Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Reading A.J.P. Taylor

Hmmm... I didn't expect to go so long without posting....

I rushed to the public library one day, almost at closing time, and borrowed a couple of books quickly. One was the memoirs of Mary Astor, movie star (now known mainly as Brigid O'Shaughessy in the Maltese Falcon); I was looking in political history, honestly, so someone must have mixed her up with Nancy Astor.

The other book was A.J.P. Taylor, Essays in English History. I think I borrowed this years ago. There is fine writing about history here--learned yet approachable. Taylor was raised a Quaker, and remained some kind of left-leaning pacifist. He was for appeasing Hitler until about 1936, then he turned violently anti-Hitler. He came to have quite a liking for Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook (who went through a similar conversion on appeasement), and eventually wrote a biography of the press lord. Like many leftists, Taylor became known for arguing that Hitler was much worse than Stalin, and for the British to have fought Lenin and Stalin, as Churchill wanted to do, would have been a crime. Yet after the war, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to make more of a name for himself, he argued that Hitler did not have as much of a master plan as had often been assumed.

He makes passing remarks to the effect that he doesn't like Tories, and can scarcely understand them. Page 208: "There is something to be said for conservatism (though I can never recollect what)"; page 123 (in a great essay on Lord Salisbury): "The Tory party has been called the stupid party (and not unfairly, to be stupid and to be sensible are not far apart. The Progressive party, Radical and Socialist, is clever, but silly)."

There are lots of gems here. He writes about the Irish famine, partly because of his stark recognition that it was precisely the progressives of their day in Britain--the liberals, the new political economists--who were most determined to let the Irish starve. The market had to correct itself on its own; government intervention could only make things worse. Taylor is painfully aware that the people holding these views were admirable and intelligent. He is very concerned about imperialism, believing it to be generally immoral and not even in the interest, in any measurable sense, of the conqueror. He criticizes the doctrinaire views that the imperialists are capitalists, or consistent holders of any other particular ideology. They are people with various motives, and often incoherent views. Taylor has seen the treatment of leaders in history go from one extreme to the other: from Prime Ministers as "little less than gods," to leaders as mere examples or even symbols of movements.

He criticizes the way the English elite kept teaching their sons the classics, Latin and Greek, when training in new industries was needed toward the end of the nineteenth century. Despite his erudition, he doesn't seem aware of arguments for a liberal education that is somewhat free from time and place, potentially freeing us from all other kinds of education that more or less keep us confined in time and place. He is all for the Irish.

Among other things, he makes me want to read the life of Salisbury by his daughter, Gwendolen Cecil. I may just buy it.

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