The Week In Radio: East meets a lacklustre West

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The Independent Culture

One of the central themes of Jonathan Spence's Reith Lectures (Radio 4, Tuesday) has been the way that China and the West have circled round each other in the 20th century, each side regarding the other with a mixture of fascination and distrust. One thing he didn't talk about was the peculiar influence Maoism has had on the Western left. In Living Memory (Radio 4, Wednesday) exhumed the scandal surrounding The Little Red Schoolbook – since overshadowed by other scandals, but a fair-sized furore back in 1971.

The Little Red Schoolbook was an English translation of a Danish handbook trying to, like, tell it like it is for kids, with frank discussions of sex, drugs and staging sit-ins against authority. Mary Whitehouse was soon urging the authorities to prosecute the publisher for obscenity; they obliged. The prosecution case now seems hilarious: a line about the harmlessness of masturbation prompted the claim from an "expert witness", a headmistress called Elizabeth Manners, that "a girl who has become accustomed to the shallow satisfactions of masturbation may find it very difficult to adjust to complete intercourse." In interview now, though, Miss Manners was eye-poppingly unprudish, telling Jenkins that she'd given up masturbation herself because "I wasn't getting anywhere with it." The odd thing was how all that frankness was, at the time, couched in pseudo-Maoist language; but all that licentiousness and that insolence towards established authority is about as unMaoist as you can get.

Maoism cropped up again in The Essay (Radio 3, Monday-Thursday), a series of oblique angles on Anglo-Chinese relations by Patrick Wright. His last talk was about British attitudes to Maoism in the 1950s – on the left, largely forgiving, it seems, despite the Korean War, with an analogy being drawn between Communist peasants and the Diggers and Levellers in the English Civil War; the weird climax was an account of a spontaneous speech made by the artist Stanley Spencer on a trip to China, in which he compared life in the Chinese countryside to life in his beloved Cookham, in Berkshire.

This was one of a season Radio 3 is doing on China, which seems to be mostly an excuse to get Isabel Hilton on the air – fine by me, since I think she's fabulous, and Wednesday's Night Waves special on the media in China was riveting. My difficulty with all this is that it is almost all oblique – a series of glances at, and sidelights on, China that never takes the beast head-on.

I suppose the Reiths have been the best effort so far. Though the individual lectures have been disappointing – with Spence too often raising an interesting issue only to dismiss it as "another story", and Sue Lawley (though her chairing has been so good that I feel irrationally guilty for having ever sniped at her on Desert Island Discs) also being guilty of trying to move the après-lecture discussion on just when it was getting interesting – Spence's lectures have thrown up some useful statistical insights: for example, from the frequency with which it came up, you can take it that the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s was the pivotal moment in modern Chinese history. I'm not entirely sure that's how a Reith should work, though.