Nobody wants it

Jose Harris

‘A cynic? How can I not be when I have spent my life writing history?’ Alan Taylor’s love letters to his Hungarian third wife created a predictably prurient, though transient, stir when they were published earlier this year. Their more lasting interest may lie in the light that they throw upon Taylor the practising historian, musing to a fellow historian about the mysteries of his craft. Taylor was regarded by many, not excluding himself, as the nation’s greatest living historian; and the personal and domestic details of his letters are intermingled with comment upon his own historical writing, his views of other historians and his interpretation of contemporary events as they unfolded day by day.

Throughout his adult life Taylor was an emotional fellow-traveller of revolutionary socialism. Yet the approach to the study of history revealed by these letters is one of constitutional aversion to any form of a priori theory: an aversion as profound as that of any Oakeshottian conservative. The basic process of writing history was to Taylor something that one learned about by doing it, like riding a bicycle or baking a cake. ‘Thinking,’ he remarked, is ‘an unusual Occupation for me. I am more accustomed to let the record speak for itself, and merely write from one event to the next ... Whenever I write even about something I know really well, I don’t know what is going to happen until I have written it down.’ ‘I’d rather start with my mind a blank and let the story tell itself,’ he claimed, in contrast with more theoretical colleagues.

Such an approach might have resulted in the kind of monumental studies of microscopic narrative detail in which political and diplomatic history traditionally abound. But this was not the case, and indeed these letters suggest that Taylor had little but contempt for undigested piles of archive masquerading as history. This was because his own archival realism was always harnessed to a more complex and idiosyncratic process, which some would see as constituting Taylor’s peculiar contribution to the study of modern history. In his works the documents never really ‘spoke for themselves’, but were given a kick-start by a flash of often brilliant and sometimes perverse historical imagination. For all his attachment to documentary research, he took a self-conscious pride in his historian’s ‘green fingers’ – in the fact that he often guessed the truth of what had happened in a particular historical setting long before the archives laid it bare. ‘How do I manage as a historian?’ he wrote to his future wife in 1971:

Here is a secret ... I work very thoroughly and patiently. Then I make up my mind. I take a risk. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it comes off. The hundredth time I make a mistake. I get a reputation for being slightly careless, but this is deliberate. If you wait until every detail is right you will produce nothing. I have a neat mind that likes to produce results. Sometimes I make patterns too precise, but that is better than drifting in a fog. I drive a car the same way, usually a bit too fast rather than too slow.

Such comments accurately pinpoint some of Taylor’s key strengths and weaknesses as an academic historian: virtuosity in exposition was his forte, rather than great profundity or subtlety of thought. They also help to explain his enormous popularity with the non-academic newspaper-reading and television-watching public, who revelled in his clarity, bravura and reduction of many of the more abstruse problems of history to a branch of higher common sense. Indeed, his whole intellectual outlook of no-nonsense empiricism, tempered by flashes of intuition and ‘guesswork’, could be seen as representative of the traditional mental outlook of the English ‘man in the street’.

Taylor was much less popular with fellow academics, however, and these letters give many inklings of why this should have been so. He relished his own brand of anarchic ‘frivolity’ at the expense of the ‘pomposity’ of ‘professional historians, who go on as though they were bishops or headmasters’. In later life he was a compulsive book reviewer, and although his published comments were often generous in tone, the letters suggest an almost total estrangement from the interests and methods of the rest of the English-speaking historical profession. Among past historians he revered and constantly reread Gibbon (though noting with some severity that Gibbon never used any ‘original document’ and that he ‘wrote before the great historical discovery that the past was different from the present’). Among contemporaries he recognised only Arthur Marder, the American historian of British naval strategy, as an intellectual equal. There are passing favourable comments on works of social history by Geoffrey Best and J.F.C. Harrison, but historians working in Taylor’s own areas of diplomatic or high-political history are almost invariably disparaged or deplored. Britain’s best-known Marxist historian is dismissed as telling ‘anecdotes rather than being a true scholar ... I can see no sign of brains at all.’ Of one epic work of biographical scholarship Taylor wrote that ‘it lies on my mind as a great indigestible lump of cake lies on the stomach’. Writings on intellectual history – ‘philosophy and mysticism and farfetched literary themes’ – were ‘subjects that do not interest me at all’. A major work of cultural history by a former pupil was written off as little more than a ‘clever ... ragbag ... I like history to be chronological.

