My part in its foundation
Careful readers may observe that I am adding two and two and making the square root of twenty something. Even so, I hope that the CIA will not read this, in case I go down with acute lead poisoning. There are two barely connected anecdotes in this memoir.
It all started when Mrs B, a historian by trade, paid an unexpected visit to my house early one morning. No, she couldn't stop for coffee. Could she borrow a book?
“It doesn't really matter. I'm due to invigilate an exam in the University Schools this morning, and I want something to read that will shock the students”.
“How about this?” I offered her The Brides of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer. The book's cover was a hideous mustard yellow, on which the title was picked out in huge and garish lettering, allowing space for the top half of an oriental woman with her breasts falling out of insubstantial clothing. She had cruel eyes, and her full lips, pressed into a half-pout, half-sneer, were painted the same colour as the blood that dripped from the large curved knife that she was brandishing.
“That will do nicely”.
Sax Rohmer was the pseudonym of Arthur Sarsfield Ward, 1886-1959, a jobbing journalist who cashed in on the newly literate customer base created by the Balfour Education Act of 1902. Publishers were desperate for adventure stories, detective stories, school stories, short stories, stories that could be serialised in newspapers or weekly magazines. Our modern equivalent is writers of television scripts.
Rohmer's first Fu Manchu story came out in 1913. This was at the very pinnacle of British imperialism. The Great Delhi Durbar was held in 1912. The Great War was fought “for the defence of civilisation”, though in what respect the civilisation of Britain and Germany differed it is impossible to imagine. (The Chinese regard the Great War as the European Civil War.) Dr Fu Manchu, a brilliant and totally ruthless scientist, has set himself the goal of destroying Western Civilisation (by which the author means the British Empire), partly out of revenge for imperialist assaults on China and partly to reassert the proper supremacy of the Middle Kingdom. To achieve his wicked aims, the dastardly Fu Manchu has created a sinister, secret organisation of all the worst criminals in the Far East. This organisation is called the Si Fan. All that stands in his way is Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Commissioner of Scotland Yard, and his sidekick Dr Petrie. Interestingly, Nayland Smith and Petrie are none other than Holmes and Watson; the author has not even bothered to invent original characters.
In fact, the author has not bothered much at all. Here are some examples of his literary style:
'”But, Smith, it can't be...”
“It is”, he jerked. “It is the living death of Doctor Fu Manchu!!!”'
(End of chapter).
Or: '”You have interfered in my business once too often, Nayland Smith”, he sneered, giving indescribable emphasis to his gutturals.'
One of Rohmer's favourite adjectives is “indescribable”. It is evidence that he could not be bothered to explore the felicities of our English vocabulary. To tell the truth, Mrs Ward used to lock him in his study and make him write more Fu Manchu stories whenever the tradesmen started putting the screws on, so rapidity was his overbearing consideration.
For those of you who are now anxious to immerse yourself in this breathless prose, let me recommend the earlier works. Once Rohmer had achieved success as a writer, he became convinced that he was a good writer and started employing longer sentences. The rows of dots and exclamation marks are more interesting. Later on, Rohmer had the difficulty of making Fu Manchu the presiding evil genius of the world when the real world was coming to be dominated by Hitler and Stalin.
Between 1965 and 1968 Christopher Lee starred in five Fu Manchu films. The best is the first, The Face of Fu Manchu. Each successive film is even worse than the previous one. The ultimate problem was that history had moved on. James Bond's megalomaniac villains were more credible. Also, the British Empire had vanished. China, however impoverished and miserable, was no longer the plaything of foreign imperialists. There are some good points, however, two of which belong to Tsai Chin, who played Christopher Lee's cruel daughter. She was just like the young lady on the book cover, and she excited the lasciviousness of young men of all ages. The second film, Brides of Fu Manchu, is notable for its brilliant reconstruction of 1920's London. Unfortunately the women have the elaborate hair styles that came into vogue with the new prosperity of the 1960's, and they wear the same little dresses that my wife used to wear when I first fell in love with her.
