Friday, 10 July 2015

A Shaggy Dog

… as told by AJP Taylor but, even so, there may still be one or two historical inaccuracies …

Alan John Percivale Taylor (25 March 1906 – 7 September 1990), universally known as AJP Taylor, may look like a grouchy old leathery sourpuss but, just because he was a historian, we shouldn’t leap to conclusions: they’re not all ineffable dullards who prefer a comfy cardigan to a good night out and, in actual fact, some of them can be delightfully chipper chappies. Like AJP, for one. He was born in Birkdale, near Southport, which pretty much makes him a scouser and may well explain his keen sense of humour, a quality very much inherent in the good people who hail from those parts. We should explain, for the benefit of our overseas readers, that a “scouser” is the name given to natives of Liverpool, “scouse” being the accent they use, a harsh Lancashire-Irish hybrid. The word scouse is a shortened form of lobscouse, from the Norwegian lapskaus, a stew of meat, vegetables and hardtack (ships’ biscuits) normally eaten by sailors and, during the nineteenth century, by poorer Liverpudlians, seeing it was a cheap dish, which thus tempted outsiders to refer to them as “scousers.” Poor they may have been, and many still are, thanks to the unstinting efforts of the likes of Thatcher and Osborne, but still they maintain a lively sense of fun and mischief. Which is how we end up with scurrilous scouse-gags, eminently unsuitable to be reproduced in these columns, such as: What do you call a scouser in a suit? The Defendant …

AJP was from Southport, however, the posh end of Liverpool and, indeed, his parents were pretty well-heeled, though this didn’t prevent them from holding hard-line left-wing views, which the young Alan inherited. They were also stridently anti-bourgeois and pacifists loudly opposed to the First World War, so they sent their son to Quaker schools as a form of protest and, from there, AJP then went on to Oriel College, Oxford, in 1924, to study modern history. Which is ironic really, seeing that, only six years earlier, he had been living through some of the most momentous historical events to have happened in over a century, the catastrophic results of which were still scattered in a ghastly strew of detritus and refuse upon city streets everywhere as brothers-in-arms became brothers-in-alms whilst their hideous suffering and appalling mutilation was the living (if only barely in some cases) proof of the validity of pacifism.
From 1930 to 1938, AJP taught history at the University of Manchester and it must have been here where he honed his skills as a raconteur for, by the time he got to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1938, his lectures had become so popular that they had to be held at eight thirty in the morning to avoid overcrowding. Incidentally (once again, for the benefit of our overseas followers), one should never pronounce the college name as Mag-duh-lin but always Mawd-lin, as in maudlin, to be tearfully emotional, which comes from the Middle English woman’s name, Maudelen, which itself harks back to the Greek, Magdalene, originally the surname of the repentant sinner in the Bible, Mary, often depicted as weeping – it just means someone from Magdala. None of which explains the incorrect spelling of the original Magdalene or the absurd insistence on pronouncing it in the Middle English – it’s just one of those quirky affectations we English tend to go in for. Talking of quirky, Magdalen Old Boys include George Osborne (born Gideon Oliver Osborne, by the way, and the bullying he must’ve suffered for that sure explains a lot), Jeremy Hunt, John Redwood, Dominic Grieve and William Hague (enough wood there to fashion an entire cabinet out of) but – it’s not all bad news – also Oscar Wilde, Ian Hislop and our old friend, Erwin Schrödinger. Boy, they must’ve had some riotous laughs in the dorms there …

AJP was a Fellow at Magdalen until 1976, serving in the Second World War in the Home Guard, immortalised in the BBC sitcom, Dad’s Army, though there is no truth whatsoever in the rumours that it was Taylor himself that first came up with the catchphrases “they don’t like it up ‘em,” and “stupid boy” (in fact, though George Osborne did study modern history, AJP never actually taught him). In love too he was pretty off-the-wall, seeing he was married three times. Firstly, it was to Margaret Adams, in 1931, the couple sharing a house with Malcolm Muggeridge and his wife, while AJP, it is rumoured, illicitly shared the pleasures of Kitty Muggeridge behind Malcolm’s back. Not to be outdone, Mrs Taylor had an affair with Dylan Thomas while he was staying with them in Cheshire, though AJP appears to’ve been none too fussed, seeing he later provided the poet with a cottage in Oxford for him to recover from a breakdown. Or simply from too much Mrs AJP. Then it was Eve Crosland, in 1951, though he still lived with Margaret whilst maintaining a household with Eve. Then, in 1976 – he’d be seventy by then and probably getting on a bit for learning new names – it was Éva Haraszti, a Hungarian historian.

