Madam Miaow on the radio: Reith lectures, China and the Body Beautiful

Hmm, I was going to video me performing the following poem and stick it up on YouTube but after Tuesday morning you won’t be able to check what I’m on about. So until I get around to it, I’m posting the poem here.

This year’s Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4 were given by Prof Jonathan Spence on the subject of Chinese Vistas and the producers had asked me to attend the three UK recordings (one of them was in New York and they weren’t springing for a trip, boo!). The idea was that I ask questions as one of the named guests. Just so happens that the first two coincided with my lovely St Ives trip leaving the last one: China and the Body Beautiful, dealing largely with the Olympics.

It was an opportunity for Chinese to participate in public life, in the culture, so I went along. And the result is as you see below. I did get to speak right at the end of the programme.
Fourth Reith lecture. Chinese Vistas: The Body Beautiful Hurry up, though. Only available to listen until Tuesday morning.

I was excited
I’d been invited
To The Cultural Media Event of the year.
The annual Reith Lectures.
Not just to consume and admire
But to speak and aspire.
A BBC for the BBC,
The British Broadcasting Corporation
Had invited me
A British Born Chinese
To pose a question at the Reith and
Have it considered by great minds across the ether.
To participate like I was one of Them, “In the fold”,
A sui generis in the mold
Of a new rising force in the country
To talk about a new rising force in the world,
This year’s topic: China.
I’m a BBC for the BBC
New on the block, unfathomed, free,
Off the peg, ready-made,
Waiting all my life for the day
I would be called.
No longer the barbarian at the gates
The burglar in the hall
The Eastern invader
The Mongol Hordes
I was at Lords Cricket Ground
Hallelujah! I was lost and now I’m found.

I was excited
A troth was plighted.
We were recording the show on the hallowed estate
Of the MCC for a national debate
For the flagship BBC radio channel
Lords Cricket Ground, knackers
Under wrap in flannel
White male wet dream anachronism
Balls polished
The crack of willow
Against leather
Thwack! Eee-er, eee-er
The whack and squeal of balls polished again
And again.
And again.
Nuthin’ strange there, then
That’s just white men
And their normal ways.

I was excited
I was delighted
Before kick-off
The swanky reception
Nibbling at canapes
Perfecting my conception
Of tonight’s subject: China and the Body Beautiful, sport, the Olympics.
I’m cutting flab, tightening syntax.
Drinking sensibly
Coz red wine
Can dull the mind, make you whine and slur
And forget what spurred
You on in the first place,
Can make you forget your words,
And we all know you cannot drink and drive
Your words home.
I worked hard at them,
Every last moment
Chiselling my mini-masterpiece
A polemical miniature
In a nutshell
Educating and entertaining
Just the way the Man said it.
Institutional bores can shove it
I know Lord Reith, father of the BBC,
Would love it.
So I craft my infotainment gem
Making it short enough
To survive the edit
And to my credit I was
Shorter by a country mile
Than some of the waffling and pontification
And plain love of their own voice of authority
We would be hearing that night.

I was excited
A wrong was righted.
I am walked into the room
And put in my place,
No longer faceless in the crowd
But up front and proud
In the first row.
There it is,
A sheet of A4 with my name in big black second-coming font
Reserving my seat.
I’m on heat at the sight
I’ll be up all night remembering this.
Too cool to take a photo like a tourist
I take a snapshot with my mind
And store it in my inner iPhoto album
Titled – “Victories I have won”.
Only two photos so far.
This one and the fistfight when I was six.
I will be called to speak
By the chairperson who has read my gist
I am told she has me on her list.
I will be called by the legendary “Sue Lawley, Sue Lawley”
BBC Radio 4 stalwart, arbiter and queenpin.
I look around and check what fine company I am keeping.
Director generals and chairmen abound
I am the only Chinese Chosen One around,
Expected to speak
For the fraternity
An entire race depends on me.
I wonder who will win.

