Cover image for The troublemaker : the life and history of A.J.P. Taylor
The troublemaker : the life and history of A.J.P. Taylor
Burk, Kathleen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
xiv, 491 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, map ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library DA3.T36 B87 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Popular, prolific, and impassioned, British historian A. J. P. Taylor (1906-1990) was also outspoken, controversial, and quarrelsome. Taylor's many books, including The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, The Origins of the Second World War, and English History 1914-1945, changed the way history was written and read. His legendary television lectures, delivered live and unscripted, brought history to a huge popular audience. In this masterful biography, Kathleen Burk provides a perceptive account of the life and achievements of Britain's most famous twentieth-century historian. Burk draws on her personal acquaintance with Taylor in his later years and on an array of previously untapped archival materials to analyze the successes, failures, and controversies of Taylor's life as historian, Oxford don, broadcast journalist, husband, and friend.
The author sets Taylor's professional work in the context of the development of history in England during the century, and she traces the relations between his writings and his reactions to domestic and foreign politics. Her account of Taylor's years at Oxford explores the customs and rituals of the academic community, his colleagues, and the successive crises that beset him personally and professionally. The book also assesses Taylor's political activities and his self-described role as an "impotent socialist," his development as a journalist and broadcaster, previously unknown financial aspects of his freelance activities, and his private upheavals, in particular his failed marriages.

Author Notes

Kathleen Burk is professor of modern and contemporary history at the University College London.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Few autobiographies of academics include a chapter on the subject's freelance income, but then Taylor (1906-1990) was no ordinary historian. Burk (Britain, America, and the Sinews of War 1914-1918) shows that, in addition to his prolific writing career (The Origins of the Second World War is the most famous of his dozens of books), the renowned British historian was a talking head long before CNN hit the airwaves. Taylor's former student and a history professor at University College, London, Burk examines her subject's rather ordinary childhood and his rise up Britain's academic ladder. Taylor was a professor at Oxford when WWII launched his extra-academic career. As he made his name writing for British newspapers and appearing on the BBC, this specialist in European diplomatic history also made enemies. His unpopularity among his fellow academics was partially due to his outspoken leftist views and sometime activism in the 1950s, for instance, he was a leader in Britain's nuclear disarmament campaign. But it was also due to what the author, generally sympathetic to her subject, deems a difficult personality: "He was conceited and self-righteous, self-absorbed and self-contained, insensitive and thoughtless." Unfortunately, Burk only concedes Taylor's faults in the final chapter; until then, the reader is left wondering if jealousy and politics alone made him so controversial. Nor does Burk undertake a serious psychological examination of Taylor or an evaluation of his pioneering role as a television academic, either of which would have widened her readership. Nonetheless, this worthy book, with its balanced emphases on the professional and the personal, will please historians of every stripe. 16 pages of b&w photos. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Child Is Father to the Man 1906-1927 It was ... boring to sit by while the other children were taught their letters. Usually I was given a real book that I read by myself in a corner. The other children became, just like the grown-ups, distant noises that did not disturb my reading. Books were for me real life; people were an interruption and hardly even that. A.J.P. Taylor, A Personal History Certainly I loved history as far back as I can remember. I cannot explain this. It seems to me natural, just like loving music or the Lake District mountains. A.J.P. Taylor, `Accident Prone, or What Happened Next' A.J.P. Taylor was a child of the north of England. The northern counties combine great natural beauty with commercial and industrial centres which can be grimy and depressing. Taylor was born in Lancashire, and all his life he considered himself a Lancastrian. Although he lost most of his northern accent at Oxford, elements remained, supplemented by a bluntness of speech often at odds with the more ironic and understated Oxford style. He grew up in Southport, Buxton (in Derbyshire) and Preston. He went to secondary school in York. He had a very northern attitude to money -- he was quite open about his pleasure in making it -- and a devotion to the Lake District of Cumbria. Even in his seventies he continued to walk the Lakeland fells.     An only child, Taylor grew up in comfortable circumstances in a household with plenty of money. More unusual was the fact that this affluent household also developed into a bastion of left-wing radicalism. His father, whom he adored, considered himself a reformist Socialist, while his mother, whom he disliked, leaned more towards revolutionary Communism. Taylor in his youth supported the idea of revolution which enabled him to strike a pose at school and Oxford, but gradually evolved towards reformism.     