Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

Quite a time has passed since I last contributed a Diary to the London Review of Books, so long indeed that I have almost forgotten how to do it. Was my mind once flooding over with possible themes? I can hardly believe it. Certainly my mind is empty now. I stir my memory in vain. Here are some oddities that occur to me. The oddest is the persistence with which readers of the London Review of Books accuse me of supporting the wrong side in the Cold War and in particular of taking a sympathetic view of Hungary and its problems. The accusation about the Cold War is merely silly. I am against the Cold War and all that goes with it, as much against the Russians waging the Cold War, if they do, as against the Americans. The Cold War is a competition in obstinate misunderstanding. I doubt whether either side can remember how the Cold War started or what it is now about. They just go on parading their mutual distrust until it has become a way of life, and neither side will be satisfied until it has provoked a world explosion. I humbly think this is a mistake, but there is no limit to the extent of human folly.

As to Hungary, it had an obscurantist regime in the days of Regent Horthy and it was a great stroke for Hungary when the Horthy regime was overthrown. There followed a bad period under Rakosi, a period which ended in the upheaval of 1956. There was a revolution that was carrièd too far and then a rebound. Nowadays Hungary, despite economic difficulties, has a settled way of life and a civilised culture. I am married to a Hungarian, I go to Hungary quite often. My impression is that Hungarian society is nearer to the bourgeois English culture of the early 20th century than it is to either of the two monsters, Russian or American. When I first went to Hungary I looked everywhere for the horrors of Communism. I am looking still and not finding any anywhere. Certainly I am not likely to change my views because of abusive letters in the London Review of Books.

I have recently published a book, my autobiography, called A Personal History. The reviews have been for the most part highly flattering and I found the critical reviews for the most part more flattering than the others. One reviewer claimed that the book was ‘egocentric’. What else could it be? I had assumed rightly or wrongly that an autobiography ought to be about myself, hence egocentric, and as a matter of fact I incline to think that my book is not egocentric enough. Of course I can tell stories about what happened to me, but I have never found anything interesting to report about the state and development of my mind. One phrase surprised and indeed shocked me. I was described as the Macaulay of the 20th century. Whoever coined that phrase had never read Macaulay. I am not worthy to kiss the hem of Macaulay’s garment. If a comparison is wanted I should describe myself as the Marriott of the 20th century. Sir John Marriott wrote textbooks of 19th and 20th-century history. They are fairly competent and duller than mine but they enabled me to pass examinations. Marriott was also Conservative MP for York, hence a more successful politician. He was slightly to the right of Sir Charles Oman, the other historian MP of the early 20th century. They are now both forgotten, as no doubt I shall be in a few years. I think my books are better than Marriott’s but that is probably because they are more left-wing – or are they? A comment on my book of a different kind came recently from a bus conductor. A friend of mine was travelling on a 24 bus carrying A Personal History when the conductor tapped him on the shoulder and said: ‘He’s a good man and he travels sometimes on my bus.’ That is a higher compliment than I have received from any reviewer. Now the tumult of reviews is over and I must somehow discover the excessive number of misprints that I have allowed to slip through.

Last time I wrote this Diary the General Election was merely in the offing. Now it has come and gone. So far as I can tell it has not made the slightest difference. The Social Democratic Party has had a severe setback, which is all to the good. I trust this hotchpotch of a party will expire before the next general election. Incidentally, how much David Owen must be regretting that the SDP is still alive. If he had remained in the Labour Party nothing could have prevented his becoming its leader. Perhaps the Executive Committee of the Labour Party could dispatch a telegram saying: ‘Come back, David. All is forgiven.’ As it is, we are faced with a competition between four or so candidates, none of whom is qualified to be the leader of the Labour Party. Of course the Labour Party is not good at producing a leader. I calculate that there have only been two good leaders of the Party since it made its real start at the end of the First World War. Ramsay MacDonald was the first and he ended by making a lamentably false move. Clem Attlee was the second and he was too careful about his moves ever to make a false one.

