Having it both ways

Peter Clarke

  • A.J.P. Taylor: A Biography by Adam Sisman
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 468 pp, £18.99, January 1994, ISBN 1 85619 210 5
  • A.J.P. Taylor: The Traitor within the Gates by Robert Cole
    Macmillan, 285 pp, £40.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 333 59273 5
  • From Napoleon to the Second International: International Essays on the 19th Century by A.J.P. Taylor, edited by Chris Wrigley
    Hamish Hamilton, 426 pp, £25.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 241 13444 7

‘Writing history is like W.C. Fields juggling,’ was how he put it. ‘It looks easy until you try to do it.’ In 1977, when this comment was first published, some younger readers may have asked themselves: W.C. Who? Typically, this was not a forced, would-be trendy allusion to current vogues of popular culture in the electronic media but an authentically personal image, implicitly framed in nostalgia. Nothing odd about that from an Oxford don now past his seventieth birthday, fiddling with his invariable bow tie, while steadily regarding the follies of the world with an unnervingly non-committal gaze through old-fashioned spectacles. Yet this was also the first telly-don, instantly recognised by a wider public than any historian before or since; a man who peddled his idiosyncratic views down-market through the columns of the popular press; the author of controversial works which made news as well as money. No one asked A.J.P. Who?

Such tensions are worth exploring; and the more A.J.P. Taylor’s life is explored, the more tensions are disclosed. When he wrote his autobiography, he proposed to call it ‘An Uninteresting Story’, doubtless suspecting that his publishers would veto this proposal (as they duly did). Whatever else it was, the suggestion was not, as it first appears, a modest proposal. For it was precisely the challenge of triumphing against all odds, of subverting conventional expectations, of winning popular acclaim while affecting to disdain it, which most gratified Taylor’s self-esteem, as he more or less admitted. Thus he relished not only the fact that he was for years the most popular lecturer in the Oxford History Faculty, but also that his lectures were scheduled at the most unpropitious hour, which correspondingly inflated his crowd-pulling achievement – and, moreover, that he could hold his audience spellbound without so much as a note to sustain his magisterial grasp of the topic. Such is the stuff of which legends are made, as he well appreciated.

In A.J.P. Taylor: A Biography Adam Sisman has done enough research to prune the dense foliage of legend which Taylor himself lovingly propagated through his peculiar mixture of vanity, perversity and desire to entertain. His autobiography of 1983, which might well have included a byline for Ben Trovato as ghostwriter, is handled with exemplary discretion by Sisman, who abstains from detailing its petty errors while exposing some revealing economies with the truth. Taylor himself kept almost no papers; but Sisman makes use of a wide range of contemporary publications and correspondence in other archives, much of it in private hands. At one point, admittedly, he solemnly records a story that one of Taylor’s critics once replied to an invitation which specified a fee for a television appearance: ‘Thank you very much for your kind invitation which I am delighted to accept. I enclose a cheque for £35.’ It’s a hoary anecdote and no reference is given for it. Though this may momentarily shake the confidence which it has taken half the book to build up, Sisman is not usually taken in, least of all by unsubstantiated assertions from Taylor himself.

Robert Cole’s book, The Traitor within the Gates, forms an instructive contrast. In his treatment of several episodes, Cole has placed his reliance on the authority of the autobiography. For example, he simply reiterates its hard-luck tale of how Taylor’s ‘special lectureship’ came to an end at Oxford; also its over-zealous denial that his friendship with Beaverbrook had anything to do with the fact that the Sunday Express began commissioning a series of lucrative articles. To be sure, Cole has not set out to write a biography but a linked series of historiographical essays, focused on different themes in Taylor’s extensive oeuvre. As such it benefits from the author’s long engagement with his subject, bringing a solid professionalism to his summaries of the works themselves and the scholarly debates which they provoked.

Cole evidently found opportunities of pressing Taylor on points of interpretation which proved troublesome, and a number of references are to correspondence between them from twenty years ago. Again Cole repeats what he has been told. He reports ‘an astonishing fit of candour’ from Taylor, who wrote of his journalism: ‘the important thing is to get something out that week, not to follow a consistent line. All that matters is to fill the paper.’ Likewise, presumably in another fit, the author of The Origins of the Second World War let the cat out of the bag: ‘I wrote for relaxation when much taken up with College administration.’ This fit must have been insufficiently severe to make him set down on paper what he had once let slip in conversation, that the book had been written in only six weeks. Taxed by his earnest and readily astonished transatlantic correspondent, Taylor showed himself always ready to oblige, explaining that he had gone on television to debate war origins with Hugh Trevor-Roper ‘solely because I was paid to do so’. What with these shock-horror revelations, can we wonder that Cole’s incendiary manuscript was tucked away in a drawer for many years by its perplexed author before being dusted off for publication? Now it can be told.

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