28 June 2019

A Stormy Petrel Of The Academic World - R.I.P. Norman Stone

"In private Norman was kind and generous and prepared to help students who showed promise. His asides entertained many of them: the man in the flesh was less of an activist throwing verbal bricks (many of them well deserved) through fashionable windows and more of an erudite overturner of applecarts. He may have despised the feminists, but Norman, twice married and once divorced, actually loved the company of women, and they could be very fond of him. I know of at least two in Budapest who were, and who collaborated with him on projects. One of them, the writer and publisher, Annabel Barber, tells me she particularly enjoyed his rascally sense of humour."

When Norman Stone arrived in Turkey to take up his professorship at Ankara in 1997 he was greeted by a reassuring sight, namely of several policemen chain-smoking under a large No Smoking sign. Of the many ever burgeoning restrictions in the UK that he found increasingly tiresome, one of the worst (from his point of view) concerned smoking; it had turned heavy smokers like himself into social pariahs. He was probably secretly proud of the fact that he made it to 78 years when lesser mortals, according to all medical experts, should long ago have keeled over if they had indulged in alcohol and cigarettes to the degree that he unrepentantly did.

Stone’s libertarian inclinations in the private sphere were even more pronounced in his public and academic roles. He had an adamantine contempt for political correctness, bien pensant sanctimoniousness and feminism. The more the pendulum swung to mealy-mouthed conformity in academe and politics, the more swingeing his comments. The cult of youthful student sagacity? Norman said that most of his Oxford students were “smelly and inattentive” (his Turkish ones, he took care to point out, were neither.) The grievance-mongering of feminists? Norman opined that they were “rancid females who feel that they have not advanced in this world and see it as some sort of conspiracy against women”. The terror of offending the homosexual lobby (perhaps fortunately, he just about missed out on the transgender one)? Norman described homosexuality as “a deviation”, although as a libertarian he presumably felt it was one they were perfectly entitled to pursue. As to his fellow dons at Oxford, who were always clutching their pearls after yet another example of his outspokenness came to light, they were “a dreadful collection of deadbeats, dead wood and has beens”. No doubt to endear himself even more to such colleagues, he publicly denounced the refusal of the university to honour Mrs Thatcher as the petty-minded and ideologically based gesture it clearly was. He scorned what he called the dons’ snobbery in regard to one whom he regarded as a great Prime Minister, and he described Dame Mary Warnock as being “born into the long-bottomed knickers purple of Edwardian progressiveness – when she saw Mrs Thatcher, all she could say was ‘Those hats!’....” When he suddenly upsticked to Turkey in 1997, it was a moot point as to whether he had opted to leave Oxford or was pushed.

Stone made his name with a book on the Eastern Front of the First World War (1975) which won the Wolfson History Prize. He followed this up with a book on Hitler (1980) and Europe Transformed 1878–1919 (Fontana History of Europe, 1983). Latterly his genius for synthesis, anecdotal detail and provocative insights was on display in a series of short histories (of both World Wars, of Turkey and just before his death, of Hungary.) These tend to be as stimulating and often funny as they are unorthodox, his critics say slapdash. Of Communist Hungary, for example, we learn that the acres of barbed wire needed for the border was of such poor quality when made in Hungary itself that she had to import it from the West. In a characteristic aside on the Second World War, he comments: “On the first of September 1939 the League of Nations ignored Hitler’s invasion of Poland because it was too embarrassing. It moved instead to discuss the standardization of level-crossings.”

