The China Run, the Scottish writer Neil Paterson’s account of the life of his great-grandmother, Christian, a sea-captain in the China trade, is a slim volume of ninety-five pages. I’ve read it at least half-a-dozen times, each time with immense pleasure in both the story and the style. Christian (1829-1893) lived an obscure life in the port of Banff on Scotland’s east coast until in 1845, when she was sixteen, a strange ship arrived, its Captain fell in love with her and took her back to his home port in Wales. I won’t tell the entire story here, but she turned out to have a gift for navigation, and by the time the window of an exotic, adventurous life closed for Christian in 1863 when it was proven in court that a woman was not a fit person to have command of a ship at sea, to represent Her Majesty in her trade abroad and to hold a position of authority over men, she had successfully traded in China, Australia and South America, survived numerous attempts on her life and honour, fought off pirates and been pursued around the world by the flamboyant American ship’s Master, Tancy McCoy.
Here is Paterson’s account of their first meeting:
‘Of his appearance at least there is no doubt. Christian, descending the stairs from the painter’s attic [where her portrait was underway in Foo Chow Foo] to the saloon, saw him as “a tall, heavily built man, deeply browned by sun and wind, not ill-favoured yet with a reckless air, his cap on the back of his head, and a look in his eyes which I first took to be merry and half smiled to him in answer, but which I saw then to be most insolent, and could have torn the lips from my face in my chagrin.”
‘“Yes,” Tancy McCoy said. “Yes, Ma’am, you should always blush. It sure is becoming. Turn around.”
‘She goggled at him and he nodded encouragingly. “Turn around,” he said, and before she realized what she was about she had turned. Tancy McCoy had that sort of influence on people.’
Her later downfall came about in the usual manner—through the envy and greed of relatives and the judgment of conventional society.
I love Paterson’s comment, when he compares two portraits painted of Christian, one at the height of her adventures and the other thirty years later when she had done her best to fade into respectability: “…I think that a hundred years ago a woman did not have a lot of fun, or if she did she had it for a short time only.”
Paterson had access to Christian’s letters, and much of the tale is told in her own words; but Paterson’s eye for character, and social detail and his clear-eyed response to his great-grandmother gives the story a sweet simplicity: it is beautifully written in straightforward and elegant prose; not a word out of place, not a sentiment too far. It remains one of the best short non-fiction books I have read.
The circumstances in which I encountered The China Run have stayed with me. We were living on an estate in Perthshire, Scotland during a winter of power-cuts. The pheasant soup froze on the stove; my toothbrush froze in the glass. I spent my days in the attic under quilts, writing, glancing at Sron a Clachain through one of the small skylights and at Ptarmigan Ridge through the other. When we were snowed in, and not even the Postie could get through to deliver the mail, and a walk to the farm at Daldravaig was out of the question with the wind howling down the tunnel of the glen, we drank whisky in bed with all our clothes on. M read the whole of McGonnagle aloud to me, but soon we were out of books; there was no library nearer than Edinburgh and we had no money for books even if there’d been any to buy.
I was in the attic working and M was downstairs blowing on the fire when he shouted to me. I went outside. Way down the road, just crowning the bridge by the Hydro station was a blue van. And it was moving. It kept coming; it stopped at Daldravaig, and then we waited excitedly to see if it would reach us. At length—after a long wait, long enough to brew tea for the driver– the blue library van drew up in front of the gate.
We were already in our boots and coats. The driver opened his door. “How did you get here?” I asked him.
“Och, we always do,” he said.
Inside, the van walls were lined with books. I picked at random. It was growing late and I knew he had to be back in Aberfeldy and off the roads before dark.
One of the books I borrowed that day was The China Run. I read it that night and immediately read it again. Eventually, with the help of a friend, we tracked down a copy.
Paterson died in 1995 only about 45 kms from where I’d been living when I first read his book. I’d had no idea, until I looked him up just now, that he’d been an important screenwriter, too, and had written the screen-play for the film of John Braine’s novel, Room at the Top.