"Men of few words are the best men." - William Shakespeare, King Henry V, Act III, Scene II

Friday, November 11, 2011

Travelogue of Mycroft Webb (Episode II):

In a bid to spread the good word of Quincey Morris to those less fortunate than themselves; the fraternity of the QMBC dispatched one of their most capable officers (Mycroft Webb) on a round-the-world tour to win the hearts and minds of heathen masses towards the advancement of contrarian-elitist literary ideals .... and where possible to increase the standing of the pudding course in lesser cultures. As part of his missionary work, he has agreed to record a travelogue; of which, regular excerpts are reproduced here to serve as a permanent record for those who would follow in his footsteps. 

Peking - The Forbidden City – November ‘11

The suites at the Raffles Hotel were a garish hybrid of Occidental and Oriental architectures, but to their credit, they possessed all of the accoutrements that I was likely to require during my stay. Therefore, I wasted little time in negotiating a long term rate with the hotel manager and agreed to take their best suite on the condition that he saw to it that all the clocks were fixed immediately. The young hotel manager looked somewhat confused at this request but I quickly informed him that all of his timepieces were approximately 8 hours fast; I was even quicker to remind him that “There is only one time sir – and that is the Greenwich Mean Time“.

My Suite at the Raffles. 
While on the subject of time, it has long been my belief that the training of new servants is akin to breaking in a new pair of shoes; painful initially as the new leather slowly takes the form of the master’s foot but ultimately worthwhile as the two slowly begin to move in one graceful step. It is without hyperbole then that I can assure you that my first few days in Peking did not come without a few pinched toes as I moulded the domestics at the hotel into a staff befitting a gentleman of my carriage. Indeed, it was with some pride that I watched these efforts bear fruit as this once modest 5-star hotel was soon able to provide perfectly-delicious creamed rice, semolina or bread and butter puddings at any hour of the day or night. Naturally, I felt it my duty to test this facility on a regular basis to ensure that pudding standards did not revert to the sorry state I found them in when I arrived in Peking.

Despite my early successes on the humanitarian pudding front, I wish I could have had more success with my native valet Finbarr. He is certainly looking the part these days by virtue of the two bespoke day-suits I purchased for him by outfitters Lane & Crawford and he has become a dab hand at starching a shirt and pressing a trousers but it all counts for nought as he still possesses the personal hygiene, table manners and toilet habits of a shaved Orang-utan. O what noble savagery lies behind that thick brow? That said; I remain absolutely committed to making a gentleman’s gentleman out of him yet.
The Great Wall  - Longquanyu Section

With such a heavy workload, one might well believe that I was unable to engage in the sightseeing and cultural exchange that was one of the principal reasons for my travels to the region. Let me assure you though that I have not neglected that front. Far from it in fact, I was quick to make contact with my Embassy and informed the First Secretary therein that I was available for any diplomatic duties that may be required.  While waiting for the inevitable stream of invites to theatre evenings, gallery openings and exhibitions to materialise from the Ambassador, I decided to crack on apace with my own grand tour and arranged an excursion to the Great Wall, trekking a lengthy section of the Longquanyu loop of the wall with Finbarr as my heavily-laden Sherpa.

The tree covered hill-sides and mountains surrounding Peking were a veritable kaleidoscope of autumnal ochre and fiery red at this time of the year and this provided a wonderful backdrop for the Great Wall as it snaked its way inland. I could only marvel at the boundless ambition and winding majesty of this true wonder of the world. However, I did find some sections of the wall to be in a state of considerable disrepair - no doubt as a result of shoddy Chinese masonry. What could one expect from a country without City & Guild qualifications for its “manual” workers? I pondered inwardly.
Great Wall - Bloody Deathtrap

To my surprise, Finbarr appeared to care very little for the Chinese heritage on display at the wall and while my back was turned found himself a comfortable perch to defecate from; hoisting his arse over the edge of a Ming dynasty parapet and regrettably making a considerable toilet onto a large gathering of dour looking men in identical suits with red arm-bands who were posing for a group photograph below. It turns out that the gentlemen in question were attending a Communist Party (I think they called it!?) and their party was entirely ruined by the exertions of my valet. I have to admit that it is probable that my own efforts to improve the situation, at great volume and in impeccable English, with offerings of foreign currency as a sweetener may have only inflamed the situation.  

