Up to Islip

Rosalind Mitchison

  • An Old Man’s Diary by A.J.P. Taylor
    Hamish Hamilton, 155 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 241 11247 8

The examining in my university is over for the year. After the usual haggling – ‘is this worth 69 or 70?’ – with nasty points of principle raised and evaded, the lists have been signed, and that is the end of what a colleague once described as ‘the annual session of egg grading’. We are free to go to the hills, equipped with walking boots, a hotel booking, a Highland bus time-table and the literature for the West Highland Way. So we drive to Kinlochleven, eat a hurried sandwich and set off in sunlight up through the mixed woodland on a track created by an occupying army. Soon we are on the open hillside watching the blue shadows of the clouds on the mountains. Later in luxury in an Appin hotel I can settle to a collection of diary pieces from our most distinguished modern historian, A.J.P. Taylor.

Of course these are not real diary entries. A real diary entry is full of personal items which the law of libel or the proscription of the totally trivial contrive to rule out. Journalism diaries have to be compiled on principles of their own. Names can be used, but only if the owner is distinguished or dead, or the event a long way back. Specific actions should be confined to the distant past. Prejudice can, indeed must, be shown, but again in generalised terms.

So sitting with the splendid silhouette of the mountains of Ardgour across the loch, I can read that A.J.P.T. has walked most of the Pennine Way. This is evidence of physical fitness and energy, for the Way is a mass of steep and arduous ascents. But he can have it. Pennine worship is one of the mistakes of the North of England. I remember from my own Manchester days the ghastliness of excursions to the Peak district, a dreary plateau specialising in beastly weather, covered with tussock grass imbued with the soot of early industrialisation. If Taylor had met the gentle gradients and brilliant colours of the West Highland Way he would change his allegiance.

But otherwise I find myself siding with him in his assertions and preferences. He has a love of Magdalen, even though the college now dines on only three courses, and it is a love I share for I was reared within its bounds. He might say, for he surely knows, that it was Manchester, where he first made his mark, that taught Oxford to value research in history. Before it succumbed to the Manchester influence, the dons in Oxford spent their summers reading the research of others, in various languages, and then in term instilled the conclusions into their students. Anyone who has held a post in the Manchester History Department has a right to claim a share in a distinguished inheritance.

In the winter of 1940 A.J.P.T. says that he skated on the Cherwell from Magdalen to the bypass. Ah, I can beat him there. I went on up to Islip, crunching over the rough ice and frozen snow. I now have an ambition, which comes back to me, since I am so near the right location, to skate the moor of Rannoch one hard winter. But I get older, and the problems of the task remain: how to combine a frost hard enough to make Loch Ba solid, yet leave the roads open, someone to pick us up on the far side, a skating companion, even the chance to get into practice so as to do 18 miles on skates and four on foot in a short day. The boast from 1940 brings home how much I have in common with A.J.P.T. But that remark is hardly justified. He is a master of words, and a masterly combiner of evasiveness and paradox. Modern political history gives full scope for both, and he can slither from reminiscence to earlier episodes out-with his own lifespan. It is the privilege of the historian to have this vast repertoire.

Some part of the diary reveals the disadvantage of long experience, in the prejudices of age. He objects to technological, administrative or marketing features which were not established in his youth. So he protests at publishers who put notes at the end of the book; hotels which give you too large a breakfast; the car as a means of travel, since it supersedes the railway, which he loves, and because he finds women drivers aggressive; and the Social Democratic Party because it is new. We all have similar lists of aversions. We accept some elements of the modern world, as Taylor accepts television, and reject others.

The following morning we make a hurried start, sustained by a breakfast just beyond what Taylor tolerates, to drive off and catch the ten something Fort-William-to-Glasgow bus across the Black Mount from Kingshouse to Bridge of Orchy. Clearly the road was built without expecting people to wait for buses on it: we have to climb down a steep bank, avoiding a vast pool of dark fluid and some abandoned car upholstery whenever things drive by close to the curb, yet we have to be on the road to signal any bus until we can identify the right one. I am suddenly horned at and driven off the road sharply by a long, empty transporter coming up on the wrong side and overtaking a stream of traffic most dangerously: don’t even have time to see whether it is being driven by an aggressive woman, but suspect not. At last the bus shows up and we climb in.

