Invisible Ink: No 129 - Arthur Ward

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The Independent Culture

He seemed an ordinary working-class fellow with an interesting middle name (Sarsfield), born in Birmingham in 1883, where he grew up to become a civil servant. Early photographs are unassuming, but compare them to his later pictures, when he appears in a silk dressing gown, puffing on what looks like an opium pipe: what happened to transform the conventional Mr Ward?

This is where mysticism and more than a little showmanship come in. In 1907, a moral panic about white slavery appeared in Chicago when a group of evangelists handed out leaflets at a brothel, warning of women being abducted as "white slaves". It was reported in the UK, and five years later, Ward's first proper novel capitalised on the panic.

After working as a songwriter and a music hall comedy sketch writer, he had hit upon his big idea; changing his name to the more exotic Sax Rohmer (he claimed that the pen name came from the Saxon for "blade") he created a supervillain, the evil Dr Fu Manchu, the "Yellow Peril" bent on world domination. His nemeses were the crime-fighting duo Denis Nayland Smith and Dr Petrie, who hurtled around Limehouse trying to prevent the oriental crimelord from dispatching powerful figures with poison spiders, germs and snakes. The lunatic pacing of the books turned them to gold, and the apocalyptic plots were suited to a country sliding into war.

Ward worried about perceived racism in his novels, but it wasn't really an issue; there were only a few hundred Chinese working in the East End, and far from plotting world domination, they operated laundries. The cocaine menace with which the stories were laced did not exist, as the drug was legal, usually imported from Germany.

Ward was an adept showman, and encouraged his readers to believe that there were mystic powers attached to his literary skills. He joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and wrote supernatural stories that helped to foster this exotic image. In the process he became one of the most highly paid and widely read authors in the English language, but it was easy come, easy go; he gambled at Monte Carlo and made bad investments. Meanwhile there were books, stage shows, comics and radio serials. Fu Manchu reappeared on film in the 1960s with Christopher Lee in the lead role; by then, the stories were treated as nostalgic period pieces.