Tag Archives: Isherwood

Wystan Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Vandeleur Grayburn (1) ‘Just the natives fighting’

For a version of this post with public domain illustrations, see http://brianwedgar.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/wystan-auden-christopher-isherwood-and.html

This is the first of several posts detailing the remarkable story of HKSBC chief Vandeleur Grayburn, who died in Stanley Prison almost exactly 70 years ago.

In January 1938 two of the best-known (and best) British writers were in Hong Kong. Wystan Hugh Auden was the most distinguished poet of the generation that followed on T. S. Eliot’s modernist revolution (roughly 1910-1925), while Christopher Isherwood, his friend and intermittent lover, was a talented novelist.

Auden had already written the poem (‘Stop All the Clocks’) that was to be so successfully used in Four Weddings and a Funeral (it’s far from being one of his best though) and Isherwood had gone through significant experiences in late Weimar Berlin, which he was in the process of turning into novels that would later  be adapted into the Oscar winning film Cabaret (1972).

They were, self-consciously, radical intellectuals, and they were looked to for a lead by many members of a generation driven to the left by the mass slaughter of WW1, the apparent promise of better things held out by the Russian Revolution, and the disillusion with capitalist economics brought about by the Wall Street Crash (1929) and the ‘great depression’ that ensued.

Auden had started his poetic career in the late 1920s, often writing in traditional forms, or recognisable adaptations of them, but taking full advantage of Eliot’s demonstration that a poetry adequate to the complexities of the modern world needed to be difficult. But, like Eliot, he liked to spring surprises on his audience, and in the late summer of 1932 he sent a poem to Isherwood called ‘A Communist To Others’, which offered overt political commitment and an appropriate new style. The poem started with an address to the workers – ‘Comrades who when the sirens roar’1- and continued in a way which, although by no means simple throughout, was to give most contemporary readers good reason to believe he was trying to reach a much wider than audience than the tiny elite who’d appreciated his earlier work. His poems thereafter varied in style and register, but some of the best known were written in the same ‘accessible’ style – for example, the favourite anthology piece ‘O What is that sound which so thrills the ear’, and the still controversial poem about cancer, ‘Miss Gee’). His poem ‘Spain 1937’ was not only a politically ‘committed’ work itself, it was also about the inevitability of poetic commitment, arguing that everything but ‘the struggle’ needed to be put off until the outcome of the battle for Spain had been decided. Auden himself went to help the Spanish Republic, albeit putting in no more than a short spell (leaving London on January 12, 1937 and returning about March 42) as a propagandist.

Isherwood came out of the same privileged middle class strata as Auden. In 1929 he’d followed Auden to Berlin – his friend had been promised a parental allowance until his twenty third birthday, and had broken with the tradition of taking a ‘gap year’ a year in Paris. The German capital in the last years of the culturally vigorous Weimar Republic and during the first stage of the Nazi takeover was the perfect place for a writer of Isherwood’s particular talents – he had a gift for rendering ordinary events in lucid prose and for an apparently non-judgemental objectivity, which of course made his actual judgements (which no writer can avoid) seem compelling. In 1935 he had published his first attempt at ‘mining’ the Berlin experience, a daring novel for the time, Mr Norris Changes Trains, whose engaging anti-hero is a gay masochist, a petty crook, and an eventually treacherous communist. If the book has a real hero, it’s the communist leader Bayer, who’s tortured and murdered by the Nazis towards the close of the novel.3 The narrator, William Bradshaw, describes his own involvement with the Party, and few readers would have doubted this reflected Isherwood’s own experiences, or at least his sympathies; the more perspicacious ones would have noted with what distance his communist activities are described, and perhaps foreseen the coming apostasy.

