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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 2: What is History? •

What is History?

Book cover: Troublemaker: the Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor

Author's response


Troublemaker: the Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor

Kathleen Burk
Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2000; 491+xiv pages
ISBN 0 300 08761 6

Dr. Paul Addison

University of Edinburgh

Paul Addison is notable for his generous reviews, and the case of his review of my book, he has lived up to his reputation. Furthermore, he knew Taylor as well as any of his students, and better than most, and therefore I welcome anything he has to say on the subject. He has raised some interesting points on which I would like to comment, not least the tension between biography and history - although one might remember the obiter dictum of the American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson that 'All history is biography'. Of course, nowadays we would remember this only to dismiss it - terribly old-fashioned.

Paul Addison was one of A.J.P. Taylor's favourite postgraduate students, and for this reason alone it is right and proper that he review the fourth book (not the third - he forgot Robert Cole's) devoted to Taylor and his work. Addison had the advantage of working on a topic close to Taylor's heart - the domestic front during the Second World War - but it is also clear from the odd letter reposing in the odd archive that Taylor also felt a personal affection. This is one aspect of Taylor's personality missing from many of the discussions about him: warmth towards those who shared his historical interests and who were less powerful than he was himself. He saved his crueller barbs for those who could take care of themselves.

I, too, eventually basked in his affection, despite the fact that I was working on a topic - Anglo-American relations - which had never particularly interested him. Nevertheless, my affection and respect for Taylor would not alone have led me to accept a publisher's invitation to write his biography. Indeed, my first reaction was to dismiss the proposal: Taylor had already published his autobiography, and it was not clear to me that the world was eager for another book about him. What convinced me to accept the commission was that it would give me a chance to survey my own field of diplomatic history, or, as we apparently must now term it, international, history. This in itself accounts for what Addison has generously called my series of critical essays on Taylor's major works, but it was also critical in determining the nature and the structure of my book. It seemed to me that there was no point in writing about an historian, be his personal life never so interesting, unless substantial attention was paid to the history. Not every reviewer has agreed with the consequent balance of the book between history and life, but I remain content with my choice.

At the outset, a biography appears to suggest its own structure: there is a beginning, a middle and an end. You start at birth and youth, write the usual chapter on 'Oxford: the Formative Years', discuss the ascent to the summit of the career, survey the panorama, throw in the private life, kill him off, and then assess him. This implies a year-by-year, or month-by-month, or even sometimes a day-by-day approach. But this had already been done by Adam Sisman. Furthermore, it did not seem to me that that is how academics, at any rate, sketched out their lives: it was certainly not how I would sketch out mine. Therefore, I decided to separate out his work as an historian from his work as a tutor, administrator, journalist and broadcaster. The outcome, as Addison rightly points out, can be confusing; my assessment of my readers was that they could cope.

Addison wonders how I see my own biography in relation to Sisman's. They are very different creatures. It is difficult for me to assess Sisman's version, without seeming biased. But here goes. Sisman concentrates on the media performer and on Taylor's private life, relegating his work as an historian very much to third place. He is not an historian by training, and while that would not necessarily by definition handicap an historian's biographer, it can make it more difficult to get at the core, particularly given that, as he once told me over dinner, he had not read many of the books. But since this is not what interested him about Taylor, fair enough. For me, it was, so I read the books and I wrote about them. What did frustrate me about Sisman's biography is the paucity of footnotes, and this is the main reason why I made little reference to it. I could guess the sources behind much of the book, but it was impossible for me to rely on a book that did not acknowledge them. Having said that, he interviewed many more people (some now dead) than I did, and therefore there is information, and anecdotes, in his book which are no longer available elsewhere.

A few reviewers, comparing our two books, decided that Sisman was better at the personal life. He may well have been - it is difficult for me to judge. Addison implies something similar, when he writes that 'she is too good an historian to be the perfect biographer'. Whether or not I am a good historian is, again, not for me to judge (although I hope I am), but that I am not a natural biographer is almost certainly the case. Biography is a bitch, to be frank: sometimes I felt that I was making it up. Who can know the true inwardness of a man's thoughts, of his life, or of his marriage? I included a comment by Taylor which was intended to show his attitude to biography, but secretly it is mine too: 'Every historian, I think, should write a biography, if only to learn how different it is from writing history. Men become more important than events, as I suppose they should be. I prefer writing history all the same.'

