Barnaby Rogerson on the extraordinary Peter Goullart
Peter Goullart was Russian. He was born in 1902, but his mysterious father died before he was two years of age. He knew nothing about him accept that he was a man of “foreign extraction and an intellectual” who had married his mother when she was 32 years old, against the opposition or her family of prosperous Russian merchants. His maternal grandfather had been a cattle-dealer who had traded in the Eastern Khanates, while his great grandfather had journeyed into the Far East in the trading caravans that exported Chinese tea and silk into Russia.
Peter grew up in a small provincial town, south of Moscow in an entirely female household that included his grandmother Pelagie and his pious Aunt Tatiana. His mother was a free-thinker, a painter, a poet and a psychic, much caught up in the Theosophical movement that looked for inspiration to the spiritual traditions of the Ancient East. Peter’s mother never remarried, and though they lived in a modest village house it boasted a large garden full of apple and cherry trees and small paddocks in which they kept their own cow, pigs and chicken. The nearest figure of male authority was Alexis married to Peter’s Aunt Marie. Alexis was a successful pawnbroker who had progressed to owning a department store in Moscow. He lived in a handsome four storey old white house some twenty miles away from Peter’s grandmother and kept a flat in Moscow.
The Russian Revolution devastated this prosperous clan of traders. After the death of his grandmother, the teenage Peter and his mother fled to the east, trying to escape the Civil War by travelling through Turkestan, but they could not cross Afghanistan to the safety of India. Instead they were forced to take a train east which embroiled them in the Czech uprising in Siberia before they finally reached the safety of Vladivostock. When the Soviets finally captured this city, they fled once again, taking a boat south to the international city of Shanghai, where Peter managed to find a job as a clerk in a Greek cigarette factory. The hospitable owner allowed them to lodge in his house, though his mother’s health had been broken by their experiences and her spirit would be gradually stifled as they slowly discovered that they were the only members of their family that had survived. After her death in 1924 Peter was devastated with grief but survived by immersing himself in China, its language, culture and spiritual traditions. He would stay as a student guest in a number of ancient Taoist and Buddhist monasteries and progressed from the cigarette factory to finding work as a travelling commercial agent. By 1931 his knowledge of China and its languages was sufficient for him to work as a tour guide for American Express, shepherding wealthy foreigners into the nightclubs of Shanghai and around the historical monuments of China, Japan and Indo-China. It was fun, the money was good and the borrowed lifestyle as excellent, but he found his real political home in the co-operative movement, an ethical middle ground between the extremes of authoritarian communism and unbridled capitalism. This would culminate in the happy experience of living in Likiang for nine years, brilliantly evoked in Forgotten Kingdom.
After thirty years in China, Peter was once again forced to escape Communist rule, and left Yunnan on the last flight out, in the autumn of 1949. He first took refuge in Hong Kong, until recruited by the Government of Malaya, who appointed him a Resettlement Officer. His task was to herd together all the ethnic Chinese working as traders, or in the tin mines and rubber plantations and heard them into specially constructed and closely guarded fortified villages. This was the Briggs plan with which the Communist Insurgency in Malaya was to be tackled, as the ethnic Chinese were believed to be the ocean in which young Communist militants swam. After this task was completed, Peter settled in Singapore, taking lodging in Chinatown. From there he found a post in the International Labour Office, an agency within the United Nations. His first task was working with refugees on the new frontier of India and Pakistan before he was seconded to Sarawak in the summer of 1953. There for eight years he had the fascinating task of helping set up co-operative stores for the overseas Chinese, especially the poor farmers and rubber tappers, before trying to civilise the Sea Dayaks.
By 1961 he was once more back in Singapore where he would live as the permanent house guest of Desmond Neill. James Desmond Howard Neil had been born in Fiji in 1923, and having fought in in the Second World War joined the Malayan Civil Service in 1945. He was already proficient in many languages so was sent to Amoy on the Chinese coast to learn Hokkien (which the dialect spoken by most of the Chinese immigrants to Singapore). This other experience of pre-Communist China would be recalled in his own book, Elegant Flower published by John Murray in 1955. Desmond Neil dealt with Chinese labour issues on behalf of the government of Singapore and having been awarded an MBE took up a similar post within Fraser & Neave in 1957 and subsequently rose to become the managing director of one of the great brewery companies of South-East Asia. As the house guest of such a man, Peter Goullart was free to read, write and meditate in the last years of his life. The Princes of the Black Bone; life in the Tibetan Borderland ( issued in America as Land of the Lamas) was published in 1959, The Monastery of Jade Mountain (about his youthful visits to the Taoist monasteries of China) was published by John Murray in 1961. His experience in Sarawak is described in River of the White Lily, which was published in 1965. Peter Goullart died aged 76 on 5th June 1978, and bequeathed his literary estate to his host, who has kindly given Eland permission to continue the publication of Forgotten Kingdom.