A. J. P. Taylor

A. J. P. Taylor

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Alan John Percivale Taylor, the only son of Percy Lees Taylor, a cotton merchant, and his wife, Constance Sumner Thompson, a schoolmistress, was born at Birkdale on 25th March, 1906. His parents were supporters of the Labour Party and he grew up with left-wing views.

Taylor was educated at Bootham School in York and Oriel College. A talented student he graduated from Oxford University with a first class degree in modern history in 1927. He considered the possibility of a career as a lawyer but in 1928 he decided to study diplomatic history in Vienna.

In 1930 he was appointed as a lecturer at Manchester University. Taylor also contributed regularly as reviewer and leader writer on the Manchester Guardian, where he expressed his views as a left-wing pacifist. His first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847–1849, appeared in 1934.

Taylor was a strong opponent of Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany. In 1936 he resigned from the Manchester Peace Council and began to urge British rearmament. He criticised the policy of appeasement and argued for an Anglo-Soviet alliance to contain fascism. In 1938 he published Germany's First Bid for Colonies, 1884–1885 .

With the support of Lewis Namier, Taylor returned to Oxford University in 1938 as a fellow of Magdalen College. According to A.F. Thompson, one of his students: "He schooled himself to lecture (and speak publicly) without notes, a craft he later brought to perfection... Soon established as an outstanding tutor of responsive undergraduates and a charismatic, early-morning lecturer, he began to make a wider name for himself as an incisive speaker on current affairs, in person and on the radio."

During the Second World War he was a member of the Home Guard. He continued to teach history and published The Habsburg Monarchy (1941) and The Course of German History (1945). Although he was sympathetic to the plight of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, he remained a staunch critic of the rule of Joseph Stalin and in 1948 created a stir at a Stalinist cultural congress in Wrocław, when he argued that everyone had the right to hold different views from those in power.

In 1957, Taylor joined forces with J. B. Priestley, Kingsley Martin, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Wilfred Wellock, Ernest Bader, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, E. Thompson, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, Stuart Hall, Ralph Miliband, Frank Cousins, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to establish the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Taylor published a large number of books on history including The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954), The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy, 1792–1939 (1957), The Origins of the Second World War (1961), The First World War (1963), Politics In Wartime (1964) English History 1914-1945 (1965), From Sarajevo to Potsdam (1966), Churchill Revised: A Critical Assessment (1969) and Beaverbrook (1972). Taylor's autobiography,A Personal History, was published in 1983.

His biographer, A.F. Thompson, has argued: "Taylor emerged as a national figure with the advent of television. On In the News and Free Speech he caught the viewers' fancy as a quick-witted debater, a Cobbett-like scourge of the establishment... First of the television dons, he retained this primacy into old age as he delivered unscripted lectures direct to the camera on historical themes to a vast audience."

Alan John Percivale Taylor, who suffered from Parkinson's Disease for many years, died at a nursing home in Barnet on 7th September 1990.

Operation Dynamo succeeded beyond all expectations. The forces of fighter command were thrown in without reserve and tempered the weight of German bombing on the beaches. Destroyers, which brought off most of the men were aided by every sort of vessel - pleasure boats, river ferries, fishing smacks. Altogether 860 ships took part. As a further advantage, the weather was uniformly benign. On 31 May Gort, as his force shrank, handed over to General Alexander, the senior divisional commander, in accordance with orders. On 3 June the last men were moved. In all, 338,236 men were brought to England from Dunkirk, of whom 139,097 were French. Dunkirk was a great deliverance and a great disaster. Almost the entire B.E.F. was saved. It had lost virtually all its guns, tanks, and other heavy equipment. Many of the men had abandoned their rifles. Six destroyers had been sunk and nineteen damaged. The R.A.F. had lost 474 aeroplanes.

The Germans struck their most dramatic, though not their most dangerous, blow with night bombing, soon to be known in popular English parlance as 'the Blitz'. This grew by accident out of Hitler's earlier attempt to secure immediate surrender and went on in retaliation for British bombing as much as for any other reason. It was an improvised affair. The Germans had no aeroplanes specifically designed for independent long-range bombing, no pilots trained for it (particularly at night), and no clear picture of what they were attempting to do. At first they concentrated on London which was bombed every night from 7 September to 2 November. Then they switched mainly to industrial centres in the provinces and finally to the western ports. 16 May 1941 saw the last heavy German attack on Birmingham. Thereafter the Luftwaffe was busy preparing to cooperate with the army against Soviet Russia, and in England precautions against air raids became more of a burden than the air raids themselves.

