime Minister Theresa May announces surprise location of new London airport runway. It will go to “Boris Island” after all in the Thames Estuary, and she adds that Boris Johnson himself will be part of the concrete. The solar eclipse which creates eight minutes of darkness across the United States is blamed on Russian hackers. A giant poisonous jellyfish causes terror to bathers in the Mediterranean Sea, but is badly stung by Sir Phillip Green. The unknown Culture Secretary announces new system of media regulation. All journalists and other “content-providers” will be put on bail, which will be forfeit on the ruling of a tribunal of celebrity PRs.

September Earl Boycott continues opening Brexit statement in Brussels with career highlights of his granny. Poland leaves EU. New £10 note is withdrawn after discovery of traces of nuts. Prime Minister Theresa May is photographed relaxing at Number 10 in a mermaid blanket. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn denounces May for exploiting an endangered marine species and adds “Besides, mermaid blankets are so last year.” Trump runs out of Cabinet members to fire on television and reappoints his own family to run the United States. His son Barron (11) is made Defense Secretary. Trump defends choice: in computer war-game simulation, the boy had much the fastest finger on the button. British teenagers are humiliated by a survey showing that they drink and smoke less than their parents and take fewer recreational drugs and enjoy a hot milky drink at bedtime. Government restores their morale by banning Ovaltine as a class A substance.

October Earl Boycott finally declares. Nigel Farage visits October beer festival in Munich, where he easily outdrinks German politicians vying for popularity in their elections. He is declared surprise write-in election winner, as last man standing. First act of Reichskanzler Farage after thirtieth stein is to withdraw Germany from EU. This is swiftly followed by all remaining members apart from Luxembourg. Governor Mark Carney warns of disaster if UK loses access to Luxembourg, since so many British multinationals say they make all their profits there. Roy Race’s cartoon England team totters to shock defeat by Lidl. The replacement is motivational Spanish manager Pep Talk. He restores familiar players, but in a modern 3-4-3 formation with Wayne Rooney as a false number 10 playing in the hole behind the space. A mystery minister announces new system of media regulation: all content of all media to be supplied by the subject, without the intervention of journalists.

November Earl Boycott takes guard for a second innings. Luxembourg leaves EU. Theresa May hails his masterly Brexit strategy of boring the EU into extinction. Boycott becomes Duke of York in a re-constituted Royal Family in place of Prince Andrew, who takes command of a second-hand Royal yacht, purchased on eBay from Sir Philip Green. Chancellor Harper Beckham presents Autumn Statement with another Shirley Temple favourite On The Good Ship Lollipop. Economy instantly booms with lemonade stands everywhere and crackerjack bands filling the air, but Parliament is deserted because so many politicians are rehearsing for Strictly Come Dancing. Hot favourites are Liam Foxtrot and Peter Mandelson as a Twister. Tony Blair, in televised rehearsal with cousin Lionel, denies plans for a comeback. England team under manager Pep Talk struggle with his new formation and lose to Costcutter. He criticizes Wayne Rooney for playing in the space instead of the hole.

December Larry the Downing Street cat beats politicians and wins Strictly Come Dancing, although veteran partner Jerry the Mouse has to drop out and is replaced by Squeaker Bercow. While playing a war game on a screen in the Pentagon, US Defense Secretary Barron Trump (11) accidentally launches a strike against the entire Russian air force. It is completely successful and Putin surrenders. Master Trump’s success produces demands for a more youthful  British government and the Beckham children take over the country from Theresa May. “It’s all just a bit of fun for the kids,” say David and Victoria. Sir Jeremy Heywood is sacked as Cabinet Secretary: cover-ups are finished and all government information is released in full with accompanying videos by the young Beckhams. Resulting receipts eliminate Budget Deficit, even when their agents take their percentage.




30. December 2016 by rkh
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Three Dickensian death tributes

Published in the Yorkshire Post 23 Dec 2011 (revised 23 December 2016)

Ebenezer Scrooge was a successful banker who survived early derision to earn recognition as a champion of sound finance and a pioneer of environmentally sustainable living.

Scrooge began his career in the warehouse business. Through exceptional economy (and by forsaking the prospect of marriage) he accumulated enough capital to establish, in partnership with Jacob Marley, a private bank in the City (Scrooge preferred the old term “counting house” even after it turned into a global business with thousands of branches). Marley died, but Scrooge continued to build the business, enduring much mockery and even hatred for his austere methods and personal lifestyle.

