1. This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Learn More.
  2. Hi Guest, welcome to the TES Community!

    Connect with like-minded education professionals and have your say on the issues that matter to you.

    Don't forget to look at the how to guide.

    Dismiss Notice

Norman Stone RIP

Discussion in 'Personal' started by MAGAorMIGA, Jun 27, 2019.


    MAGAorMIGA Star commenter

    I see historian Norman Stone has died. Few obituaries I have read have ever matched this brilliant effort in the Guardian. I think the author of this had been waiting a few years to take his revenge on behalf of E.H.Carr!


    One of the specialities of the historian Norman Stone, who has died aged 78, was character assassination. As a judge of the Fraenkel prize in contemporary history some years ago, he told the astonished members of the jury that they should not award the prize to a historian of Germany whose politics he disliked because she was an East German agent – an allegation that was enough to rule her out of contention even though it was absolutely baseless and undoubtedly defamatory.

    Shortly after the death in 1982 of his patron and mentor in Cambridge, EH Carr, the author of a multivolume History of Soviet Russia and influential works on historiography and international relations, Stone published a lengthy assault on his reputation, which included lurid details of his three marriages. When a colleague criticised this “outrageous” diatribe to his face, telling him that Carr “always said you were amoral”, Stone responded: “And he always said you were a bore” (probably an invention, though one cannot know for sure).

    At a time when malice and rudeness were highly prized by some rightwing Cambridge dons, Stone outdid them all in the abuse he hurled at anyone he disapproved of, including feminists (“rancid”), Oxford dons (“a dreadful collection of deadbeats, dead wood and has-beens”), students (“smelly and inattentive”), David Cameron and John Major (“transitional nobodies”), Edward Heath (“a flabby-faced coward”) and many more.

    Stone was undoubtedly clever. He could write entertainingly and could summarise complex historical circumstances in a few pregnant sentences, gifts which brought him a flourishing career as a journalist and commentator. He was a talented linguist who read and spoke more than half a dozen languages, including Hungarian. Yet his career was also dogged by character flaws that prevented him from fulfilling his early promise as a historian.

    Born in Glasgow, Norman was the son of Norman Sr, a fighter pilot who was killed in training just over a year later. Brought up by his mother, Mary (nee Pettigrew), a teacher, he was sent to Glasgow academy on a scholarship from his father’s squadron, flourished academically, and went to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to study modern languages, switching to history shortly after his arrival.

    With a good degree in the subject, he embarked on a PhD on the Austro-Hungarian army before 1914, though never completed it, and gained a reputation for brilliance sufficient, along with his linguistic abilities, to obtain a research fellowship at Caius in 1965, and two years later an assistant lectureship in Russian history, moving to Jesus College in 1971 as director of studies in history.

    In 1975 he published the book that made his reputation: The Eastern Front 1914-1917, which won him the Wolfson history prize and numerous laudatory reviews. This was a scintillating narrative based on a wide range of sources in several languages, including both Russian and German, admirably succinct and clearly argued. It did a great deal to redress the imbalance of the British historiography of the war, which had up to this point focused almost exclusively on the western front.

    It argued powerfully that administrative chaos and poor military and political leadership were more important in causing the Russian defeat than economic weakness. However, its approach was self-confessedly old-fashioned, with its concentration on grand strategy, political and military leaders, to the neglect of the experience and morale of the ordinary soldier, factors that feature strongly in more recent accounts.

    During his researches in Vienna, he had met Nicole Aubrey, the niece of the brutal and corrupt Haitian dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s finance minister: they married in 1966 and had two sons. By the time The Eastern Front was published, the marriage was breaking down, and they divorced in 1977.

    The resulting financial strain led him to start writing quick potboilers, beginning with a short life of Hitler (1980), a superficial and poorly researched work justly savaged by reviewers, notably Tim Mason, whose exposure of its weaknesses upset Stone considerably despite his own record of rubbishing other historians’ achievements.

    There followed Europe Transformed 1878-1919 (1983), a short volume in the Fontana History of Europe, one of the weakest in an uneven series. His second marriage, to Christine Booker (nee Verity), came in 1982. They had a son, and she died in 2016.

