Monday, November 4, 2013

Notes from a Strange Island: new blogs at Asia Literary Review

What to see at the Hong Kong Lit Fest 2013

Justin Hill on Hastings, Sequels and How to Find an Agent part i & ii

Halloween, Fancy Dress, Bonfire Night, and thier Ancient Roots

On this day in 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes was found in an undercroft, in a house belonging to John Whynniard, Keeper of the King's Wardrobe, with twenty barrels of gunpowder.  His plan had been to blow up King James when he came to the House of Lords for the opening of Parliament and in England we still celebrate the failure of his plot by lighting bonfires, shooting off fireworks and eating toffee apples.  But we’re also celebrating something much older; a comforting fact for me as I’ve never quite had a simple relationship with the burning of the ‘Guy’, or the celebration of Protestantism over Catholicism.    
For one, like Fawkes, I come from an old Northern Catholic family, but more than that, we went to the same school: St Peter’s, in York.  He was and remains our most famous old boy: an odd example for young boys trying to emulate our famous alumni. 
At our school we didn’t burn a Guy on our bonfires, but we did light bonfires because it is the perfect way of fighting back the gathering gloom of northern climes.  This festival makes sense because it’s a celebration much older than 1605, and owes its origins to a festival that marked the end of the Harvest, and the onset of winter.

Bonfires were originally lit five nights earlier, at Halloween.  Halloween was the beginning of Hallowmas: (from the Old English halig, which meant ‘Holy’ or ‘saint’; and mas) - a Christian festival where the souls of the dead were honoured on the festivals of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween); All (Hallow’s) Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.

But that too had older, deeper roots.

The Celts called it Samhain: a three night festival which marked ‘Summer’s End.’  It was a time when the boundaries between this world and the other were at their thinnest.  Bonfires were lit to hold back the darkness; people dressed up (mummers); and the Wild Hunt was rumoured to ride through the skies terrifying children.  How little things change….!

Yes, we still dress up, still feel night spirits in the darkness; still scare ourselves with ‘ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night’.   What we’re really celebrating is something much more integral: the onset of the dark, and our innate reaction against it.  And that I find very comforting. 

Call it Bonfire Night, Halloween, whatever you like: it’s a festival with many names that marks the same half-way point between Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.  We celebrate it the same way they did, dressing up, scaring ourselves and lighting fires.  It is a tangible link us to our unknown ancestors who have disappeared into the dark before us. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

How novels are like girlfriends: my personal relationship with writing...

I found this old print of the only photo of my office circa 2000.  Some things haven't changed: though the 1995 Toshiba Satellite sadly gave up the ghost.

I’ve often thought that my relationship to my novels is similar to that with various women in my life. 
Other novels were those that needed working at.  Some that just hit you out of the blue, and some that were never really working out and were doomed from the start.  And then there are some which come like a bolt of lightning.  DDTH was like that.The Drink and Dream Teahouse (I've always called it DDTH for short) was my first novel, and so it has a very special place for me: it was my first love. 
It was as incredible a time for me as being a teenager and falling in love for the first time.  Writing it was an intense, all-consuming love affair.  It was like the story had been bottled inside me and suddenly burst out.  I could barely keep up. 

It took me six months from first line to putting the mss in an envelope, already sold for what was then a record breaking amount for an unfinished novel.
I had spent my twenties working abroad with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and I had already written two books about my experiences in rural China and Eritrea, East Africa.  But I found travel writing a little stilted.  Travel writing is an odd business, and it turns all the locals into foreigners in their own country.  I was dying to break into fiction.  I said 'graduate into fiction' then, and I still feel that fiction is a higher art form than Creative Non Fiction. 

What fiction gave me though, was a freedom to not have 'me' in the story, and this was so liberating.  I found, oddly, that I could be much more honest in fiction than in nonfiction.  And I could get much closer to the truth as well.

I came back to England from a last stint in China at the age of 29, to do an MA in Creative Writing in Lancaster.  As the leaves began to turn (autumn still seems like the best time to start a novel) I sat down to write a story that I wanted to put all my feelings about modern China into. 

I'm glad DDTH only took six months to write, because like your first love affair it was an unguarded and complete fall for me.  I would be out in the pub, thinking of my characters rather than listening to what anyone was saying.  They would wake me in the middle of the night.  I became a little obsessed.  The lives and challenges of the characters felt real.  They still feel real.  When I look at China now, the book is as relevant as it was ten years ago.
It's flawed of course.  It was my first novel and I had no idea what I was doing.  But there is a freshness and an honesty and a ballsyness to the writing that now I look back and admire. And I wonder if I still write that confidently, and fear that I dont.  Much in the way that after the first cut, you're never quite so open to others again.  I wonder if other writers have the same feeling?

DDTH won prizes I had never heard of, and was banned by the government in China, which in turns infuriated and delighted me, and I'm very fond of this book, and am delighted to have it out in the world again. If you'd like to get it then there are some links below, and if you like it, or not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

DDTH ebook is up on Amazon on a special 48 hour sale: $1.99  £1.28

Sunday, August 11, 2013

On this Day: Classical Legends and the Perseid Meteors

In 30BC, on this day, the last of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt, committed suicide.  Her name was Cleopatra VII Philopator, who famously ended her life with the bite of an asp.  It is also the first day of the Perseid Meteor Shower, which happens – obviously - in the constellation of Perseus.  Perseus was the killer of the Gorgon, Medusa, who had snakes instead of hair, and it was said that asps came from the drops of blood that rained down as Perseus carried her head to Olympus.
When I think of the Greek myths, I think of my prep school Classics teacher, Mr. Field.  He was an Old Peterite, and had come back after retirement to help out with the teaching.  He was supposed to have fought in the First World War, and to have a wooden foot.  School myth had it that some boys had crawled under his desk while he was talking, and untied his laces. 