I was excited
My goal was sighted
My name’s on the chair
Who says the system’s not fair?
I plant my behind on my name
Like I am sitting on my own face
Kissing my own butt
Better mine than someone else’s
But I don’t mind, the establishment’s kind
If you are ultimately a Truth seeker.
Sue Lawley starts the show,
Introduces the speaker
On the subject of China and the Body Beautiful, sport, the Olympic games.
My eyes are alight, my thoughts aflame.
“Professor Jonathan Spence
Of Yale”.
My admiration is immense
I have his books, he makes a lot of sense,
Knowing what’s right, defending the poor,
Twenty minutes later
He ends with me longing for more.
Yay! (applause)
Sue throws it open to the floor
And picks her first questioner.
It’s Sir Sumthin’-Or-Other
A god on Mount Olympus
Or high-up in the Olympics committee
Same thing this evening
And he talks and he talks
I don’t understand
Even though English is my first language

Sue calls the next and the next til they all merge into
One red-faced, pink-eyed chubby well-fed bundle of done-thinking, done-feeling,
My head is spinning, my senses reeling.
“Blah, blah, blah
Human rights
Blah, blah, blah,
They hate the disabled, you know”
(Coz in Britain we’re supportive of our weak and our old)
“Blah, blah, blah
Whine, whine, whine,
Moan, moan, moan
Tibet or not Tibet
That is the question.”
If that is the question, the answer is surely not to bet
The farm on feudal theocracy.
I thought we all wanted democracy.
Hey, that’s what you said.
Now you’re telling me China ain’t parta the civilised world?
Somewhere a Union Jack’s unfurled.

Coz this is the country of Magna Carta
No longer.
The authorities here are growing stronger.
The Meaning of Life is 42
42 days detention without charge
42 days of your life writ large
42 days without a home
42 days because politicians lost their back bone.
Rendition to a torture zone
Your wife and your kids don’t know where you’ve gone
Guilty until proved innocent
Where sucking your teeth while black is an arrestable offence
A copper scrutinising every email you ever sent
Gotta fuck for food, steal for rent
Freedom of speech? What a cheek!
Satan could sue the bible for libel
Get a million pound payoff and a House of Lords title.
DNA records, CCTVs,
Media frenzied heeby-jeebies,
Asbo-land, tapping phones,
Booming business, crippling loans
For school fees in the land of the free
Hey, why you picking on the Chinese
It’s not us starting World War Three
You’ll free this land?
Iran, Iraq, I scrammed.

I was benighted
The night was blighted.
The Professor talked about Chinese physique
Once thin and attenuated, deflated and weak,
Now growing in stature, reaching its peak,
In pride, in power.
No wonder you’re all sour.
The only monster here has eyes of green
Ain’t that the saddest thing you’ve ever seen?
It’s late in the hour,
Still Sue Lawley calls the faithful of
The Rational Front
One by one
They lecture us on human rights
When we’re giving up ours without a fight.
What happened to the Body Beautiful, to sport,
What happened to tonight’s topic, in short?
Yikes! What’s happening to the time?
They had their turn now I want mine.
The ticking clock counts down
Time dessicates and runs through my fingers
Only five minutes to go and every contributor lingers.
Everyone speaking sounds white and posh
Braying and wittering and talking tosh.
One Chinese woman sneaks in from the floor
And lands a killer punch on one of the bores.
Good for you, sister.
Oh god, we all look the same.
A producer gesticulates, “Sue, you missed her.
That’s not the one. She’s over here,”
He’s pointing at me.
But Sue doesn’t seem to see.

I thought I was set-up
Now I’m being ignored
No chance for a comeback on my question
No time to explore
No opportunity for illumination, expansion,
Gotta make every second count
Breathe in deep
Feel the tension mount.
Pray my soul to keep calm,
Stick to the truth you won’t come to no harm
I. Stick. Up. My. Hand.
The only guest to have to do it.
A humiliation, I knew it,
But it was a dirty job and someone had to do it.

