Just Like Cookham

Neal Ascherson

  • Passport to Peking: A Very British Mission to Mao’s China by Patrick Wright
    Oxford, 591 pp, £20.00, October 2010, ISBN 978 0 19 954193 5

In 1954, it seemed that ‘People’s China’ was about to rejoin the world. The Geneva Accords on Indochina, which ended France’s colonial wars in South-East Asia and partitioned Vietnam, had been a personal triumph for the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai. Urbane, amusing and fluent in their languages, Zhou charmed foreign diplomats and journalists off their feet. Perhaps, they began to hope, the grim isolation and hostility displayed by Mao’s regime since the Korean War were about to end.

Zhou took steps to encourage this frail optimism. He turned his attention to Britain. The United States, still imposing a trade embargo, remained Communist China’s great enemy; France, traumatised after defeat at Dien Bien Phu that May, had little to offer. But Britain, unlike the Americans, had recognised the new Chinese regime and had played a leading part in securing the Geneva Accords. It was, as Patrick Wright puts it, ‘one of the last occasions, only two years before the Suez crisis, on which Britain exerted a decisive influence on international politics’. Zhou began to employ a ‘come and see’ strategy, inviting Western delegations to visit the People’s Republic and be shown its achievements. With Britain, he did not start by selecting obsequious front groups under Communist control. That sort of pointless exchange was already routine: British visitors making crawling Stalinist speeches, Chinese guests in London insulting Labour MPs as tools of Wall Street imperialism. Instead, Zhou went for the Labour Party (now in opposition), although its leadership was fiercely opposed to Communism at home and abroad and was soon to commit its reluctant membership to supporting West German rearmament.

Despite this, at least three delegations from the British Labour movement visited China in 1954 as official guests. The first was the most high-powered, a group from the party leadership headed by Clement Attlee himself and including Aneurin Bevan, Edith Summerskill and Morgan Phillips. The second was a queasily assorted mob from the wider Labour movement: a constellation of leftist Bevanite MPs including Barbara Castle, accompanied by MPs from the pro-American right of the party and assorted trade unionists (some of them ‘allegedly quite ignorant freeloaders’, as Wright puts it, others equally ignorant fellow-travellers, and a few who remained shrewd and observant).

The third, and for Wright the most interesting, was a small cultural delegation. Its members had been selected on a darkly haphazard basis by the Britain-China Friendship Association, an organisation firmly loyal to the Communist regime. Professor Leonard Hawkes, the leader of the delegation, was a geologist famous for pointing out that England was slowly tilting into the North Sea. The novelist and translator Rex Warner had been a left-winger in his youth but was now a comfortably-off, convivial figure. Sir Hugh Casson, who had directed the architecture of the Festival of Britain, was lively-minded, self-critical and immune to lying propaganda; his vivid journal of the trip is one of Wright’s best sources. A.J. Ayer, preacher of logical positivism, was small, sensual and irrepressibly witty. John Chinnery, a ‘China expert’, was very young and still in the Communist Party, although his Party discipline was constantly threatened by his merry sense of the absurd (he was to become an inspirational professor of Chinese at Edinburgh). Last, and most improbable, was the great painter Stanley Spencer, a jumbled Christian Socialist who made his way to China wearing pyjamas as underclothes beneath his suit.

Anyone who took part in grand freebies of this sort during the Cold War will remember their texture. At one extreme of the British cast of characters there would be a few imbecile fanatics more Catholic than the Pope (‘Here’s to the Peace Wall, and the heroic People’s Police who shoot neo-Nazi saboteurs trying to cross it!’). At the other would be a few – generally Conservative MPs – who found the regime, the country and the food uniformly detestable and said so. And in between (and these people are what this book is really about) were intelligent men and women of leftish inclination who knew that bad stuff was going on but fervently hoped that things would get better. Sometimes they said what they thought. But not always.

Such people knew that the regime hosting them was repressive, and that rumours about its extreme brutality to opponents were probably true. But they looked, sometimes desperately, for signs that ‘the Party has a liberal wing,’ or that ‘the need for repressing counter-revolution has passed,’ and hoped that a thaw might be round the corner. They believed that the Soviet model of Communism was reformable, and that Marxism – even Leninism – did not have to be Stalinism or incompatible with free speech and civil rights. They knew they were being lied to, day after day, and yet, offered the official hand of friendship at some lavish banquet in a hungry nation, did not feel it right to reject it. Why play the Cold War game by offending one’s hosts? Wasn’t any form of contact with such a country better than none?

