The greatest show on earth

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Indy Lifestyle Online
During the War, when a relation of mine was doing things in aeroplanes so terrifying they hardly bear thinking about, he had a friend called Tom. Tom was American, and black. One day, on leave, my relation took Tom home to Westmorland. They drove overnight from their air base and arrived in time for breakfast.

The farm on which my relation grew up was a bit on the isolated side, wuthering on the side of a fell: the kind of place Stella Gibbons would have made a meal of. It's called an Area of Natural Beauty these days. As they bumped down the drive, the door was flung open and the housekeeper emerged.

My relation got out of the car and was greeted enthusiastically. Tom pushed open the door on his side and unfurled his rather large body. The housekeeper stopped in mid-sentence and stared open-mouthed. "Hello," said Tom. "I'm Tom." She screamed, ran into the house and locked herself in. It took some time to coax her out. She had never seen a black person before.

I've just been in Beijing and, though no one actually screamed and ran away when they saw me, I've certainly been something of a tourist attraction. If you're knocking six feet tall, blonde and built like the proverbial outhouse, you tend to be noticed when you stray more than a couple of time zones from home. Normally, it's children who start gawping and giggling. I've never seen quite such exaggerated reactions from adults before.

Beijing, by Third World standards, is a pretty happening city, of course. You can tell by the forests of neon outside every factory or restaurant, the man-made fibres in garish colours, the public displays of affection and the rampant pollution. The children - Little Emperors - toddle around in leather coats, gold jewellery and lipstick. The roads are so full of Mercedes that recruitment to the traffic police has been unable to keep up and you see plastic statues of coppers looking stern at some of the lesser junctions. Kentucky Fried Chicken has a huge statue of Colonel Sanders and McDonalds is marked on all the tourist maps. Even the Swiss have interests in hotels there.

The local population are pretty used to Dabize (Big noses) and quite fond of our wads of cash and inability to bargain. The only attention you get from Beijingers is when they're trying to sell you something. Once you've handed over your yuans or said "bushaha", which means roughly "go away, I don't want to buy your scuzzy postcards of the Summer Palace" for the third time, bing! the lights go off behind the eyes and they show as much interest in you as in a telegraph pole.

But Beijing is also the home of Tiananmen Square, the place, according to large signs posted around its perimeter, that all China longs for. Presumably that includes Chinese students as well. What this actually means is that every yokel in the country passes through there at some point on a package tour. The top-range package tours also include entry to places like the Forbidden City, but many of them seem simply to take you to the square to queue up in front of the tomb of the chairman. And wander around saying "Wah".

Tiananman Square is a seriously big mother of a place. It's so big that, in the sulphurous fog that envelops the city, you can't stand at one end and see the other. It is full of people in suits with hairdos: it is obviously de rigueur before a trip to the holy of holies to dress up in your Sunday best and get a perm. Yes, the men still have perms in China.

I first noticed that I was causing something of a stir when two men walked round me in a full circle, then stopped and reversed. They stared at my size nines, said something to each other, laughed and walked away. They were wearing shiny grey suits and sandals, and they were staring at me. Three old men in Mao suits tapped their womenfolk on the shoulder and thumbed at me. The ladies clutched their handbags close for safekeeping, and their heads swivelled as I walked past.

We were gazing up at the great gate which used to top the drive to the Forbidden City, when I noticed a commotion around my feet. Tottering there was a Little Emperor dressed from head to toe in fake Osh Kosh. He was small enough that he still had the slit in the crotch of his dungarees which the Chinese use instead of nappies. And he was bawling.

A few feet away crouched his parents: a camera clutched to the man's chest. They were grinning at the child and gesticulating to him to walk further from them, closer to me. I folded my arms and raised the old quizzical eyebrow. She glanced up and our eyes locked. She squeaked. He looked up. They both assumed innocent expressions, beckoned to the child and rushed off. But they followed me at a distance until they got their shot. Imagine the snapshot session back home: "This is memorial to heroes of people. This is tomb of great chairman. And this is this giantess we saw in Tiananmen Square. Dressed all in black. Tall as willow tree. The feet as big as dragon-headed pedalos on lake at Summer Palace."

Every time I go to the Third World things like this happen. On the Spirit Way, two men grabbed each other and simply pointed at my bosom. They didn't say anything, just stood pointing until I had faded into the distance. And if I'd charged the audience which gathered in the doorless public loos, I'd probably have been able to afford a pack of postcards at Dabize prices. I was thinking of hiring myself out for documentaries, actually. Anybody need a freak of nature?

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