When I became a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, the fact that my vote at college meetings counted the same as that of A.J.P. Taylor seemed to me, as it still does, a glorious democratic quirk of the Oxford collegiate system. I was just 26 and the youngest fellow; he was probably the most famous historian in the world. I was not long to think of him by his initials, for Alan was the least standoffish of the senior fellows, the least likely to stand on his dignity. He loved talking – and being listened to. One could safely bring any guest to dinner and place them near him. They would be bound to come away delighted with a stream of funny stories, historical anecdotes and sly shafts of perspicacity. Some of this was due to his courtesy and gregariousness, but he also simply loved performing for an audience. If you provided the audience, he provided the performance.
Partly because of this love of an audience, he has lived a far more public life than most Oxford dons do. So successful was he in this respect that, no doubt to his own pleasure, he was probably not often popularly thought of as an Oxford don. The media have their own not very likeable stereotype of the Oxford don, and Alan clearly didn’t fit that (though, to be fair, Oxford is full of people who do). So he wasn’t ‘an Oxford don’; he was AJPT. But the fact is that he has been a fellow of Magdalen for half a century, and a fifty-year membership of a closed little world like an Oxford college is likely to leave its mark on any man – and on any college.
There was, for a new young fellow like myself, no shortage of AJP stories, by no means all apocryphal. How, at one college meeting, Alan had proposed that the chapel be turned into a swimming-pool. How Alan had loathed the loathsome Dylan Thomas. How Alan had crossed swords with C.S. Lewis, Magdalen’s Fellow in English, on this or that occasion. How, on being asked as a young man at interview whether it was true that he had strongly-held left-wing views, he had replied: ‘No. I have extreme views, weakly held.’ How Alan had been invited to give the main address at the speech day of one of Magdalen’s schools and had regaled the boys with a history of the major benefactors of the college (and thus of the school), showing that all of them had acquired their wealth by foul means and had had enough left over to buy themselves indulgences through their benefaction: the moral being that if you hear that ‘crime never pays,’ don’t believe it.
Such stories blended all too easily with the myriad anecdotes of which Magdalen is full – more so, perhaps, than any other Oxford college. How C.S. Lewis had insisted on starting his lectures punctually on the hour but had seldom managed to get to the lecture room in time, so that he would begin his lecture while strolling up the High Street and enter the hall already well into his third paragraph. The Dean of Divinity who was alleged to have committed the only Magdalen murder, and how it had been decided not to call the police in for fear of scandal. How Harry Weldon, leader of the more progressive fellows, turned down every single Etonian applicant for entry on meritocratic grounds and how the Etonians already up at the college demonstrated in the quad against Weldon, ‘the Red Dean’. How Weldon had worsted Lewis, who was generally on the reactionary side, and how Lewis had retaliated by using Weldon as his model for the Devil in some of his writings.
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[*] Warfare, Diplomacy and Politics: Essays in Honour of A.J.P. Taylor, edited by Chris Wrigley. Hamish Hamilton, 248 pp., £15, 24 March, 0 241 11789 5.