Most of the delegates, especially those in the second Labour delegation (the one with Barbara Castle), were soon convinced that China in 1954 was experiencing a breakthrough. It wasn’t just the heavy industry and infrastructure, or the reconstruction after some 20 years of war, or even the sweeping reforms which (if you believed the officials) promised huge strides forward in social justice, gender equality, workers’ rights. It was the sense of changing times, of gates appearing in Iron and Bamboo Curtains, of an opportunity not to be missed. In her old age, Castle still insisted that the Geneva moment had been ‘absolutely thrilling’. ‘Nobody could know whether the thaw would last,’ she told Wright, ‘but the chances of it so doing depended on Western politicians rising to the occasion in a way that would inevitably expose them to sharp criticism as fellow-travellers and dupes … the moment demanded righteous courage.’

She was right about the criticism, but wrong about the opportunity. The early 1950s had indeed been a time of real achievement and rising hopes in China, remembered later as ‘golden years’. But in 1954, unknown to all but a few, Mao and his comrades were already plotting the colossal experiments in ideological planning which were to devastate Chinese society, cost tens of millions of lives and culminate in the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution. In the summer of 1954, Mao Zedong told Nye Bevan that the collectivisation of agriculture had been postponed to the future, ‘perhaps scores of years’. In fact, it began within months, leading to the immense tragedy of the Great Leap Forward in which more than 30 million died in man-made famines. Mao had told Bevan a flat lie, just as Zhou misled the cultural delegation when he talked about his reverence for historic monuments and the ancient city of Beijing. Zhou, as prime minister, did nothing to check Mao’s determination to vandalise the capital by levelling the city walls and demolishing the traditional hutong houses.

The British delegations thought they were seeing the new China rising. But what they were really witnessing, between steel mills and river dams, were the remaining sights and cultural landscapes and habits of an old China about to be swept away for ever. Were these visitors just useful idiots, in their excitement at seeing a great people about to emerge from millennia of poverty, and was their insistence in seeing signs of a more democratic socialism no more than comfortable, contemptible self-delusion? The well-bred staff in the British mission in Beijing certainly thought so (the instinctive dislike which developed between them and the plebby delegations was striking), but perhaps the diplomats were right for the wrong reasons. Neither side could match the wisdom of a man like Michael Lindsay, guide and adviser to Attlee’s group. Lindsay had lived with Mao and Zhou as a friend and comrade through the years of struggle in Yenan, but saw clearly, at an early stage, the fatal signs of growing dogmatism and arrogance in the new regime. He denounced these tendencies, and yet continued to insist that Communist China must be admitted to full membership of the international community.

Wright finds grounds to sympathise with the visitors’ reactions. He writes that:

the cause of ‘friendship’ was shaped by an imaginative reflex that was particularly tempting to Western liberals and leftists in the time of the Iron Curtain. Finding the dominant powers on their side of the division – in this case Eisenhower and Dulles – both intransigent and beyond influence, they may well have been tempted to project their wishful aspirations over, or under, the curtain, and use them to convert the leaders on the far side into more benign and reasonable figures.

Some of what they said and thought about China was too wrong to be interesting, but what their behaviour reveals about their own Britishness – or, more accurately, Englishness – is often very interesting indeed.

Wright’s reputation comes from the books in which he has shown himself to be a talented and original student of ‘Anglitude’; his ostensible subject (an area of London, a history of tanks, the tale of a village evacuated to form a firing-range) is used to reflect the multiple ways in which the English try to interpret and express the mystery of their identity. In the same way, Passport to Peking, though it contains almost too many long passages about recent Chinese history, is not primarily about China. It’s about England, and the way the rise of Communist China after 1949 affected English political and artistic culture.

‘Abroad is hell, and foreigners are fiends,’ Nancy Mitford’s father once warned his children. Now that ‘abroad’ for our children is little more than a series of air-conditioned malls separated by jet lag, it’s hard to remember how dramatic long journeys to distant lands seemed even 50 years ago. The delegates who set out for China in 1954 pretty certainly had particles of that ‘fiend’ suspicion lurking somewhere in their subconscious, but because they were socialists and liberals and ‘internationalists’, they vigorously suppressed it. Weird as abroad often turned out to be, they were determined to find it familiar, recognisable, lovable. This must be the explanation for the funniest element in Wright’s story: everywhere was just like England, if you looked hard enough.

