Of all the subjects for a thrilling tale of espionage, war and diplomacy, ping-pong seems an unlikely contender. All the more intriguing then is the story behind a détente between America and China in 1971, which occurred seemingly out of the blue after 22 years of hostility.
In a stranger-than-fiction tale featuring Alfred Hitchcock, Leon Trotsky and Glenn Cowan, a long-haired American in a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Let It Be”, who was part of the first official American delegation to China since Chairman Mao had taken power in 1949, journalist and award-winning author Nicholas Griffin explores the sport’s many guises.
Ping-pong became popular at the turn of the century as a bit of after-dinner fun that could be played with a hairbrush or book and washed down with plenty of port, in the West. Decades later, it was used by Mao Tse-tung to distract from the death of millions during the Great Famine, before the increasingly paranoid despot branded the sport a tool for “spies, traitors and capitalist roaders” and turned on his own country’s team.
It was also the game that paved the way for a breakthrough in relations between Nixon’s America and the People’s Republic of China.
At the centre of Ping-Pong Diplomacy – a book that might otherwise have been titled Producer, Critic, Ping-Pong Player, Spy – is a quietly-eccentric British film-maker and aristocrat-turned-Soviet agent, who as chairman of the game’s International Federation sought to use table tennis to spread Communism across the globe.
Born into one of the wealthiest families in England, Ivor Montagu was a brilliant scholar who passed the exam for Cambridge at 15 and went on to befriend WH Auden and Charlie Chaplin, to co-found the London Film Society and become a champion table-tennis player. He deemed the game, which had once inspired a peculiar genre of poetry and was known by names including gossima and whiff-whaff before falling out of fashion, “a sport particularly suited to the lower-paid”.
Furthermore, its international appeal provided the perfect excuse to visit communist countries and spread his own political gospel.
In the main, tales of those British elite who turned to Sovietism around the time of the Cold War are well-worn. Refreshingly, Griffin has found a relatively untold, and compelling, focus in Agent Intelligentsia, a figure who has sometimes been dismissed as an ineffectual drawing-room communist.
Through meticulous research and an impressively-crafted narrative, Griffin gives depth to the life of the “the forgotten architect” of so-called ping-pong diplomacy, which carved the path for Nixon’s momentous trip to China. The result is an impressive and intricately-woven overview of the characters and events that led to a seismic shift in the dynamics between two of the world’s greatest superpowers.