R.W. Johnson

When I became a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, the fact that my vote at college meetings counted the same as that of A.J.P. Taylor seemed to me, as it still does, a glorious democratic quirk of the Oxford collegiate system. I was just 26 and the youngest fellow; he was probably the most famous historian in the world. I was not long to think of him by his initials, for Alan was the least standoffish of the senior fellows, the least likely to stand on his dignity. He loved talking – and being listened to. One could safely bring any guest to dinner and place them near him. They would be bound to come away delighted with a stream of funny stories, historical anecdotes and sly shafts of perspicacity. Some of this was due to his courtesy and gregariousness, but he also simply loved performing for an audience. If you provided the audience, he provided the performance.

Partly because of this love of an audience, he has lived a far more public life than most Oxford dons do. So successful was he in this respect that, no doubt to his own pleasure, he was probably not often popularly thought of as an Oxford don. The media have their own not very likeable stereotype of the Oxford don, and Alan clearly didn’t fit that (though, to be fair, Oxford is full of people who do). So he wasn’t ‘an Oxford don’; he was AJPT. But the fact is that he has been a fellow of Magdalen for half a century, and a fifty-year membership of a closed little world like an Oxford college is likely to leave its mark on any man – and on any college.

There was, for a new young fellow like myself, no shortage of AJP stories, by no means all apocryphal. How, at one college meeting, Alan had proposed that the chapel be turned into a swimming-pool. How Alan had loathed the loathsome Dylan Thomas. How Alan had crossed swords with C.S. Lewis, Magdalen’s Fellow in English, on this or that occasion. How, on being asked as a young man at interview whether it was true that he had strongly-held left-wing views, he had replied: ‘No. I have extreme views, weakly held.’ How Alan had been invited to give the main address at the speech day of one of Magdalen’s schools and had regaled the boys with a history of the major benefactors of the college (and thus of the school), showing that all of them had acquired their wealth by foul means and had had enough left over to buy themselves indulgences through their benefaction: the moral being that if you hear that ‘crime never pays,’ don’t believe it.

Such stories blended all too easily with the myriad anecdotes of which Magdalen is full – more so, perhaps, than any other Oxford college. How C.S. Lewis had insisted on starting his lectures punctually on the hour but had seldom managed to get to the lecture room in time, so that he would begin his lecture while strolling up the High Street and enter the hall already well into his third paragraph. The Dean of Divinity who was alleged to have committed the only Magdalen murder, and how it had been decided not to call the police in for fear of scandal. How Harry Weldon, leader of the more progressive fellows, turned down every single Etonian applicant for entry on meritocratic grounds and how the Etonians already up at the college demonstrated in the quad against Weldon, ‘the Red Dean’. How Weldon had worsted Lewis, who was generally on the reactionary side, and how Lewis had retaliated by using Weldon as his model for the Devil in some of his writings.

At the same time, one was conscious of the towering intellectual distinction of that earlier generation of fellows: not just AJPT and Lewis, but Bruce McFarlane, John Morris, Rupert Cross, Cyril Darlington, J.Z. Young, Sir Peter Medawar, Gilbert Ryle ... the line stretched on. No doubt it was all more humdrum in reality, but one was left with the impression of great intellectual giants inhabiting a world of mad English eccentricity: an older world of indulgence, scandal, fun and wit. It was quite intimidating.

But there were echoes, too, of an older Magdalen of the 1920s and before, stretching back to the time when Oscar Wilde was an undergraduate, a world of rowing hearties, intellectual mediocrity and foppish wealth. The most ancient scouts muttered darkly about buckled shoes, Masonic links, a Young Octobrist cell, and the college having once been full of beautiful, aristocratic young men who wore make-up, walked hand in hand, and wouldn’t be seen dead with a woman. Old members, now great bankers or industrial magnates, confirmed this picture, swore that Brideshead Revisited’s Oxford scenes had been based on Magdalen, and spoke of a law tutor who used to hide in his rooms to avoid his pupils, pretending not to be there when they knocked. Those had been the days when the later Duke of Windsor had been an undergraduate, as also Prince Chichibu, the son of the Japanese Emperor. On his first day in the college Chichibu, following custom, had called on President Warren – well-known as an incorrigible lover of blue blood. What, asked Warren, did the name Chichibu actually mean? ‘The Son of God’ came the reply. ‘Oh well,’ said Warren, ‘you’ll find we have the sons of many famous men here.’

