Norman's wisdom - and Turkey's delight

History professor Norman Stone, Thatcher pal and high-living right- wing media darling, waves a barbed goodbye to Oxford. Next stop Ankara Institute
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The Independent Online
Do historians still matter? Oxford's departing Professor of Modern History, Norman Stone, surrounded by the self-created chaos that followed the announcement he was leaving the dreaming spires for Turkish academe, believes that without history, "it would be as though there were an earth for everything rather than having a live wire somewhere." The electrical metaphor makes perfect sense. But throw in Stone himself as the live wire, the enfant terrible, the thorn in Oxford's crown whose bacchanalian high- wire act and unique form of popularism has been in media demand since he took over Oxford's history helm in 1984, and there should be mourning that the British historical circus is losing one of its centre-ring performers.

At his home, with the telephone continually ringing, his answering machine spewing out urgent appeals from the Thames to the Bosphorus, an era is ending. He has just written a newspaper article about what is best about Britain. So what did he say? "I can't quite remember, I wrote it last night." A Sunday newspaper, as we speak, is being dispatched another epistle from the gospel according to Stone. A taxi is ordered to drive him to Eton, where he will pick up his son Rupert, and take them both to the British Museum where he will be interviewed by yet another paper. Newsnight phones. Another part of the BBC has just left. A Turkish journalist wants 10 minutes on the telephone.

Stone, aged 55, and looking far better than he should if his reputation is correct, has the ability to laugh amid this fourth-estate idolatry. He delivers yet another appropriate quotation - probably translated from his knowledge of eight languages - to capture the moment. His appointment to head a Russian-Turkish institute in Ankara will only take him away from Oxford for four months of the year. England is not completely waving goodbye to Professor Stone. So he laughs: "Only when your feet are in the stirrup, should you tell the truth to the horse."

As part of his valedictory to Oxford, Stone has chosen his final days for an impassioned attack on the institute that has been the vehicle for both his fame and notoriety. Graduate teaching is poor, dons are poorly paid. His shorthand is more precise: "Oxford is losing it." The same condensed speech is used to describe his views on Oxford's chancellor, Lord Jenkins. "I see him as having malevolent neutrality. I want bold gestures, but he is, well, a safe pair of hands." Stone's own bold gestures would see UDI at a number of the more high-profile colleges "and something needs to be done for research, higher post-graduate degrees".

As we speak, more chaos is piling up. A neighbour comes to the door. The family cat, Monty, has been tragically run over by a car. More media requests pour in. "I think it's time for a drink. Calvados OK?" The Dauphin Calvados is fine and warrants a probe into Stone's past record of heavy drinking, and the often cited accusation that academe has been partially sacrificed for worship on the altars of Fleet Street and television celebrity. Should there have been more mea culpas, would he have done things differently? He admits: "I have to say, yes, I do recognise myself in these stories. And there were silly mistakes." He closes his eyes as he remembers one interview he gave to Zoe Heller of The Independent on Sunday. He shrugs: "I shouldn't have opened that bottle of wine at 11.30 - am that is."

For all Stone's excesses and media celebrity, it is too easy to overlook that he is still one of our finest analytical minds in the task of unravelling the meaning, if there is any, of the 20th century. The 1980s, with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and with Western Europe desperately trying to reinvent its raison d'etre, placed Stone in the role of historical lifeguard. If you were drowning for meaning, he could throw you assistance. He is still throwing.

"Western Europe is like Legoland. It's just unreal. Women have effectively gone on strike, by not having children." He quotes declining population statistics. So where will all this lead? "Oh, I think we'll all end up living in a more upmarket version of the Florida Everglades." These statements are given with a sense of mischief, and unless you understand this, you do not understand Norman Stone.

Another photographer arrives. The professional study and its prominent pictures of the battle of Waterloo are abandoned in favour of coffee in the kitchen. Here a large poster advertising Margaret Thatcher's book The Downing Street Years adorns the walls. If you look for more fan club clues the exercise only gets more confusing. On the mantle there are celebration coffee mugs for Charles and Diana, Churchill and Hillary Clinton. The connection would be a decent question for Paxman in University Challenge.

So who will be rated from the 20th century? "Margaret Thatcher." The reply from Stone is the speed of a bullet. "She may well be the last bit of English political culture given to the world." Stone is a premier-league Mrs T fan. He sits on the Thatcher Foundation. Throughout her reign he was a sort of historico-moral adviser, giving the force of past wisdom to her vision of Britain's future. Here he chooses to give away a secret. "I wasn't quite a fan from the beginning. I wrote an article for The Times in 1981, after her first Budget which cut expenditure. I was very critical. But The Times [he breaks into laughter] spiked the article."

He admits to being "useless as a futurologist" but he is clear on what should happen to British politics and millennium government. "Democracy, if it makes any sense, means you occasionally have to let the other side in." Baroness Thatcher's own history man says quite categorically that "I hope the Labour Party will win. I'm rather impressed by Blair." John Major's regime is dismissed for its handling of Bosnia. He believes the British government effectively sided with the Serbian regime of Milosevic, calling this "the worst episode of British foreign policy since ..." In anger, he almost doesn't finish. "It was unbelievable. And I don't see how any decent person could vote for Major."

Another quotation arrives as Stone is asked what should now happen to the Tories. The words of a Germanic prince from 1849 are recalled: "I hope for a little hanging. Perhaps clemency first, then a little hanging."

Born in Glasgow, a comment on another Glaswegian, the comedian Billy Connolly, brings more laughter. Connolly, a former shipyard worker, once said he was "a welder who had got away with it". Has Stone got away with it too? "I have to say that there is an element of truth in that." But he believes that Oxford got what it expected of him. He has become known outside the parochial cloisters, but accepts, in apology really, "it has not always been a comfortable business for them [his fellow dons] as I've been rude about Oxford. But overall they have been very kind to me."

Fortunately, it would be inappropriate to wave goodbye for too long. He is still writing and hopes the Turkish adventure to Bilkent University in Ankara will clear his thoughts for a final push at work on the 20th century. "In a way I'm glad I haven't written anything too grandiose yet. But I will write better, I'm sure of it."