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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Travelogue of Mycroft Webb (Episode III):

Shanghai - A French Concession 
(31.2099N, 121.4629E– November ‘11

I have to admit to being sorely hipped at the manner of my departure from Peking. By any standards; and even what passes for standards here on the Asian sub-continent, it was far from a gentlemanly exit. Indeed, it is always a sad business when a gentleman and his footman have to beat off a dozen or so Chinamen just to get on board their evening train!
Queensbury - A decent lightweight

In lieu of an official Gazette, I would have it stated here that Finbarr handled himself admirably during the fracas; without needing direction or encouragement, he delivered some decidedly savage elbows and well-timed kicks to the zealot horde. In truth, his martial artistry was the boon of the ages, as I was of course, sticking vehemently to the Marquess of Queensbury rules despite their repeated infringement by the Chinese. Can you imagine the gall of those po-faced savages to try and kick me while I was stretching out a hamstring during one of my allotted 1-minute breaks? Poor show China! 

Later that evening, I instructed Finbarr to look after the luggage and to set himself up in steerage, as I reclined in the spacious 1st Class sleeper cabin in a state of high grease after the earlier rumpus, the locomotive beneath me making its slow clackety-clack southwards across the Hebei province; I looked out the window at the unerring darkness outside. As I did so, my brow furrowed and my mind busied itself imagining the countless fields of Chinese stink-cabbage running to the horizon in all directions. My low spirits remained with me until I remembered some Burmese cheroots in my over-coat pocket. It became clear within an instant that a crafty smoke could only improve my humours so I made my way to the rear of the train so as not to sully my own cabin with their stench.

Wafting back to my cabin some fifteen minutes later, buoyed by the strong tobacco; I noticed the door of an adjacent cabin to my own slightly ajar. I saw therein two middle-aged gentlemen and a striking young female playing cards; the briefest glance told me that these folks were of the monied variety– my favourite. Naturally, I made a lengthy introduction; presenting one of my cards with a bow to the lady to finish, and asked if they were in need of a fourth for a game of Whist, the card read:

Mycroft Webb (Dublin & London)
Emeritus Professor of Rhetoric, 
Chief Pudding Officer of the QMBC.

The card itself was a tasteful thickness, possessed the most discrete watermark, and had exquisite Eggshell colouring and finest Romalian type. It had never failed me.

The largest of the group, who I later learned was called Jardine responded:”Why certainly Sir, but it is wise to tell you now that we do not play for sport at this table.” I struggled to contain my delight at these words and responded: “Never in life, Sir.” and I placed a note of credit from my bank for £5,000 and delivered my customary coup de grâce: “My bankers are Hoare’s of London … but aren’t all bankers Hoare's”. Universal mirth reined, for no one was beloved of a banker and I was welcomed to a seat across from the young lady – the depth of her bosom only now becoming apparent to me. 

The other players were Messrs Jardine & Matheson and Matheson’s debutante niece Fanny who had accompanied her uncle on the business trip from which they were now returning, I noted when it was mentioned that that the two gents were partners in Shanghai’s most successful merchant houses Jardine Matheson & Co - it seems that I would not have to hold back from taking these old plums for a few quid. Delightful. 

Out of polite conversation, I enquired as to the exact nature of their business. Matheson proceeded to give a rote list of their interests from Textiles, Rubber, Sugar, Spices, Silks, Alcohol but Jardine (smiling) interrupted him in mid-sentence: "Webb, you can forget Association Football, because out here Opium is the Opium of the masses and that is just as well because nothing turns a quick, clean profit like your Opiates. Your blessed Chinamen can't get enough of the stuff and it exports admirably well in a variety of forms." Matheson rubbed his hands in agreement. 

We partnered up by drawing cards in the usual manner and to my great delight, I was paired with the chesty debutante whose shapely leg was "accidentally" brushed by my own as I made myself more comfortable in my seat.

One of the benefits of an eidetic memory is a certain skill at card games, and I admit to throwing a few hands to make the outcome appear more a matter of luck than the studied act of recall and assessment of probability that it most assuredly was. True to form, a few short hours later I had relieved a sizeable sum of money from Messrs Jardine & Matheson who by now were starting to look a little pale. In lieu of a personal promissory note, I preferred to accept the deeds of ownership and logbooks of a recently refurbished Chinese Junk that was tied up on the Huangpu River in Shanghai. I bid them all good evening and while kissing the hand of Ms. Matheson, I could hardly miss the number of her cabin being advertised in her other hand.

As the train approached Shanghai the following morning, I exited the young lady's cabin discreetly in order to preserve her honour. While she slept soundly, I left a wilting carnation from my lapelle on her locker - a modest souvenir for the lady but it was a Friday and I never wore carnations on a Friday.

As the train shuddered to a halt and with Finbarr seeing to the dunnage, I had the distinct feeling that the farce in Peking was nothing but an aberration and that things were now looking up for the old "World-Wide-Webb" as I had taken to calling myself. However, when I disembarked with rampant optimism and stepped squarely on to a dog-turd that could only have been crafted by the greatest of Great Danes - and once more on Chinese soil, and much to Finbarr's enjoyment I was outside of my natural element again. 

Given my earlier misunderstanding with the Chinese authorities, I ordered a shay to the French Concession. I though it prudent to base myself in Shanghai's autonomous French district so as to avail of the different jurisdiction there. Let me be clear though, I have no great love for the French, except as the pâtissiers and fromagiers of the world, indeed, it is my experience that they are an inveterate bunch of malodorous adulterers who ought not be left in charge of anything more pressing than a small dog on a leash, a packet of Gitanes and a very small amount of walking-around money.

The Bund in Shanghai
That said, over the following days,  I was loath to admit the tree-lined avenues and the European architectural influence in this district were something of a comfort to me as I saw to the careening of my Junk on the river during the day and dining in the French Concession or other European locales in the evening.

Unusually, my favourite haunt was a German Brauhaus; it often amused me to ponder how the only Irishman to have gained membership to that bastion of English reserve: The Diogenes Pudding Club of London came to be supping in a German Brauhaus in the French concession area of Shanghai, where dainty Chinese ladies wearing ill-fitting dirndl outfits served food and drink while the resident Filipino band attempted Brazilian bossa-nova nightly. Sirs, Globalisation is surely upon us! It almost goes without saying too that I left notes for the pastry chef about the absence of Kirsch in the Blackforest Gateau and the low specific gravity of the Stollen - it was the least I could do.

Each day I would pass by the The Bund; the financial and commercial heart of this bustling city; a true sight for sore eyes. The orderly line of banks, insurance companies and merchant houses seemed a million miles from the hutongs and street vendors of Peking. For me, you can keep your gawdy temples and your pagodas, this was real architecture. Granite and cut-stone abounded and never before was there a thoroughfare whose buildings worshipped symmetry, so keenly and so completely.

I never tired of the view of Shanghai from the prow of my Junk, which after much hard work by a motley crew of piratical lascars and malays goaded on by a demonic Finbarr as bosun got her ready for sea in record time. She was a stiff, dry, weatherly creature with strong knees and new teak futtocks; by my reckoning she would sail beautifully on account of her spotless bottom. In truth, she lacked nothing ... but a name.

It took a couple of days for the outfitters to get a uniform ready for the crew that was acceptable to me but I remember the day of her Christening as if it were yesterday. I arranged a priest to bless her and hired a choir to sing a few psalms as I sacrificed a Jeroboam of Champagne against her hull. I can still hear the collective cries of: "God bless the Fanny, and all who sail in her." 

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