Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

It is some time since I wrote a diary here. It will be seen I have had plenty to write about. I should explain that there are two versions of a period of my life. One is the version of other people, a version which others try to impose upon me. The other is my own version, a version equally genuine and much more unusual.

According to others such as my doctors and the members of my family, I had a mental breakdown, was the victim of fantasies and never moved from the hospital bedroom except to have a bath and did not read even the newspaper. This version can be disregarded. According to my recollection, I had a life of adventure interrupted by periods of relaxation, and never encountered insoluble difficulties. Most of my life seems to have been passed in some part of the North of England and at different periods. My first stretch was in Roman Britain, when I lived in York and was afterwards stationed on the Wall. These experiences were very instructive to me as an historian.

The Romans did not remain long. Nor did I waste much time at the court of King Arthur. The outstanding figure of my attraction was the king, though I did not manage to encounter him often. This was the period when I spent most of my time on the Yorkshire moors. I got lost pretty often, though always rescued by other wanderers. Gradually I moved into a more civilised existence. The centre of my life was now Harrogate, a place I have never visited in my life. I had difficulties here obtaining regular copies of the Manchester Guardian, which did not surprise me at all. I also attended a very expensive luncheon party one Sunday in Harrogate given by my daughter Amelia, who is not in the habit of giving expensive luncheon parties.

I gradually resumed a family life. The principal figures in it were my mother and father, both of whom had, I thought, been dead for some time. My father had taken over a Medieval monastery – was it Furness Abbey? – which he had transformed into a boarding-house for holidaymakers. My father was as delightful as ever and as efficient. I spent an occasional night with him during the summer. Though friendly, he never displayed much interest in my actitivies whatever they might be.

I sometimes went shopping with my mother in Manchester, a thing I had done often enough in real life. I found Kendal Milne a great obstacle against getting from one end of Manchester to another. One afternoon I encountered a birthday party given by some shop assistants. I wanted to get through, not to take part in it. My father took me out to his monastery, an event which somewhat puzzled me because in the general puzzle of my existence I was aware that I lived in the 18th century when motor-cars did not exist. It also puzzled me that my hospital rooms were sometimes in London and sometimes in France, probably in Paris, though the nurses were always English. No one ever tried to explain to me where I was or what I was doing. It was a long period of bewilderment which I gradually accepted as one of total incomprehensibility. It then just disappeared along with the figures who populated it, including my father and mother. I was sorry to lose him, otherwise I did not worry.

In the last episode of my medical career some of it became clear to me. I recognised that I was in a hospital, though it was not clear to me where – probably London, though it might be somewhere in France. It was also clear to me that wherever it was it was difficult or impossible to get out of it. In the quiet of lunchtime I would pack a small bag and set off for the way out. Sooner or later a nurse would catch me and ask me where I was going. Patiently I would be led back to my own quarters without any explanation. I must have read something during this long and dreary period. But apart from the Times every morning, I can only remember reading The Good Soldier Schweik in its most extended edition – something over seven hundred pages. It is still an incomparable war book.

One morning, without any explanation, I was told that I was moving out. There was my wife waiting for me. I had to admit that I had spent all this time in University College Hospital, not in France, but I still found many things hard to explain – what had been wrong with me, what treatment I had received, why it should end. The important thing was to be out. I have firmly resolved never to enter a hospital again. If this means the end of my life I shall not care. Anything is better than to be imprisoned in a hospital.

Life has begun to stir since I was released. I opened an exhibition of the works of David Low, which had been locked up since his death. Some years ago I opened a similar exhibition of Low’s works which the University of Canterbury had managed to acquire. Now I launched another set which his daughter had at last revealed. It is the finest collection of radical art in existence. A week or two later I attended a commemoration of Bronterre O’Brien, perhaps the greatest of the Chartist leaders. I must confess that I had forgotten about O’Brien until I looked him up. Once I read again his enthusiasm for the radical cause I recognised his greatness. We made something of a pilgrimage to his tomb in Abney Park cemetery, Stoke Newington. This was wild land for us. I had no idea that Stoke Newington was so near the centre of London, still less that Abney Park cemetery was a collection of some historic merit. However, after some toil, we made the journey. The cemetery was much overgrown. Even O’Brien’s table tomb was obscured by vegetation. But a way had been cleared. I was glad to praise the great radical even though his memory is somewhat faded. Stoke Newington has an active group of his admirers, mostly Irish, led by Chris Maguire, an Irish electrician whose acquaintance I was glad to make. Of such men were radicals once made.

That ends my expedition. I cannot walk any distance and easily fall asleep. It is a relief not to go to the theatre or a cinema. I miss chamber concerts more than any other form of public activity. One day, perhaps, I shall manage to attend one. One day life will begin again for me. I cannot say that I miss it very much.