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"This magazine is flush with tight smart writing."
Washington Post

Jonathan Fenby
Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao's China
By Patrick Wright (Oxford University Press 565pp 20)

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'Ming Tombs, Peking' by Stanley Spencer, 1954

Patrick Wright has taken a rather inconsequential subject and turned it into an impressive and unusual book. At first sight, visits to the Soviet Union and China in 1954 of two delegations from the opposition Labour Party and an assortment of cultural figures would not seem significant enough to provide the subject matter for a book of over 500 pages. But Wright uses this as the framework for an ambitious book that succeeds by presenting a wonderful cast of characters set in a dimly remembered period when, following the death of Stalin and the emergence of China from its shell at the Geneva Peace Conference on Indochina, some, at least, could hope that 'peaceful co-existence' was more than an empty slogan.

Despite its acute observation and human touches, this is not a work for readers who want a fast-moving tale of innocent Brits encountering the strange world of the two major Communist powers at a time when few made the journey beyond the Iron Curtain ('you're rather sticking your necks out aren't you?' a passport official said to one member of the cultural group). Nor will it satisfy those who might view the delegations as yet another collection of 'useful idiots' ready to see the best in their hosts and bite their tongues about the faults of oppressive regimes. Wright does not gloss over the willingness of the travellers to be polite, but he shows them as being much more aware than their hosts may have realised.

There were, of course, committed fellow-travellers around at the time, and Wright describes some of them even though they were not in the delegations. The artist Paul Hogarth, who was a committed fan of communism, plays a prominent role in the book. There is also a buffoonish appearance by the 'Red Dean of Canterbury', Hewlett Johnson, who swallowed any tosh fed to him by the Chinese and Russians. A member of the cultural group, Cedric Dover, was a more sophisticated sympathiser with the communist camp, driven mainly by his hatred of Western racism.

Most of the travellers were simply optimists who thought that it might be possible to build bridges with the Soviet and Chinese regimes. They were encouraged by lavish Soviet hospitality (even if the quantity of food and vodka became too much at times) and by the belief that China had emerged from a disastrous downward slope with the Communist victory of 1949 and was now embarked on a great march forward to benefit hundreds of millions of people. A 'Message from British Artists and Scientists to Chinese Colleagues', carried by the cultural group for the fifth anniversary of the foundation of the People's Republic, expressed the desire to 'see an end to all the dissensions which at present threaten to separate us'. Its 672 signatories, including Augustus John, Henry Moore, E M Forster, Doris Lessing, J B Priestley, Malcolm Arnold, Sybil Thorndyke and Joyce Grenfell, looked forward to the 'fullest scientific and cultural exchanges between our two countries'. As might have been expected, Clement Attlee was more phlegmatic at the head of the first Labour Party delegation, which was also joined by Aneurin Bevan.

As Wright explains very well, the visits have to be put in the context of a brief interlude of the Cold War when it was possible to believe, if one wished, that the USSR might evolve and be seduced by the cultured, reasonable and apparently independent persona projected by Zhou Enlai at the Geneva conference. It was lapped up by many in the West who knew nothing of his darker past or his subservience to Mao.

As the delegations travelled, they alternated between plush Russian hotel rooms and long, bumpy rides in planes without seat belts that landed in stopovers in the back of the Eurasian beyond. They had to endure mind-numbing speeches from their Soviet hosts and endless visits to factories and projects that showed how the New China was being born. The cultural group suffered rebuffs in China when delegations from Eastern Europe swept ahead of them and earned disapproval from British diplomats in the then Peking. Some members found the length of the fifth anniversary parade quite wearing and the fraternal delegations at their hotels unbearable, while those who needed alcoholic sustenance encountered some strange concoctions along the way, including one alleged whisky that was 'too peculiar to drink'. Such was the price of being an official delegation.

Members of the second and lower-ranking Labour Party mission, which included Barbara Castle, underwent inevitable political discords as they covered thousands of kilometres in strange lands under the leadership of backbench MP Ellis Smith. Smith specialised in after-dinner speeches that matched those of the hosts in length and, Castle noted in her diary, 'made our blood run cold' with their incoherence. One of the strengths of the book is that Wright finds time to fill out the personalities of Smith and a number of other odd characters along the way in a manner that may tell us little about the delegations' journeys but recalls a Britain most will not have known, or will have forgotten. However, the cultural delegation is the book's main focus, and a rich subject it is. The six members could hardly have been more different. The artist Stanley Spencer was the most eccentric, wearing his pyjamas as underclothes and obsessing about his home village of Cookham on a stretch of the Thames which, conveniently, contained an island called Formosa. He particularly exasperated his fellow voyager, the philosopher A J Ayer. A friend recalled the dapper logical positivist denouncing the artist for his 'unwholesomely lavish' self-absorption and for being 'interested only in himself and women' - a judgement that might have raised a few smiles from those who knew its author. Still, Spencer came up with the best line in the meetings with Communist leaders. When Zhou Enlai said the New China should be better known, he replied 'Yes, and the New China ought to know Cookham better.'

The mission's leader, the geologist Leonard Hawkes, was described by the group's scribe, the architect and writer Hugh Casson, as resembling a 'totem pole topped with a scarlet face'. The writer, poet and classicist Rex Warner was a free spirit who would regularly step off planes at out-of-the-way stops and ask 'Where's the bar?' but clearly relished the new sights and sounds. He happens to have been one of my father's oldest friends and the portrait that emerges here is very much in line with my recollections of him, a man with whom one might well have chosen to make such an unpredictable journey.

Finally, there was the young John Chinnery from the School of Oriental Studies in London, who acted as interpreter and general tour guide. When he joined the others at Heathrow, according to Casson, he had 'the diffident demeanour of a man who had yet to size up the dimensions of the task in front of him'.

Excellent as the account of their journeys is, the book rises above this to present a prolonged reflection on the attitudes and perspectives of progressive British society in the early 1950s. Patrick Wright deftly places his characters in the context of a time when their country was seeking to define itself and its course among the uncertainties of the Cold War and of Britain's relationship with the USA and Western Europe. That historical context gives his book a depth and resonance that make it more than the sum of its considerable parts.

Jonathan Fenby is the author of the Penguin History of Modern China and, most recently, The General: Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved (Simon & Schuster).