This week’s Old Aylesburian has been called ‘one of the brightest historians working today’ by Newsweek for his work on the modern history of Germany. Frederick Taylor (Hampden, 59-66) is widely regarded as one of the most prominent writers about the country’s 20th century, having published on subjects ranging from the bombing of Dresden and the exorcism of Hitler from German society, to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
His most recent book, ‘The Downfall of Money’, provides an account of the crippling effect of post-World-War-I hyperinflation. It is ‘excellent…a dramatic story, well told’ (Wall Street Journal) and ‘demonstrates his mastery as an economic historian’ (Washington Times).
Hi Fred. What are your memories of AGS?
That’s quite a long time ago… I was there in the first year that it stopped being co-educational, which I was rather disappointed about because I already quite liked girls! I had an older brother in the lower sixth, but he wasn’t much use as a father figure. I did settle in pretty quickly though, and it was on the whole a very good time.
I remember having a great time when I was in the sixth form performing in the school play of Romeo & Juliet. I got to dress up in tights and my sister’s boots and stand around looking interesting, I didn’t say much but it was huge fun.
What were you like as a pupil?
Oh god, you’d have to ask my teachers! I think I was reasonably hard working, reasonably well behaved, and probably a tiny bit insolent from time to time, particularly in my teenage years. But I enjoyed most things, apart from maths, which I was thrilled to be rid of once I got my O-level.
I didn’t really get along with the Deputy Headmaster at the time. I had a ‘haircut’ problem, which was a classic 1960’s issue. I went for as long as I could get away with, and he didn’t particularly like that. It wasn’t terminal, but we had our little skirmishes.
What were your favourite subjects?
I had very good history teachers in Mr Byford and Mr Taylor, as I did in French, and in German with Mr Kitson. Those were the subjects that I got really into. I also enjoyed Latin, but just wasn’t very good at it for some reason.
If I had to pick an absolute favourite teacher, it would be Mr Kitson by a bat squeak. He was a very engaging, nice man, and good fun too. That was certainly the start of my interest in the language, and his teaching served me well at Oxford, plus he loved Germany and talked about it a lot.
Did your interest in history first develop at AGS?
I’ve always loved history, ever since I can remember. It seems to me to be part of a big story, an infinite number of stories that just happen to be in the past.
Certainly by the time I was 12 or 13, it was my favourite subject. My teachers helped, Mr Taylor in particular, who was a very inspiring and entertaining figure. I was quite a precocious boy. I managed to raid Aylesbury library as well as the school library to hoover up all these history books, and he took a real interest in what I was doing. That was a big encouragement.
How did you make the transition to University?
I had actually been accepted by Manchester to study history, and then I got 4 good A-levels, which was a lot for the 60s. Mr Tidmarsh, the Headmaster at the time, called me into his office during the holidays and told me to apply for Oxford, so I did.
It was unusual for AGS boys to go there, and I was the only one from my year to get in. I got a scholarship, which I was thrilled about, and I found it to be an enormously interesting experience.
What has been the highlight of your career?
Probably a keynote speech that I gave, in German, in Dresden on the 60th anniversary of the British bombing. There were several hundred people there, and it was all very political. It was quite difficult; the Neo-Nazis had threatened to cause some trouble so there were 5 bus-loads of police just in case.
But in the end we pulled it off. Some people disagreed with me and vice versa but we had an intelligent, remarkable evening and a real exchange of ideas.
Do you have any advice for the current students at the school?
Work hard, and be kind. Being kind is tricky when you’re a teenager, particularly because as a young teenage male you feel like you don’t want to appear soft. But it does pay off; you keep friends and people will like you, and that’s enough in itself.