To Kill a Mockingbird

By Harper Lee.

It’s very difficult to review this book because I’ve had to read it for professional purposes. That means that I’ve already read what other people have said about it, and have often found myself agreeing with them. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird has been described as episodic. I have to agree. The book begins with Scout, Jem and Dill trying to entice the mysterious Boo Radley from his house or fabricate games around the Radleys. Then comes “Scout at School” in which Lee satirises the education system. Even when Tom Robinson’s trial first appears on the horizon, it’s interrupted by other episodes.

Other critics thought the book had one eye on Hollywood, and there are certainly episodes such as Scout hearing Atticus cough while Jem is out recovering his trousers; or the tension when Scout manages to nobble a lynch mob by bursting into their midst and babbling on about Walter Cunningham’s entailment, which are designed for Hollywood.

I don’t know who the audience for this book is meant to be. Its moralising seems a little heavy-handed and naive for the modern world, although Atticus’ message of understanding does not lack relevance even if his talk about walking around in other people’s skins makes him sound like Hannibal Lector. The book’s frequently allusive style is not, I imagine, to the taste of modern children. The hagiographical interpretation of the text, which can be seen in guides such as Sparknotes or Cliffnotes, must test the patience of school children who have been cajoled into enjoying this.

What of the characters? As I’ve said in the past, characters work well if you can relate to them. While I admire Atticus as an improbably consistent paragon, he would almost certainly love all those uplifting, inspirational maxims which appear on G+. Miss Maudie is a decent old stick even if she isn’t as old as the book portrays her. The rest of the town seems to be divided into the good and the bad (although Atticus would probably not think that way). As Scout learns at the end of the book, most people are nice when you finally see them. Thus the characters all play their required parts.

What of Scout, Jem and Boo Radley? Scout seems to be used as a vehicle for moral stories such as Atticus’ injunction about trying to understand others. Her perception of her father as a rather weak, passive sort of man is overthrown in the same chapter when she discovers he had a reputation as a marksman in his younger days (even if there’s another moral lesson to be learnt). Jem understands more than Scout and is more sensitive than she is. She also frequently undermines his pretensions to bravery. Boo Radley is a largely mysterious character who remains in the shadows even after he comes out into the open at the end of the book. Where Atticus is like some high-level religious figure, Boo is a kind of guardian angel, who can only interact with the children indirectly, and comes down from heaven to save them from Bob Ewell.

I found the dialogue a little stilted at times when Lee needed a character to say something to move the action on and it didn’t matter how odd it sounded. To some extent I think Lee, like other adult writers, just can’t write authentic dialogue for children (although the reader is spared the kind of overly clever one-liners which Hollywood children are always firing off). I believe it was Scout who said that Uncle Jack didn’t understand children because she had none. I wonder whether the same observation could be levelled at Lee.

In the end, I don’t know what to think about the book. It’s not a volume which has me saying to myself that I’m glad I read it; nor do I regret having read it. Perhaps it’s like Kerouac’s On the Road about which I concluded that it was a product of its age which might appeal to a certain kind of audience, but had no appeal for me. (I assume that Catcher in the Rye probably also falls into this group.) I have come to the book rather late, having missed out on reading it when I was at high school. (I was in the wrong class.) I’m not sure, though, that I would’ve been any more taken by it thirty years ago than I was today.

Appendix

A.

I see that I’ve had visitors looking for irony in To Kill a Mockingbird. I would not have thought that that would be too hard to find. It’s ironic that

  • Scout is looking forward to going to school, but doesn’t like it.
  • Scout and Jem think their father’s a bit useless when, in fact, he’s an excellent marksman.
  • Miss Maudie doesn’t seem too bothered about the loss of her house.
  • Atticus can still chat to Mrs Dubose without rancour in spite of her pro­nounce­ments about him which led to Jem massacring her camellias.
  • Boo Radley is the children’s guardian angel when their assumption is that he’s a monster
  • Atticus effectively demolishes the case against Tom Robinson, but loses it anyway.
  • Miss Gates decries Hitler for the persecution of the Jews, but is revealed to be a racist herself.

But remember, kids, you should be doing your own work and not relying on me to find the answers for you.

B.

I read somewhere that To Kill a Mockingbird was originally a series of short stories, which may explain why the book feels disjointed.

C.

I find myself liking Atticus less, even although he is meant to be admirable because of the nature of his character and his consistency. I think I prefer my paragons to be a little more human. It’s tempting to write some fanfic in which Atticus is placed in a position where he must act in a fashion contradictory to his nature.

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Aim for the foot

The Opium Wars by Julia Lovell.

The Opium Wars is a book in two parts: the first part is about the wars themselves, and the second about how the China has used the conflict for its own purposes since.

These are two conflicts which redound to the glory of neither side. Britain was pumping opium into China, which led to a significant proportion of the male population of the eastern seaboard becoming addicted to the drug. The Chinese empire was a fractious mess. Lin Zexu seemed to be the man to see the foreigners off the premises, but he and his successors then deliberately misled one emperor or another about the progress of the war. The Chinese hated the Manchus who ruled them, and they weren’t too fond of each other, either. Although their numbers were superior and there were occasions when they proved to be worthy opponents, there were more occasions when British technology prevailed.

After the war, China was viewed as the yellow peril by the West even although this was a ridiculous exaggeration. It also seemed to be quickly forgotten that China’s addiction to opium was a consequence of the market being flooded with imports from India. Thus the Chinese were blamed for an addiction which was not of their own making.

For their part, the Chinese often blamed their government rather than the British or other outsiders for their problems, and many believed that the adoption of Western systems was the way forward. The Opium Wars were also taken as the starting point for the so-called Century of Humiliation.