Sue doesn’t announce me
That’s OK
I still remember my own name
And I do it for her

Deep breath
“Thank you Professor Spence.
I am tall, robust,
And not at all attenuated. Sadly.”
A ripple of laughter
“And my feet are size seven. Unbound.”
Louder laughter, I love that sound,
The wake awakes.
“I’m a BBC …”
And Sue who has already explained eloquently
What a BBC is, dives in and asks me to explain
In case someone mistakes me for British Broadcasting Corporation.
“British Born Chinese,” I assure
Although I could equally have said more,
I could have said “I presented a series on Radio 4, Sue.
On the history of the Chinese in Britain so I’m a bit like you,
A BBC and a BBC”
But I don’t. Coz that way madness lies.
“Sorry, Sue. Enough about me.
Ahem. I couldn’t help noticing
The Chinese smurfs who guarded the Olympic flame
Were tall, healthy, handsome, hot …”
Sue interjects again,
“This is entirely subjective.”
Yes, Sue. It’s subjective coz it’s my question.
“Ahem, tall, healthy, handsome, hot,
Reeking stamina,
Pounding out the miles on foot
While, the bobbies on bicycles … were not.
This reverses the stereotype of the Chinese as small and plain
Due to a genetics rather than diet and confidence.
I also noticed …”
Sue interrupts a third time, the bum’s rush,
“Hurry up, please, we’re running out of time.”
Well, whose fault is that, Sue?
I’ll give you a clue
I think it’s you and where you put me in the queue.
I smile. Deep breath. I have worth.
“I also noticed the hostility towards the Olympic smurfs
Bore no relation to what we saw on camera.
Is this reaction part of a wider fear,
Of the Chinese becoming physically stronger as a metaphor for economic strength?”
A ripple, a murmering and a stirring at length
Brains ticking, souls whirring,
Hearts thumping, me purring
As my arrow finds its target.
We have communication.
The professor smiles and has his say
But it’s all too late in the day.
Sue draws the night to a close.
Thwack! Eee-er, eee-er.
Whack and squeal
That was the sound of my balls being polished
Into oblivion.
Women have balls, they’re just higher,
Ethnics have wit, we’re just drier.
Sue’s so snippy, I mustn’t look chippy,
I wanna fight back coz I’m not a damned hippy.
An ectoplasmic wraith of my hand snakes out
And grabs the Fragrant One by her swan-like throat
“Take your goddammed claw off my balls, you goddamed creepy-crawley,
Sue Lawley,” I think to myself.
Hear that laughter, Sue?
They heard something new
And an earlier inclusion might have allowed
An outcome more in line with Lord Reith’s intentions,
To inform, entertain and explain.
Instead of retreading the same old lack of invention.
Boring, worn, turgid,
A political agenda
Turning every Chinese into a China defender.
Instead of sticking me at the end a the show.
I offer you something new.
But Sue, you never write, you never call,
You don’t see me at all.
A BBC for the BBC
Wreath Lecture

All four Reith Lectures on Radio 4
Reith Lecture transcript here

Off to St Ives on Wednesday for a stand-up gig at the opening night of their first ever comedy club. Wish me luck, guys.

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

7 thoughts on “Madam Miaow on the radio: Reith lectures, China and the Body Beautiful”

  1. What a wonderful poem! It was gutsy, ballsy and full of wit.

    The establishment figures are full of… excrement..Funny how they like to ignore the trampling of civil liberties i.e. 42 days and good old blighty’s intrepid boy’s only guide to imperialism and colonalism.

    Good luck, comrade, at St Ives…

  2. That was a great intervention, and you’re really onto something there about sporting success as a metaphor for the balance of economic power. Funny this was at Lord’s, cos the Brits still haven’t got over the Indians being the coming superpower in cricket.

    Did you get to see the Ashes btw?

    Loved the poem, too. A performance would be great.

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