AJP Taylor: The 20th century's most industrious history man





"I wondered whether you ever had an opening for a lively talker on current affairs in television. As you know, I can do very nicely in impromptu discussion; and if you are ever thinking of this sort of thing, I'd be grateful if you'd think of me. I realise it is a new trade, but I'm not too old to learn it." This letter from AJP Taylor - written in the hope of joining the panel show In the News - seems to embody everything we now know about the first "TV don". It is ambitious, self-regarding and typical of Taylor's utter conviction that his voice needed to be heard by the British public.

A hold on the past


Chris Wrigley has few new perspectives to offer on AJP Taylor, the 20th century's most industrious history man, says Tristram Hunt

"I wondered whether you ever had an opening for a lively talker on current affairs in television. As you know, I can do very nicely in impromptu discussion; and if you are ever thinking of this sort of thing, I'd be grateful if you'd think of me. I realise it is a new trade, but I'm not too old to learn it." This letter from AJP Taylor - written in the hope of joining the panel show In the News - seems to embody everything we now know about the first "TV don". It is ambitious, self-regarding and typical of Taylor's utter conviction that his voice needed to be heard by the British public.

In the centenary of Taylor's birth, Chris Wrigley's biography seeks to soften this unattractive composite of his subject's character. With meticulous research, interviews and access to private papers, Wrigley has reassembled the life of the 20th century's most industrious history man. For students of diplomatic history, academic feuding and the development of the public historian in a multimedia age, it is a rich work. Unfortunately, such a project has already been performed twice in recent years. Wrigley's biography comes on the back of masterful studies by Adam Sisman and Kathleen Burk, as well as Taylor's own autobiography. And apart from an often painfully detailed chronological approach, Wrigley seems to offer little fresh. Indeed, there is much overlap in the material: down to the minutiae of both Sisman and Wrigley referencing a story of Taylor's mother being scalded by a hot water bottle.

Nonetheless, the story is a good one. In his own carefully crafted self-image, Taylor was the radical Nonconformist from Manchester whose genius paved his way to Oxford and a lifelong fight with the southern intellectual and cultural establishment - a struggle he eventually lost when Hugh Trevor-Roper pipped him to the Regius chair and Taylor was forced to find fame and money in journalism. Along the way, there were numerous wives, fights, sulks and truly great works of popular and academic history.

There was also politics. Wrigley is excellent at tracing the ideological evolution of Taylor from his late Victorian liberal inheritance to doctrinaire Marxist to Labour party supporter and CND activist. At every stage, Taylor adopted the relevant party line with communist-like rigour. So much so that when his friend Malcolm Muggeridge reported in 1933 on the true state of Soviet Russia, Taylor responded: "I really would like to say what terrible grief and pain your late articles about Russia cause your friends, but then what's the good? We all have to do pretty unpleasant things to raise money ..."...



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