    As a teacher Stone could be inspiring, often winning over his pupils with his charm, which on occasion could be quite considerable, but he became increasingly undisciplined, neglecting his duties, and spending increasing amounts of time playing poker and drinking himself into oblivion in Soho.

    The Cambridge University history faculty became impatient with his behaviour, but solved the problem of how to deal with him by encouraging him to apply for the professorship of modern history at Oxford, to which he was appointed in 1985 thanks largely to political support from rightwing Oxford dons reinforced by a laudatory reference from Sir Geoffrey Elton, the regius professor at Cambridge.

    Stone hated Oxford, which he thought (bizarrely) was full of Marxists and out of touch with the real world. He lambasted the university on a regular basis in his newspaper column while continuing to draw his salary (a sum he frequently dismissed as too miserly to keep him in the style to which he had become accustomed), and excoriating it for refusing an honorary degree to Margaret Thatcher because of the cuts she had imposed on universities (“Why should we feed the hand that bites us?” one don memorably asked).

    On the occasions when he did appear in Oxford to do some teaching, Stone became notorious for groping his female students (one of whom is said to have responded with a slap across the face), and annoyed Worcester College by sub-letting his rooms to make a bit of extra money. In 1997 the university finally grasped the nettle and arranged for his departure, though under financial terms that forced it to delay filling his chair until 2006, the year when he would have reached the statutory age of retirement.

    Long before this, he had espoused a variety of rightwing political causes, advocating Britain’s departure from the EU, defending the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and supporting Croatia in the Balkan wars. He did some speechwriting for Thatcher and advised her on foreign policy, though she did not listen to his assurances that the reunification of Germany in 1990 was not a danger to European peace. On one occasion he collapsed in front of her, drunk; but she was well known for her indulgence towards alcoholics so long as they supported her politically.

    After Oxford, he found a berth in Turkey, where he occupied positions at Bilkent and other universities, resigning from one in Ankara because the authorities tried to stop him drinking.

    He devoted some of his remaining energies to the denial of the genocide of Armenians by Turkey in the first world war, but they were fading rapidly, and his last books – short histories of the two world wars (2007 and 2013) and The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War (2010) – did no justice to his real abilities, mixing worn-out historical clichés with random statements of his own personal views.

    His last post was at the Danube Institute, Budapest, and his last book, Hungary: A Short History (2018) praised the country’s authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán among other things for his tough line on immigration.

    Knowing that he did little research, never bothered to check his facts and relied on his literary flair to mask his mistakes, the publishers got serious historians to go through the text: one of them sent in a 20-page list of errors, but it was impossible to spot them all and so it was left to reviewers to point out the many further inaccuracies.

    There is nothing wrong with historians being provocative so long as their provocations stimulate one to think again about the subjects they deal with. Niall Ferguson on the right would be one good example of fruitful provocation, just as AJP Taylor was on the left. But Stone’s provocations were little more than the voicing of his own personal political prejudices, and so had little or no effect on the way we think about the past.

    Journalists often described him as “one of Britain’s leading historians”, but in truth he was nothing of the kind, as any serious member of the profession will tell you. The former prime minister, Heath, was wrong about many things, but he was surely right when he said of Stone during his time in Oxford: “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”

    Stone is survived by his sons.

    • Norman Stone, historian, born 8 March 1941; died 19 June 2019
  2. FrankWolley

    FrankWolley Star commenter

    It's a wonderful piece of posthumous revenge (which is, of course, what Stone carried out on E H Carr).

    Stone actually 'taught' (I use the word in the very loosest sense) me at Cambridge. His supervisions (one to one teaching for an hour based on an essay you had written and submitted the day before...but he habitually hadn't yet read when you tuned up) included some of the most memorable moments in my University studies...and some less interesting.

    Another (less critical) obituary was published in The Times - for me the 'truth' lies somewhere in between:

    Professor Norman Stone

    No other leading British historian of the Cold War could draw, as Norman Stone did, on the experience of spending three months in a communist jail. As a research student in Vienna in the early 1960s, he was imprisoned in Bratislava after being caught trying to smuggle a Hungarian dissident across the Czech-Austrian border in his car boot. The man was in love with a girl Stone had met and he had tried to reunite them; the Daily Express dubbed Stone the “Tartan Pimpernel”.

