Neal Ascherson

Men everywhere supposed (as A.J.P. Taylor tends to begin sentences) that he would join in the general execration of Lord Dacre over the Hitler diaries. A lot of men, indeed, were looking forward to this: historians wrestling in mud is a common spectacle that never loses its power to give pleasure – like dissent between taxi-drivers. They were disappointed. Taylor stayed out of the mud. More accurately, he wrote in these pages that he found the whole affair boring – ‘cold mutton’, as he said about the Anthony Blunt affair. Perhaps he did. Historians are queer. Still, boredom is ruder than execration. I have nearly finished imitating A.J.P. Taylor’s rhythms now. Let me add this. I once wrote a whole book in what I conceived to be his style – short, choppy sentences bouncing the reader rapidly up and down so that he does not fall asleep. The book received a kind notice from Taylor, and sold almost no copies at all. Men thought it too expensive. I only paid the indexing bill years later. This was not because I was cross or indigent, but because I was mean.

This diary salutes a diarist who has often filled this page: it celebrates the publication of A.J.P. Taylor’s memoirs, A Personal History,[*] which would, as he points out in the preface, have been a great deal longer but for the laws of libel, or at least for publishers’ nervousness about the laws of libel.

There is one way out. If the person allegedly libelled is dead, all is well. How eagerly I have gone through the obituaries killing off not only my enemies, not that I have any, but my best friends. If the aggrieved person is still alive, there is only one remedy: strike out the entire passage. Any friend or acquaintance who turns to the index and does not find his name there can console himself that he was originally the subject of a passage which the lawyer condemned.

However, matters have not become as dull as this implies, as references to Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, now Lord Dacre (or Lord Dakar, as the Argentinian papers call him), demonstrate. Taylor is actually quite forgiving about the fact that Trevor-Roper and not he was awarded the Regius Professorship after Suez: he asserts that J.C. Masterman, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford at the time, and Taylor’s own friend Namier were responsible. Taylor writes that he never wanted the Chair anyway and would have refused to accept it ‘from hands still stained with blood’ – a reference to Harold Macmillan, then prime minister. However, it was the end of his lifelong friendship with Namier. ‘I put down the telephone and never spoke to him again... Namier was dead so far as I was concerned.’ All he says about the victorious candidate at this point is that ‘he tried to repeat my success on television, not however successfully, and also made some fruitless attempts to break into popular journalism.’

Later on, however, Taylor is more mordant about Trevor-Roper’s objections to The Origins of the Second World War. The question was, of course, whether Hitler had planned the Second World War years before or whether, as Taylor maintained, he took a gamble which seemed promising at the time. ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper was... claiming that he had deduced Hitler’s every move from the moment he read Mein Kampf. If so, he was cleverer than Hitler himself, who dismissed Mein Kampf as “fantasies from behind bars”.’ He goes on: ‘Trevor-Roper thought he had taken out a patent in Hitler and made a great cry.’

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[*] Hamish Hamilton, 278 pp., £9.95, 26 May, 0 241 10972 8.