Saturday, 5 May 2012

China - short story

A short story, which remained unpublished in Lowry’s lifetime. Published in Psalms Pgs. 49-54 1974. Douglas Day states that the story was left by Lowry at the home of his friend James Stern in the summer of 1934. (Malcolm Lowry Pg. 188). Gordon Bowker says that the story was written at Inglewood after his return from the Far East along with ‘Tramps’ and ‘Enter One In Sumptuous Armour’ (Pursued By Furies Pg. 139). Judging by the style of the story, we must assume that this was one of the earliest pieces produced by Lowry after his trip to the Far East in 1927. The story has none of the modernist influences of later works based on the voyage such as ‘Goya The Obscure'. Perhaps it can be dated pre-1930 possibly before he went to Blackheath or University of Cambridge, which would date it as Summer/Autumn 1927.

The story is set in China in 1927 during the Chinese Civil War. The story may reflect an actual event experienced by Lowry on his 1927 Far East trip aboard Pyrrhus. ‘China’ explores the land between dream and reality. “For though I’ve been there it takes on a quality sometimes that my imagination bestowed on it before I went’ Psalms 21. The story is focused on the narrator’s issues with the organising of a cricket match between the crew of his fictional ship the Arcturion and the Royal Naval vessel H.M.S Proteus while in port.

The Arcturion is the name of Melville’s ship in Mardi. Melville’s writings were a big influence to Lowry’s early work with many allusions to Melville’s life and writings. Melville probably chose the name for the similarity to "Arcturus" (the brightest star in the constellation of Bootes) to make the link with the brightest star. . This is an early example of Lowry using stars/astronomy in his work. H.M.S Proteus remains unidentified as the name was used for a submarine that was only completed in 1930 after the story was written though it was laid down in 18th July 1928 though still a year after Lowry’s voyage to the East in 1927.

The port is not named but we must assume that it is Shanghai, which Lowry visited on his 1927 trip. The narrator says; “Just across the river from where we are moored, China thundered her guns” which would suggest that the ship is moored on the River Yangtze at the port facilities across the river from Bund. The presence of a British warship in port would also suggest this as Britain and other European powers held the International Settlement in Shanghai until 1941. The “terrible war on China” is a mere backdrop to the match. We get little understanding of the momentous events in China in 1927. The voyage to China seems to have left him unable to empathise with the Chinese; “I don’t believe in China” Psalms 21. Lowry develops idea that you can read about a war in a newspaper which can seem more real that actually being there but not actually part of the fighting.

The narrator finds it hard to believe that he is actually in China – “not China at all but right here, on this wharf”. He didn’t feel like Joseph Conrad “that what expected had already gone, had passed unseen in a sigh, in a flash together with youth, with strength, with romance of illusions”. This quote from Conrad’s ‘Youth’ is what Lowry had read and probably thought he would feel on the voyage – that he would mature when in fact he is driven back to play cricket, which becomes synonymous with his past life.

Patrick McCarthy identifies in ‘China’ the recurring Lowryan theme of almost solipsistic rejection of any reality other than one’s own (Forest of Symbols Pg. 12). McCarthy states that “since he always regards wherever he is located here rather than there: unable to cope with difference, his imagination either domesticates or ignores everything that cannot be readily assimilated within his experience, seeing it only in terms of the values he brings with him.” (Forest of Symbols Pgs. 12-13).

McCarthy has also identified the political content of the story (Forest of Symbols Pg.13). The story seems to be an indictment of the Western attitude to China, which was one of racist insularity to the problems in 1920’s China. There is a certain irony in the playing of the archetypal English game of cricket whilst a bitter war goes on around the game. As the game continues with an indifferent air, the crew standby and watch the ships cargo of weapons unloaded to be used in the surrounding conflict.

Lowry was probably exposed to the type of lurid “yellow peril” writing starting with De Quincey moving through Conan Doyle’s short stories to one of the main perpetrators Thomas Burke in his Limehouse Nights 1921. D.W. Griffith used Burke’s short story "The Chink and the Child" from Limehouse Nights as basis for his silent film Broken Blossoms (1919) which Lowry considered one of the greatest films ever made (Pursued By Furies Pg. 16).

This prevalent anti-Chinese mentality was also apparent in the cinema and the newspapers. The Liverpool Daily Post ran a campaign in the 1920’s to have Chinese seaman living in Liverpool returned to China. Lowry himself refers to Chinese deportees on board Pyrrhus in his novel Ultramarine; "Later I had discovered that five Chinese deportees were berthed there, and they had remained there as far as Shanghai". (Ultramarine Pg. 77).

On the other hand, Lowry also had a romantic view of China developed through a reading of the novels of Conrad and the plays of O’Neill and other readings. In the late 1920’s, the “exotic east” was obviously one of the draws of going to sea for a youthful Lowry. Lowry wrote a song called ‘I’ve Said Goodbye to Shanghai’ with Ronald Hill while still at his school The Leys before had been to China. Russell Lowry also related to Muriel Bradbrook that Lowry also wrote a song entitled I'll take my Alice to the Crystal Palace at the end of the Chinese War" (Muriel Bradbrook His Art and Early Life: A Study in Transformation Pg.27).

The story has links to O’Neill with the narrator’ home being Hoboken, New Jersey. Lowry would have been aware that O’Neill was married there having read and posted on his dormitory wall an article on O’Neill from Life magazine.

The story is also an early example to demonstrate the depth of Lowry’s reading of sea literature. The narrator likens himself to the English/American writer Bill Adams who wrote about the sea based on his adventures. Bill Adams left college aged 17 to go to sea as had Lowry. Adams wrote a story called ‘China Road’ published in the Saturday Evening Post September 11th 1926, which Lowry may have read. 

McCarthy also identifies the story as an early example of Lowry exploring social themes. (Forest of Symbols Pg. 13). ‘China’ has some biographical semblance; “I came fresh to sea life from an English public school where I wore a tophat and carried a silver-tipped cane” As ever with Lowry, we get a certain exaggeration of his time at The Leys. Lowry assumes the persona of a fireman, which was the first time a Lowryan character assumed this guise.

The narrator describes that his ship is moored across the river from the “terrible war” describing the guns thundering “Doom! Doom Doom!” The Arcturion is moored “nose on to the English battle-cruiser H.M.S. Proteus. “ The narrator looks back to early in the voyage when the steward decides to organise the match. The narrator describes his contempt for the crew of his ship and the problems he is having with them because of his class and background. This mirrors the tensions, which afflicted Lowry’s real voyage. He stands with the other firemen who he sees as comrades to watch with contempt as the crew practice for the match. The steward eventually discovers that the narrator has played for Eton and England.

This sporting persona adopted by Lowry’s narrator is similar to the one Lowry adopted for himself in pretending/wanting to be a golf champion. The narrator is forced to participate in the cricket match but deliberately gets one of his own team run out to show his disgust at being the only fireman asked to play.

The story ends with the narrator re-joining his fellow firemen on the Arcturion. The sense of unreality is increased as the firemen watch stevedores unload a cargo of armaments as the cricket match and the war continue. The narrator concludes; “And you carry your horizon in you pocket wherever you are” providing us with an early insight into Lowry’s philosophy of life which accompanied his wanderings.

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