Fifty years ago, no intellectual rivalry in Britain was more celebrated than that between the two Oxford historians A J P Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. To the press they seemed deadly antagonists: on the one hand, the irreverent, populist, television-loving Lancashire leftie; on the other, the flippant, donnish, Tory-voting hunting enthusiast. In fact they got on rather well, but since the rivalry made such good copy they were perfectly happy to play up to it. When Taylor published his controversial The Origins of the Second World War in 1961, it was Trevor-Roper who issued the fiercest denunciation. The book, he wrote in Encounter, ‘will do harm, perhaps irreparable harm, to [Taylor’s] reputation as a serious historian’. But it was Taylor who had the last word – and a devastating one, at that. ‘The Regius Professor’s methods of quotation’, he replied in a later issue, ‘might also do harm to his reputation as a serious historian, if he had one’.
Whether Adam Sisman’s excellent biography will do much for Trevor-Roper’s reputation, if he has one, strikes me as very doubtful. The man who beat Taylor to Oxford’s Regius Chair of Modern History belongs to a long-vanished age, when national news magazines were more likely to publish long essays