The historian AJP Taylor was one of the first "telly dons." But over the years, those of us who admired him, as a scholar, stylist and gadfly, have gradually been disabusedby Geoffrey Wheatcroft / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
In one of the best and most moving parliamentary speeches hefo ever made, Winston Churchill said that it was not always given to us to foresee the unfolding course of events. “In one phase men seem to have been right,” Churchill chivalrously allowed, on what was for him a delicate as well as melancholy occasion, the death of his recent rival Neville Chamberlain in November 1940, “in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.” His words apply not only to history but to historians. Events and the decisions of statesmen stand in a different setting when the perspective of time lengthens, and so do literary and scholarly reputations.
As the centenary of his birth arrives on 25th March, it may be that AJP Taylor needs some pale gleam to kindle past passions. He belongs to what has been called the most remote of ages, the day before yesterday, and my impression is that few people under 40 have any idea of how extraordinary Taylor’s stature—or at least his fame—once was. Forty years ago he was the best known historian in this country. He was a don who taught generations of pupils and was the most popular lecturer of his time at Oxford. He was also the author of many books, from the drily academic to the shamelessly potboiling, and an exceptionally prolific journalist and broadcaster, the first of the “hackademics,” or “telly dons.”
From the late 1950s to the 1970s, he was a true public figure, appearing on chat shows and giving scintillating if sometimes frivolous and misleading television lectures. He wrote unstoppably, partly because he enjoyed it, partly because he was good at it, partly because he seems to have been one of those men driven by the spectre of poverty, although quite unnecessarily so. Apart from A Personal History, his autobiography, he has been the subject of at least three biographies, not bad for an Oxford don, and one of the things that emerges from these accounts is that his act as Lancastrian man of the people who identified emotionally with the working class from which he had sprung (as he once said) was quite false. In Marxist terms he sprang from the haute bourgeoisie: his father was a merchant making £5,000 a year from the family business before he sold out for £100,000 in 1920, figures which should be multiplied by 40 or 50 to get some idea in today’s values.