‘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.
An uninteresting story it still fails to be, albeit one not exactly as Taylor himself liked to tell it. True, he was the product of an irreproachable North Country tradition of dissent, as much political as religious – ‘a hereditary Lancashire radical’ was how he fairly described himself in the Fifties. His self-image as an embattled outsider, railing against alien privilege, was not false but it was certainly much improved by the imaginative force with which he lovingly burnished it. ‘When I first went to Oxford, I was astonished to find a town not dominated by mill chimneys,’ he once wrote, displaying a capacity for provoking astonishment which he must have practised on himself before deploying it on others. Perhaps he thought that Southerners, in their lax and ignorant way, would conflate the industrial grime of Stockport with the sea breezes of genteel Southport, where young Alan was actually brought up.
Grandfather Taylor had made his money in the cotton trade – he claimed to be a millionaire – and Alan’s father Percy worked in the family business, lighting his first havana as he was borne daily by train to his office in Manchester. When Percy Taylor insisted on quitting in 1920 (a good year to get out of cotton), his pay-off was £100,000, which would be worth at least a couple of million today. This produced a rentier income which saw the Taylor family comfortably through the Slump. Young Alan had no financial need of a scholarship at Oxford, just an overbearing psychological need; he attributed Balliol’s failure to give him one to his father’s wealth – a cause of lifelong resentment. But once at Oriel with a face-saving Exhibition, he did not resent daddy setting him up with a fast car, except that he distanced himself from the gilded youth by using it on the workers’ side in the General Strike of 1926. Alan grew up with an effortless capacity to have it both ways.
Not that Percy looked after the family fortune very well. He was to die a relatively poor man, having given away much of his wealth in his pursuit of good causes. First as a Lloyd George Liberal before the First World War, hot for the People’s Budget and land taxes, then as a fervent supporter of the Independent Labour Party, bent on expropriation of his own class, Percy Taylor took a Robin Hood view of politics. His party trick was to stand on his head, literally, for the benefit of his nephews and nieces, since they collected the money that cascaded out of his pockets. The watchful eye of his wife Connie meanwhile ensured that all benefited equally from this homely exercise in the redistribution of wealth.
The easygoing Percy had no watchful eye where Connie was concerned. She sought emotional fulfilment not only in the vicarious pursuit of revolutionary justice but more immediately in the companionship of younger men, one in particular, from whom she became inseparable. All of this Percy condoned, while himself looking to even younger women for a kind of consolation which it would have required J.M. Barrie to understand, or innocently fail to understand. Alan sided with his father, or rather against his mother. His resolve never to be put in such a position himself was, however, mocked by his subsequent marital experience. His own wife Margaret was to prove as susceptible as Connie.
First it was one of Alan’s pupils at Oxford, Robert Kee, for whom Margaret fell – it was the outbreak of war – in a way that embarrassed both men but naturally hurt her husband the more. As Sisman tells it, both were determined to behave well, to do the right thing. Kee’s war service provides a period sub-plot. When his plane was shot down, Margaret defied clothes rationing to plunge into deep mourning. With Kee away in his prisoner-of-war camp, the reconciled Taylors had two more children. At the end of the war they took a room in London, which Margaret excitedly furnished – for the returning warrior, as Alan suddenly realised. His epiphany came when he went to see Brief Encounter. Its clipped, understated images of passion and frustration spoke to his own predicament and in his own idiom. Alan’s stiff upper lip collapsed. What, he wondered, could possibly he worse?
Well, Dylan Thomas, of course. The bibulous Welsh poet, already squandering his talent as prodigally as other people’s money, became Margaret’s next obsession. Thomas was the cad to end all cads, the cadger to end all cadgers. No Trevor Howard, he might at a pinch have been played by Oliver Reed. Margaret Taylor became a patron to the Thomases, her money readily given, and Alan’s reluctantly, binding them all together in a web of mutual resentment. It brought out Alan’s hatred of ‘spongers’, and it exacerbated his existing friction with Margaret, from whom, however, he was reluctant to break.
Emphatic that he would not emulate his parents’ unsatisfactory accommodation, he nonetheless gave a passable imitation of Percy to Margaret’s Connie. Even after he had divorced Margaret in the early Fifties, she continued to regard Alan as her husband. His second marriage (to Eve Crosland, sister of Tony) meant a second home and a second family – but with Alan hopping between both. Just as, when he left Margaret to live with Eve, he had continued to spend part of each week with Margaret, so when he eventually left Eve in the late Sixties, he went back to Margaret but continued to spend Sundays with Eve. The resolution of this problem, or perhaps its complication, came after his further divorce (from Eve), which left him free to marry his third wife, Eva Haraszti; whereupon he took to dividing his time between her and Margaret, a practice that ceased only with Margaret’s death.
