Blades of Grass by Mark Aylwin Thomas

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Blades of Grass by Mark Aylwin Thomas

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A forgotten story of one adventurous young soul's foray into China during the late thirties, early forties, providing an insight into history and thoughts for consideration of the future. Written as a memorial to a family member it's so much more than that.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 502 Date: January 2017
Publisher: AuthorHouseUK
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1524676964

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Any book that has me in tears at the end has been worth my time. Any book that has me hoping it will end differently to the way I know it must is worth the reading. Any book that convinces me that maybe there is still hope in the world – that for all the mistakes made thus far, still being made right now, there is a common humanity which ultimately, eventually, must do some good – that is worth the writing and the reading and the time. Blades of Grass is one such book. It's a forgotten story, an unknown story to most people. It is one that should be told – and reflected upon.

The author confesses his connection up-front: George Aylwin was his uncle. That middle name that they share derives, they think, from the Celtic Aaelfwine – usually translated as 'noble friend' or 'wise friend'. Hogg was both of those things to the Chinese people he came to know and love and work with.

Hogg was of that class of people that most of us only come across in period dramas. He lived in a sizeable house, had a nurse and a governess, and a Montessori-style early education. He had a year in Switzerland in his youth, then St George's and then, of course, he went to Oxford. It was – let's be honest – a very privileged upbringing. On the other hand that schooling in Switzerland also taught him that class wasn't everything, nor was rank, nor indeed the very privilege that got him there. That may have coloured his attitude to everything that followed. It certainly coloured his approach to educating peasant children in China some years later.

Added to this – he had an adventurous spirit. Student holidays were spent hitching around Europe just as events in Germany were gearing up to threaten the whole world.

Newly graduated, and not entirely sure what to do next, he elects to accompany his Aunt on her latest round the world tour. As you do.

We need to put this in perspective though. For all his privilege of opportunity, Hogg still had to find his own way in the world. Aunt Muriel was delighted to have her nephew along, but her first question was whether or not he could pay for it. In what we'll learn was typical Hogg fashion he answered to how much he could fund, and what he'd do along the way about working out the rest.

That is the quintessence of Hogg for me. Decide what you're going to do, then figure out how you're going to pay for it. A maxim not too far removed from my own – so of course, I'm in awe of the guy already, and we're barely into Chapter 2.

What follows is a close personal study of what it was like to travel across America, via Japan and into China in the political upheaval of the late 1930s; and then to follow the growth of the co-operative movement in China, and the small attempts to build sensible schools answering to local conditions – not just in China with all that that entails culturally and logistically, but in a China at war with Japan, in a world with other wider wars impacting on the outside influence and capability and capacity to help, in a China working towards being at war with itself. The Empire has fallen, the Republic is trying to find its future path, but in some of what goes on between the lines of these pages, the birth pangs of the People's Republic are also squealing.

For the most part, Thomas has (rightly, I think) chosen to act more as an editor than author. Wherever possible he has allowed the letters and other writings of the protagonists to speak for themselves. This makes it a very personal piece. It made me care very much about the people involved, and want to know more (though I never will) of the stories of the Chinese people who make brief appearances.

The other important thing that this approach does is to avoid colouring the experience with what we know about what happened next. Hogg was SO full of enthusiasm and belief in what they were trying to do. By they I mean and his small band of brothers, but mostly the Chinese people involved in the Co-operative movement that was his introduction to the work, and the Baillie schools that grew out of it. Reading this in 2017, with the knowledge of everything that has intervened, does make me think again – about where China goes next, and how.

I am intrigued and enthralled and entranced by the country. But I still resist going because I am also angered and appalled by it. Hogg's story has given me another insight into the Chinese people as people, rather than as the political pawns and players that we normally see. The book has been published as a personal honour to a family memory, but it is bigger than that. It is bigger than honouring the memory of George Hogg and of Rewi Alley and the work they did. It is a call to rethink where we are now, and what of those experiences are worth re-purposing for the modern world…

If that all sounds a bit worthy and not your cup of tea, skip that idea. Consider instead an adventure story of a young man who goes off to China for a couple of months as a sort-of missionary, gets involved in creating producer and consumer co-ops, wanders about the country-side with the guerrillas in a time of war, hauling his trust typewriter on reluctant mules so he can write articles for the posh papers back home. Consider the romance (yeah, right!) of getting typhoid and being nursed back to health, and malaria, ditto. There's bound to be a pretty young nurse in the story. Will they live happily ever after? Or will she be a brave hero in her own story? Assume that there will be cats purring and mules braying which bring fears of their own: humour worthy of Cervantes or Dumas. His few months to get to know the place turn into years, commitment, family…

Blades of Grass is all of those things: an 'in memoriam', a political treatise, a social history document and a very old fashioned adventure story. That it should end in the banal way it does is actually quite fitting. Anything more dramatic would, weirdly, undermine the simplicity and solidity of everything that goes before.

I learned a lot reading this book. It has made me start to consider my views on some things. It didn't grip me in a fast-turning-the-pages kind of way, but it did draw me in and make me want to know more, and more, and left me feeling the same way. Which is a very good thing.

For more Western perspectives on early 20th Century China we can recommend Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China by Hilary Spurling, bring it right up to date with Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop or check out the intervening period in a fictionalised account Dreams of Joy by Lisa See, You might also enjoy Bomb, Book and Compass by Simon Winchester.

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