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Uncle Harry’s Socks

A Personal History

by A.J.P Taylor
Atheneum, 278 pp., $14.95

Any friend or acquaintance who turns to the index,” writes A.J.P. Taylor in the preface to his autobiography, “and does not find his name there can console himself that he was originally the subject of a passage which the lawyer condemned” (for libel, that is). He admits to seventy-six excisions, including all references to the second of his three wives. Americans who begin with the index may be struck by a stranger omission: that of any extended reference to their country. There are, in fact, twenty-seven references to “America,” “American,” or “the United States” in the text, almost all trivial (though many, and flattering, to “Russia” and “the Russians”). They may consider this disregard a libel in itself. It is certainly deliberate. The author records with glee that he has seen the United States only once, when he glimpsed the hills of Maine from Canada during his one and only transatlantic visit, made in middle age.

Such parochialism would be unremarkable in another sort of English-speaking scholar—a philologist or a philosopher. But A.J.P. Taylor is, of course, a great—perhaps the greatest living—international historian. It may be that English History, 1914-45 is his best book. Most of his twenty-six others have taken war or diplomacy as their subject, and that during the period when the United States has been a major, or the dominant, power in the world. His attitude toward the country, unstated but unmistakable, seems therefore perverse. It is also, quite simply, unhistorical. In one of his few full allusions to the United States, when he discusses the British response to American entry into the Second World War, he writes:

There was little of the gratitude towards America that Churchill and others told us we ought to feel. What had we to be grateful for? It was the Americans who should have been grateful to us. Our little island filled up with two million or so Americans almost unnoticed. The social contacts were far fewer than with our European allies, at any rate outside London. The Americans brought their own continent with them and hardly remarked what the aborigines were doing.

Anyone who spent the war outside London, or Oxford, knows that this is simply wrong. Between 1942 and 1944, throughout southern England and East Anglia, the great excitement was the Americans. Their coming was the guarantee that the Continent was going to be invaded, that Hitler was going to be beaten, that the war would be won. And, in the meantime, they provided variety, color, glamour in an otherwise drab and pinched existence.

The Americans, moreover, were by no means indifferent to the natives. Not only did thousands of them marry English girls. The survivors of D-day took back to the United States sharp and often warm impressions of the country in which they had prepared for their epic, as anyone who writes with generosity of their brave and unstinted effort will discover. A recent book of mine on the invasion elicited a flood of letters from Eisenhower’s veterans, many of them ampler in their recall of the West Country in 1944 than my own memory, and all without exception affectionate.

Why, then, this disdain for the New World? It may be that a youthful association with the Communist Party of Great Britain denied the author entry to the United States—as something similar did to Graham Greene—when he would have chosen to go. But it seems much more likely that he dislikes America because he dislikes all English-speaking regions which are not the North of England. A.J.P. Taylor is a professional Northerner—a state of mind Americans may better understand if it is explained that Britain’s Northerners are, in a sense, America’s Southerners.

Ideologically, the groups are poles apart. Indeed, the author would undoubtedly endorse the view that cotton-spinning Lancashire’s self-denying aloofness from the Southern cause between 1861 and 1865 was one of the glories of its radicalism. But, emotionally, the two cleave to each other. Both disdain the cosmopolitanism of the cultural capitals—New York and London. Both are stridently Anglo-Saxon. Both are morally and ecclesiastically Low Church. Both were, until recently, economically overspecialized—in agriculture and textiles, respectively. Both are chauvinist, particularly male chauvinist, the Lancasheer Lad and the Good OI’ Boy belonging on the same side of the cracker barrel. By way of compensation, the North has a more vigorous intellectual life than the South can claim. But they are united in their sense of political deprivation. The South fought a war to lose its power. The North fought a succession of parliamentary campaigns never quite to gain it, because the Labour triumph of 1945 was captured and tamed by the Oxbridge socialists, whom the author abhors.

