Professor Sir John Plumb

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The Independent Online

John Harold Plumb, historian: born Leicester 20 August 1911; Ehrman Research Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1939-46; Fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1946-2001, Steward 1948-50, Tutor 1950-59, Vice-Master 1964-68, Master 1978-82; University Lecturer in History, Cambridge University 1946-62, Reader in Modern English History 1962-65, Professor of Modern English History 1966-74 (Emeritus), Chairman, History Faculty 1966-68; FBA 1968; FRSL 1969; Chairman, Centre of East Anglian Studies 1979-82; Kt 1982; Chairman, British Institute of America 1982-90; died Cambridge 21 October 2001.

If boldly conceived, thoughtfully researched and elegantly written popular history is once again enjoying an extraordinary flowering in Britain, it was Sir John Plumb who planted the seeds, and tended the garden, while himself producing some of its most dazzling blooms. From the beginning of his career to its end he never wavered from the view that history's vocation might begin in the academy, but it should not end there; that as an illumination of the human condition, the "interpreter of its destiny", it was too important to be confined to the intra-mural disputes of the professionals.

This lesson he learned directly from his graduate teacher G.M. Trevelyan, whom he came to revere as one of the few authentically great historical writers of his time, and passed on to the extraordinary cohort of pupils, protégés and young colleagues at Christ's College, Cambridge – the late Eric Stokes and John Kenyon; Neil McKendrick, John Vincent, John Burrow, Quentin Skinner, Norman Stone, Roy Porter, John Brewer, Linda Colley, David Cannadine and Niall Ferguson: who, while widely differing in method, have sustained the imaginative power, the analytical penetration and the literary craft of history that Plumb demanded from its practitioners.

Plumb's history was embedded in social experience of the kind hard to find in the common room – whether the aristocratic milieu of the Rothschilds and the Cholmondeleys or the soup lines of the Cannock Chase miners he saw queueing up for bowls in 1926, en route to a tour of the Welsh castles of Edward I. As with most impassioned historians, the bug bit early and as a small boy he intuitively hit on a critical historiography when he jotted down comparative accounts of the fate of the great actors of the 17th-century drama (Charles I, Strafford, Cromwell) as related by different authorities: Clarendon, Gardiner and Carlyle.

Coming from a lower-middle-class background in Leicester, and despite being taught by a gifted history master, Bert Howard, Plumb took very much the outside route to the academy and he often cast himself in the role of a feisty, agile David aiming his polemical slingshots at the lumbering Goliaths of "technical" history, beginning with Sir Lewis Namier and ending with Sir Geoffrey Elton.

The beginning was unpromising. By his own account the young Plumb arrived at St John's College, Cambridge, to take his scholarship exam wearing the bowler hat he had been told was right for such occasions. One look from the terrorising head porter disabused him. Mortified, he ran to the Bridge of Sighs and threw the offending bowler into the Cam. But the river gods were apparently unappeased. The merited scholarship was demoted to an exhibition, which in the arcane practices of the time allowed the college to deny him admission.

He was obliged to study at the University College of Leicester, then numbering, according to his autobiographical memory, "just 80, students and lecturers, including the hall porter who lectured on botany". Two of his Leicester friends, C.P. Snow and Harry Hoff (William Cooper), went on to become novelists, and much of Plumb's strengths in his historical writing (and conversation) – the acutely ironic take on human foibles; the crisply observed Austen-like encapsulations of character – suggest the novelist that might have been.

It was when he was awarded a first class degree in the external examinations of London University that Plumb came to the attention of J.P. Neale, who encouraged him – not that he needed it – to take the next step of graduate work. There followed, in the autumn of 1933, the famously alarming first encounter with the forbidding Trevelyan which changed Plumb's life as much as equally unsettling but transforming meetings with him would later change the lives of my own generation of historians. Trevelyan, then Regius Professor, but as much a loner as ever, received Plumb in the grim, darkened study of his ugly house on Grange Road, a whiskery Promethean with a lantern jaw and a manner which Plumb described in one of his classic oxymorons as "barking shyness".

They met seldom, even by Cambridge standards, but the meetings had a profound effect as Plumb was directed towards a re-reading of the classic narratives – Gibbon, Trevelyan's great-uncle Macaulay, Lecky and Carlyle – which Namierite orthodoxy treated with derision. Plumb understood that he needed to master the documentary minutiae of late 17th- and 18th-century politics, but he also instinctively recoiled against the Namierite orthodoxy that politics could be reduced to the universal laws of cupidity and self-promotion. To the extent that that was true, Plumb felt, it was a banal commonplace, and failed to account for the fact that, even if commonly driven by greed and ambition, a choice of available ideologies with which to pursue self-interest would still present itself and on such choices critical historical outcomes depended.

