Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

The public opinion polls telling us which political party will win the next general election are rarely right and I don’t much care whether they are right or wrong. The census every ten years of film critics naming the world’s ten best films is a different matter and stirs my zest for controversy. The most recent list has just been published and I am glad to report that it contains no film less than 19 years old. The critics are becoming as conservative as I am, though they do not show this with some of the films they have recently recommended. I will not mention any that would have fallen under my ban except to remark that, in my opinion, neither persistent sexual intercourse nor lesbianism is a suitable subject for general exhibition.

The film critics have unanimously hailed Citizen Kane as the best film ever made, a verdict they have given over three decades. Well, I suppose the critics are right, though I am not eager to see it again. But then when I consider what has been passed over I am not so sure. Chaplin is not on the list at all – in my opinion, he was the best producer ever. Any of his films from The Cure to The Great Dictator could go to the head of the list, and I can’t think of a single Chaplin film that I would cut out. The General makes a welcome appearance but far too low: equal tenth instead of equal third. And where, oh where, is W. C. Fields? I am accustomed to name Never give a sucker an even break as the best film ever made except that It’s a gift is just as good. A world of films without W. C. Fields is no good for me. Then I would cut out all French films and all musicals and substitute Bad Day at Black Rock, one of the best American films ever made. It looks to me that most film critics do not rate American films very highly. No doubt they are dismissed as too well made. Once when asked by the BBC to nominate a film for showing I chose The Mask of Dimitrios. I was told that no one had heard of it. I replied that that was why I had nominated it. I now formulate a general rule: ‘The best films are those no one has heard of.’ I name two for a start: Closely Observed Trains and The Lady with the Little Dog, the latter of which could take the place of Battleship Potemkin, which was always very boring.

And here is another poll of more urgent interest. Forty per cent of Church of England clergy support unilateral nuclear disarmament, 49 per cent support what is laughably called the nuclear deterrent and 11 per cent are undecided – blessed followers of St Thomas. The man in the pew is said to support the nuclear deterrent. No figures are given for this assertion. The vocabulary used in discussing nuclear weapons is peculiarly misleading, almost as though the nuclear advocates are ashamed of what they are advocating. The nuclear weapons are deterrents only until they are used. They then become the most hideous instruments ever known to man. They kill indiscriminately the aggressors and the innocent. They pollute the atmosphere so widely as to make our planet uninhabitable. Those who make and those who use nuclear weapons have become like gods: ready to decree the destruction of future generations for the sake of their twaddling little political or moral differences. Heroic patriots say that they are prepared to ‘defend’ their country with nuclear weapons. Is it defence to condemn millions of people to agonising deaths? The tolerance, let alone the support of nuclear weapons by men and women of high morality bewilders me. They are intoxicated by phrases.

Church of England bishops are getting into a fine tangle over this issue. Some of them are fine old warriors. Others want to combine repudiation of nuclear weapons with military security for their country. I don’t think it can be done. If nuclear weapons are wicked they should be repudiated whatever the risk and that’s that. To these hesitant advisers I prefer Dr Edward Norman, Dean of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He assures us that the arguments against disarmament are entirely consistent with Christianity. What is more, ‘everything in human history pointed to the fact that the Bomb would one day be dropped.’ But cheer up – ‘the number of people killed in modern nuclear war might be no greater than in the barbarian invasions in the Middle Ages.’ I have been hastily looking through the New Testament to find the well-known text: ‘Blessed are the nuclear bombs for they shall be dropped.’

I fear Dr Norman is right about his expectations for the future. Some twenty years ago, when I and others launched the first Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, we were told that if we abandoned the demand for unilateral disarmament multilateral nuclear disarmament would follow. We fell silent, and all that followed was more nuclear weapons than before. In my opinion, the nuclear fanatics have won. The United States and the Soviet Union have enough nuclear bombs to blow up the whole world, civilised and uncivilised – if there is any distinction between them nowadays. Projects for shelters are a waste of time. The only security against the nuclear horror is the death pill. Privileged persons were issued with death pills when the Germans were supposed to be coming in 1940. The time is rapidly approaching when they should be issued to everyone.

I had not intended to be drawn into arguments over the nuclear bomb, a topic on which I ran out of ideas twenty years ago. What I had in mind was to write about Dr Johnson, simply because I had promised myself to read Boswell’s Life of Johnson at least once a decade and on checking my reading-list found I had not done so. But how am I to get from nuclear bombs to Samuel Johnson? I am sure Johnson would have found something trenchant, even explosive, to say about this monstrous device, but he was lucky enough to live before it was invented. However, I have found a way. Johnson remarked on one occasion when a group of clergymen were enjoying each other’s wit: ‘This merriment of parsons is mighty offensive.’ I can say with equal truth: ‘This advocacy of nuclear bombs by parsons is mighty offensive.’ Having said that, I can be done with parsons and get on to Samuel Johnson.

Every now and then someone asks as a sort of parlour game: ‘Who do you think is the greatest Englishman?’ I have never been at a loss for an answer: ‘Samuel Johnson of course.’ Many qualities can be educed to justify this assertion. Johnson composed the first great dictionary of the English language. Lives of the Poets is a model of biographies on a small scale and I wish I had the gifts to write something comparable. These writings, though admirable, are irrelevant to his greatness. This was based on his character, on what he did and on what he said. Johnson was profound. He was moral. Above all, he was human. Indeed he carried English human nature to the highest point of which we have knowledge. I often wonder whether he realised that Boswell was composing about him the greatest biography in the English language. I suspect that he never gave it a thought.

They made a wonderful pair. Johnson wise, profound in thought and at the same time highly humorous; Boswell impulsive, flighty in mind, erratic. Johnson called himself ‘a clubbable man’, but I fear he was sometimes heavy-going. Boswell was always lively in mind and talk. Altogether a great combination. Reading Boswell’s biography, I recapture something of the pleasure and excitement with which I first read it some sixty years ago.

Still, I have a qualm. There comes into my mind, not perhaps the greatest Englishman, but certainly the runner-up. This is William Cobbett, the People’s Friend. Cobbett was not, like Johnson, a great conversationalist. His conversation must have been pretty boring, being entirely about himself and his achievements, from his political agitation to his introduction into England of maize or, as he called it, Cobbett’s corn. He was cantankerous. He did not get on with his political comrades; he did not get on with his printers; he did not get on with his family. All the same, he wrote Rural Rides, a book packed with England. He did more than any other single man to promote Parliamentary Reform in England and to inspire popular Radicalism. I would read Rural Rides again were it not that Cole’s enlarged edition of it is too heavy to read in bed.

Johnson and Cobbett – I wish I could add to the list. A few years ago my television producer suggested I should give six television lectures on My Heroes. I replied that I had no heroes, and with that the project fell to the ground. Now it turns out that I have confessed to two. Where are the other four? John Bright used to be something like a hero for me. Now I am not so sure. He made the finest speeches in English, better even than Burke’s. But he was pompous and liked the company of dukes too much. Still, he had better stay on the list. I have three names to add. First, John Frost, Chartist and Mayor of Newport, Monmouth, who led the Chartist rising of 1839, the last battle on English soil. Second, Garibaldi, whom I once described as the most wholly admirable man in modern European history. Incidentally, this year is the centenary of his death. Finally, Niels Bohr, pioneer of nuclear physics. In 1944 Bohr urged Churchill and Roosevelt to share their nuclear secrets with Soviet Russia. Roosevelt said Bohr must be mad; Churchill proposed that he should be sent to prison. What a better world it would be if the supposedly great men had listened to the Danish physicist.