As to the Conservative Party, it stands for nothing beyond a desire to discipline the Trade Unions, which will only make the Trade Unions more out of hand than ever. The Government can choose between reducing inflation and reducing unemployment. The more it succeeds with one the more it increases the other, a dilemma from which there is no escape. Of course, Mrs Thatcher can press the button, a course of action she is for ever promising. This would murder some few million Europeans and would provoke an even greater murder of English people. But at least it would end the dreary show.

I turn with relief to more cheerful subjects. I have just spent my annual fortnight at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight. The little town is much as it was in the 18th century, perhaps more so. The few streets are for ever busy and yet there are not too many people about. The holiday camps in the vicinity are remote enough for their users hardly to impinge on Yarmouth at all. There is a Royal Solent Yachting Club, which holds itself highly aloof. There is also a Sailing Club, which is more active. There are always racing dinghies in the Solent and grander yachts departing on cross-Channel journeys. There are car ferries arriving every hour as though from foreign parts. I have been going to Yarmouth for thirty years and have never missed a year. In early times I went in winter as well as summer. Now it is too much trouble. I stay in a corn mill built in the 18th century and now adapted to live in. There are allegedly 25 bedrooms on the upper floors, though I have never penetrated so far. My off-spring bring their children down as soon as the school holidays begin, just as I used to do. Now the arrival of my grandchildren is the signal for my departure – much as I love them. There are very good walks on the Downs, usually solitary. There is a good local I beach on the Solent, slightly pebbly. There is an extensive sandy beach on the other side of the island. In June the beaches are empty, though the sea is already warm. Altogether, Yarmouth is an ideal place to retire to. I am glad I have spent so much of my life in it.

I have at last discovered a topic of public policy. This is the House of Lords – if that can be regarded as still a matter of public concern. I thought it had ceased to exist long ago. Not at all. Mrs Thatcher wants to create eight or nine more peers. Michael Foot, as a final gesture of leadership, wants to create 29. What can be the explanation of this extraordinary demand? Once upon a time the Leader of the Labour movement was solid against the House of Lords. Can you imagine Keir Hardie as a peer? When Ramsay MacDonald offered to make Tawney a peer, Tawney replied: ‘What harm have I ever done to the Labour movement?’ More surprising and highly creditable, when MacDonald resigned as prime minister, King George proposed to admit him to the Order of the Thistle. MacDonald refused on the ground that he would have to be called ’Sir’. Now, elderly Labour figures fight to be called ‘My Lord’. What justification is there nowadays for a House of Lords? There is perhaps some case for a revising chamber, but it should be composed of legal experts, not of Lords and Ladies. The present House of Lords is not competent to revise except by accident. Its function is to preserve the aristocratic traditions of the old House. The life peers exist to give a spurious air of modern enlightenment. Often the life peers are more aristocratic in their bearing than the hereditary peers, and most of them are so old that they should have been discharged from active service long ago. Others consist of ambitious politicians who dislike the trouble of getting themselves elected. It is lamentable that a politician as enlightened as Michael Foot should have mixed in the House of Lords in any way. Not that the House of Commons is much improvement.

Here is a little practical problem. We have been invaded. A large ginger cat has taken virtual possession of our backyard, which we somewhat fancifully call a patio. Originally it sat on the top of the wall, staring at the birds in the nearby tree and occasionally attempting to catch one of them. In this it did not succeed. Now it has abandoned the hunt and spends the entire day asleep on our little patch of grass. I have always loved cats. During the now remote world war I had a white Siamese cat who was my best friend for many years. This invader is not friendly at all. Any attempt to stroke it or to tickle it under the chin provokes a savage hiss and then a sharp scratch. I do not like this cat at all. But what am I to do? I have no idea where it comes from. Unless violently impelled by a walking-stick, it threatens to remain here permanently. It gets no food from us and apparently none from anyone else. I am fearful that it may die on me. I should look foolish indeed with a dead cat on my hands and no idea who it belongs to. I have courteously conveyed the suggestion that it should go away. No luck so far.