But that was still in the future in 1938, as was the majority of the second book based on his Berlin life, one that was to earn Isherwood huge post-war fame when it became the film Cabaret in 1972. He’d published one important chunk of this in 1937, a novella called Sally Bowles, which he republished in Goodbye to Berlin (1939), the rest of which was written in the period after his return from China. The material in this fine novel was to wind its way through a complex set of adaptations to the 1972 Oscar triumph – it won eight, and might have got Best Picture and Best Screenplay, for which it was also nominated, if it hadn’t also been the year of The Godfather.4

Neither Auden or Isherwood ever joined the British Communist Party, but this probably made it easier for a broad swathe of left wing opinion to see them as leaders, in literature at least. They were in Hong Kong with a contract from Faber and Faber (T. S. Eliot was a director and the poetry editor) to write a book, combining their complementary talents, on the Sino-Japanese War. They boarded the boat-train on January 19, 1938, heading first for Paris, and then south to Marseilles, where they boarded the Aramis for the long sea journey to Hong Kong,5 where they arrived on February 16.6

It’s not surprising the two young radicals didn’t like Hong Kong. It’s easy to exaggerate the racism, the status snobbery and the smugness of what was then a British Crown Colony, but you could go to the other extreme and significantly underplay it all and it would still be appalling. Philip Snow, author of the magnificent The Fall of Hong Kong, quotes an official of the London Colonial Office who called it ‘the most self-satisfied of all the colonies, except Malaya’ and Snow’s own verdict is that ‘everyone did their best, seemingly, to look down upon anyone different’.7

At first the two writers lived in a luxurious bathing cabin at fashionable Repulse Bay, and then they moved in with University Vice-Chancellor, Duncan Sloss. Isherwood reported in a letter to his mother of February 25 that he was ‘extraordinarily kind’ and that he’d agreed to acts as a poste restante service for future letters.8 Sloss was a polymathic dinner-table conversationalist,9 and he was the distinguished editor of William Blake one of the radical thinkers who’d influenced Auden, but this amiable and interesting host doesn’t seem to have softened their disapproval of the Hong Kong British. Perhaps it’s rather strange that rather than living in comfortable surroundings and mixing with government officials and millionaires at ‘formal dinner parties’,10 the two revolutionaries didn’t get into the streets and tenements and meet the Chinese, who made up about 98% of the Colony’s population. That’s what another left-wing writer in Hong Kong at about the same time did; New Zealander Robin Hyde’s book The Dragon Rampant (1939) describes some of the scenes of majority life that Auden and Isherwood seem to have ignored.

In the course of what seems to have been a rather undemanding 12 days in the colony (they left on February 28) they met the third character in this story, someone who might well have seemed to them to sum up British Hong Kong, with its many weaknesses and few strengths.

In his autobiographical memoir, Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood, to illustrate to his readers the narrow-minded and short-sighted racism that permeated the expat community, offered this anecdote (Isherwood refers to himself as Christopher throughout the book):

‘Speaking of the Japanese invasion of China, a businessman said to Christopher: ‘Of course, from our point of view, both sides are just natives’.11

Who was this ‘businessman’? The answer lies in a letter written by another distinguished English writer, William Empson, in Hong Kong for a break from the demanding task of teaching English in a Chinese university on the run from the Japanese. Empson bumped into Auden and Isherwood by chance, not knowing they were there at the same time. He thought Auden had ‘the glamour of Oscar Wilde’ and in a letter to his mother of March 15, recounted that the two fledgling war correspondents had told him they’d visited the Governor of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (who, Empson, also a kind of socialist, called ‘the Governor of the Governor’ of Hong Kong) and that they’d asked him his opinion of the war:

‘Well, it’s just the natives fighting’.12

The ‘Governor’, Sir Vandeleur Molyneux Grayburn – in the words of a colleague, ‘A strong, vigorous, I should say reckless personality’13 – was born in England on July 28, 1881 and educated in Jersey and Staffordshire. After an apprenticeship at a bank in Goole (Yorkshire), he joined the HKSBC at the age of twenty, remaining in the London office until December 1904, when he was posted to Shanghai.14 He was sent to Hong Kong in 1920 and appointed head of the Bank in 1930 at the age of 48; he’d been in the East for 26 years, and some felt he lacked the broad geographical experience needed for the job.15 As a result of the events I’ll describe in my next post, Grayburn is sometimes cited as an inspiration to today’s bankers, who should also note that in his first year, Grayburn declined the full salary package he was offered, accepting payment of £6,000 for the year’s work16 – that’s a little short of £300,000 in today’s values, which most bankers today would probably consider not quite what the senior financier in the Far East should be expecting.

In 1935 he’d seen opened the end product of one of his favourite projects, the new HKSBC headquarters at 1, Queen’s Road Central, the first fully air-conditioned building in the Colony, and controversially modernist in design. Later, it was to play an important role in the Japanese occupation, and, as we shall see, before that it had been spotted as a useful symbol by the disapproving eye of W. H. Auden.

