Book review: 'Ping-Pong Diplomacy', By Nicholas Griffin
Charlotte Philby is a writer at The Independent with a weekly column on motherhood in The Independent Magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for her undercover investigative work, and writes for various cultural magazines.
Thursday 16 January 2014
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.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 2 The awkward moment Sarah Palin raised $25,000 for Hillary Clinton's election campaign
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Amal Clooney gives excellent response to fashion question at European Court of Human Rights
- 5 Baldness could soon be treated using stem cells, scientists hope
Heavy metal producer's corpse to be mutilated by models as per his dying wish
Game of Thrones, season 5: Grey Worm actor Jacob Anderson is all for more male nudity – as long as he can keep his clothes on
Martin Scorsese 'in shock' after death on set of new film Silence
Sia apologises for 'Elastic Heart' music video that sees Shia LaBeouf wrestle 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler
The secret joke hidden in Silence of the Lambs' most famous line
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures