China today — a big surprise
Author recalls traveling East decades ago, without seeing the huge changes on the horizon, Andrew Moody reports.
It was absolutely my first experience of Asia and it kind of hooked me for life.” Chris Mullin, British author, says of his first visit to China in 1971
Chris Mullin says encountering China for the first time changed his life.
The best-selling author and former UK government minister retraces visiting the then largely impoverished country midway through the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) in his new autobiography, Hinterland.
“It was one of the seminal events ofmy life really. It was absolutely my first experience of Asia and it kind of hooked me for life,” he says.
Mullin, who was speaking over lunch in the restaurant of Barter Books, a huge secondhand bookshop, in Alnwick, Northumberland, says he did not foresee then China’s emergence again as a major economic power.
“There was little sign of it as late as 1980, although there were some welcome signs of sensible economic development,” he says.
His memoir, more thoughtful than some of his other writings without still ever taking himself too seriously, also takes in his political career, which saw him be the member of parliament for Sunderland in the northeast of England for 23 years as well as a minister in former British prime minister Tony Blair’s government.
It also charts his writing career, which includes three novels, one of which, Year of the Fire Monkey, is about China and another, A Very
British Coup, was turned into a BAFTA and Emmy award-winning TV drama shown in 30 countries.
His output also includes three volumes of diaries.
Mullin, who has an almost oldfashioned courteous and kindly manner, is also known for his highprofile campaigning role in securing the release of the so-called Birmingham Six, who were wrongly accused of the IRA pub bombings in the city in the 1970s.
His visits to China and his time as a young reporter covering the Vietnam War were formative experiences.
It was the summer of 1971 when he took leave from the Mirror Group Training Scheme, under which he was trained to be a journalist, to visit China.
The trip was organized by The Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding. Of the party of 18, most were students of Chinese at either Oxford or Cambridge.
“We set off from Moscow on a Chinese train that played The East
Is Red from a loudspeaker as the train pulled out of the station,” he recalls.
“The dining car corresponded to which country you happened to be passing through — which I think is the case today. So going through Russia, the food was terrible — all cabbage soup and meatballs — and then when we got to China the food was wonderful and really first class.”
He sold his story of the journey to the New York Times, but the China he encountered then was in stark contrast to that of today.
“China at that time was more or less closed to foreigners. The Nixon visit hadn’t occurred at the time. It was still to come,” he says.
“If you got onto a bus, because we did wander around on our own, people would stand up and offer you a seat. It was terribly embarrassing.”
At the Peace Hotel in Shanghai he encountered a former US soldier who had been captured in the Korean War and had gone on to be an actor in China.
“There was a shortage of foreigners available and so he used to play the big bad imperialist in all the films. He had told them he wanted a chance to play the good guy for once because he was forever being denounced in the streets by kids,” he recalls.
Mullin went on to cover the Vietnam War for the UK’s Telegraph magazine in the early 1970s, and it was there that hemet his future wife Ngoc, who was then a student.
“The Americans thought they were fighting a communist conspiracy to take over the world when, in fact, all they succeeded in doing, at the cost of blood and treasure, was delaying the advance of market forces by a generation.”
Mullin, now 68, stood down as an MP for Sunderland in 2010 and now lives in an estate house with a walled garden in Northumberland.
His former seat was one that voted most heavily for Brexit in the recent referendum, despite being home to car giant Nissan, which relies on access to the EU single market.
“Yes they did, and no doubt Nissan employees voted as turkeys often don’t do, actually, for Christmas. They can’t say they weren’t warned because Nissan did gently draw their attention to the fact they came here to get inside the EU.”
One of the most senior jobs Mullin held was Africa minister.
He recalls in the book a somewhat surreal working life where he used to take the London underground to Heathrow Airport from his Brixton flat, and then be feted as a head of state for a week when he landed somewhere in Africa.
“I came out the other end with everyone talking on walkie-talkies and where there were convoys of cars and blue flashing lights,” he says.
Although Mullin was on the left of the Labour Party, he retains a high regard for Blair, his former boss, whom he always refers to as “The Man” in his diaries.
“He was probably the outstanding political leader of my lifetime. His tragedy was that he was linked umbilically to the worst American president of my lifetime, with the consequences we all know about.”
Mullin, who has been back to China twice since his first visit, retains a strong interest in Asia.
He is thinking seriously about taking again the journey by rail from Moscow to China that he did in 1971.
“I would like to see the places we were taken to and see how they have developed since,” he says.
He is worried about the speed of development in Asia, which he sees in both Vietnam and China, and its effect on the environment.
“We are consuming resources on the planet as if there is no tomorrow. If we carry on doing that, there will be no tomorrow,” he says.
He is still continuing to write his diary and is aiming to publish a fourth volume bringing him up to 2020.
“It will cover the period of my retirement. I didn’t think life could feasibly be as interesting now but I realized after a while I was wrong,” he says.
“I keep a little red notebook— the sort I have in my pocket here at the moment — and then I type it up at the weekends.”
Mullin’s autobiography retraces his political career and his journey to China decades ago.