06 August 2007

1844) "Britain's A Terrible Bore, That's Why I Left" Norman Stone

© This content Mirrored From  http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com Norman Stone is Britain's most idiosyncratic historian, famed for his bibulous tutorials at Oxford, many delivered across a pool table. A natural rebel, he was one of the few academics to speak up for Margaret Thatcher and was the only man on earth to find lunch with Princess Diana a bore . .

The Sunday Times August 5, 2007
Rosie Millard meets Norman Stone

Although he does not seem like a misanthropist, there are plenty of things about British society that Professor Norman Stone does not like. Let us begin with the big one.

Stone has insisted we forgo our planned rendezvous at his club (the Garrick), because he needs to smoke. We are therefore sitting at a table outside a Covent Garden pub.

`The nanny state,' he says with venom. `The nanny state here is a terrible bore.' Not that Stone spends much time in Britain anyway, since for the past 10 years he has been based at Bilkent University in the Turkish capital of Ankara. And Turkey, by contrast, is positively antinannyish.

`Wonderful place,' he enthuses, lighting up. `As soon as I stepped off the plane, I became a Turkish nation-alist! There was a man in a black uniform, smoking heavily underneath a `No smoking' sign. I thought, `That's my kind of place'.'

This is exactly the sort of gently rebellious gesture that would appeal to Stone, 66, who has spent a lifetime agitating against the Establishment, while at the same time enjoying a career firmly within it. He is back here to promote his latest book.

For 13 years the Glaswegian-born academic was professor of modern history at Oxford University, where he immediately cemented his reputation as a maverick, media-friendly don. Columns (notably for this newspaper), myriad appearances on News-night, even a stint on Radio 4's The Moral Maze marked him out as anything but a lofty academic.

Some called his reign at Oxford `brilliant but turbulent', while Edward Heath said that `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', which was pretty stern stuff considering that Stone was (and still is) one of the cleverest, most articulate people to advocate the Tory cause.

However, he is a natural iconoclast, who simply cannot help putting the boot into Britain's treasures. Cackling with laughter as he sups with gusto on the first of several pints of bitter, he takes me through a detailed account of a lunch with Princess Diana.

`When I met her, it was quite disastrous. She talked the entire time about colonic irrigation and matters of that sort. Rabbiting on about rock stars and colonic irrigation. And hairdressers. It was chalk and cheese straight away,' says Stone, whose chaotic coiffure indicates he is not all that hot on hairdressers, and whose enjoyment of British pubs indicates he is probably not big on alternative therapies either.

`I always suspected it would go wrong, you know. With Diana and Charles. . . there was something about it . . . which smelt. I remember sitting there watching her TV interview with that chap, Martin Bashir, and getting terribly angry about it, because she was letting the side down.'

But Charles did the same thing, didn't he? `Did he? Is that right? Oh, I didn't remember that.'

After Diana, we proceed to British movies. `I once reviewed British films of the 1980s. Unbelievable tripe! Derek Jarman, do you remember him? Horrendous stuff. Hanif Kurei-shi has also done some dreadful rubbish . . . Everyone agrees I was right, in the end. All those films, nobody remembers them now. That dead world of subsidised art films,' he snorts, with pleasure.

Stone, who founded his reputation as a historian in 1975 with a prize-winning account of the eastern front in the first world war is, of course, ferociously bright. Fluent in eight languages (he learnt Russian in two years in Haiti; his first marriage was to the niece of Papa Doc Duvalier's finance minister) and conversant in Turkish, his latest book is a 40,000-word account of the great war he knocked out while simultaneously working on a giant project for Chatto & Windus. `The history of everything. From 1944 to today. It was in terrible doldrums for a long while.' He sighs. `Trying to write about modern history,' he says, as if that explains it all.

`I don't know if you have tackled any of those 800-page histories on the Cuban crisis, or biographies of Kennedy. Nightmare books. No shape or insight. They are usually American,' he adds, crisply.

`Well, I got bogged down reading this sort of thing. Dealing endlessly with beta (query) plus.' He shakes his head. I gather we are back in the world of the undergraduate.

`Beta (query) plus. Or beta double plus. It's the killer mark. It means the student who gets nothing wrong, and nothing right. You know?' I do. It's the place where most of us tend to congregate. Those of us who are only fluent in one language.

`Well, I was swimming in the glue of beta double pluses,' he continues. `And then, I got this e-mail from Random House asking me if I could write 40,000 words on the first world war. I said yes! I thought I'd take a bit of time out for crop rotation. You know, my carrots were wilting, let's try turnips.'

But however welcome the turnips were, they were not so good by the end. Delivering the finished manuscript, Stone stumbled into an entire entourage of beta double plus people. `First, I had the most utterly incompetent editor. Then I ran into the Armenian lobby.' It seems the Armenians were disgusted by his description of their treatment at the hands of the Turks as a `massacre'.