We stump into the woods at Bridge of Orchy, and up the West Highland Way again, skirting the moor of Rannoch. Our day’s ration will be rather more than the old drovers’ stint. The moor is a bright velvety green, wonderful so long as you don’t have to pick your way over the hidden bogs, and there are bright streams roaring across the Way, later sluggishly forming oxbow lakes on the moor. They are bridged by elegant stone vaulting, and we can climb down to the water for a drink. At last we turn the shoulder of Meall a’ Bhuiridh, the skier’s favourite mountain, and look along to the Buachaille guarding the opening of the glen. By now we have done near on 11 miles, and are feeling our age. The book of the Way says that there is a more adventurous route, for the ‘fit and experienced hill walker’ by Stob Ghabhar and Clach Leathad. I know. I’m proud to have done it once. But just as Taylor regards a recent walk up Pillar as not to be repeated, so I think about that marathon, which took till 11.30 in the dusk before we waded into the River Etive and could call ourselves down from the hill. I was met half-way across by a companion with a small bottle of mixed Glen Grant and Etive water: a wonderful moment. As I tipped it up to drink I heard another companion give a squawk as he dropped his boots into the river.

The centre item of Taylor’s book, dividing the section of pieces for the Listener, 1980-1, from those for the London Review of Books, 1982-3, is a reproduction, perhaps reduced, since it is only about three and a half thousand words, of his Romanes Lecture of 1981, a brilliant mixture of both his stylistic features. Here he rattles the threat of nuclear war. It is odd, and the kind of paradox he himself might have used, that our government holds two opposed views about the risk of having weapons. It is gospel to the Home Office that the likelihood of murder is enormously increased when people have guns to hand: so there are elaborate difficulties put in the way of private weaponry. But at the same time it is the faith or myth of the Defence Ministry that the ownership or availability of nuclear weapons ensures peace. A.J.P.T., as a founder member of CND, has many memories of his work for it: the only thing that puts him off now is that it has been taken over by feminists.

Politics have a nasty way of changing, and by now he wants to keep his options as they used to be. He adheres to a Labour Party as it was some twenty years ago, with its old myths and priorities. The SDP is therefore unacceptable, even though in the last election it occupied much the same space as Labour had in 1906, while Labour imitated the stance of the riven Conservative Party of that year. So he uses the technique of guilt by analogy. Look at who broke off from Labour – Mosley.

Labour’s prejudices must not change. He cannot see why Michael Foot should have been battling with the Prime Minister over who should be peers. He thinks the House is still a mixture of aristocrats and lazy politicians. But when at the end of our walking week we bought a newspaper, we found out that the Lords had repudiated the Government’s proposed regime for London. Hurrah for aristocratic democracy.

We went off at one point for a small potter in the glacial moraine round Tyndrum, partly on the West Highland Way, and later, after a long drive, to a party with friends who live by the new, more formidable Southern Upland Way. Meanwhile Taylor’s book made its way through a mixture of travel, gossip, history and politics. He responds, as many others did, to the Falklands issue – belligerent indignation at first, followed by recognition that in the end we have to compromise with Argentina. He wonders how many prime ministers have been adulterers. What good anniversaries can 1981 and 1982 provide? Who was the second greatest Englishman, with Samuel Johnson indisputably the first? He notes, several times, that he has been likened to Macaulay – mistakenly, I think myself. True, both are Whigs, convinced that 1688 was the greatest thing before sliced bread, and both believe in English cultural dominance, though Taylor’s Whiggery has little sympathy to offer to academics under Communist regimes. But his style is more elusive, less forceful, than Macaulay’s.

There is a sadness in the later part of the diary. From the moderate infirmities of age, lessened capacity on the hills, a weakness in the hand grasp, he passes to the onset of illness, failure of wind, balance, the start of Parkinsonism. In his later seventies he is forced to give up lecturing. But surely this will not mean the end of writing. Many besides myself will hope not, and wish him well.