Arguably the pungency of the later work by Stone owed something to his stint annoying the Guardian-reading fraternity from his pulpit at The Sunday Times. This journalistic fluency, a gift, but also a trap, was a factor in the readability and memorable character of his writing. He nevertheless became a media don whose flippancy concealed some penetrating insights and a Hinterland of knowledge. His predecessors in this regard included A.J.P. Taylor, a cynic with a nose for the unintended consequences of history, and Eric Hobsbawm, a Communist of great learning and great political naïvety. As it happens, Stone studied for a while under an erstwhile appeaser and Communist sympathizer, E. Hallett Carr, and got into serious trouble when he wrote a venomous obituary of his former professor in The London Review of Books in 1983. This provoked a lengthy counter-attack by colleagues or relatives of Carr in the subsequent correspondence, including Eric Hobsbawm. Interested readers would have to form their own judgements as to the merits or otherwise of Stone’s piece, but in retrospect it may seem to serve as a declaration of guerrilla war against the “progressive” British academic and indeed bureaucratic establishment. Its flavor may be gauged from his treatment of Carr’s most successful book beyond the purely academic public, entitled What Is History?, which he characterized as follows: “In 1961 he delivered six lectures to the Faculty on the theme ‘What is History?’: it may count as his most successful book, for there is a keen appetite in schools for this boring subject, and the paperback volume is frequently reprinted. It is probably as much a mistake to ask a working historian to discuss this theme as to ask a painter to give his views on aesthetics. Carr had not much more to offer than a version of Fifties progressivism: history teaches respect for the present, or, better still, the Soviet present. In places, it read like a Marxist 1066 and All That. It does, however, begin well, perhaps even brilliantly.”[1] (The startling qualification at the end of a vivid hatchet job was a stylistic feature both of his writing and conversation.)

It is interesting to compare this obituary with one prepared by one of his critics on his own death. Richard J. Evans pitched into him in The Guardian, that repository of all that Norman disdained, and offers a lengthy charge sheet. It includes character assassination, libel, poor research, neglect of his duties, drunkenness and groping female students, besides the more general misdemeanours of praising Viktor Orbán for his policy on migrants and supporting Brexit. These are not random criticisms and even Norman’s staunchest supporters would probably question his stance on the Armenian massacres, where he even espoused a body that devoted its energies to denying genocide (though he did not deny that atrocities had occurred.) Evans’s final judgement (he entirely accepts Norman’s gifts as a writer and linguist and the value of his first book) contains a sting reminiscent of Norman’s own comments on E. Hallett Carr: 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 A.J.P. 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.”[2]

Certainly if one compares the legacy of Norman to, say, that of Robert Conquest, it is doubtful if his historiographical influence will be half as significant. Conquest, after all, braved the serried ranks of historians and others anxious to play down the barbarism of Stalinism long before it was fashionable – or even wise, to do so if you valued your career prospects. He began the demolition process, just as Frank Dikötter has finally disposed of lingering attempts to gloss over or forget the mass slaughters of Mao. On the other hand, in his coat-trailing piece on E. Hallett Carr, we see the contrarian Norman Stone already flaunting his colours as a conservative critic of the progressive left-liberal establishment that had been largely in control of the political culture (Butskellism) until the advent of Mrs Thatcher, and was increasingly dominant in academe and the arts. At the time he wrote it there was still a solid fellow-travelling old guard ready to defend the citadels it had conquered. Amazing, isn’t it?” he recalls in an interview with The Independent when his book The Atlantic and its Enemies came out: “That Sovietological establishment got extremely pleased with itself – and they had egg on their faces. I remember some fool saying that Solzhenitsyn et al. were simply not a good guide to the Soviet Union. And someone else said to me, ‘You’ve got to read Pravda carefully’. His punishment would be to do just that!” This was well said – did not almost every Sovietologist worth the name meet the rapid collapse of the Soviet Empire with initial incomprehension? After all it did not fit their model! There was also a residual, and not unjustified feeling in view of what happened later, that the presence of a rival and apparently impregnable ideology helped to keep Western capitalism responsive to democracy. In the same interview Norman was asked if the collapse of the West had been a realistic possibility and said yes: “Yes, I think not there and then, in the sense that it would have taken quite a long time to dismantle the West in any sense. But if you think of the world of the latter 1970s — 25 per cent inflation in the heartland, this country farcically unworkable, the West Germans running to Moscow, even Franz Josef Strauss trying to make terms with them over recognising that absurd little statelet East Germany, Frenchmen turning up in Hungary and saying, ‘Oh, this is just like Sweden’ — it was a crazy world.” Ah yes, the sentimentalist admirers of totalitarianism of the rive gauche. We almost miss them...

