Troublemaker: the life and history of A J P Taylor

Kathleen Burk<em> Yale UP, 491pp, £19.95</em>

Whatever their other fears, hopes or vanities, very few academic historians can seriously believe that they will one day merit the attention of biographers. A J P Taylor died ten years ago. Since then, four biographies of him have been written: Robert Cole's A J P Taylor: the traitor within the gates (1993), Adam Sisman's A J P Taylor (1994), one forthcoming from Chris Wrigley, and Kathleen Burk's new book. These are on top of Taylor's autobiography, A Personal History (1981), several works inspired by The Origins of the Second World War (his own most notorious book) and no fewer than three Festschriften, published for his 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays.

In 1962, Taylor picked a fight with Oxford University about his status, conducting a press campaign that, as Burk says, his colleagues found distasteful. Explaining his demand for special treatment, he said: "I'm a rather special historian." Taylor's vanity was astonishing even by academic standards, and showed him at his most insufferable. But it is hard to say that he was entirely wrong.

He was special - by then, much the best-known popular historian in the country (no doubt to the chagrin of old hacks such as Arthur Bryant). Taylor combined fame as a television talking head - one of the first - and as a Fleet Street pundit with apparent renown as a scholar. His new biographer calls him "possibly the greatest, and certainly the most famous, diplomatic historian of the 20th century". The fame couldn't, at one time, be disputed; but the greatness?

Taylor's story should be well known. Born in 1906 into a Lancashire dissenting merchant family, his claim that he sprang from and "identified emotionally" with the working class was preposterous. His father had inherited the equivalent today of several million from the family business, and Alan, an only child, was pampered from the beginning. (He was one of the very few undergraduates of his time to own a car; and, in 1927, his mother bought him a six-room flat in Hampstead, with a housekeeper.)

After Bootham, the Quaker school in York, Taylor went to Oriel College, Oxford, miffed that it wasn't Balliol. He got a First in history, made a false start as a solicitor, then turned back to history. Younger historians will be surprised by, and maybe envious of, the way his career began. At the suggestion of an influential friend, he started work in the Vienna archives as a freelance with no university status; then, at the age of 24 and without publishing a word, he was appointed a lecturer at Manchester. He claimed to have spent several happy years there, with a house in the Peak District and a young wife and family, but he had made enough efforts to leave before he landed a fellowship at Magdalen, where he stayed for more than 20 years, before becoming semi-detached from academic life.

Burk deals in a matter-of-fact way with Taylor's exquisitely risible domestic life. His relations with women were appalling, on both sides. When Margaret, his first wife, waited for him at the register office (in their first attempt), he turned up, but then turned on his heel, leaving her stranded - if not at the altar, then at the desk. When Eva, his third wife, asked what he expected of her, he said: "To open your legs." This almost psychopathic streak in Taylor stemmed perhaps from his childhood and his hatred of his mother.

Feminists will be glad to know that he got from women as good as he gave. Having agreed to try again to marry him, Margaret then made his life a misery, not only by painful infatuations with younger men, but also by giving away large sums of money to the wretched Dylan Thomas. Even so, after they divorced and he remarried, Taylor couldn't escape from Margaret and, at one time, was dividing his life between his second wife, Eve (Tony Crosland's sister), and Margaret - to the confusion of all sides.

His professional life comprised a comparable series of quarrels, complications and spites. Some of them illustrated again Henry Kissinger's saying that academic politics are so much more savage than any other kind because there is so little at stake. But others of them displayed the same, almost unbalanced strain. Taylor famously failed to become a professor at Oxford, feeding a sense of resentment that runs through A Personal History and makes it one of the most depressing and dislikable books I have ever read. But the resentment was almost entirely unjustified, not least because he was offered chairs at Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh, which he didn't think were good enough.

Anyone wondering whether another book on Taylor was needed may still wonder on occasion while reading Burk's Troublemaker. She picks a couple of holes in Sisman's biography, perhaps vexed that he got in first; but, for large parts of the story, she adds little to his enjoyable and well-written account. Her own style can be plodding. But she does have the advantage of having known Taylor, as his last graduate student, and she has done considerable additional research in, for example, the archives of Hamish Hamilton, the publishers of most of Taylor's books. Here is the strength of Burk's work. I have often grumbled that literary biographers now tell us at least as much as we want to know about the sex lives of their subjects, but not nearly enough about their money lives, the other ever-interesting topic - perhaps even more interesting if one happens to write for a living. Burk not only writes a fascinating chapter on "The Business History of the History Business", but also provides a table of Taylor's literary earnings over the years.