You would imagine it would be difficult to impose a lifetime ban on two individuals from a historical monument that measures nearly 4,000 imperial miles in length … apparently not. My keen emotional intelligence led me to conclude that things were getting a trifle fraught; so I thought discretion the better part of valour and beat a hasty retreat back to the Raffles but not before delivering a swift kick to the fruits of the bewildered Finbarr as a rebuke for what had just happened.

The following day I was adequately restored after a good night’s sleep and a sizeable breakfast; I made arrangements to visit the Imperial Palace in the afternoon. My lodgings were just a short stroll from the palace and the romantically titled Forbidden City, so I went on foot with Finbarr following sheepishly about five strides behind. The calendar indicated November but as the weather seemed temperate enough I wore the beige Safari shorts that had won me so many compliments. It took around 200 yards before I realised the spectacle that my attire was creating.

The Entrance to the Imperial Palace
Every Chinaman I passed interrupted his routine of coughing phlegm in all directions and hawking tat to gawp at my milk-white legs, many of the ingrates were even sniggering and some had started to follow me to get a better look. I quickened my walking pace considerably so that my greater limb length could come into play and leave them behind but this only seemed to create more of a scene, pretty soon I was at a gentle jog with forty natives in merry pursuit. I was shouting “What would you little bastards know about gent’s fashion anyway?" Knowing full well that your average Chinamen knows as much about Saville Row tailoring as he does about making a haggis. Upon reaching the outer walls of the palace, I darted inside losing them with an unexpected burst of pace. I instructed Finbarr to wait outside to avoid a recurrence of the previous day’s incident.

Inside the palace walls, I scarcely had time to regain my breath when it was being taken away from me again by the imposing stature and scale of the regal edifices on display. This Emperor chap must have a fair bit of clout with the planners to get this approved I thought – the size of the place! I made discrete representations to a palace official about meeting the man himself but things got lost in translation very quickly and all I managed to understand was that his Imperialness was not at the Palace currently.

Disheartened but not discouraged, I continued on with my tour of the Forbidden City and its great halls and charming gardens until I reached the Imperial throne room. I was absolutely bunched from all the sightseeing so I rested for a few moments until I had the brainwave of leaving a note for the Emperor inviting him to Brunch when he returned to town. I deftly nipped behind a cordoned off area and tore a very modest section of paper from one of the many dusty scrolls hanging from the wall. I left a friendly but brief message outlining the invitation with just three paragraphs addressing the excellent reputation of my dining table in my finest Copperplate hand and signed it off with the following flourish before leaving it on the Emperor’s throne:

Yours Dutifully,
Mycroft Webb
c/o The Raffles Hotel, Peking.

Happy with my days sight-seeing and my diplomatic efforts, I collected Finbarr at the gate and we made our way to a restaurant and tea house near Wangfujing Road that was believed by an acquaintance of mine to have the finest steamed dumplings in the whole of China. Three and a half hours later and I was four score of delicious dumplings to the good and I could find no grounds to disagree with my friend’s assessment of the restaurant.

It was approaching quarter-past-seven and in darkness when I returned to the Raffles, there appeared to be a large crowd of Chinese in a state of great agitation gathered outside the front of the hotel so I entered by the side door to avoid the din. As I crossed the foyer, I saw a nervous looking youth waiting there; he sprinted in my direction when I entered. “Mr Webb, Sir, Mr Webb, I have a letter of the utmost importance from the Embassy”. I strode over to the young man and said “Excellent, it is about time those blasted civil servants got back to me. I was on the verge of going native here.”

This piece of correspondence looked very promising; it was from the desk of Ambassador Finknottle himself but unfortunately it did not contain the host of invitations to society events as expected. Indeed, much to my dismay, the letter outlined charges made against me in the Chinese state media of “serial iconoclasm”, “wilful desecration of cultural relics and monuments” and “the attempted bribery of the Chinese Communist Party”. I was starting to feel a little woozy as the Ambassador’s letter went on to confirm in no uncertain terms that he could no longer guarantee my safety in Peking and that he recommended my immediate departure. The letter was accompanied by a ticket for a deluxe cabin on the overnight train to Shanghai which left at 8 p.m. from the other side of the city. A city in which the Communist zealots were now on high alert looking for a large western infidel wearing shorts who was going around desecrating their cultural relics.

I had been in town less than a week but the Forbidden City definitely seemed to be living up to its name. As I made my way to the train station under a heavy tarpaulin on the back of a rickshaw piloted by Finbarr; my biggest regret was that my Brunch with the Emperor would have to wait, I hoped he wouldn’t mind.

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