Taylor’s strictures on contemporary historical writing extended also to much of his own work. The Letters to Eva, written between his mid-sixties and mid-seventies, are full of self-deprecating reflections upon his own past writings. He was particularly severe on his works on mid-European diplomatic and political history, published in the Forties and Fifties, which many would regard as written at the height of his powers. The Course of German History was ‘pretty bad, too clever by half’. The Struggle for the Mastery of Europe, he found in later life ‘really unreadable’, ‘boring though ingenious like a sort of crossword puzzle’. He continued to defend the controversial thesis of The Origins of the Second World War, and to be hurt and irritated by those who imagined that this book was an apology for Hitler. But the letters suggest that he viewed The Origins as increasingly unimportant, as the cutting edge of new historical research shifted away from the Anglo-German confrontation of 1939 to the global conflict of 1941. The biography of Beaverbrook which absorbed five years of his life he regarded in retrospect as having been scarcely worth writing. Moreover, ‘it puzzles me that I ever knew enough to write most of these books. It also puzzles me that I should ever have wanted to write most of them.’

The one area of Taylor’s historical writing that appears to have given him lasting satisfaction was his work on English history. England 1914-45 he regarded as his ‘masterpiece’, while The Troublemakers (a series of studies of radical-nonconformist attacks on British foreign policy stretching back to the late 18th century) he continued to regard as his ‘favourite book’. Readers will recall the dramatic denouement of The Troublemakers, in which by an ironic twist of history the radical, quasi-pacifist nonconformist tradition came in 1939 to ‘speak for England’ and to compel the traditional makers of foreign policy into a declaration of war. For Taylor, this episode was much more than just an incident in narrative history, and it provides the central clue to his whole historical outlook. As these letters make clear, a secularised political nonconformity was an abiding element in Taylor’s psychological make-up, far more profound than the superficial trappings of theoretical socialism. In much of his historical and journalistic writing there was an undercurrent of desire to ‘speak for England’, in much the same manner as the heroes of his book. In these letters Taylor’s sense of personal identification with the troublemakers is made quite explicit: ‘We anti-fascists who agitated for war scored an unusual sort of victory and at a high price.’

The ‘England’ for which Taylor spoke, however, was an England of a very specific character. It was an England that had been weaned on Bunyan and the Authorised Version, grown up with Cobden and Bright, and come to maturity with the struggles against Fascism and unemployment in the Thirties. It was peopled by a radical, public-spirited, organised working class, with whom Taylor always claimed to identify much more closely than with fellow intellectuals. By the Seventies, however, that radical, post-nonconformist, working-class England was crumbling on all fronts; and the Letters to Eva are suffused with mounting bewilderment about the course of contemporary events. Whilst in public Taylor continued to support conventionally radical causes – such as miners’ strikes, dockers’ strikes, anti-Americanism, deficit spending and militant Irish nationalism – the letters express a growing sense of disenchantment and disquiet: a disquiet that is of more than purely personal interest and may perhaps be seen as representative of the plight of radical conviction on a much wider scale during this period.

This plight in Taylor’s case was compounded by retirement, old age, a sense of dwindling intellectual and physical powers and chronic financial anxiety (he lost £80,000 on the Stock Exchange during the world oil crisis). ‘I have been expecting the collapse of British capitalism all my life,’ he wrote in 1973. ‘Now that it comes I am rather annoyed.’ ‘I dread the future,’ he admitted early in 1974. ‘Will there be a miners’ strike? If so, will all investments go to nothing? I had counted on them as security and even comfort for my old age.’ ‘The economic situation here is terrible,’ he reported in May. ‘Prices go up every day and soon the pound will be almost worthless. It is all right for workers and such like who can push up their wages, but it is ruin for those with fixed incomes.’ ‘Like everyone else I had saved for my old age, but my savings and pension will he worthless. I dread the thought that I may be driven to go to America just to keep alive.’ A year later he was predicting that ‘the entire Western world is approaching breakdown,’ and the letters of the late Seventies were full of premonitions of fascist coups, communist counter-coups, deadlock between warring interest groups and ultimate capitalist collapse. At the same time, however, he confessed that he had ‘lost faith in the future. I have spent a lifetime believing in socialism and now I see that nobody wants it.’ And the nobody increasingly included Taylor himself: ‘However much one wants revolution in theory it is no fun when you are old,’

Such revelations make Letters to Eva more than just a sentimental journey but a work of social and intellectual history. Written by Taylor in his declining years, they provoke curiosity about Taylor’s correspondence in earlier years, when he was in the eye of the storm of numerous historical controversies. As love letters they are unremarkable, but as evidence about Taylor himself and the causes he stood for, they lead one to hope that other letters to other wives may some day be forthcoming.