Some of my most enduring memories of the two years I spent as a graduate student at Oxford are of the times I spent with Norman Stone, then the university’s professor of modern history. He was very clever but also witty, provocative and just damn fun to get drunk with.
I am grateful to a good friend of mine who introduced me to Norman. He had got to know him by virtue of his charm and intellect. I got into the inner circle on his coattails although I think the 1930s-emaciated-Polish-poet look I was fashioning at the time seemed to strike some kind of fraternal chord with the great man. I also looked quite similar to one of his doctoral students and I am pretty sure that some moments of easy familiarity can be put down to mistaken identity.
Born in Glasgow in 1941, Norman Stone first studied and then lectured at Cambridge, before moving to Oxford. His reputation for forthrightness was made in 1983 in a blistering attack on the recently-deceased historian E.H. Carr, author of The History of Soviet Russia. “I am nearly tempted to exclaim that no more useless set of volumes has ever masqueraded as a classic,” he wrote in the London Review of Books. Never one for academic niceties, he launched countless assaults on historians he perceived to be apologists for the Soviet regime.
During the 1980s he was also a vocal supporter of Margaret Thatcher, which did nothing to endear him to the Oxford establishment which he grew to loathe. At one point he was a foreign policy advisor to the PM although he did confess to me that his relations with “Mrs T” never fully recovered from a trip to Taiwan he accompanied her on. He never divulged all the details, but I believe it had something to do with an incident involving prodigious amounts of alcohol and the Taiwanese foreign minister.
I first met Norman when I attended his lecture series on the Yugoslav civil war in the early 1990s. By this time his relations with the university authorities had almost completely broken down. He never ventured into his college and only put together a lecture series out of contractual obligation.
He chose the Yugoslav war because it interested him. Spotting a small group of graduate students at the rear of the room, he came over and discreetly warned us that he would be deliberately making the first couple of lectures completely impenetrable in order to scare off the earnest undergraduates crowding the room. The lectures, he promised, would then resume at an altogether different pace at a nearby hostelry.
Sure enough the bright, eager PPE students soon went elsewhere as they concluded their journey to the Cabinet was unlikely to be assisted by attending this class, which was characterised with such classic openings as: “The thing you have to remember about the Croats is that they use far too much aftershave…”. I can still recall the look on their faces (‘Can we really write that in an exam?’).
So every Tuesday for six weeks a small group of us would meet at the pub and talk European history. It was pure joy. I have never met anyone as brilliant as Norman Stone and it was a privilege to be there. The depth of his knowledge and his understanding of the human condition were unparalleled. This wasn’t book-taught intelligence, it was a natural genius that transcended left or right wing tags.
Norman was also fluent in virtually every European language. The only language I recall he struggled with was Romanian, but, as he explained once, this was only because it was impossible to practice your language skills there as they assumed you were Hungarian and would beat you up.
Spending time with Norman could be hard work for both brain and liver. I remember catching up with him one lunch time for a swift pint. Four hours later I was in his sitting room, whisky in hand, listening to Schubert at a deafening volume and having jokes shouted to me in Russian from the other side of the room. I couldn’t speak Russian of course, in fact by that point I could barely speak at all, but it didn’t seem to matter. I soon headed home where I collapsed dizzily on my bed with a strategically placed bucket by my side. It wasn’t even tea time.
In 1997 Norman left Oxford to take up a post at a private university in Turkey. He has been there ever since. He has produced a couple of significant books over the last couple of years. His excellent The Atlantic and Its Enemies has now taken its place as one of the great accounts of the cold war and I look forward to reading his recently published history of Turkey. I would recommend anything he writes, whatever your politics. He does mischievously provoke but his heart is as big as his extraordinary intellect.
Writing this I realise how much I miss him. Oxford should feel the same, but somehow I doubt it.