The hard left took a knockout blow in 1989, but anti-democratic sentimentalism has lingered on. It was out of that progressivist” culture that political correctness gradually expanded to encompass the limitations on free speech (no platforming”) and the obsession with victimhood today. Worst of all, in Stone’s view, was the abysmal quality of the new breed of politicians. The rot had only temporarily been halted by Mrs T., who had put an end to the disastrous policies of Edward Heath, about whom he was perhaps a little too rude. At any rate Heath, who combined a thin skin with a bullying temperament and no sense of humour, finally exploded. Many parents of Oxford students,” he harrumphed, must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should be in the hands of such a man.”  What self-publicist could ask for more?” asked Neil Tweedie in The Telegraph.

In the event a good number of students in these deplorable hands learned to respect and like Norman, and not only because tutorials were sometimes conducted in the pub. If anyone showed real application and interest – evidently both Niall Ferguson and Andew Roberts did – they would have access to the rich loam of Norman’s intellect. Beneath the flippancy and insults (judiciously described in The Independent as part Jeremy Clarkson, part Evelyn Waugh) lay the fruits of experience in the archives and on the ground. Here was a man after all, who had served six months in a Communist Czech gaol as a result of being caught trying to smuggle a Hungarian dissident over the Czech-Austrian border. He took the opportunity to learn Czech, had already mastered Hungarian, German and Russian, and went on to learn Turkish in his late fifties, then had a go at Modern Greek. Lightweight he was not.

In private Norman was kind and generous and prepared to help students who showed promise. His asides entertained many of them: the man in the flesh was less of an activist throwing verbal bricks (many of them well deserved) through fashionable windows and more of an erudite overturner of applecarts. He may have despised the feminists, but Norman, twice married and once divorced, actually loved the company of women, and they could be very fond of him. I know of at least two in Budapest who were, and who collaborated with him on projects. One of them, the writer and publisher, Annabel Barber, tells me she particularly enjoyed his rascally sense of humour. She once asked him what induced him to get involved in such a precarious stunt as smuggling a dissident across a Communist border in order to reunite two lovers. Because I’ve never been able to say no to a woman in a fur coat”, came the prompt reply.

Daniel Hannan, an old friend, made a point worth making about Norman in his valedictory tribute.[3] Had he been on the left”, he wrote, Stone would have been acknowledged as one of our towering intellectuals, and his ocasionally louche lifestyle would have been an asset.” As it was, he occupied a space largely invisible to commissioning editors” at places like the BBC, where a serious(ly) right-wing intellectual is regarded either as a logical impossibility, or, at best, as a kind of class traitor”.  Overstated though this is (Stone did after all briefly become a media star”), Norman’s unapologetic championing of Mrs Thatcher and causes such as Brexit was something of an embarrassment to opinion formers – and indeed to much of academe. Pondering on Hannan’s remark, I suddenly recalled my first tutorial at Oxford where I and a fellow Eng.Lit. student nervously seated ourselves in the study of Christopher Tolkien. The first thing you must do”, he said, fixing us with a beady eye, that is, if you want to learn anything here, is clear your mind of cant.” Excellent advice, of course, and perhaps also a suitable inscription for the tombstone of Norman Stone...

 

Notes:

 

[1] Norman Stone: “Grim Eminence”, The London Review of Books, Vol. 5, No. 1, Jan. 1983, pp. 3–8.

[2] Richard J. Evans: “Norman Stone Obituary”, The Guardian, 25 June, 2019.

[3]The nation loses an academic giant in Norman Stone. I have lost a friend.” The Sunday Telegraph, 23 June, 2019.






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