The Society of the Mysterious West

I was a teenager when I first met her, an old lady with too many bags of shopping, who I helped up the stairs at the faculty of oriental studies at Cambridge.

“What are you doing here?” she asked when we got to the top. I had hair down to my waist and pixie boots on my feet, so I probably didn’t look like I should have been there.

“I’m looking for Carmen Blacker,” I replied.

“Oh,” she said. “That would be me. You’re not Jonathan Clements, are you…? You can’t be…” I had been expected a raven-haired thirty-something Nigella Lawson-type, and she had been expecting a preppy boy in a blazer, so I think we were both a bit surprised.

It was only later that I discovered she was formerly a WW2 code breaker, and was, to my knowledge, the only professor of Japanese who was certified to walk barefoot and unharmed over hot coals — just one of many transferable skills she picked up during her fieldwork in shamanism.

She died a year ago this week.

I’m just back from Norwich, after a long trip to see the inaugural Carmen Blacker Memorial Lecture,  remembering her as an inspirational researcher in the history of Japanese religions, and an instrumental doyenne of the Japan Society. I have always been a fan of hers, ever since that day in 1989 when she and I had a bizarre conversation about Dungeons and Dragons, and she snickered at the extreme unlikelihood of a Cambridge college ever wanting to take someone dressed like me. She then shoved me into a room where I was quizzed by Michael Loewe about 6th century Greece — an odd situation since he was the professor of Chinese, and, as I only discovered last year, also her husband.

I didn’t meet her again until 2000, when both of us were picking up Japan Festival Awards on the same night — her for lifetime achievement, me for Manga Max. She didn’t remember me, of course, but I’d never forgotten how hard she tried to get me into a Cambridge college, any college (a remarkable gesture of her faith in my ardour), and she was immensely pleased to discover that, in some sense, she had been right to mark my card. And so we talked about anime — I wish now I had asked her about the coal-walking thing… or possibly what she got up to at Bletchley Park.

But last night was a twofer for me, as I am also a fan of the speaker in Norwich, Donald Keene, who has done so much for Japanese literature in the 20th century, and who wrote his PhD thesis on that obscure and little known figure in Asian history, the pirate king Coxinga. He and I have both been interviewed for the forthcoming National Geographic documentary  — I’ve seen his footage and he said something utterly outrageous that is sure to put the cat among the pigeons. But on matters Blacker-related last night, he revealed that she was the first woman he ever saw in a bikini, and that she was an avid practitioner of judo in her university days in Tokyo.

He noted, as perhaps the attentive reader may have already seen in this entry, Professor Blacker’s unerring ability to draw out whatever it was that someone had in their heart that was interesting enough to them to be interesting to other people. Keene also reminisced about Blacker’s adoration of Arthur Waley (who really ought to need no introduction), and revealed that when she was breaking Japanese codes at Bletchley, Waley was a few doors down under a pile of annotated Chinese newspaper clippings. What a place it must have been. Can you imagine the fights in the canteen?

He also remembered Blacker’s intense frustration at orientalist faffery and smokescreens, and chuckled at her suggestion, only half in jest, that she should found a Society of the Mysterious West, devoted to confusing the Japanese with tales of the inscrutable occident. One day, I shall write a book with that title. And it will be dedicated to her.

Donald Keene will be repeating the inaugural Carmen Blacker Memorial Lecture in London at the British Museum on 22nd July.

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3 thoughts on “The Society of the Mysterious West

  1. Ms Blacker sounds fascinating.

    I can feel your glow of recollection from here: inspirations from our youth leave both happiness & sadness in their passing, but we are better people for the experience.

    Walking on hot coals, yes, that would have been my first question as well. And if you ever start the SotMW, I’ll join.

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