Norman Stone, RIP

“At one point Norman Stone and Hugh Trevor-Roper both agreed to record a party political broadcast for UKIP which I had founded and led. Norman was too drunk to record his lines and Trevor-Roper had such dreadful toothache that he could not either. I still have that video with six failed attempts at speech by both of them”

Counterpoints

Intellectual life in Britain has suffered a severe blow. Norman Stone, one of our wittiest writers and historians, has died at the age of 78. He undoubtedly had his faults but he could brighten a room and hold listeners spellbound in conversation. He was an inveterate controversialist whose many friends and admirers will miss dearly.

I first met him in 1969 as an Oxford DPhil student in Vienna when I was advised that “a nice English professor” at the Kriegsarchiv would help me cope with reading old German Schrift. This was Norman, a fellow Glaswegian, and we hit it off immediately. He did teach me how to read and write 19th-century German but warned me—since he hated Vienna—that I might become like an American graduate student there who kept banging his head on the wall. All the archivists liked Norman but always added, “Such a pity he is married to a Negerin.” His first wife was Haitian and Vienna was still quite Nazi. Austrian students still supported Hitler and when a former SS man told me that young foreigners like me had no ideals  any more and I retorted, “You mean we don’t burn Jews?” I was thrown out of his home. Like Norman, I was glad to get back to Oxford.

Our paths crossed in several ways. In London we used to play squash together. Later we both became founder members of the eurosceptic Bruges Group. He even wrote the introduction to one of my Bruges Group pamphlets which he headed Alan Sked’s Europe. He never got round to writing one himself. But he did make meetings fun although at a big dinner we gave for Lady Thatcher in January 1991 he had rather too much to drink. Not that she cared. At one point—probably before the 1997 general election—he and Hugh Trevor-Roper both agreed to record a party political broadcast for UKIP which I had founded and led. As it turned out, Norman was too drunk to record his lines and Trevor-Roper had such dreadful toothache that he could not either. In any case the BBC said we had used the wrong sort of videotape. But I still have that video with six failed attempts at speech by both of them.

Norman was, of course, a notorious controversialist. When asked to review the last volume of E.H. Carr’s (very tedious in his opinion) History of the Soviet Union for the LRB, he instead wrote a long attack on Carr’s domestic life. Academia was appalled and A.J.P. Taylor and James Joll stopped speaking to him. He also got sacked by the Sunday Times for drinking too much while writing for it. His most notorious act, however, was quitting Oxford to teach in Turkey where he claimed pay and conditions were better. It was a decision he never regretted.

I saw him several times after that—at the Garrick Club and at the Austrian Embassy for the launch of my Radetzky biography. He kept in touch by email from Turkey and later Budapest where he ended up. I was always enjoined to visit him there but never did make it.

His many fine books were full of witticisms and original insights but he will be best remembered for his work on the First World War, particularly The Eastern Front, 1914-1917, which will remain a classic.

It is sad to realise that he has gone. His writings like his conversation never failed to amuse. If only that could be said of most historians.