During his years at school and university, Taylor was clever and contrary, interested in history and politics, devoted to books rather than to people. Unusual in his accomplishments, he was like many other men and women at the age of twenty-one and at the end of his education: he had very little idea of what he wanted to do. Taylor was born on Sunday, 25 March 1906 in Birkdale, Lancashire. Both elements of his birthplace were to lose their individual identities: in 1912. Birkdale merged with Southport, of which it became a suburb, and in 1974 this part of Lancashire became part of Merseyside. Taylor took this badly, particularly the change which relegated that part of his beloved county to a lumpen entity called Merseyside: he always held to the old geographical style. Birkdale/Southport fulfilled two functions: it was an up-market seaside resort, and it was a dormitory community for Manchester and Liverpool, especially for cotton merchants and mill-owners. Both of these functions developed because of the railways: railways took the working-class day-trippers to Blackpool, `a much jollier place' than Southport according to Taylor, leaving the latter largely to the middle classes; and the railway carried businessmen, including Taylor's father, to Manchester and back each day.     Taylor spent most of the first seven years of his life in a house called `Bicknor', at 18 Crosby Road, Birkdale. Approaching it today, the driver might enter Birkdale from the south, noting the long line of sand dunes on the left (until the late eighteenth century Southport was nothing but dunes) drive up a wide road, cross a railway line -- on which Taylor's father rode an electric train from Birkdale to Southport in order to catch the steam train to Manchester -- and continue to Crosby Street. His home was a large, detached house built in 1887, with a stained-glass window on the left (west) side of the first floor, a lawn running the length of the east side, and a back yard rather than a garden, with most of the space taken up by a conservatory and a wash house. There were two sitting rooms on the ground floor, along with the kitchen and butler's pantry, and several bedrooms on the first floor, one of which was Taylor's; there was also a series of attic rooms, two of which served as bedrooms for the maids, and in another of which his father built a dark room. In 1913, the year the family moved, the Southport Directory gave the household as the only one in Crosby Road with a telephone.     This was a comfortable, even affluent, household, and it was supported by a complement of servants. There were the two resident maids, a charwoman, who also did the household wash on Mondays, a gardener and occasionally an extra girl who would take Taylor for walks when he was a toddler and small child; there was no governess as such. Taylor remembered one of the general maids in particular, called Annie Clark, who seems to have fulfilled the practical as well as the emotional role of nurse or governess, taking care of him, hugging him and listening to his stories. Hilda, the girl who took him for walks, seems also to have given him his first fumbling initiation into the outwardness of sexual differences: `the female anatomy had henceforward no mysteries for me.'     Taylor's father, Percy Lees Taylor, was a man of ambiguity, and Taylor was devoted to him; he was less devoted to his mother, Constance Sumner Thompson. They came from different family backgrounds, had wildly different personalities and appear, from Taylor's descriptions, to have made the best of a bad job rather than living together in a marriage of true minds. Taylor certainly differentiated between the family traits of the Thompsons and the Taylors.     Taylor could trace back his Taylor ancestry only to his great-grandfather, Edmund Taylor, a pedlar from Dunblane in Scotland who had drifted down to Lancashire and set up a general store in Heywood, East Lancashire. It was important to Taylor that Edmund was a radical (or at least a Swedenborgian, a follower of the mystical and nonconforming religious movement, which would indicate that he was an independent thinker); and he always took pride in the fact that an ancestor of his paternal grandmother had been killed in 1819 at Peterloo near Manchester, during the massacre of men and women gathered to hear a speaker on parliamentary reform (Henry `Orator' Hunt). His forebears' political activities were important because part of his self-perception as an adult was that he came from a long line of Lancashire radicals. His grandfather, James Taylor, was the one who, in Taylor's words, `set the family up' both in size and wealth: he had seven sons and four daughters, and he grew rich exporting cotton cloth to India. Taylor surmised that his grandfather's original capital had come to him through his marriage to Amelia Lees, daughter of an old Quaker family. In any case, he prospered quickly: he married at twenty, and six years later he moved his family to Ashton-on-Ribble, which in due course became one of the more prosperous parts of Preston. In 1919 Taylor's tither would himself return there to live.     James Taylor was, in the words of his son's obituarist, `a hard-bitten Lancashire cotton man if ever there was one', and he was also a domestic tyrant. As Taylor described matters, `Silence had to reign on the news, "Father's back" ... [He] treated his wife abominably. He neglected her, imposed twelve children on her (one died in infancy), and when she was worn out with childbearing and household cares, complained: "Oo's a teaser". He often went off with other women and frequented the brothels in Manchester and Preston.' It was Taylor's belief that his own father was `soft' towards his wife (Taylor's mother) because he had idolised his own mother and hated the way his father had treated her. Taylor extrapolated from this that he had taken after his own tither and treated his wives with too much patience and acquiescence, and that both he and his father would have been better off had they been a bit tougher.     Taylor's father, Percy, was the eldest son of James. He went to Preston Grammar School until he was sixteen, picking up a good grounding in mathematics and acquiring the habit of reading widely in English literature and political history. Upon leaving school he joined his father's firm in Manchester. Eight years later, James Taylor decided that, because he had a weak stomach, he might soon die and should therefore put his affairs in order. He settled enough money on each daughter to provide her with £500 a year for life. His sons were to become partners in James Taylor and Sons when they came of age, on condition they did not speculate on cotton futures. They all did. Three of the brothers fell hopelessly into debt and were dismissed from the firm without a penny after having all of the money they owed paid; four of them, including Percy, kept their speculations within bounds. James retired from business, though he kept the biggest share of the profits and absolute control of the business for twenty-one years.     