Fighting off the Boche

Robert Kee

The past, we’ve been told, is a different country and they do things differently there, but not for me, not where Alan Taylor is concerned. He had a most wonderfully consistent personality. That look of amused, quizzical discernment which is even in the photographs his third wife Eva took of him in the sunshine on the last day of his life was much the same as that which confronted me when I read out my first half-baked essays to him at Holywell Ford after he had first come to Magdalen in 1938.

I don’t actually remember much detail of those early tutorials, except for the significant fact that I have absolutely no memory at all of any tutorials with any other Magdalen don before Alan came. I do also remember how Alan, having listened to my half-baked essays with that amused, critical, discerning look, didn’t tear them to bits at all, but just politely moved on to his own stimulating analysis of the events I’d been trying to discuss. Only some weeks later, as I feebly began to try to imitate something of his own inimitable style of perceptive analysis, did a few sharp words of criticism as well as encouragement come my way.

It was at this time, incidentally, long before his later fame on television, that he started attracting to his brilliant and impeccably-timed spontaneous lecturing packed audiences of undergraduates who had long ago given up other lectures as an unsophisticated, boring and second-rate way of trying to work. What did they get from these lectures? Well ... approach, perhaps, mostly. That all-important approach for any historian – or for anybody – which believes that, though the Emperor may indeed be wearing some clothes, it is essential to examine them all meticulously in the likelihood that they will turn out to be very much shoddier than he would like them to seem.

Just before the outbreak of the Second World War I went to stay with Alan and his first wife Margaret and their son Giles in a chalet they had rented at Montriond, a village in the Haute Savoie. I read in one of the obituaries that Alan wasn’t really very fond of ‘abroad’, but I’m not sure this was so. It certainly wasn’t true then, and as I’ve said, he didn’t change much. He seemed really to love being in France that hot summer, walking in the mountains and driving about, wearing a rather dashing check cloth cap, in the open Ford V8 in which he took us several times to the exhibition of pictures from the Prado which the expiring Spanish Republic had sent to Geneva.

What I strongly remember of that stay was the pleasure of finding the sparklingly abrasive mind which Alan applied so creatively to history applied equally entertainingly to the business of everyday life. On arrival, I asked about the lake at Montriond which I had read about in the Guide Bleu, quoting to him, doubtless in a somewhat affected accent, the guide’s description of it as a lake which dégage une charme très melancholique. ‘Well, yes,’ said Alan. ‘It’s just a converted reservoir, actually.’

He had a wonderful trick of pouring contempt on some idea or belief by pretending not to understand it. For some reason the Ascension of Christ came up one evening at dinner. Alan said he couldn’t think why Jesus had to go away when all his disciples thought he was such a good thing. I tried a conventional theological explanation. ‘Oh, I see,’ he said, ‘You mean sort of “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go.” ’

Echoes of the First World War were obviously much in our minds at the time, though Alan – particularly after the Nazi-Soviet pact, which hit us there – didn’t think there would be a war. He was convinced that Chamberlain would do a deal, as at Munich. The thought outraged me so much that I was outraged Alan could have had the thought. But how right, in fact, he nearly was. It was not for want of trying on Chamberlain’s part. And although Alan’s hunch was finally proved technically wrong, his perception was right, and he is the only person I can remember as having, in effect, correctly predicted the Phoney War when everyone else was expecting immediate Armageddon.

But he enjoyed the historical theatre of those days in Montriond: the evening on which, for instance, the Madame in the village restaurant put up a black-out for the first time ‘on orders from Paris’. The moment we got back to the chalet Alan barked: ‘As Senior Member of this household I shall take over: shut the shutters!’ And he rushed madly about saying it was a good thing to have something to do at last. ‘Fighting off the Boche,’ he muttered as he slammed the shutters.

As the Polish crisis deepened, we went again to the Spanish pictures in Geneva. The next night we were playing dominoes, but the night after that, 31 August, Alan said – a bit disingenuously as I thought – that he was bored with mountains and wanted to go to the sea. I assumed we’d press on to Dieppe to get to England before the bombs started to fall, but when we got to Autun in Burgundy he said: ‘I’m going to back my opinion. We shall all spend the night in an expensive hotel.’ Next day I couldn’t bear the tension any longer and went back to England ahead of them.

Several weeks later when I was back reading half-baked essays to him again at Holywell Ford I said – for it still seemed amazing: ‘It’s as if nothing had happened.’ He said: ‘Well, it hasn’t, has it?’ A typical Taylor judgment in classically provoking form.

During the war he wrote to me in a prison camp for over three years. Sometimes his letters seemed a bit cluttered up with unnecessary detail of academic Magdalen politics, but they were always delightful. Only after the war, when I went to see him again at Holywell Ford, did he tell me that every month for three years an amateur cloak-and-dagger figure of some sort had come to see him and persuaded him to insert a whole series of codewords into his otherwise natural monthly letter. In fact, owing to some internal cock-up at the camp end of this amateur intelligence system, it had never been realised that I was receiving such letters at all, so no one ever decoded them and I was just sometimes rather puzzled by Alan’s style. I didn’t dare tell him about this for years. I should have known him better. When, some time in the Sixties, I was walking down the tow-path at Kew with him and did tell him, he simply stopped in his tracks and roared with delighted laughter. I wish he was here to laugh with us still.