Because I wrote as an historian, I was driven to crawl into every nook and cranny to locate material - literally so in the John Rylands library, where I snaked along bottom shelves looking into old Manchester University Calendars. I am a proud defiant empiricist, and I am undoubtedly happier with a document to dissect rather than with a mind to fathom. Nevertheless, I tried to do both, but it may be that I missed my century, and that my biography properly belongs in the section of the library devoted to nineteenth century life-and-times.

The times included the academic world, and as I worked on the book my ambitions expanded: not only did I want to place Taylor in his milieu, I wanted to explain that milieu. My advantage here was that I, too, am an Oxonian, having spent ten years as an undergraduate, postgraduate and research fellow. Except for the tutorial system, Taylor's Oxford world had nearly - but not entirely - disappeared by the time I arrived - although everything bar Crawford's Cafeteria was still closed on Sundays, Marks and Spencer still closed for lunch, EVERYTHING still closed on Wednesday afternoons (Oxford's early closing day) and my college still lacked central heating. We still wore gowns to lectures and tutorials, the dons and students who rode bicycles were numerous as flocks of crows, and most colleges still had formal hall, where the students were waited on by the servants. I wanted to use my own experience to try to convey the vanishing texture of Taylor's University life. But I also wanted to resuscitate the Manchester University History Department of the 1920s and 1930s, and in particular to show how and why it was then so much more distinguished than Oxford's History School.

I was also from the beginning deeply interested in Taylor's freelance career, both in how he did it and in how much money he made. He was the first telly don: how did he do it? He was able to afford fast cars, fine wine, foreign travel and three families: how did he do it? As far as I could tell, no one else had ever made a financial analysis of the academic or the freelance career, so I set out to do it - and an inexpressibly finicky job it was, too. But the pattern which emerged from the hundreds of numbers and the hundreds of (mainly BBC) documents was fascinating - and I began to use the principles I had inferred to make some private analyses of the activities of certain famous contemporary colleagues. Most enjoyable.

But Addison is absolutely correct in his assessment of where my heart lay - in the books. The day that I discovered that it was probably Taylor who coined the phrase 'the invention of tradition' for 'The Habsburg Monarchy' was superseded only by the day I proved to my own satisfaction that he had not read 'Mein Kampf' before writing 'The Origins of the Second World War'. It is these small accomplishments which keep us - or at least me - going in the middle of the night. Nevertheless, in having to read (or re-read) the books with careful attention, I re-discovered the pleasures of the older diplomatic history and of the nineteenth century. The assumptions, the mores, the landscape were all very different from today: for one thing, the state was still considered important, and foreign affairs had a primacy for many historians which has now been lost. I experienced a deep intellectual satisfaction in writing about these books. I am very pleased that, according to Addison, this came through. I was a bit stunned, however, that he thought that I should have written even more about them: just how long a book was he prepared to read?

Writing about his agent and publishers was fun, too. One or two reviewers thought that I spent too much space on this, that it was just a bit boring. Perhaps so: but dealing with publishers is now inescapably part of the academic life, and I enjoyed seeing how Taylor - who had a position vis--vis his publishers which most of us can never hope to attain - dealt with them, as well as their attempts to deal with him. Certain lessons can be learned: never take a fee, but always a royalty; employ an agent for the more tedious negotiations with publishers, but make certain that he does not sympathise more with the publisher than with you; and always keep a copy of your manuscript - you never know when a printer will lose the one extant copy (as happened to Taylor).

In the end, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing and publishing the biography has been to watch the antics of many of the reviewers. Some seriously tried to engage with the book - Stefan Collini, who wrote one of the most brilliant final paragraphs for a review which it has been my pleasure to read, Paul Smith and Paul Kennedy are but three of them. At least one sliced it up entirely: Michael Howard, who advised readers that if they already read Sisman they had no reason to read Burk, since she had nothing new to say (except for the money chapter). Many used it as the occasion to add their own memories: Raymond Carr remembered him with fondness, and added anecdotes which I would have loved to have included; David Pryce-Jones, on the other hand, was taught by Taylor and hated him, retailing an occasion when Taylor allegedly threatened him with a poker. (I mentioned this to another of Pryce-Jones' tutors, who had also taught him, and her response was that she could entirely understand it.) Pryce-Jones, I was delighted to discover, used the same story, and indeed, virtually the same review, for periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic: one piece, two fees - very Taylorian. And some used it as the opportunity to make larger points: Tony Judt, for example, contrasted Taylor's scope and field to castigate the narrow state and authoritarian structure of the American historical profession. I have learned, over the course of reading these and other reviews, to be more careful with the few which I do myself - and at least to allow an author to write her own book in her own way. Learning tolerance is not the least outcome of writing a book.

June 2001

Original review

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