Percy, as the eldest son, was now in practical terms the senior working partner in the business at the age of twenty-five. He was very well off, never, according to Taylor, making less than £5,000 a year and often more. He was clearly a great catch, if prospective marriage partners did not mind that the money came from trade. At a chapel dance he met a seventeen-year-old girl called Connie Sumner Thompson; he went home and told his brothers that `I've met the girl I am going to marry.' He was obviously struck by her personality and looks; she was apparently struck by his position and the fact that he could offer her an escape from teaching: Taylor says that she often told him later that she married without love and only to get away from her elementary school (the Thompsons were not as well off as the Taylors, and teaching was frequently the refuge of the female who was educated but relatively poor). She was not impressed by his family; according to her own, the Taylors were `common'. Taylor's evidence suggests that, for her, it was a marriage of convenience; however, it is entirely possible that it began as something more.     Taylor was clearly of two minds about his Thompson ancestry, approving of the intelligence and drive, disliking the snobbishness, particularly the snobbishness shown towards his father. Coincidentally, the family name of both of his maternal grandparents was Thompson. His maternal grandfather, William Henry Thompson, a gentle man, kept a general warehouse which he neglected in favour of the Methodist Sunday school. According to Taylor, the strength of the family came from his maternal grandmother, Martha Thompson. This branch `thought themselves rather grand', having `in their ancestry a rich corn merchant, two of whose sons became solicitors, `in Preston an almost aristocratic profession', and one of whom created Avenham Park, one of the first municipal parks in England. His grandmother was a stern woman, although kinder to him than to her own children, all of whom had been brought up to believe that they were superior to the riffraff around them: according to Taylor, `they spoke "proper" and, ignoring their own father, boasted that they had nothing to do with trade. In character they divided three-three between father and mother. William `Henry's children were soft and kind, Martha's were sharp-tongued and arrogant. My mother was one of Martha's children. My uncle Harry, cleverest of the lot, was another -- in the Lancashire phrase, a clever-clogs.'     Uncle Harry would in due course give him his first job, but as a child Taylor resented the fact that Harry and another of his brothers made fun of Percy Taylor, thinking themselves much cleverer than he was. In fact, they probably were, and Taylor himself sometimes implicitly admits this: he did not read Charles Dickens until he had left Oxford, assuming that because his father read him he could not be particularly good; he also admitted that he had learned quick-thinking and the ability to handle challenging comments from his Thompson relatives. Yet most of his descriptions in his autobiography paint his father in a favourable light, although the occasional bit of shade is allowed.     Taylor's memory of his father in his young days was of a man who always wore a blue serge suit and bowler hat to work and smoked Havana cigars, lighting his first in the morning as he set off. He was often at work, even during the family holidays, although he apparently tried to be home in the evenings to bathe his young son and put him to bed, telling him tales in Lancashire dialect. On Saturdays the two of them would often go into Southport for expeditions to Pleasureland, a seaside fun park with a miniature railway and a deep-sea diver called Professor Powsey, who performed spectacular dives which included one on a blazing bicycle. His father indulged and coddled him, said how fond he was of him and shielded him from his mother's disciplinary episodes. It is not surprising that Taylor was devoted to him.     But he must have sometimes been maddening for his wife to live with. Taylor's explanation was that he was `a great romancer ... If he turned right on leaving the house in order to buy a newspaper, he would tell my mother on his return that he had turned left in order to buy tobacco. I asked him why he did this, and he said, "It makes things more interesting".' In short, she could probably never tell for certain when he was being truthful and when not. He grew increasingly deaf, but he often pretended to be deafer than he was, particularly when his wife was likely to be saying something he did not want to hear. Much later Taylor wrote in a private letter that `my father, though the most angelic man in the world, was devious and a dodger'. An inability to trust one's spouse does not make for harmonious marital relations.     In the same letter Taylor also referred to his mother as a bitch. His references to her in his autobiography, while not as venomous as that, are nevertheless by turns dismissive, disapproving and contemptuous. Again, it is not possible to know the truth of the matter, but it is possible, by using Taylor's comments and setting them in context, to modify the portrait with shade and light: rather than cold, snobbish and dull, perhaps she was disappointed, frustrated and intelligent.     It is clear that she was intelligent: in a period when girls' education was not taken very seriously, and coming from a family which was not wealthy, she would not have been kept in school -- which would have been paid for after the primary period of education -- if she had not been clever. In due course she would become very interested in Marxism, arguably at least partly because of the attraction of the power of ideas. Furthermore, she was a schoolteacher, even if an unwilling one. She read, she went to the theatre, she was very interested in politics, her mind was clearly alive.     