In so far as I have heroes, one of mine is the late Pierre Ryckmans, better-known as Simon Leys, the great Belgian sinologist who lived more than half of his life in Australia, and retired early from his chair at Sydney University because he said that universities had become mere degree-mills. As a colleague of mine put it with regard to medico-legal reports, from which he made a considerable income, ‘You turn the wheel and the sausage comes out.’
Leys was not only a sinologist of renown – it was he who first alerted the world, contrary to the lazy, corrupt or stupid hosannas of his academic colleagues, to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, in prose of exceptional wit and lucidity for which he was much hated at the time – but a literary essayist of genius. If I were teaching someone to write, I would give him Leys to read.
The other day I was re-reading his essay, The Art of Reading Non-Existent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page (that is to say, the art of deciphering the meaning of information that emerged from totalitarian China and its most hermetic), when I came across the following little passage:
In a period of social and economic disintegration, it suffices for a
tiny handful of men – less than 0.1 per cent of the population – to
launch eloquent appeals to arouse popular indignation against brutal
and corrupt authorities, to mobilise the generosity and idealism of
youth, to rally the support of thousands of students, and finally to
present a miniscule communist movement as the incarnation of the
will of the entire nation.
With what result is now only too well-known.
Does this passage call to mind anything in the current condition of Great Britain? Of course, analogies are never quite exact (which is why they are only analogies). Mr Corbyn is no Mao Tse-Tung: he washes more regularly for one thing, and unlike Mao I doubt that he has the courage of his cruelty. It is going too far to call the British authorities brutal. Finally, I do not think that anyone who knew them would call British youth generous or idealistic. The mess left behind by British youth at Glastonbury after the festival should be enough to disillusion anyone on that score.
And yet, all the same, the passage has a certain resonance. If we are not careful, we shall soon experience our own Great Leap Forward – into the abyss, of course, though more gently than the Chinese.