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  1. Wealth
October 1, 2013

As Geordie Greig’s new book on Lucian Freud comes out, he tells us about the trip of a lifetime

By Spear's

Famously flat Norfolk seems somewhat surreal from China which has experienced an incredible spurt of new luxurious hotels. Mao Zedong must be turning in his grave

Geordie Greig is editor of the Mail on Sunday and author of the forthcoming Breakfast with Lucian

Eyes Opened

On the Great Wall of China is a strange place to have a war of wills over an iPad, but I want briefly to use my new Mail Plus app to read the latest issue of the Mail on Sunday, which I have not edited, because I am away in China with my wife and children. I suppose once a news junkie, always one.

It is, however, the most brilliant way to have my paper delivered to me as if by some winged messenger, all 5,727 miles from my offices in Kensington.

We have wound our way to China from Taiwan, which has been in my thoughts ever since reading Rana Mitter’s just-published China’s War with Japan, an utterly fascinating new book by this Oxford professor.

I had no idea, for instance, that between 14 and 20 million Chinese died in the Second World War, with 80-100 million becoming refugees. The most shocking fact: in 1938, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the dykes of the Yellow River to be breached to flood a valley and impede the invading Japanese, killing 500,000 Chinese peasants.

I also did not know that until 1945 Taiwan was ruled by Japan and today most people over 70 in Taipei can still speak fluent Japanese. Riveting to read something which changed my view of the last war. 

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Ab Fab

What a contrast China is to a trip the week before, when I went to Norfolk to see an exhibition of Old Master paintings at Houghton, the house once lived in by Sir Robert Walpole, our first prime minister, and now owned by David (Marquess of) Cholmondeley.

Pictured above: Geordie Greig, self-confessed news junkie

I went down there with the schoolmaster who had taught us both at Eton 35 years ago and is still the most inspiring man either of us has met. Michael Meredith changed my life and I would not be in my job today without him.

He encouraged me to write and aged fifteen I precociously sent letters to artists and pop stars and interviewed them for our school magazine. Joanna Lumley came down to be interviewed by me in front of 500 boys. David filmed it for a documentary he made for TV.

My embarrassing moment was when I put the microphone round her neck from behind her. Five hundred boys went whooohharrr and I blushed like a traffic light.

Freudian trip

One of the people I wrote to was Lucian Freud, after Michael took me and some other boys to an exhibition of his startling paintings in 1977.

The result is that in October I have a book being published by Jonathan Cape, the first portrait of Freud, called Breakfast with Lucian. 

It is almost 40 years since Michael taught me, and like Mr Chips he is still full-time at Eton. David and I had once sat in his study being taught art and literature, and here he is today listening to how David persuaded Russia to loan back for an exhibition at Houghton the pictures Walpole’s grandson sold to Catherine the Great of Russia. 

In a bizarre twist, my ancestor Sir Samuel Greig was admiral of her fleet. Somehow he had made his way from the village of Inverkeithing in Fife. He had joined the Royal Navy but had been seconded to the Imperial Navy where he sped up the ranks to find his greatest glory at the Battle of Hogland against Sweden. He would presumably have seen Walpole’s wares there.

Time for tea

Famously flat Norfolk seems somewhat surreal from China, which, besides having most of its people on scarily small wages, has an incredible spurt of new luxurious hotels. Mao Zedong must be turning in his grave.

The great expert on Chinese travel is Frances Geoghegan (Cleveland Collection). Thanks to her guidance we are two hours from Shanghai, in the tea hills, at Le Passage Mohkan Shan, a throwback to 1930s China — only this time this colonial building is run as a French country house hotel.

Chiang Kai-shek has perhaps had the last, partial, laugh: in some places, capitalism is clearly thriving.

Breakfast with Lucian: A Portrait of the Artist is published by Jonathan Cape

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