Obstacles are built to go round or over. If you think an obstacle is a deterrent or a barrier, then it has defeated you, already.
When I was 14, my family moved from a small town in the west of Ireland, to the capital city, Dublin. I was half way through my ‘intermediate year’, I suppose fourth grade, if you’re talking High School terms. Back then, classes were determined by an assessment of your academic capability so I was sent to a strange school and into an ‘A’ class where everyone was one year older than me. But by then, I was a veteran of adversity.
Writing has been a passion of mine since I was six years old. In that year, I started my own school newspaper. It was four pages in length and was completely handwritten and then printed on a hand cranked Gestetner. I was in charge of editing and printing as well as reporting, news, sports and miscellaneous school affairs.
After a couple of years and about ten editions – hey, it was hard work and it was a sleepy town – I turned my attention to foreign affairs and international relations.I took a particular interest in the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, after seeing a Life Magazine article with pictures of people being paraded, in apparent disgrace, wearing dunces’ hats while young people, in gray pyjamas, marched and shouted, stridently, waving little red books that were, by all accounts, the fountain of great wisdom from the mouth of their leader, Mao Tse Tung, or Mao Zedong, as he’s now known.
So I wrote a letter, addressing it to ‘The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China, London,’ as there was no Chinese embassy in Ireland and, explaining that I was the editor of a school newspaper in the west of Ireland and requested they send me some information about the People’s Republic and particularly, the Cultural Revolution. I said I wanted to understand what these people had done, the people in the dunce’s caps, to be paraded in disgrace and then sent for ‘re-education.’ I forgot to tell them I was eight years old, it didn’t seem relevant to me although, in retrospect, it may have been a mistake. I didn’t tell my parents, either.
Two weeks later, a truck pulled up outside my family’s home from which a forklift truck emerged to deliver a weighty crate that was left on our front lawn since the entire house was too small for its contents. When I arrived home from school, my mother and at least two dozen neighbours were standing around this imposing monolith, scratching their heads. I remember recalling this scene when I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, Space Odyssey. My mother told me to get in the house and wait until my father got home. Which, to be fair, was what I would do, anyway, as my father worked at the nearby airport which was too far away and out of bounds for eight year olds. But I didn’t question her instruction or her logic, I went with the flow and held my counsel.
My father, as it turned out, arrived home sooner than was expected and he arrived with company. The police, as it turned out, since it being a small town, news of a town citizen, albeit an eight year old, receiving crates from the People’s Republic of China, got around. The crate was opened, carefully, a local constable keeping prying neighbours at a safe distance. In hindsight, I’m surprised the army wasn’t called in but those were innocent days.
The crate, it turned out, contained four dozen massive portraits of Mao Zedong and about as many, again, celebrating landmarks of the Long March of communism and its war against Imperialist Dogs, Paper Tigers and several other enemies of the people of China, including a class of dogs who were always running, hence their name, Running Dogs of Capitalism. There were 500 copies of the Quotations of Chairman Mao Zedong, the same little red books so popular with the teenagers in the grey pyjamas and another 500 copies, for distribution, apparently, of The Peking (now Beijing) Daily News, conveniently and helpfully, I thought, translated into English.
I was paraded out to witness what I’d brought upon the good, Catholic citizenry of the town, as though the very presence of these documents would by a magical process of ideological osmosis, turn the entire population into an army of pyjama clad commies. And as the contents of the crate were debated and plans were hatched for a public bonfire, I managed to snatch a copy of the wretched red book, a copy of the condemned Peking Daily News and two of the posters, one of the aforementioned chairman Mao and other of a great dam building project, constructed, apparently, singlehandedly and heroically, by those same grey pyjama clad youths as their other hands were always full with a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book.
The bonfire went ahead that evening, in a field behind our house. There was much merriment and cheer, judging by the noisy whooping that went on, well in to the night. I was not allowed to participate but was sent to bed early, without supper, despite my plea for bread and water, to fulfill my martyr for truth status.
Two days later, when I, as it turned out, misjudged popular sentiment, a special edition of my newspaper was printed, outlining, in detail and editorial outrage, this flagrant attack on the freedom of the fourth estate that, I estimated, was close to Nazi book burning in the 1930s. I was, I must admit now, a precocious pup. I featured an analysis of Mao’s book of wisdom and expressed my outrage at the imprisonment and public disgrace of intellectuals, teachers, lawyers, lecturers and scientists by wet behind the ear, power tripping, brainwashed children in ill fitting and ill matching grey pyjamas. But my pleas went unheeded and I was marched home, in disgrace, by the headmaster of the school. All copies of my newspaper were confiscated and destroyed. Worse still, further publications were strictly prohibited.
Undeterred, I held my counsel and bided my time. Fifty two years later, I am proud to say I spent 25 of those years in pursuit of the truth, as a journalist. It was no obstacle, it gave me inspiration.