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
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.
That pose as the cheeky northerner was part of his appeal, and we lapped up his Observer reviews, his New Statesman diaries, and his television performances—his debate with Hugh Trevor-Roper over his book The Origins of the Second World War stays in the memory half a lifetime later, and it was on a higher level than almost any television today. He was an intensely readable writer, from the attention-grabbing first sentences to the jokes and the epigrams (“If the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbours as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation”).
In a modest way, some of his books did change the way we look at history. Or perhaps I should say passages in his books: Taylor did not propound larger theories; he was not a man for the longue durée, and he was not really an original scholar. Before the war he wrote two short academic books, The Italian Problem In European Diplomacy 1847-1849 and Germany’s First Bid For Colonies 1884-1885, both appropriately austere subjects, although even then there was an intimation of things to come when a scholarly reviewer reprobated Taylor’s “undergraduate levity.” In the 1940s he published The Habsburg Monarchy and The Course of German History, and alongside others, in 1954 The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, in 1957 The Trouble Makers, an “alternative” view of foreign policy, and in 1965 English History 1914-1945, perhaps his most famous book of all. Then it was downhill all the way, including some tripe it would be kinder to forget.
His most controversial book did have a thesis. The Origins of the Second World War (1961) enraged critics who thought that Taylor had exculpated Hitler by portraying him as an adventurer and improviser with no consistent strategy, as well as “the sounding-board for the German nation.” That continued the theme, set out in sometimes glib and vulgar fashion in The Course of German History, that the Germans were a nation of permanent conquerors. What he did get right in The Origins was his own country. From the time Taylor’s friend Michael Foot and two confederates published their absurd squib Guilty Men in 1940, a myth had grown up that the evil appeasers had grovelled to Hitler against the wishes of the British people, determined under the brave leadership of the left to resist him. As Taylor showed, the British people were desperate to avoid war, as were almost all the London newspapers and the Labour party.
If you want to conjure up this epigrammatic and wisecracking writer it has to be a sentence or two at a time. The footnotes and asides are almost the best thing about The Struggle for Mastery. Taylor deftly reminds us of one reason why, in the decades before 1914, Britain was as unquestionably pacific as Germany was bellicose: “In England the taxpayers were also the ruling class; economy was of immediate benefit to them. In Germany the ruling class did not pay the taxes; economy brought them no advantage.” Or again in English History, the Labour party’s shibboleth of “the hungry thirties” is demolished in a few words: it was a time when, in truth, “most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages.”
And yet there is another side to this. Looking back and re-reading the sparkling prose which delighted me when young, I can’t help feeling that it was indeed designed to appeal to adolescents. As the years went by, I learned more about Taylor and eventually met him. It is not a rare experience to find someone captivating as a public performer but then less so as a private person. This was true of Taylor to an unusual degree, and he was his own prosecuting counsel. A Personal History is one of the most horribly revealing autobiographies ever published. It’s not so much Taylor’s richly comical private life with—or at the hands of—three terrifying wives. What is so lowering is the self-pity and self-deception, the endless catalogue of spite and resentment. Old scores are settled, old enmities picked over, the squabbles of Magdalen common room regurgitated 40 years on. Here the pithy asides aren’t quite so pleasing: “like most Jews he was an elitist”; “like most homosexuals, he was neurotic”; “unscrupulousness—the usual characteristic of a homosexual.” And the nastiest moment in the book may be when he complains that although he did not win a Balliol scholarship 50 years before, he could now console himself with the thought that, “none of the boys who got scholarships at Balliol when I got none has been heard of since.” In his excellent biography of Taylor, Adam Sisman points out an explanation for this: two of those Balliol boys were killed in the 1939-45 war, in which Taylor prudently chose to keep the home fires burning.
Although he never stood for parliament, Taylor was active in politics, from the 1920s, when he ran messages for the TUC in the general strike and briefly joined the Communist party, to the 1950s when he was one of the most prominent figures in CND. He once said that Mill’s phrase about the Conservatives being the stupid party was not unfair since “to be stupid and sensible are not far apart. The Progressive party, radical and socialist, is clever, but silly.” That was a rare glimpse of self-knowledge since Taylor’s own politics were indeed silly.