He was knighted in 1937 for his assistance to the Hong Kong government during the currency crisis of the mid 1930s. In the same year Grayburn’s position as Chief manager was confirmed, and the hope was expressed he would stay in post for another three years. So there he was in February 1938, available to provide a sound-bite that would suitably shock another radical writer during a chance encounter and would eventually end up standing in for the racism of colonial Hong Kong in a book that would be published almost thirty years later.

It’s possible that Grayburn was just trying to wind up the young radicals; I doubt that Auden made much of a secret of his dislike of Hong Kong life in general and bankers in particular, and Grayburn might have just been getting his own back or mockingly living up to the role he realised he’d been cast in.But there’s no doubt that he could well have meant what he said, as he felt a sense, not uncommon in the Colony before the war, of the deep superiority of ‘Europeans’ to Asians, and of the English to all other ‘white’ nationalities. In a 1937 letter about bankers wives he wrote, ‘Foreign, native, half caste are definitely taboo’17 and he operated a ‘no Chinese wives’ policy for his staff – he was hardly unique in doing so, of course, but I’ve not seen any evidence that it went against the grain. In fact, he’s said to have commented that even the Bank’s one American employee was ‘one too many’18 It’s easy to write this off as ‘the beliefs’ of the time, but not everyone in Hong Kong then was racist. Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, for example, was packing for the journey out at about the time the two writers left the Colony for Canton, as he’d been appointed Director of Medical Services, giving him cachet almost equal to Grayburn’s. The doctor was sublimely indifferent to racial judgements, as was his wife, the soon to be notorious ‘Red Hilda’. Besides, Grayburn was quite capable of defying convention when he wanted to, and it was said that his third wife enjoyed the dignities of that situation before they were strictly married. His second wife filed for a UK divorce on the grounds of desertion (under then recent legislation) and this was uncontested.19 I doubt that divorce was any less of a stigma in polite society in pre-war Hong Kong than it was in Britain and this doesn’t seem to have bothered Sir Vandeleur.

What about his general attitude to China, a nation undergoing financial turmoil and Japanese attack during his tenure of the supreme post at the bank? Well, one contemporary source hinted1988, that Sir Vandeleur and other senior businessmen would have welcomed a Japanese victory as most conducive to the stability required for their operations, and implies he’d been trying to undermine Chinese standing in western opinion.20 I don’t think there’s any evidence for this (the same source claims that Grayburn was known at the time as ‘the King’, which is probably more solidly grounded). But the picture painted by the Bank’s painstaking historian Frank King is very different. He tells us that Grayburn – and his colleague Henchmann in Shanghai – tended to advocate, against the Bank’s committee in London, decisions that were in China’s long-term interests.21 Although the Chinese Government didn’t like the extraterritoriality system, which gave great privileges to foreigners in China, it worked in its favour after the Japanese attack (beginning in December 1937) as far as banking went as it enabled Grayburn and the HKSBC to protect China’s interests and sometimes the security of its bankers, as the Chinese banks in Shanghai came under pressure from the Japanese, from gangsters and sometimes from their own officials.22

In summary, King believes that Grayburn, in spite of his complaints and his doubts about the political situation, remained “committed to ‘Free China’”23 So it seems that it was with some justification at least that Sir Vandeleur claimed in 1940, ‘I have done my utmost to do what I consider is the principal duty of the Hongkong Bank – to help Hong Kong and China and the Government of both places – and I think I have done it.’24 Frank King tells us he received the Chinese Republic’s Order of the Brilliant Jade for defending the currency of the Republic of China,25 and it would greatly support this claim if this is true, but, if Wikipedia is to trusted, this is a one-rank decoration awarded only to foreign heads of a nation.26 My guess is that he was awarded an honour by the Chinese Republic, but perhaps not this one.