    At his best, as in his first book The Eastern Front 1914-17, the multilinguist displayed a mastery of sources in several languages, a flair for technical and economic detail and a shrewd eye for the underlying reality of events, personalities and trends.

    He was also fearlessly iconoclastic, whether in his attack on the professional and private reputation of the celebrated historian EH Carr or in insisting that the 1915-17 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks was not genocide.

    As a fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Jesus College and Trinity College at Cambridge in the 1960s and 1970s and then Worcester College, Oxford in the 1980s and 1990s, Stone made a point of creating a young school of right-wing historians in his own image, including Orlando Figes, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, who recalled: “I was told you have to wear a gown to supervision, but the first thing Norman said was, ‘Take that bloody stupid gown off.’ ”

    At the end of one academic year, Stone listed his students as “weedy”, “quite weedy”, “very weedy”. They would timorously enter his office for supervision to be greeted with the fumes of several recently stubbed-out cigarettes mixed with the aroma of a double espresso that would help him through the day after heroic alcohol consumption the night before.

    “I want a long detailed analysis,” he told one student, asked to assess why the First World War went on so long. “You can start with the 100-odd volumes of the official British war history.”

    He was, most unapologetically, a man of the right in an academic field that was populated with leftwingers. As such he was the favourite historian of Margaret Thatcher and especially useful to her as an adviser on foreign policy and a speechwriter during her premiership. In turn, he admired her because: “Nobody is interested in John Major or David Cameron, or any of these transitional nobodies. Mrs T stood up and turned this country around.”

    He was among the coterie of historians that Thatcher invited to Chequers for a seminar on German reunification. With wartime memories still strong, she feared the enlarged Germany would become a “Fourth Reich”. Stone sought to reassure her, arguing that in taking over East Germany, West Germany was only getting “six Liverpools”.

    Chequers was a relatively agreeable environment for Stone from what he viewed as the oppressive atmosphere of Oxford, where, according to his former student Petronella Wyatt, he “loathed the place as petty and provincial and for its adherence to the Marxist-determinist view of history”. It did not help that he had a “horrible little office” and had to share a bathroom with a feminist philosopher.

    Stone also celebrated Charles de Gaulle and General Pinochet and gave vent to pet hates such as the welfare state, men with beards and the smoking ban — he did once give up smoking but it turned him, he said in his gravelly Glaswegian brogue, into an “ugly drunk”. Edward Heath was his bête noire. Stone dismissed him as a “flabby-faced coward” along with another former prime minister Sir Anthony Eden. Sir Anthony, he said, was like a former Guards officer who, “through force of circumstance, must earn a living selling vacuum cleaners. Heath was the same, although an NCO.”

    Stone’s waspish views made him a lucrative second career in newspapers and television, which enabled him to supplement what he regarded as a paltry £27,000-a-year academic salary. He reckoned that in the decade after 1985 his media work brought in £500,000.

    When working on one of his columns at The Sunday Times, his editor would place a bottle of whisky out of his reach with the promise that he could get his hands on it when he finished his column. Stone would finish his piece with alacrity.

    His enemies deprecated his later academic output as thin and weakened by prejudice, particularly his Cold War history, The Atlantic and its Enemies. For his part, Stone grew disillusioned with British academia and — perhaps appropriately — at the dawning of the New Labour government in 1997, he began a self-imposed exile in Turkey. He held a chair in international relations at Bilkent University near Ankara, where he felt his talents were given appropriate financial reward.

    A chain-smoker who once had to leave a party for a cigarette despite wearing five Nicorette patches, he knew he would fit in as soon as he touched down; as he walked through the airport he saw six policemen “grimly smoking away” beneath a sign saying No Smoking. As a lifelong challenger of convention, he felt an instant bond.

    He was born in Kelvinside, Glasgow, in 1941. The next year his father, a Spitfire pilot, was killed in a training accident and he was raised by his mother, a teacher, Presbyterian and Labour voter. She was tough and he was devoted to her. “Family closes round,” he recalled years later, “so I wasn’t conscious of anything. But the point came in my late thirties when I began to realise what damage it had done. Not having your daddy is a very bad thing. If I read about women bringing up children on their own, deliberately making babies, I get very angry indeed. I think, ‘Why don’t they just buy a dolly?’ ”

    With financial support from the charity set up by his father’s squadron, he attended Glasgow Academy. Brought to history by a zest for the military side, he also developed an early interest in central Europe. Although he won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in modern languages, he switched to history after a few weeks.

