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A.J.P. Taylor, English History 1914-1945su: English History: Language


Taylor made masterly use of English. He was fond of the short, striking phrase – ‘The dynamite exploded’; ‘He did not lead a party’; ‘He had no friends and did not deserve any’ – which would often stick in the reader’s mind more successfully than longer, more reasoned arguments. He also makes effective use of memorable imagery, such as Lloyd George discussing policy over breakfast (this image is made even better by the footnote, which adds the spectacle of General Robertson sitting there, itching to get away). His sentences are generally short and to the point: ‘The party magnates and the whips had been defied’; ‘Lloyd George was not a man of plan and system’. The generally simple language means that when Taylor does permit himself a more florid touch it stands out all the more effectively: ‘he trembled before he acted’; ‘He was surrounded by dependants and sycophants’; ‘His rule was dynamic and sordid at the same time’; and the sexual imagery of ‘he remained also “the Goat”’.


Taylor cites a number of sources to support his analysis here. Some are quoted in the text, such as Balfour’s comment on Lloyd George or the ‘detached observer’ identified in the footnote as Sir Almeric Fitzroy, clerk to the privy council and thus a high-ranking career civil servant. Others are cited in order to add a little colour which might have been difficult to fit neatly into the main body of text, as with the revelation from the memoirs of Sir Maurice Hankey (later Secretary to the Cabinet) about Robertson’s dislike of the long meetings over breakfast. These are all taken from the sort of sources we should expect a historian looking at high politics to consult, namely political memoirs and biographies. Note however that on occasion Taylor avoids giving his source. The detail in the footnote that the King made Haig a Field Marshal on New Year’s Day 1917 is a matter of record (i.e. one can check it in standard works of reference, including the Times); however, the detail that it was done as a gesture against Lloyd George is a judgement for which one would need further evidence. Taylor does not provide any, nor even a reference to anyone else who might have interpreted it in that way. It should be noted that this does not mean that Taylor is necessarily wrong in his judgement, merely that he has not supported it. Similarly, Taylor quotes Lloyd George’s words against him in the note about his treatment of Churchill without giving a source for the quotation. We need not doubt that the quotation is genuine, but it is often a good idea to follow these things up and historians ought to provide the reference details to allow other historians to do so.

Lastly, Taylor quotes a popular song, ‘Lloyd George knew my father’. This particular ditty, which consisted of singing the two lines he gives over and over again to the tune of ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers!’ had a long life in popular usage – it was still sometimes heard in the 1970s – and here Taylor is quoting from common knowledge: he can safely assume his readers will know what he is talking about, though, since he is using it to make a point about the way Lloyd George’s government was viewed at the time, a note about the origins of the ditty might have been appropriate.

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