Enduring long, bone-drenching walks in the rain at Hadrian's Wall with Trevelyan, Plumb took something else from the master other than deferential discomfort: the insight, startling coming from someone who was so gruffly English, that history's power was essentially poetic rather than scientific, perhaps remembering Carlyle's even more ambitious dictum that "history is the only poetry, were we to get it right". But Plumb's world would, for some time, be quite unpoetic: a war ("a good war" he would often say) at Bletchley amongst the code-crackers, and then, from 1946, posts as an assistant lecturer at Cambridge and young fellow of Christ's, where he would stay the rest of his life.

Though he made some close, and long-lived friendships – Christopher Morris, M.M. Postan – as well as an equally long-lived love-hate relationship with Herbert Butterfield, Plumb was baffled and bored by the social rituals of academia. At a young historians' tea at the Historical Society, he "talked to no one and no one talked to me". He was already grazing in more congenial pastures – the friendship of Anthony Rothschild, with whom he'd been billeted – and the private papers of Sir Robert Walpole opened for him by the Cholmondeleys at Houghton Hall.

Early publications, like his study of the size of the electorate in the reign of Queen Anne, used Namierism against Namier for, based on solid archival ground, they painted a picture of a fiercely embattled and ideologically contentious polity. As more research piled up, the generalisations Namier had felt able to extrapolate about the "long" 18th century, from his study of its middle decades, now seemed valid for those decades alone.

In 1950 Plumb was confident enough to write for "The Pelican History of England" his justly famous masterpiece of compression, England in the Eighteenth Century, with its shrewd thumbnail sketches of the powerful and its unforgettable social scene-painting. On its pages countless readers smelled the London streets as well as the nose on a Houghton Bordeaux. It was, in miniature, writing of the kind Plumb admired in his literary epigones such as Sterne and Rabelais.

The two volumes on Walpole which made his eminence unassailable followed (Sir Robert Walpole: the making of a statesman, 1956; Sir Robert Walpole: the King's minister, 1960); though, not only did Plumb never finish the biography with a final volume, he never, in my 40-year friendship, betrayed the least sign of even wanting to talk about its completion.

As he freely confessed, at a time, in the 1960s, when academic colonisers like G.R. Elton were trawling for proselyte graduates, Plumb had absolutely no interest in anything remotely resembling a "school". Gifted and courageous pupils like Linda Colley, whose research about the Tory party in Walpole's political world went directly against Plumb's conclusions, were encouraged to press, not inhibit, their case.

But, if there was no seminar of the obedient in the German sense, there were certainly gatherings of the like-minded. Monday evenings in the Red Lion in Petty Cury, there since Macaulay's day, but long since reduced to a state of scrofulous decrepitude, flakes of plaster dropping into the Greene King, saw Kenyon, McKendrick, Burrow, Skinner and the undergraduate Schama (in descending order of being able to hold their drink) batting gossip, academic and political, back and forth.

Two or three times a term after hall, an even more intimidating ritual brought together a group of pupils – including Geoffrey Parker, Roy Porter, Andrew Wheatcroft and John Barber – for an undergraduate seminar in Plumb's dining room. Surveyed by the uncharitably smirking portrait of Walpole, and seated at Plumb's dazzling mahogany table, we listened hard, very hard, to whichever of us read a paper, while the master signified occasional impatience or disapproval by disconcertingly twanging an elastic band or shuffling the Georgian silver. The paper read, each of us was called on to comment, as the claret was passed round and Roy Porter and I attempted to operate the grape scissors as if we knew what we were doing. We emerged from those seminars sometimes chastened, and intimidated, but more often exhilarated, exhausted, and for better or worse, a lot more grown up.

In supervisions, Plumb took extraordinary pains with our writing, much as Trevelyan had with his, spending half an hour dissecting the strengths and weaknesses of a single paragraph ("far too many adjectives, Simon"). His range extended from Charlemagne to Churchill (John and Winston) and his omnivorous interests pointed us towards the best and brightest historical work in American scholarship – Richard Hofstadter and Eugene Genovese. He put Braudel, Febre and Bloch in front of us but sometimes also more esoteriic favourites like Redcliffe Salaman's history of the potato or Geoffroy Atkinson's Les Nouvelles Horizons de la Renaissance Française, which interpeted the impact of the New World discoveries through the poetry of the Pléiade and the essays of Montaigne.

Though his homes were at Christ's and the beautiful Tudor rectory at Westhorpe in Suffolk where Adriaan Hanneman's portrait of Clarendon presided in the sitting room, the New World was his oyster, none more appetising to him than New York. The Manhattan skyline he thought the most heroic thing modern man had built and he never tired of strolling the Brooklyn Bridge catwalk to eyeball the stupendous urban panorama, an unparalleled statement, he believed, of man's irrepressible vitality and will to endure.

