Poem: ‘Diary’

Clive James

For Mrs Thatcher’s visit the Chinese
Have laid on a Grade Three official greeting.
Which doesn’t mean the bum’s rush or the freeze:
She gets an honour guard at the first meeting.
But not much bunting flutters in the breeze.
Tian’anmen Square contains no special seating.
Instead there is a lot of open space
With here and there a mildly curious face.

She’s here to pin them down about Hong Kong.
She’d like to have a written guarantee.
The PM’s habit is to come on strong.
The Chinese instinct is to wait and see.
Any idea the business won’t take long
Ebbs when the welcome turns out so low key.
China in that respect remains immutable –
The people speak Chinese and look inscrutable.

The Great Hall of the People is the venue
For a fifteen-course State Banquet every night.
There isn’t any need to read the menu:
You take a pinch of everything in sight.
It all tastes at least wonderful and when you
Happen upon a dish that’s sheer delight
Just go on eating while they bring you more.
They’ll keep that up until you hit the floor.

Shown how by locals in black Beatles suits
We find out what to chew and what to suck.
First having added sauce and onion shoots
We fold the pancake round the Peking Duck.
Maddened by fish lips and sliced lotus roots
The journalists eat like a rugby ruck.
Even our diplomats up there with Her
Tuck in so fast their chopsticks are a blur.

A thousand million ordinary Chinese
Are outside staunchly doing what they’re told.
They’d never even dream of meals like these.
It’s luxury for them just to grow old.
From dawn to dusk the streets swarm with belled bees.
I hire a bike and join them, feeling bold
And bulking large against the average male
As if I were a wobbly, two-wheeled whale.

Petite they are and easy on the eye,
This quarter of the world’s whole population.
The same seems even more true in Shanghai.
Each city stuns you like a whole new nation.
They march together under a red sky
Towards a dream of human transformation.
It’s awe-inspiring yet one has to say
One’s heart goes out still to the Student Wei.

Young Wei it was who, raised as a Red Guard,
Looked back on his achievements with remorse.
With Mao set to cash in his Party card
Deng and the boys announced a change of course.
The Student Wei invited ten years hard
Saying they’d got the cart before the horse:
If freedom came first, progress might begin.
He pulled his ten years and five more thrown in.

As Thatcher’s VC10 with me aboard
Spears up and doubles westward from Kai Tak
At 30,000 feet I still feel floored
By China and make large plans to go back.
It wasn’t Communism I adored:
It was the beauty too refined to crack
From history’s hammer blows, and yet possessed
In common, everywhere made manifeast.

I never knew the sky was full of dust
Above Peking and turned plum at sunset
While all the palace roofs acquired a crust
Of crumbling honeycomb. If I forget
The details or confuse them as one must,
That first sigh of assent is with me yet.
In China though the mind recoils offended
One’s visual range can’t help but be extended.

With due allowances, the same’s applied
To local artists since the Shang at least.
No bronze bell has been cast or silk bolt dyed
If not with reference to the visual feast
Spread out what still must seem the whole world wide
Each day that dawns where else but in the East?
A boundlessness which suffers no real border
Except the outline of an ideal order.

Sung pictures fix my dreams of public art:
Intensely subtle, spaciously compact,
Produced by an élite not set apart,
The theory left implicit in the fact,
A measured naturalness felt from the heart,
The intellect controlled by natural tact –
Schooled to the limit yet prepared to meet
Half-way the average cyclist in the street.

The full text of this poem is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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