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ONE MORNING IN October 1954, a small band of intrepid British travellers found themselves watching what one suspected might be “the biggest crowd of humans ever assembled anywhere on the earth.” For five hours a torrent of men, women and children poured through Tiananmen Square to mark China’s National Day and celebrate the fifth anniversary of the victory of Communism. First came the troops and the tanks, the jet fighters and rocket-launchers; then came the endless marching masses of civilians, some holding vast icons of Lenin, Stalin, and Gorky, some releasing pigeons and balloons, others waving from meticulous floats representing factories and industries.

Not all the Western observers found the occasion moving. Some were repelled by its clockwork monotony. For one of the sceptics, the architect Sir Hugh Casson, the most disturbing sight was the “mild faces of the Fighters for Peace,” the well-meaning leftists who had travelled with him from England, with their “gold-rimmed spectacles misted with emotion, cheeks creased with years of well-meant service in this cause or in that, shirts defiantly open at the neck, badges in lapels, and there in the middle—could it have been?—an MCC tie.”

Since an MCC tie—which marks the wearer as a member of the private Marylebone Cricket Club—is one of the unmistakable symbols of upper-class Englishness, its presence at the Chinese celebrations could hardly have been more incongruous. It belonged to Ivor Montagu, a Communist film critic who had arrived in China after visiting the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow and spending a brief holiday in the Mongolian People’s Republic. Beneath the viewing stand, meanwhile, other Englishmen were sipping cups of tea, among them the philosopher A. J. Ayer and the novelist and poet Rex Warner. Eighteen years before Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China, here they were, the advance guard of Western progressivism, frowning with mild embarrassment as their hosts whooped and cheered.

The bizarre story of the British intellectuals’ trip to China forms the centrepiece of Patrick Wright’s eccentric, occasionally infuriating, but ultimately highly enjoyable book, which focuses on a brief moment in the mid-1950s when the Communist regime almost—but not quite—opened itself up to the West. The Korean War was over, and Zhou Enlai had invited the world, not entirely seriously, to “come and see” what was happening behind the Bamboo Curtain. Three groups of British visitors decided to take him up on the offer. One, led by the former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, consisted of leading Labour politicians who trudged around factories, schools, and housing projects before a rather chilly encounter with Chairman Mao over tea. Another, consisting of more junior Labour MPs and trade union officials, followed a few months later.

But the group that really captures Wright’s attention is the middle one, led by the geologist Leonard Hawkes, whom Casson likened to “a totem pole topped with a scarlet face.” The other members were an eclectic bunch, among them Ayer the empiricist philosopher, Warner, who always began the day by tracking down the nearest bar, and above all Stanley Spencer, the eccentric neo-romantic painter who had become one of the best-known figures in the British art world. Having almost never left his village of Cookham, let alone England, Spencer felt “trembly” as their flight took off for Moscow. But he never let the experience get the better of him. Introduced to Zhou Enlai, Spencer produced one of history’s great opening lines. “Hello,” he said brightly. “I’m Stanley from Cookham.”

Although Wright’s book can be slow and discursive, his portrait of Spencer in particular is a work of comic genius. The very image of an insular Little Englander, Spencer wandered around China wearing his pajamas underneath his clothes, blinking behind his glasses and baffling his guides with bizarre questions. “To call [him] a solipsist,” remarks Wright, “would be greatly to underestimate his self-absorption.” Introduced at Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, Spencer helpfully explained that he was “possibly the most marvellous visitor to China they had ever had” and “something on a par with the coming of Buddha.” It was important that they grasp this point, he told his bewildered audience, “because in England if people don’t know who I am I am at once called upon to carry heavy suitcases.”

As this might suggest, Wright’s book is really a study of Englishmen abroad rather than a picture of China in the early days of Mao’s regime. The characters at the center of his narrative, from Attlee and his Labour colleagues to Spencer and his fellow intellectuals, were all members of what the writer Michael Frayn once called the “herbivore” class: “the radical middle classes, the do-gooders, the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC. In short the gentle ruminants, who look out from lush green pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.” Many were instinctively quick to find virtues in the Chinese system: even the phlegmatic Attlee, a committed anti-Communist and one of the architects of NATO, told the Labour Party conference on returning that “the Chinese, with their great traditions, would not fall for the cruder forms of Communism.”

Yet what is most striking about Wright’s thoughtful and closely researched book is the way in which almost all the visitors carried England with them. Shown around China’s fledgling cooperatives, the Labour delegation immediately reached for comparisons with their own well-meaning cooperative movement at home. The illustrator Paul Hogarth thought that arriving into Shanghai by train was like “pulling into Manchester from Sheffield;” absurdly, the historian Basil Davidson thought that a Communist group leader he met in Canton was “as much a spy on her 50 families as the chairman of my parish council, in rural Essex, is a spy on me.”

And then, of course, there was Spencer. The Great Wall of China, he wrote afterwards, reminded him of nothing more than “our own childhood garden wall along which I used to walk.” When Zhou Enlai remarked that Britain ought to know the new China better, Spencer’s reply spoke volumes about the insularity of an intellectual class not yet aware of its gathering decline—or of the nasty political situation right under their tourists’ noses. “Yes,” the painter said thoughtfully, “and the New China ought to know Cookham better. I feel at home in China because I feel that Cookham is somewhere near.”

Dominic Sandbrook is the author of a series of books chronicling postwar Britain, most recently State of Emergency: The Way We Were, Britain 1970-1974. His upcoming book is Mad as Hell: The Crisis of the 1970s and the Rise of the Populist Right.