Reviewed by Colin Niven
Fan Wenhai, now an old man recalling the exceptional energy, zest and courage of his headmaster, George Hogg, emphasised how unusual he was compared to any other teacher he had encountered in war torn China. ‘You respected them because you were afraid of them. Hogg was so different. He spent so much time time with us, and it didn’t matter whether he was singing with us, playing sport or working in the class-room. That was why we loved him so much.’
This statement lies at the heart of James MacManus’s riveting book, Ocean Devil – the life of George Hogg. In his calm, clear objective manner the author allows a most moving and inspirational story to speak for itself, and it is small wonder that it will soon appear as a film, The Children of Huang Shi.
The early chapters introduce us to the pleasant, comfortable, pacifist family in Harpenden, in which George, with his golden curls and charming optimism rose to be school captain of St George’s and captain of rugby, just as he was at Wadham College, Oxford. His tutor, Maurice Bowra, was one of many who discerned exceptional qualities in him.
With exemplary economy Mr MacManus traces the gradual shift in the fortunes of an English family as it is steadily engulfed in the Second World War, contrasting and ultimately comparing it with the monumental tragedy already unfolding in Asia. He shows us a young man who stumbles into journalism in a China riven in three. As Japan moves remorselessly towards its goal to make of China a vassal state, Mao and Chiang frantically unite against a common enemy, all the time preparing for the ultimate show-down between the communists and the nationalists.
Hogg’s letters homes let us share the excitement of an Ocean Devil, a foreigner, as he works with the new cooperatives, meeting politicians, generals, missionaries and pressmen of note, yet always focussing on his true love, the ordinary men, women and children of China who endure so stoically and often so cheerfully, terrible privations, disasters and cruelty.
The climax of the book sees him become headmaster of a school for orphans in north-west China, the eighth in eighteen months. His powers of organisation, his shining integrity, his endless joie de vivre and his self-sacrifice for the children he led on a 700 mile trek through the snow clad mountains beyond the start of the Great Wall, is indeed the stuff of legend.
Hogg’s devotion to his ragged charges, returned in full measure as they gradually came to understand his sense of duty and team-work, transcends China and Britain and illustrates perfectly why it is such a privilege to be a teacher, or to be taught by such a man. One envies those, famous or unknown, who crossed Hogg’s path, or as James MacManus has done us all a great service with his uplifting book.
Ocean Devil – the life and times of George Hogg by James MacManus is published by Harper Collins p/b £8.99. The film ‘Children of Huang Shi ‘ starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers will be released this autumn.