Talking about China in the Berkshires; Simon Winchester at Home
Simon Winchester, the Oxford-trained geologist turned bestselling author, became renowned with his inspired much-touted The Professor And the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and almost equally praised for Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883. The latest of this prolific author’s 17 books, The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom, has just been published, and it seems a worthy heir. “Winchester plunges the reader into the action with hardly a break,” assayed Publishers Weekly, in its starred review. “Another formidable, absorbing reading experience by the versatile Winchester…makes scholarship positively sexy,” gushed the often withholding Kirkus Reviews. This shouldn’t surprise, given Winchester’s long reputation as “lyrical” and “indefatigable” (Newsweek), “extraordinarily graceful” (Time), and an author who “could probably write circles around most writers on the planet” (San Francisco Chronicle Book Review). Though he’s traveled the world and was a journalist in Asia for years, Simon and his wife Setsuko Winchester (a former NPR producer) spend most of their time in their light-suffused, 1782 Colonial/ 1820 Federal house on 65 acres in Sandisfield. He’s got a tractor, a vegetable garden, a barn-studio, and sun-dappled westward views. Shortly before he and Setsuko set off for the Faroe Islands in the deep Atlantic, the happily landlocked Winchester talked about his new book to another writer, Sheila Weller, author of Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—And the Journey of a Generation who, along with her husband John Kelly, author of The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, comprise most of the writerly population of that physically huge (53 square miles) but sparsely populated (under 800) southeast Berkshire County town.
Q: How did you come across Joseph Needham, the man who loved China?
A: Oddly enough, in this area—Salisbury, CT.
About 15 years ago. I was writing a book about the Yangtze River, and I was wanting to know about the type of junks that managed to go up against the current, and they obviously had to be very fast and fleet. And I was asking somebody in New York, who knows about ships, where I would find information, and he said, “There are two obvious books.” The second [of those books he mentioned] was Volume 4, Part 3 of Science and Civilization in China by Joseph Needham. I hadn’t heard of it.
The next day I happened to be at a bookstore, now sadly defunct, Lion’s Head Books in Salisbury. When I told the shop owner Mike McCabe I hadn’t heard of Needham’s book he said, “Shame on you, because he wrote this extraordinary book, in 24 volumes.”
He went downstairs and found a volume that he had, which happened to be volume 4-5. So I sat in the car reading it, and it answered all the questions I needed, but it also happened to be the most extraordinary piece of literature, and I thought, He’s written not only this, but 23 others! So I thought I’d write a book about him one day.
Q: What were the most important things that he did?
A: The most important thing he did was that he changed, almost single-handedly, the way we in the West view China. Up til the time that he started his work I think we were very disdainful of China, considering it the sick old man of the east. He made us realize that it was a place of which we should be in awe. And we have been ever since.
We’d been terrified by China. And he was the man who changed the whole hemisphere’s way of thinking, above all else. He was many, many other things as well – he wrote a stupendous piece of literature, and he was a master of his college at Cambridge and an extraordinary womanizer – a remarkably colorful man. But that one achievement above all else: To change the way one half of the world felt about the other half.
Q: Your book has come out right before the Bejing Olympics. What from historical China – WW II China – do you see mirrored in the China we’re dealing with now?
A: This is the most extraordinary thing, the sheer rapidity of this change, which began in the 1980s when Zhao Ziyang became the leader and said, “Rich is glorious.”
China has, for the last three or four hundred years, and this is what fascinated Needham, has not been very productive. Has been backward, and allowed itself to slide into poverty. The empire collapsed in 1911 with all these foreign countries – Britain – snapping up Hong Kong. But now, with the exception of Taiwan, she’s got her country back. And she’s rocketing up with astonishing speed to the forefront of world powers. And she has made several mistakes: Tibet is one. Pollution is another. But she’s run by very, very intelligent people. And I think China is acknowledging the missteps she’s making. But, as Napolean said, “China is like a sleeping dog. Do not wake her, for when she wakes, the whole world will tremble.” Well, it is waking.
Q: Your books are about disasters and adventurers and iconoclasts. They’re all fascinating. They’re all worldly. Is there a common thread, other than that?