At the outset the British were as ill-equipped for defence as the Germans were for attack. Their fighters were almost useless at night, and the anti-aircraft guns, too few in any case, nearly as ineffective. Techniques were gradually improved as the winter wore on. Physicists, sustained by Professor Lindemann, Churchill's personal adviser, invented radar assistance both for the fighters and the guns. When the Germans began to navigate by radio beams instead of by the stars, the British were already prepared to divert the beams, and many German bombs fell harmlessly in the open country. The Germans erred by failing to repeat their attacks on a chosen target, such as Coventry. They could not bomb with any precision and thus failed, for instance, to destroy vital railway junctions. Most of all, their attack lacked weight. A major raid meant 100 tons of bombs. Three years later the British were dropping 1,600 tons a night on Germany - and even then not with decisive effect. Fifty-seven raids brought 13,561 tons of bombs on London. Later the British often exceeded this total in a single week.

Death of a Historian

E. H. Carr died on 3 November last. I am inclined to say that he was the greatest British historian of our age: certainly he was the one I most admired. Ted Carr had a long run, varied enough to provide half a dozen careers for any lesser man. He started with twenty years in the diplomatic service, including membership of the British peace delegation to Paris in 1919. After a few years as a professor at Aberystwyth, he was assistant editor of the Times for much of the Second World War, when according to Churchill he turned the paper into a tuppenny edition of the Daily Worker. He published his first masterpiece, a life of Bakunin &ndash a book I hailed at the time as a masterpiece &ndash as long ago as 1937 he published Volume 14 of his History of Soviet Russia shortly before he died and had already made arrangements for it to be carried further by another hand. It is extraordinary to reflect that he began his great work when he was already over sixty and that the latest volumes show no sign of age, except perhaps that they were clearer and more effective than ever.

Carr had great scholarship, great persistence, and above all an unfailing readiness to change his mind with changing circumstances. His first incursion into the discussion of foreign affairs was The Twenty Years&rsquo Crisis, a book surveying the twenty years between the two great wars. Hence he argued that the peace settlement of 1919 was out of date and that British policy should now aim to conciliate Germany. This argument much shocked those, including myself, who wished to resist Germany at all costs, and I remember denouncing Carr as a wicked appeaser. I quoted the old accusation against the Times, with which Ted was already associated, that its policy was &lsquoto be strong upon the stronger side&rsquo.

This mood of Ted&rsquos did not last long. On the German invasion of Russia he decided that the Russians were going to win. Thereafter he never wavered from this decision. This was not merely his preference for the winning side. He had never been happy in his preference for Nazi Germany. He had greater sympathy with Soviet Russia, despite the dictatorship and sometimes the terror that went along with it. Carr was never an apologist for Soviet Russia, except in the sense of asserting that it should be accorded the respect due to any great power. For a long time he believed that Socialism would triumph not only in Russia but throughout most of the world. Towards the end of his life this confidence in the future dwindled under the impact of events. His last volume of essays &ndash flatteringly bearing the same title as an earlier book of mine &ndash ended with the words: &lsquoI fear this is a profoundly counter-revolutionary period in the West.&rsquo

Carr had strong views on contemporary events but he was much more interested in the writing of history. His lectures entitled What is history? are intellectual dynamite, sometimes unrivalled in their wisdom, sometimes in my opinion thoroughly wrong-headed. Carr preached the doctrine that historians should not be interested in the losers, who must go into the dustbin of history. This is what Trotsky said about his Menshevik opponents, and it could also apply to Trotsky himself. I disagreed, yet I cannot think of any argument which might prove Carr wrong. Right or wrong, I venerated him and I am proud to record that Ted Carr and I were bound together by ties of great mutual affection.

A personal footnote. Ted Carr was one of the few Fellows of the British Academy who stood firmly by me during the Blunt affair a couple of years ago.

Death has claimed another considerable historian: Captain Stephen Roskill RN, who died on 4 November. Roskill had an active-service career almost until he reached the age of 50 and started as an historian when lesser mortals think of retirement. In 1949 he became the Official Naval Historian and produced The War at Sea 1939-1945 in four volumes. Though official in name, it was far from official in character. Roskill fought the censors of the Cabinet Office as resolutely as Sir Charles Webster did when writing his History of the Strategic Air Offensive. Roskill went on to write more personal books: three volumes on Hankey and as a final production a hilarious life of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty. He also launched a sharp attack on Churchill for his excessive interference with the conduct of the Navy. This led to a controversy with the other great Naval authority, Arthur Marder, which was the delight of all observers. Roskill was not content to write voluminous books. Becoming a Fellow of Churchill College somewhat late in the day, he took charge of the archive which he and the college were accumulating and made it among the leading assemblages of documents on contemporary affairs in this country. Roskill was a man of sweet temper. After the peacefulness of Naval life he was at first surprised and a little bewildered by the savagery of the academic world into which he had strayed. However, he soon learnt how to defend himself. He had no enemies in the academic world and many friends, including pre-eminently Arthur Marder.