His lesson usually started with him asking us where we had got up to in the particular story: the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, Alexander’s campaigns, Romulus and Remus.  Someone told him, and then he would stand unsteadily, and draw a map on the blackboard with white chalk.  He seemed to draw almost from touch rather than sight.  The he would sit and would not stand up again.

In year two, we started with the birth of the gods, and moved slowly forward as you graduated from up to fifth form: Greek Myths, Greek histories, then onto the birth of Rome, and the history of the Republic right up to the invasion of Britain.

Whenever I think of Mr. Field, he is drawing the map of Greece, but he could do Asia Minor, Sicily, Rome, and even Gaul as well.  His lesson was pure storytelling: and there was something timeless about it.  We were snotty little boys in the early 1980s, and he was an old man with gummy eyes and few teeth all sitting in a Victorian era classroom, with sash windows, and rugby fields outside.  But we could have been in a Victorian parlour, lit with gas lamps, or even a thegn’s hall with the light of the fire on our faces.  Those lessons were magical, and of course would never be allowed now!  But there’s something to be said for story-telling to be crow-barred into the curriculum.

Although it seems something of a shame that these classes talked of Mediterranean blue skies, rather than our own Northern ones, and the legends of Beowulf or Ingeld, or the adventures of Harald Hardrada.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What is wrong with the Publishing Industry II: The Author Strikes Back!

A few months ago I wrote a post 'What is wrong with the publishing industry' -  in which I lamented the fact that I was unable to convince my current publishers to put my first novel back into print: even though it was won prestigious prizes, sold 12,000 copies in hardback, and 35,000 in paperback before my editor left, and I switched publishers and that novel went out of print.

Rather than going back over the facts of that particular case, I want to share how I responded to this case, and where, as an author, it has led me. 

But first of all - if you're at all like me - which means that you have stories that are publishable - but which remain unpublished, then read on.

Most important advice first... I don't know David Gaughran, he's not a friend, but if you're tempted - and you should be - then first of all you should go out and get this book:

It's an ebook, so in fact you don't even have to go out and read it.  But I don't have a kindle, I hear people calling.  Don't worry: you just need a computer and an Internet connection, and then you can download this program which allows you to read the book on your pc, or ipad or however you commune with the world wide web.

But I don't like reading books on a screen.... well - devote yourself the hour or so to read through this.  It's well written, practical and clear, and won't take long to go through.  And it tells you why and most importantly how to epublish your own material.

Now, I have to be honest.  I spent five years nagging my editor about putting The Drink and Dream Teahouse back into print because the last thing I wanted to do was to get involved with self-publishing.  Heck!  I barely had enough time to write my new stories, feed my kids, see my wife and then relax at the end of a day never mind dealing with cover designers, picking covers, prices, and places to market the book. 

But as Publishing companies become more profit orientated, and the number of places they sell books reduces in number (Amazon, Waterstones, WH Smith...and - how many of us still buy books from our local in dependant bookstore?) the pressure they're under from book sellers increases.  The market is driven by new, new, new!  My editor is a great guy.  He likes the novel and wanted to buy it first time round.  But - as a Chinese saying goes -  it's a used shoe.  Who wants to wear it?!  Publishing wants an increasingly marketable books.  Square eggs, if you see what i mean, and if not all your eggs are square then you're stuck.

Publishing is great when you have a new book out.  You buy the Sunday papers to read your reviews, watch the first responses on Amazon, do the tour of bookshops, sit at a table stacked high with your book, and sign your way through them.  And then nothing happens for a year - if you're a prolific author - or if you're like me, then there's radio silence for a year or two, or more probably, with 9 month lead times - three years till the next novel comes out.

Which - in the world of instant publishing - this all seems ponderous as a way of communicating with readers, and supplying them with stories.


As a published author with a number of prizes to my name, you might be asking 'Why should I be worrying about self-publishing?' 

I want to be clear: I still see publishing novels through mainstream publishers as my primary activity, but there are ways I can support my novels in a number of ways.

The principal reason is that there are things I've written which are unpublishable in the current book world.  I'm working on a series of novels covering the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and there's a lot of fabulous material there.  Some of it fits well into the novel format.  Some of it doesn't.  So what do I do with the 5,000 word pieces.  Or the 20,000 word novellas which won't fly far in the pitch to the marketing pips, never mind to the Waterstones buyers.  Until now there's been no way to get these stories out.  No magazine published short historical fiction. 

So this is what self-publishing means for me.  Being in control and being able to write what I like and want to write about, as well as providing my readers with the things they like to read.

What does it mean for you?  Are you writing something that has no obvious audience, or an audience that might not necessarily best be reached through mainstream publishing.  Well, go read David Gaughran's book and see how easy this can be. 


I meant to get onto the whole topic of how I've gone about self-publishing today - but will come back to that soon....!  Just to say that - like me - you can be a complete newb, and in a matter of days you can take a mss and turn it into a book that you can put up on Amazon with minimal effort. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Literary Heroine returns to China

You know how wierd it is when different groups of friends meet each other.... well I have the same feeling with characters in books.  The Conquest Series starts within living memory of the end of my second novel, Passing Under Heaven when Hastings was just a twinkle in the author's imagination.   

