Listening to Ghosts

In early September I found myself walking through an elegant square in London’s Bloomsbury. I watched russet leaves drift along the pavements, thought of all the feet that had walked there before me, and allowed myself to embrace the joy of being part of a world I’d always dreamed of.

I was on my way to the ‘open the box’ event for the 14th issue of the Mechanics’ Institute Review, the annual publication from Birkbeck, University of London. MIR 14 is a beautiful book, showcasing new short stories from a range of voices across the UK. The subjects are topical and relevant, ranging from immigration to social media. There are new pieces from Jenn Ashworth and Alan Beard, and a brilliant foreword on teaching creative writing from Julia Bell. And there is my story, ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand.’

It’s a story I’ve been trying to pin down for a while. ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is set in Beijing, in 1980 – a very different place from the city today. Then, the only cars were the lumbering, Russian-made vehicles used by Party officials. The roads were clogged – but with bicycles, ridden by people wearing identical clothes, in muddy colours. There was not a designer outfit in sight. There were no skyscrapers. There was no metro. There were no glitzy bars; no restaurants serving international cuisine to a jet-setting clientele. Everything closed in the evening, in a sort of unofficial curfew.

That world has gone, but the people who grew up with it have not. Now in their sixties and seventies, they are a kind of ‘lost generation’ in China. They have endured every convulsion of the State, from the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, when industrial production took precedence over normal life, to the famine that succeeded it when untold millions died. Then came the Cultural Revolution, and the unleashing of the terrifying Red Guards. Education and learning was suspect; teachers were humiliated and persecuted. Many killed themselves to save their families further suffering. Ancient monuments, including Confucius’ birthplace, were smashed. In 1980, the one-child law was passed, with its terrible and far-reaching consequences. When China opened up to the world, many of that generation dared to ‘invest’ their savings in stocks and shares, and lost everything. They have no money for designer clothes and cars. Their homes have been destroyed to make way for the new China. In their old age, they have only one child to look after them. If they have outlived their child, they face a lonely future.

Back in 1980, the world looked different. For people prepared to take a risk, like Liu, the main character in my story, there was a feeling that this might be a chance to grab what we in the West take for granted: the freedom to think and question, the right to improve our lot in life, and to try to make things better for our children. The right to dream.

‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is fiction, of course. But if Liu’s ghost were walking with me along that Bloomsbury street, I hope he would feel that something of his story is being told at last.



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