I have just begun on a treat that comes round only once every five &ndash or is it once every ten? &ndash years. At any rate, I heard Brendel play all the sonatas of Beethoven some years ago and now I am in process of hearing him do it again. I can only describe my reaction as one of uninstructed delight. I cannot read a score. I cannot follow a fugue or say with any confidence that a work is in sonata form. Indeed, I know nothing of music except being able to play the major and minor diatonic scales more or less accurately. What good that does me I have never understood. My musical education started quite abruptly when I went to Vienna in 1928 and attended concerts at least once a week during the two years I was there. Thereafter I went to the Hallé concerts during my ten years in Manchester.

Since the war my interest in orchestral concerts has steadily declined and my interest in chamber music steadily increased. My vague impression is that before the war there were a few outstanding string quartets better than almost any around now, but that there are now more quartets of reasonably high quality. As to pianists, there used to be more of flamboyant greatness, including Horowitz, allegedly the greatest pianist of all time, and Rosenthal, who had been Liszt&rsquos pupil. I doubt whether there is anyone of that level nowadays, not even Horowitz in his old age. Chamber music has brought me great pleasure during the last thirty years. If I were to express special gratitude it would be to the Beaux Arts Trio and to Brendel, who is now playing Beethoven&rsquos sonatas with such freshness that it would seem he had only just discovered them. I hope I shall still be here when he plays them next time round.

My pursuit of public entertainment goes in waves. First I try to find something of merit, devotedly attending plays and films. The plays become more and more trivial the films more and more offensive. There follow some years when I go to no entertainments at all, except of course revivals. I almost reach the point of believing that all entertainments are unendurable. Then A Woman of Paris or When we are married (both seen recently) restores my hopes and I renew my visits to theatre or cinema. Eventually I find a contemporary piece of some merit. On Golden Pond put me in a good temper for the cinema, perhaps because the combined age of the two principal players must have been over one hundred and fifty years. Here is a report on my recent visits to cinema and theatre.

I began with Body Heat. That was a great mistake. I could not understand what was happening and was no wiser when it was revealed at the end that there were two more or less identical girls, not one girl. Why and wherefore was beyond me. The only merit of the film was that though there was much sexual intercourse, it was at any rate normal intercourse &ndash that is to say, bisexual. This is more than could be said for the next film I saw, claimed to be a greater masterpiece than either Citizen Kane or Battleship Potemkin. This masterpiece was a Hungarian film entitled Another Way. It was about a girl with lesbian tastes who sought to convert other girls to her way of life, in one case successfully. Some years ago I decided to visit a show of sex films in Soho. I paid for two hours, but the show was so disgusting that I had to leave within ten minutes. Another Way was far worse in its presentation of lesbian intimacy. Characteristic fragment of dubbed dialogue: Intelligence agent (not very intelligent): &lsquoTell me what exactly do you do?&rsquo Lesbian girl &lsquoSometimes we use one finger, sometimes two, sometimes three.&rsquo She ends by straying across into a forbidden zone when she is shot by a frontier guard. Before this I had tried Reds, a film allegedly about John Reed. This film had only normal intercourse. It also had a good deal of political nonsense and little hint that Reed wrote the finest account there is of the Bolshevik revolution. I have been cured of film-going for a long time.

I have not done much better with the theatre. I tried Another Country, which in fact is a fancy portrait of an English public school in the Thirties. The portrait did not resemble any public school that I remember: indeed, it did not resemble anything in real life. The one merit of the theatre is that it has more and better revivals than the cinema. Recently I have seen that most instructive play, The Second Mrs Tanqueray and When we are married. I have also seen some Shaw revivals. Every time I see one I am reminded that Shaw with all his faults is the best playwright since Shakespeare, if not a better one. Clearly the theatre has some merits. But the cinema .

The History of A. J. P. Taylor

Whether or not he has the stature of Gibbon and Macaulay, as enthusiastic reviewers have occasionally&mdashand irrelevantly&mdashclaimed for him, A. J. P. Taylor is certainly among the most prominent of living British historians. It is not the universal opinion that he is among the most distinguished. On the contrary, he is also by all odds, the most controversial among these most prominent figures. He poses a problem, indeed, which the controversy has done little as yet to resolve. While some of the criticism he incurs is concerned with the quality of his work and the soundness of his judgments&mdashand does not arise merely from disagreement with the drift and content of his conclusions&mdashmost of it, and all the praise, confuses these two issues. His latest book, providing us with another opportunity to assess his real worth, will receive, like everything he has written, both lyrical praise and the blackest of damnation. On this account it will be another missed opportunity.

