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Chairman Mao Tse-tung: A case mistaken identity

The feline Chairman Mao Tse-tung came into my wife Charlotte’s life—and, by extension, my own—at the very time that the all-too-human Chairman Mao Tse-tung was approaching the point of departing from his.

China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, a political cataclysm that had turned Chinese society on its head, destroying great swathes of its economy, committing millions of its citizens—many of them intellectuals—to harsh “re-education” camps and directly causing the deaths of millions more.

To diplomats, intelligence analysts and foreign correspondents, the obsessively secretive nation remained an enigma. Yet at the same time, it was clear a political upheaval was underway, destabilizing the body politic in a way that presaged radical changes at the very top.

Senior bureaucrats were running around like headless chickens. Even so desperate, but not wholly convincing, efforts were being made to persuade the outside world that, politically, all was stable, and that the “the Great Helmsman” (as Mao was obsequiously dubbed) was still calmly, but resolutely steering the ship of state.

In a bid to quash rumors that Mao was on his death bed, photographs were circulated to the media purporting to show “the Great Helmsman” swimming serenely in the Yangtze River.

This, in fact, did nothing to quell the speculation that Mao had shuffled off this mortal coil because whoever produced the pictures made an amazingly ham-fisted job of it. Even the most gullible could see they were simply cutouts of the Great Helmsman’s head pasted on photos of the Yangtze.

That’s the trouble with cultural revolutions: It’s hard to find folks with essential skills when you need them. They are either dead, in “reeducation“ camps, or undergoing “reeducation” up to their knees in the muck and night soil of rice paddies in remote rural villages.

At the time all this was going on, thousands of miles away, the other Chairman Mao—the Great Ratter, not the Great Helmsman—was settling into our new pied-à-terre in London’s Belgravia district, just around the corner from Harrods, the famous department store.

As we both worked as foreign correspondents at the Financial Times headquarters just opposite St Paul’s Cathedral, the location was ideal for both of us—a mere 10 minutes on the “tube” or, if we were feeling flush, a two dollar cab ride.

It was a spacious apartment on the third floor of an imposing brownstone, with plenty of things n it to keep a young cat’s mind occupied. But Chairman Mao, being an adventurous fellow, wanted to go exploring. And he got his opportunity when a friend, visiting London from the U.S., inadvertently let him out of the front door.

When the friend telephoned to report Mao missing, Charlotte had just finished work for the day at the Forbes magazine bureau and was planning to join me in the FT’s bar, prior to attending a diplomatic reception at the Romanian Embassy, a couple of blocks from our new home.

In those days all of the major London daily newspapers had bars on the premises, presumably to save editors the bother of scouring local watering holes to locate absent staff.

The in-house bars were convivial places with a long- standing tradition for hospitality. Newsrmen and women customarily entertained not only “news sources” but also large numbers of colleagues from competing dailies and other news media.

Mao’s disappearance was deeply worrying. He was an “indoor cat” with absolutely no experience of city traffic and our apartment was on Pont Street, a busy thoroughfare that crossed the even busier Sloane Street, a favorite destination for fashionable shoppers.

Beside herself with anxiety, Charlotte dashed down to the FT bar. “Mao’s gone!” she announced at the top of her voice.

I understood exactly what she was talking about. We had repeatedly warned her ditsy friend not to leave the door to the apartment open when she went downstairs to collect the mail.

The other journalists in the crowded bar, however, were quite unaware there were two Mao Tse-tungs in the worlds, one of them living in London.

Utter silence followed Charlotte’s announcement. Then, in a flash, the bar emptied as, drinks abandoned, the denizens raced back to their own offices glean details of the Great Helmsman’s demise from the news agency tickers.

“Oh gosh,” exclaimed Charlotte ruefully, surveying the empty bar and abandoned glasses, “What have I done?”

When we arrived home, we found Mao curled up unharmed at the bottom of the outside basement steps. The only real damage arising from the episode was that done to my wallet—the cost of the drinks our friends had abandoned in their madcap dash from the bar.

It was also inevitable, I suppose, that when eventually the other Chairman Mao went to his final reward in Beijing, colleagues called to warn Charlotte that she couldn’t get away with the same prank twice. GPH✠

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