`The diaspora of Armenians in America were in hysterics. They won't settle for a massacre.' fumes Stone. `They have to have their own nice, homely genocide, all neatly baked by Momma in the kitchen. So they knifed the book. Then the editor sent it to someone who said the book was slapdash and full of inaccuracies.'

Fair comment? `Well, there are a few inaccuracies. I get Einstein's Christian name wrong. That is bad. And I also get the title of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms wrong. Not good. But I'm not an inaccurate historian, slips apart.'

The upshot was that Stone's relationship with Random House was, effectively, severed. Did he retreat to his ivory tower in Ankara and fume? Hardly. This man is an operator.

`I took it to my son's agent [Nick Stone, the eldest of his three sons, is a successful thriller writer]. And she sold the book to Penguin in under 48 hours!' He must feel pretty triumphant. `Well, you know. If you are trying to write about the first world war in 40,000 words, you have to cut corners. But it's not a dishonest book.'

Indeed, it is rather engaging; from a brilliant account of how German U-boats brought America into the conflict, to details of how the beleaguered tsar licked his own stamps to save money, it is an energetic read of under 200 pages that never forgets to position the great war as the seminal event for the entire 20th century. It also balances what most people know about the war ` trench warfare on the western front ` with a clear record of the Italian front and the eastern front.

The book has been reviewed sparingly: most say, a bit like him, it has flashes of brilliance and good one-lin-ers but some bad inaccuracies. His peers were reluctant to tackle it, most not wanting to be the one who pointed out that a once great historian was dashing something off. Most wondered why he had done it at all.

Stone, who wrote the book in Istan-bul, in a study overlooking the Bosphorus, is a natural pan-European, although he describes himself as `a Scotsman, in my innermost fibre of my being'. He was brought up in Glasgow and went to the private Glasgow Academy on a scholarship for the children of dead servicemen (his father, a lawyer, was killed in the war).

Stone is depressed that the educationally aspirant country he grew up in has gone. These days, he is really a broad Continental, fascinated by multiple cultures, a man who arrives in a secondhand corduroy suit from Jer-myn Street clutching a Turkish novel that he has brought along to read `on the bus from Oxford' (where he still has a house).

Does he miss British university life? `The long and short of it is that British universities pay so badly. In the old days you were paid about half of what you needed to survive. Nowadays, it's about a tenth. It's a national scandal.

`And I wasn't terribly happy with Oxford. If you are a professor in these ancient institutions, the reality is that you come down very low in the list of college priorities. You were supposed to give lectures, but undergraduates don't go to them. I was having a wonderful time writing journalism.'

This apparently went down pretty badly with the university. `If I had written some leaden stuff of a left-liberal nature, no doubt they would have been quite pleased,' he says, anxious to press upon me that his cuttings file does not include one single piece of worthy writing.

`I was a Thatcherite! And they hated her. I was one of very few at the time who said, `This lady is on to something'.' He pauses. `She was a very remarkable woman, and I think probably nowadays people would agree I was right about the 1980s.'

Does his admiration for Baroness Thatcher extend to her current heir? `Cameron? He just seems terribly bland. I would like to see a Tory be a Tory. What I think will happen is that the Tories will repeat what happened with Heath, when 2m Tories just abstained. They will go on with this silly mistake of thinking they must win the middle ground, and alienate their own bedrock.'

So what is his take on our new prime minister? `Brown? I'm sorry to say, I have lost interest. Turkish politics is much more interesting.'

He has closely followed the recent Turkish elections, where fundamental Islamists were pitted against secularist Turks, and the issue of women wearing headscarves was a hot political potato. `The thing is that the secularist Turks are asking for our support, and we should understand them when they say they don't want women wearing bags on their heads!

`Most western journalists wrote them off as a bunch of snobs who didn't want the advancement of peasants. It's not that. In an Islamic country women aren't allowed to drive. And if you go out without your head covered, and have a beer in a pub, you are glowered at.

`Ataturk [the founder of modern, secular Turkey], was a great man. He knew no society can become civilised unless it stops women wearing bags over their heads.'

He shakes his head. `There are various proverbs I have great fun beating the Turks with.' He prepares for his favourite: `An educated man is a judge. An educated woman is a witch!'

Oh, professor. And I worried that you were a terrible chauvinist, what with your Garrick membership and all. Then he ruins it. `I mean, I agree! Privately, ha ha he he,' he cackles, downing another pint of 6X.

At the end of this month, Stone will leave Britain for his annual seven-month Turkish stint. He looks about the crowded pub forecourt, jammed with exiled smokers like himself.

`If you look at the English state, it does nothing. You are constantly reminded of the immortal words of Nietzsche. What the state has, is theft. What the state says, is lies.' He grins. `A big hand to the old boy, I say.'


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