Mr. Taylor&rsquos critics will be quick to point out that of the eighteen pieces here reprinted at least eleven are brief reviews which need not have been rescued from the newspaper columns because they are pointless except in relation to the publication, some time back, of the volumes to which they refer. Were it not that most of his opponents are themselves now engaged in this reprehensible practice, for which he set the fashion in 1950 with his From Napoleon to Hitler, they would certainly go on to say that his decision to reprint these notices in book form is another testimony to that abiding love of the limelight and profound lack of discrimination which produce his regular indulgence in other forms of questionable journalism. They will not fail to notice in this connection the relish he displays, not to speak of the inside knowledge, whenever he writes here on the subject of the Press. Can it be doubted that what he says about Lord Northcliffe&mdash&ldquothe plain fact is that Northcliffe was a newsman first, last and all the time&rdquo&mdashapplies equally to himself? And least of all will they allow us to ignore the fact that not only in these occasional pieces, but also in the more serious chapters, there is embedded still more serious evidence that his historical judgment is often wildly faulty and his lack of discrimination virtually complete. How else, to take one example, could a man give to the review of a book on the Irish Famine the title &ldquoGenocide&rdquo? How else could he begin it with these words?

When British forces entered the so-called &ldquoconvalescent camp&rdquo at Belsen in 1945, they found a scene of indescribable horror&hellipOnly a century before, all Ireland was a Belsen.

Mr. Taylor&rsquos admirers, on the other hand, will easily overlook and in some cases be unable to recognize, such gaffes. They will not be disturbed by the presence in a book entitled Politics in Wartime of a slight review of a book on the Famine, or others on Cromwell and the Historians, for example, or on Charles James Fox. For more important, surely, than the fact that many of these pieces were not worth reprinting is the fact that we now have in book form the few pieces that indubitably were: &ldquoPolitics in the First World War&rdquo &ldquoHow a World War Began&rdquo &ldquoThe War Aims of the Allies in the First World War&rdquo &ldquoLloyd George: Rise and Fall.&rdquo As for Mr. Taylor&rsquos judgments, if their astringency and their aphoristic quality add to the shock that they administer, so much the better. And if they sometimes spring from a desire to shock which leads him into occasional excesses and lapses from good taste, the effect is more than offset by the fact that so many of the judgments are penetrating and true. They are not the fireworks of a journalistic enfant terrible but the enlightening discoveries of an acute and mature historical mind.

So, undoubtedly, the reviews will run and because they have so often run according to this pattern it is tempting to say that there must be something to be said on both sides, and let it go at that. But it would be a pity to stop there. This latest book advances our knowledge of how Mr. Taylor ticks as a historian, and of what his worth is as a historian. It is high time that the evidence on these points should be assessed in order that at least some of the controversy may be stilled. The book is most revealing where he himself advances beyond his revisionist endeavors in connection with the origins of the Second World War to present a revisionist attack on the historiography of the origins of the First. On this issue particularly&mdashthough this conclusion is confirmed elsewhere in these essays&mdashhe finally establishes beyond doubt that he is a superb tactical historian, not to say a superb antiquarian, who is somewhat deficient in those wider speculative and logical powers and that gravitas which are essential ingredients of the best historical minds.

Nobody with a knowledge of the subject can fail to admire Mr. Taylor&rsquos mastery of the evidence, or the brilliance with which he dissects and rearranges it, when he is dealing, in connection with the outbreak of the First World War, with the details of the Sarajevo murder or of the slide into war that followed it. The account is by no means lacking, either, in profound psychological insights: he cuts through obscurity no less ruthlessly and effectively when reconstructing the motives of individuals than when he is handling, technically, the mountainous evidence with which the modern historian is confronted. These qualities are equally evident elsewhere in the book. Comparison of his analyses in &ldquoPolitics in the First World War&rdquo or &ldquoLloyd George: Rise and Fall&rdquo with, for example, those in Mr. Jenkins&rsquos recent biography of Asquith at once displays the gulf between the acute mind controlled by professional mastery and arduous technical experience and the acute mind tout court. There need be no doubt, if ever there was, that on the detailed or tactical level of historical reconstruction Mr. Taylor is a craftsman of the first order, even if he sometimes slips into mistakes of fact and emphasis.

But it is not from mistakes on this level, infuriating though these can be to his opponents, that reservations about his work arise. And it is not from deficient craftsmanship, or even from carelessness, that, mostly, they derive. Mr. Taylor says in his preface that &ldquosome historians&hellipproduce rich plum puddings some produce dry biscuits. I produce dry biscuits&hellip&rdquo The point can be made in another way. An antiquarian may be defined as somebody who is interested in historical objects and even in the reconstruction of the historical past, but who lacks interest, as much as does the journalist, in the historical process. In this sense of the word Mr. Taylor is an antiquarian and it is because he is an antiquarian, and not because he is a journalist, that he is deficient in the historical imagination.

