Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Colin Thubron and Me

I was up at the Royal Geographic Society in London this past week for the Travellers' Tales Festival. Luckily (given the cost) it was everything I had hoped it would be, adding up to a huge shot of inspiration straight into the central nervous system of my writing career. There were one or two lessons in humility on offer too. No matter how high up the ladder I may (or more likely, may not) get, I hope that, were I ever to be invited to speak at an event for which the paying public was forking out more than £100 to attend, I would put in a modicum of effort by way of preparation. A textbook example of how to do this was Colin Thubron's, fascinating lecture on Sunday afternoon (which I hope to transpose and post selections of, as I get the chance this week). It was a joy from first to last, peppered with ancient quotes and fascinating insights. Thubron really is that most desirable of hybrid entertainers, a scholarly raconteur, a guy who can charm, and educate and inspire all at once. There were disappointments: Steve McCurry, most famous for his National Geographic shot the famous Afghan Girl, proceeded with his lecture along the lines off, 'Here's one of my pictures, and here's another one, and this was taken in Panama, and this guy was really funny...etc.etc.', though I think this was more to do with the nature of the man, rather than any malevolent intent to jip the audience out of a few bob. Then there was the odd debacle. The Telegraph's Travel Editor, Graham Boynton, conducted an 'interview' with his fellow Rhodesian, Alexander McCall Smith, and it was painful, and fairly boring to boot (through no fault of Smith's, I should make clear). There did seem to me to be a certain arrogance and contempt on display when, after about 10 minutes, Boynton said, 'Mindful of the time, I thought I'd open up questions to the audience', which could well have been translated as 'I haven't got a clue what to ask next, so, go on, do your own work you snivelling wretches'. Few hands went up, and the questions were mainly about the TV version of Smith's books. Literary it was not.

No matter, I still left the RGS buzzing. I swapped business cards with the editor of Conde Nast Traveller, the online travel editor of the Guardian and Time Out's group chairman. I had the great pleasure of running into the man who kick-started my own travel writing career, Shanghai legend Mark Kitto (whose first book, China Cuckoo, was published last week) . However, as lovely as it was to see Mark after many years, the biggest thrill was reserved for last when I got none-ovva-than Colin Thubron himself to sign his latest book for Lewis and Louisa, even managing managed to offload a business card on him in the process. I asked if he had ever been to [my Chinese hometown] Zhaoqing.

No, he said.

I live out there, I said.

Oh, are you a teacher? he asked.

No, I'm a travel writer, I replied, my adoring tone conveying not one iota of the indignation I was now feeling.

Oh, what have you written? he asked, as if in challenge.

Oh, just some guidebooks for Frommer's, the AA and a small American publisher.

Oh, I haven't heard of those, he sniped. Miserly old bugger. No, no - I jest (see, I am still adoring). He was a gentleman and there was little derision in his tone, as you would expect from a man commonly dubbed England's great living travel writer. Competing with a start-out guidebook writer is slightly beneath him and any competiveness implied in the above was merely in my head. Though, as I recall, it was about at this point that I said, 'Well, if I may be so bold, let me give you a business card'.

I actually used those words. If-I-may-be-so-bold.

Poor bloke probably didn't know what hit him - some Basingstoke Barrow Boy talking like Uriah Heap and claiming to live in a part of China that even he, the quintessential windswept English adventurer, had not been to. Apologies Mr Thurbon. And thank you very much for signing my book for the kids. If nothing else, you have two guaranteed future fans. I'll make sure of that, don't you worry:)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Talkee True?

Check out this hilarious and fascinating excerpt from a 1932 copy of Shanghai's Cathay Hotel Magazine which lists some essential pidgin English phrases that all colonials could use to communicate with their native underlings. Language really is an amazingly flexible thing. Stuff like this makes me want to retrain as a linguist - well, that and burn my passport.

Elaine Chow at Shanghaiist makes the point that several pidgin English phrases have entered common usage in the Western World, among them "Long time no see (好久不见)" and "no can do (不能做)". To Elaine's list the expression "chop chop" should probably be added. It didn't occur to me at all that this (rather odd) turn of phrase has its etymological roots in colonial-era China.