The China Journals: Ideology and intrigue in the 1960s
by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines
Bloomsbury, $50 hb, 292 pp
When the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) invited Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, to visit China in 1965, he jumped at the chance. It was a decision that all parties concerned came to regret. The eminent historian had a terrible time in China, ‘that land of bigots and parrots’. He didn’t meet the right people. He found no intellectual equals. The interpreters and guides assigned to the group weren’t up to the job. He nicknamed them Cement-head, Duckbottom, Smooth-face, and the Presbyterian.
For too much of the time, Trevor-Roper was stuck with his fellow travellers. He bonded with playwright Robert Bolt, author of A Man for All Seasons, who had joined at the last minute when Vanessa Redgrave cancelled. The delegation leader, Mary Adams, BBC broadcaster and feminist, he found insufferable: ‘She has absolutely no function, no purpose here: she might just as well be in Surbiton.’ Her deputy, union activist Ernie Roberts (later a Labour MP), was worse: ‘a narrow, complacent know-all … invulnerable in the solid armour of hypocrisy, philistinism and double-think’. The pair annoyed Trevor-Roper by their compliance with what their Chinese hosts wanted of the group. His journals were his secret weapon and would provide material for the article he wrote for the Sunday Times on his return, headlined (not by him) ‘The Sick Mind of China’. So much for enhanced Anglo-Chinese understanding.