A fellow traveller

JUNE 20 03 – Scanning documents is a pretty boring activity, and I don't plan to make a habit of it, save now and again, but I have long thought that Arthur Waley's 1933 essay The Book of Changes should be on the web, so I am now pleased to be able to say I have put it there. Some of Waley's ideas are a little dated now, and certainly speculative, as I discuss here and there in The Mandate of Heaven, but nonetheless Waley's essay was a complete eye-opener to me when I first read it, I suddenly realised that interpretation of the Yijing was not set in lead but was completely fluid and that in the past 3000 years not everything had been said, in fact, far from it.

My introduction to Arthur Waley came when fellow bibliophile Jonathan Wood (who some will know as the publisher of 'Netherwood' and 'I-WAS') very kindly sent me the gift of an old copy of 'More Translations from the Chinese', first published in 1919, a follow-up to '170 Chinese Poems' of 1918. The paper was very rough, war stock, but I loved that book like a favourite childhood annual. I took the earlier book '170 Chinese Poems' with me in my rucksack to the Scottish Highlands. I had the good fortune to bump into a clansman sheltering in a mountain bothy (Bynack Stable Barn past the Fords of A'an), he was a fencing champion and, rather oddly, fluent in Persian and something of a polymath.

We shared the bothy for the night, and his hip-flask of black rum. Squally hail pelted the corrugated iron roof like handfuls of rice. I shivered and dried off watching shrews nibble on crumbs. As night fell the peaks blended out of sight, you only knew they were there because the stars ended jaggedly way above 'the horizon'. Arthur Waley cropped up in the conversation and I dug into my rucksack and showed him the book. Much to my surprise he was informed on ancient Chinese history, his word-perfect quotation of Confucius left me silent for a few moments pondering his extraordinary breadth of knowledge. But he had not read Bai Juyi (Po Chu-i) so I was delighted to read him a few of my favourite poems. In the morning as I was standing in the doorway of the bothy looking at the view in the drizzle, he took from his pocket a dirty folded piece of paper and asked me to read it. It was a poem. He pointed out that it was written by a man standing exactly where I stood now, looking at what I looked at now.

'I know,' I said, 'I read it before I came here, it is the reason I am here.'

'It's a funny old world,' he said.

We stood looking at the beginning of the day, dour and not a pleasant prospect for travelling. He seemed to sense my reticence, he took a deep intake of breath and answered a question that had been on my mind:

'If you canny go up the hills in the wet weather,

You'll no go up a fine day in the purple heather.'