He certainly has his own small part in the story of the great Soviet illusion. Taylor was more unattractive than most fellow travellers since he was not truly illusioned. He didn’t deny the barbarous nature of Stalin’s regime: he accepted and almost relished it. Many years later, he mentioned his friend Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1934 Winter in Moscow as one of the best of all books about Soviet Russia, but that was not what he had thought at the time. When Muggeridge had begun filing some of the rare truthful accounts of what was happening in the Soviet Union, Taylor rebuked him: “You can’t see clearly enough the ruthlessness and the necessity of the class war.” Private property had been abolished, “and that alone is to my mind worth unending sacrifices,” which were not, of course, made by history lecturers at Manchester, where Taylor was at the time, or any other Englishmen. “The Russian worker has a control over his work, through the factory committees, which no worker ever had before: he can criticise, he can control the management: what he says goes.”
It is easy, more than 70 years later, to condemn this as ignorant drivel, but it went further in Taylor’s case. “There was a danger that the urban socialism would be swamped by a new capitalism coming from the kulaks and that had to be fought, even at the cost of famine,” a bleak verdict on 2m dead. Even in his published writings Taylor exemplifies that “snobbish feeling” or racism of the left, which his contemporary WH Auden looked back on with shame, when appalling crimes in backward Russia were overlooked by intellectuals who would have been horrified by such things in a western country.
“Let’s see, Taylor,” one of his Oxford enemies, the medievalist VH Galbraith, maliciously said. “Too young for one war and too old for the other, eh?” That sneer would have been less justified if Taylor had not written about war with such lip-smacking relish, as in the early months of the war on the eastern front in 1941, when Soviet soldiers who had retreated were put to death “in true Jacobin spirit.” That exactly illustrates Auden’s point: even at his most brutal, Taylor would never have written like that if the soldiers had been from Lancashire or London.
uite a few people who once admired Taylor, as a scholar as well as a stylist and gadfly, have been disabused over the years. I have myself come close to feeling that almost nothing he says can ever be accepted without corroboration. Those darts and sallies, the glittering phrases I once enjoyed so much, are Taylor either at his most illuminating or his most unreliable. He will say in one sweeping statement that the Reformation left Germany with a large Catholic minority, not big enough to take responsibility for the country but too big merely to be granted toleration, as English Catholics were in the 19th century. This sounds neat until you remember that Catholics weren’t a minority in Germany at all but a majority, both in the first reich around 1700 and in the third reich around 1940, and for that matter in the federal republic before unification. Or he will say that, in 1914, “most British generals were cavalry men,” which might explain something if it had been true. Or for the sake of emphasis he will write of the 2m Irish who died in the famine, when he means 1m.
My friend Alan Watkins, a political journalist who has written books of real scholarship and who says he learned something about how to write from Taylor, has described his own disenchantment. In English History, Taylor gives a colourful account of the way Chamberlain was superseded by Churchill in May 1940, and of the part played by Attlee—one of Taylor’s bêtes noires—”who shrank from responsibility” until the Labour party’s national executive could be consulted. As Watkins has demonstrated in the book The Road to Number 10, this account is simply false.
Worse still is Taylor’s account of how Lloyd George took over from Asquith, because it is distorted by his credulous acceptance of what had been written by the man he called “Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, my beloved friend.” Those touching words conceal the most discreditable episode in Taylor’s life. His connection with Beaverbrook has been treated as a curiosity or harmless foible, but looking back it now seems utterly disgraceful, to a degree which must cloud Taylor’s whole reputation as a historian.
