It is unusual in the extreme for a statesman to be an artist of eternal significance.
Churchill was a great man who loved his art. His studio at Chartwell, the family home, stands stacked with oils which are famous because a statesman painted them. They are lovely, light and unremarkable unless one notes that they were painted by one of a handful of men who saved the free world.
I suppose someone like our Baron Jeffrey Archer of Western-Super-Mare has turned out to be a successful novelist: at his zenith the Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party, his books have sold around 125 million copies. A flamboyant and resilient figure, Lord Archer has faced bankruptcy and spent a term at Her Majesty’s pleasure for perjury, but has made enough to live in a distinctive penthouse on the South Bank of the Thames in London.
His writing is unfailingly popular. He tells a cracking yarn. But great literature? Not in my book.
But if you go back a few thousand years it is possible to find a man who did both.
Qu Yuan was a prominent minister in the Chinese state of Chu. Born of a noble family, he was fiercely loyal to the Chu province. He watched the Qin state, a mighty but voracious power, in its quest to dominate the six other Chinese states, and he began to campaign for the smaller states to form a defensive alliance.
But Qu Yuan had another side to him: he was a bewitching, captivating, peerless poet; a man of words which reach across the millennia to tug at our hearts today just as they did in 300 BC.
His passion and commitment attracted the kind of attention these charismatic leaders often do: that of the small-minded and the jealous, who see truth and envy it. They discredited the minister with the king, legend goes, robbing him of support, counsel and the power to change anything.
And so he did what we all do when the world turns sour. He went back home.
And he turned to writing, and stories, legends and poems: always with a fervent and heartfelt love for his country at the root of his creation. He wrote some of the greatest poetry the world has ever heard.
Which makes me wish fervently I read and spoke Chinese. Translations are few and far between and the poem’s interpreters seem desperate to convert his words into verse. But the bare beauty of them sits within the gilded cage of the English language, staring sadly outwards.
One of his last and greatest poems is The Lament: a poem not about love, or death, or any of the usual poet’s fare, but about country, about the machinations of political evil, about how evil men can conquer good, and about how a powerless man may make his mark.
Recognise these characters?
“Insatiable in lust and greediness
The faction strove, and tired not of excess;
Themselves condoning, others they’d decry,
And steep their hearts in envious jealousy.
Insatiably they seized what they desired,
It was not that to which my heart aspired.
As old age unrelenting hurried near,
Lest my fair name should fail was all my fear.”
It is said that Qu Yuan became increasingly dejected. FInally, the enemy state of Qin captured his country’s capital, Ying. The poet’s heart was broken: but he had one last card to play.
He took a great stone and waded into the Miluo River, taking his life not in defeat, but as anguished protest at the loss of his country’s soul.
He was that strangest of entities, a beloved politician. Nearby villagers, watching, were desperate. All that they could do was ensure that their minister’s afterlife was happy. They got into their boats, taking dumplings into the middle of the river; they splashed the water with their paddles and beat drums to keep away evil spirits from his body, and threw rice into the water as an offering to him.
He was gone. But ever since then, the rivers of the world have beat with drums in his honour, and today the boats which sail in his name even navigate the River Thames, thousands of miles and years away from the place Qu Yuan took his life.
The boats are called Dragon Boats. They usually have a fearsome dragon’s mask or some such figurehead on them. My friend Lydia joined a local dragon boating team a year or so ago, and takes a paddle on Sundays to glide long boats through the brown waters of the river, bound for London.
I had never set paddle to river before yesterday. The boys with whom I work went for their regular Friday afternoon kayaking trip, and I went with them. I sat with four pupils and an instructor, pushing a boat through the waters, and was enchanted by this silent form of travel, gliding along a great waterway, with no wind to speed us; just our own muscle power.
We passed barges, and black swans, and even a mooring for Tescos. My instructor often paddles down there to shop, she tells me. A whole new life was here, on the river, if one were willing to put the graft of a Chinese villager into one’s travel arrangements. This brown water is good for the soul.
As the paddle splashed the water I could not help but remember the statesman poet, and the river’s part in his story.
And I resolved to find one of his boats and paddle in his honour, one of these days.