Even the great and verse-obsessed poet Yang Lian says “friendship first, poetry second”. There are many of the highest things in life at which China excels (food and poetry being two that leap to mind) and the greatest of these is friendship. It’s more than simple hospitality, lavish though this is. What you experience in China is closeness, kindness, and boundless generosity. The friends I met on the first Poet to Poet in China have barely changed. Perhaps there are a few grey hairs among us all, but Xiaodu, Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming look as youthful as ever. And the warmth between us also remains unchanged after all these years.
TRUST ME! Yang Lian ended his emails with this battle cry in the early days of organising the festival. Trust and friendship are central to people in China. They matter to me too and perhaps this is why I feel comfortable in China, even when things may seem strange or chaotic or your schedule may change beyond recognition on a sixpence or you may be faced with turtle soup…..
Our trip was as much about friendship as it was about poetry. As perhaps both of these are kinds of love there is no conflict between them. I am so grateful to have made some of my best and strongest friendships in China and to see the years only deepen them.
So this post includes photographs of some of our friendliest moments. Not all of them: sometimes I didn’t have my ipad and on these occasions Bill Herbert stepped in as official photographer… an act of heavenly friendship in itself.
Chief among these moments for me is Mrs Gold’s scouring of Yangzhou for a panda for my daughter. Our schedule meant that there was no time for shopping and I knew I could not return home without a panda for Lucy. Mrs Gold knocked on my hotel door at 9am the next morning with TWO pandas, one of them so large I had to buy a new suitcase. She would not accept any money for them. It was an act of friendship. My daughter almost died of ecstasy when she saw Bao Bao… And I kept the other for myself to remember Mrs Gold.