Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

Sitting in Waterlow Park the other afternoon, I heard a park keeper ask an old lady with a transistor, ‘What is happening in the Cup Final?’ – to which the old lady replied: ‘Which one do you mean – the one at Wembley or the one at the Falklands?’ The park keeper returned: ‘Wembley of course. We have got to win in the Falklands, we are in the right.’ This is, I think, the general reaction when people consider the Falklands affair. Stage one: the Argentine occupation was totally unjustified – this appears to me indisputable. Stage two: therefore we are not only entitled to throw the Argentinians out again, it is our duty to do so. This, too, commands general agreement though it is not beyond argument. I do not believe that we have a duty to remedy every act of injustice, even if it is comitted against our own people. At any rate, we arrive at stage three: our victory is not only beyond argument, its consequences can be prolonged indefinitely. This final stage of discussion follows logically on what came before but it seems to me far from inevitable.

I am not qualified to judge the character of military operations. It is generally assumed that the British task force will be entirely successful without grave, still less unacceptable losses. It is generally assumed that the Argentinian forces will be expelled. And then what? I do not see how the Falkland Isles can return to their former condition, idyllic as it was alleged to be. The islands must become a permanent military base with barracks, airfields with runways and hangars, and naval dockyards. There must be all the accompaniments of a considerable fortified city: electricity works, water supplies, shops, cinemas, hospitals, presumably even prisons. No one seems to have contemplated the problems of the future. Can we really maintain for good a first-class base at the other end of the world? And if we can do this, is it worth doing? As the questions pile one on another, the wisest course is to cease these speculations and leave events to decide the future fate of the Falkland Islands. This is what I intend to do for the future, though no doubt I shall not stick to my resolve.

Meanwhile I return to my own recent activities. Here, too, I have lapsed from my resolves. Time and again, as I get older and shakier, I determine not to go wandering any more. Time and again, I find myself in some strange part of the country or, even worse, actually abroad. My peaceful old age turns into the wanderings of an itinerant scholar. So it happened with me in the recent weeks. First, as I foresaw in my last diary entry, I kept my promise to my grandchildren and took them to Venice – three boys and one girl. Originally I meant not to let them out of my sight. Then I realised that they were quite capable of looking after themselves. I told them that they must stick together, which they always did, and that they must come back in time for meals, which they also did. They were soon quicker in finding their way round Venice than I was. They also soon knew exactly what they wanted to do: no churches, no art galleries, no Doge’s Palace. At a hall off the Campo Santa Margherita they found a hall stuffed with Space Invader machines. There they spent their hours and their money as well. My mild expostulations were met with the explanation that they had large quantities of Italian change to get rid of. My wife and I went about our own devices. Altogether it was a successful holiday, spoilt only by mobs of hysterical Italian schoolgirls. Why are assemblies of schoolgirls, in England as much as in Italy, so much noisier than assemblies of schoolboys? It is wiser to keep away from both.

Hardly back home than we went off again to Lancaster, where a literary week was in progress. I inaugurated it with a talk on History as Literature, which perhaps gave me some excuse for being there. The hall was so dark that I could not see the audience and, as a result, they could not hear me. This sounds odd but it is true. When I cannot see my audience or alternatively my television camera I tend to drop my voice. Though I have driven through Lancaster many times on my way to the Lake District in the days before the motorway, I had never visited it before. Lancaster is a delightful town, well worth a visit. The Castle, still in use as a prison, stands on a hill and you can look across the valley of the Lune to Morecambe Bay. Pevsner, 1969 edition, says that the 18th-century Music Room is irredeemably lost. Not at all. Enlightened citizens of Lancaster, stung by Pevsner’s reproaches, have restored the Music Room in all its glory. It is again among the finest 18th-century show-pieces of England and vaut le voyage, as Michelin says. On the other hand, the Ashton Memorial, erected in Edwardian times and ‘the grandest monument in England’ (Pevsner again), is really falling into ruin, simply because Lord Ashton, manufacturer of carpets and linoleum, who provided £87,000 for its erection, forgot to provide any funds for its preservation. I suppose that by the time the memorial to his wife was finished Lord Ashton had shifted his benevolence to St Anne’s-on-Sea.