This shows that Taylor - who, at the age of 40, was a don who did some journalism on the side - was, by his mid-fifties, a successful and well-paid media star, the original journo-don or hackademic. Stuffier colleagues at Oxford thought that this was improper for a Fellow of Magdalen, and this wasn't just stuffiness. As a hardened exponent of the tabloid "why-oh-why", I am impressed by the sheer trashiness and silliness of some of Taylor's pieces. One Sunday Express column that sticks in the mind after decades argued that we should ban slow drivers, because they are the real cause of trouble on the roads. For many years, Taylor wrote entertaining reviews for the Observer (as well as for the NS), but this was over the protests of David Astor, the editor, who told his literary editor, Terence Kilmartin: "I really think that he is a rather terrible little man, although brilliant." It was a harsh judgement, but Astor wasn't alone, nor especially priggish, in making it.

Even without his tabloid piffle, Taylor was condemned as a "mere journalist" by the sort of dons for whom that designation carries a weight somewhere between "child molester" and "mass murderer". Once, I would have described this as reactionary academic snobbery; now, I think that the reactionaries may have had a point. There really is a difference between the scholar and the journalist, which is not necessarily to discredit either. The journalist has to grasp a subject instantly, to gut books and other sources quickly (as Burk says, Taylor could do this almost to a fault), and to write against a deadline. The scholar, in A E Housman's memorable words, must spend his life acquiring much knowledge that is not worth having for its own sake, and reading many books that are not worth reading in themselves.

Taylor said that his First had surprised him, because he had thought he was "clever-clever, but not history-clever". Perhaps he was never a true scholar in Housman's sense. Perhaps he was a journalist, "although brilliant", and not a deeply learned man. He was wonderfully readable, a dazzling epigrammatist, and I often find myself quoting him. He had a genuine gift of insight and independence of mind. Twice, he demolished myths beloved of the left (both of which supposedly contributed to the 1945 Labour landslide). The "hungry Thirties" were actually years when "most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known". And, far from being the work of a small conspiracy of guilty men, appeasement was an intensely popular policy right up to 1939, and across the political spectrum.

But Taylor had something worse than the defects of his qualities. Andrew Roberts has said that his books were either brilliant or absurd, and listed them either way. The truth is that almost all of them had something of both. His two prewar books are neat little works of genuine archival research, the first and last time he engaged in it. But The Habsburg Monarchy 1809-1918 and The Course of German History are both polemics, entertaining if one can bear Taylor's coarse Germanophobia, which comes quite close to racism.

His two longest books were written for Oxford University Press. Burk calls The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 "a masterful work". Assuming that she means masterly, it was certainly a tour de force of a kind, but an old-fashioned book even for 1954. It is based purely on printed diplomatic records, and describes the "great game" of international relations with as little concern for contemporary European society, or societies, as if it had been indeed a game, such as cricket or football. As for English History 1914-1945, it remains readable - one can't get away from the word - but seems more and more dubious with the passing of time. It has, again, no serious structural understanding of the society it purports to describe (as the New Left Review said ferociously at the time), and is, to say the least, unreliable. Burk mentions Henry Pelling's review, which is "famous in the profession for consisting almost entirely of a list of Taylor's mistakes".

Academic reviewers are like that, but Taylor's books are like that, too. As part of his rather disgraceful and sycophantic friendship with Lord Beaverbrook, Taylor praised him as a historian, laughing off his notorious mendacity as "mischievousness". His own books were increasingly mischievous in that sense, and although he prided himself on his "green fingers", and did have a flair for apercu, I have reluctantly come to feel that no assertion he makes can be accepted at face value.

By the time he wrote English History 1914-1945, Taylor had taken also to cocky, self-confident, fatuous judgements of a kind that might pass muster in a popular paper, but did not belong in an illustrious series from a university press. To say that "the Daily Express is what England would have been without her class system" must be one of the most eloquent arguments ever made for class society; and the claim that Charlie Chaplin was England's gift to the 20th century, "likely to be remembered when her writers, statesmen and philosophers are forgotten, as timeless as Shakespeare, and as great", stands in any catalogue of the silliest things ever said by intelligent men.

This is written with some reluctance. I was captivated once by Taylor's books, his lectures, his reviews (an astounding 1,600 of them over the years, some of the best appearing in these pages) and not least by his NS London Diaries. Now I wonder. Even his stylistic influence has been considerable, but deleterious. It can be seen notably, and interestingly or amusingly enough, in right-wing historians such as John Charmley and Norman Davies, who try to emulate the wisecracking paradoxes, but can't pull them off.

And yet, and yet . . . having written harshly about Taylor, I concede that I still read him, in a way that I don't read or reread more admirable historians. With his many faults, he might just be lucky. It may be a case where time that is intolerant of the brave and innocent will pardon him for writing well, and that A J P Taylor the writer will still be read when the follies of his life are forgotten.