Oxford, £20, 488pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Passport to Peking, By Patrick Wright

Is there a house of history to stand as neighbour beside Henry James's house of fiction? If there is, Patrick Wright will have a window all to himself, glittering with different, intense and jewelled fragments: a John Piper or Robert Colquhoun of a window.

In his astonishing last half-dozen books, he has established himself not only as the champion ironist and caustic critic of that weird historical compound, "Englishness", but also a social historian of an inimitable kind. In The Village that Died for England, Wright told how Tyneham in Dorset became a tank-battle school and thereafter the disputed site of left and right as to the meanings of its emblematic archaeology. In his wonderful Tank, and in Iron Curtain, which traced the making of the central political metaphor of the past century, he similarly contrived a quite new way of narrating history from the fragments, scraps and relics knocking around the record offices. These he arranged with glowing novelty, and handed to us as our new past.

Passport to Peking is a kind of sequel to Iron Curtain. That book followed sympathisers and fellow-travellers to revolutionary Russia in the 1920s, counterposing their gullibility to the cast-iron hostility of the Churchillians. The new book follows delightedly a trio of leftish delegations sent in the early 1950s to cross the USSR in tubby old transporter aircraft until finally they reached revolutionary China, there to be greeted by the charm and cultivation of a smiling Chou En-Lai.

Clem Attlee, Barbara Castle and Nye Bevan were the leading figures (by then in opposition) of one such party in 1954. They come out pretty well, courteous, appreciative, sceptical, observant, but miles away from the foam-flecked hostility of their allies and masters, led by John Foster Dulles in Washington.

But Wright's imagination is really caught by a British cultural delegation with the architect of the Festival of Britain, Hugh Casson, sort-of in charge. Its violently contrasting members now sound as though chosen for a crazily capricious version of Celebrity Big Brother, set down in the vast, exotic studio of Tiananmen Square. Wright's kindly but beady eye is caught as much by what his visitors betray about England as by what they betokened about possibile friendship with the new regime.

Acutely differing manners and minds witness how English gentlemen of the aesthetic left made themselves at home just after a bloodstained revolution. There is the cynical, vain and jaunty philosopher AJ Ayer, the shambling painter-genius and egomaniac, Stanley Spencer, always clad in his pyjamas under everyday clothes, the intelligent drunk and novelist, Rex Warner, and the exquisitely gifted artist Paul Hogarth, whose living line-drawings are sprinkled through these pages.

This is a very thick-textured book. Wright fills in its blanks as to the Long March and the Eighth Route Army, as well as, say, to chinoiserie in 18th-century fashion. There are longueurs, but they are worth it to any autodidact, needing, as we all must, to bone up on China. The book is as populous as a Dickens novel.

Wright's heart is in English painting, and the pages following his artists – Paul Hogarth, Spencer, Denis Mathews – add up to a substantial essay on the impact of an exotic country upon a provincial way of seeing. His grandest subject, however, is as well-hidden as all good art must be. It extends the massive melody of Iron Curtain. It shows, but does not tell, that the dire suspicions, the spendthrift generosity and the crass vindictiveness of the US have proved the immovable obstacles which have prevented nation speaking peace unto nation for nigh on a century.

Fred Inglis's latest book is 'A Short History of Celebrity' (Princeton)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick