A.J.P. Taylor: One of the first telly-dons ... Was he a hack?

Historians in the News

... As the centenary of his birth arrives on 25th March, it may be that AJP Taylor needs some pale gleam to kindle past passions. He belongs to what has been called the most remote of ages, the day before yesterday, and my impression is that few people under 40 have any idea of how extraordinary Taylor's stature—or at least his fame—once was. Forty years ago he was the best known historian in this country. He was a don who taught generations of pupils and was the most popular lecturer of his time at Oxford. He was also the author of many books, from the drily academic to the shamelessly potboiling, and an exceptionally prolific journalist and broadcaster, the first of the "hackademics," or "telly dons."

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, he was a true public figure, appearing on chat shows and giving scintillating if sometimes frivolous and misleading television lectures. He wrote unstoppably, partly because he enjoyed it, partly because he was good at it, partly because he seems to have been one of those men driven by the spectre of poverty, although quite unnecessarily so. Apart from A Personal History, his autobiography, he has been the subject of at least three biographies, not bad for an Oxford don, and one of the things that emerges from these accounts is that his act as Lancastrian man of the people who identified emotionally with the working class from which he had sprung (as he once said) was quite false. In Marxist terms he sprang from the haute bourgeoisie: his father was a merchant making £5,000 a year from the family business before he sold out for £100,000 in 1920, figures which should be multiplied by 40 or 50 to get some idea in today's values.

That pose as the cheeky northerner was part of his appeal, and we lapped up his Observer reviews, his New Statesman diaries, and his television performances—his debate with Hugh Trevor-Roper over his book The Origins of the Second World War stays in the memory half a lifetime later, and it was on a higher level than almost any television today. He was an intensely readable writer, from the attention-grabbing first sentences to the jokes and the epigrams ("If the Germans had succeeded in exterminating their Slav neighbours as the Anglo-Saxons in North America succeeded in exterminating the Indians, the effect would have been what it has been on the Americans: the Germans would have become advocates of brotherly love and international reconciliation").

In a modest way, some of his books did change the way we look at history. Or perhaps I should say passages in his books: Taylor did not propound larger theories; he was not a man for the longue durée, and he was not really an original scholar. Before the war he wrote two short academic books, The Italian Problem In European Diplomacy 1847-1849 and Germany's First Bid For Colonies 1884-1885, both appropriately austere subjects, although even then there was an intimation of things to come when a scholarly reviewer reprobated Taylor's "undergraduate levity." In the 1940s he published The Habsburg Monarchy and The Course of German History, and alongside others, in 1954 The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918, in 1957 The Trouble Makers, an "alternative" view of foreign policy, and in 1965 English History 1914-1945, perhaps his most famous book of all. Then it was downhill all the way, including some tripe it would be kinder to forget....

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