Again the point can best be illustrated from his discussion of the two World Wars. In his Origins of the Second World War he gave it as his opinion that &ldquowars are much like road accidents. They have a general cause and particular causes at the same time&hellipThe Second World War, too, had profound causes but it also grew out of specific events, and these events are worth detailed examination.&rdquo And because he devoted all his brilliant craftsmanship to reconstructing the specific events which precluded the war of 1939 in isolation from the &ldquoprofound causes,&rdquo from the wider historical context in which the events arose, the book arrived at a radically false interpretation. In the present book when he writes about the origins of the First World War, Mr. Taylor is still more forthcoming about his approach. &ldquoMost of the nonsense,&rdquo he says,

has sprung from the very human conviction that great events have great causes. The first World War was certainly a great event. Therefore great causes have had to be be found for it&hellipThe truth is that the statesmen of Europe behaved in July 1914 just as they had behaved for the preceding thirty years, neither better nor worse. The techniques and systems which had given Europe a generation of peace now plunged her into war.

Not even a mention of profounder causes now and even less regard than in the Origins of the Second World War for the broader historical process in which the outbreak of war, so ably reconstructed on the tactical level, occurred.

What will be found to be wrong with the resulting interpretation, then, is not the occasional slip or technical mistake, as when Mr. Taylor says that Sir Edward Grey, unlike the German government, failed to make his position clear, but forgets to add that the German government had made its position clear only to Vienna. It is a suspect interpretation because it shows no sensibility about the differences that had come about in the international context or system since the 1900s, as compared with the years before because it shows no judgment in discriminating between the different qualities of the policies pursued by the different governments and because, with regard to Sarajevo itself, it shows no power to discriminate between the occasion and the causes of the war. It is indeed true that the techniques of diplomacy which had enabled the Powers to localize crises and preserve the general peace during the years since 1871 proved inadequate to localize the crisis that broke out after the Sarajevo murder. But the main reason for that inadequacy in 1914 was that the relations between the Powers had progressively deteriorated since at least 1904. We cannot here discuss the causes of the deterioration it is sufficient to say that it was so widely recognized even at the time that it is manifestly untrue that in 1914 &ldquothe statesmen of Europe behaved just as they had behaved for the preceding thirty years.&rdquo And although we cannot go into the even more complex question of the responsibility for the deterioration, one other thing is equally obvious. While the policies of all the Powers had in some measure degenerated under the strain, the policies of Germany and Austria-Hungary had since 1909 been more desperate or more ruthless than those of the other Powers, and this difference in the quality of the policies pursued by the Powers was glaring during the Sarajevo crisis. And these two points, finally, have a bearing on the third. Elementary logic normally persuades a man that there is some distinction between occasion and cause. To discuss the Sarajevo crisis as if the outbreak or the conduct of it was the cause of the First World War, instead of being merely the occasion which brought its causes into operation, requires not only the suspension of logic but also neglect of the entire pre-1914 context.

Mr. Taylor, who knows as much about this context as any other man, may plead that he has been writing only about how a world war began. But it is difficult to believe that he could slip into so limited and distorted an account of the Sarajevo crisis were it not the case that his mind is fundamentally one that is absorbed in the what and the how of history and uninterested in the why. At the same time, these criticisms should be enough to reveal that in proposing that Mr. Taylor&rsquos historical sense is weak we are not lamenting that he is no Toynbee. If his weakness as a historian is that he neglects &ldquothe profound causes&rdquo&mdashand this is his phrase&mdashhe will not correct it by jumping from his own extreme of concentrating entirely on the detailed reconstruction of historical episodes to that other. If he is to correct it he must think along other lines. With him, up to now, as with Toynbee, but for exactly the opposite reason, history, though not indeed a tale told by an idiot, is a tale &ldquofull of sound and fury, signifying nothing.&rdquo

A Personal History

Simply brilliant. Hilarious. Insightful. Suitably bitchy. Suitably self-adulatory. Touching in places too. I particularly like the way he puts the boot into Dylan Thomas. Not so much over DT&aposs (appropriate initials) nastiness as a person, so much as his fraudulence as a poet. American worshippers at the DT shrine take note. Break your images of him and go back to worshipping consumer goods.

For Southerners (not Dixie-dwellers, but English people living in the southern counties) A J P Taylor&aposs mon Simply brilliant. Hilarious. Insightful. Suitably bitchy. Suitably self-adulatory. Touching in places too. I particularly like the way he puts the boot into Dylan Thomas. Not so much over DT's (appropriate initials) nastiness as a person, so much as his fraudulence as a poet. American worshippers at the DT shrine take note. Break your images of him and go back to worshipping consumer goods.