She seems to have been something of a romantic. She and Percy married in 1900 and spent six months in India for their honeymoon. Taylor says that they `made friends with a professional photographer called Tommy Hands who offered my mother the romantic appeal that she did not find in my father. This was the first of her more or less innocent escapades.' Taylor's father too must have had something of a romantic streak in him, or he would not have fallen in love at first sight. Nevertheless something was missing: perhaps the lack of sexual experience on one or probably both sides had made the honeymoon a profoundly disappointing period. Taylor certainly highlights his mother's supposed lack of interest in sex; perhaps he drew this conclusion from the fact that while he was still a very young boy his parents went over to twin beds (although there is always the prosaic possibility that one of them snored unbearably). In due course she would fall in love -- possibly platonically, possibly not -- with a younger man, Harry Sara, an active member of the Communist Party, to whom she would remain devoted for the rest of her life.     She was an active woman. She played a very good game of golf -- their house was `crammed with silver cups that she had won at county championships'. Unfortunately, neither Taylor nor his father liked to play: as Taylor recalled, `My father was not a keen golfer or a good one. But he was ordered to play. On Saturday mornings I stood at the front gate, looking pathetically after my father, who trailed his bag of golf clubs on the ground and looked pathetically back at me. In the end my mother gave up and found more willing partners' -- not surprisingly. Why not just tell her he did not want to play? Why make it clear, week after week, what a bore it was and spoil her play? Taylor's father seems to have combined weakness with petulance. Taylor adds that his parents also played bridge, his father again unwillingly.     His parents often gave large parties, sometimes garden parties for political organisations such as the Liberal Women of Southport, sometimes large dinner parties, sometimes social evenings. During the social evenings, according to Taylor, his father could not follow the general conversation and sat at the back of the room with a book, often Dickens. He does not seem to have objected to the social round, or at least Taylor does not mention it, but his interest must have been semi-detached, if he could not always follow a general conversation. Again, if his mother enjoyed these events, his father's inability to join in fully must have helped to widen the breach.     In short, Taylor's parents frequently did not share the small coin of everyday life. Between the two of them, personal expressions of affection, in spite of his father referring to her as `Love', as in `What did you say, Love?', seem not to have been common. They did not spend much of their spare time together, either in weekend activities or during holiday periods. The main beliefs they shared seem to have been political ones, and political activities would in due course take up more of their time, with her growing interest in very left-wing politics and his activities as a local councillor.     They had different approaches to child-rearing, and Taylor's affection for the one and relative lack of it for the other seem to have been based on this. His father frequently expressed his affection to him, spent lots of time with him when he was home, appears not to have disciplined him nor to have set boundaries for behaviour. His mother, he wrote, `appears to me as a more remote figure. She was the disciplinarian in the household as her own mother had been before her. She was the one who made me sit on my pot or eat up food I did not like ... In my mother's company I seem to have been always quiet and well-dressed.' Indeed, Taylor remembers that his father prevented his mother from spanking him once by standing between them and threatening that `If you lay hands on that child I'll never speak to you again.' Taylor never mentions that she played with him, only that she took him with her most mornings on the tram into Southport, where she took coffee and presumably met her friends at Thom's Japanese Tea Rooms in Lord Street. Naturally he preferred going to Pleasureland with his father. However, her influence could not have been entirely negative. After all, someone taught Taylor to read before he was four, and someone read to him for hours at a time, and it was probably not Annie Clark, a working-class girl whose reading skills were arguably not highly developed. Someone had to make certain that, as an only child, his behaviour was not impossible, and that routines were established and limits set. This, however, does not always endear a child to the parent, and particularly when the other parent confines himself to the more enjoyable aspects of child-raising.     Taylor makes a most revealing comparison between the two with regard to the death of his eighteen-month-old sister from tubercular meningitis in 1904, two years before he himself was born. He writes: `Her death left a permanent mark on my father. He adored Miriam as he often told me and never ceased to grieve for her ... My mother was less affected. Miriam's death merely increased her dislike for sex and childbearing.' He appears to assume that his mother was less affected simply because she did not repeatedly tell him so. More likely the experience was so devastatingly painful that she could not talk about it -- not unlikely when she seems to have been reserved in any case. She might also have thought it a sign of weakness to have referred to it in later years. Taylor, in short, seems to have been much less perceptive when writing about his mother than when writing about historical figures. His relationship with her is important because he used it as a pattern and sometimes as an excuse for his own future relationships with his wives.     