Yet he himself is an Oxbridge socialist, and moreover rich. One of the weird charms of this fascinating and intensely readable book is the calculating way in which the author cuts the ground away from almost any position on which he plants his feet (sanctity of contract explicitly excepted). Thus through holding that the poor are always right and the rich always wrong, he emphasizes that his grandfather retired with a quarter of a million, while his father sold his share of the family cotton business in 1920 for £100,000, when the pound stood at five to the dollar. He is a public-school boy and sent his children to public schools, though he disapproves of public schools and thinks them a waste of money. As an undergraduate, he was one of only two men in his college to own a car, a large and fast one. At one period in his life, he appears to have owned or have been leasing four houses, one of them in Park Village East, today inhabited only by oil sheiks. He enthusiastically played the stock market whenever he could, and now only regrets that he has not spent more money during his life than he might have. He has clearly made a great deal, for an academic, and deserved to do so for the enormous pleasure his books and lectures have given, a financial achievement he would probably deny but certainly not deprecate.

Whence this lifelong contrariness of deed as well as thought? The Origins of A.J.P. Taylor were odd enough to explain nearly anything. The only child of ill-suited parents, he was led by them away from Quakerism into full-blooded revolutionary socialism, which did not stop his father from smoking Havana cigars or his mother from taking a houseful of servants for granted. She took her husband, whom the author adored, for granted as well, expecting him to tolerate her infatuation with and subsidy of a personal political guru. Father, son, and guru were eventually united by the sense of “being stuck with the same tiresome woman.”

Women, he indicates, are the Taylor weakness, an outlook founded in the sense he acquired that childbirth is a wrong visited on them by men, to be atoned for by endless financial and personal self-sacrifice. When his time came, the author atoned mightily. His first wife obliged him to acquiesce in her prolonged infatuation for one of his Oxford pupils, and then for Dylan Thomas, who sponged on him, through her, over a period of years and for very large sums. The famous boat house at Laugharne, where Under Milk Wood was written, was bought with Taylor money (it may also be the intrusions of “American academics, anxious to express their appreciation of my kindness to Dylan” that supplies substance to his negativism toward their country).

There are hints, however, that the strongest influence on Taylor’s upbringing was that of his Uncle Harry, who taught him his prized powers of repartee the brutal way and then redeemed a lifetime of selfishness by becoming a conscientious objector during the First World War. By the author’s own estimation, he is of “evasive character” and the positivism of others impresses him. Uncle Harry’s example was certainly decisive in converting his mother from religion to politics and so eventually himself to atheism and revolution. By the time he went to Oxford in 1924 he was able to decline the dean of Oriel’s offer to discuss his “religious doubts” with the riposte that he had none, and to describe himself as a Marxist, a pure facade because, as he puts it, “common sense kept breaking in.”

Uncle Harry was decisive also in channeling him into academic life. After coming down from Oxford, where he admits to acquiring a first-class degree and no history that he did not know already, he tried learning law in Uncle Harry’s office. Though it acted for the British Communist Party, of which Taylor was technically a member, he found its routines so boring that he drifted back to Oxford and then to Vienna, where he bagan reading in an entirely undirected way for a research degree. Father’s money kept him afloat. Then an accident, an instance in microcosm of the force he believes directs the world, changed his life. His Austrian mentor was asked by an English professor if he knew of someone who, at short notice, could fill a post teaching modern European history, and recommended Taylor. The post was at Manchester, the Taylor metropolis. He accepted at once, “came home,” and embarked on the eight best years of his life.

They were the best for a variety of reasons—that he married, happily at first, though his wife was by origin Roman Catholic, South of England, and “upper middle class,” a social level to which no professional Northerner will belong; that they had there the first two of the six children whom Taylor calls his “greatest” and sometimes his “only” friends; that Manchester yielded a host of other friends, including Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge; that Manchester was Manchester, “thinking today what England thinks tomorrow,” with a major university to inseminate the ideas and the Manchester Guardian to broadcast them. By the time of Taylor’s return, Manchester was becoming in fact yesterday’s city, since cotton was in decline, but no Northerner would think it any the worse for that Decline was added protection against infection by the namby-pamby, clever-clogs South of England, where an upper middle class gave itself bogus aristocratic airs which it lacked the cash to substantiate.

Above all, Manchester was the place where he learned to do what “no one else can”—deliver the word-perfect extempore lecture. “Alan Taylor” was, to millions of enthralled British television viewers in his heyday, circa 1960, the man who appeared on their screens apparently so completely rehearsed that he needed no script, never stumbled over a word or thought, and ended exactly on the half-hour with his argument complete. This art he developed by throwing himself unprepared before audiences of several hundred history students and composing an oration around the advertised subject as he went along. And that was not the only art he learned at Manchester. It was there that he also began to acquire that elegant, pithy, contrapuntal style of writing books that his detractors quite rightly call journalistic because it was demanded by a perfectionist editor of the Manchester Guardian. He put that style to use in his book on Bismarck.