For Southerners (not Dixie-dwellers, but English people living in the southern counties) A J P Taylor's moneyed but radical background will come as a great surprise. Down south the new rich quickly gentrified themselves and went Tory, or at the very least Right Liberal. That happened much less often up North. Taylor's mother's flirtation with Bolshevism in the 1920s is one of the most interesting pasages in the book. A J P's 'inoculation', as he calls it, with Communism likewise. . more

English history, 1914-1945

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St Mark's Crescent

Number 13 St Mark’s Crescent, Primrose Hill, was Taylor’s main London home from 1955 to 1978 and he spent time working here during the most productive and successful stage of his life. Being based in London proved crucial for Taylor and as he later admitted in his biography, “without the contacts I made in London, I should never have become either a journalist or a television star.”

The semi-detached villa, which dates from between 1851 and 1862, lies within a Conservation Area. Taylor’s is the third blue plaque in St Mark’s Crescent, joining plaques for the poet Sir Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861), and the artist William Roberts (1895-1980) - the latter is on the house next door.

Author's Response

Paul Addison is notable for his generous reviews, and the case of his review of my book, he has lived up to his reputation. Furthermore, he knew Taylor as well as any of his students, and better than most, and therefore I welcome anything he has to say on the subject. He has raised some interesting points on which I would like to comment, not least the tension between biography and history – although one might remember the obiter dictum of the American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson that 'All history is biography'. Of course, nowadays we would remember this only to dismiss it – terribly old-fashioned.

Paul Addison was one of A.J.P. Taylor's favourite postgraduate students, and for this reason alone it is right and proper that he review the fourth book (not the third – he forgot Robert Cole's) devoted to Taylor and his work. Addison had the advantage of working on a topic close to Taylor's heart – the domestic front during the Second World War – but it is also clear from the odd letter reposing in the odd archive that Taylor also felt a personal affection. This is one aspect of Taylor's personality missing from many of the discussions about him: warmth towards those who shared his historical interests and who were less powerful than he was himself. He saved his crueller barbs for those who could take care of themselves.

I, too, eventually basked in his affection, despite the fact that I was working on a topic – Anglo-American relations – which had never particularly interested him. Nevertheless, my affection and respect for Taylor would not alone have led me to accept a publisher’s invitation to write his biography. Indeed, my first reaction was to dismiss the proposal: Taylor had already published his autobiography, and it was not clear to me that the world was eager for another book about him. What convinced me to accept the commission was that it would give me a chance to survey my own field of diplomatic history, or, as we apparently must now term it, international, history. This in itself accounts for what Addison has generously called my series of critical essays on Taylor's major works, but it was also critical in determining the nature and the structure of my book. It seemed to me that there was no point in writing about an historian, be his personal life never so interesting, unless substantial attention was paid to the history. Not every reviewer has agreed with the consequent balance of the book between history and life, but I remain content with my choice.

At the outset, a biography appears to suggest its own structure: there is a beginning, a middle and an end. You start at birth and youth, write the usual chapter on 'Oxford: the Formative Years', discuss the ascent to the summit of the career, survey the panorama, throw in the private life, kill him off, and then assess him. This implies a year-by-year, or month-by-month, or even sometimes a day-by-day approach. But this had already been done by Adam Sisman. Furthermore, it did not seem to me that that is how academics, at any rate, sketched out their lives: it was certainly not how I would sketch out mine. Therefore, I decided to separate out his work as an historian from his work as a tutor, administrator, journalist and broadcaster. The outcome, as Addison rightly points out, can be confusing my assessment of my readers was that they could cope.

Addison wonders how I see my own biography in relation to Sisman's. They are very different creatures. It is difficult for me to assess Sisman's version, without seeming biased. But here goes. Sisman concentrates on the media performer and on Taylor's private life, relegating his work as an historian very much to third place. He is not an historian by training, and while that would not necessarily by definition handicap an historian's biographer, it can make it more difficult to get at the core, particularly given that, as he once told me over dinner, he had not read many of the books. But since this is not what interested him about Taylor, fair enough. For me, it was, so I read the books and I wrote about them. What did frustrate me about Sisman's biography is the paucity of footnotes, and this is the main reason why I made little reference to it. I could guess the sources behind much of the book, but it was impossible for me to rely on a book that did not acknowledge them. Having said that, he interviewed many more people (some now dead) than I did, and therefore there is information, and anecdotes, in his book which are no longer available elsewhere.

