The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Author and teacher Tim Murgatroyd has never been to China. But with his first novel about to come out in Chinese that may all change
Tim Murgatroyd's love affair with China began when he was a teenage student studying English at Oxford.
He stumbled across a book of classic Chinese poems translated into English in a bookshop and was hooked.
What struck him most was how universal the poems were.
They were full of images - moonlight falling through a bedroom window to dapple the floor, stands of bamboo rustling quietly in the darkness - that were astonishingly beautiful and vivid.
Yet they touched on themes that are common to all people, in all times. "They didn't feel alien at all," he says.
That was many years ago. Murgatroyd, an English teacher in York, has been collecting Chinese poetry ever since - always in English translations, because he can't read Chinese.
Yet his first book Taming Poison Dragons, published in 2009, was a novel set in 12th-centuryChina.
Now that book has been translated into Mandarin and the Chinese edition, published by the Shanghai Literature & Art Publishing House, is due to be launched at a Beijing book fair this month.
"I'm really honoured," says Murgatroyd. "It is such a privilege that Chinese people will be getting to read my book."
Taming Poison Dragons tells the story of Yun Cai, a young poet who sets off for the Chinese capital Linan - modern-day Hangzhou - determined to study for the imperial examinations that are the only path to high office.
But he finds the conventions of life in the imperial city stifling.
He refuses to bow his head in deference to members of the ruling hierarchy and, following an affair with a beautiful singing girl which offends his betters, is banished to the deserts of the far north-west and a bitter war against rebels.
The novel is narrated by the elderly Yun Cai. From the remote estate in the mountains of western China to which he was eventually exiled, he looks back on his life with regret and a sense of loss at the mistakes of his rash youth.
Chinese academic Doctor Lily Chen has translated the book with the help of one of her former MA students Xiaoxi Li and they're currently at work on the follow-up, Breaking Bamboo.
She was initially drawn to Taming Poison Dragons because she was intrigued to see a different perspective on her own country's history and culture.
"I thought that was something Chinese readers would be interested in," she says.
What makes the book particularly interesting to her is that everything Murgatroyd knew about China he had learned from reading ancient Chinese poems in translation.
She says the character of Yun Cai was recognisably based on three of China's greatest poets, Su Dongpo, Bai Juyi and Huang Wei.
Despite never having been to the country Murgatroyd has managed to capture in Yun Cai something true and real about a certain kind of Chinese scholar, Chen says. "Both Xiaoxi and I could see elements of our own fathers in him."
Yet the book is different to anything a Chinese novelist would have written. "You can see it is written by someone who is not Chinese. There is something Chinese about it but something universal as well."
Murgatroyd is hoping that finally, almost 30 years after picking up that first volume of poetry, he will get to visit China for himself.
"It is early days yet but there is a publicity trip being discussed and there is also the possibility of an educational trip, to teach creative writing.
"So I am hoping I may be able to go some time this year," he said. "It would be amazing."
When he does go, he may be in for a bit of a shock, he admitted.
"I have this mental image, from poems, of a China that has long vanished, of a rural China.
"Now it is dynamic, modern, a superstate that powers the world economy. It could be a very challenging experience - but it could also be incredibly enlightening."
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