Its a lovely idea that the main characters - Godwin and Orchid, as I called her in my novel - might have met up.  She would have been an old lady then, so perhaps it would have been better if she met Wulfnoth, or Godwin's grandfather, whoever he was...  A story there perhaps?!  It would of course be much more interesting if they met as youngsters.  In fact, Kendra and Orchid would have a lot in common - though Orchid seemed to tend towards the self-destructive so it might have all ended messily with jade wine cups getting thrown.   

One thing I can be sure of - these characters would certainly have enjoyed a night of wine and poetry.  They also have a lot in common.  None of them know it but they all come at the end of an epoch in thier respective countries: Orchid in the Tang Dynasty, and Godwin at the end of Anglo Saxon England.

Anyway!  Digressions aside.  I'm delighted to announce that Passing Under Heaven has come home and is coming out in Chinese, published by the Anhui Literature & Art Press.  It's been translated by Professor Zhang Xihua, Dean of the School of Applied English, Beijing International Studies University and as soon as I get my hands on a copy I'll post the cover up here.

A English book about a Chinese poetess, translated back into Chinese: now I wonder what that looks like?!


I've had something of a chequered history with my books and China.  My first novel was banned by the Chinese censors back in 2002, so this is a moment of small personal triumph over the book burners and men with black pens. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

A Tribute to Mick Aston

It's rather sad today, as a long time fan of Time Team to read that the former presenter, Mick Aston has died at the much-too-young age of 66.  (announcement here)

This compounds the sadness at the end of Time Team itself, which Mick left in February 2012 - which seems to me one of the more baffling decisions on the part of TV execs.  Time Team was educational, informative, amusing and sat firmly at the quality end of reality TV.  But this is more a personal account of my relationship with Time Team, as something of a tribute to Mick and his work.

I was living in China when the series started in 1994, but when I came back to the UK it quickly became the Sunday afternoon slot that I had to get home and turn on the TV for.  What can I say, I love history, and the subject matter of the second series was like soul-food: it nourished that fascination like nothing else.  Lord of the Isles; The Saxon Graves; The Lost Villa; The Archbishop's Back Garden; Medieval Dining Hall: these were local stories, small, intimate looks inside Iron Age huts, a Saxon graveyard, a Roman fort resettled and rebuilt by a Saxon lord, the slow decay of a Roman villa on the South Downs as the social structure that supported them began to decline with the loss of the Roman legions.

These were historical stories you never found in books.  They were stories not grand enough to make it into histories.  But through the intimate and everyday details, through them you could find the universal. 

My relationship with Time Team has been an odd one.  I had a friend who worked on the set, and whenever she appeared in the pub or kneeling in a wet trench uncovering a bit of pot and handing it over to one of the period experts, I would think: huh, I know her!  Small world!

I was back in York when the York dig happened, and here I learnt that the place where I had locked my bike up, at the Museum Gardens, was inches from St Leonard's Hospice.  That the lawn around the Station Hotel was the site of a great Roman palace. I stood at the fence and peered down at the archaeologists working, and nothing much happened, and I moved on.

But most of the time I was abroad and had to work hard to get my fill of Time Team episodes.  At one point they were videoed and sent to me in a parcel.  Thirteen episodes on a single disc, with all the random quality home videoed tapes had: starting half way through the title music, half way through Tony Robinson's introduction, or half way through the program, when the dig is already going pear shaped on day 2.

Since broadband, I've taken to streaming Time Team episodes, and catching up on series I missed.  When the first kids stopped napping, I would watch one each lunchtime and we would sit in a hot flat on the twentieth floor of a Hong Kong skyrise and watch people knee deep in mud battle with the English weather.  I took notes, and called it research for novels.

We still watch them, though now it's usually on a Saturday afternoon, when the youngest is asleep and the rest of us pile onto the sofa and watch what is called in our house, 'Daddy TV'.  It is probably how my children, now 9, 7, 4 and 2 imagine England: pock marked by archaeologists and holes in people's lawns.  Not a bad way to think of their homeland.

I suppose the important think Time Team,and Mick Aston did was to show us how you need only dig a hole and find history.  A story, I like to think - and that we are surrounded with stories are all about us.  The past lives on in the landscape we live in, the lay-out of our streets, the location of villages, churches, the width of Edwardian terrace houses in York, which retain the Viking property boundaries a thousand years on. 

Mick will be missed, by all those who knew him, but also by those, like me, who never met him.  I hope he has a beer and a hole to dig somewhere in the hereafter.  The greatest compliment is that he made a difference. 

UPDATE: there's an internet campaign to get a special one-off dig in honour of Mick.  Check out the fan page here

Mick himself, in this interview said that ''My favourites are usually sites in the Middle Ages (1066-1540) or even better, the post-Roman, 'Dark Age' and Anglo-Saxon sites, though it is usually very difficult to work on sites of this period.  It may be surprising to some but my all time favourite site of the 200 programmes was the Llygadwy site in Brecon (broadcast in January 2001). Viewers may remember this as a Celtic spring site which seemed to be spurious: it had a dodgy collection of material from the spring; and a spurious burial chamber and castle.'

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kalamazoo, Hobbits, Re-enactors and Medievalists: my first academic conference

All good ideas come from either the bath or the pub, but here I was standing up at the 48th Congress of Medieval Studies, at Kalamazoo, Michigan, about to talk to a room full of august Medievalists about my novel Shieldwall - and I suddenly realised that this was my nightmare coming true. 


