Trevor-Roper gives an uninhibited and rollicking account of this episode, in notes published here for the first time (it was these, when he drew on them for his Encounter article, that terrified the lawyers). It is a good example of the pleasures to be enjoyed in this book, which is superbly edited and introduced by Richard Davenport-Hines. Whatever one thinks of Trevor-Roper’s politics, and even his work as a historian, he is always a joy to read.
It is a lacerating account of the stage management of a shady and sinister interest group, and one that continues to resonate. Dreamers of cultural nightmares are still among us. The ousted John McDonnell carries Mao’s Little Red Book around with him, Jeremy Corbyn defended the “Great Leap Forward” during the last general election campaign, and his aide Seumas Milne once stood as a Maoist candidate in a “mock” election at Winchester College. For five years, this was the British government-in-waiting. History repeats itself, both tragically and farcically.
The journal in which he recorded this judgement is the centrepiece of the present volume, the fourth such publication of Trevor-Roper’s diaries and letters edited by Richard Davenport-Hines. Scholarly, incisive and omniscient, Davenport-Hines has done another wonderful job. His long introduction and full references provide all, and sometimes more than all, that anyone could want to know about Trevor-Roper’s experiences in Asia, including his tour of Taiwan and Cambodia in 1967, documented in a tacked-on memoir. Again, Trevor-Roper reveals himself as a master of English prose, with a formidable command of invective – one academic said that he wrote in a style in which it was impossible to be polite. So, slight though it is, The China Journals is consistently entertaining.
The China Journals is not perhaps an important book. SACU is a mere pimple on Anglo-Chinese relations, and the behaviours of communist fronts are tediously familiar. But it is enjoyable for the human comedy and high quality of Trevor-Roper’s prose. It is, however, rather eccentrically edited. The introduction is unfathomably long, around 50 pages, and grindingly detailed. The footnotes are also stuffed with extraneous information. But you can skip all that and simply savour Trevor-Roper’s moral outrage, aesthetic feeling, keen political antennae and judicious penmanship.