John Walsh Column

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The Independent Online
For today's foreign correspondent - that intrepid breed of reporter beloved of film directors from Hitchcock to Oliver Stone - the only place to be right now is Hong Kong, in the run-up to Independence Day on 1 July. Britain's about-to-be-former colony is currently pullulating with hacks of all shades and conditions, busily tacking between the New Territories, the Governor's residence and the Mandarin hotel, canvassing street opinions, interviewing nervous Western bankers, trying to second-guess the mood of the Chinese authorities in the wake of Mr Deng's demise ...

Or then again, not. What most of them are doing, it seems, is trying to break into the movies.

Perhaps inflamed by the sight of Jonathan Dimbleby prowling the streets with his camera team while filming The Last Governor, his television documentary on Chris Patten, to be shown in the early autumn, the assembled hacks have been queueing up to appear in Chinese Box, a feature film that uses the colonial handover as the verite background to a love story.

It's directed by the charmingly named Chinese auteur Wang Dam (who made Smoke, screenplay by Paul Auster) and stars our own Jeremy Irons as a television journalist who deserts his beloved for the far-from-inscrutable charms of Gong Li, dreamboat star of Farewell My Concubine. The script, which started life as a Paul Theroux story but dropped his services somewhere along the line, calls for J Irons to roam the streets with a video camera, filming picturesque views of the skyscrapered anthill and talking to his fictional journo peers. A small army of hacks have, in consequence, been volunteering themselves as extras, and smartening up their act (new macintosh, new spiral notepad, new packet of Players) in the hope of being immortalised on celluloid.

To help the selection process, Irons was invited along to the Foreign Correspondents Club to meet some distinguished scribes. But sadly, according to my man in the Chinnery Bar, although Irons drank a lot of tequila, he was "not over-impressed with the quality of the people he met". Blast it! Back to the word processor, chaps.

A charming rider to this story is that the lovely Gong Li recently had to take a break in filming in order to attend a vote. As well as being one of China's top actresses, it seems Ms Li is an important member of the Chinese people's party, the National People's Congress, and had to hit the division lobby in Peking under the Chinese equivalent of a three- line whip. Somehow one cannot imagine this sort of double career happening to Gillian Shephard.

Should the editors of Social Trends, the fascinating yearly investigation of the nation's behavioural patterns, be interested in the state of middle- class enjoyments, I may be able to help. I took part the other night in a fund-raising auction (indeed, I played auctioneer in frock coat and poncey waistcoat) at our local school in Dulwich, where the things under the hammer weren't objets d'art but "Promises". Eighty donors promised to do, or to arrange, certain things for which others (ie, the rest of the 80) would pay large sums of money.

Visitors from distant galaxies would have been intrigued by the range and variety of bourgeois undertakings: lots of baby-sitting, dog-sitting and nanny services, naturellement; orchestra-loads of music lessons, and tuition in singing, Scottish reels and that peculiar step-to-the-left business called "line dancing"; several hundredweight of carrot cakes and birthday gateaux in exotic post-Jane Asher configurations; plenty of informative trips to museums for other people's doubtless enthralled children; scads of homeopathy sessions and Massage with Essential Oils; lots of self-improvement courses, from German conversation and stress management to acupuncture and Internet surfing (the latter has achieved a spurious cachet among the vodka-martini classes of SE21 since last week's news that the Queen has allowed a bearded colonial to show her the ropes on the World Wide Web). Various servile activities were curtly offered, as if through their proposers' clenched teeth ("Three hours' gardening"; "A bag of ironing") along with items which, in their naked utilitarianism, went straight to the heart of south London life (promises to re-pot your plants, or sew name-tapes on school uniforms).

In addition to these heady prospects, you could bid for a flight to Le Touquet for lunch ("lunch not provided"), courtesy of a raffish parent with a seven-seater Cessna, or go fly fishing at a secret trout stream on the River Wey. But marketing departments everywhere will be glad to know that Holidays and Meals Cooked By Someone Else remain the most enthusiastically regarded treats in the national psyche. Offers of catered dinner parties were snapped up at top speed; while the top bid - somewhere in the mid- hundreds - was paid for a week in a cottage in Aldeburgh. God, it was all so British. I could have sworn I made out the figures of Betjeman, Britten and Rupert Brooke sitting amid the gesticulating bidders. It must have been the wine ...

As far as I'm concerned, Graham Swift can do no wrong; but I wonder if the Australian professor John Frow, who accused the Booker laureate of plagiarising William Faulkner, might have a point. Of course it's a bloody cheek to walk off with somebody else's "structure" and build oneself a house in its image. But if we are to snipe at Mr Swift for "borrowing", ought we not to belabour Mr Faulkner's mouldering remains for doing some borrowing of his own? The plot of As I Lay Dying - a dead man's closest associates ferry his remains through a lovingly described landscape to a mysterious and fantastically symbolic final resting-place - is, of course, a total rip-off from Idylls of the King, a mournful Arthurian epic by Tennyson, who himself pinched it shamefully (and without any knowing winks and nods in the text) from Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Whether the dead person winds up in a barge, an urn, a Mercedes or a cart, it's the same narrative trajectory. But once you start looking into "borrowings" in literary history, there's no stopping.

I dunno. Next they'll be saying that Joyce got the idea for Ulysses from someone else.