Two years earlier Shieldwall had just been published, and I had spoken on historical fiction for Nottingham University's Centre for the Study of Viking Age.  I had a fabulous welcome and spent a fairly idyllic few summer days there, and sitting with Dr Christina Lee in the  Victoria Pub, in Beeston, I was supping my Batemans Salem Porter  when she had the brilliant idea to go to Kalamazoo in 2013, with talks themed about the the thousandth anniversary of Swein Forkbeard's conquest of England. 

'We could do a series of talks about Knut,' she said, 'and you could talk about Shieldwall.'

'Great idea,' I said, and we clinked out pint glasses together, and so the plan was set. 


That day in the Victoria pub, over another pint of porter, Christina and her colleagues introduced me to the mysterious world of 'Zoo.

Kalamazoo - or 'Zoo or #KZoo - for those of you who don't know, is smallish town Michigan, which is the cold/hot flat bit where the USA and Canada meet.  It's 150 miles north west from Chicago,  and seems to have something of Detroit about it, for complete non-Americans.  The train station was full of all the wonderful weirdness of America: staff with way too much personality ('If you're ticket is on those iphone things then make it real big because the conductors on the train they ain't so young.  They don't see so well, if you know what I mean,' the conductor told us as we filed onto the platform.)  In that queue were all the shades humanity comes in, with rich, poor, and some odd looking folk wearing plain Victorian dresses, bonnets, and beards. 

'Oh look,' I thought, 'there must be a Civil War Re-enactors' event somewhere.'
before I realised they were Amish.

When boarding an Amtrak train,  you sit in carriages according to your destination.  I shared a train carriage with two US academics - one of whom was dressed for hunting, in tweet cap, jacket and waistcoat, while his drainpipe jeans were tucked into knee-length DM boots. The other one I never saw, but I heard him the entire trip, talking about himself and the many papers he had given over the years. He was, he explained, an expert on 'Zoo.

I took off my tweed cap and stuffed it my pocket and was glad I had left my tweeds at home, and could pass as 'normal'.

I got to 'Zoo by train - sometimes along the shores of Lake Michigan, occasional steel plants, more often through small-towns of painted clapboard houses that lined up dutifully along the traintracks each time we rumbled past.

When I got off the train, the hipster taxi driver said simply 'For the conference?' and I was off.

'Zoo is the largest gathering of medievalists in the world.  Some medievalists are very normal, I found out, others are particularly strange.  There were three hobbits outside the reception when I arrived, smoking very long pipes, and studiously ignoring the signs which banned smoking within 100 feet of the doorway. 

I was given my key, and my dorm number, and found the building in which I would be staying, and in the shared bathroom with next door, I found there was no door on the toilet, which seemed unnecessarily spartan, that he liked to leave toilet paper on the floor, and that he had two razors, one toothbrush, and Colgate toothpaste. 

(I never met my neighbour, but i heard him on the phone to his wife, because he was a mid-Westerner, and had to speak loudly, and when the silence went on so long, and I feared that he had died, I was reassured to see that he had moved one of his safety razors, or his toothbrush, which was the best sign of life.)


If you have never been to an academic conference, and I hadn't until now - then let me describe what happens.  People spend months, years, perhaps decades, studying some arcane point - and a year before the conference, when they think they have an idea, they submit an 'abstract' to the conference organisers, who then pick names out of a hat.

Well, that's probably not true, but I haven't a clue: the organisers probably decide on the basis of the organisers for each 2 hour session, which would be good papers or not and divvy out spots accordingly. 

Which begs the question, how the hell did I get to present a paper.  Well: I firmly tagged my paper to the coat-tails of Nottingham University.


That day back in the Victoria pub Christina gave me a brief intro to Kalamazoo - a place which attracts as many ladies who believe they are the second coming of Guinevere as it does august experts on Anglo Saxon poetry.

'Have you seen the tribes?' Christina asked me when we met on the way to a stodgy campus breakfast of fried eggs and sausage patties (not recommended).

There were many tribes - I found out, 'academic adacemics' such as the man dressed in his hunting tweeds; reenactors: who sport fabulous facial hair, are delighted to shake your hand, and hold eye contact longer than comfortable; Tolkienites, who come dressed as Hobbits or elves, there was even a tribe of historical novelists - and what a wonderfully strange bunch we were - audience and panel....and at the 5pm free tasting from the Medieval Brewers Guild - I found out that all the tribes loved to drink mead: and very good mead it was too!


What else is there to say?  In between all the socialising and book-shopping and meeting with editors of historical journals (not me - real academics) there were those sessions I mentioned.  Being on Hong Kong time while I was there, I had a lot of dawn walks through the campus: a lovely wooded place, with woodpeckers and geese and a lot of goose crap. 

I saw strange groups of students heading off to various early morning activities.  They reminded me of Karen Blixen's description of seeing elephants on the hills outside Nairobi, marching off to the ends of the world, or the herd of buffalo she saw one morning coming out of the mist, as if they were being created one by one. 

The dawn campus was empty, and then suddenly a band of thirty girls with too much make-up and flesh coloured tights with bags slung over their shoulders, all chatting and talking suddenly appeared and crossed in front of me heading to the end of the world. 

They were so young.  So American.  So Mid-west probably too.  

I followed the thrid group to see where they were going, and ended up in a corridor that took me to a student canteen where God was creating students at a furious pace, and I didn't have the heart not to eat anything, though I had learnt to avoid the sausage patties by then. 


