Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

I spent almost forty years of my life in Oxford. Seven years ago on my retirement I left Oxford and have hardly ever been there since. Much has changed. Dinner at Magdalen College now has only three courses, an economy which we resisted even during the Second World War. And of course there are girls everywhere. Last time I dined in Magdalen I sat next to a young lady who presented herself to me as a Fellow of the College. I said to her: ‘I hope you realise that it is thanks to me you are here. It was I who proposed the emancipating amendment to the College Statutes in 1976.’ She was most surprised and said: ‘Do you mean to say that once there were no women members of the College? I thought there had been women in Magdalen since its foundation.’ So temporary is fame.

I have been thinking what further measure of sexual equality should be introduced in Oxford and have hit on a very desirable one. Parsons’ Pleasure, the university bathing-place on the River Cherwell, has existed since way back in the 19th century and it has always been nude, having started before bathing-costumes were invented. There used to be elaborate arrangements to ensure that punts bearing females should not go through Parsons’ Pleasure. Instead, the empty punts were piloted through by park attendants. Now these arrangements have lapsed as too expensive, and punts laden with females go through Parsons’ pleasure without a stir. When this first happened the nude male bathers, most of them elderly, plunged into the river every time any girls passed. Now they take no notice. So why not complete the process and turn Parsons’ Pleasure into a nude bathing-place for both sexes? Once women are admitted the clientele will soon imagine that they have been there since the beginning of time.

Parsons’ Pleasure does not stand alone. It is high time that the sexual inequality at Highgate Ponds was removed. The Ponds have a special swimming-place for men. There is also a substantial enclosure where men can sun-bathe nude. Just outside the enclosure there is a large meadow where bathers can sunbathe suitably clad. More remotely, there is a very small pond for women, with restricted provision for sun-bathing nude. Its users have to remain flat on their backs. Any nude woman sitting up, or still worse standing, is at once brusquely ordered to lie down – a preposterous arrangement. The women should invade the male enclosure, remove their clothes and sun-bathe there.

I do not despair. Things are on the move even in what were the most conventional places. Torbay, not hitherto known for enlightenment, has decided that it has no objection to girls going topless. Even the police of Torbay can see no legal objection to it. Speed the day when topless girls become acceptable throughout the country. I add a piece of moral guidance I was given in my young days. Some sixty years ago, when I was a schoolboy at York, I attended University Extension Lectures on ‘The Greek Way of Life’ given by Stoughton Holborn, a figure now forgotten. The most powerful lecture climax I heard from him was: ‘To confuse nudity with indecency is the distinguishing mark of the barbarian.’ I wonder whether the Greeks really said this. Stoughton Holborn certainly said it with a strong Scotch accent.

Nothing of the slightest interest seems to be happening in public affairs. It would be better to close the whole show down for a year or two. Failing the great world, I can only write about myself. My recent fate has been curious though tiresome. I have fallen a victim to Parkinson’s disease. So far as I can understand the disease, it has no known cause. One person contracts it and his neighbour does not. There is no way in which you can take precautions against it and what is more there is no known remedy. There is a drug which probably lessens the impact, but the disease will gradually proceed on its way just the same. The principal symptom is shakiness, at first slight and then more and more troublesome. Often it affects one side more than the other. Being congenitally left-handed, I can hold a teacup or a beer mug with my left hand and it does not shake at all, whereas I have had to give up the use of my right hand almost entirely. One cheerful bit of news is that the disease does not affect my use of a typewriter. Even stranger, it does not affect my driving of a car. On the contrary, when I get out of my car after having driven for some time, I am much steadier than when I got in. But most of the time I am shaking more or less. The most difficult problem is to go downstairs – upstairs not so bad. It is worst when there is no banister or handrail to help me down. Then I have to creep down with my back to the wall, a humiliating process. In a more general way, the disease slows me down physically, though not, of course, mentally. I start out for a walk in quite a spritely fashion and suddenly notice that I can proceed no further. Curiously enough, the effects are usually at their worst when I get up in the morning, and gradually wear off during the day. Another problem, perhaps a result of old age rather than of Parkinson’s disease, is that I now wake up around five o’clock in the morning and do not fall asleep again. This is exasperating when I have always prided myself on my capacity to sleep right through the night. Now I toss and turn from dawn onwards. My doctor suggested that I should try a nip of brandy. This makes things worse if anything. Perhaps I do not drink enough.

The workings of the disease are quite unpredictable. I cannot be sure whether I can lecture for a whole hour, indeed whether I can lecture at all. In the course of an evening party I suddenly feel that I can go on no longer and must shakily make my departure. Sometimes I stagger up to bed in the middle of the morning. At other times I go into London and spend most of the day happily reading in the London Library. Gradually I get more reluctant to go out for more than a few hundred yards. I can see that soon I shall be quite content to sit in the open air of my backyard or patio. I lose interest in what is happening further afield.

The latest impact of the disease has thrown out all my plans for the early summer. I had promised to give three lectures to a summer school on Great Britain and Europe in the 20th century. Abruptly it was borne home on me that I could not get to the lecture hall, let alone stand upright for an hour at a time. So all has been cancelled. But I should be sorry to let my thoughts go to waste. Here are some of them.

It is usually held that the 20th century was marked by an increasing estrangement between Great Britain and Germany. The rivalry was attributed to Imperialism, a competition for African colonies. There followed the German building of a great navy which was a threat to Great Britain’s maritime supremacy. There were repeated diplomatic crises between the two countries which finally led to war. I have been teaching this for a lifetime. Now I am beginning to think it is a load of old nonsense. There were a few people in Germany preaching hostility towards England, and a few people in England, principally on the Times, preaching hostility towards Germany. There were far more pro-Germans in England than there were anti-Germans, and the same applied in Germany the other way round. German bankers in Frankfurt often had a house in Park Lane. The short-lived naval race between England and Germany gradually lost its force as Germany could not keep up. The last disputes, not worth a war in any case, had all been settled by 1914: the British and Germans had agreed to share the Portuguese colonies if these came on the market. The British had also agreed to help finance the Baghdad railway. War between England and Germany never seemed less likely than in July 1914. This sounds wrong-headed. But it is true.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 was not the product of international tensions that had been growing for a long time. War came by mistake. In previous crises over the last forty years, one side or the other had backed down. On this occasion all the powers turned obstinate and could not find a way out. All the same, everyone assumed it would be a quick war. Instead, the war jammed at a deadlock and went on for years. One of the quaintest features of World War One, as it came to be called, is that the respective belligerents were at a loss to define what they were fighting for: ‘war aims’, as they were called. The French had some cause to hope for Alsace and Lorraine. But was there any sense in the idea that the British should carry on a war for four years in order to acquire the German colonies in Africa? Apart from this, the British found their war aim in the loot of the Ottoman Empire. Surely this could have been done without a four-year war against Germany.