“I love talking about nothing. It is the only thing I know anything about.” (Oscar Wilde)
I don’t know if you have ever had one of those moments when your response to being asked if you could do someone a favour is: “The answer’s Yes! Now, what’s the question?”?
Your favourite blogger had just such a moment a couple of weeks back when out of the blue he was asked if he would be willing to give a lecture to some students at Beijing’s Renmin University. Now, I know this will totally faze some of my best friends, who won’t believe this for a moment knowing the shy and retiring sort of person I am; but I have to admit to being one of those guys who just loves the sound of his own voice. (Yes, yes I know. Incredible, but true!)
So before I even knew what it was they wanted me to talk about, I heard myself saying “Yes of course; I’d be delighted” – or words to that effect.
Naturally I assumed they wouldn’t be expecting the lecture to be in Chinese. And I was right on that score. What I hadn’t been expecting, though, was that they would be wanting to hear my loquacious tones for a full three hours… and more!
It appears they knew I had been in the BBC for more years than I cared to remember. Would I talk about the independence of the BBC and how the BBC earned its enviable reputation over the years?
A simple request, of course; but for three hours? I mean I could say what I wanted to say about the BBC’s independence in – what? – five minutes? How was I going to fill the remaining 2 hours and 55 minutes?
They wanted me to deliver the speech in two weeks’ time. And the killer: because my “day job” was from 1330 to 2300, they could “squeeze me in” at 8 o’clock in the morning, “which would give me plenty of time to get in to work before the allotted hour”.
8 o’clock? That would mean that if I had to be there by, say 7.45, I’d need to leave home at around 6.45 just to make sure I wasn’t late. … which meant getting up at 5.45 …. Oh Lord! What had I got myself into?
Too late to worry about that now. I feverishly set about seeing what Mr Google’s henchmen could dig out for me in the way of FACTS.
I look up Wikipedia; I search the BBC’s web site; I trawl YouTube (through a proxy server, of course); I find web sites set up by geeks and web sites set up by radio amateurs; pictures of car stickers and of QSLs, not to mention transmitter masts and defunct pieces of studio equipment. And before long it is no more a case of how am I going to fill the time, but what on earth can I possibly cut to allow me to squeeze in everything I want to say.
The fortnight’s preparation is pure bliss; going down memory lane; revelling in nostalgia (though I still maintain that nostalgia just isn’t what it used to be). And finally the big day approaches. I decide to have an early night and set my alarm clock to 5.45 just in case.
But what happens if I sleep through my alarm? Or the dratted thing fails to go off (it has been known for me to set the alarm to a pm setting rather than am, you might be surprised to hear).
So I set another alarm to 5.40 and climb into bed; and worry that even with two alarms set to wake me up, I might keep on sleeping through them at such an ungodly hour. So just for good measure I set a third alarm to 5.30 which will allow me to hit the snooze button and then not be so fast asleep that I don’t hear the following two alarms.
I wake up at 5.25.
Outside it is pitch black. Outside it is also minus five degrees. I crawl into the shower and soak under a jet of hot water deciding what shirt I can wear for maximum impact. My blue, turquoise and black one today I think.
I wrap up really well and creep out into the freezing night air and make my way to the subway station to catch one of the first trains of the day. Of course, this being Beijing, there are absolutely no seats to be had (despite the early hour) until three stations before I have to get out.
Any lesser mortal might have thought the obvious station to go to is the one for Renmin University (on Line 4).
But not being of the lesser mortal brigade, I take it upon myself to find out where the school of journalism is located. “To the right of the west gate” I am told in an eMail, seeking to confirm that I haven’t forgotten my appointment, nor that I am thinking of doing a runner.
A quick check of my trusty Beijing map, courtesy of my Samsung Galaxy Tab confirms that the western gate is actually nearer another station on Line 10 – the same line that I am already travelling on,
which in some ways is a pity as it means I won’t be going past one of my favourite Pi Yas located within spitting distance of Renmin Uni station.
But to make up for it, Renmin Universty itself has a lovely pair of Pi Xiu right in front of its Admin block and I snap away at the cute beasties in order to add them to my web site..
Renmin University, otherwise known as the People's University of China (中国人民大学 or Zhōngguó Rénmín Dàxué), was officially established in 1950, the first national university of the People's Republic. Its predecessor, established in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, was Shan Bei Public School (陕北公学), and this accounts for the 1937 date prominently displayed around the campus.
Naturally I find I have arrived half an hour too early, but this gives me plenty of time to wander around the place and get my bearings. The large map at the entrance, alas, does not prove to be that useful to me as I stupidly forgot to look up the Chinese for Journalism School. But having been told that it is located to the right of the West gate I head off in that direction.
There’s no sign of anything remotely looking like a journalism school, but instead I get to see some of the 22 other schools, 13 research institutes and the graduate school.
