Sometimes it was dangerous to be where he was. But, as he explains on the first page of Eyewitness, he had a guardian angel—or at least, a guardian reptile. “When I was a child I was haunted by a green dragon. Where he came from and what he was doing in my life were mysteries I did not a attempt, but I had no doubt of his existence to unravel and I was certain that he watched over my welfare.”
That is exactly what he seems to have done all through the author’s life, protecting his Charge from harm at every turn—especially in China and the far east, where both Payne and the Dragon seemed to feel most at home.
Here’s a sample of the exorbitant ease with which Payne glides through life: First deciding he will become a naval architect like his father, he enters Liverpool University, leaves after two years (having, in that brief time, mastered German, Russian, Italian and Polish [Polish? Who can master Polish?], journeys to London, meets British novelist and mystic Charles Williams on the train. Payne’s lucky green dragon must have been sitting in the seat next to him.
Listen to this: “I had been translating Yuri Olesha’s novel Envy from Russian (in off-moments, one surmises) and he sent me off to Leonard Woolf, who published it at the Hogarth Press. I was writing a novel,” he adds, about an uprising in England called The War in the Marshes, and he sent me off to T.S. Eliot, who published it at Faber and Faber. ‘All things are possible under the Mercy,’ he said. The Mercy often wore the face of Charles Williams.”
You see how easy it is? It’s all a question of getting on the right train and into the right compartment—with a gentle nudge from your dragon-familiar (and we’re only up to p.8 in the book!).
Only a few months later, in te autumn of 1937, Payne is in Munich and, having acquired a letter of introduction to Rudolf Hess, is taken for an entertaining chat with Hitler where they eat cream cakes together and talk about England. At this point Payne is still only 26 years old.
After this the luminaries fly past like villages outside a train window. Payne escapes unscathed from Hitler’s invasion of Austria, travels to Paris, where he meets Herbert Read at the Coupole, and through him meets sculptor Jacob Epstein, exiled Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva ad Spanish artist Jean Lurcat, whose ministrations set the young writer-reporter on the road to the Spanish Civil War:
“How on earth [Payne asks Lurcat] does one go to Spain?”
“It’s the simplest thing in the world” Lurcat tells him. “You have only to telephone the Spanish Ambassador” And then he makes the call for Payne himself. The next thing he knows, he’s flying in a ramshackle airplane over “the reddish earth of Catalonia.” In 1938, after a year with the Republican forces, Payne flies back once again to Paris—making his way from there, by steamer, to Singapore.
The bulk of this breathless, enthralling book is about Payne in China—in Chungking, mixing with the leaders of the Kuomintang, teaching naval architecture (from 1943 until 1946) at Lianda University and at Fuhtan University in China. In 1946, he meets and interviews Mao Zedong. Then he’s off to India to hang with Nehru. And of course he writing books and producing translations all the while.
It’s a wild ride—and it’s both exhilarating and exhausting. Oh wait, I forgot to mention that he marries an exquisitely beautiful Chinese princess—Rose Hsiung—and goes to live with her for a while in her ancestral palace in Peking. He writes a couple of books while he’s there.
The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler
The Dream and the Tomb: A History of the Crusades
The gold of Troy; the story of Heinrich Schliemann
The Life and Death of Lenin
The Horizon Book of Ancient Rome
The History of Islam
The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry
The Holy Fire: The Story of the Fathers of the Eastern Church
The Fathers of the Western Church
The Crusades (Wordsworth Military Library)
The Life and Death of Mahatma Gandhi
The Civil War in Spain
Lawrence of Arabia
The Rise and Fall of Stalin Mao Tse-tung
The Splendour of Greece
The White Rajahs of Sarawak
The Three Worlds of Albert Schweitzer
Hubris ..a Study of Pride
The Great Garbo
The Great Man: A Portrait of Winston Churchill
The Making of the Christian World
The Great Charlie
Dostoyevsky: A Human Portrait.
The Lord Jesus
The Splendor of Persia
The life and death of Trotsky
Ancient Greece - The Triumph of a Culture
The Roman Triumph
The story of "Q"
The Marshall Story, A Biography of General George C. Marshall
The Canal Builders; the story of canal engineers through the ages
The Corrupt society: From Ancient Greece to Present-day America
Rome Triumphant: How the Empire Celebrated Its Victories
The Christian centuries from Christ to Dante
Journey to Persia
Lost treasures of the Mediterranean world
The World of Art
By Me, William Shakespeare
Alexander and the Camp Follower
Chinese Diaries, 1941-1946
A portrait of André Malraux
Eyewitness; a personal account of a tumultuous decade, 1937-1946
The Roaring Boys
The Splendour of Israel
The Three Worlds of Boris Pasternak
The Triumph of The Greeks
The Terrorists The story of the Forerunners of Stalin
The Great God Pan: A Biography of The Tramp Played by Charlie Chaplin