A: I’m still, in terms of writing biographies of people, looking quite keenly for people who have been forgotten but who have made a huge contribution to human society. W.C. Minor in The Professor And The Madman is a classic, as was James Murray, the editor of the dictionary. They’re sort-of-forgotten people who deserve to be resurrected. And, of course, William Smith was the first of these three geology books I did – similar fellow, he was totally overlooked…in fact, ruined.
So, if I have a mission, resurrecting these people is that..
The other geology books – Krakatoa and The Crack In The Edge of the World, about the San Francisco earthquake: I think they came about largely because, in a way, they’re a sort of aberration: they move away from what I’ve tried to do for the last decade.
Q: And you were a geologist?
A: Yes. That’s the important thing. I’d written this book about William Smith [1769 - 1832], who created the first ever geological map, and his tragic story, in The Map that Changed the World, and my editor said, “You know, you actually managed to bring geology alive. Why don’t you look at a couple of other geology stories.” So there was Krakatoa, and that was very successful. And then there was San Francisco. But I think those were the only three.
Q: Is there another forgotten person you want to write about?
A: There are thousands. But that’s not what I’m doing next. I’m doing a big biography of the Atlantic Ocean.
Q. Fascinating! Have you begun it?
A. Yes. I have to deliver it next year, so I have a lot of traveling to do, as you can well imagine.
Q: Congratualtions on becoming an O.B.E. [Order of the British Empire, which was conferred upon Winchester by Queen Elizabeth in 2006]. What happens when you walk into the Southfield General Store here; do they bow? [LAUGH]
A: No, they don’t. People who know about it joke about it. Of course fellow Brits say that O.B.E. stands for “Other Buggers’ Efforts.” [BOTH OF US LAUGH]
Q: Okay, let’s tout Sandisfield a little bit. What three things do you love most about Sandisfield?
A: Well, I think the reason I chose to live here is that it has the look and feel of England. In fact, quite by coincidence, I know quite well, in England, the family which has given the town its name, the Sandys [the Earl of Sandys], [one member of whom was] a minister in Anthony Eden’s government. So there’s that.
And there’s the physical beauty of the place. And the peace and quiet. And this growing nucleus of fascinating people. We’ve all known there’ve been fascinating people in the Berkshires for a long time. But now Sandisfield, which had been the forgotten southeast corner, is starting to attract the kind of people that I really enjoy being with. So it’s intellectually stimulating, physically beautiful and secluded enough
Q: And, of course, a pair of top designers – who are in Vogue every month—just bought a gorgeous home on rolling, sheep-strewn, stonewalled hills here in Sandisfield. But we’ll keep that a secret for a while.
Okay, so moving to the really important questions….
Q: As was recently asked of Obama: Stones or Beatles?
A: Oh, Beatles! A hundred percent!
Q: Guido’s or Citarella?
A: Oh, Guido’s! Without a shadow of a doubt!
Q: Bizen or the Waverly?
A: Bizen, because my wife Setsuko likes the pottery. [Bizen chef/owner Michael Marcus studied authentic Japanese pottery-firing and cuisine.] [LAUGHS] You’re asking impossibly easy questions – no doubt at all! I mean, if you’d said Bizen or the Spotted Pig, that might have been harder…
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to get in about your book, that I didn’t ask?
A: Yes. Joseph Needham was banned from this country for 25 years because he was a Communist and he did something very foolish in 1953. He agreed to investigate Chinese and Soviet charges that the U.S. had used biological weapons during the Korean War, and wrote a report saying they had. And for saying so was excoriated everywhere (except the Communist countries, who put him up to it), and banned from the U.S.
The ban was lifted in 1978.
In retrospect it looks so stupid that anyone should ever be banned for his political affiliations, or for what they stand up and say in public. So in a way, this book resurrects someone who was for a long time condemned for his left wing views. I think America has broad enough shoulders now to embrace any view that anyone chooses to express.
And I hope this thing never happens again.
And I think Obama is part of this new breed.
And what’s frustrating is: I can’t vote. I still have a year and a half before I gain my citizenship, and that’s going to be a real life-changing moment for me: to fully embrace this country that I like so much.
I cannot wait for that.