Finding Love in China.
Over six years of visiting China I ate some pretty odd stuff, much of it completely unidentifiable. I still wince at the memory of sea cucumbers — sea slugs — and of 100-year-old eggs. Sparrows’ brains never did it for me although snake and camel were quite tasty. I have a horrible feeling that I did eat dog once ... and I definitely tried mare’s milk cheese which was nose-smartingly strong.
One thing I never ate, knowingly, was hedgehog.
In 1988, together with PBW, I wrote a book called China By Rail. Dad wrote the first, technical, chapter and took the photographs and I wrote the rest of the book. From that came the ITV documentaries Manchuria Express and Slow Train from China and it was while making those that I met Henry.
He said he fell in love with me on day three while we were filming in a marketplace in Jilin in Manchuria. It was full of bright colours and crammed with fruits and vegetables, medicine stalls with dried frog and snake and even weirder stuff, stalls groaning with spices and wooden cages packed with live chickens.
As I wandered around, being filmed by the crew, I saw a man walking along with a curled-up hedgehog in his hands. Ning Fang, our interpreter, told me he would have bought it for supper. She didn’t see anything wrong with that but, soft, unrealistic Brit that I was, I rebelled. It just goes to show how strong cultural influences are. In the UK we don’t eat hedgehogs so it just felt terrible.
‘Ask him how much he wants for it,’ I urged her. With a shrug at these strange foreigners, she did. He was willing to sell it though she told me that it was probably for twice as much as it cost him to buy.
I didn’t care ... but as I was filming I had very little money on me so I asked each of the crew in turn to lend me some cash. They all refused apart from Henry who emptied his pockets for me.
With the transaction completed, I took the hedgehog back to the hotel in a carrier bag. No one but Henry would go near me, the rest of the crew were muttering about fleas but he was plainly intrigued. That evening, I hired a taxi to take me out into the countryside to release the hedgehog back into the wild and Henry offered to go with me.
We drove for about 20 minutes until surrounded by fields full of young corn. Then I told the driver, in my pidgin-Mandarin to stop the car and walked out into the greenery, hedgehog in hands.
Just as I rolled it gently out on the ground there was a shout and to my horror what was presumably the farmer came running out of nowhere.
Hastily I got back into the taxi and we drove off while the farmer shook his fist at us. As I looked out through the rear window, he was raking through the corn to see what I had done.
He probably found the hedgehog and it most likely ended up being his supper instead of the first man’s. I was horrified but there was nothing I could do. I had done my best, soppy girl that I was.
Henry said very little the whole time but he told me later that this was the moment when he made up his mind to make me his wife. He thought I had a kind heart and would make a wonderful mother. Unfortunately, he was the one who would be needing both of those, not our children.
Our wedding was in the Seychelles. This was before package weddings abroad became popular but we both loved adventures. Henry wasn’t interested in a church wedding and I wouldn’t consider a register office. Both his parents were dead and all that was left of his family was a brother with whom it would only be polite to say he had ‘issues.’ Most of his friends were ex-girlfriends or came from within and around the media and, most likely, would be away on any given date so, if we had been married in the UK, my side would have outnumbered his by about 100-1.
Running away to a tropical paradise seemed be the best bet. My folks didn’t mind. My Mum was agoraphobic and my Dad probably heaved a sigh of relief at how much money he would save. It was all arranged via our family travel agent, the miraculous David Ibbotson who had fixed trips for Whitehouses in parts of the world that didn’t even admit tourists yet and had got Dad, Michael and me into Argentina only two years after the Falklands Conflict. I was quite satisfied because all the wedding documents referred to a ‘minister’ and Henry thought it would be wonderful to be married on a beach.
Then, three weeks before we were due to leave, I discovered that ‘minister’ on the travel documents meant ‘registrar.’ This will come as no surprise to anyone who has got married abroad in the 21st century but to me it was a bombshell. As a fully paid-up Armchair Christian who subscribed to St. Augustine’s prayer of ‘God grant me constancy, chastity and patience — but not yet’ I wanted to be married by a priest. It was the first wedding for both of us after all so it wasn’t as though I was asking too much.
There was an alternative: we could have had a swift wedding at my family’s church where my Mum still went but I didn’t like the vicar, hadn’t been for years apart from at Christmas time, it felt hypocritical and it would all have to be horribly rushed. Suddenly it seemed that this just wasn’t going to be the wonderful, romantic wedding that I had hoped for. I was devastated.
I’d found out on a Friday and, by the Sunday afternoon as Henry left my house in Birmingham for a late-night shift in London, I was a complete mess. I waved him goodbye miserably and, as his car turned out of the road and I turned to go back into the house, I heard church bells tolling for Evensong.
They were the bells of St. Peter’s in Harborne, just down the road and, almost without thought, I grabbed my coat and bag and got into the car to drive straight there. I wasn’t even sure exactly where the church was located; I’d been there just once for my brother’s wedding years before. Hah! That seemed horribly ironic at the time, but something just drove me directly to that church that evening. It never occurred to me that it might be an incredibly selfish thing to do to turn up at a strange church and pray for a miracle. It didn’t register that I’d been the agent for my own karma in deciding to marry far away from family and friends and choosing the un-trodden path. I just knew I had to go and I had to pray.
So I stood and sang and knelt and prayed all through Evensong at St. Peter’s. I prayed for any kind of miracle that would mean that I could be married by a priest in the Seychelles in less than three weeks’ time.
Just before the end of the service, the vicar, Rev. Michael Counsell, said this:
“And prayers for the Church throughout the world, particularly our sister Church St. Paul’s in Mahé, Seychelles.”
At the end of the service he must have thought he’d been attacked by a wolverine. I introduced myself by saying ‘You don’t know me from Adam, but I’m getting married in the Seychelles in three weeks’ time and I desperately need your help.’
He listened kindly as I explained the problem and invited me round for coffee the next day when he would discuss the matter with me further. He thought he could help, he said.
The next day I tumbled over myself trying to explain the miracle that had taken me to St. Peter’s to hear him speak. Michael listened patiently to my inarticulate apologies for not having been to the church before and how much I wanted to be married in the sight of God even if I didn’t actually go to church.
‘I suppose you say those prayers every week,’ I said, finally tailing off.
‘No,’ said Michael. ‘Not at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever prayed for the Seychelles in church before. It just came into my head to do it. That’s why you’re sitting here today. I said it for you to hear. That’s how God works.’
Michael gave me the phone number of his old friend from seminary, French Chang-Him in Mahé.
‘You phone him and tell him that you’ve spoken to me and ask him if he will marry you at St. Paul’s. I’m sure he will do it,’ he said.
I went away hopeful. Oh dear God, you have given me this chance, please let the vicar in the Seychelles agree!
I telephoned the vicarage in Mahé that very day and Rev. French Chang-Him answered the phone in a beautiful well-modulated voice with a strong French accent. He listened to my garbled story and my plea. He thought for a while and asked me a couple of pertinent questions. Then he answered:
‘If my friend Michael Counsell has recommended you and, if he will give you and your fiancé pre-marriage counseling, then I will bless your marriage. Come and see me for tea on the day after you arrive in Mahé and we will arrange it.’
‘Thank you so much! Where do we come?’
‘The Bishop’s Palace. Everyone knows where it is.’
‘The Bishop’s Palace? You work there?’
‘Yes, didn’t Michael tell you?’ said French Chang-Him. ‘I’m the Archbishop of the Indian Ocean.’