Seven years after Marley’s death, Scrooge endured a mental aberration, in which he imagined himself visited by ghosts (including Marley’s). Convinced of their reality, he turned against his existing life and values. He embarked on a frenzy of philanthropic activities and employed a young writer, Charles Dickens, to publicize them. He also turned over management of his bank to his clerk, Robert Cratchit, and his nephew, Fred Goodwill.

However, he was soon alarmed by their profligate policies, and at this point he also received a doctor’s opinion that the ghosts were a delusion induced by mouldy gruel. Scrooge instantly resumed his former life. He abandoned philanthropy and dismissed Dickens, and reassumed control of his bank. Cratchit (still an employee) was dismissed but Fred Goodwill was able to build a glittering career elsewhere in banking.

Scrooge endured renewed mockery and hatred, particularly from the disappointed Dickens. As a banker he was derided for his belief in cash in hand and good security for loans, and for keeping his bank’s head office in its original shabby premises, rather than in an iconic new building. He was attacked for denouncing minimum wage and health and safety legislation as organized theft.

But Scrooge’s business values were vindicated when his bank survived the great financial crash of 2008, with large reserves of cash. He had the satisfaction of taking over the bank run by his nephew (now Sir Fred Goodwill) and re-employing him as his clerk.

Scrooge also enjoyed a complete re-appraisal of his personal life. No longer derided for avarice, he was honoured for his environmentally-friendly lifestyle, especially his commitment to energy-saving. He even published a book of gruel recipes, which displaced Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver on the bestseller lists. It was enlivened by a confectionery chapter with several types of humbug. Scrooge was asked by successive governments to advise on welfare reform, and although disappointed by their refusal to restore the workhouse he secured adoption of many other measures against the workshy. In a rare jest, he wrote his own epitaph “Better Scrooge than scrounge.”

Sir Wilkins Micawber OM was a Nobel prizewinning economist, whose optimistic theories strongly influenced the formation of the euro. Troubled until middle age by profound economic insecurity, he emigrated to Australia with his family and prospered as a farmer and magistrate.

But Micawber hankered for English life, and having provided for his large family, he returned to London and his passion for economics. Entirely self-taught, he never held any formal academic appointment but was much in demand as a writer and lecturer. Micawber’s style contributed strongly to his success. No dry-as-dust conventional economist, he combined pleonastic prolixity, rhetorical redundancy and otiose orotundity with sudden insights.

Micawber’s early work focused on the benefits of balanced budgets, both for households and governments. An analysis of metal price movements earned him respect among experts in the copper field. However, his global reputation was secured by his pioneering theory of Favourable Eventuality Expectations. Micawber showed that the strength of belief in a benign economic outcome was a strong influence on its probability. Later he suggested that economic optimism made some favourable outcome a near-certainty, even one not originally envisaged by the forecaster. Micawber’s theories were especially popular in the financial sector during its boom years. Behind the scenes, he helped to plan the euro, for which he predicted a golden future. He received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2007. The same year he was knighted and made OM.

His reputation suffered from the world financial crash and the travails of the eurozone, and he was widely blamed for fundamental flaws in the euro’s design. He stood by his theories and defended the European Project with his customary circumloquacity. But Micawber’s spirit was terminally crushed by the UK referendum vote to leave the EU. In his very last economic  forecast, he predicted that “Nothing will ever turn up again. Indubitably.”

Estella Havisham overcame her own disappointment with matrimony, and the even more powerful example of her guardian’s, to build an international business as a wedding planner. She was a perfectionist, who supervised personally every detail of her clients’ arrangements. She achieved special success with her recipe for an imperishable wedding cake and her designs for non-flammable wedding dresses. Her business model was simple: to demand full payment before the wedding, knowing that it would be much harder to collect after the bride had been jilted or discovered that the groom was a serious mistake.

23. December 2016 by rkh
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The Young Marshal

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”.

May 1998

Postscript (2000)

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.


Richard Heller

11. November 2016 by rkh
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Blair should face manslaughter charges over Iraq

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.

21. September 2016 by rkh
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Don’t appease Putin (Letter published Evening Standard August 18, 2016)

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


19. August 2016 by rkh
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