A man who tried to drown his greatness

Prof. Norman Stone was always so much alive it’s hard to believe he is dead. His appetite for wine, women and song was insatiable, although he could compromise on the song.

Norman was also one the most brilliant men I’ve ever met, and one of the most likable.

It was as if he was so embarrassed about his prodigious gifts that, out of consideration for the sensibilities of lesser mortals, he tried to lower his level by drinking toxic amounts of alcohol throughout the day, starting with G&Ts at breakfast and gradually building up to three bottles of red wine in the evening.

How drinking on that epic scale didn’t prevent him from becoming an insightful historian, tireless and meticulous in his research, sound and daring in his concepts, is one of those baffling mysteries of life. The solution probably lay in his mind, so vast to begin with that booze could only chip away at it without wreaking total devastation.

Yet chip away it did, and his later output fell short of the sterling standards he established with his early book The Eastern Front 1914-17, which remains the definitive text on the subject.

As myself a bit of a linguist, I was shamelessly envious of Norman’s command of languages. How many, I’m not even sure.

French, Spanish and German were a good start, but that was just by way of a warm-up. Having gathered speed, Norman also learned devilishly difficult Hungarian, one of only two people I’ve ever met to have done so.

He then picked up Russian, which I can testify he knew well, and then, building on that Slavic foundation, added Polish and Serbo-Croatian. Italian came almost as an afterthought, and during his tenure at Ankara he also got enough Turkish to get by.

Polyglots often have little to say in any of their languages, but Norman could offend leftie sensibilities in all of them. He was for a while the sole specimen of that rare breed, a conservative Oxford professor of humanities.

His leftie colleagues might have resented his judgement, but conservatives always respected it even when they disagreed. Margaret Thatcher in particular was an admirer, and she used Norman as speech writer and advisor on foreign policy.

Norman’s pet hatreds were always justified; his pet loves perhaps not invariably. Yet both were professed with verve and passion.

As an example of the former, Norman virulently attacked EH Carr, the communist historian whose writings were indistinguishable from the output of the Moscow Institute of Marxism-Leninism, except that Carr also liked Hitler for his commitment to social justice.

Norman expertly tore Carr to shreds, and he meted out similar treatment to many of his Carr-minded colleagues. His distaste for them displayed a 20/20 acuity of vision, but his loves were sometimes blind.

For example, some 15 years ago he wrote an article in The Times extolling Putin. Norman, incidentally, always supplemented his academic salary with lucrative journalism, which he regarded as hack work and treated as such.

His article on Putin was so bizarre that, though we were friends, I had to publish a piece in Salisbury Review, pointing out some of the crazy things Norman had written. For example, he listed among Putin’s achievements his kindness towards ethnic minorities, especially the Tartars.

As an example of such benevolence he cited Putin’s treatment of the great dancers Nureyev and Baryshnikov. Now Nureyev was indeed a Tartar, but he defected from the USSR in 1961, when little Vova Putin was still going to primary school.

And Baryshnikov isn’t a Tartar at all, even though his name, as Norman correctly pointed out with his sterling erudition, is indeed of Turkic origin. In any case, Baryshnikov defected from the USSR in 1974, when Putin was just embarking on his KGB career.

Another of Norman’s blind spots was his love of Turkey, where he escaped in 1997, having got sick of both Oxford and New Labour – a feeling that was as justified as it was reciprocated. Having received a chair in international relations at Bilkent University, Norman moved to Ankara and became a staunch defender of Turkey.

The Times published many of his panegyrics for that country, in which he claimed that Turkey was so far in advance of Europe that the EU badly needed her as a member. Norman also denied that the 1915 massacre of Armenians constituted genocide.  

All that came later, but when I knew Norman in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, he exuded charm, undimmed intellect and deliciously iconoclastic humour. I remember one of our last meetings, when we bumped into each other by chance at the National Gallery.

Norman was accompanied by a young, exceedingly pleasant black man who was incongruously calling him “Dad”. He turned out to be Nick, Norman’s son from his marriage to the niece of Papa Doc Duvalier’s finance minister. (Nick later became a bestselling thriller writer.)

I was admiring Zurbarán’s St Francis, which Norman dismissed as “Counter-Reformation rubbish”. “I come from solid Protestant stock,” he explained in his slight Glaswegian brogue.

Such aesthetic and religious differences could only be solved over a drink, but there we were thwarted by the licensing hours, which have since been mercifully softened. But then no booze was to be had around Trafalgar Square in mid-afternoon.

Norman’s mind knew that, but his heart refused to accept it. So Penelope, Nick and I had to trail in his wake from one closed pub to another, with Norman trying every doorknob in vain and fuming at state bureaucracy.

In 1995 Norman’s wife Christine and I were among the group of foreign observers at the Belarus elections, and an echo of Norman reached me through Mrs Stone’s stern rebuke.

We were all having dinner in a Minsk restaurant, where I as the only fluent Russian speaker did the ordering. As part of my duties, I ordered a bottle of vodka, which wine of the country I thought was an appropriate accompaniment to our repast.

However, Christine, who was a lovely, kind woman, admonished me for my profligacy in no uncertain terms, which surprised me. But then I realised that men drinking booze occupied a particularly unpleasant place in her heart.

Christine is gone now, and so is Norman. What he did in his life would have been enough for a dozen successful academic careers. One can only wonder how much more he would have achieved had he not imposed that handicap on himself.

But then he wouldn’t have been Norman, the man we all loved.

Prof. Norman Stone, RIP.  

3 thoughts on “A man who tried to drown his greatness”

  1. “EH Carr, the communist historian whose writings were indistinguishable from the output of the Moscow Institute of Marxism-Leninism”

    It probably was the output of the Institute.

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