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Asa Briggs: A Very Open Intelligence

Asa Briggs has been associated with History Today from its beginning. In an interview to celebrate our 60th anniversary, he tells Paul Lay about his involvement with it, his new book on his days as a cryptographer and his passion for Blackpool.

The steep cobbled street outside Asa Briggs’ home in the Sussex market town of Lewes is awash with rain when I arrive on a grim Friday lunchtime. But the misery doesn’t last long. While Susan, his wife of more than 50 years and herself a distinguished academic, takes my sodden coat and collapsing umbrella, Asa appears in the hallway. Though in his 90th year, this warmest and most open of men still has the eager expression of one decades younger.

‘Would you like a drink?’ he asks.

‘I’ll have what you’re having,’ I reply, expecting a small glass of wine, perhaps. Instead I am served a large glass of neat vodka ornamented with a couple of ice cubes. Baron Briggs of Lewes, the authority on the Victorians, may share their work ethic, but he lacks their puritanism.

We sit and chat around what looks like a bridge table in a small room whose walls are covered by a richly detailed mural.

‘They’re scenes from our lives, by Julia Rushbury’, he informs me. ‘She’s the daughter of Sir Henry Rushbury, the former keeper of the Royal Academy. We were the first people to employ her. It made its way into World of Interiors.’

It portrays a brilliant career that began with a scholarship to Keighley Grammar School, from where he progressed to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge aged 17.

‘The history fellow who interviewed me in December 1937 – I was only 16 then – said: “Briggs, you are only a baby, but there is going to be war and I would like you to take your degree before you go into uniform.’”

After the war – of which more later – he was offered a fellowship at Worcester College, Oxford, where he produced the first of many major works, a study of Birmingham, the archetypal Victorian city, in its golden age from 1865-1938. Made Professor of Modern History at Leeds in 1955, he left in 1961 to found the University of Sussex, the first of the ‘New Universities’, where he pioneered an interdisciplinary curriculum and attracted a number of fine young scholars, including the cultural historian Peter Burke. Returning to Worcester College as Provost in 1976, the books kept coming, including A Social History of England (1983) and Victorian Things, a groundbreaking study from 1988, which demonstrated to a wide audience that objects were every bit as valuable a source in our understanding of the age as the written word; a point recently demonstrated by Neil MacGregor.

Briggs has travelled widely and has taught at the University of Chicago and in Australia. He visited China for the first time as far back as the early 1960s; he owns an extraordinary collection of porcelain Chinese revolutionary figures and his A Social History of England will be published for the first time in Chinese this year. Unfortunately, his great age has resulted in a lack of mobility, which he deems ‘infuriating. Frustrating beyond belief’.

His commitment to public history has led to involvement with numerous organisations including the Open University, the Workers’ Educational Association, the Commonwealth of Learning, the Brontë Society and the Victorian Society. But it first became apparent through his involvement with the fledgling History Today.

‘I got invited to become involved because I knew Alan Hodge, one of the founding co-editors, quite well. He had been working on the History of the English-Speaking Peoples with Churchill. He was one of the assistants to Bill Deakin [the former SOE agent, who became Churchill’s literary assistant]. I liked Alan because he had a certain quirkiness.’

Briggs became a consultant reader for Churchill, as did Alan Bullock, who was soon to find fame as the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, published in 1952.

‘I didn’t know the other co-editor, Peter Quennell, so well, but in the background, perhaps most important in a way, was Brendan Bracken, the magazine’s founder, who I also knew. He was an extremely good minister of information during the war [Alan Hodge had been his personal assistant], because he was his own man and, it was always said, which is true, that he had his own special relationship with Churchill.

‘Anyway, I wrote an article in one of the early numbers about Peel and Cobden [‘Sir Robert Peel’, History Today, November 1951] and have been associated with the magazine ever since. As far as I am concerned it has retained its essential continuity and maintains very high standards.’

Briggs is the longest serving member of History Today’s Advisory Board, though he stresses the word ‘advisory’. ‘I used to get attacked by very right-wing Conservatives who asked me how I could let such an article get through. But I have always said that it is the editor who is responsible for the articles published and I am certainly not going to do anything to stop them.

‘I have known all the editors well and I was especially fascinated when Gordon Marsden [editor 1985-97] won the seat of Blackpool South for the Labour Party, because the other Blackpool seat was held by a very good friend of mine, Peter Blaker. So I have been in the very curious position of being very well informed about the town since I was a boy and have always been interested in its history. My father couldn’t stand the place, so I visited mainly with an aunt and uncle, who loved it.’

Briggs is still immersed in writing: ‘I hope to finish a book about the way in which my private life and my public life have often converged.’ But first, to mark his 90th birthday in May, there is the publication of My Bletchley Days (Frontline), the long awaited memoirs of his work as a wartime cryptographer.

‘It’s really a piece of historiography, about the way people approach the subject. The only genuinely revisionist study of Bletchley has been that of Simon Sebag Montefiore. His book is really an attempt to show that the success of Bletchley was founded on access to spies and the capture of code books and not the work of cryptographers. The books that have been written since don’t pay sufficient attention to what is a very radical thesis. I found F.W. Winterbottom’s book, The Ultra Secret (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974), to be full of mistakes and self-praise. By far the most interesting book on the subject is the first one that was written, Most Secret War by R.V. Jones (Hamish Hamilton, 1978); it’s very readable.’

How did he become part of the Bletchley set up?

‘I used to play bridge in the late 1930s with Howard Smith, who later became ambassador to Moscow and head of MI5. Gordon Welchman, who devised the system on which Bletchley operated, took three people from my college on the outbreak of war, including Howard.

‘I was asked, in my second year, whether I myself would be interested in becoming a radar researcher, thus becoming a scientist for the duration of the war. I had to go and see the man who was in charge of all university appointments in science, C.P. Snow. I knew that he had written a novel and I went to see him on a grey December day in 1941. He was sitting in a darkened room. I thought he was the ugliest man I had ever seen, but he was terribly nice and he told me I was exactly the kind of person they wanted. He said: “If you get any call up papers, let me know at once and I will be sure you are deferred until we need you in radar. So I went back to teach at my old school. When my call up papers arrived, I informed Snow, but was told that radar was now working and they didn’t need historians to be converted into scientists.’

So Briggs joined the Royal Corps of Signals where he learned high-speed Morse code and guarded the town hall in Trowbridge where, in a remarkable piece of synchronicity, his future wife’s parents worked.

The Intelligence Corps beckoned. ‘I was told I would be going up to Bletchley. I knew that Welchman had his eye on me and, when I got there, the first thing that happened was him saying, “You are going to join me in Hut 6, with the cryptographers. You probably know quite a few of them already,” which was true.’

The brilliant cryptographer Colonel John Tiltman called Briggs to his office. ‘He said: “I am afraid there is one thing I must tell you now. We can’t spare cryptographers to go on courses for commissions, but I am going to raise you to the highest rank that I can, a Warrant Officer Class One.” I was, in fact, the youngest warrant officer in the country; and I was paid more at the end of the war than I would have been had I held the rank of captain. But there was not the slightest emphasis on rank at Bletchley. We were all equal and could wear civilian clothes if we liked. It was a very curious business.’

There are plans to celebrate Briggs’ 90th birthday at Bletchley, which has emerged from the neglect of decades to take on almost sacred significance for its importance to Britain’s war effort. The master historian will illuminate that once murky world just has he has shed light on so much of our past during his long, prolific life.

Paul Lay is the Editor of History Today.

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