Such arrangements were simultaneously difficult to conceal and difficult to acknowledge. They were a social handicap which may have been a career obstacle in the Fifties. Without any doubt the multiple households were an enormous financial drain, even on an income that, with press and television earnings, was ten times the average wage and at least double the professorial salary which, notoriously, Taylor never enjoyed. Taylor’s double life was deliberately maintained, in one form or another, for thirty years – a parallel with Lloyd George which Sisman is surely right to point out. Little wonder that Taylor in these years came to feel increasing affinity with the ‘Goat’, whose historical reputation he did much to restore.
In doing so, he restored another of the household gods of his parental home, marking his increasing readiness to acknowledge the extent to which it had ineluctably shaped him. His Quaker education at Bootham School may have provoked an immediate countervailing effect in a cynical repudiation of John Bright; but in Birmingham Town Hall on 12 May 1958, exactly one hundred years after Bright had spoken there, Taylor concluded his own speech to a CND meeting by echoing Bright’s words (and shed his own tears with his old history master afterwards). What was Taylor’s youthful fling with Communism but a projection of the radical commitment which his parents had instilled? Moreover, not just their meeting-house moral values but their everyday ethic of Manchesterism was ineradicably imbued in him. He wrote in his autobiography of a wounding incident (Dylan and Margaret again) which ‘went against my deepest principle – the sanctity of contract’. Money was the one subject which was no joke to Taylor. He told his old friend Malcolm Muggeridge in 1957 that ‘I can’t resist my merchant parents. I love buying and selling even myself.’
Did he sell himself – and too cheap? His career really falls into two halves. In the first he was an academic historian with knobs on; in the second he was all knobs. Having made a breakthrough on television in its formative period in the Fifties, and having landed a fat contract with the Sunday Express, he had the option of telling the University of Oxford to get lost. In due course this temptation became irresistible.
To be sure, Hugh Trevor-Roper rather than Taylor had been appointed Regius Professor of Modern History by Macmillan in 1957. ‘I must try to wear with dignity the mantle which has been stolen from him,’ Trevor-Roper graciously told Namier. This was a common feeling at the time. ‘Everyone, including Hugh, knows my qualifications are better than his; and being vain but not ambitious, this suits me down to the ground,’ wrote Taylor. He soon persuaded himself that he would not have accepted the Chair ‘from hands still stained with blood’ (this was soon after Suez) and blamed Namier, to whom he never spoke again. He justified this abrupt severance of a friendship of three decades by saying that, although it might have looked like pique had he wanted the Chair, ‘as I had decided to refuse it in any case, I took my stand on principle.’
This is vintage Taylor, alas. Namier had been a good ally from the Thirties, when they were both in the History Department at Manchester University. Though Taylor always bridled at being called a pupil of Namier, he owed Namier a substantial intellectual debt, which helped establish his credentials as a Central European scholar. Nor was there any ideological difficulty here. Taylor might have called himself a Marxist, but he was never even marxisant as a historian. He did not offer structural accounts of the economic and social determination of historical events. Instead, his methodology was that of an old-fashioned diplomatic historian. ‘But the ideas stuffed into the framework do not conform to accepted views,’ he wrote. ‘This is, I suppose, why my books annoy some people – I am a traitor within the gates.’
The real break in Taylor’s professional career came after he had published The Struggle for Mastery in Europe in 1954. Here was his big scholarly book in the Oxford University Press’s prestigious new series on the History of Modern Europe – all the more satisfactory for being published 12 years ahead of the next of the commissioned volumes. It brought together themes on which he had worked for twenty years. Cole is right to say that, as a diplomatic historian, Taylor proposed ‘a set of virtually axiomatic assumptions to be found among the statesmen’. Statesmen maximised power just as economic agents are postulated to maximise economic returns. In this sense alone he was concerned with general structural explanations, and it is wrong to characterise his as an ‘accidental’ view of history. But accidents will happen, for all that, and having happened, may have consequences out of all proportion to their origins. A particular event occurs at a particular juncture; for a moment everything is touch and go; the entire pattern could be altered one way or another; and then the ‘inevitable’ course of history takes one direction or another. This was the view Taylor articulated in the Fifties, now at the peak of his powers, demonstrating that he had won his own struggle for mastery of his professional vocation.
‘What happened next?’ was his favourite question: it forms the subtitle of an autobiographical essay reprinted in a useful new collection of his essays, From Napoleon to the Second International (from which several quotations, including the one that begins this review, are taken). It was the question that historians had a ‘prime duty’ to answer; and turning it on its author, what happened can be seen as a consequence of a number of particular events. There was an invitation to give the Ford Lectures, which had to be on English history. He wrote The Troublemakers as a result, a study of those ‘dissenters’, as he termed them, Fox and Cobden and Bright and Hobson and all the stage army of the good, who had criticised British foreign policy as wrong – in short, ‘my heroes so far as I have ever found any’. This, his favourite book, helped divert Taylor from international relations and led to his volume in the Oxford History of England, English History, 1914-45. Here was a change of academic course; but there was also the chance to parlay his academic fame into the real thing by taking his lecture-hall set-pieces into the sitting-rooms of the people via television.