    His ability as a linguist started at school with French, German and Spanish. He learnt Hungarian while a research student in Vienna, taught himself Russian during a lectureship at Cambridge and later added Polish, Italian and Serbo-Croat.

    Thanks in part to all-night poker games he gained only a 2:1 in part one, but compensated with a first in his finals. From 1962 he spent three years as a research student in Vienna and Budapest, examining archives on the Austro-Hungarian army in the run-up to 1914 for a PhD that was never completed. His adventure with the Czech border police won him brief stardom.

    In 1965 he returned to Caius as a research fellow, soon marrying Nicole Aubry, whom he had met in Vienna. She was from Haiti and the niece of Papa Doc’s finance minister. Mixed marriages were still frowned upon and it took him six months to tell his mother.

    In 1967, having won a state grant to learn Russian, he became a university lecturer in Russian history. In 1971 he became a fellow of Jesus College and director of studies in history. He also made strong demands on himself, though his first book, The Eastern Front 1914-1917, did not emerge until 1975. It won the Wolfson prize for history and netted £4,000, establishing him at a stroke as one of the country’s leading young historians. Meticulously researched, although Stone had no access to Russian archives, the book filled an important gap in the historiography of the First World War and remained the standard work for at least two decades.

    In the mid-1970s his marriage began to break down. “It was a wonderful disaster,” he later recalled. His wife did not easily adjust to a Cambridge academic ambience or share her husband’s passions. One of their two sons, Sebastian, was autistic, adding to their problems. The other, Nick, is a bestselling thriller writer. They divorced, acrimoniously, in 1977 and he lost custody of the children.

    His alcohol consumption was legendary, especially red wine. His student Niall Ferguson recalled coming into a tutorial once to find him flat drunk on the floor and Stone once appeared on radio “having drink taken”, but scorned the presenter for suggesting that it affected his expertise. On occasions it led to physical collapse and threatened to derail his career.

    Stone also enjoyed an energetic sex life. One female undergraduate recalled: “He has this belief that women will never understand eastern Europe. We ended up having an affair.” He settled down in 1982 with his second wife, Christine Booker, former wife of the journalist Christopher Booker. Herself a journalist, she later became a barrister. They had a son, Rupert, who is also a journalist.

    His long marriage with Christine, with whom he owned a house in Oxford until her death, was a notably open one with regular ménage à deux, trois, quatre “whatever”, according to a friend.

    Early in 1983 Stone launched a no-punches-pulled attack in the London Review of Books on a fellow historian, EH Carr, who died on the day of publication. Carr had won praise for a multi-volume history of the Soviet Union, but to Stone he had been an apologist for a brutal regime that had sent millions to their death in the name of modernisation. He also attacked Carr personally, labelling him a “dreadful monster” for ill-treating his wives.

    His academic masters, meanwhile, argued that his media involvements and his heavy drinking meant that he was neglecting his academic duties.

    Certainly, outside interests took more of his time. He became a television personality, making documentaries including one on Russia and a look at the Nazi theft of art treasures. He interviewed Albert Speer on Hitler’s cache of paintings, the day Speer died. He made videos on Russian history. He appeared in French and German TV programmes, talking freely in those languages, as few other British historians were able to do.

    As a journalist he moved far and wide for copy. The communist collapse in eastern Europe was an obvious subject for his punditry. His predictions were often right. Months before the Berlin Wall came down, he saw East Germany as finished and he predicted that Mikhail Gorbachev would be back within days during the brief attempt at a neo-Stalinist coup in August 1991. He wrote and broadcast extensively on the collapse of Yugoslavia, offering a pro-Muslim line, like many others, but also a pro-Croatian one.

    Meanwhile, his academic output all but dried up and for more than 20 years he published no original, book-length work. A study of the USSR’s handling of reactions to Hitler’s death was one of several aborted projects. For it, Stone burrowed in the newly opened KGB archives and satisfied himself that he had held Hitler’s skull.