As with any event like this I missed half of what I wanted to see.  I never got to find out about 'Doing it Doggy Style on Medieval Seals', nor the fabulous looking talks on 'Viking Winter Camps in England: New Archaeological Evidence' by Dawn M. Hadley, Univ. of Sheffield.  The list goes on.  I missed all these sessions: Violence and Warfare in Late Medieval England; New Voices in Anglo Saxon Studies I & II; Crown and Country in Late Medieval England; Memory and Community in Anglo-Saxon England; Memory and Community in Anglo Saxon England;  ''Can these bones come to life?' Insights from Re-construction, Re-enactment and Re-creation; Un/making mistakes in Medieval Manuscripts.

There were less knitted jumpers than I expected, I stumbled upon and found myself suddenly on a panel of historical writers, who spoke to an audience who were largely eating lunches which consisted of coloured salads packed into translucent 64 oz coke cups - like coloured sand - and which were eaten with a white plastic fork. I met Patricia Bracewell, whose novel about Emma of Normandy had just come out and which is now on my 'to read' list. There were medieval iron smelting demonstrations. In fact I could probably talk more about what I missed. Each session, and there were three a day, was an exercise in working out which would I be most appalled to miss. 

When you have to miss these kinds of sessions, with experts in their fields talking about them, then that's a testament to how good the rest of the stuff going on was.  Put simply this was medievalist nerd heaven.  More precisely - it was Viking and Anglo Saxonist nerd heaven. 

But I did get to hear four talks about Beowulf; I was at Anglo-Saxon Childhood, Adolescence, and Education where there were three talks about fostering, children and their role in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, and Anglo Saxon Preaching on Children.  And I got to sit and drink and talk and listen and learn. 

What could be more fun? 


Back to my talk: and here's a life lesson - the funny thing about nightmares coming true, is that they're often not as terrifying as you feared.  The assembled audience was very nice to me: and one man came up to me at the end, and said, 'You have changed my mind!  I have always avoided historical fiction, but I can see the point of it now.  It's a different way of telling the history.  Through a character rather than through events.'

I thanked him, and breathed a long sigh of relief. 

Would I got to Zoo again: absolutely! 



Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Opening chapters for free!

As a special gift here's the opening chapters of The Drink and Dream Teahouse, for free!  You can't get better than that - and if you like it you can download it or buy it from Amazon. 

I've even included a pdf that you can import into Kindle or your ipad: free sample here



For two weeks exploding firecrackers shredded the winter gloom at Shaoyang’s Number Two Space Rocket Factory. The fourteenth and last night was the Lantern Festival: hopeful lovers carried their hearts in moth-skin lanterns, bobbing like hooked fish on the ends of long canes. A river of stars flowed through the night, the candles burned steadily down, and after midnight solitary spirits wandered the streets with increasing desperation – searching for their perfect match, who might never come.

The next morning the radio announced the end of the holiday as children searched in the frost for the last unex­ploded bangers and detonated them in a ragged battle of irregular gunfire. At 7-45 a.m., Beijing Time, Party Secretary Li woke suddenly from a cold green dream that had stranded him back in the year 1967, and which had left him perplexed and nervous. It was the fourth time in as many weeks that the same dream had blown confusion into his sleeping mind, and this time he lay and shivered and thought hard, testing himself for any signs of private insanity.

Next to him Autumn Cloud, his wife, lay wrapped in cotton quilts, her head tilted back and mouth open, asleep. Party Secretary Li got up and opened the window to feel the frost on his skin. There was a chill morning breeze; firecrackers were sporadically shattering the silence. He rubbed his eyes as the smell of gun powder smarted in his nostrils; opened them and saw the white snow sprinkled with the fallen petals of paper – cold and red.

Party Secretary Li tried to carry on his morning’s activities as if nothing at all had happened. He cleared his throat into the toilet, then sat to empty his bowels in one long fluid motion, wiped away the excess with a strip of newspaper. He examined his old walnut-wrinkled face in the mirror and rubbed the chin of stubble that bristled defensively against the cold. He lit a cigarette and smoked; tried hard to be normal.

At breakfast Autumn Cloud steamed five bread buns full of date paste; and poured out two bowls of sweet rice gruel, patterned with red jujubes and white tremella. She slurped expansively, and he slurped in reply. Slurp, slurp went their morning conversation. Next door, from her concrete balcony, Madam Fan was serenading the world with Beijing Opera. Her voice was shrill and beautiful, every note of the arias perfectly delivered. This morning she sang the young nun’s soliloquy from The White Fur Coat:

      A young nun am I, sixteen years of age,

     My head was shaven in my young maidenhood

Party Secretary Li slurped, and his wife slurped back.

    My head was shaven in my young maidenhood

    When beauty is past and youth is lost

    Who will marry an old crone?

‘She’s been a crone for years,’ Autumn Cloud muttered. ‘Who does she think she is?’

Party Secretary Li looked up from his breakfast and stared at his wife. Her eyes held his then turned away. The words of the aria seemed to him very beautiful for an instant.

    They are not for my bridal chamber

    These candles on the altar

    They are not for my bridal chamber

He could picture Madam Fan with her sleeves blowing in the breeze, her shadow dancing on her concrete step next to her.

    From where comes this suffocating ardour?

    From where comes this strange, unearthly ardour?

The lonely words drifted across the skyline of grey concrete tenements and over the Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory’s roof of corrugated iron; across the river, beyond the East and North Pagoda, to the hillsides of bamboo and pine, where the north wind whispered back. Party Secretary Li sat for a moment, eyes closed, breathing in circles, in and out, and felt for an instant a canyon-deep calm.

