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Norman Stone RIP, and the two things I learnt at college

The historian Norman Stone died recently, aged 78. If you met him, or knew of him, or know his work, you will probably have an opinion, or multiple opinions, about him, and/or his work. If not, you could read this obituary from the Guardian and be left with an entirely unflattering impression. I learnt of his death from reading that piece. This observation is representative of the overall tone: “his career was … dogged by character flaws that prevented him from fulfilling his early promise as a historian”. Marcus Williamson’s obituary in the Independent is less brutal but still describes him as “a historian and writer whose colourful personality, outspokenness and political views created sharply polarised opinions of his lifestyle and work output”.

I did not follow Norman Stone’s career closely over the last 30 years but will always be grateful to him, and will refer to him by his first name from here onwards. He interviewed me when I applied to read History at Cambridge. I referred to the interview in this piece last year: “It was a cold, wet Friday. I took the train from Liverpool Street, at least an hour earlier than I needed to. After arriving in Cambridge I walked the 30 minutes or so from the station, wandered around the college’s three oldest courts, read all the notices posted outside hall, and still had nearly an hour to find my way to the building on Grange Road where I was interviewed. Two hours later I was back on the train to London, pretty sure that they wouldn’t offer me a place. But they did.” The interview had not gone especially well. When the offer came I felt that Norman had given me the benefit of the doubt. I still do.

During my first year at college he was my supervisor for a paper on Modern Europe. Many of the supervisions, in his rooms in Grange Road, were accompanied by alcohol, and not just standard-issue college sherry. Like many of my fellow students I was invited to bring that bottle of Polish vodka from the freezer compartment of his fridge, and a couple of shot glasses, to help our discussions about late 19th century France or the Spanish Civil War.

If Norman were still alive I would not be referring to him by name. I would allude to him, and there would be enough hints for my contemporaries to recognize the man. College rooms on Grange Road, a bottle of Polish vodka, Modern European History: there’s enough information there for a generation of historians to identify him. That’s how things have developed on this Blog: in general the living are alluded to (“an old school friend”, “a former work colleague”) but the dead are referred to by name (as in these pieces about Oscar Moore or Angela Prendergast). In fact, checking back through earlier posts,  I see that I did allude to Norman while he was still alive, in this piece about champagne, my brother’s wedding, and a favourite catchphrase: “I had graduated a week before the wedding and in my time at Cambridge a famous historian had taught me how to open a bottle of champagne”.

Another thing that Norman taught me, in one of those vodka-fuelled supervisions, was never to write “prior to”, as I had done in the essay he was reading. “Use ‘before’,” he advised me, “’Prior to’ is pretentious”. I have followed his advice ever since. I have never said “prior to” instead of “before”, and on the rare occasions that I write “prior to” the phrase is always in speech marks.

Like most of my contemporaries I did not stay in touch with him for long after graduation. None of us continued our studies at postgraduate level. There was no-one of the calibre of Orlando Figes in the small group of historians in my year at college. In 1985 Norman became Professor of Modern History at Oxford. In the late 1990s he took up a post in Turkey. Our paths never crossed. The closest we came to meeting again was at an event organized by the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. He was due to take part in a panel discussion about modern British film. I arrived to find that the whole thing had been cancelled, no reasons given.

Over the last thirty-odd years I have often remarked, light-heartedly, that I only learnt two things at college: how to open a bottle of champagne, and never write “prior to”. Norman Stone taught me both of these things, but I am grateful to him for so much more. He gave me the benefit of the doubt. May he rest in peace.



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