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.’”

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