Wizard of Ox

Paul Addison pays tribute to A.J.P. Taylor

Many tributes have been paid to Alan Taylor, including some by old and close friends who knew him very much better than I did. My excuse for adding one more piece is that I would like to explain something of what he meant to younger historians who came within his orbit. Perhaps I shall end up speaking only for myself, but at any rate I can speak from experience as one of his pupils.

The greatest of Alan Taylor’s qualities was his unrivalled ability to interest people of all kinds in history. He was famous as the only British historian of his time to reach a popular audience beyond the quality press. The success of his television lectures is well-known. But he also travelled up and down the country lecturing to local branches of the Historical Association, and could pack a hall on a winter night for a topic like the Congress of Vienna or the Liberal landslide of 1906. The secret was, I think, that he talked about the kind of dry-as-dust history which for generations had bored children in school, but transformed it into a tale of the unexpected. He was the sixth-former’s friend, the schoolteacher’s lifeline, and a delightful surprise for the middle-aged and elderly.

No less remarkable was the fact that he could hold the interest, at one and the same time, of the schoolboy learning the subject and the professional who had lived with it for years. His lectures were rather like the doodles of an artist on a tablecloth: in a turn of phrase, or a throwaway remark, you would suddenly glimpse a restless imagination at work. Quite early in life Taylor perfected a simplicity of style which enabled him to communicate with all and sundry. But woe betide anyone who mistook him for a simple mind. Of all the historians I have ever met, Taylor possessed the quickest and sharpest intellect. When attacked, he could certainly give as good as he got, and better. But he was never an intellectual bully. Though supremely egotistical, Taylor was a fundamentally nice man and great fun to be with. It was this combination of creative intellect and the human touch which made him such a fine teacher. The long list of his pupils runs from Robert Kee at Magdalen in the Thirties to Kathy Burk, the last of his postgraduate students, in the Seventies. But a survey of the many historians he taught would show that in various respects they did not agree with Alan Taylor or indeed with one another. One of his greatest virtues was that he never sought to create a Taylorian school of history.

I first met him, in October 1964, as a postgraduate reporting to his supervisor. Taylor had recently passed through the most controversial phase of his career. The row over his failure to obtain the Regius Chair of History at Oxford had been followed by a seismic controversy over his book on the origins of the Second World War. I half expected to find a smell of fire and brimstone in the air, and my knees were knocking together as I climbed the last few steps to his rooms in the New Buildings at Magdalen. But there was only the aroma of his pipe tobacco, and some brisk advice on how to get started with research.

I was often asked whether Taylor was a good supervisor. Some people obviously thought that he would be too busy with journalism or television, or leading the life of Reilly, to pay much attention to his academic duties. He was in fact first-class. He did not take you on because your research might help him with his next book, or with the intention of imposing his ideas. He took you on because he was interested in the field you had chosen. He was also extremely efficient. When at last I wrote up my thesis I sent it him chapter by chapter, and every chapter was returned within a few days with crisp and helpful criticisms.

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