    A few weeks after arriving in his adopted home of Turkey he was asked why he was the only foreigner who never complained about Ankara. In his answer he managed to insult Scotland and Turkey in the same breath: “You have to understand that, in the depth of my being, I’m a Scotsman, and I feel entirely at home in an enlightenment that has failed.”

    At Bilkent he ran a centre devoted to Turkish-Russian studies. He embraced Turkish life and culture with enthusiasm, although he kept his home in Oxford.

    A long period of authorial silence ended in 2007 with World War One: A Short History. Shoehorning a vast subject into fewer than 200 pages, it was widely praised as a fresh and challenging treatment. But The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War (2010), although far more ambitious, was deliberately opinionated and provocative and a disappointment to those who remembered the scholarly rigour of his early books. There followed Turkey: A Short History (2011), which sought to destroy common western myths about the country. Some thought Stone was too much in thrall to his adopted land to acknowledge the darker episodes.

    When in Turkey at the time of the anti-Erdogan coup, he posted on Twitter that he had been woken in bed by the noise of “the good guys’ ” aircraft going overhead. When the coup failed he rapidly moved to Budapest, where he was writing a history of Hungary.

    However, part of this reason for moving was that the university in Ankara tried to ban him from drinking. When he retreated to Budapest he took with him a younger male Turkish student, who became his partner, looking after him as his health declined.

    He felt at home in Hungary despite being a longstanding Eurosceptic who voted for Brexit and believed that the EU should never have allowed mass immigration.

    When asked when he was happiest he answered: “When I’m smoking, reading and writing, and, er, with a glass of red wine — I’m careful these days.”

    But not that careful. On being told of his death, a former (married) mistress of his said she felt devastated, but was not totally surprised as of late he “was drinking three bottles a day”.

    Professor Norman Stone, historian, was born on March 8, 1941. He died in his sleep on June 18, 2019, aged 78
  3. FrankWolley

    FrankWolley Star commenter

    And following on from post #2:

    I noticed some interesting comments in The Times below the obituary, and another memoir by Niall Ferguson:

    I was just reviewing a group of emails Norman Stone sent me from Ankara a few years ago after I asked him, on the basis of past acquaintance, to help me with a thriller I was planning to write about the fall of Constantinople in 1453. He couldn't have been kinder, or more amusing. In one reply he told me he had almost given up drinking, which I didn't believe for a moment. But I shall always think of him with great fondness. A good man and a serious thinker.

    It wasn't just poker. I went with various friends to his rooms in Jesus to play bridge in the Seventies, some of us learners, and he had an extraordinary memory for cards and odds, however much he'd drunk and he was always good at gentle post-match analysis.. He also kindly offered to put up in his rooms at 65 year old Brazilian friend of mine who had been his country's ambassador in the Far East. Unfortunately Norman forgot the offer and stumbled into his rooms at silly o'clock. "Your friend looked just like a chick in the nest, gaping at me," he said. He sorted my friend out at 4am with a room somewhere, helped by the porters. The former Brazilian ambassador chalked it up to experience and rather liked his dilatory host who managed to make it to breakfast at 8am with him. He might have later deserted his students but he appeared to be inspirational in Seventies Cambridge.

    He was my favourite supervisor at Cambridge, and not only because I used to finish writing my essays at about the same time as my supervisions were due to start. (This suited him fine, he said, as it enabled him to squeeze in ten minutes' kip.) He used to ask me to critique his extempore lectures, and once I told him that the first half of that day's covered exactly the same ground as the second half of the previous lecture - except that every one of the examples he gave was different.

    I got to know Norman when living on post in Ankara. He was a frequent guest and the most charming, delightful company, with enormous wit and of course highly provocative. He was on and off the wagon and you never knew which version would arrive. He was so refreshing in a world of PCness gone mad.

    Norman Stone was still in Cambridge in the early 1980s when I was studying history as an undergraduate. He was supposed to be giving a lecture series on Europe from 1945 to the present day at the unearthly hour of 9am. As I remember, he turned up twice over the eight weeks and got as far as 1933. He was highly entertaining and spoke without notes.

