This is an account of being brought up a household established by two bohemians of their age. Hetta and William met as fellow students at the ‘liar’s school’, an induction course for new recruits to the BBC Foreign Service during World War 2. He was an established poet and literary critic, an academic whose career had been blighted in the UK. She was an orphaned South African, an aspiring sculptor, and a member of the Communist Party. Their marriage was to last over 40 years. Soon after the end of the war they took their two sons with them to Peking, where the civil war was resuming, and the Chinese Communist Party was to establish the new People’s Republic. Oddly enough, their open marriage worked very well in the expatriate community. On their return to England William was able to resume an academic career in the north of England. Hetta stayed in London. The vicissitudes of their relationship made for an interesting life for the boys, who where sometimes being looked after by childless relations, sometimes roughing it on their own in the huge house that their parents had bought in Hampstead during the war. It was a life of privilege as well as neglect, but never dull.
There had always been shit carts in Peking, carrying the ‘night soil’ out of the city gates to fertilize fields in the country. They were extraordinarily smelly, although, curiously, if you got close enough to one then the smell seemed to disappear (presumably the ammonia, by then, completely overwhelmed the sense of smell). Apparently the city had been provided with wonderful drains, in antiquity, and there was even a Minister of Drains. Every year there was an inspection of the drains, when the Minister was carried through them in his litter (after they had been thoroughly cleaned). At the end of the tour there was a banquet, the Minister applied his seal to confirm that the drains were in good order, and the Department of Drains was given their annual all clear. One year, an enterprising manager in the Department came up with the idea of having a banquet before the inspection. The Minister could be relied upon to be too drunk to notice that he had not been carried through the drains to the final banquet, where he applied his seal without realising that he had been duped. The drains did not have to be cleaned. This practice became a tradition, so that by the time of the liberation of Peking, in 1949, the drains had been completely blocked for many years, and the city was now relying on the shit carts. (There was also an economic reason for the continuation of this practice, in that the contents of the carts had a commercial value, being used as fertilizer on the fields outside the city.) During the siege of Peking the shit-carts were of course not allowed to leave the city, and, it being winter, there was no risk to public health as all their contents were frozen. One of the considerations that the Nationalist commander of Peking (Fu Tso-yi) had to take into account, in the event of the siege being prolonged into the spring and summer, was that there would certainly be widespread cholera. The Garrison Commander’s son (the same who had lent Hetta the official car for her trip through the lines to Tsinghua University) had overheard talk of a plan to execute all foreigners rather than let them witness the consequences of holding out. According to Fitzgerald , Fu’s reluctance to give in was related to his personal feelings about the Communist general facing him, Lin Piao. He felt that Lin had gone back on his word, and he had been deceived. Lin Piao was guilty of treachery in coming and besieging him. The reality of the situation was that the nearest Nationalist troops were over five hundred miles away (apart from those besieged in Tientsin), so there was no realistic outcome except defeat. Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh (another famous general and Long March veteran) solved the problem by relieving Lin Piao of his duties in Peking, and sending him to supervise the taking of Tientsin, on the coast. They appointed another general, Nie Jung-chen, to negotiate with Fu. ‘Face’ was thus saved, and Peking was surrendered on the 22nd January, and all the foreigners survived. One day, shortly after the end of the siege, and the ‘liberation’ of Peking by the Eighth Route Army, Ickle Jacob was on his own in the middle courtyard when there was a hammering on the door into the hutung. This was imposing structure, a ch-lan men, or, literally ‘barrier-gate. It had a high stone threshold, and the heavy door was lacquered crimson, with brass fittings. He went and opened it. Standing in front of him was an officer of the PLA, and behind him, as far as he could see, were PLA soldiers in neat formation. The officer looked down at him and said, ‘Let us in. We are billeted here.’ Despite his approval of the PLA he could see that they could not possibly put all these people up, so he did the only thing possible. He slammed the door in his face, and ran off to find Guan Shi Fu. It was obviously a problem which would be beyond his parents. Guan Shi Fu duly came and sorted out where the soldiers were really supposed to be staying.
Jacob Empson is a retired academic psychologist, the author of dozens of papers in ‘learned journals’, and two books, one of which ran to three editions as well as being translated into Chinese. This venture – a memoir – is a first for him in publishing a piece of non-technical writing.