I’ve been meaning to write something about Paul French’s fabulous new book Midnight in Peking for a while, but because I’ve been too busy to finish it I haven’t quite got round to it. What I have read of it is fantastic, not just because the story of the brutal and perplexing murder of a young British woman in Peking in 1937 the book investigates is so fascinating, but because Paul brings the world he is exploring so vividly and grippingly to life. I often suspect the sheer complexity of early 20th century Chinese history is rather lost on Anglophone audiences, but I’m not sure I’ve read a better illustration of those complexities, or the tenseness of the moment preceding the Japanese occupation than Paul’s book.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you’re in Melbourne this weekend you should definitely make time to catch one of Paul’s sessions at Melbourne Writers’ Festival. I’ve seen Paul (who I got to know during my time in Shanghai in 2005) on panels before, and he’s just compulsively interesting, not just about the China of the 1920s and 1930s, but about contemporary China as well.
Details of Paul’s sessions are available on the MWF website, but I reckon the one to catch would be the conversation with Paul at 4:00pm on Sunday. I really do recommend you make time to catch it because if his past performances are anything to go by it’ll be great. And if you’d like to read the book you can check prices on Booko.
I was deeply saddened last week to learn of the death of the New Zealand ecologist and writer, Geoff Park.
I didn’t know Park, who died on 17 March as a result of a brain tumour, but I did know his work, most particularly his marvellous 1995 book, Ngã Uruora (The Groves of Life): Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape, a book I first read after it was pressed on me by Ross Gibson, whose own quietly urgent words about the necessity of coming to understand the landscape we inhabit Park quotes in the book’s introduction.
It’s often difficult to escape the moment, to take the sort of long view which allows one to tell which books and ideas will shape the way we think in years to come, but I think there’s little doubt that Ngã Uruora is one of those books. For while its exploration of the environmental history of New Zealand is ostensibly a small, even parochial subject, it is a book which, in its capaciousness and breadth of vision opens up a new way of understanding the environment, and the deeply complex nature of our relationship to it.
Sadly there doesn’t seem to be any sort of formal obituary to Geoff Park online, but I thought it might be fitting to reproduce a few words which seem to me to capture exactly the quality of attention and generosity which make Ngã Uruora such an important book:
“When you become involved with the landscape . . . it becomes much more than a view. Even to draw a carp, Chinese masters warn, it is not enough to know what the animal looks like, and to understand its anatomy and physiology. It is also necessary to consider the reed which the carp brushes up against each morning, the oblong stone behind which it conceals itself, and the rippling of the water when it comes to the surface. These elements should in no way be constituted as the carp’s environment. They belong to the carp itself. In other words the brush should sketch a life, since a life – like the landscape – is constituted by the traces left behind and imprints silently borne.”
Vale, Geoff Park, go well: you’ll be missed.