Lovell attempts to take a fairly balanced perspective, although she is no apologist for the Chinese as she shows that they’re perfectly prepared to throw their nationalist tendencies out of the window without apparently noticing the irony of their actions.

I cannot comment on the book from a historical perspective because I knew next to nothing about the Opium Wars apart from the most general facts. However, from a practical perspective, the chapters do tend to ramble on, which makes it difficult to get through one before bedtime without starting rather early. (Yes, I know this is a trivial matter, but I felt I ought to say something.)

Off to the eyot

Or, Blast from the Past.

For some time now I’ve been meaning to go back to 江尖公园, which is the island I can see from my window. I probably went over there about three years ago to have a look at the fake ancient street only to find that the money had apparently run out and the place was being left to slowly decay. A man was practising the flute there at the time.

Soon after my trip, the street was fenced off, and when the fencing was removed, I assumed that the work had been finished and had been filled with pretentious boutique shops populated by bored, low-achieving girls.

And thus I toddled off this afternoon to see what had been going on since I was last year. Answer? Nothing. The place remains an unoccupied shell apart from a functioning (?) restaurant. I could also hear some people, probably security guards, playing majiang in an upstairs room as I went through the entrance.

I then took a turn round to 县前三号, which is this group of three buildings which have been under construction for the past two years or so. Before they started on those, they built some buildings in what I’d describe as a sino-colonial style. I thought they might be small shops and restaurants, and the sales office for the project itself, but I’d never been over there.

What I found was that these were also shells of buildings. The entrances are boarded up, although all the windows are wide open. It seems to be a rather extravagant gesture, reminiscent of the mouldering buildings outside 大慈 in Chengdu, which had obviously been mothballed and which have now been demolished without ever recouping the money expended on them. Like 江尖公园 there was a restaurant, which does appear to be open, but that was all.

I had been chiding myself for not being inquisitive sooner, but all I found was the same oriental folly which was there on the previous occasion.

Autumn is in summer

Spring is in winter.

The Mid Autumn Festival is upon us again. This will be my twelfth, although it’s only in recent years that this has been a long weekend. (I.e., we get one day off, and the other is stolen from the nearest available weekend; why not give us the Friday or Monday and be done with it? [You do realise that that would be sensible. Not something in great evidence in China. –ed.])

I forget what the weather has been like in previous years on this occasion,  but it remains rather summery. I believe the high today is 31°; certainly the sky is blue and the air is reasonably clear. There’s a small scattering of fluffy clouds to the east. In truth, today could be yesterday; today could be a year ago.

Although the weather today bears a greater resemblance to summer than autumn, the weather is feeling autumnal. It might be hot during the day, but the heat is less intense than it was a few weeks ago when it pervaded everything. So long as the humidity is kept at bay, it’s tolerable outside.

At the moment, the weather is not something to be too worried about, but with sports days coming up next, we will be anxiously watching the skies. In all my time in China, I cannot remember a single sunny sports day. It is quite possible that I’ve forgotten, but I typically associate sports days with heavy cloud and the imminent threat of rain. But just as I cannot recall a sunny sports day, I cannot recall the entire thing being cancelled because of the weather. Last year the little darlings had a temper tantrum even although the weather was quite ghastly.

In all likelihood we’ll go through the same thing again, but with the added bonus that if we do have to teach, the week before the National Day Holiday will be very, very long.

Appendix.

I recently learnt that Wuxi is the fifth most affluent city in China. We’re behind Suzhou at No. 3 and ahead of Changzhou, which also makes the top twenty list. [Really? Changzhou? One of the dullest cities imaginable. –ed.] Chengdu may be a good deal more affluent than most of Sichuan, but it’s not in the top twenty.

Meanwhile, the posh new (but unfinished) mall opposite the Xinhua Bookshop on 人民中路 is supposed to have a supermarket exclusively selling foreign products (at more than foreign prices, I expect). I know that the same mall has a Ferrari-Maserati shop, although I don’t know whether this will be ridiculously unaffordable cars or ridiculously expensive trinkets.

In fact, the whole place is a Ferrari-Maserati mall with all the posh designer brands there flogging their outrageously priced designer kit to vulgar conspicuous con­sumers.

What if… The Opium Wars

More idle speculation.

As part of the theme of drugs, which we’ve been finishing off as we try to get through the remaining topics (not to mention everything else), we thought we’d look at drugs in history, and in particular at the Opium Wars.

They were the result of a trade imbalance with China in that the country was interested in nothing but silver for its goods. Opium from India flooded into China to such an extent that 90% of the male population of the eastern seaboard was addicted. (I assume that like today, smoking was a social habit in 19th-century China, which meant that it must have been nearly impossible to avoid addiction.) The Chinese enacted laws to outlaw the import of opium, and Lin Zexu, who was sent to deal with the matter, was resolute in his disposal of the drug.

This led to the First Opium War for which China was ill-prepared, having nothing which was able to counter a ship such as the Nemesis or the more modern technology which the British had at their disposal.

But what if there had been no Opium Wars? It is hard to imagine that there would not have been some conflict since other countries could not have sustained an endless flow of silver into China, but if there had been no conflict there would probably have been no Taiping Rebellion, no 1911 Revolution, and perhaps no civil war, thus sparing China the horrors of the first thirty years after 1949.

It is possible that someone in China might have seen the writing on the wall and have done something about trying to modernise the Empire, accepting that a head-in-the-sand attitude was going to damage it. Probably China would have remained a large, fragile, and backward entity in which the centre persisted in seeing unity where none really existed. Even without the Opium Wars there may still have been at least one revolution and the end of imperial China.

This is a complex what-if because I would not be surprised if the Japanese had invaded China anyway so that sooner or later, history would have happened as we know it. And even if that had not happened either, I would not be remotely surprised if China had still emerged much as it is today with its authoritarian government merely following from its predecessors.