    A young nun am I, sixteen years of age

    My head was shaven in my young maidenhood

    For my father, he loves the Buddhist sutras

    And my mother, she loves the Buddhist priests.

Party Secretary Li laughed suddenly. He stood up and put on his army greatcoat and Russian fur hat.

‘I’m going to the office,’ he said.

As he left his wife shouted, ‘I thought you retired!’

He ignored her as he always did, and walked outside.

‘What good’s a husband who is always away from the house?’ she cursed his footsteps, muttering as she cleared away the breakfast dishes. Party Secretary Li startled her so much by coming back and answering her this time that she dropped the blue bowl, which shattered, scattering shards across the white tiles, patterning them with fragments of blue and white. He stood for a moment in the doorway, sang to her the line ‘A young nun am I, sixteen years of age,’ and then turned and left.

Autumn Cloud hurried to the door to watch him. Who did he think he was? What if word got around that her husband was singing the lines of a young girl?

The offices were closed, so Party Secretary Li walked around the back of Number 7 block of flats. He stood and surveyed the black soil of the allotments. Old Zhu was there, raking up dead leaves into a heap. His white hair, gap-toothed smile and skin of a baby.

‘How was Spring Festival?’ Party Secretary Li asked.

‘Good!’ Zhu answered. ‘Good!’

‘Did your son come back?’

‘No, too far. Too far. And yours?’

‘No. Had no time off.’

They stood in silence for a while. Young people never came back to Shaoyang, not even to die. There was nothing for them here, except memories. Party Secretary Li watched Old Zhu rake up another pile of leaves. There were now two piles of leaves, two tumbled mosaics of russet and black and brown. He lit a cigarette.

‘Want one?’

Old Zhu shook his head.

Party Secretary Li lit his own, breathed in and then out in a long plume of smoke. It tasted stale. He threw it away, burrowed his hands deep into his trouser pockets. He watched Old Zhu rake up a third pile of leaves. The three piles made up the shape of a triangle. Three was a lucky number, but in each pile of leaves he could feel the chill of his dream: it was in the cigarettes he smoked, the food he ate, and it coloured his sleep.

‘Did you hear?’ Old Zhu asked, as he straightened his back and leant on his rake’s shaft.

‘Hear what?’

‘They’re closing the factory,’ Old Zhu said.

‘They’re doing what?’ he asked.

‘Closing the factory.’

‘This factory?’



‘It’s true.’

‘It can’t be.’

Old Zhu looked up into the thicket of branches above his head that rained the leaves that he raked into piles. He thought of the factory, scratched his head, and said simply, ‘It is.’


Party Secretary Li’s seventy-eight-year-old heart palpitated as he hurried home. They couldn’t close the factory, he told himself, not this factory. He opened the front door and called out to his wife. There was no answer. He checked in the kitchen, she wasn’t there. He went to the bedroom door and opened it, but apart for the pale winter sunlight that stretched across the floor, the room was deserted.

The wooden chair creaked in protest as Party Secretary Li sat down at his desk, creaked again as he shuffled closer to the desk. He picked out his finest brush and squirted some ink from a plastic bottle onto a white chipped plate. The ink settled across one half of the plate, black and white, yin and yang. He dipped his brush into the ink and settled his mind. Madam Fan was still practising her Beijing Opera, she had a tape player on in the background. Fan and tape mixed up so that he could no longer tell which was which. Outside he could smell the smoke that drifted up from Old Zhu’s burning leaves, as they crumbled into ash.

Party Secretary Li leant over a long sheet and the world went very silent, except for the whisper of brush on paper. He wrote the strokes of each character out carefully, stood back to survey his work. He took out his seal and printed his red square stamp at the end, then hung the first banner from his study window.

It read:

Our Leaders are Drunk on the Taste of Corruption

He returned to his desk and drew another sheet of paper from the pile. He dipped his brush into the ink and wiped away the excess.

The Immortals are Jealous of the Lifestyle of Our ‘Offi­cials

He stamped it with his seal of red.

The Privileged Officials Masturbate Over Blue Movies

And pulled another sheet from the pile. Autumn Cloud spent the morning shopping in the market. She bought pork and spinach, beansprouts and a square of dofu. On the way back she met Mrs Cao who invited her to go and play mah-jong.

‘We’re betting,’ Mrs Cao said with a wink.

Autumn Cloud screwed up her face.

‘Come on, I’ll carry your shopping!’ Mrs Cao insisted. ‘We need a fourth person.’

They joined Madam Fan’s husband and sister who were playing mah-jong in the kitchen. There was a brazier of glowing coals under the table that kept their feet warm, while their fingertips were still icy cold. Madam Fan sang on the balcony, occasionally casting disapproving glances at them through the window. Her arias and the clicking sound of the tiles being shuffled filled the morning. Autumn Cloud was nervous because she was starting to lose money. She pre­tended it was of no matter.

‘I wish she’d give up on her rotten singing!’ Madam Fan’s husband cursed.

Autumn Cloud laughed louder than the rest.

‘The factory’s going to be closed,’ Mrs Cao mentioned.

‘Good,’ Madam Fan’s husband replied.

‘Good,’ Autumn Cloud echoed, not meaning to say good at all. They shuffled the tiles around the centre of the table as she sat worrying. ‘What will happen to our pensions?’ she asked at last.

‘Oh, they’ll still pay them,’ Mrs Cao said.

Autumn Cloud nodded, trying to hide her relief. ‘And what about the workers?’

