Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

E. H. Carr died on 3 November last. I am inclined to say that he was the greatest British historian of our age: certainly he was the one I most admired. Ted Carr had a long run, varied enough to provide half a dozen careers for any lesser man. He started with twenty years in the diplomatic service, including membership of the British peace delegation to Paris in 1919. After a few years as a professor at Aberystwyth, he was assistant editor of the Times for much of the Second World War, when according to Churchill he turned the paper into a tuppenny edition of the Daily Worker. He published his first masterpiece, a life of Bakunin – a book I hailed at the time as a masterpiece – as long ago as 1937; he published Volume 14 of his History of Soviet Russia shortly before he died and had already made arrangements for it to be carried further by another hand. It is extraordinary to reflect that he began his great work when he was already over sixty and that the latest volumes show no sign of age, except perhaps that they were clearer and more effective than ever.

Carr had great scholarship, great persistence, and above all an unfailing readiness to change his mind with changing circumstances. His first incursion into the discussion of foreign affairs was The Twenty Years’ Crisis, a book surveying the twenty years between the two great wars. Hence he argued that the peace settlement of 1919 was out of date and that British policy should now aim to conciliate Germany. This argument much shocked those, including myself, who wished to resist Germany at all costs, and I remember denouncing Carr as a wicked appeaser. I quoted the old accusation against the Times, with which Ted was already associated, that its policy was ‘to be strong upon the stronger side’.

This mood of Ted’s did not last long. On the German invasion of Russia he decided that the Russians were going to win. Thereafter he never wavered from this decision. This was not merely his preference for the winning side. He had never been happy in his preference for Nazi Germany. He had greater sympathy with Soviet Russia, despite the dictatorship and sometimes the terror that went along with it. Carr was never an apologist for Soviet Russia, except in the sense of asserting that it should be accorded the respect due to any great power. For a long time he believed that Socialism would triumph not only in Russia but throughout most of the world. Towards the end of his life this confidence in the future dwindled under the impact of events. His last volume of essays – flatteringly bearing the same title as an earlier book of mine – ended with the words: ‘I fear this is a profoundly counter-revolutionary period in the West.’

Carr had strong views on contemporary events but he was much more interested in the writing of history. His lectures entitled What is history? are intellectual dynamite, sometimes unrivalled in their wisdom, sometimes in my opinion thoroughly wrong-headed. Carr preached the doctrine that historians should not be interested in the losers, who must go into the dustbin of history. This is what Trotsky said about his Menshevik opponents, and it could also apply to Trotsky himself. I disagreed, yet I cannot think of any argument which might prove Carr wrong. Right or wrong, I venerated him and I am proud to record that Ted Carr and I were bound together by ties of great mutual affection.

A personal footnote. Ted Carr was one of the few Fellows of the British Academy who stood firmly by me during the Blunt affair a couple of years ago.

Death has claimed another considerable historian: Captain Stephen Roskill RN, who died on 4 November. Roskill had an active-service career almost until he reached the age of 50 and started as an historian when lesser mortals think of retirement. In 1949 he became the Official Naval Historian and produced The War at Sea 1939-1945 in four volumes. Though official in name, it was far from official in character. Roskill fought the censors of the Cabinet Office as resolutely as Sir Charles Webster did when writing his History of the Strategic Air Offensive. Roskill went on to write more personal books: three volumes on Hankey and as a final production a hilarious life of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. He also launched a sharp attack on Churchill for his excessive interference with the conduct of the Navy. This led to a controversy with the other great Naval authority, Arthur Marder, which was the delight of all observers. Roskill was not content to write voluminous books. Becoming a Fellow of Churchill College somewhat late in the day, he took charge of the archive which he and the college were accumulating and made it among the leading assemblages of documents on contemporary affairs in this country. Roskill was a man of sweet temper. After the peacefulness of Naval life he was at first surprised and a little bewildered by the savagery of the academic world into which he had strayed. However, he soon learnt how to defend himself. He had no enemies in the academic world and many friends, including pre-eminently Arthur Marder.

I have just begun on a treat that comes round only once every five – or is it once every ten? – years. At any rate, I heard Brendel play all the sonatas of Beethoven some years ago and now I am in process of hearing him do it again. I can only describe my reaction as one of uninstructed delight. I cannot read a score. I cannot follow a fugue or say with any confidence that a work is in sonata form. Indeed, I know nothing of music except being able to play the major and minor diatonic scales more or less accurately. What good that does me I have never understood. My musical education started quite abruptly when I went to Vienna in 1928 and attended concerts at least once a week during the two years I was there. Thereafter I went to the Hallé concerts during my ten years in Manchester.

Since the war my interest in orchestral concerts has steadily declined and my interest in chamber music steadily increased. My vague impression is that before the war there were a few outstanding string quartets better than almost any around now, but that there are now more quartets of reasonably high quality. As to pianists, there used to be more of flamboyant greatness, including Horowitz, allegedly the greatest pianist of all time, and Rosenthal, who had been Liszt’s pupil. I doubt whether there is anyone of that level nowadays, not even Horowitz in his old age. Chamber music has brought me great pleasure during the last thirty years. If I were to express special gratitude it would be to the Beaux Arts Trio and to Brendel, who is now playing Beethoven’s sonatas with such freshness that it would seem he had only just discovered them. I hope I shall still be here when he plays them next time round.

My pursuit of public entertainment goes in waves. First I try to find something of merit, devotedly attending plays and films. The plays become more and more trivial; the films more and more offensive. There follow some years when I go to no entertainments at all, except of course revivals. I almost reach the point of believing that all entertainments are unendurable. Then A Woman of Paris or When we are married (both seen recently) restores my hopes and I renew my visits to theatre or cinema. Eventually I find a contemporary piece of some merit. On Golden Pond put me in a good temper for the cinema, perhaps because the combined age of the two principal players must have been over one hundred and fifty years. Here is a report on my recent visits to cinema and theatre.

I began with Body Heat. That was a great mistake. I could not understand what was happening and was no wiser when it was revealed at the end that there were two more or less identical girls, not one girl. Why and wherefore was beyond me. The only merit of the film was that though there was much sexual intercourse, it was at any rate normal intercourse – that is to say, bisexual. This is more than could be said for the next film I saw, claimed to be a greater masterpiece than either Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin. This masterpiece was a Hungarian film entitled Another Way. It was about a girl with lesbian tastes who sought to convert other girls to her way of life, in one case successfully. Some years ago I decided to visit a show of sex films in Soho. I paid for two hours, but the show was so disgusting that I had to leave within ten minutes. Another Way was far worse in its presentation of lesbian intimacy. Characteristic fragment of dubbed dialogue: Intelligence agent (not very intelligent): ‘Tell me what exactly do you do?’ Lesbian girl ‘Sometimes we use one finger, sometimes two, sometimes three.’ She ends by straying across into a forbidden zone when she is shot by a frontier guard. Before this I had tried Reds, a film allegedly about John Reed. This film had only normal intercourse. It also had a good deal of political nonsense and little hint that Reed wrote the finest account there is of the Bolshevik revolution. I have been cured of film-going for a long time.

I have not done much better with the theatre. I tried Another Country, which in fact is a fancy portrait of an English public school in the Thirties. The portrait did not resemble any public school that I remember: indeed, it did not resemble anything in real life. The one merit of the theatre is that it has more and better revivals than the cinema. Recently I have seen that most instructive play, The Second Mrs Tanqueray and When we are married. I have also seen some Shaw revivals. Every time I see one I am reminded that Shaw with all his faults is the best playwright since Shakespeare, if not a better one. Clearly the theatre has some merits. But the cinema ...