Taylor, then, was an only child, his birth bracketed between the death of his sister when she was a toddler and by the stillbirth of a brother. There are disadvantages to growing up an only child: lack of a network of support, lack of experience in sharing, lack of close companions whom you might alternatively love or hate, but against whom you can try your muscles, your wit, your charm, and learn your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Taylor had to wait until he went to infants' school to find such opposition. He mentioned one family, the Blackwells, whose house was full of children -- although much older than he was -- and books. The Blackwells were, he wrote, the only people he talked to outside his own family. Their warmth and companionship were very important to him: he later equated Mr Blackwell, who ran the Congregational Sunday school that he attended, with Mr Greatheart in The Pilgrim's Progress . Yet of equal importance was the fact that `the Blackwells were the only literate family I knew. Their house was full of books. They alone possessed the works of Beatrix Potter, actually bought as they came out. The books were one reason why I wanted to go to the Blackwells.' The implication is that there were no books in his own home. Yet his father loved Dickens and conveyed this affection to others (though not to his son); in addition, at least in the early 1920s, three of the walls in the Taylor drawing room were covered with books from floor to ceiling. Taylor had clearly forgotten this by the time he came to write his autobiography. Books early on replaced people in his time and affection.     Indeed, it is worth considering what Taylor read and the role reading played in his early life. He could read before he was four and, he says, ` Pilgrim's Progress was my favourite from the start. I read it again and again in an edition produced by the SPCK [Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge] and knew it almost by heart except that I skipped the theological conversations.' Fortunately for the young Taylor, action and talk alternated: for example, Christian flees the City of Destruction, chased by Obstinate and Pliable; Obstinate decides to go back, but `Christian and Pliable went talking over the plain; and thus they began their discourse.' Taylor could then skip the next two-and-a-half pages, until Christian tumbles into the Slough of Despond and the story resumes.     It is perhaps a mark of his radical heritage that he was introduced to this book at such a young age, since it was the classic radical text. As E.P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class, `it is above all in Bunyan that we find the slumbering Radicalism which was preserved through the 18th century and which breaks out again and again in the 19th. Pilgrim's Progress is, with [Tom Paine's] Rights of Man, one of the two foundation texts of the English working-class movement: Bunyan and Paine, with Cobbett and Owen, contributed most to the stock of ideas and attitudes which make up the raw material of the movement from 1790-1850. Many thousands of youths found in Pilgrim's Progress their first adventure story, and would have agreed with Thomas Cooper, the Chartist, that it was their "book of books".'     To our eyes it appears a curious book for a young child to read and reread: the seventeenth-century language is archaic and the theme is so obviously didactically religious. Yet it had a widespread popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries way beyond the radical English household. In the American Louisa May Alcott's Little Women , for example, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy play at Pilgrim's Progress, leaving the City of Destruction in the cellar, fighting their way up the stairs armed with swords of righteousness and emerging into the Celestial City in the attic. It is also worth remembering that the range and availability of books for children were very much less than now: one of the best-selling children's books of the entire nineteenth century was called Jessica's Last Prayer , again very didactic (from which the percipient child could deduce that the good die young). In The Pilgrim's Progress, at least, there was fighting and excitement along with the religion. Nevertheless, it appears that Taylor finally outgrew the book: he read it -- presumably the whole book now -- for the final time when he was twenty-one.     There were other favourites. He confessed to the `shameful' secret that when young he adored Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden : `in recollection it has become utterly detestable, and I had to go out of the room when it was being read to my children'. He liked fairy tales, he liked Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass , and he liked Barrie's Peter and Wendy , the book of the play Peter Pan . He liked reading newspapers, the Daily News and the Manchester Guardian ; but he also liked the Boys' Own Paper and the weekly comics. In short, even as a small child he read omnivorously, a habit that would only increase as he grew older and could read more complicated books.     He went off to nursery school at the age of four. This was run by the gentle Misses Annie and Kitty Filmer. It was not stimulating. As Taylor later wrote, `the school made no impact on me and I can remember little about it. I was already reading grown-up books. It was therefore boring to sit by while the other children were taught their letters. Usually I was given a real book that I read by myself in a corner. The other children became, just like the grown-ups, distant noises that did not disturb my reading. Books were for me real life; people were an interruption and hardly even that.' It is not surprising that he made no friends. Children are not attracted to those who are different and Taylor must have seemed like a being from another world. He did not possess the saving grace of selfless charm nor the ability to hit a ball, either of which might have given him a place in the schoolchild hierarchy. Of course, he may have exaggerated his isolation: the memories in old age of early childhood are bound to be episodic rather than continuous. Nevertheless, it is significant that what he emphasises is his aloneness: `going home, which was only two streets away, I walked in the gutter so as not to have to talk to the other children who walked on the pavement.'     