Arts & Book Review
May 14, 2010
First Edition


>From Tory to Turkey;
Maverick historian Norman Stone has stormed back with a partisan epic
of the Cold War world. Boyd Tonkin meets a cosmopolitan conservative

BYLINE: Boyd Tonkin

It isn't every day that one interviews a figure described on an
official British Council website as "notorious". That badge, which
this fearsome foe of drippy-liberal state culture will wear with
pride, comes inadvertently via Robert Harris. In his novel Archangel,
Harris created the "dissolute historian" (© the British Council and
our taxes) Fluke Kelso: an "engaging, wilful, impassioned and
irreverent" maverick on the trail of Stalin's secret papers.

Just back from his academic base in Ankara (he can leave at first
light and reach his Oxford house by lunchtime), Norman Stone - Fluke's
alleged original - does cause a little flutter in the dovecote of the
Penguin offices by asking for a whisky from our hosts. Eventually,
they oblige with a bottle of Bell's. Notorious enough for you, British
Council folk?

Now 69, Stone still lives up handsomely to all those other adjectives.
The Glasgow-born former professor of history at Oxford has since 1997
taught international relations at Bilkent University and directed its
Turkish-Russian Centre. In person, as in print, his conservative
polemics belong more to the partisan age of his former patron Margaret
Thatcher than to Cameron's new blue-and-yellow coalition dawn. Yet
they coexist with a globe-spanning breadth of vision, an insider's
relish for a dozen cultures from Hungary to Haiti, and a wit and
warmth that put the fun into free-market fundamentalism. His company,
need I add, proves just a trifle livelier than time spent on the
average British Council committee.

Posthumously-born son of an RAF pilot killed in action, a scholarship
boy at Glasgow Academy, Stone as a multi-lingual Cambridge researcher
and lecturer dug deep and at first-hand into the Cold War intrigues of
central Europe. His pioneering work helped tilt British perspectives
on the Great War east towards Germany and Russia. He also managed, in
his first marriage, to wed the niece of Haitian strongman "Papa Doc"
Duvalier's finance minister. Their son is the thriller writer Nick
Stone; he has two other adult sons from a second marriage.

Just now, the famous polyglot with two handfuls of tongues already
under his command thinks that he has "one language still left" in him.
So the great Turcophile is learning modern Greek. He's delighted that
its word for "laundry" turns out to be something not too far from
"catharsis". But then Stone does know a thing or two about purging or
cleansing - not to mention the pity and terror that accompany it. And
he has lost none of his relish for language. He regrets that modern
Turkish has, thanks to the language edicts of Kemal Atatürk (along
with Mrs Thatcher, another strict reformer who rates his respect) shed
many "splendid old words" from its Ottoman heritage. An example? A
unique term that translates as "just about supportable looseness of
the bowels".

Stone's star has shot (and sometimes exploded) across the firmament of
British history ever since his 1975 study of The Eastern Front. Books,
articles and statements have stirred the pot of historical controversy
over the ravages of Soviet Communism, the follies of its Western
apologists, or the fate of the Armenians in his second home of Turkey.
On that score, the man sometimes branded as the voice of Ankara says
nothing to downplay the Armenians' suffering during and after the
massacres of 1915.

Still, he resists the "genocide" label: "Can you compare it to what
happened to the Jews? I don't think you can." He does believe the
Turkish state could offer a mea culpa on another front: "If there's
something the Turks might apologise for... it's chasing out the Greeks
in 1955. That would worth making a unilateral gesture: saying I'm
sorry."

Stone has a genius for raising storms and riding them: from the
celebrated essay in 1983 that scuppered the reputation of pro-Soviet
historian EH Carr to his cheerleading press articles during Mrs T's
years of pomp and his flight from Oxford to Ankara, casting farewell
aspersions on the hygiene as well as diligence of undergraduates
beside the Isis. His career abounds in paradoxes, none knottier than
the period in which this nomadic Scottish cosmopolitan spent advising
Mrs T - the empress of Little England - on foreign affairs during the
"extraordinary time" of her 1980s heyday. That era, he believes, saw
her government achieve "tissue regeneration" for a moribund nation: a
verdict close to the heart of his new "personal history" of the Cold
War, The Atlantic and its Enemies (Allen Lane, £30).

Wandering, opinionated, mischievous, the book is strung between two
downfalls, that of the Third Reich in 1945 and the Soviet empire in
1989. Stone's vagabond history rattles across one world-shaking scene
of upheaval after another, from the Moscow-backed putsches of the late
1940s in eastern Europe via the 1960s' feast of fools and the 1970s
convulsions that led to the later triumph of Thatcher, Reagan and
Pinochet to the unpredicted foundering of Soviet power: Stone's
terminus, and his final vindication in the face of gormless academic
fellow-travellers.

"Amazing, isn't it?" he recalls with a laugh. "That Sovietological
establishment got extremely pleased with itself - and, ooh, they had
egg on their faces. I remember some fool saying that Solzhenitsyn et
al were simply not a good guide to the Soviet Union. And someone else
said to me, 'You've got to read Pravda carefully'. His punishment
would be to do just that!"

The book bristles with gleeful passages of lefty-baiting provocation.
Poor maligned General Pinochet "deserved well of country"; the army
takeovers in Chile and in Turkey might each count as a "good coup";
1968 counter-culture brought "an explosion of imbecile hedonism";
Jimmy Carter (especially reviled) sent "bossy women to preach human
rights in places where bossy women were regarded as an affront";
while, at home, Dame Mary Warnock - who sinned by scorning Thatcher's
voice - embodied "the long-bottomed-knicker progressive Edwardian
world" that Maggie came to bury.

