WHEN a historian writes in a highly entertaining way for a large audience and when, additionally, he takes seriously his television appearances and does a regular column for a medium low-brow newspaper in London, the Sunday Express, there are deep and serious grounds for questioning his scholarly and academic credentials. Or, more precisely, these are certain to be questioned, and this is especially likely in England, although there, perhaps, the television is slightly more to be forgiven. Such public exposure over a long, extraordinarily diverse, interesting and productive life has been the problem of A.J.P. Taylor, one which he has surmounted brilliantly. The reason is that when he turns to his historical writing, he has been as careful, even meticulous, as the better scholars in his areas of competence, and, in addition, he has shown a phenomenally greater capacity for continuous, committed labor. I couldn't possibly claim to have read all 28 of his books; I have read, among others, those on the causes and courses of the two world wars and, needless to say, numerous of his essays on history and the work of other historians. All have seemed to me extremely good, and so certainly is this autobiography.
It begins with his family sources in the west of England, with particular reference to his father, an affluent cotton merchant and mill manager, who, along with Alan Taylor's mother, had an overriding commitment to Liberal politics, radical reform and the working classes. From the parents came the son's lifelong association with the left, including a communist passage, a continuing but markedly unorthodox association with the Labor Party and an often eloquent identification with good or lost causes ranging from outspoken opposition to the Suez misadventure in 1956 to support of nuclear disarmament later and now.
After an early Quaker education, of which, like his family history, he is required by his historian's conscience to tell slightly more than one needs, he went on to Oriel College, Oxford, thence to study in Vienna (from which came his later interest in the Hapsburgs), to a teaching post at Manchester University and from there to his lifelong association with Magdalen College, Oxford, an association involving a remarkable combination of love and discontent. (His American publisher, in the publicity for the book, describes Taylor as the son of "well-to-do trade unionists," the Ford Lecturer in English History at Oxford--one year he gave the prestigious Ford Lectures there--an honorary fellow of Magdalen, something he became only after his retirement, and thoughtfully changes his youthful communism to mere harmless socialism. For shame! Publishers should, at a minimum, scan the books they publish.)
Within the framework of his account of his academic career, Taylor tells of his books, his sometimes revised view of what he has written and of the controversy his writings aroused. The most notable of these rows was over his case that Adolf Hitler had no master plan but acted in response to opportunity or seeming opportunity and out of a far-from-atypical conception of German destiny. He professes some unconvincing discontent that what was once an aberrant argument has now become the conventional view. There are quite a few other matters on which Taylor's conclusions, originally deemed exceptional or even eccentric, have gained substantial acceptance.
Taylor tells also of his on-and-off life at the BBC, which he vastly enjoyed and where he was a recurrent object of grave political concern and of protest emanating from the highest government levels. The notion that the BBC is somehow immune to political pressure is a self-serving myth of that great organization, one no one should ever accept. He tells of his colleagues, friends and associates and, with a notable excision, of his family life. One of his less than obscure associates who moved in to live and drink for a time at Oxford at the Taylors' expense was Dylan Thomas. Taylor remembers him with unrelieved distaste, dislike and possibly even abhorrence.
Taylor is very interesting, perhaps without wholly intending it, on the anthropology of academic life in Britain. In the United States this can involve intricately accomplished political designs, and those who became learned in academic practice have long been a threat in the larger Washington struggle. (No fewer than four Harvard faculty members--Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, John Dunlop and Daniel Patrick Moynihan --have made it to or very near the top in recent Republican administrations and have done well with the Democrats too.) But one does not denigrate the achievement of American scholars in saying that there is a range of imaginative and durable viciousness in the British academic struggles that outdoes our best efforts and makes especially nice reading. So it is with Taylor's accounts of scholarly finger-twisting, backbiting, garroting and occasional knifing at Manchester and, at a much higher level of artistry, during his many years at Magdalen and Oxford. I enjoyed this very much.
In the preface to this book Taylor tells that when the manuscript was first submitted to the British publisher, the latter's lawyer identified 76 possible bases for a libel suit. All had to be cleaned up; the result, he thinks, is a benign tone, for which he apologizes. I doubt that the reader will share his distress. A more serious problem concerns his personal life. He must be the first, or anyhow one of the first, Oxford dons ever to admit publicly to, much less describe, a heterosexual sex life. Taylor was married three times, but his second wife, the sister of a prominent British politician and cabinet officer, forbade any mention whatever of their association. In consequence, when they had children, to whom Taylor is devoted, these appear, as it were, out of nowhere. No conception, no pregnancy, no birth, not even a virgin birth, a gift direct from heaven. It's all slightly implausible. Perhaps this was the British libel laws again, and, if so, there is a statement here for all compulsively articulate Americans and their courts. I had not previously realized that the British laws could exclude mention of marriage. At least until very recent times this liaison, there as here, has been thought quite respectable and also, in a general way, a matter of public record. This however, is a minor complaint. It's a lovely book. CAPTION: Picture, A.J.P. Taylor, Copyright (c) by Camera Press.