The Man who died Twice. The Life and Adventures of Morrison of Peking. Peter Thompson and Robert |Macklin, Allen & Unwin, 2004. pp 380.
This review was written on May 18th 2005
I found myself in the reading and writing doldrums at the end of April and during the month of May, although I did read The Man who died Twice which is an account of the life and adventures of the Australian journalist, George Morrison, who lived for many years in China. The book was given to me by Neil and Elaine Race, our friends from Melbourne, who were staying with us for a few days. Because of the reputation he earned as the inspired correspondent of The Times in China, he became known as Morrison of Peking.
He was a man of extraordinary energy and courage who undertook and appeared to enjoy marathon journeys on foot. On his own he crossed Australia from Victoria in the south to the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north, returning on the same route, and making hazardous journeys in New Guinea and across Asia from the East of China to India and the approaches to European Russia. These marathon journeys were accomplished during his earlier days. The first few chapters of the book deal with his Australian and New Guinea adventures and with the more tragic experience of others who attempted the same journeys. He was then still in his early twenties and his story was an incredible account of courage, endurance, luck and indifference to danger or hardship. The reader cannot but wonder how he survived his early adventurous years of lonely travel and exploration.
While his personal story is of interest, the real value of the book as far as I was concerned was the insight it gave into the machinations and the aspirations of the European Powers in Asia and particularly in China. It was the time of or just after the scramble for Africa by the European Powers, so ably described by Thomas Pakenham in his history of the same title. The Morrison account underlines all the tensions which existed between the European Powers, including Russia, in their various relations with the eastern Asian countries, illustrated particularly by their attempts to establish enclaves on the Chinese mainland and islands, and to exert political and economic pressures on the Chinese people. China at that time was a huge primitive, multiethnic, and politically backward subcontinent which was vulnerable to the predatory incursions of the more advanced and brutal Japanese and of the more distant Europeans.
There is an interesting description of the Boxer Rebellion which occurred and struck Peking like a thief in the night at the end of the 19th century. It was a spontaneous and inflammatory reaction among the Chinese Left to the presence and undue influence of foreigners. George Morrison played a highly significant part in the defence of the many Europeans and some Chinese Christians who were isolated for a few months in their enclave in Peking where they were under continuous threat from the Chinese army and mob. Morrison also, through his advisory role, later played an important part in defending the Chinese and China mainland from the predatory ambitions of Japan at the turn of the century. He became devoted to China and the Chinese people and, as the officially appointed adviser to the Chinese Government in his later career; he wielded an important influence in determining the political evolution of the country and its relations with other powers.
Morrison died at the age of 58, apparently from a chronic progressive condition highly suggestive of cancer. He had a laparotomy some months before his death because of loss of weight and energy, and mounting abdominal symptoms. The conclusion after this procedure was that he suffered from inflammation of the pancreas but it was much more likely that he had a malignancy of the pancreas, a notoriously progressive and fatal disease. One was struck by the different opinions proffered by his many doctors during his last year, and by the very poor standards of diagnosis which existed among the profession. Even much later, during my early years as a student and young doctor, the standard of diagnosis was very poor among physicians and I have previously observed (in my review of the biography of King George 111) that the greater the ignorance among my teachers and preceptors, the greater the arrogance. I believe this failing is endemic in all human behaviour.
A Times colleague, Lional James, wrote after his death about Morrison’s many-sided greatness, his seriousness elevated by his humour, his dignity and infinite capacity for taking pains, his unerring memory, his cold judgement on men and matters, his peculiar vanity (and what successful men are not vain?) and his pride in his native Australia.
On looking back one wonders just how futile were the pressing policies of the European nations who competed so urgently for the wealth and favours of the less developed Asian countries, and of the many wars, both big and small, which were fought and engendered by patriotic greed and paranoia. And one wonders also if we have learned anything from the copious history of these and other days.
The biography of Morrison is worth reading and portrays a picture of a remarkable man of greatness of character and courage. The book provides a splendid and educational gift to one’s growing family.