‘I don’t think there are any workers left are there?’ Madam Fan’s husband replied.

‘A hundred I think,’ Mrs Cao said.

Autumn Cloud nodded to back up this piece of informa­tion.

Madam Fan’s husband was unconcerned. ‘Serves them right. They should have found another job. Set up in business. Have to move with the times. What about the Four Modernisations? What about the Open Door Policy? What about the Socialist Market Economy? Don’t they know the world has changed?.’

Autumn Cloud nodded. Yes, yes, serve them right. Have to move with the times.

She was still losing money when Peach, Madam Fan’s daughter, ran in. Peach looked white, she was so white that she looked unhealthy.

‘Mrs Li come quickly,’ Peach gasped.

Mrs Cao scowled at Peach because she was on a winning streak.

‘Mrs Li come quickly,’ Peach gasped again, then giggled and put her hand over her mouth. ‘There are bad words hanging out of your windows!’

Autumn Cloud went as quickly as she could, but her left leg was stiff and it didn’t like to hurry. She went down the steps and followed Peach out of the door. Peach pointed up.

‘Look Mrs Li.’

Autumn Cloud looked up.

The Party Officials are Screwing Our Daughters hung from the bathroom window.

The Fifth Modernisation – Democracy wasdraped overthe balcony railings.

Fuck the Communist Party wafted gently on the breeze.

‘Oh heavens!’ she gasped, and held her left hand. ‘Oh heavens!’ she said again, and her left hand began to shake.



The community gathered in Old Zhu’s house to discuss what to do. Old Zhu held up a torn banner that he had managed to pull off the Li family’s balcony. He held it up:

The Mercedes Benz Stops Nightly at the Red Light District.

‘What does it mean?’ Peach asked.

Old Zhu cleared his throat. ‘It means Party Secretary Li is sick,’ he said. Everyone nodded.

‘What can we do about this?’ Madam Fan asked, moving forward into the centre of the room.

‘Yes, we don’t want trouble.’

Faces turned to Autumn Cloud who sat in the corner, small and shaking like a frightened child in the arms of Old Zhu’s white-haired wife. They hoped for a reaction from her, but she gave none. She just sat and shivered. Old Zhu’s wife smoothed her hair back from her face.

‘So what will we do?’ Madam Fan asked.

Everyone turned to Old Zhu. He was the most senior person there. It was his decision. They looked to his white hair and gap-toothed mouth for the words of guidance.

‘He’s locked the door,’ Peach put in.

Old Zhu nodded at this piece of intelligence and everyone watched him think. Autumn Cloud shivered in the corner, as Old Zhu’s wife held her close and wiped away the sweat from her forehead.

‘Party Secretary Li has been upset by the factory closing,’ Old Zhu said at last. People held their breaths as they waited for more. Old Zhu scratched his head.

‘He has worked all his life to build the Motherland. He was a shining light to all of us – we learnt from his example.’ Someone cleared their throat. ‘All his life he has been an exemplary Party Member. And Autumn Cloud was a model worker too.’ People turned to offer sympathetic looks to Autumn Cloud but she didn’t hear or see anything in the room. ‘We have to help him. We must help him understand that the closure of the factory is good for the country. We must help build the Socialist Market Economy!’

Party Secretary Li hunched over his desk and looked into his cup of tea. A single jasmine flower swirled slowly on its surface, round and round. He could hear the crowd of voices outside his doorway. They were discussing what to do. Old Zhu was there, all of the neighbours as well. They discussed between themselves for a while, and then they resumed banging on his door. The thunder of all their fists on the metal door boomed through the flat; then there was a moment of stillness, like gentle rain.

‘Comrade!’ Old Zhu called. ‘Comrade!’

Party Secretary Li didn’t answer. He was out of paper, but he still had the bed sheets.

‘Comrade Li! We have a doctor here.’

‘Neighbour Li!’ another voice called.

‘Brother-in-law Li!’ So they’d got Autumn Cloud’s sister here as well.


‘It’s no use,’ Old Zhu told the conference that evening. ‘We will have to call his family. Where are his children?’

‘Does she know?’ Madam Fan asked, pointing to Autumn Cloud.

‘Where are your children?’ Madam Fan’s husband shouted into her left ear. ‘Your children!’ Madam Fan shouted into her right ear. Old Zhu took her hand, and looked her in the face. ‘Comrade. Autumn Cloud, where are your children. We are trying to help you. Where are your children? Your children? Children.’

They’d given up on getting an answer, and some of them had actually left to go home when Autumn Cloud spoke.

‘Seven, six, five, two, two, eight, eight, eight.’

‘Can you say that again?’ someone asked.

Autumn Cloud repeated. ‘Seven, six, five, two, two, eight, eight, eight.’ Old Zhu reached for a pen and wrote down her words.

‘It must be a telephone number.’

‘Yes but where?’ Madam Fan said. ‘It’s not a Shaoyang number. Her children aren’t in Shaoyang. They’ve gone south.’

‘We’ll try every city in China,’ Old Zhu declared with confidence. He smiled as he announced, ‘We’ll save the duck by stealing her eggs!’

As the residents of Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory gossiped about the scandal of the Li family, Old Zhu sat on the phone and diligently tracked down each of Party Secretary Li’s four children. Two were in Guangzhou, one was working in a factory in Shanghai, and the fourth was a teacher in a nearby middle school. He confided to each of them that their father was seriously ill, and that their mother had had a relapse. They all packed immediately and set off on the long journey home.