It all seems terribly pathetic, but is so only if Taylor regretted missing the company of chums. He gave no indication of this. Rather, he spent much of his time, when not alone, in the enlivening company of adults. There was, first of all, his father, and there was Joshua Blackwell; the three of them played cowboys and Indians on the sandhills after Sunday chapel. But most of all there was his extended family, principally his Thompson uncles and aunts. Rather than relegating him to another room as a child, `they expected me, as the only child in the [Thompson] community, simply to step into it at their level.' They all talked politics, they played card games such as Racing Demon in which Taylor was given no quarter, there was a lot of challenging banter in which he had to learn to hold his own.     The extended family sometimes took holidays together. Taylor remembered going on holiday in 1910 and 1912 to the Isle of Man, principally because sea crossings and seasickness were involved: `my father had read somewhere that seasickness could be prevented by wrapping blotting paper round the stomach. We all wrapped it round except for my father who was a good sailor. We were all sick. He was not.' These family expeditions, which included both grandmothers, two Thompson aunts, his uncle Harry Thompson, uncle Harold Taylor, Taylor, his mother and Annie Clark, were entirely paid for by Taylor's father. They fished, swam, walked, had picnics, talked and argued and played cards. Taylor admitted of no loneliness.     And then life changed abruptly. Early in 1913 Taylor's mother began spending most of her time in bed; one day he was sent to the Blackwells for a few days, but no one told him why. He was brought back home to find the house full of relatives and doctors and nurses; again, no one told him why. A day or two later he was taken up to his mother who, `though very weak, greeted me with what was for her unusual affection. She remained in bed for a long time.' He remained in the dark. Eventually piecing together the jigsaw, he realised that his mother had had a stillborn child. There were severe complications which left her very much weakened for the rest of her life: she rested in the afternoons, she no longer played golf and she no longer even shared a bedroom with her husband.     More bewildering for the seven-year-old Taylor, they abandoned their home and Southport entirely. `Perhaps', Taylor later wrote, `my parents could no longer stand its associations after a stillborn child on top of the death of Miriam. At any rate I was pulled up by the roots without warning.' A year later they would be living in Buxton in Derbyshire, but in the immediate future the family travelled to Italy. Taylor's mother needed warmth to help her recover, and it was decided that she, her son and Annie Clarke would spend the winter on the Italian Riviera -- as Taylor noted, `in those days, no one except the Italians went there in the summer.'     En route, the family went first to London, where Taylor was taken to the House of Commons, a high treat for him, where he saw the Conservative opposition leader Andrew Bonar Law on the front bench -- no memory remained of the Liberals, whom his parents supported. His other memories of his first visit to London are those such as would stick in the mind of any seven-year-old: the hotel on the river Thames, the bright flashing advertisements. Then to Paris and the Gare de Lyon and his first experience of a wagon-lit, which made an abiding and `romantic' impression on him: for the remainder of his life he would adore sleeping in wagons-lits. When he awoke in the morning he drew the blinds and saw a great lake and the Alps in the distance; when the train reached Modane, the border town situated at the French end of rail and road tunnels leading to Italy, he `walked self-importantly down the platform with my father in order to unlock our trunks for the customs officials.' From there they travelled to Turin and thence to Alassio. It was not an auspicious arrival: `we took a carriage from the station to the pension where we were to stay. We were held up at a level crossing. It was raining heavily. I can see the rain beating against the carriage windows. My mother cried and blamed my father for bringing her to such an awful place.'     The Italian, or Ligurian, Riviera is washed by the blue waters of the Ligurian Sea, and -- theoretically -- the skies are always clear, with a permanently mild climate. The Ligurian Apennines form a mountain barrier against the north winds, while the coast basks in the sunshine. The countryside is covered with pines, cypresses, olive trees, and orange and lemon trees: one of Taylor's few memories of his Italian sojourn was of watching oranges ripening. Alassio itself with its long beach lies along a bay and is sheltered by an amphitheatre of mountains; as a consequence its mean temperature in January is eleven degrees centigrade. Taylor's mother was brought here to rest, to exercise gently; to recover. His father settled them in their pension and, after remaining a few weeks, went back to England and his work.     Taylor remembered very little of his months in Italy. He learned to count in Italian and helped Annie Clarke with the shopping. He remembered his eighth birthday, 25 March 1914, when his mother hired donkeys and they went up a hill to eat lunch, lizards running over the stones at their feet and the blue sea below; his new electric torch made a deeper impression. Beyond that, very little. And because he always had a retentive memory, this argues that very little happened from day to day.     His mother grew bored and, without consulting her husband, decided that they would leave Alassio. According to Taylor, this was the signal for a change in their relationship. She had always depended on her husband to make the arrangements for their travels; in his absence, Taylor worked out the hotel bookings and the train times. As a consequence, `my mother came to rely on me for planning things, which I did without the arguments and equivocations that my father could not resist. In time she came to depend on me a little for ideas, as soon as I read more serious books than she did.' From this he drew yet another conclusion about his future marital relationships: `I do not think I ever became fond of her. But unconsciously I slipped into the attitude towards women that my father had before me: that one must look after them and carry out their wishes even if these were unwelcome or foolish. Softheartedness became a substitute for affection, in my case not untinged with irritation.'     