    May I suggest the only word missing is 'charm'. When he wanted to be, was one of the most disarming, charming people you could ever meet. A tormented and tormenting controversialist and all the rest, but brilliant company.

    Norman Stone served up wise words to Thatcher, and Guinness and Nietzsche to me

    Niall Ferguson

    My first German lesson with Norman Stone was — like so much about Norman — unorthodox. “Meet me at 11am in the Worcester College bar,” he had said. It was 1986, I think, and I had embarked on a doctoral degree at Oxford, mainly because my three years as an undergraduate hadn’t seemed quite enough. Norman had just arrived from Cambridge to take up the Oxford chair in modern history. Someone at the history faculty had recognised kindred spirits, so I had been assigned to him. The technical term was “advisee” — not a word commonly associated with the Worcester bar.

    At some point in my final year, I had decided my doctoral thesis must be on some aspect of German history, if only so that I would have to learn the language. In those days there seemed to be three options when it came to foreign expertise. The Cold Warriors and fellow travellers learnt Russian and went to Moscow. I already loathed the Soviet Union enough not to want to do that. The aesthetes (“weeds” in Norman-ese) learnt Italian and went to Florence. I knew there was no future in the Renaissance. So I chose German and went to Hamburg, which had worked as launchpad for the Beatles.

    It seemed a safe bet that, however docile the West Germans might seem from a distance, they and their long-standing “German question” would at some point be back. In any case, the most interesting historians of the previous generation had tended to write about Germany, including the arch-rivals Hugh Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor.

    Norman’s reputation preceded him — and not just the fact that he knew all three of the above languages, and several more besides. In those pre-internet days, communications between Oxford and Cambridge were comparable to communications today between rural Vermont and Vladivostok. Clearly, the Oxford committee that appointed him had not done much due diligence beyond reading Sir Geoffrey Elton’s effusive letter of reference. But I had friends who had been undergraduates at Cambridge and so possessed first-hand knowledge of Norman’s Byronic style. I knew roughly what to expect. I was nevertheless unprepared for the combination of Guinness and Nietzsche.

    It turned out that Norman’s method of initiation into the language of Goethe, Schiller, Dichter und Denker was to consume two preprandial pints of Ireland’s beloved stout and then, having repaired to his rather chilly set of rooms, to attack Also Sprach Zarathustra.

    And so the Stone Age of my life began. At times, it was downright madness. True, the British historical profession in those days was bibulous by almost any standards, except perhaps those of the Russian army, and Norman was by no means the worst drinker I worked with in my youth. Whereas others would descend into incoherence or unpleasantness, Norman under the influence was nearly always delightful (provided he could also chain-smoke). Indeed, drunk, Norman could be so dazzlingly brilliant that I came to dread the rather morose interludes when his wife, Christine, or his doctor or his liver would insist on a period of abstinence.

    A year or two after I had finished my DPhil — by which time I had landed my first teaching job at Cambridge — I invited Norman to come back to his old stamping ground to address the Peterhouse History Society. He agreed, but I knew him well enough by then to know how contingent such a commitment was. At lunchtime on the day he was due to speak, I rang to remind him. He had, of course, forgotten. However, there was just time for him to jump in a taxi (he loved shouting, “Charge!” at taxi drivers, and I am sure they did indeed charge him a fortune in the course of his life), and he arrived in time for dinner.

    What I had not bargained for was the bottle of whisky he insisted on having — most of it consumed before the meeting had begun. I recall little of what he said — it was the early phase of the break-up of Yugoslavia, so it probably had to do with Bosnia, about which he had agreed to write a piece for this newspaper. The most memorable part of the occasion was the after-party in my rooms on Trumpington Street, which culminated in Norman’s (rather good) performance of Don Giovanni, sung while he was lying on my floor. He went to bed at 3am.

    The next morning, just after dawn, my phone rang. It was Norman. Could I get him a pack of cigarettes as a matter of urgency? And could I bring it to Maurice Cowling’s rooms across the road? Head pounding, I obliged. Never shall I forget the sound that greeted me as I climbed the stairs to Cowling’s: blaring out of his old stereo was the opening of Act III of Wagner’s Siegfried, almost but not quite drowning out the hammering of typewriter keys. Norman was up and hard at work on his Bosnia piece. Cowling greeted me with a facial expression that combined irony, geniality and malice.