A few reviewers, comparing our two books, decided that Sisman was better at the personal life. He may well have been – it is difficult for me to judge. Addison implies something similar, when he writes that 'she is too good an historian to be the perfect biographer'. Whether or not I am a good historian is, again, not for me to judge (although I hope I am), but that I am not a natural biographer is almost certainly the case. Biography is a bitch, to be frank: sometimes I felt that I was making it up. Who can know the true inwardness of a man's thoughts, of his life, or of his marriage? I included a comment by Taylor which was intended to show his attitude to biography, but secretly it is mine too: 'Every historian, I think, should write a biography, if only to learn how different it is from writing history. Men become more important than events, as I suppose they should be. I prefer writing history all the same.'

Because I wrote as an historian, I was driven to crawl into every nook and cranny to locate material – literally so in the John Rylands Library, where I snaked along bottom shelves looking into old Manchester University Calendars. I am a proud defiant empiricist, and I am undoubtedly happier with a document to dissect rather than with a mind to fathom. Nevertheless, I tried to do both, but it may be that I missed my century, and that my biography properly belongs in the section of the library devoted to nineteenth century life-and-times.

The times included the academic world, and as I worked on the book my ambitions expanded: not only did I want to place Taylor in his milieu, I wanted to explain that milieu. My advantage here was that I, too, am an Oxonian, having spent ten years as an undergraduate, postgraduate and research fellow. Except for the tutorial system, Taylor's Oxford world had nearly - but not entirely - disappeared by the time I arrived – although everything bar Crawford's Cafeteria was still closed on Sundays, Marks and Spencer still closed for lunch, EVERYTHING still closed on Wednesday afternoons (Oxford's early closing day) and my college still lacked central heating. We still wore gowns to lectures and tutorials, the dons and students who rode bicycles were numerous as flocks of crows, and most colleges still had formal hall, where the students were waited on by the servants. I wanted to use my own experience to try to convey the vanishing texture of Taylor's University life. But I also wanted to resuscitate the Manchester University History Department of the 1920s and 1930s, and in particular to show how and why it was then so much more distinguished than Oxford's History School.

I was also from the beginning deeply interested in Taylor's freelance career, both in how he did it and in how much money he made. He was the first telly don: how did he do it? He was able to afford fast cars, fine wine, foreign travel and three families: how did he do it? As far as I could tell, no one else had ever made a financial analysis of the academic or the freelance career, so I set out to do it – and an inexpressibly finicky job it was, too. But the pattern which emerged from the hundreds of numbers and the hundreds of (mainly BBC) documents was fascinating – and I began to use the principles I had inferred to make some private analyses of the activities of certain famous contemporary colleagues. Most enjoyable.

But Addison is absolutely correct in his assessment of where my heart lay – in the books. The day that I discovered that it was probably Taylor who coined the phrase 'the invention of tradition' for The Habsburg Monarchy was superseded only by the day I proved to my own satisfaction that he had not read Mein Kampf before writing The Origins of the Second World War. It is these small accomplishments which keep us – or at least me - going in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, in having to read (or re-read) the books with careful attention, I re-discovered the pleasures of the older diplomatic history and of the nineteenth century. The assumptions, the mores, the landscape were all very different from today: for one thing, the state was still considered important, and foreign affairs had a primacy for many historians which has now been lost. I experienced a deep intellectual satisfaction in writing about these books. I am very pleased that, according to Addison, this came through. I was a bit stunned, however, that he thought that I should have written even more about them: just how long a book was he prepared to read?

Writing about his agent and publishers was fun, too. One or two reviewers thought that I spent too much space on this, that it was just a bit boring. Perhaps so: but dealing with publishers is now inescapably part of the academic life, and I enjoyed seeing how Taylor – who had a position vis-à-vis his publishers which most of us can never hope to attain – dealt with them, as well as their attempts to deal with him. Certain lessons can be learned: never take a fee, but always a royalty employ an agent for the more tedious negotiations with publishers, but make certain that he does not sympathise more with the publisher than with you and always keep a copy of your manuscript – you never know when a printer will lose the one extant copy (as happened to Taylor).

In the end, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing and publishing the biography has been to watch the antics of many of the reviewers. Some seriously tried to engage with the book – Stefan Collini, who wrote one of the most brilliant final paragraphs for a review which it has been my pleasure to read, Paul Smith and Paul Kennedy are but three of them. At least one sliced it up entirely: Michael Howard, who advised readers that if they already read Sisman they had no reason to read Burk, since she had nothing new to say (except for the money chapter). Many used it as the occasion to add their own memories: Raymond Carr remembered him with fondness, and added anecdotes which I would have loved to have included David Pryce-Jones, on the other hand, was taught by Taylor and hated him, retailing an occasion when Taylor allegedly threatened him with a poker. (I mentioned this to another of Pryce-Jones' tutors, who had also taught him, and her response was that she could entirely understand it.) Pryce-Jones, I was delighted to discover, used the same story, and indeed, virtually the same review, for periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic: one piece, two fees – very Taylorian. And some used it as the opportunity to make larger points: Tony Judt, for example, contrasted Taylor's scope and field to castigate the narrow state and authoritarian structure of the American historical profession. I have learned, over the course of reading these and other reviews, to be more careful with the few which I do myself – and at least to allow an author to write her own book in her own way. Learning tolerance is not the least outcome of writing a book.


