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Wizard of OxPaul Addison
Vol. 12 No. 21 · 8 November 1990

Wizard of Ox

Paul Addison pays tribute to A.J.P. Taylor

3025 words

Many tributes have been paid to Alan Taylor, including some by old and close friends who knew him very much better than I did. My excuse for adding one more piece is that I would like to explain something of what he meant to younger historians who came within his orbit. Perhaps I shall end up speaking only for myself, but at any rate I can speak from experience as one of his pupils.

The greatest of Alan Taylor’s qualities was his unrivalled ability to interest people of all kinds in history. He was famous as the only British historian of his time to reach a popular audience beyond the quality press. The success of his television lectures is well-known. But he also travelled up and down the country lecturing to local branches of the Historical Association, and could pack a hall on a winter night for a topic like the Congress of Vienna or the Liberal landslide of 1906. The secret was, I think, that he talked about the kind of dry-as-dust history which for generations had bored children in school, but transformed it into a tale of the unexpected. He was the sixth-former’s friend, the schoolteacher’s lifeline, and a delightful surprise for the middle-aged and elderly.

No less remarkable was the fact that he could hold the interest, at one and the same time, of the schoolboy learning the subject and the professional who had lived with it for years. His lectures were rather like the doodles of an artist on a tablecloth: in a turn of phrase, or a throwaway remark, you would suddenly glimpse a restless imagination at work. Quite early in life Taylor perfected a simplicity of style which enabled him to communicate with all and sundry. But woe betide anyone who mistook him for a simple mind. Of all the historians I have ever met, Taylor possessed the quickest and sharpest intellect. When attacked, he could certainly give as good as he got, and better. But he was never an intellectual bully. Though supremely egotistical, Taylor was a fundamentally nice man and great fun to be with. It was this combination of creative intellect and the human touch which made him such a fine teacher. The long list of his pupils runs from Robert Kee at Magdalen in the Thirties to Kathy Burk, the last of his postgraduate students, in the Seventies. But a survey of the many historians he taught would show that in various respects they did not agree with Alan Taylor or indeed with one another. One of his greatest virtues was that he never sought to create a Taylorian school of history.

I first met him, in October 1964, as a postgraduate reporting to his supervisor. Taylor had recently passed through the most controversial phase of his career. The row over his failure to obtain the Regius Chair of History at Oxford had been followed by a seismic controversy over his book on the origins of the Second World War. I half expected to find a smell of fire and brimstone in the air, and my knees were knocking together as I climbed the last few steps to his rooms in the New Buildings at Magdalen. But there was only the aroma of his pipe tobacco, and some brisk advice on how to get started with research.

I was often asked whether Taylor was a good supervisor. Some people obviously thought that he would be too busy with journalism or television, or leading the life of Reilly, to pay much attention to his academic duties. He was in fact first-class. He did not take you on because your research might help him with his next book, or with the intention of imposing his ideas. He took you on because he was interested in the field you had chosen. He was also extremely efficient. When at last I wrote up my thesis I sent it him chapter by chapter, and every chapter was returned within a few days with crisp and helpful criticisms.

Best of all, he was an inspiring teacher. I would meet him once a fortnight in term for an hour’s discussion on the problem I was dealing with – the home front in the Second World War. It was like being spirited away in a time-machine. To say that he brought the past to life would be true but quite inadequate. What he conveyed was the sense that the past was an unexplored country in which the traveller was always on the brink of fresh discoveries. He must have suggested a hundred and one lines of inquiry, many of which I never followed up. I might find it interesting to look at the movement, early in the war, to draw up a declaration of the rights of man. Perhaps I should examine the activities of the Czech government in exile and their links with anti-appeasement politicians. Perhaps I should look into the hate campaign Vansittart waged against the Germans, and the support he obtained in the Labour Party. Taylor sketched out many research agendas, but he never told me which to choose or what to think about it. I was not expected to explore a Taylorian hypothesis, or validate a Taylorian judgment.

Taylor was a free thinker who encouraged free thought in others. But there was more to his influence than that. If, like Taylor, you are not only a magician, but charming and kindly with your pupils, you are likely to indoctrinate them whether you intend to or not. He succeeded, I think, in getting people hooked on the kind of history that interested him. If there is a case against Taylor, it is that although he inspired research and debate, he perpetuated an Oxford fixation with old-fashioned diplomatic and political history.