When the product of the visit to Hong Kong and China, Journey To A War, appeared in 1939 Isherwood’s prose narrative contained no mention of Hong Kong, but Auden’s sequence Sonnets From China did have a sonnet on the Colony,27 and, although he’s not mentioned by name, ‘Hong Kong’ bears rather strongly on the work and symbolism of Sir Vandeleur Grayburn:

The leading characters are wise and witty,
Substantial men of birth and education
With wide experience of administration,
They know the manners of a modern city.28

In spite of the fact that these lines seem to focus on government (‘administration’), given that Hong Kong was a society in which senior businessmen ranked at least equal to colonial civil servants (some say they outranked them), and that bankers were the most ‘senior’ of them all, I have no doubt that Grayburn was one of the stylishly amoral ‘leading characters that Auden had in mind. When he came to revise the poem (for the 1966 Collected Shorter Poems), he removed the narrow focus on ‘administration’ and made it clear he was referring to the whole of Hong Kong’s ‘white’ elite:

Their suits well tailored, and they wear them well.

The revised third and fourth lines characterise Hong Kong and its elite better than the original draft:

Have many a polished parable to tell
About the mores of a trading city.

In other words: ‘the leading British people here are all show, albeit stylish show, and their morality is what you’d expect of capitalists who began by trading in opium and continue to make a fat living by selling the products of others’ labour’. Some later lines, which take substantially the same form in both versions, take us even closer to the banking chief:

Here in the East the bankers have erected
A worthy temple to the Comic Muse.

Throughout the poem, Auden represents Hong Kong life as a comedy – meaning something like ‘lacking in seriousness, funny to outsiders and based on the naive assumption that, in spite of the war raging close by, all would end happily’ – throughout the poem, and he turned what saw as the rather unprepossessing Bank building into a symbol of that kind of life. The building, as we’ve seen, was the product of Grayburn’s vision, and locally it was sometimes known as ‘Grayburn’s Folly’.29

In its original 1938 version the poem ends:

We cannot postulate a General Will;
For what we are, we have ourselves to blame.

Some commentators have seen the rejection of Rousseau’s idea of a ‘General Will’, a collective desire that individuals should if necessary be forced to submit to, as a sign that Auden was on his way to the abandonment of Marxism. But in context they are rather a rejection of the capitalist idea that if you live in a place like Hong Kong you should act accordingly and not bother about rigorous ethical standards. No-one, Auden suggests, should claim that their actions are the result of the ‘manners of a modern city’ or of some entity like ‘the British in Hong Kong’.

So there you have it: two highly intelligent and principled writers spend a fortnight in a British Colony stuck in the ‘Late Victorian’30 age and, their antennae made even more sensitive because of their mission to report a brutal war of aggression going on over the border, they see through the racism, smugness and naiveté of the ex-pat community, and sum up it all up by reference to the words, deeds and lifestyle of one its most prominent representatives, the real ruler of Hong Kong, ‘The Governor’s Governor’.

What happened next was as remarkable as it was unpredictable and still gives plenty of matter for reflection.

1I’m simplifying but I hope not falsifying a more complex textual history – see Edward Mendelson, The English Auden, 1977, 421-422.
2Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography, 1981,209-215.
3Mr Norris Changes Trains, Vintage 1999 (1935), 217.
5Carpenter, 1981, 233.
6Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind, 1977, 223.
7Philip Snow, The Fall of Hong Kong, 2003, 2.
8 http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=WxUDcChiP88C&pg=PA184&lpg=PA184&dq=auden+isherwood+sloss&source=bl&ots=yBeZdV41C6&sig=8XElpNR7WmI-Gdt6p2m_FECW8JM&hl=en#v=onepage&q=%20sloss&f=false
10Isherwood, 1977, 223.
11Isherwood, 1977, 223.
12John Haffenden, William Empson: Among the Mandarins, 2005, 483, 659
13Frank H. H. King, The History of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, Volume 3, 1998, 228.
14King, 1988, 290.
15King, 1988, 202, 204.
16King, 1988, 204.
18King, 1988, 266.
20Edgar A. Mowrer, The Dragon Wakes, 1939, 20-24, 217.
21 King, 1988, 166.
22 King, 1988, 442.
23 King, 1988, 403.
24King, 1988, 541.
25 King, 1988, 291.
27This poem wasn’t part of the manuscript sent to the publisher – Auden and Isherwood planned to write ‘Hongkong-Macao: A Dialogue’, but then rejected the idea and Auden added a sonnet on each place instead – Mendelson, 1977, 425.
28Text from Mendelson, 1977, 235 – dated December 1938.
29Paul Gillingham, At the Peak, 1983, 162-167 – a good discussion of the whole project.
30See line 10 of Auden’s sonnet, Journey to a War, (1939), 1973 ed. page 13.



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