Stanley Spencer explained to Zhou that China was like Cookham. The Ming Tombs reminded him of the village of Wangford, where he had married his first wife. Morgan Phillips found that Beijing was much like Bedford. The physician Derrick James noted that Prague, visited on the way to Beijing, resembled Maidstone. Hugh Casson compared Moscow to Manchester a hundred years earlier; the great scientist Joseph Needham mystifyingly thought that Kunming was a bit like the vicarage at Duxford near Cambridge; the artist Paul Hogarth wrote that travelling from Beijing to Shanghai was much the same as going from Sheffield to Manchester. More perilously, the delegates tried to demystify the Chinese present by equating it with brave bits of the English past. The rural co-operatives were like the Rochdale Pioneers, the People’s Liberation Army was like Cromwell’s Roundheads. Wright even asserts, on his own aesthetic hunch alone, that Paul Hogarth’s famous drawing of a ‘Shansi Peasant’ identifies the revolutionary farmer with Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers and Levellers: the drawing, he says, ‘surely participates in a related Englishing of “New China”’.

Sympathy for China had a very long history on the left of British politics. But this was not, or not yet, a matter of ‘post-imperial guilt’: much of the British Empire still existed in 1954, and opposition to it was expressed by vigorous campaigning rather than by apologising. It was more a matter of tradition. Back in the early 19th century, the Chartists had demonstrated against the opium trade and against Britain’s war to protect drug imports to China. The idea that the Chinese were a backward, helpless and victimised people who could only be rescued by outside help took root among liberals and leftists. It was powerfully renewed after the Japanese invasion in 1937, when Aid China campaigning in Britain was largely driven by left-wing sympathy for Mao Zedong and his Communist armies, who were fighting both the Japanese and the Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek. The China Campaign Committee, under Communist guidance, was able not only to organise large rallies but to enlist writers, artists and musicians (Auden, Jack Lindsay, J.B. Priestley and Paul Robeson among them). Some of the cultural delegates in 1954 had been involved in these events as young men, and most of them had read Edgar Snow’s hugely influential – and partisan – Red Star over China, published by the Left Book Club in 1937. Wright suggests that Snow’s book and the journalism of Agnes Smedley accounted for just about everything these travellers knew about modern Chinese history before the trip. But there were exceptions. One of them was Stanley Spencer.

The dishevelled Spencer, never where he was meant to be or doing what he was supposed to do, at once became the butt of the group. Freddie Ayer couldn’t stand him: ‘a vile little man, boring on an unwholesomely lavish scale, intolerable … interested only in himself and women’ (some of which, as his friend Peter Vansittart said afterwards, neatly fitted Ayer himself). He continued to wear pyjamas under his clothes, the cord sometimes trailing from the bottom of his trousers. Flatly refusing to touch Chinese food, he lived on boiled eggs and toast, sometimes demanding fish and chips. When Zhou invited him to a meeting, Spencer said he was too busy with a drawing but then agreed to go on condition that ‘politics are not mentioned’.

This reduced the other delegates to howls of laughter. But in fact Spencer comes out of this story better than some of his companions. He was totally indifferent to production figures, but he was well read in Chinese art, philosophy and religion. At that meeting with Zhou, he was the only guest who dared break the silence when the prime minister asked for comments, impressing Zhou with a strangely moving speech about how the world should be more like Cookham, where everyone loved everyone else. The journey prompted him to some beautiful sketches of children and two haunting paintings of the statues at the Ming Tombs. His public lecture to the Central Academy of Fine Arts, at which he showed Chinese artists and students a version of Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta, left the audience staggered but thrilled to have met an English ‘old master’.

There are many close-up profiles in Passport to Peking. But Wright pays most attention to two visual artists: Denis Mathews, who came with Barbara Castle’s group but abandoned it as soon as he could, and Paul Hogarth, attached to a separate, lower-status trade-union delegation. The book contains many photographs of the journey by Mathews, and some spare, elegant sketches by Hogarth. Both men were deeply stirred by what they saw in China. But both believed in what John Berger called ‘social realism’ – as opposed to the infantile ‘socialist realism’ enforced in the Soviet Union, which to their horror they saw spreading into Chinese art education.