He also smoked pot. When he delivered his famous BBC straight-into-camera monologues, what are the chances, one can’t help but wonder, that he was actually about as ferociously stoned as your average biblical adulteress? But, whether or no, he did like to slip in the odd quip whenever he could, witty epigrammatic remarks usually intended to explode the inflated pomposity of historical figures, these jests becoming known as Taylorisms. Talking about Mussolini in 1970, for instance, he observed drily that the great Italian Fascist dictator, “kept up with his work — by doing none.” When it came to the matter of Metternich and his political philosophies, AJP dismissed them entirely with the pithy, “Most men could do better while shaving.” Once, when asked what the future might bring, he replied: “Dear boy, you should never ask an historian to predict the future – frankly we have a hard enough time predicting the past.” Clearly, a born japester like AJP Taylor would be highly likely to carry on his mirth-making activities into a private capacity also and, despite the fact that as he advanced in years he became increasingly cantankerous and irascible, he always retained his charm, charisma and sense of humour. A man of this quality, stature and learning must have been replete with any number of amusing anecdotes, but what were the absolute favourites of AJP Taylor and what were they about?

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, many of them featured elements of recent Soviet history, given his undoubted interest in the subject and the fact that, in 1963, he was invited to write the introduction to a reissue of Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (basically, an eye-witness account of the October Revolution of 1917), the copyright of which was then in the hands of the British Communist Party, who now wanted a post-Stalin version. Taylor readily acquiesced and even went so far as to be reasonably sympathetic towards the humourless stuffed-shirt Bolsheviks, though he couldn’t resist having a pop at them at the same time, pointing out that whilst Ten Days (witness statement, remember) had Trotsky playing a prominent and heroic role in the Revolution (compared to the two mentions of Stalin), Uncle Joe had since corrected that mistake and altered history by simply airbrushing Trotsky out of it altogether. A less obvious subject for his quipping was that of Art, though this may have something to do with the time he felt obliged to resign from the British Academy (1980) in protest at the exposure and expulsion of art historian Anthony Blunt, which he felt smacked of McCarthyism. Blunt may well have been a horribly treacherous spy in league with the Soviet Menace since 1934 but, come on now, be fair, he was mates with the Queen as well as being the world’s leading expert on the works of Poussin.
Nikita Khrushchev was always good for a laugh where AJP was concerned. He was Comrade First Secretary of the Party from 1953 to 1964, you’ll recall, which made him the Soviet answer to JFK, though, if he was the answer, heaven alone knows what the question must’ve been. Khrushchev is mainly remembered for attempting (which reads as “failing”) to reform the economy. By introducing maize. He was even known as the Maizeman (kukuruznik) but he is also down in posterity for his crude manners and, well, just for being bald.

To shoehorn Art into things Khrushchev, AJP would revisit the time when the good Comrade went to inspect an exhibition of paintings at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, in order to display his miniscule understanding of the subject. At one canvas, a green circle with yellow spots on it, he seemed particularly baffled and asked what it was, to be told it depicted the heroic peasants toiling to reach the target of two hundred million tons of grain. Naturally, Nicky suspects he might be having his leg pulled but he says nothing. Until he comes to one that is nothing but a black triangle with red stripes on it. “What is that supposed to represent, then?” he asked. “Ah, Comrade Secretary, it is our noble industrial workers increasing production in the factories.” Reluctantly letting that one go, he passes on to the next piece, but this time he really is outraged and shows his displeasure by demanding to know, “So what the hell are you going to tell me this one is, then, with its fat ass and big ears?” There is an uncomfortable pause before the aide replies, “That, Comrade, is a mirror.”

