As I Was Saying to Joe and Saigo....

As I was saying……..

The first of a new series of columns is different from all others. It needs a particular introductory paragraph, some explanation of choice of title, and an indication of what the contents of the columns is likely to be over the weeks, months or years that it will (hopefully) appear.......

This is by way of being a 'feeling' column (or blog, to give it the more modern description). In other words, it will appear when I feel up to writing. I should say that this is not being done out of indolence or that I prefer to spend most of my time propping up the bar at a local pub. After spending more than 50 years as a writer chained to daily and weekly deadlines I feel that I have earned the right to write at my own pace. So if I miss out on a day, a week or two, or my output seems unduly irregular, hopefully readers will be understanding.

What will the columns be about? Anything and everything.

Why Joe and Saigo? Who are Joe and Saigo?

Joe is here because he lifted my spirits so much during a time when my soul was in a dark and unhappy place. And I also want to pay tribute to Joe's creator, Morton Thompson, writer of one of the greatest collection of newspaper columns ever published – Joe The Wounded Tennis Player. Thompson got there first with the title and ever since I first read his collection of columns I've felt sad knowing that I'll never be able to lawfully write any of my own called Joe The Wounded Tennis Player. However, I'm glad to say I've come close with my own Joe – and Saigo.

Thompson was also the author of two very fine medical novels, Not As a Stranger and The Cry and the Covenant – the latter based on the life of one of the 19th century's greatest medical practitioner’s, the Hungarian obstetrics professor, Dr Semelweiss – one of the world's great unsung heroes, a doctor who saved the lives of millions of women.

But, although I greatly admire the two novels, it is Joe who has always stayed foremost in my heart and mind.

Why Saigo? For two reasons. Firstly, for a time I was a close friend and colleague of Saigo's great-grand-daughter. But, more importantly, because, in a manner of speaking, I regarded Saigo himself as a close friend – despite the fact that he died more than half a century before I was a born.

I spent many a late night walking the highways and by-ways of Tokyo from the bars and clubs in the city centre to what were then the outer suburbs. In the early hours after midnight and close to the approach of dawn, the hustle, bustle and noise of daytime modern Tokyo was a distant memory, and I was alone and engaged in mental soliloquies with Saigo – apart from occasional encounters with isolated gangs of sewer workers – or sharing a cup of tea and a cigarette with an on-duty policeman at a koban (police box) anxious for a chat and a break in his over-night watch.

As a walker I often engaged in mental conversations with all sorts of people – living and dead. But as a writer with a consuming interest in all things Japanese – past and present – Saigo was more often than not my mental companion.

Who was Saigo – sometimes called The Last Samurai ? Well, in Japan everyone knows Saigo Takamori – he is one of the great epic figures from Japan's past, more immediately in the folk memory of the Japanese than Nelson or Wellington are to the British, or Washington to the Americans.

Nelson, Welling and Washington were all heroes – all great successes, even though Nelson died at the moment of his greatest triumph. But in Western eyes Saigo might not be considered heroic at all – more a failure. For after playing a key role in supporting the Meiji restoration and putting power back into the hands of the emperor, Saigo opposed moves by the emperor to modernise Japan and establish relations with foreign countries. He led a rebel army which was overwhelmingly defeated by an imperial army of peasant soldiers using very modern firearms.

Saigo committed suicide – an honourable conclusion to an unusual life. What the emperor Meiji thought of the man who had so stubbornly opposed him can be inferred from the fact that the emperor gave Saigo a posthumous pardon

There is a particular place in the psyche of the Japanese, an understanding that nobility can sometimes be found at the heart of failure – where the head is bloodied but unbowed. In defeat, William Wallace inspired generations of Scottish men and women. In defeat, Saigo inspired new generations of Japanese men and women in war and peace – but, it must be said, there has been a misunderstanding on the part of those who called him The Last Samurai.

For the samurai were not defeated, nor did they vanish. They simply put away their swords, had their hair cut in the western fashion, went into universities or the new Meiji civil service, absorbed every ounce of knowledge from overseas that they thought might be of use in a modern Japan – and organised the fastest industrial and military catch-up programme in history – in 30 years turning Japan from a feudal, backward country into a leading world power.

Like me, Saigo is in some ways an oddball character, which is one reason why he was so often a mental companion on my wanderings in Tokyo during the silent witching hours – and why he is part of this column. Sorry, this blog!


Back to Joe! I first met Joe, in a manner of speaking, on the dust-covered corner bottom shelf at the back of a small second-hand bookshop in, Meguro, a Tokyo suburb.

As well as Joe, I also became acquainted with other interesting characters in the shop including those in one of the greatest western stories ever written, True Grit – hidden away in a bottom shelf given over to ancient magazines, foreign paperbacks – and the occasional mouse. True Grit was in a magazine (Argosy, if I remember rightly) sealed in several layers of dust.

So I always felt a sense of gratitude to the owner for the many peaceful hours I spent in his shop and the even greater number of hours reading the books I bought there.

The shop always had the combined smell of dust, gently mouldering paper and the sharp, acrid fumes from the shop owner's long bamboo pipe with metal bowl which he was forever smoking. It is a peculiar odour that has attracted me to similar back street literary establishments in many countries in the world over the past 50 years. I call this distinctive aroma book-nip – for in its own way it is as powerfully alluring as cat-nip is to a cat.

The books lived in the front of the one-storey building – the owner and his wife occupied the back room. When the shop was open for business the owner sat in the entrance to his living room, squatting by a low table that contained his abacus, a wooden cash box, an ashtray and a book – he was always reading a book, always smoking – looking up only to check a book handed to him by a customer, do a cash calculation on his abacus, and take the money. But despite the impression he gave of being in a far, far away place, a kindly smile always accompanied his thanks and farewell before his eyes returned to his book and the pipe to his mouth.

He wore a brown kimono, that never seemed to change in years. Nor was there ever any alteration in his long, unkempt white hair, wispy white beard and moustache. He was as ageless as a painted figure in a shinto shrine.

Most of the books on the upper shelves were given an occasional dusting with a feather duster by the shop owner's wife, who was as silent as a wraith and only seen when wielding her duster. The occupants on the bottom shelves were left to their own devices, until disturbed by book browsers such a myself who were not intimidated by a little dust.

I owe that book seller an un-payable debt for the many years of happiness he has given me. Wherever the old man's spirit may be wandering now, I know there will be books close to hand, and from time to time the faint whisk whisk of a duster and the clatter of tea pot and cups.


As I was saying to Joe and Saigo Blog - ARCHIVE

01 - As I was saying……..
02 - Store Wars
03 - The Death of a President

04 - Dunkirk – a family affair
05 - When Death says 'Not today! (Part One)
06 - When Death says 'Not today! (Part Two)

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