… as told by AJP Taylor but, even so, there may still be one or two historical inaccuracies …
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?
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.”
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?”
“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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Brezhnev: By Edmund S. Valtman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lenin in the Kremlin: Nikolai Baskakov [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Trotsky: By Skabowski [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons