On the subject of picnics, I made several literary references and a reader has asked if I ever came across Enid Blyton at my “Hong Kong nursery”. The answer is that I never read her in my childhood nor even adolescence because I didn’t learn English until I was 13. There is a gaping hole in my English literary knowledge of children’s legends and nursery rhymes.
Then I came across Roald Dahl, but not as a children’s writer, but as the author of many short “tales of the unexpected”, all of which I hoovered up as a student of English. They were written in simple English and as a master storyteller, Dahl made me desperate to get to the end to find out the statutory surprise. He and Agatha Christie, Nevil Shute and Captain Johns, the creator of Biggles, all subliminally shaped my fluency in English. It was only afterwards, as a young man, that I caught up with Dahl’s children’s stories and I adored Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I subsequently translated into Chinese when I was teaching at Peking University in 1983. By that time I had fortuitously got to know Roald Dahl as a friend and I asked him if he would give me his blessing for the translation, notwithstanding the absence of any copyright royalties since China was not part of the convention then. Initially, he flatly refused, but not only did he change his mind later when I recruited a couple of Chinese children’s writers to beg him to make available his works to the children of China, he wrote a special foreword to my translation with a very warm and embracing message to Chinese children readers. It wasn’t an easy translation, especially with the English word puns Dahl used and I had a particularly hard time translating “the square sweets that look round”.
Several readers have continued to call me a snob, which I don’t think I am. If I were to be a snob, however, I would only be snooty against those who think they are super-snobs, especially those who imagine that money could propel them to a higher status. So if I am a snob, I only like to bring irritating snobs downwards. I enjoy catching out those who have “petrusophilia”, ie: a delight in name dropping. Whether I know the names dropped or not, I usually say something like, “O yes, so-and-so is a very good friend of mine, too, and I must mention to him that we have met. What’s your name again?” This threat usually exposes a slight alarm in the name-dropper whose bluff is being called. My own view about name-dropping is that the context must be one that makes the celebrated name crucially relevant, and it helps if the name dropped were to be a real friend. I was once asked who a “real friend” is. I have come up with an arbitrary test which requires at least three ticks before you can qualify as a close friend to someone:
1. Have you been on holiday with them?
2. Do you have their mobile and home telephone numbers?
3. Have you been for dinner or stayed at their home and vice versa?
4. Would you be comfortable telephoning them in the middle of the night or early at the weekend, without an emergency?
At the end of the day, only the bourgeoisie worry too much about snobbery. The aristocrats live in their own surreal world and the lower classes generally don’t give a toss. So the charade of discussing who is more important than whom, or if one has shared a fleeting moment with some celebrity, continues in our superficial world, chiefly among the BMW and Audi classes, with their magnolia trees on forecourts that are not large enough for a marquee.
. . .
What do you think of party planners? They now seem to be ubiquitous at any largish event, especially with hosts who are loaded and don’t care much about spending however much.
Generally, I despise party planners whose main forte – or fault – is giving advice on how to please the host and not paying enough attention on how to please the guests. The only party planners worth their salt are those who persuade the host to appreciate that the best parties are the ones thoroughly enjoyed by the majority of the guests and all the arrangements should be catered on that basis. The worst are those who trot out the standard hardware (marquee decorated with contrivance), yet pay little attention to all the software (meticulous service to guests). The more money there is to blow, the more reason the party planners should spend it on the guests and not the hosts.
To post comments and questions, please visit ft.com/life-arts/david-tang