    Later, I was entrusted with five pages of manuscript and a fax number. On my way to the college secretary, who possessed Peterhouse’s only such device, I looked at what he had written, and recoiled in horror. So numerous were the typographical errors, mostly a result of missed keys, that it might have been written in Serbo-Croat. But what could be done? The deadline was imminent. So the pages were sent. The next morning a perfectly cogent article appeared under Norman’s byline — a reminder that, more often than is commonly admitted, mercurial men like Norman are saved by unsung sub-editors.

    Guinness and Nietzsche, scotch and Wagner, and I hazily recall a similar night of bordeaux and Céline — this was Norman’s way. At a time when academic culture was already beginning its shift from Regency to Victorian morals, he personified all that the hatchet-faced exponents of gender history and “the cultural turn” detested. As a reader of draft chapters and writer of letters of reference, he was as unreliable as any professor I have known; I required a parallel, more dependable Doktorvater (Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann) to survive.

    But missing all deadlines was the least of it. The #MeToo movement lay in the future, which was just as well. For Norman in his prime, one would have needed a #MeThree movement.

    For all his flaws, Norman was a genius: history’s Flann O’Brien. As his obituarists noted last week, he was a truly exceptional linguist and was never happier than when sharing the quirkiest feature of the latest language he was learning. Very drunk, he veered from one tongue to another, often to baffling effect. But it was what he said, more than the languages he knew, that set him apart from nearly all his contemporaries. Although The Eastern Front 1914-1917 was his best as well as his first book, Europe Transformed 1878-1919 was a masterpiece of synthesis and has proved an invaluable guide to our own times. Ever wondered why tariffs have made a comeback, or why Italian politics is so hard to predict? It’s all there, and the fun Norman had with the Italian word trasformismo has come in handy time and again.

    In addition, Norman could justly claim to have come up with the best examination question ever set in the Cambridge history tripos: “Romanticism: masculine, feminine or neuter?”

    He was also, despite or perhaps because of his unorthodox methods, a wonderful adviser. The hardest part of a doctoral dissertation is not the writing of it but the original conception. Norman’s genius was quite destructive: he was pitiless in shooting down mediocre ideas, of which I had many, with the lethal question “So what?” and a gesture he had learnt in Prague (or was it Bratislava?) that involved rolling his eyes, sticking out his tongue and shrugging his shoulders, all at the same time.

    My original plan had been to write a thesis about satirical magazines in late 19th-century Vienna. Norman skewered that: “You’ll never be able to translate the jokes.” He steered me instead towards economic history, urging me to do “number-crunching”, as it would teach me economics. This was life-saving advice. My bet on Germany came up trumps when the Berlin Wall fell just two days before my DPhil viva voce examination. But I wouldn’t have been able to make much of the opportunity, had I not grasped the economic difficulties it would create for the West Germans.

    Norman was brilliantly right on this issue when Margaret Thatcher sought his advice, at a time when she and other European leaders were worried reunification would make Germany a superpower. He sought to reassure Thatcher that, in taking over East Germany, West Germany was only getting “six Liverpools”. That was vintage Norman: funny, and penetrating to the heart of the matter. Even better was his answer as to why he had moved from Oxford to Ankara, Turkey, in 1997: “You have to understand that, in the depth of my being, I’m a Scotsman and feel entirely at home in an enlightenment that has failed.”

    Of all the “media dons” who flourished in the 1980s, Norman was the most wickedly clever, and the academic left hated him as much for the cleverness as for the wickedness. But Norman exulted in its disapproval. He once told me: “I wear my enemies like medals.” And that is how I shall always remember him: Guinness in one hand, Nietzsche in the other, cigarette balanced on lower lip — and the heads of Oxford’s dullest dons dangling from ribbons on his barrel chest.
  4. florian gassmann

    florian gassmann Star commenter

    I often wondered if Norman Stone was the model for Newman and Baddiels' ongoing "History Today" sketches that invariably degenerated into one learned professor saying to the other things like "See that shrivelled mushroom: that's your wi11y, that is".
    lanokia and racroesus like this.

Share This Page