Anyone living in England during the 1950s and 1960s who was politically alert knew about A.J.P. (Alan) Taylor. He was that diminutive bow-tied Oxford academic who, with Canon Collins and Michael Foot, marched in protests organized by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He was one of the first of the British "telly dons," who could stand in front of the camera and pontificate without notes about virtually anything. (One of my favorite Taylor legends has him arriving at the studio in 1953 to give a talk about Napoleon, only to be told of Stalin's death and asked to lecture instead on the life of a very different dictator—which he did, in his unflappable way.) He was the only person who could get Oxford undergraduates out of bed early in the morning—and in vast numbers, to sit in the chilly Examination Schools and listen to him talk (for exactly fifty-five minutes and again without notes) on modern European history.
Alan Taylor wrote one of the most enduring works of diplomatic history, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954, and never out of print), yet he also wrote potboilers that swiftly faded from sight and use. His regular opinion pieces for The Guardian, the Daily Herald, and Lord Beaverbrook's newspaper the Sunday Express—polemical articles about why the Germans were inherently bad, and why the Americans would plunge the world into a nuclear war, and why Whitehall bureaucrats were ruining Britain—infuriated his academic colleagues, who ensured that he never received a professorship (a far more exalted position in Britain than in the United States) or a public honor. Whether they resented him because of his radical views, or because he wrote for a middlebrow readership, or because he was so well known to the British public, or because seemingly no other historian except J. H. Plumb in those days made so much money from his writings is unimportant. He was a burr under the saddle, a pain in the neck, a "troublemaker"—the very title that Kathleen Burk uses in this new examination of Taylor's life and writings.