For his All-Time Number One Must-Tell Anecdote, AJP would always turn to the unlikely figure of Leonid Brezhnev, someone often portrayed as dim-witted, suffering from dementia and prone to delusions of grandeur. He presided over what is known as the Era of Stagnation. In October of 1972, Brezhnev had been engaged to pay a presidential-style visit to Warsaw to hold diplomatic talks with Stanisław Ostrowski, at a time when it had become de rigueur for visiting Soviet heads of state to arrive bearing a symbolic gift of some kind when calling upon their fellow oppressors, as a mark of esteem but mainly to prove that all the shops weren’t as stockless as rumour alleged. Unfortunately, thanks mainly to Brezhnev’s utter incompetence, the shelves did just happen to be inconveniently bare at that time, which led to something of a crisis in the Politburo, as you can imagine, because it could well result in a major rift between the two republics if Brezhnev got off the plane empty-handed. After much in-depth discussion of the matter, some ambitious young member reminded Brezhnev that one of their comrades was none other than Nikolai Baskakov, “the world’s greatest living artist” (ie, not shot yet) and he had already turned out masterworks including Lenin in the Gorki (1956), Lenin in the Kremlin (1960) and Lenin on Vacation (1970), so what could be more appropriate than a work entitled Lenin in Poland, depicting the close bond between Mother Russia and her ally, Poland? The motion was duly seconded, passed and ratified and the entire Politburo then travelled across Moscow in order to persuade the renowned painter to produce the work they so desperately needed.

Unhappily, though Baskakov was a fervent and committed Party adherent, he was also an artist and, as such, stuck rigidly to his ideals, informing them that he was, “above all,” a Social Realist and, as Lenin had never actually set foot in Poland, it would be impossible for him to produce such a painting: it would go against his hard-held principles entirely, adding that it would be an act of “corruption that was nothing less than prostitution” and that he would never be corrupted in such a “demeaning and truthless way.” The gathered Comrades heard him out in shocked silence until Vladimir Semichastny, then head of the KGB, pointed out that, if Baskakov were to favour the Party with the commissioned work, it would in return provide him with a luxury apartment, a large car and fifty thousand roubles. Before adding that, if he still felt unable to comply, they could always shoot him. Baskakov’s response was for them to call back a week on Tuesday.

Tensions remained high during those anxious ten days but the appointed evening finally arrived and the same party in its entirety once more paid call to the artist’s atelier, where the finished piece stood ready on an easel and suitably concealed behind a drop-cloth, waiting to be revealed. Beside it stood the artist himself, smoke curling languidly up from a cigarette cornered in his mouth.

“Gentlemen,” he announced grandly, “I give you “Lenin in Poland!””

At which he threw back the cloth and there, at last, was the painting. Suddenly, as they looked on in amazement and disbelief, there was a collective intake of breath as they gazed at the sublimely beautiful brushwork of an image of three naked figures in bed together, the faces of whom were instantly recognisable to all foregathered there, at which shock turned to horror. Finally, the bulky frame of Brezhnev himself stepped forward, bearlike and menacing, mere inches from the artist’s face.

“Comrade Baskakov,” he drawled slowly, “we commissioned a picture of Lenin in Poland and you present us with this bedroom scene.” Even though he already knew full-well the answers, he continued with his questions. “Who is this person in the little round spectacles?”

Comrade Trotsky.

“Who is this person with the luxuriant moustache?”

That is Comrade Stalin.

“And this unclad female, who is she?”

That is Nadezhda Krupskaya, wife of Comrade Lenin.

“Indeed, Comrade Baskakov,” growled Brezhnev, “and where, pray, is Comrade Lenin?”

“Lenin’s in Poland.”


AJP Taylor: YouTube
WW1 Wounded: Ernest Brooks [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Magdalene: Domenico Tintoretto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Home Guard: By War Office official photographer (Lt. Taylor) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Krushchev: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0628-0015-035 / Heinz Junge / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons
Brezhnev: By Edmund S. Valtman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lenin in the Kremlin: Nikolai Baskakov [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Trotsky: By Skabowski [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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