Each banner Party Secretary Li hung from his window the residents of Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory had torn down by using long poles and canes with hooks on the ends. His neighbours had even managed to tear the flapping white blankets off the railings while he was trying to stop anyone getting the banner that hung from the bathroom window. But Party Secretary Li was too old and wise for all of them; he still had one sheet left. It was enough for his final protest.

He walked into the bedroom and felt his hands tremble as he pulled the top sheet off the bed. It resisted for a moment, so he yanked violently. Its folds ripped out from under the mattress and it swirled in the air before falling prone across the floor, one end still clamped in Party Secretary Li’s fist. He pulled it across the floor and jammed it under the bed leg so that it was rammed down tight, then began walking back­wards, step by slow step. He twisted the sheet round and round, determined hands continuing the torture till the sheet was a white cotton rope. He kept twisting till the fibres groaned in protest, then he twisted it one more turn and the end of the rope began to bend into a noose.

When he was satisfied, Party Secretary Li climbed onto the bed and reached up to tug on the fan shaft. It felt solid enough. He tied the rope onto the fan with a knot the size of a skull, then climbed down. There were four dirty footprints embedded into the cotton quilt, that still smelt freshly washed. He imagined his wife having to re-wash the sheet, and silently rebuked himself.

Party Secretary Li’s shaking hands patted out his last footsteps and smoothed back the hair from his head as he took a deep breath. His wife’s face haunted him for a moment

– she would understand, he thought, she knew what the factory meant to him – then he took another deep breath. It didn’t calm his nerves. He looked around the room, on the desk lay his brush and the ink-smeared plate. Yes, that’s what he had to do. He took the brush and wrote huge black characters across his bedroom wall, reaching up high for the top characters and bending down low for the bottom ones. As he wrote the ink dripped one huge character into another, like they were banding together for solidarity.

They were still dripping as Party Secretary Li washed the ink from his brush and returned it to its porcelain holder. He put the lid on the ink bottle and then turned to face the bed. He checked his cigarettes in his breast pocket, took off his shoes, neatly arranged them next to each other, then stepped up. The soft mattress swallowed his feet and he swayed like a man aboard ship, hanging on to the rope to steady himself. When he was steady he lit his cigarette and put the noose around his neck, and it lay on his shoulders like the arm of a trusted friend.  

As Party Secretary Li smoked his hands shook terribly. Half way down he threw his fag away. Closed his eyes. Took a deep breath.

And stepped.

Off the bed.

The noose tightened slowly and Party Secretary Li gasped for breath, his fingers clawing at his neck. His feet kicked violently; his lips peeled back in a desperate grimace. His breathing became strangled gasps. Blood started out where his fingers had scratched. After a few minutes the violence of his kicking slowed to an erratic waltz. Urine trickled down his legs as his bowels opened. His gasps changed to gurgles. His open mouth gaped like a beached fish. His eyes bulged.

There was a brief moment when the throttling pain lifted: the words on the wall swam together, and the last thing his straining eyes focused on was a single thread of ink, dripping down the wall.

The ink dried to a thin crust of black on the white plaster as a crowd gathered outside the door of Party Secretary Li’s flat. Old Zhu directed them as they brought up a large hammer. Stand back, he shouted, stand back. The hammer swung and the empty rooms echoed with shouting voices and the thuds of the pounding hammer. Party Secretary Li heard nothing as he hung above the bed, his sporadic twitches stilled, his feet motionless.

When the metal door was bent and twisted it was kicked open, and the residents of Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory rushed inside. They spread through the flat in a panicked crowd while Old Zhu walked straight to the closed bedroom door and pushed it open. Party Secretary Li’s body was suspended from the roof, feet swaying slightly in the draft from the door. Old Zhu stopped and shook his old head, felt shock clutch his throat. He gasped and shivered, felt tears build up in his stomach and start to rise.

Madam Fan’s husband helped Old Zhu pull the body down. They both flinched as the warm head flopped unnaturally on the stretched neck, and the legs left a cold smear of sewage on the bed. Madam Fan’s husband closed the staring eyes as Old Zhu wiped his hands in disgust. Madam Fan’s husband curled his lip when he saw that shit had landed on both his shoes. Old Zhu looked up through his tears and saw the black characters across the wall, Party Secretary Li’s final message:


Honour and wealth are gusts of wind

That blow for a while then disappear.


That night the pale moon rose in the eastern sky, before the storm clouds rolled over it. Thick soaking clouds that dropped anchor over the factory and started to rain. The first drops rang out loudly as they dashed against the window­pane. The individual rattles increased to a thunder like the firecrackers that had celebrated Spring Festival only fifteen days before.

As the rain fell Autumn Cloud sat alone, sniffing in the cold azure candlelight, grief turning slowly in her gut. Tears of sleet built up a thousand layers of cold, a cold so fierce it stunned the flesh. To Old Zhu the world seemed unbearably damp, and he took a candle to melt his melancholy with a cup of wine. Madam Fan struggled to sing her lines of opera, A young nun am I, sixteen years of age; My head was shaven in my young maidenhood; her voice drowned out by the noise of the falling water.

All night the truculent heavens poured their anger down on the factory, swamping the nearby paddy fields and the streets alike. The gutters burst, the river flooded; the streets were opaque with rain.

In the Li family flat the ceiling sprang a leak. Water seeped through the roof and slithered down the shaft of the fan. It collected on the fan’s underside, the water gathered and swelled up to a droplet, and jumped. Unseen in the empty room of Party Secretary Li’s last lines, the water dripped that long night to pieces.