Taylor’s first book, published in 1934, was entitled The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy 1847-1849. If only on a small scale, this was an accurate reflection of the subject-matter that interested him. Most of his career was devoted to the study of diplomatic history and his The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954) is often accounted his greatest work. By the time I met him he had just completed his English History 1914-1945 (1965). This, too, is in the main a political narrative: a struggle for mastery between Asquith, Lloyd George, Baldwin, MacDonald, Chamberlain and Churchill. Other topics were included here and there. But as he remarked in a comment on the problem of constructing general histories: ‘political history provides the acts of the drama; and the rest – culture, economics, religion and so on – are refreshing interruptions, like drinks at the bar during the interval.’

One day in April 1966 I opened the TLS to discover that most of it was given over to an attack on traditional history. In a keynote article, Keith Thomas argued that British historians, immersed in fact-grubbing studies of political and constitutional events, were decades behind their colleagues in other countries. Political history, he urged, must be dethroned in favour of a new social history based on quantification and the social sciences. Taylor’s English History he described as ‘a brilliant swansong for the dying concept of real history as past politics, and social history as an undemanding subsidiary.’

Taylor had in fact written some excellent passages of social history in the book. He was one of the first to attack the standard left-wing interpretation of the Thirties as a period of economic depression and popular protest. His remarks on sport, sex and the cinema anticipated the directions which later research would follow. The attention devoted in the rest of the book to the role of Britain as a great power was qualified by his verdict on Association Football: ‘It was the most democratic game and the most international. By it the mark of England may well remain in the world when the rest of her influence has vanished.’ On the subject of birth control few would quarrel with his memorable advice: ‘The historian should bear in mind that between about 1880 and 1940 or so, he has on his hands a frustrated people.’ Perhaps it was because Taylor had taken trouble with his social history that he was so put out by the attack. For once there was a touch of fire and brimstone in the room.

The debate between the old political history and the new social history is just about played out by now. Political history has broadened its scope and social history has sobered down into a modest and respectable branch of the Old Firm. In his youthful zeal, Thomas overshot the mark by claiming that political history would be relegated to the margins of social science. The history of Europe since 1900 would be unintelligible without a study of the wars, revolutions and ideological struggles which have turned the Continent upside down. Britain may be a different case but we all believe that society is shaped in part by the clash of competing personalities, movements and ideas. I doubt if many social historians are indifferent to the course of events since 1979, or the result of the next general election. Taylor was surely right to suppose that 1916, 1931, 1940 and 1945 were turning-points, not just in the fortunes of a handful of politicians, but in the history of Britain. He also identified, in the opening sentences of the book, the link between political and social history. After 1914, he wrote, the history of the state merged for the first time with the history of the people.

So much for the value of political history. But how great a political historian was Taylor? Critics of his diplomatic history often pointed out that he neglected the ‘profound forces’ behind foreign policy: the economic, social and ideological factors. Critics of English History maintained that he showed little interest in institutions, and had little to say about the world beyond Whitehall and Westminster: the foundations of politics were neglected. The critics, I think, often failed to see that in Taylor’s history there was indeed a profound force: national consciousness, which the nation-state sometimes converted into nationalism. The national consciousness of the Germans, Taylor maintained, went back a thousand years or more. But in the 19th century it had been transformed into a nationalism of which Nazism was merely the continuation. Taylor had no theory of nationalism, but he did know a very great deal about its history. When Alan Taylor fell silent in 1986 we lost one of the very few people in this country who could have placed in long-term perspective the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, and the reunification of Germany. No doubt his perspective would have been sombre. For all that, Taylor’s critics had a point. He did skip lightly over the fundamental factors. In English history he did not cut as deep as the great Halévy or today’s more analytical historians. But Taylor possessed a spark of genius that others lacked. He was a brilliant narrative historian. As a young man Taylor was a demon driver. He drove a succession of fast cars and could not abide the sight of the motorist in front: he simply had to overtake. His genius lay in the fact that he never crashed. So it was in history. Taylor wanted pace, movement, fun, risk. He was perfectly capable of analysis. But as it meant stopping the car and tinkering under the bonnet, he was impatient to get back behind the wheel.

His narrative technique was an extraordinary achievement. Out of the vast heap of evidence he could assemble, with one deft stroke after another, a narrative as clear and firm as stepping-stones over a stream. The situations and the personalities were described in English so plain and simple that, as with Orwell, the style was a revision in itself, puncturing the windbaggery and evasiveness of more genteel authorities. A light touch was maintained throughout. Taylor avoided sarcasm or invective, and the judgments were etched in with irony, humour and paradox.