They say that one of the university’s most famous quirks is something called The English Corner where, every Friday evening, people gather at the Qiushi Garden near the east gate to practise their English.
It being only 7.30 in the morning I am surprised to find a group of students shivering in the morning cold, shouting out lines from a play in English. Perhaps they are getting themselves ready for an evening performance?
Just a little further on there is another group warming up for the day with a spot of Tai Chi. Don’t you think anybody normal would just stay in bed for an extra half hour rather than face the bitter cold that has been gripping Beijing for the past two weeks?
The campus itself, though, is quite charming. With ponds and trees and sitting areas, someone has gone to quite a bit of trouble to make the place welcoming and attractive.
They even seem to have taken a leaf out of the Beijing Olympics area with their “witty” notices…
… but I fear that yet again Google Translate has let them down somewhat. (I worry that Mr Google’s translation machine has a lot to answer for in this country!)
Wikipedia tells me this area is a good place to “meet and communicate with the students of the university and the common people of China”; but there aren’t that many common people around at this early hour, let alone any of the “1,165 international students, many of them from South Korea”. (In fact there are apparently so many South Korean students that the International Students Dining Room has a separate Korean menu aside from the traditional Chinese one.)
Renmin University is a popular destination for visiting foreign dignitaries too. During his state visit to China in January 2008, the then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Renmin with Premier Wen Jiabao to talk with students, scholars, sportsmen and entrepreneurs. Thank God I arrived in Beijing 30 months too late. What a dreadful thought to have bumped into that Scottish moron. I pity the Chinese students who were probably hand picked to feign politeness to old Gordie.
I am awoken from my reveries as I walk past a sculpture of immaculately dressed students hanging onto every utterance of their wise old lecturer; and for a moment I imagine myself pronouncing to the masses from my vast store of locked up wisdom…
But the dream soon fades back again into reality. Time marches on, though; and with no sign of a journalism school anywhere remotely near the right of the western gate, I am glad that I have already agreed to be met by a student who goes by the name of Da Wei.
I’ve hardly had time to text him that I have arrived before I am greeted by a smiling face and escorted from the west gate in a leftwards direction. The School of Journalism is ahead of us, but we veer off into another building, walk up two flights of stairs and find our way to Room 307 immediately opposite the communal loos.
Amazingly my little laptop works straight away when plugged into the A-V system of Room 307 and I am told how cute my bright orange loudspeakers look protruding out from behind my red PC.
The students stifle yawns as they drift in to find a seat and I feel positively sorry for them – to think I am responsible for disturbing their beauty sleep. But I guess if it hadn’t been me, they would still have had to haul themselves out of bed to listen to somebody else. Amazingly they are smiling; all 25-30 of them; and they continue to smile, even when I open my mouth and they realise they have to cope with an English accent, rather than an American drawl that Chinese have been brought up to believe is the “real English”.
I tell them about Marconi. I play them an extract of Jeremy Paxman bullying Michael Howard; I play them an extract of Robin Day bullying Sir John Nott. I play them extracts of Maggie Thatcher being bullied by a common person whose name she forgets; of Dame Nellie Melba (still clutching her handbag as she warbles), of Radio Normandie, of 2MT, of Lord Haw Haw, of Caroline and 270 and Big L and Veronica; of Capital and LBC, and of course of the Empire and General Forces and World Services.
And before I know it my three hours are up before I have even got to the end of my beloved PowerPoint Presentation.
But they want me to go on. They demand that I go on. I am not to be allowed to stop.
I continue spouting forth, filling the room with pithy insight into the independence of the BBC. I answer their questions.
They want more.
I tell them about being arrested in Saudi Arabia after broadcasting on Saudi TV.
They still want more.
I tell them about smellavision, about foldable video screens, about thought transference experiments.
Finally the dinner bell goes; I am already into my fourth hour of performance. But these are students through and through. Food beckons. Finally the dulcet tones of your favourite blogger start to lose their appeal when weighed up against the thought of lunch.
These are Chinese students, though, through and through. No rushing off the way British students would undoubtedly have done. They clap, they thank me (while looking at their watches) and edge out of the room leaving behind a hard core of half a dozen who have obviously been hand picked to ensure that I am able to find my way off the campus.
But first I must pose for the obligatory photographs with the professor who has originally invited me.
I tell the hard core six that I will be unlikely to lose my way over the 150 metre walk in a straight line to the west gate; and bless their cotton socks you can see the cogs turning over in their brains that on the one hand this foreign devil probably speaks the truth, but on the other hand they were volunteered to escort me out. But reason finally prevails. They don’t want to find their portion of chow has been dolloped out to someone less deserving, and as I accelerate my pace to put distance between me and them, they wave goodbye and turn on their heels toward the canteen block.
On the sports track, a whole load of students are already warming themselves up for a marathon afternoon session of study as I slope off to the subway station and head for home. It’s been a good morning. I’ve decided I like Renmin University and I like its students.