Diary

A.J.P. Taylor

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, is doing well in his publicity at present, and well he deserves it. There is a fascinating exhibition devoted to him, a sort of glorified guide to the exhibition by Hermione Hobhouse, and a first-class biography by Robert Rhodes James.[*] Albert took a long time to receive his deserts. Indeed I doubt whether he was fully appreciated during his lifetime. He was a foreigner. He disliked the rigmarole of court life and he was altogether too clever. The Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in the Crystal Palace, was inspired by Albert and he organised much of it down to the details. No British monarch has made such a contribution to British life. He was an outstanding architect in an amateur way. Both Osborne and Balmoral were largely his inspiration. Balmoral has remained the favourite country home of British monarchs to the present day and Osborne became Victoria’s favourite in her latter years.

Most leading politicians disapproved of Albert at first and then came to appreciate him. This was true even of Palmerston, who was at feud with the Prince Consort for many years. Albert preserved peace between Great Britain and the United States shortly before his death. He had, too, an unrivalled record in his advocacy of social reform. He promoted working-class housing and municipal sanitation – activities which Victoria regarded with some disapproval. At the age of 11 he wrote in his Journal: ‘I intend to train myself to be a good and useful man.’ In this he succeeded. But his end was sad. For some undefined reason – perhaps a juvenile scrape of the Prince of Wales’s, perhaps because of typhoid fever – he lost the will to live. At any rate he died, leaving Queen Victoria a widow for the last forty years of her reign.

Six years have passed since I gave my last television lecture. I could not think of any new subject, and in any case I was not wanted – an outmoded technique, no doubt. After some years I thought of a subject and have been trailing it around for some time. My last series of television lectures was called How wars begin. There was still a gap which I now propose to fill: How wars end. This will be more complicated than its predecessor. Most wars start in the Same way: tension, misunderstanding and then a war. Some end by abrupt surrender, some by prolonged negotiations, some by a mixture of the two. What is more, even when the fighting stops, the agreement of peace can take a long time. In 1814-15 the Congress of Vienna went on for almost a year after Napoleon’s abdication ended the fighting. The Treaty of Versailles came six months after the armistice. The other peace treaties that followed the First World War took even longer. The peace treaty with Italy came in 1947, though there had been unconditional surrender by Italy in 1943. The peace treaty with Japan was not concluded until 1951. Peace with Germany has never been concluded at all for the simple reason that Germany in the old sense ceased to exist in 1945. What delightful complications lie ahead of me. I must sound one warning. I suffer among other things from nominal amnesia, a high-flown name for forgetfulness. Short-lived, I may say – the name or date comes back to me within a few minutes. But I can hardly stand staring at the camera for all that time. I can’t think what to do. Make something up, I suppose.

There is a serious trouble in my life quite apart from Parkinson’s disease: books are getting too long, and there are too many of them, usually at certain times of the year. For some months I had no books at all to review. Then monstrous tomes came in shoals. For instance, one day recently I received three books on Field Marshal Montgomery to review: one of four hundred pages, one of nearly five hundred and one of nearly nine hundred. It is an accusation commonly directed at reviewers that they do not read the books they get or at best pass their hands lightly over the cover and wait for inspiration. I am more conscientious. Having no regular occupation except shopping, I sit at home day after day going loyally through my assignment until I have read the lot. But it certainly leaves me with very little spare time. Now I thought the moment had arrived when I could get on with some other writing or even read a book for pleasure. I rejoiced too soon. What awaits me today? A book of virtually nine hundred pages on F.E. Smith, first Earl of Birkenhead, by John Campbell, has appeared on my desk this morning. John Campbell has written first-rate biographies. I even have a vague recollection that F.E. Smith, Lord Birkenhead, was once a figure of some political importance, probably a man just too clever to reach the highest point. I suppose I must settle down with the book for the next three weeks. But I can’t. This morning a photographer is coming, I can’t think why. Then I am recording my second instalment of How wars end. After that, some BBC agents are coming to record my views on the First World War, not that I have any. I have really reached the stage of asking about the First World War: ‘What was that?’ How terrible it seemed at the time, and how trivial it seems now compared with what is coming. I even have people ringing me up and asking what the Third World War will be like. I answer: ‘Wait and see. When the Third World War comes you won’t know. You’ll be dead.’ So I had better get back to F.E. Smith while I have time.

