This story, like so many stories, begins with a gift. The gift, like so many gifts, was a book—and the book was given to me by a man called Don, with whom I became friends in Beijing during the autumn and winter of 2000. Don and I were working as English literature teachers in a university on the west side of the city, third ring-road out. Our students were mostly the sons and daughters of high-cadre officials: if you mentioned Tibet or Taiwan, 30 faces dipped to their desks. We taught our syllabus from a fat crimson-jacketed anthology of English literature that reframed literary history, Chinese Communist Party style. Literature was functional, and its function was the advancement of the Maoist project. Wordsworth the revolutionary was included, but not Wordsworth the late-life conservative. Oscar Wilde starred as socialist but not as aesthete. Ezra Pound didn’t make the cut, for obvious reasons. Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ was the most important Victorian poem.
Teaching with The Big Red Book, as we nicknamed it, was hard work. It was easy to forget that literature might be there to thrill, perplex or amaze, rather than only to instruct. What kept me honest was Don. Don turned 60 that year. He was from San Francisco. He was tall, just starting to stoop. He dressed Kerouac-style: black jeans, black leather jackets, white T-shirts. Pebble glasses, short grey hair standing up in spikes. Small, sharp, wonky teeth, which you saw a lot of because Don talked so much and laughed so much. Fast, rat-a-tat questions-and-answers, or long think-pieces spoken at several words a second, but without ever making you feel like he was taking more than his fair share of airtime.
Don was from a blue-collar background in California, and had met poetry at the City Lights Bookstore in his early twenties. It had changed his life. He’d heard Ginsberg read. He’d hung out with Ferlinghetti. He’d worked night school and then part-time at a state college to get a degree in literature as a mature student. But eventually he couldn’t afford to live in California and teach the texts he loved, so he’d switched to Beijing where accommodation came with the job, and the basics were cheap. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone with a higher-voltage passion for books than Don. Literature wired him. When Don read, he crackled.
. . . .
On the seventh morning I heard Don get up early and walk around the house. The front door closed. I guessed he was heading to the market. I went to the kitchen to make coffee. There was a neatly wrapped present on the table, with a card. I read the card. He’d gone to Edinburgh, hadn’t wanted to wake us before leaving. I felt a quick punch of guilt. He’d loved his stay with us, he said, and had left a few small tokens of thanks.
The present on the table was a copy of Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. I walked into the other room. There was another present there, propped up against a lamp: a CD of West Coast jazz. And then in the room in which I worked, on my desk, was the third and last of his presents. It was a paperback copy of a book by Patrick Leigh Fermor that Don and I had talked about once in Beijing, drawn to it by our shared love of walking (which Don mostly did in cities, and I mostly did in mountains). Its title was A Time of Gifts.
If you’ve never read A Time of Gifts, may I urgently suggest that you buy a copy as soon as possible, or better still ask someone to give you one as a present? Together with the two books that follow it—Between the Woods and the Water (1986) and The Broken Road (2013)—it tells the story of Leigh Fermor’s legendary walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s, started when he was just 18, and constituting what is fondly known by Leigh Fermor’s many modern admirers as “the longest gap year in history.”
Link to the rest at LitHub