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25.7.18

À mon chevet: 'The Honourable Schoolboy'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Otherwise the Club was pretty much empty. For reasons of prestige, the top correspondents steered clear of the place anyway. A few businessmen, who came for the flavour pressmen give; a few girls, who came for the men. A couple of war tourists in fake battle-drill. And in his customary corner, the awesome Rocker, Superintendent of Police, ex-Palestine, ex-Kenya, ex-Malaya, ex-Fiji, an implacable war-horse, with a beer, one set of slightly reddened knuckles, and a weekend copy of the South China Morning Post. The Rocker, people said, came for the class.

At the big table at the centre, which on weekdays was the preserve of United Press International, lounged the Shanghai Junior Baptist Conservative Bowling Club, presided over by mottled old Craw, the Australian, enjoying its usual Saturday tournament. The aim of the contest was to pitch a screwed-up napkin across the room and lodge it in the wine rack. Every time you succeeded, your competitors bought you the bottle and helped you drink it. Old Craw growled the orders to fire, and an elderly Shanghainese waiter, Craw's favourite, wearily manned the butts and served the prizes. The game was not a zestful one that day, and some members were not bothering to throw. Nevertheless this was the group Luke selected for his audience. [...]

Striding to the table, Luke leapt straight onto it with a crash, breaking several glasses and cracking his head on the ceiling in the process. Framed up there against the south window in a half-crouch, he was out of scale to everyone: the dark mist, the dark shadow of the Peak behind it, and this giant filling the whole foreground. But they went on pitching and drinking as if they hadn't seen him. Only the Rocker glanced in Luke's direction, once, before licking a huge thumb and turning to the cartoon page.

"Round three," Craw ordered, in his rich Australian accent. "Brother Canada, prepare to fire. Wait, you slob. Fire."

A screwed-up napkin floated toward the rack, taking a high trajectory. Finding a cranny, it hung a moment, then flopped to the ground. Egged on by the dwarf, Luke began stamping on the table and more glasses fell. Finally he wore his audience down.

"Your Graces," said old Craw, with a sigh. "Pray silence for my son. I fear he would have parley with us. Brother Luke, you have committed several acts of war today and one more will meet with our severe disfavour. Speak clearly and concisely omitting no detail, however slight, and thereafter hold your water, sir."

In their tireless pursuit of legends about one another, old Craw was their Ancient Mariner. Craw had shaken more sand out of his shorts, they told each other, than most of them would ever walk over, and they were right. In Shanghai, where his career had started, he had been teaboy and city editor to the only English-speaking journal in the port. Since then, he had covered the Communists against Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang against the Japanese and the Americans against practically everyone. Craw gave them a sense of history in this rootless place. His style of speech, which at typhoon times even the hardiest might pardonably find irksome, was a genuine hangover from the thirties, when Australia provided the bulk of journalists in the Orient, and the Vatican, for some reason, the jargon of their companionship.

-- John le Carré, The Honourable Schoolboy, Chapter 1
After thoroughly enjoying the latest novel by John le Carré, pitched during an excellent interview the author gave to 60 Minutes, I have been reading or re-reading several of his older novels, including A Small Town in Germany, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, and The Little Drummer Girl, all perfect summertime page-turners. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was as good as I remembered it, but I am surprised I did not go on to read the second part of the George Smiley trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy.

It opens with this hilarious evocation of the English-language press corps in Hong Kong, gathered for important conferences in a favorite watering hole during a typhoon, as British colonial rule fades away in the 1970s. As le Carré notes in a preface he added after the fall of the Berlin Wall, much of this novel is drawn directly from the author's life. Many of the episodes, including the one quoted above, have the ring of authenticity. A delightful read.

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