They travelled north-east to Milan for two nights, where Taylor saw the first picture that remained in his memory, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, and then continued north to Lugano in Switzerland, where they spent some weeks. Lugano is on the lake of the same name, bounded in by the Alps on whose slopes olive trees grow. It made a bit more of an impact on his memory than Alassio had done: he remembered going up a hill and then walking down, and he remembered the reflection of the lights on the lake. Of the journey home he remembered almost nothing. He did remember that there was no home to which they could return, as the house in Birkdale had been given up, and that they had had to stay with his grandmother Thompson, who was living in Lytham. This was a pleasant small town in Lancashire with a windmill and a green next to the promenade, which could be reached by steamship across the Ribble estuary from Southport, undoubtedly a more pleasant journey than the circuitous one necessary by train.     After a short period, the family moved to Buxton, first into a furnished house and then in September 1914 into the house in which Taylor first began to put down some roots. Buxton had been a spa town since the time of the Romans, with its mineral springs celebrated for their healing properties since the sixteenth century. Its development was accelerated during the Victorian period, however, and by 1900 it had reached its heyday as a fashionable spa and resort. Built on the Derbyshire hills, by 1914 it sported dozens of hotels and guest houses, some of great luxury, an opera house, the Pavilion Gardens, a pump room with five massive silvered fountains through which the healing water flowed, thermal baths and a plethora of shops. When the Taylors moved there, at the beginning of the war, the town retained its elegance, but the function of many of the buildings would change and, with the Devonshire Hospital devoted to convalescing Canadian soldiers, a breath of the outside world entered. Twenty-two miles from Manchester, Percy Taylor could travel to work on the `40-minutes' expresses'.     The Taylors lived in a large semi-detached house at 10 Manchester Road, not as large as the Birkdale house and with only one lawn instead of two, but still with such amenities as a butler's pantry and large attics. It was midway down a wide, straight road which was wonderful for bicycle riding -- from the top of the road Taylor could freewheel for over a mile -- and which during the colder winters was closed off and used as a toboggan run. Taylor remembered the latter practice as being instituted by the Canadian soldiers during the winter of 1916-17, when they waited until the snow had settled and then poured water on the lower slopes, which turned to ice overnight; however, it is clear from old photographs that it was not the first time this had been done. In any case, Taylor found it both terrifying and exhilarating: `the speed was terrifying, particularly with the knowledge that, if you spilled, you would fall on to hard ice, not soft snow. A good many adults had broken arms and gashed faces. I made myself go down the run again and again, usually alone because I could get no one of my own age to go with me. I thought that if I did this often enough I should stop being frightened. This did not happen, but I discovered that you learn to live with fear just like any other discomfort.'     Taylor liked Buxton very much. He thought it had much more character than Birkdale, both in the amenities and in the buildings. He liked swimming in the warm thermal baths much more than in the cold sea, and he liked going about Buxton, especially once he had learned to ride a bicycle. If, instead of freewheeling down Manchester Road towards the centre, he rode up and away in the opposite direction, he reached the open country in less than half a mile. He could explore the hills and, nearer to home, Corbar Woods.     His social and family life both improved. He made some friends with whom he went around and he `even had a girl friend' whose hand he daringly held whilst walking back from school. Furthermore, for a period he had siblings of a sort. His uncle Jim Taylor was in Calcutta throughout the war looking after the Taylor firm's interests, and his two daughters came to live with them in Buxton, one a little older, the other a little younger. Taylor notes that `I almost lost the habits of an only child. I fitted in with other people more and had people of my own age to play games with instead of always waiting for the arrival of some grown up.' All in all, Buxton was a vast improvement on Birkdale: although part of the improvement probably stemmed from Taylor's being older and more independent and therefore able to get around alone, part certainly arose from his having friends his own age, and leading a more normal childhood existence.     He was excited about going back to school -- it had been eighteen months since he had last attended one. What is unknown is which school it was. Taylor is very clear about it: `the school was of the sort, then common in England, that took girls to the age of sixteen or eighteen and boys to the age of eleven. It was kept by a Madame de la Motte. Her husband who taught French in the school was Swiss. She, I think, was a native of Buxton.' Unfortunately, there is no trace in the contemporary directories of a school run by Madame de la Motte, although she and her husband certainly lived in Buxton. There was a school for boys not a hundred yards from Taylor's house, called Holm Leigh, and this is close to Corbar Woods, which he remembered as close enough to play in during school hours; however, there were no girls. Another possibility was an institution called the Marlborough College for Girls, which was also situated nearby, but it is unclear whether it took boys.     