Nor should we ignore the influence of Lord Beaverbrook, ultimately ‘the dearest friend I ever had’. Sisman neatly sums up the implied compact: ‘For Alan, Beaverbrook was living history; for Beaverbrook, Alan was his passport to posterity.’ It was, of course, fun to claim Max as a friend; and nice to be provided with bountiful cases of wine, laid down prudently for Taylor’s old age. Who kidded whom? Taylor first made his number with Beaverbrook by praising him as a hitherto under-appreciated historian whose account of politics in the First World War had stood the test of time; he ended by delighting whenever the ‘great historian’ was caught out inventing anecdotes, the more outrageous the better. ‘For me Max could do no wrong,’ he confessed – or perhaps boasted, because only a very dear friend, not a mere court historian, would presume to speak in such terms. In Beaverbrook Taylor met someone even more adept than himself at having it both ways: the great insider who was simultaneously the capricious scourge of the Establishment, playing to the gallery, but above all pleasing himself.
In the end Taylor gave up his academic career to please himself. He was prompted by his disappointment over the Regius Chair and his consequent frustration about what to do when the tenure of his ‘special lectureship’, a fixed-term respite from a full tutorial load, reached its limit in 1963. A personal Chair was not forthcoming at Oxford, but he did not want to move, and Taylor was now far too grand to consider reverting to an ordinary tutorial fellowship. He decided to bow out disgracefully, making out that he had been ‘sacked’, a story which the press naturally took up. He made no bones about asking for special terms. ‘Of course I’m asking for special terms,’ he said. ‘I’m rather special historian.’
By now the world, if not Oxford, took him at his own valuation. He had recently published The Origins of the Second World War, which had received international attention in the media as well as in the scholarly journals. It was the first major work to challenge the received view about Hitler and appeasement. Ever since 1940 and Churchill’s triumph, those whom Taylor’s friend Michael Foot had helped characterise as the Guilty Men had stood convicted for their folly at Munich; and ever since the Nuremberg trials, the far greater guilt of Hitler in planning the war had been generally presumed. Today this conventional wisdom looks like a historiographical period-piece to scholars – a measure of Taylor’s achievement in instigating a revisionist approach to appeasement and the origins of the war. He showed that nothing can be taken on trust, that everything is open to debate. He was, moreover, subjecting to astringent historical analysis the very views which he had espoused at the time. The episode brought out the best in him.
It also brought out the worst. Some of the conclusions which he tendentiously trailed were not quite what they seemed. The ‘Nuremberg’ case was that Hitler had planned the war, with a checklist of objectives, to be achieved on a set timetable, all duly minuted, signed and sealed. This Taylor undermined and instead produced a scenario of opportunism and opportunities – some taken and some missed – in which Hitler ‘became involved in war through launching on 29 August a diplomatic manoeuvre which he ought to have launched on 28 August’. But to pose the options in this way created a wholly false antithesis, as critics like F.H. Hinsley pointed out, between profound causes and specific events. It was as though the whole issue turned on a choice between plan and no-plan, and as though Taylor was simply left with no-plan as his residual alternative. In fact he knew better. He wrote that Hitler’s policy of aggrandisement ‘made some war probable, if not inevitable, at some time’, but not ‘the war which started in September 1939’. Taylor, in short, was not so innocent, not so transparent, not so candid, as he chose to appear. One reason there was quite so much fuss was that he made sure there would be.
As Sisman’s convincing portrait shows, Taylor was not an easy man. His books created controversy, which was only to be expected, but he himself deliberately fuelled it, partly by pretending not to understand his critics. He claimed to have few friends – none in Oxford after nearly forty years, he said. Really it was his contemporaries, his rivals, his equals (perish the thought!) whom he could not bear, whereas to many historians of a distinctly younger generation he showed kindness, support and understanding, even when they subverted his own views. With two failed marriages behind him, he knew he was lucky to find in Eva Haraszti, his third wife, a uniquely tolerant companion in his last years, which he had come to dread. He lived for his writing and in the end, with Parkinson’s disease getting a hold, he found that he could no longer do it. His last published pieces appeared in the LRB, reaching a somewhat smaller readership than the Sunday Express, but one with better cause to recognise him as one of their own. As he said of the Troublemakers, ‘maybe they were often mistaken, but you can see why they made their mistakes.’