In vain, they tried to interest the culture bureaucracy in the equally socialist work – as they saw it – of Picasso or Renato Guttuso. Hogarth, one of the most successful illustrators of his time, remained a Party member until about 1957, but gave up the struggle against the suffocation of Chinese art long before the non-Party Mathews, who struggled on with the export of new work to China until it became impossible. During a final, horrible debate with the art establishment, his wife Anna scribbled: ‘Conclusion I am forced to: it is good to paint shrimp. It is better to paint the Long March. It is best to paint Chairman Mao. But if I paint a sick shrimp I am politically unreliable. If I paint two sick shrimps I am an aggressive imperialist reactionary.’

The Cultural Revolution was still a few years off, but its first tendrils were choking off what remained of sane discussion. The window for ‘British-Chinese friendship’ had closed – if it had ever really been open. Hugh Casson, the most perspicacious member of the group, was aware of the overexcitement that otherness could generate: ‘Today, once behind the Iron Curtain, every building … even such prosaic objects as trolley-buses or chocolate cake … are invested with a new mystery, an atmosphere of the other side of the looking-glass which gives a keener edge to everything.’ He also rephrased a warning from Humphrey Trevelyan, the British chargé d’affaires in Beijing: ‘We see what we see. Is what we do not see or even what nobody can see more significant?’ Later, he reflected: ‘You can respect the vigour and strength of a new system that has brought stability and dreams of untold industrial prosperity … but to yield such respect means that you must also accept the basic premises of the system – the distortion of truth, the insistence upon official infallibility, the mutual suspicion and informing.’

If one source of self-deception was intoxication at having stepped through the looking-glass, a stronger one was injured patriotism. The Suez fiasco, which would reveal the bankruptcy of Britain’s enduring pretence to be a world power, was still two years in the future. However left-wing those Beijing delegations were, they still confidently assumed that Britain retained worldwide, top-table authority, both moral and military, which could be used to make that world a better place. The same assumptions, although Suez had cut down that imagined authority to its moral element alone, would launch the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958.

The British left, in other words, did not resent America simply as a capitalist giant. They were offended by Washington’s taste for rearranging the globe without consulting older and wiser nations. The trade embargo on China was a case in point. Another was the constant American pressure on British governments to extradite or expel suspected Communists or subversives who had sought refuge in the United Kingdom. In 1954, Churchill’s government was discovered to be helping the Americans construct spying charges against the sinologist Owen Lattimore, who was eventually to find sanctuary at the University of Leeds. All this stoked up what Wright calls ‘a strong sense of affronted patriotism’, and inflamed calls for a more independent foreign policy, not least towards China. But, as Wright concludes, ‘if these were among the considerations driving those Britons who wanted a more conciliatory and Geneva-like British foreign policy, they would be severely challenged as Mao and his fellow Communists proceeded to convert China into a nuclear-armed, fully industrialised and totalitarian superpower.’

Passport to Peking (Wright uses the old spellings for period effect) is a long book bulging with anecdotes and digressions – most of them interesting, some more entertaining than relevant. (It was a surprise, for instance, to discover that Chiang Yee, the faux-inscrutable author and illustrator of the bestselling ‘Silent Traveller’ books, had a busy, scrutable life elsewhere as a soldier and then a district governor in Jiangxi province, where he lost his job after denouncing Texaco’s local subsidiary for corruption.) If Wright has a fault as a narrator, it’s his habit of imputing to others something he wants to say himself: ‘Hugh Casson may have wondered …’; Rex Warner ‘will surely also have been provoked to thought by …’; Casson (again) ‘would surely have taken particular pleasure in …’ These people filled notebooks with their own impressions; if they didn’t record a wonder, thought or pleasure, it’s probably because they didn’t feel it. Ventriloquism practised on intelligent characters can unnerve the reader.

In China in 1954, those English visitors were duped. Not completely; all but a boneheaded handful were aware that much was being hidden from them. Most of them seem to have felt that the only excuse for accepting such outrageously lavish hospitality could be that they tried to see the truth that lay behind it. But almost everyone wanted to believe that China, a year after Stalin’s death, was turning away from state terror towards something like democratic socialism. And they grasped hungrily at the tenuous evidence for that belief. Passport to Peking reveals the tenacity of English left-wing optimism, scarred only slightly by the experiences of world war and Cold War. It also resurrects a confidence, now lost for ever, that the seeds of English decency and fairness could be found anywhere if you looked hard enough. Whatever Englishness was, it was universal and good. ‘I feel at home in China,’ Stanley Spencer said, ‘because I feel that Cookham is somewhere near.’