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Dr Paul Addison

The School was deeply saddened to learn of the death, recently, of Dr Paul Addison. An obituary by Paul's friend and colleague Dr Jeremy Crang.

HCA Dr Paul Addison, Image: David Higham Associates

"Paul Addison, who died on 21 January after a long and stoical battle with cancer, was among the finest historians of his generation. His studies of British politics during the Second World War, and of Winston Churchill, won him widespread acclaim for their insightfulness and eloquence. He has been described as ‘one of those rare historians whose work is so important that it influences how people think about the present as well as the past’.

'Born in Whittington, near Lichfield, Paul never knew his father Stanley Addison, who was a US soldier of Native American ancestry, and was brought up by his mother Pauline Wilson Walker, a wartime member of the Women’s Land Army, and her parents Horace and Ethel, who ran a grocery shop in the village. From King Edward VI grammar school in Lichfield Paul went on to study at Pembroke College, Oxford. After gaining a first in Modern History in 1964 he undertook postgraduate studies at Nuffield College on opposition to the wartime government under the supervision of A. J. P. Taylor, then Britain’s best-known historian through his popular television lectures. Paul greatly admired Taylor, who fired his historical imagination and inspired him to believe that he could make a mark in the profession. In turn, Taylor regarded Paul as one of his ablest postgraduates. He was awarded his D.Phil in 1971.

'Briefly a lecturer at Pembroke, in 1967 Paul moved to the history department at Edinburgh. There he progressed from assistant lecturer to reader and then endowment fellow. From 1996 he was directorof the Centre for Second World War Studies until his retirement in 2005. He was a visiting fellow at All Souls College, Oxford (1990-91) and in 2006 was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

'Paul was a terrific university teacher. Not only was the depth and breadth of his historical expertise formidable, but he was also adept at making students feel that they were equal partners on an intellectual journey. A number of them went on to distinguished careers in academia and public life – none more so than Gordon Brown who went all the way to No 10. ‘I feel privileged to have been taught by him,’ wrote Gordon, ‘and to have counted him as a friend’. He was also a much respected and admired academic colleague. He never wanted to be institutionalised, and he quite enjoyed the frisson of an academic quarrel - what he liked to term ‘the grit in the oyster’- but he was a deeply civilised and gracious departmental presence, a fount of good sense and sound judgement, and a generous and convivial friend.

'It is, however, as one of our most eminent historians of modern Britain that Paul will chiefly be remembered. When he embarked on studying the politics of the second world war there were few scholarly studies to draw on, sources were thin on the ground, and the Oxford Modern History syllabus in effect stopped in 1914. His best-known book, The Road to 1945 (1975), was thus a landmark in the writing of contemporary history and had a huge impact on the historiographical landscape. Brilliantly charting the political transformations of the war years, Paul argued that the conflict gave rise to a political consensus about post-war domestic policy that fell ‘like a branch of ripe plums’ into the lap of incoming prime minister Clement Attlee after Labour’s victory in 1945 and persisted long after the last bombs had fallen. The book became a focal point for discussion and debate about the political history of wartime and post-war Britain. It remains an essential title on student reading lists.

'From The Road to 1945 flowed many other works. There was a much-admired study of Britain in the immediate aftermath of the war, Now the War Is Over (1985); a perceptive and wide-ranging survey of the changing character of Britain between the end of the war and the early twenty-first century, No Turning Back (2010); and a long list of edited volumes dealing with different aspects of the British military and civilian war experience. The most recent of these volumes, The Spirit of the Blitz, due to be published by OUP later this year, tells the inside story of Home Intelligence, the Ministry of Information unit that clandestinely monitored the state of popular morale during the war. It incorporates a complete set of the unit’s morale reports from September 1940 to June 1941 which provide a unique window into the attitudes and behaviour of the British people during this momentous period and read like the collective diary of a nation.

'Alongside this, Paul became a leading international scholar of Winston Churchill. In the late 1960s he had worked as a research assistant for Churchill’s son Randolph, who was compiling his father’s official biography, and his exploration of wartime Britain inevitably sparked a fascination in the long and eventful political career of the great warrior-statesman. The result was a pathbreaking study of his role in domestic affairs, Churchill on the Home Front (1992), and one of the best short biographies, Churchill: The Unexpected Hero (2005). In this book, Paul’s personal favourite, he was able to deftly weave together two narratives – Churchill’s life and Churchill’s reputation – which he found particularly satisfying. He concluded that Churchill ‘is no longer the hero that he used to be, but in the end the recognition of his frailties and flaws has worked in his favour. It has brought him up to date by making him into the kind of hero our disenchanted culture can accept and admire: a hero with feet of clay.’

'What characterised Paul’s work was not only his immense erudition and feel for how the great forces of history meshed with the agency of individuals but also a wonderfully elegant style and turn of phrase. In The Road to 1945 his vivid characterisation of wartime Britain as ‘Colonel Blimp being pursued through a land of Penguin Specials by an abrasive meritocrat, a progressive churchman, and J. B. Priestley’ is much quoted. But my own favourite is to be found buried in a chapter on Britain’s New Towns in Now the War is Over: ‘If Rome was not built in a day,’ remarked Paul, ‘neither was Hemel Hempstead’.

'Underpinning all this scholarship was a deep and genuine humility and if ever the phrase to wear one’s learning lightly was devised with someone in mind it was surely Paul. He never sought the limelight and seemed content to lead a quiet and contemplative academic life – with perhaps the occasional overseas lecture trip to somewhere sunny and congenial to escape a dreich Edinburgh. And above all he was devoted to his wife Rosy and their sons James and Michael."

Dr Jeremy Crang

A version of this obituary appeared online in the Guardian on 4 March.