I have more serious complaints in life than the excessive length of books that I have to review. Among the most troublesome and certainly the most exasperating is noise. This is the price of living in modern times. One curse, rarely commented on, is the helicopters that fly persistently over North London. Not only do they fly over my garden: the same helicopter flies over it again and again. What are they doing? I am told that for some obscure reason they are observing the traffic and reporting where there are traffic jams. I don’t believe a word of it. They fly around for sheer pleasure, happy in the knowledge that they are making life unbearable. But still worse is the music which goes on ceaselessly. For instance, this morning I was taken to the television studio in a hired car. There was canned music all the time, occasionally interrupted by conversations between the driver and his office, replete with mysterious assignments. Then the music starts again. My wife tells me that in Oxford Street the shops have canned music going on all the time, acute enough to threaten her with a heart attack. Then, on a more domestic level, there is on the other side of our street a family with three or four young men. They all have cars equipped with radios and the radios play all the time. If one of them comes home he parks his car outside my window and leaves the radio playing, sometimes all night. Since I sleep with my bedroom window open, I have a restless night. Occasionally they have a party, at least once a month. Then the radio plays until two o’clock in the morning. Soon I expect they will be playing their radios simultaneously on and on and on. If I try to escape the radios by walking on Hampstead Heath I am pursued, indeed surrounded, by young boys or girls carrying voluble radios with them in the quietest areas. I have known radios played in railway carriages and of course in public houses. Their public playing should be made illegal.

Twenty years ago I published a book about the origins of the Second World War. At the time it was dismissed as wrong-headed and controversial. Now it has become the accepted version for most people. But there still lurks some trouble in the book, particularly the so-called Hossbach Protocol. I asserted that this document was a forgery, an assertion which caused much indignation. Now after many years a Berlin lawyer called Dankwart Kluge has taken another look at the Hossbach Protocol. His conclusions are startling. The Hossbach Protocol never existed as a formal document. Indeed it probably never existed in any form. Two documents were submitted to the Nuremberg Tribunal: one was an English translation, markedly longer than the alleged Protocol, the other a microfilm copy of a microfilm. However, the Tribunal accepted these documents. They were held to prove that Hitler was planning an aggressive war. On the strength of them, Goering was condemned to death and only escaped the hangman by taking poison. No evidence that Hitler planned aggressive war has ever been produced. Hossbach, who is alleged to have compiled the so-called protocol, was from the first an associate of the German generals who opposed Hitler’s policy or tried to.

The revision upsets the entire verdict of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which is still solemnly quoted as justification of the Allied war against Germany. It would be going too far to suggest that Great Britain and France started the Second World War by declaring it, but they did declare it all the same.

I spent most of last Sunday watching the silent movie Napoleon, made by Abel Gance some fifty years ago. The scenes of the French Revolution seem to me very unlikely: the principal characters make very strange faces and wear very rough clothing. Napoleon specialises, in rushing from the left-hand side of the screen to the right and back again: he always seems in a hurry, no doubt seeking a further opportunity to pull faces. The film is very funny and occasionally very dramatic. It is very exciting. But really it won’t do. I may have been too corrupted by watching talkies to be able to tell, but I doubt whether it is a masterpiece even as a silent movie. Of course it is much better than most of the talking masterpieces we have been offered in recent times. You have only to think of Reds to appreciate what the cinema can now make of revolutions.

[*] Prince Albert: His Life and Work, Hamish Hamilton, 182 pp, £10.95, 31 October, 0 241 11142 0. Albert Prince Consort, Hamish Hamilton, 297 pp., £12,50,24 November, 0 241 11000 9.