After a couple of days we shifted our attention and residence to Prescot, which used to be in south Lancashire and is now in a characterless area called Merseyside. As far as I can understand the geography of modern planners, the ‘reforms’ of some years ago have made two local authorities grow where one grew before. I was never sure when I was in Prescot, when in Knowsley and when in Kirkby. At any rate, Prescot was my objective. I had never heard of Prescot. It turns out to be one of the most important places in English economic history. Eighteenth-century Prescot was the centre of watch-making, not only in England but in Europe. This was a home industry and enough workshops survived to make a museum when Prescot was ruined by the mass-production of Switzerland and America. Now the museum is well-established, though, of course, like most museums, it will never be complete. To crown the work, I formally opened the museum. I made a speech about the significance of time in modern life, unveiled a plaque with my name on it and joined the civic dignitaries first in a festive lunch and later in a festive tea. Altogether a delightful occasion, an excursion into territory as unknown to me as if it had been Tierra del Fuego. We spent a couple of nights at Rainhill, yet another local authority in the district and famous for the locomotive trials in 1830. There is also a Roman Catholic church without windows which I failed to visit – a serious mistake. South Lancashire is not much like the Lancashire I know. Perhaps it was right to transform it into Merseyside.

A week later I went to Manchester: the real Lancashire that I remember both as boy and man. I went to receive an honorary degree at the University. It was like going home. Fifty-two years ago I arrived at the University as an assistant lecturer and was greeted by the news that as the Professor of Modern History had departed, I should have to do his work as well as my own. I was not, however, to receive his salary as well as mine. Ah well, I taught myself a great deal of history by having to give 96 lectures in a year. I can’t say that much of the information I acquired did me much good. The University has so expanded since my day as to be unrecognisable and I lost my way in it so often that I became quite frightened. Central Manchester has been transformed for good and ill. The Market Place where Bonnie Prince Charlie proclaimed his father King James III, and where my grandfather had his office, has gone, as has the office of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper few now remember. Against this, the Town Hall has been cleaned and restored so perfectly that it can take its place among the great Gothic buildings of the world. The city fathers, having an outstanding record for destruction, have repented and Castlefield is to become a conservationist area, ranging from the Roman fort to Liverpool Road station, the first passenger station in the world, now glamorously restored. I am also glad to report that Tommy Duck’s has preserved the character of old Oxford Street, now otherwise vanished. My nine years in Manchester were among the happiest in my life and I was deeply moved to be honoured by the University. However one should remember what the Duke of Wellington liked about the Order of the Garter – there was no damn merit about it. Much the same no doubt applies to honorary degrees.

Even driving down from Manchester to London was in part a nostalgic trip. I took the Stockport road to Disley, a journey that used to take me twenty minutes and that I often did twice in the day. Now it took twice as long and I wearied on the single journey. My hamlet, Higher Disley, is closely threatened by suburban houses but has not lost its rural character. My little house, Three Gates, is wonderfully unchanged, at any rate from the outside. I gave the house its name. I cultivated its garden; I added a large bedroom. I think the rural council of Higher Disley, if there is one, should give me a blue plaque such as many dimmer people receive in London. As it is, I am content with my memories and the view across the valley to Kinder Scout. One further reflection on the way to London. The motorways, once so heralded, are now unusable. Commercial traffic has ruined them and should be confined to them. The rest of us should return to the roads which were good enough for generations before us; if good enough for the Romans so much the better.

Back home I find a pile of invitations to lecture in the coming academic year. I have reached a clear resolve: I am not going to lecture any more. My first reason is that I have nothing to lecture about. The First and Second World Wars are now exhausted, as much as the Crimean War was in my father’s time. I said my last word on them in the Romanes Lecture last February. Secondly, I have suddenly become old. Until I passed the age of 75, I was as brisk as I had been twenty years before. Then age caught up on me. Mind as good as ever, body a failing machine. At any rate, I have finished with long journeys or going out late at night in order to deliver stale thoughts on stale subjects. Besides, I am told my voice can be heard no longer. What a relief to close my engagement book.