Wherever he went to school, he seems to have enjoyed it: `I was pushed up into a class beyond my age and therefore had reasonably interesting things to do. I remember with a vague affection Miss Purvis who taught English and History, not so much because of anything she taught me as because she took her class to Corbar Woods nearby where we played Cavaliers and Roundheads -- a variant, supposedly educational, of cowboys and Indians. I do not need to say which side I was on, indeed commanded.'     The fact that he cared which side he was on undoubtedly arose from two sources: his reading, and the strong political beliefs of his parents. As he later wrote, `Even though I had more social life, I also read more, and more obsessively. Soon after we came to Buxton I discovered the public library. This must have been soon after I was nine, because I remember the difficulty I had in getting a ticket to the adult library at that age.' The library was stocked with the classics, `the sort of collection you might find in a country house', not with new novels. But he knew what he wanted: he wanted historical novels. He read every novel by Harrison Ainsworth in the library, although he also read the Victorian classics of Charles Kingsley, Hereward the Wake, in which a reckless young Saxon retires to the Fens and for a time successfully opposes the Norman conquerors, and Westward Ho!, a romance of the Spanish Main which culminates in the destruction of the Armada. None of these could be counted on for historical accuracy, but they were lively and full of action and set in the past, all of which elements attracted him.     His favourite historical novelist, however, wrote another type of book entirely. This was G.A. Henty, and Taylor went so far as to collect these novels himself so that he could reread them at his pleasure. Henty had been a soldier in the Crimea and then a war correspondent in Italy, Abyssinia, Ashanti, Spain and India, and in Paris during the revolutionary uprising of the Commune. An unsuccessful adult novelist, he wrote thirty-six novels for boys, sometimes three or four a year, mainly based on military history, especially that of the Thirty Years War, the Peninsular War and the various wars of the British Empire. (Taylor said that he ignored books on the Empire, having already written off that institution.) Taylor's favourite was A Roving Commission , which is about a slave rebellion. One authority refers to Henty's `didactic influence, conveyed largely through the manly characters of the heroes', which is `supported by strong narrative and an appearance of historical fidelity.' It is questionable whether Taylor absorbed a sense of manly character in the way Henty presumably intended, but he certainly took note of the driving narrative and the historical detail. As he wrote many years later, `long, long ago I read the works of Henty with more eagerness, more enjoyment and more application than I did those of any other history writer, perhaps even with more profit.'     Henty's books are certainly full of historical detail. Take The Young Carthaginian , the eponymous hero of which is a young nobleman turned soldier called Malchus. The first few chapters focus on the political state of Carthage, after which the reader follows Malchus around the ever-decreasing empire as Hannibal tries to defend it from the Romans. The reader shares with Malchus the last great Carthaginian victories, but the book then takes a personal turn as Malchus is captured, and ends with his marriage to a Gaulish wife and his departure to live in the Alps as a `barbarian'. Whenever Henty comes to a new people in the march to the eventual battle with the Romans, he stops and spends pages on description: The Gauls had a passion for ornaments, and adorned their persons with a profusion of necklaces, bracelets, rings, baldricks, and belts of gold. Their national arms were long heavy pikes -- these had no metal heads, but the points were hardened by fire; javelins of the same description -- these before going into battle they set fire to, and hurled blazing at the enemy -- lighter darts called matras saunions , pikes with curved heads, resembling the halberts of later times; and straight swords. Hannibal, however, finding the inconvenience of this diversity of weapons, had armed his Gaulish troops only with their long straight swords. These were without point, and made for cutting only, and were in the hands of these powerful tribesmen terrible weapons. These swords were not only those they had ,been accustomed to carry, which were made of copper only, and often bent at the first blow, but were specially made for them in Carthage of heavy steel, proof against all accidents. And so on.     Taylor loved these books for their historical descriptions and for the battles. He read `one book after another about the Thirty Years' war, each one if I remember aright turning on a single obscure battle. The best feature was the battle diagrams with little oblongs for the opposing forces of cavalry and infantry. I reproduced them on the attic floor with my toy soldiers, setting up one dreary battle after another.' Taylor is dismissive of his younger self with his passion for `dreary' historical detail, but the books fed a mind hungry for facts. There were not the alternatives of today, with shelves of non-fiction history books written specifically for each age group. Once he arrived at Bootham School at the age of thirteen, Taylor would be encouraged to gather together his own historical details. Until then, Henry filled a need.     Taylor, then, was from the beginning history-minded, and his wide reading of historical novels (plus his devotion to The Pilgrim's Progress? ) gave him a context in which the political theories exemplified by the Cavaliers and Roundheads had real meaning for him. But equally important in giving him a theory with which to approach both history in his early days and politics throughout his life was the influence of his parents. They were Nonconformist in religion and therefore -- almost by definition -- Liberals; they had discussed politics with Joshua Blackwell, who was a Socialist, and others in Birkdale; but in Buxton both of his parents shot sharply to the left, and took the young Taylor with them. The catalyst was the First World War. (Continues...)

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