13 May 2010
3073) ' Armenian Diaspora Regard Me As A Terrible Monster Because I Don't Go Along With Their Propaganda' Norman Stone
By Neil Tweedie / Daily Telegraph/UK / 12 May 2010
With a new book out about the Cold War, the famously contrary historian Norman Stone reveals an endearing side.
Norman Stone Photo: Andrew Crowley "Shall we do it in the pub?" suggests Norman Stone, half guiltily, half conspiratorially. .
We are standing in the study of his large Victorian semi in fashionable north Oxford, and he hasn't got long for an interview (to plug his new book) before catching a flight to Ankara, where he has lived in self-imposed exile for most of the past 15 years. The sun is barely over the yardarm, but so what? On the way, he talks amusingly about Tory prime ministers.
Four of the best sculpture gardens"Eden," he says. "Malcolm Muggeridge, a great man, had him right. Sir Anthony, he said, was like a former Guards officer who, through force of circumstance, must earn a living selling vacuum cleaners. Heath was the same, although an NCO."
Stone is good at history and good at making enemies. During his tenure as Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Heath referred to him thus: "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."
What self-publicist could ask for more? Particularly such an ardent admirer of Ted's nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, or "Mrs T", as he always calls her. Stone, serious historian, popular historian, contrarian and columnist, was one of her speechwriters in the late 1980s. Time has not dimmed his passion.
"Nobody is interested in John Major or David Cameron, or any of these transitional nobodies. Mrs T stood up and turned this country around.
The fact that England, which was in a very bad way in the Seventies, stood up and said, 'Here we are again' - it mattered a lot to the Russians. It gave them a shock - a clear contradiction of their idea that capitalism wasn't working."
Thatcher is one of the heroes of his new work, The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War, which chronicles, in a sometimes eccentric way, events between 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is a refreshing book, quirky, partial, sweeping in its judgments and littered with good one-liners.
For a supposed book-plugger, though, he is curiously unhurried in approaching the subject of his new publication. Grabbing a double gin and tonic at the bar, he departs immediately to the smoking area under a corrugated roof at the back of the pub. For him, the smoking ban is the most irritating manifestation of the British nanny state. No matter that, at the age of 69, he wheezes alarmingly as fag follows fag.
"On the one side, people can't smoke in a bar; on the other side, the entire young generation is drunk. It's absurd."
He did once give up smoking but it turned him, he says, into an "ugly drunk". "I didn't like that because I am not at heart a nasty person."
Not nasty, clearly, but he likes to needle - inhabitants of small countries in particular, including his own. A Scotsman to his core, he nevertheless takes a perverse pleasure in his nation's subjugation. In The Atlantic and its Enemies, the United Kingdom is referred to time and again as "England". But his goading of the Scots is as nothing to the ire he inspires in the Armenian diaspora. Stone's "crime" is to refuse to describe the expulsions and massacres of a million or more Armenians by the Turks during the First World War as genocide.
"I get irritated by people getting stuff wrong," he says. "I'm constantly locking horns with the Armenians, which I don't like doing.
"It was a disaster, but I don't believe the Turkish leadership sat down and said, 'Let's wipe them all out'. Calling it genocide is a step too far and muddles the argument. The Armenian diaspora regard me as a terrible monster because I don't go along with their propaganda."
The Armenian lobby in turn accuses Stone of propagandising on behalf of his Turkish paymasters. It is a sensitive issue but, ever the iconoclast, he cannot resist a darkly humorous analysis of Armenia's brief flirtation with independence at the end of the Great War, before its reabsorption into Russia and Turkey.
"Once the Armenians set up their independent state they declared war on everybody. There is a wonderful moment when places become independent - the tears running down the cheeks of the archimandrites into the rumbles of their double chins, and then the double-headed lobster goes up on the flag, which is printed on Marks & Spencer Y-fronts. The national anthem starts, which has been written by a Budapest Jew. They have a cabinet meeting and say, 'What shall we do, Excellency?' 'Let's invade Georgia on Christmas Day'. So they end up being attacked by everybody - it's like Paraguay. One should be respectful, but one can't."
Would he ever visit Armenia? "I would come back with my head in a basket." But he has, he says, absolutely nothing against the Armenian people. "I have never met an Armenian I haven't admired and liked."
Stone was born in 1941. He never knew his father, an instructor in the RAF, who was killed in a training accident over Wales.
"February 25, 1942. I wasn't even one.
"Family closes round, so I wasn't conscious of anything. But the point came in my late thirties when I began to realise what damage it had done. Not having your daddy is a very bad thing. If I read about women bringing up children on their own, deliberately making babies, I get very angry indeed. I think, 'Why don't they just buy a dolly?'"
Members of his father's squadron clubbed together to pay for his education at Glasgow Academy. A modern languages scholarship to Cambridge followed - Stone speaks lots of languages.
"If you quote me I will kill you, but I can do five live on the telly.
I do Turkish on telly and make thousands of mistakes, but they do like it."
History was his passion, though, and he soon converted. Did he ever consider a life outside academia, like the Foreign Office? "I would have destroyed everything I touched."
Andrew Roberts, Niall Ferguson and Orlando Figes all passed under his wing, and there was acclamation for his books, including a history of the Eastern Front during the Great War. But in later years he was regarded by less media-friendly (Stone prefers the word boring) historians as a sell-out, a hack pumping out books for money.
Boredom and money drove him from Oxford to Turkey's Bilkent University. He has no intention of leaving Turkey ("Good place.
As for Britain: "There are so many good things in this country. The music in Oxford and London is very good. There are plenty of intelligent people around the place. It's just the endless irritations."
His marriage to Christine is his second. His first wife, Nicole, was Haitian. "It was a wonderful disaster." Her father was? Struggling to keep a straight face: "Papa Doc's finance minister. Charming, charming."
How long did he spend in Haiti? "Two years." What did he make of it?
"Long live England."
His taxi is coming. Ankara beckons. The book? "I got offered a huge sum of money to write a history of the 20th century, and thought" -draws on cigarette - "it's been done.
"Paul Johnson had already brought it off wonderfully, and Eric Hobsbawm as well. I just couldn't do it."
The Cold War, he thought, was short of a well-written account. What makes good history? "You have to have a sense of humour. A J P (Taylor) was just sensational. And someone I've been reading a lot is Trevelyan. I had always been put off Trevelyan because he was a bit sort of English triumphalist. But then 18th-century England is such an extraordinarily interesting country. It abolished Scotland, which is a good thing."
Naughty. And Communism - was it always doomed?
"Yes. I'm a purist on this. Marx himself made two vast mistakes: one was to not understand religion and the other was to hate peasants. I don't like the Common Agricultural Policy either, but peasants do exist and you don't shove them into camps."
Stone is a believer in the Great Man theory of history - that individuals can make a difference. Maybe that is why he cannot tolerate life in England - no big beasts any more.
"Look at Mrs T. A unique character. What would the Conservatives have been in the Eighties without her? Heath - Heath! Flabby-faced cowards.
They didn't have the balls. I wouldn't either. I don't like being disliked. I would have made concessions to people. Mrs T didn't."
Good bar room stuff. But the rain falling on the corrugated roof is drowning him out, and his taxi is waiting.
Reading Norman Stone, you imagine that he is as tough as, well, Norman stone. But in person there is an endearing vulnerability. "You are not going to send me up are you?" he says, getting his coat. Of course not. Why try when he does it so well himself?
* 'The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War' by Norman Stone (Allen Lane).