Though he was never blind to the decay and violence of the city, he relished living in the thick of it for a year in Brooklyn Heights, and wrote movingly of its tolerant cosmopolitanism; tales of survival amidst the garbage; battered old gents walking the Esplanade carving a careful way between the hustlers and the cops. It was probably the place he was happiest in, kept the warmest friendships and defended against patronising British criticism with fierce loyalty. That he had become an honorary New Yorker was evident when he turned a tidy profit after being mugged at knife-point in broad daylight on Brooklyn Bridge, making several times his loss by writing up the story for syndication.

Given a personal chair in 1966, after a spell as Chairman Plumb gradually distanced himself from active participation in the business and teaching of the Faculty of History, though he remained devoted to Christ's, loyal to his graduates old and new and generously encouraging to the gifted younger historians at the college like Joachim Whaley and Niall Ferguson.

The flamboyantly Epicurean life he led, both as Fellow and, from 1978, Master of Christ's – the fedora hat, the brilliantly striped shirts; the stupendous Bordeaux – he certainly revelled in, but its unapologetic brio went hand in hand with some of the wisest and most acute writing to come from the pen of any historians of his generation.

Some of that razzle-dazzle had been reined in for the 1965-66 Ford's Lectures at Oxford on "The Origins of English Political Stability", a synthesis of his research over 30 years, and a measured statement of what he believed to be the "triumph of the Venetian oligarchy" of the Whigs over the party strife of the late Stuarts. But the real lightning bolts of his prose flashed with illuminating grace and power in his essays of the Sixties and Seventies – the extraordinary contribution on "Churchill as Historian" for the 1969 collection Churchill: four faces and the man, and the graceful reflections on the Renaissance he contributed in an encyclopaedic anthology (The Horizon Book of the Renaissance, 1961; reissued three years later as The Penguin Book of the Renaissance) which also included work by Hugh Trevor-Roper, Iris Origo and Jacob Bronowski and which, while no philological corpus, still remains one of the best introductions to the subject.

When he was on top polemical form it was as though Hazlitt had been reborn. "I don't often wish I were as rich as Paul Getty" he wrote (unconvincingly) in the New York Times Book Review:

Today I do. I want to buy time on every commercial radio and TV from Patagonia to the North Cape, to hire sky-writing planes in all the world's capitals, to take pages of advertising in all the world's press, just to say how awful, how idiotic, is this second volume of Unesco's projected six-volume History of Mankind.

The shortcomings of dinosaur-like "histories by committee", works whose heft was disproportionate to their brain, provoked Plumb to conceive and edit his own multi-volume "History of Human Society", which by concentrating on single cultures – the Portuguese seaborne empire, for example; classical China – might build into a sophisticated understanding of the multifariousness of human development over the millennia.

After producing some fine individual volumes the project, to his disappointment, fizzled out, but, as he aged, Plumb became more and more concerned to track the long trajectories of history. He admired the sweeping vision and intellectual stamina of Fernand Braudel and singled passages of his masterpiece on the Mediterranean as instances of pure poetic history. But he was never convinced by Braudel's aversion to narrative, nor the French scholar's insistence that short-term events and personal interventions were the ephemeral foam riding the great, slowly rolling waves of social change.

In his later years, his threshold of irritability grew lower – for which octogenarian does it not – but he was always a steadfast champion of his friends and an impulsively generous "anti-godfather" to their children whose photographs decorated his desk.

A small, tough, round man, he was irrepressibly expansive in the best sense of relishing a huge appetite for the human comedy and recognising it as the supreme historical source. He divided people into those who, on entering a room, either raised or lowered the temperature, and to the end Jack Plumb radiated an impressive wattage of intellectual central heating.

He also believed that only the richly lived life could inform the best history, and that, without the bravery to embrace its risks and its stinging disappointments, nothing of lasting value could be accomplished. In the end, though, as for his teacher Trevelyan, the burden of history's instruction seemed to Plumb to be inescapably tragic. Though he was adamant that, for all its horrors and atrocities, during the half-century after the Second World War, the mass of humanity enjoyed a happier state of existence than at any other time in recorded history, when I saw him a few weeks before his death he was in sombre mood, confirming his darker convictions that we were indeed very near the end of the 10,000 years of settled human history.

But the imminence of disaster, either sudden or protracted, in his view only made the need for eloquent history, a history that raised itself above the molehills of the profession, more urgent, not as some sort of quick reference guide to calamity, still less as sentimental consolation, but as the essential document of the human condition, steeped in crime and stupidity, blessed by ingenuity, crowned with glorious creativity. Should history somehow survive as the great art it has been; as Macaulay promised, one part philosophy, one part poetry; should it somehow keep a place in the indispensable archive of our beaten-up world, it will be because Jack Plumb wrote and taught and lived as he did.

Simon Schama