Alan John Percivale Taylor, Fellow of Magdalen College in Oxford, may not have shared the religion of his co- Fellow, C. S. Lewis, but he turned into a similar lamp-post of unyielding virtue. For Taylor, a Labour Party supporter and vigorous supporter of "preparedness" and opposition to Third Reich aggression, his moment of conversion came as he rummaged through the files of the captured Reichstag, trusted by the new Atlee government to come to the correct conclusions concerning responsibility for the largest orgy of death and destruction in mankind's history, known as World War II. Taylor found that nearly everything that had been told to him up through 1939 by the English Establishment was a lie.

He said so, and published the exhaustive analysis of British and German diplomacy leading up to the conflagration in The Origins of The Second World War in 1961. Diehard Isolationists and revisionist historians, such as Harry Elmer Barnes, were thunderstruck that such a work could come from the highest court of the Court Historians. Taylor himself was uneasy with the embrace of these unpleasant "American" revisionists, but stuck to his guns and fearlessly used his cachets in Polite society to defend his thesis in academe and even on the BBC. His well-established dislike of Germany made his heresy toward casting sole blame on it for World War II impossible to dismiss.

Amazingly, he survived and continued to publish one of the longest lists of historical works -- and one of the broadest, ranging throughout British history (Beaverbrook, Lloyd George, Essays in English History) to Russian, German, Italian and Austrian histories.

Taylor seemed a paradox (he loved and used paradox stylistically as much as Lewis and G. K. Chesterton), but the solution was to realize he was a classical liberal who had survived into an age where the few remaining political Liberals could not make up their minds whether to emulate Conservatives or Socialists. The Economist portrayed him, in their obituary, as a useful gadfly or "troublemaker."[1] It dismissed his devastating critique of the Western responsibility for World War II with "A bad-tempered controversy over the origins of the second world war did not seriously dent his reputation." It does note his support for "radical causes, notably the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament," but mentions nothing about his on-the-money analysis in the Guardian (read by this writer when it was published) of the Irish Question, concluding that the British go home and leave the Northern Irish to resolve their own political fate.

Taylor won no favor with Establishment Left or Right Oxford refused to promote him to a professorship and terminated his special lectureship in international history. When asked if history is cyclical (Oswald Spengler's view), Taylor replied that it was not history which repeats itself but historians who repeat each other.

It is highly doubtful as to whether History will repeat itself with anyone else like A.J.P. Taylor, who gave up the struggle with Parkinson's disease on September 7, but never gave up the struggle for historical accuracy and truth.

[This article originally appeared in New Isolationist, 215 Long Beach Blvd., No. 427, Long Beach, CA 90802.]

From The Journal of Historical Review, Winter 1990 (Vol. 10, No. 4), pages 509-510.

Early Life and Education

Born on March 25, 1906, as Alan John Taylor Percivale in Birkdale, Southport in Lancashire, he was the child of Constance Sumner and Percy Lees Taylor. Aside from being wealthy, both of his parents were left-wing supporters and expressed their strong oppression towards the First World War.

As an act of rebellion from, his parents made him attend Quaker schools. Quaker schools are educational institutions of which base their teachings on the testimonies and beliefs of the Religious Society of Friends.

At the age of 18, Taylor attended Oriel College in Oxford to pursue a degree in modern history in 1924 and attained his degree 3 years later in 1927.

Retirement [ edit | edit source ]

Taylor was badly injured in 1984 when he was run over by a car while crossing Old Compton Street in London. The effect of the accident led to his retirement in 1985. In his last years, he endured Parkinson's disease, which left him incapable of writing. His last public appearance was at his 80th birthday, in 1986, when a group of his former students, including Sir Martin Gilbert, Alan Sked, Norman Davies and Paul Kennedy, organised a public reception in his honour. He had, with considerable difficulty, memorised a short speech, which he delivered in a manner that managed to hide the fact that his memory and mind had been permanently damaged by the Parkinson's Disease.

In 1987 he entered a nursing home in London, where he died on 7 September 1990 aged 84.

Watch the video: AJP Taylor on French Politics 1972