Critics of Taylor may suppose that he was all technique and no philosophy, but this would be mistaken. Taylor relied on common sense and had no theory to offer. But scepticism gave him a cutting-edge. He was a very effective opponent of Whig history: the tailoring of the past to suit the interests of the powers that be. He was, of course, a radical of Dissenting stock who identified with the tradition of Paine, Cobbett, Cobden and Bright. A lifelong opponent of the Cold War and founder member of CND, he did not believe in the superior wisdom of the British governing class, the Foreign Office, the Times and the BBC. The heroes of English History were Lloyd George and Churchill, the misfits who saved the Establishment from itself. The people, a long-suffering folk, were often wiser than their rulers and quietly circumvented the plans devised for them by Whitehall.

Taylor had a second motive for the subversion of Whig history. Whig history was populated by statesmen with far-sighted aims, who achieved them in the fullness of time. Taylor’s command of narrative convinced him that this was bogus. Politicians were opportunists who did not know what was going to happen from one day to the next and could not anticipate the consequences of their actions. Their careers owed more to accident than design. Sometimes they proclaimed a lofty or ambitious purpose, but this was usually rhetoric. It was more important to examine what politicians did than what they claimed to be doing.

When applied to Hitler, Taylor’s sceptical approach led to a terrific row. In his Origins of the Second World War (1961), he challenged the view that Hitler’s policies were determined by long-term plans for the waging of a major war. Hitler, he argued, was a short-term opportunist whose opportunities were created for him by the blunders of British and French diplomacy. For good measure he added that insofar as Hitler had possessed long-term aims they were those of previous German statesmen.

This is not the place, nor am I the right person, to referee the heavyweight contest which ensued. What is clear is that Taylor’s interpretation flowed directly from his view of history. With one barrel he peppered the German Whigs, for whom it was essential that Hitler and the Nazis should be regarded as a massive aberration in the course of German history. With the other he shot at the British Establishment, who were accused of active complicity in Hitler’s policies. In later years Taylor liked to think that he had routed the critics, a judgment which has been endorsed, in the main, by Norman Stone. Others still say that Taylor was completely wrong. Whatever the truth of the matter, one thing at least is clear. Before Taylor, the origins of the Second World War were taken for granted. After Taylor, they were recognised as a major historical problem.

When I first encountered him Taylor was the most famous historian in Britain, but he was also the most controversial. His television lectures were a popular triumph but there was much feeling against him in the academic world. As the years passed, the feeling diminished and appreciation of him grew. This was partly due to his growing contact with younger historians. Taylor’s friend and patron Lord Beaverbrook had built up an archive of political papers of which the most important were those of Lloyd George. Beaverbrook hoped to make them available to researchers but died before the plan could be realised. Following his death, Taylor persuaded the directors of Beaverbrook Newspapers and the trustees of his estate to set up the Beaverbrook Library just off Fleet Street. Taylor was appointed honorary director and the Library opened in May 1967.

Taylor had a profound interest in Lloyd George. So had younger historians. For Taylor, Lloyd George was interesting in himself: a great radical, war leader and sexual adventurer. The way he managed his women was a subject no less compelling than the way he manipulated the generals. For younger historians, the interest more often lay in some wider theme in which Lloyd George was involved: land reform, industrial unrest, the Irish question, or the development of Cabinet government. But Taylor’s fascination with Lloyd George blended happily with the research of apprentice historians. He took a lively interest in all the work in progress and would summon regular visitors into his office for a chat. A seminar was organised with Taylor in the chair and a collection of papers published. The Beaverbrook Library was a kind of alternative Public Record Office from which revisionist history flowed with something of the Taylor touch.

It was too good to last and Beaverbrook’s son closed it down in 1975 to provide more space for the advertising department of Express Newspapers. Only Taylor’s intervention ensured that the archive was transferred to the House of Lords Record Office instead of being sold to the United States. But although the Library was closed, Taylor had won the admiration of many young historians who had learnt to appreciate his insights and ideas. A festschrift had already been presented to him on his 60th birthday in 1966. A second followed in 1976 and a third in 1986. A stupendous bibliography of his writings, compiled by Chris Wrigley, was perhaps the most fitting tribute of all. By the end of his life, his reputation among modern historians was probably higher than ever. There was also a curious intellectual current in his favour. Narrative history, so long regarded with condescension, was seen once more as one of the most valuable tools of the trade.

Was Taylor a great historian? He himself thought not, and by the strictest of definitions he may have been right. A great historian, it could be argued, is one who produces an intellectual revolution in his field, changing the terms in which the past is perceived. Taylor, on the other hand, was the most creative and prolific exponent of a well-established tradition. But it does not really matter whether he is given the title or not. He was a genius of narrative history, a great communicator and a great teacher.

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