The reputation thus acquired then tempted him into what he calls his “supreme folly.” In 1938 he accepted a fellowship at Magdalen and returned to Oxford. As he gleefully points out, almost every scholar in England pines for a job at one of the ancient universities. He, though growing to love Magdalen, claims to have found in Oxford nothing but woe. By going there he surrendered the honest pleasures of northern life, compromised his marriage, and, through refusing to compromise his socialism and atheism, cut himself off from the scholarly comradeship he had so much enjoyed in Manchester. Moreover, he stored up trouble for himself. As his reputation continued to grow, the brilliant continued to grow, the brilliant contrariness from which it derived turned critics into opponents. Though he insists he was resolved to refuse all advancement and honors, they succeeded in depriving him of one promotion after another, and eventually of the Regius Professorship, pinnacle of the English historical profession.

He affects not to have cared, preferring to be first in the hearts of his countrymen. By the 1960s he was certainly the best-known academic in Britain, both for his books, which obeyed the excellent rule that history is worthless if not readable, and for his television and newspaper performances. Ironically, it was precisely his journalistic success that had deprived him of the Regius chair, his old friend Lewis Namier, who was advising the prime minister on the appointment, having made his support conditional on Taylor forswearing “all that nonsense.” A charge of nonsense from Namier could be taken as high praise, for his old comrade in arms, having got what he wanted—Hitler beaten, Israel reborn—had by then, according to Taylor’s standards, gone soft: soft toward the rich, perhaps even soft toward the upper middle class, whose most glittering ornament, Harold Macmillan, was currently masquerading as the aristocracy’s prime minister.

Taylor had not gone soft. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies he worked hard for all the views he had always believed in, particularly socialism and realistic diplomacy, which he currently took to mean nuclear disarmament, distrust of the United States, and fair dealing with (post-Stalinist) Russia. “Extreme views, weakly held” was what he said he possessed. But there was nothing weak about his advocacy of them, as the most notorious of his books, The Origins of the Second World War, demonstrated. Persuaded by some casual reading that the origins had been misrepresented, he produced a version “without heroes and perhaps even without villains.” Since he was thereby enabled to exculpate the Russians from any guilt in concluding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, while outraging in particular those American historians who were “running the myth of Hitler’s unique wickedness,” the sensation the book created was doubly pleasurable. He purports, with the fausse naïveté which is his favorite posture, to have been surprised by the uproar. But since he elsewhere confesses that his favorite among his books is his study of maverick foreign policy makers called The Troublemakers, the surprise cannot have been very intense or even at all painful.

Yet he very convincingly confesses to having suffered a great deal of pain in life, soothed only in old age by a happy third marriage. Still, most of the trouble that caused the pain was sought. A great deal of the trouble was keenly enjoyed. For trouble has always ensured him the chance to pit his intensely sharp wits against the best opposition around. Not until he found the opportunity to throw his Uncle Harry’s socks into the river during a family holiday in the Lake District in 1909 did he feel that they had got onto equal terms. Other people’s socks have been going into the river ever since.

Uncle Sam’s he tossed there long ago, perhaps the best of his long-running jokes. For if one is a historian by inclination, a modern international historian by subject, and frivolous by disposition, what more enjoyable pretense than that the United States is unworthy of a scholar’s attention? Does one wish for the emancipation of the working class? Then look for it anywhere but in the one country where the world’s huddled masses have found relative ease and plenty. Does one hope for decency in diplomacy? Then find it last in the Washington of Wilson and Carter. Does one value most highly the right of all to think clearly and speak freely? Then ignore the existence of the greatest university system on the planet and shun those shores within which no one will be punished just for speaking his mind. Except, of course, years ago, in the deepest recesses of the Old South. Pity that this Lancasheer had never met a Good Ol’ Boy across the cracker barrel. He could have gone happily home reinforced in his prejudices and with the certain knowledge that Manchester is the center of the universe.

Letters

Personal History’ January 19, 1984

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