Beaverbrook was a bully and a crook. He arrived in England aged 30 because the financial activities with which he had made his first fortune in Canada could no longer bear scrutiny there, and he then bought his way into British politics and newspapers. In neither did he achieve anything permanent or do any good. Taylor liked the pithy, almost primitive style of Beaverbrook’s alleged history books, and after he had praised one of them the two met and became friends. It is too easy to say that Taylor was undone by charm, like Foot and others on the left whom Beaverbrook seduced—Taylor prostituted himself. He had written for popular papers before, but he now began writing for the Sunday Express as a hack in the fullest sense, working to order on subjects of the editor’s choosing and saying what he was told to say. No one who has earned a living writing “why-oh-whys” should be too censorious (I speak with feeling) but there was a wonderfully trashy quality about Taylor’s Sunday Express pieces, from his very first, “Why must we soft-soap the Germans?” One favourite that lingers in the memory insisted that most road accidents were caused by people driving too slowly; as Michael Wharton—”Peter Simple” of the Telegraph, who died recently—said at the time, what it is to have a highly trained mind.
But that was not the end of Taylor’s dealings with Beaverbrook, or the worst of them. In English History, he eulogised the Daily Express and its owner. Beaverbrook “was not confined by the English social system and had the new world view that there was no difference between rich and poor except that the rich had more money. The Daily Express was what England would have been without her class system.” Anyone who can remember Beaverbrook’s Express might think that one of the best arguments ever made for the English class system. It’s true that the book is littered with Taylor’s pawky pontifications, of a kind more suitable to a newspaper column than The Oxford History of England (of which English History forms a volume), especially when he touches on cultural matters. He continues a vendetta of his own against the BBC, saying entirely falsely that it contributed little to musical life. And to say that Charlie Chaplin will be remembered when “writers, statesmen and scientists are forgotten, as timeless as Shakespeare and as great,” is beyond pawky or provocative, about as fatuous a statement as could possibly be made in so few words.
Even that palls beside what Taylor says about Beaverbrook as a writer. In a footnote he describes him as “the greatest newspaperman since Northcliffe and also a considerable historian.” Then, speaking of Beaverbrook’s histories: “Their brilliant presentation, wealth of material and deep understanding of men’s motives, stir the admiration of the professional historian”—this in a special lecture at the British Academy, the nation’s official institute of scholarship. Anyone believing that should turn to Peter Fraser’s 1982 Historical Journal article “Lord Beaverbrook’s Fabrications in Politicians and the War,” which devastatingly shows that Beaverbrook’s history cannot be taken seriously by anyone with a concern for truth.
Many works of history have been inspired and informed by the writer’s political outlook or hopes. In Taylor’s case the trouble is that his prejudices really affected his understanding. In 1942 he claimed that the victims of the Moscow trials had been guilty, and that “the peoples of Europe can enjoy freedom only under the joint protection of England and Russia.” Four years later he insisted that “if the Ruhr is rebuilt, the second German war will have been fought in vain.” Beyond bigoted Germanophobia, that displays active malevolence towards Europe as a whole.
Shortly before that, he had told listeners to a BBC broadcast: “Nobody in Europe believes in the American way of life—that is, in private enterprise, or rather, those who believe in it are a defeated party which seems to have no more future than the Jacobites in England after 1745.” He dogmatically held that the competitive market economy was finished and that only a command economy could work, an ignorant prejudice which runs through, and mars, his writing; and who looks the Jacobite now?
One last legacy of Taylor’s career is the “journo-don.” He blazed a trail later followed by Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson and others. First a reputation is established by works of authentic scholarship, then come the broader books of high vulgarisation, then the television series, full of glib generalisations and, too often, of downright howlers. But wasn’t Taylor himself following the great tradition of Macaulay as a popular historian? Maybe the comparison is all too apt. As Lord Acton said, Macaulay’s opinions were “utterly base, contemptible and odious,” his writing “flashy and superficial,” which is true of my boyhood hero Taylor, I now fear. Acton went on to say that even he, the most unsympathetic of his critics, could still think Macaulay one of the greatest of writers, and I still think Taylor at his best a very good writer. The pity of it is that he too was so often “pleasant reading, and key to half the prejudices of our age.”