In these moods, part-Evelyn Waugh, part-Jeremy Clarkson, Stone just
loves to goad the liberal left. Yet they alternate with hard-headed
analyses of the financial shifts behind political façades (with a
brilliant account of how Saudi oil-price manipulation helped sink the
Soviet Union), virtuoso sketches of pivotal events (such as Papa Doc's
funeral) and enthralling, colourful swerves into memoir. These range
from his own trial after a refugee-smuggling adventure on the
Austrian-Czech border and scrapes in a Bratislava jail to portraits of
modern Istanbul: "In Galata the techno music stopped somewhere around
3am and then, with dawn coming up over the Bosphorus, the first (from
his accent, Kurdish) muezzin... cleared his throat very audibly and
charged full-tilt, followed by ten others, for a good hour". Although
Stone repudiates the idea, quite a few readers might wish that this
"personal history" had itself run full-tilt into autobiography.

Praising the "Golden Eighties" as we talk, Stone chuckles that "it had
all the right enemies". The ding-dong battle of ideologies sets his
book's creative juices flowing. When I mention that early-1980s
Britain might have tried to modernise itself by consensus rather than
pitched battles, he replies that "I wish there had been more head-to
head battles", qualified by a rapid "perhaps I shouldn't have said
that...".

Above all, The Atlantic and its Enemies will strike many readers not
so much as a reactionary as an anti-liberal - or even more, an
anti-hippie - work. Stone has some time for high-level Marxist
thinkers such as fellow historian Eric Hobsbawm, to whom he has sent a
copy of the book "with a respectful dedication": one capo saluting the
chief of a rival clan, perhaps.

Above all, he detests populist stupidity and the erosion of
educational standards. But I wonder if his philippics have their roots
in the kind of sharply adversarial "culture wars" that matter less and
less to many people now. "I suppose we've moved on," he says. "For
instance, with Eric Hobsbawm I wouldn't have had a culture war - we'd
have been reading the same books and I much admire what he writes...
As for a culture war against something like the Sixties, I think that
is in a sense still with us: it's a matter of upholding standards.

"I don't think that has gone - not by a long way. So that I, and vast
numbers of other people in this country, will be just appalled to
think of the Tory party conference opening up with some wretched rock
music. Bring back 'Land of Hope and Glory."!

The book laments the murder of the grammar schools, but says nothing
about the lifelong curse of 11-plus failure that first led to the
comprehensive policy he now deems to be "pretty much a disaster".
Stone accepts that "reforms needed to be made" to post-war state
schooling: "But it didn't mean that the system needed to be
abolished".

He recalls that "I did a hell of a lot of teaching over that period.
You can more or less date the comprehensive change, because you knew
when undergraduates stopped spelling properly. I had to start
correcting spellings round about 1980." He is shocked that, at an
Oxford college, one of his sons became known as an oddball: "the boy
who listens to classical music. That is very extraordinary".

Now, 13 years after his own escape from Oxford, he's still pleased by
his Turkish students on the elite campus of Bilkent, and has just
lunched with two scholarship-winning alumni in London. If a few of
them do resemble the vacant divas of 1960s Italian art films ("a
splendid looking girl with long blonde tresses and utterly empty eyes
looking out over the Bay of Naples from Capri"), or else come in the
form of stolid Turkish nationalists who "look like Second and Third
Murderer" in Macbeth, then elsewhere he will mostly encounter "a row
of bright faces" who "do turn out very well".

Turkey, more or less in Europe but only intermittently of it, supplies
some of the most audacious sections of The Atlantic and its Enemies.
Stone's Turkish vantage-point allows him to launch into cross-cultural
leaps that make his history an exhilarating read, even when its
liberal readers will be tearing out handfuls of hair. He connects, for
instance, Kurdish nationalism with its Scottish counterpart and
defines the double identity he shares with Kurdish friends: "Yes I'm a
Scot, but I'm also British, and the British would easily come first."
He enumerates the crimes of the Kurdish militants of the PKK, argues
that the army "never behaved as badly" as the rebel guerrillas, and
when we talk takes issue with Harold Pinter and the human-rights
defenders of the well-meaning West: a recurrent bugbear in his book.
"Like anybody who's connected with the theatre, or at least anybody
who's any good connected to the theatre, he talked drivel about
politics." Note that "anybody who's any good".

Stone can even find warm words for the "therapeutic" army coup of 1980
that (for him) set Turkey on its course towards modernisation and
prosperity. "One doesn't like to defend military coups," he says, "but
if you were the parent of small children in Ankara in 1979-1980, used
to hearing the gunfire coming from this quarter and that, with queues
for everything and the lights going out, you'd say 'Thank God for the
army'."

After the interview and the election, I email Stone to ask his opinion
of this week's frantic manoeuvres over "political reform" at
Westminster. In return, decisive action by the top brass gets another
glowing reference from him. "Off the cuff", he replies, "the whole
thing just shows what a bad thing it is that we don't just change the
rules such that each constituency has to have about 500,000 people".
We should "cut the number of MPs to about 350" and double the pay of
the remaining members - "but that might mean getting some Turkish
generals to do their stuff". Somehow, I can't see either the blue or
yellow flank of our own incoming regime signing up for that.