To each their own
IN THE middle of April, I was working in China, talking to teachers, parents, and pupils at an international school with three sites: Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Tianjin. It was a mini-junket, with lots of pedagogical experts talking about new research and thinking in the field of education. And then there was me, talking about two friends from my long-ago, “bog-standard” comprehensive: Richard, who is now a world-famous entomologist; and David, who was the first person on earth — so far as anybody is aware — to teach chimps to ice-skate. (I had imagined that my translator might struggle with this, but she seemed to take it in her stride.)
CHINA, for those who haven’t been, is all but unimaginable. I felt like a visitor from the past to the future — and said so, to the evident amusement of the audiences. But, after ten days, I had had enough, and was desperate to get back to the past, in the Marches of Wales. In my hotel room in Tianjin, I could not have felt further from home.
On CNN, there were reports that Extinction Rebellion were going to try to disrupt Heathrow Airport on Easter Day, when I was due to fly back. Any day, I thought, except this Sunday. Don’t let me be stuck here, half a world away from everyone I love. I was frantic with worry, and on the verge of tears. It was Good Friday. I was lost.
I know him not
IT HAD been evident throughout the trip that we were under constant observation. It was nothing personal: it’s just how it is. Every 50 metres or so, there are facial-recognition cameras. We were told that in Shanghai — the world’s largest city — the police could guarantee finding anybody within an hour. We were also told that it is one of the safest cities on earth. After all, if you have nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear.
But I am human; so I have much to hide, and am full of fear. I had been told that Tianjin had a Catholic cathedral, and I knew that there were officially sanctioned Christian churches in China; but I didn’t want to go out and find them — not when I was under surveillance. I stayed in my room, there in the future, praying that I be safe, and angry with myself for not having brought my Bible.
Without hope, I opened the drawer of my bedside table. There must be active Christians in Tianjin, because there was a Chinese/English NIV Bible (this had not been the case in Shanghai or Hangzhou). I read the story of Jesus’s trial and its aftermath, and was struck by Peter’s denial of Christ. I ran a thought-experiment. On Good Friday, in Tianjin, at that moment of despair when I thought I might not be able to get home, what would I have done? What if an official had knocked on the door, and demanded to see my papers, and asked whether I was a follower of Christ — and, if so, would I go with him? I had no doubt. I know not the man. Let me go home.
Trollope versus Pym
OF COURSE, I got home. I flew back from Beijing on Easter Day — as happy as I’ve ever been, I think. Back to the past, and to the Church of England, and to trying to decide whether life here is more like a novel by Anthony Trollope or Barbara Pym. This last week, St Andrew’s played host to the Archdeacon’s Visitation, and I wanted to see if he wore gaiters. He gave an excellent sermon about hospitality, generosity, and intentionality, but I struggled to catch a glimpse of his doubtless elegant ankles.
The Archdeacon was accompanied by a good-looking man in his thirties wearing a gown and wig, who led the Deanery’s churchwardens in their vows. You could almost taste the dust in the air of the consistory court as he spoke. Trollope 1, Pym 0, I felt.
Afterwards, over cake, I asked the bewigged character who he was. He said that he was the Deputy Diocesan Registrar. He asked, not unreasonably, who I was. I told him I was currently writing this Diary. He said: “On Thursday, I go to my club, have a glass of Madeira and two pieces of toast with anchovy paste, and I read the Church Times from cover to cover.” At this point, I became convinced that he was the sort of character in whom a Pym heroine would develop an “interest”.
I CORNERED the Archdeacon to gabble my big idea in his ear: “All churches that have outside taps should make it clear that they do, and that you can refill your water bottle at church. Call it Use of Water, like in Larkin. Put the taps on an app so people can find them.”
His response (“That’s brilliant!”) was highly gratifying. Mine (“I know”) was perhaps a little cocky — especially in view of what I had found out about myself, and my faith, that bleak night in China. Now I think I need to find out: who put the Bible in the bedside drawer?
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.