Against this shadowy myth-laden background, Alan stood out as representing the modern college. He had not merely written books, but was equally at home in the worlds of journalism and television, was a prominent supporter of the Labour Party and CND, had a wide range of outside contacts, was mondain to a degree. But he had also borne the normal, crushing load of the Oxford tutor, served in college offices and on college committees, lectured to huge audiences, supervised dozens of graduates, and got divorced from and married to a smaller, though still considerable number of wives. Marvelling at this heroic – and sustained – energy, I once asked one of Alan’s closest colleagues what, then, had Alan stinted on? ‘Nothing, really,’ he said. ‘He simply had a wonderful economy of effort. He never wasted a minute.’ The proof of this was clear for all to see in the Finals results gained by his pupils, for in the decade after the war he, McFarlane, Leyser and Stoye took the Magdalen History school to the very top of the Oxford league table. He stood out, too, as almost the last of a powerful group of fellows who, marshalled behind Harry Weldon, had been responsible for transforming Magdalen from a snobbish, reactionary and intellectually undistinguished backwater into a progressive – though still agreeably eccentric – institution. It was, by all accounts, a long, hard struggle, but bit by bit a more open, egalitarian and meritocratic dispensation was achieved – to such effect, indeed, that after the war Magdalen became the first college in over a century to surpass Balliol’s academic results. By the time I arrived Weldon and most of his followers had disappeared – indeed the conservative Old Guard had made a somewhat surprising (though temporary) comeback. But Alan fought on. His great cry at college meetings was for the admission of women. Year after year he put the motion until at last it was passed. But it wasn’t quite the same: Alan missed that old vanguard. Once, talking to me over coffee, he glanced at the Smoking Room door and said: ‘You know, I’d give more than anything else in the world if only Harry Weldon could walk through that door right now.’ Alan’s other causes seldom won: I can’t remember him finding a single taker for his doughty defence of Beaverbrook’s reputation, or for the proposition that Michael Foot would make a great prime minister.

For many people mention of Alan’s name immediately brings to mind the great brouhaha over the Regius Chair in History. His friends, perhaps not entirely discouraged by Alan, have tended to treat this as a sort of crime of the century: in the latest of the Taylor festschrifts,[*] Michael Foot goes banging on about it in much the same way that he banged on about even more distant events during the 1983 Election. This is all quite disproportionate. Of course Alan was the better candidate for the Chair, and of course the grounds – his popular journalism – given for his disqualification were scandalous: but the fact is that this sort of thing happens all the time in Oxford and is always liable to occur in the case of a chair which specifically lies within the political patronage of a prime minister. It is the existence of such a thing as a Regius Chair which is the real monstrosity. But in any case Oxford is still, in general, a somewhat inbred and reactionary place (especially in a subject like History), and decisions like the slight to Alan reproduce themselves fairly regularly. It would indeed be possible to draw up a long list of distinguished historians turned down for jobs in Oxford – Namier, E.H. Carr, and a number still living whom it would be unfair to name.

The real point is surely rather different. In terms of the prevailing Oxford norms, Alan was a maverick. At any one time the reputation of the university rests quite heavily on such mavericks, so that outside it they are even taken to be representative. The truth is the opposite: they are hugely outnumbered by the tutorial drones, the committee bores, the self-consciously Great and Good, and the peculiar tribe of Oxford man-boys. This more mediocre majority is alarmed by the sheer ability of some of the mavericks and, even more, by their habit of truth-telling. This means that they are ‘not sound’, that their names will be greeted with knowing chuckles, and that whatever their merits they will not get their deserts. This in turn makes the description of ‘maverick’ self-fulfilling, for those thus treated are torn between righteous indignation at not being allowed their deserts and a predictable contempt for such baubles: all of which leads them to live up to their maverick image. It is not an uncommon story and it applies beyond the mere confines of Oxford, to a great deal of English life.

There was, though, one considerable extra injustice about the Regius Professorship affair. Given Alan’s public prominence it was inevitable that the case should attract enormous newspaper attention. Given, too, Alan’s wide range of journalistic contacts, his perfectly reasonable consciousness of his own worth, and his justified sense of slight, it was also quite inevitable that Alan should have been widely thought to have helped foment the press campaign on his own behalf. Alan has always denied this. One part of that campaign was, however, monstrously unfair. The suggestion was repeatedly made (and has lingered in many minds ever since) that Magdalen was somehow conspiring to add insult to the university’s injury by ejecting Alan from his fellowship there. Such stories generally began with ‘A.J.P. Taylor’s Magdalen colleagues, jealous of his public success ...’ The truth was quite the opposite. Indeed, the college rallied round its own in quite spectacular fashion. Not only was Alan’s tutorial fellowship never in question, but when Alan decided to resign it the college elected him, uniquely, to a Senior Research Fellowship. Fellows of Magdalen have since felt a little exasperated that they have mysteriously managed to come out of this affair with a bad press.

