A dull tome on a terrible but brilliant little man

Troublemaker: The Life and History of AJP Taylor, by Kathleen Burk (Yale University Press, £19.95)

Piers Brendon
Monday 11 September 2000 00:00
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Why another biography of AJP Taylor? We already have his sour but scintillating autobiography, and his third wife's sad memoirs. Adam Sisman's life, only seven years ago, was a tour de force. As much has been written about the historian as the human being, including an incisive study by Robert Cole, The Traitor within the Gates (1993), and a jeu d'esprit by David Cannadine, who accused Taylor of coruscating on very thin ice. How does Kathleen Burk, a history professor at London University, justify her book?

Why another biography of AJP Taylor? We already have his sour but scintillating autobiography, and his third wife's sad memoirs. Adam Sisman's life, only seven years ago, was a tour de force. As much has been written about the historian as the human being, including an incisive study by Robert Cole, The Traitor within the Gates (1993), and a jeu d'esprit by David Cannadine, who accused Taylor of coruscating on very thin ice. How does Kathleen Burk, a history professor at London University, justify her book?

The strange thing is that she doesn't. She barely refers to Sisman and seems to rest her case primarily on the fact that she was Taylor's last research student. As such, she certainly learnt how to dig up new material. But Burk does not significantly alter the existing picture of Taylor. And if his prose was vintage champagne, hers is plonk nouveau.

She writes ponderously, here reaching for a cliché, there inserting a truism, sometimes in quaintly Pooterish fashion. On the marriage of Taylor's parents, which was marked by bad faith on both sides, she comments: "An inability to trust one's spouse does not make for harmonious marital relations." No, indeed.

So this book is superfluous to needs and unworthy of its subject. Yet it does have its moments. By combing the archives so thoroughly, Burk has filled a number of gaps, in some of which Taylor appears exactly as David Astor characterised him: "a terrible little man, though brilliant". Especially unattractive was his promiscuous uxoriousness. True, he was humiliated by the way his first wife, Margaret, threw herself first at Robert Kee, then at Dylan Thomas. But Taylor's manner of juggling spouses, picking up a new one without allowing the old ones to drop, was a refinement of patriarchal cruelty. His answer to his third wife, the Hungarian historian Eva Haraszti, when she asked what her domestic duties would be, was brutal: "You have to open your legs."

Taylor also emerges as a Scrooge, charging friends interest on small loans, refusing to let fruit on his trees be picked, and making visiting married couples share their bath water. And he sacrificed his work as an academic historian to maximise his earnings as a broadcaster and journalist.

Burk has compiled a fascinating table (though she acknowledges that it does not tell the full story) of Taylor's freelance earnings. Between 1934 and his death in 1990, these amounted (at 1995 values) to almost £1.9m, nearly half from books - a surprisingly modest amount for someone so prolific. He might have made even more but he rejected commissions for early April, explaining: "I always reserve the first week of that month for doing my tax return. It's one of the things I enjoy most in the year."

Burk sheds little fresh light on Taylor's art as a historian. But she does confirm that virtually all his history was contemporary history. His account of the past invariably reflected his view of the present. Often this view was amazingly cock-eyed: even after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he was convinced that Hitler would not go to war.

Burk also provides further evidence for critics who accuse Taylor of frivolity. Only with great reluctance would he exclude from what is probably his masterpiece, English History 1914-1945, "Lloyd George's habit of breaking wind". Even more piquantly - and the single most important revelation here - Taylor did not read Mein Kampf until 1962, a year after writing his controversial The Origins of the Second World War, which dismissed Hitler's war plans, outlined in his autobiography, as day-dreams.

Yet despite Taylor's peacock vanity and gadfly irresponsibility, he did sterling service as the flail of orthodoxy and the saboteur of the Establishment. He gloried in troublemaking, combining Shavian irreverence with the readability of Macaulay. For all his faults and foibles, Taylor deserved better than this dull tome.

The reviewer's book, 'The Dark Valley', is published by Cape

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