Now for the punch line. Among the students who were supposed to be shocked by Mrs B's choice of reading material was, I believe (three dots) Osama bin Laden (three exclamation marks). My guess is that he went away and read the Fu Manchu stories for himself, and imagined himself in the title role of Fu Manchu except that he would right the wrongs done to dark-age Islamites by the civilised everywhere by creating his own Si Fan: Al-Qaeda.
Not possible? For a start, he was not identified as being a particularly bright student. Also, consider The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how much damage that has done. Yet the Protocols were originally written by a French lawyer as a satire to poke fun at Napoleon III's pretensions of world statesmanship. The minds of simpletons may be swayed by the ephemeral and the ridiculous, and irony and humour may be taken literally.
Bin Laden was a spoilt son of a wealthy Saudi family. And Saudi-Arabia is the home of the Wahabis, who would like to strip away all the values and habits of civilisation that the world (led in some periods by the Islamic world) has painstakingly developed, so that they can take society back to how it was in the days of the Prophet. Not all Saudis share this objective, but anyway bin Laden's attacks on Saudi targets gave their authorities common cause with the Americans. That is why he ended up in Afghanistan. He was spirited out of there by the Pakistani ISI (Secret Service) and housed in government accommodation in Abbottabad. That is where the United States special forces broke in and shot him dead, to the great satisfaction of President Obama. What the Americans did not realise, but relicts of the British Empire such as myself did, was that bin Laden was being held as hostage for the good behaviour of the savage tribes on the North-West Frontier. (Three dots and three exclamation marks).
Now we come to Part Two of this sorry story. It starts when I was in bed with flu in, I think, 1973. RJ of Oxford City Morris Men came round, not to deliver grapes, but to inform me that I had been appointed their Squire despite the fact that I had only been dancing with them for three weeks. Furthermore, I was going to be leading them on their forthcoming excursion to Bonn. My groans were interpreted as affirmative in true Jesuitical fashion, and I found myself preparing the side for a week representing Oxford in what was then the capital of the Federal Republic.
A couple of days before we were due to catch our train in Oxford to begin our journey, our Dick told me he had a great idea. I always preferred Dick when he didn't have any ideas at all.
“Why don't we take a load of pigs' bladders for the Fool to use?”
“Er... I don't think that would be wise.”
“It's no trouble. I have a friend in the Covered Market who will give me as many pigs' bladders as I like”.
Sure enough, Dick acquired a large number of pigs' bladders, and he spent all night inflating them with a bicycle pump and tying them off. So he turned up on the day of departure with a black bin bag full of the said porcine organs. Well, it was the hottest August day for many years. We travelled by train to Harwich, took the ferry to Hook of Holland, and another train via Cologne to Bonn. Our German hosts, members of a Silesian exile folk-dance group, had agreed to meet us in the underground car park in the Diplomatic Quarter.
No problem. We assembled in the appointed car park to await our hosts. But we became increasingly aware of a putrid odour. After initially blaming each other for digestive malfunction, as one would, the horrible truth struck home: the pigs' bladders were going rotten in the heat. What does one do? Reader, have you ever been left holding a bin bag full of decomposing offal in a diplomats' car park, where there is a deliberate non-provision of refuse bins? And our hosts were expected imminently. We could not repay their hospitality by offering them a bag of stinking pig remains.
However, in the parking bay opposite was the biggest Mercedes-Benz that money could buy. It bore Saudi diplomatic plates.
“I wonder if they have left a door open”, says Dick. Sure enough, they had. So Dick stuffed the offending item behind the back seat. End of problem.
End of problem for us.
I never heard the diplomatic consequences of His Excellency, or even His Majesty himself, getting into a car polluted by a disgusting smell which brief investigation would have ascertained was caused by a large sack of rotten bladders; and, even worse for Muslim sensibilities, pigs' bladders. Could the German Federal Foreign Minister have provided a rational explanation for this unspeakable insult? Could anybody? I think this could have rankled and maybe tipped bin Laden or some of his Saudi supporters into seeking revenge against the West. Maybe the words “pigs' bladders” are now incorporated into Bedouin songs about Baibars defeating the Crusaders.
“Not guilty, M'Lud”.