There were strange echoes of the affair when, ten years ago, Alan retired from his Research Fellowship. The college was, in effect, bound to elect him to an Emeritus Fellowship, but it quickly became clear that there was overwhelming support for his election to an Honorary Fellowship – the highest honour in the college’s gift. Shortly before the election there was a sudden spate of stories in the popular press that A.J.P. Taylor’s Magdalen colleagues, jealous of his popular success, were once again conspiring against him – this time to deprive him of the Honorary Fellowship which was his by virtual right. Once again, Alan denied that he had fomented such stories, even the ones in the Beaverbrook press. The college thus found itself in an unenviable position, so that even if it went ahead with the election as it had always planned, it would look as if it was cravenly bowing to a press campaign, perhaps even tacitly accepting the characterisation of itself which was a part of that campaign. It was decided to regard the Beaverbrook press as beneath contempt and to elect Alan to the Honorary Fellowship he so richly deserved.

The publication of this festschrift has been accompanied by press reviews in the Observer and the Guardian, written by Alan’s former pupils in both cases, which have taken up the joint refrain that it is something of a scandal that Alan has not received at least a knighthood, though one of the reviews hurriedly added that, of course, as a radical socialist, he would have refused any such bauble. Telepathy, no doubt, accounts for the similarity in these reviews. Personally, having heard Alan doughtily defend the public schools, I was a little surprised by the ‘radical socialist’ epithet. Talk of a knighthood seems a little odd too, for to the best of my knowledge Alan long since took a wager with Harry Weldon that neither of them would accept any title less than a hereditary earldom. Perhaps, if Michael Foot had become prime minister, even this might have come to pass: Foot has been nothing if not a determined defender of the unreformed House of Lords, after all. And Alan certainly deserved recognition ahead of such other ennobled historians as Lords Blake, Dacre and Briggs. But again, that is to miss the point. In England men who offend against taboos do not get offered knighthoods, let alone peerages. This rule was sufficient to ensure that the greatest Englishman of the 19th century, Charles Darwin, ended his days as plain ‘Mr’. It is not a scandal, it is quite the opposite of a disgrace, to fall within the same tradition as Darwin. Probably none of our other leading historians – Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Keith Thomas – will gain such dubious recognition either.

Alan’s style of narrative history has drawn criticism in recent years from young historians seeking a more ‘fundamental’ history in social, economic, familial and demographic factors. I well remember Alan questioning one fellowship candidate after another as to who they regarded as the greatest living historian. This persistent question, which brought amused mutters about egomania from some colleagues, elicited one or two mentions of Fernand Braudel and more general protestations that there was no one then alive to whom such a title belonged. Both of the criticisms implied here are, I think, misdirected. First, writing is a solitary, hard and lonely business. To pour out a succession of books, lectures and articles over more than half a century one has to be driven by some muse or devil. There is, in a word, such a thing as a creative and necessary egomania. Secondly, I have no doubt that Alan, with his energy and omnivorous grasp, could well have written superbly in social, demographic or economic history if he had wanted to. He simply chose not to, was happier with what amused and interested him more. As one surveys his achievement, it is difficult to believe that anyone has anything to complain about or that anyone could have wished him to have written otherwise.

It is fitting that this new festschrift, his third, is principally concerned with diplomatic and international history, for it is in this field that his mastery of the narrative style has worked best. His greatest work, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1914, will surely be read well into the next century. It is no small tribute that this book, though containing many judgments with which the Russians must surely disagree, is still used as a basic text in Soviet colleges. Alan’s histories have been best-sellers not only throughout the English-speaking world but in Japan, Germany and innumerable other countries besides the USSR. Alan is, indeed, probably our only historian with a truly world reputation. In that respect he has simply left his peers standing, made them seem parochial figures by comparison. The fact that both the educational and political arms of the British Establishment have chosen to recognise Alan’s peers ahead of him is merely a sign of its own parochialism and should be no great surprise. If our Establishment was in the habit of recognising merit rather than ‘soundness’, England would be a very different place.

[*] Warfare, Diplomacy and Politics: Essays in Honour of A.J.P. Taylor, edited by Chris Wrigley. Hamish Hamilton, 248 pp., £15, 24 March, 0 241 11789 5.