Norman’s Last Day

The funeral of Norman Stone took place on Friday 28 June in the Deak Lutheran Church in Budapest. His son Rupert asked me to be a pall bearer and I followed the coffin up the aisle behind the prime minister Viktor Orban. Historians Niall Ferguson and Harold James, among others, eulogised him. My presence was in a sense accidental. I happened to be spending a month in Vienna and I had come over from to Budapest to see him the previous week: on the day, in fact, he died.

I had known Norman intermittently, but intensely, since Cambridge in 1982: he was a Fellow in history at Jesus College, and finishing his book, Europe Transformed; I was on sabbatical from Warwick University finishing the first volume of my biography of Keynes. I can’t remember how and why we met. I do remember him telling me to hurry up with my writing. His own method of polishing off the last chapter (on culture) of Europe Transformed was (he told me) a night of binge writing, fortified by a couple of bottles of whisky.

A couple of years later he became professor of history at Oxford, and hated it. He complained they treated him like a pariah; he retaliated by taking his lecturing duties lightly. I persuaded him to be external examiner in international relations at Warwick, and for three years he trundled up from Oxford with a pile of student papers, which he showed no sign of having read, but whose grades he readily confirmed. An occasional, ‘He’s a good egg’ would follow a cursory glance at some student script. His comments, gutturally produced, were swallowed by his mischievous grin.

Although Norman soon swapped his chair at Oxford for a highly improbable one in Bilkent in Turkey, we never lost touch. A breakfast in Istanbul, in which he consumed a prodigious consumption of wine and cigarettes was followed (after a day of heavy duties he assured me) by a dinner on the Bosphorus, with the daughter of Enver Pasha, Kemal Ataturk’s defeated rival. (Norman enjoyed the company of historical curiosities.) I remember a dinner in London with Margaret Thatcher (who adored him, despite his smoking through all the courses), and nights out with Norman in Moscow with dubious oligarchs. Norman was fluent in Russian, which he spoke with a strong Scottish accent.

My last re-engagement with him started last November. I knew he had moved to Budapest, though not why, and received an invitation to the London launch of his new book Hungary: A Short History. Norman was in sparkling form, everyone seemed delighted with the book. I wanted to write something on the resurgence of Hungarian nationalism, and thought I would use his Short History as background.

My piece was published by Project Syndicate on 3 December. Norman liked it, but added some typical Norman asides (punctuation added):

(13 January) ‘Robert, thanks and that’s a good and balanced one. The only thing I’d mutter about is Orban’s alleged anti-semitism, there’s no real evidence for it, and as Daniel Pipes says Budapest’s one of very few cities in Europe now where people can wear Jewish clothes without fear of being stabbed. David Goldman in Asia Times was also very sound. Imre Kertesz came here (from Berlin) and said the talk of anti-semitism vastly overdone. The French ambassador quoted this in a confidential despatch, said anti-s was now much worse in France, and got sacked by Macron two weeks before he was due to retire, the despatch having been leaked on the net. Relations with Israel very good, of course the Israelis also hate Soros. More when I see you.’

I was due to spend a month in Vienna in June and planned to hop on the train to Budapest. Email traffic became heavy as the date approached.

(7 June) ‘Dear Norman, Would 20/1 be any good for a visit? Would arrive afternoon, stay overnight’.

(8 June) ‘Robert, I’ve a guest room here. The only thing is, there is an 80th birthday dinner for Tom Barcsay, in the Wenkheim palace, Canadian university historian of Transylvanian origins, good egg. I’m trying to get you in (black tie if you can, bit of a bore). Why is your visit just a day?’

(8 June) ‘Norman, haven’t got a black tie with me, in any case, don’t feel like formal dinners. It doesn’t have to be the 20th’

(8 June) ‘Robert, I’m sure it’s all right and a suit would be fine. Some very good characters coming including Margaret Macmillan, a friend of Tom’s’

My next email to him was from the Salzburg Whitsun Festspiel, where I was undergoing a immersion in pre-Handel operas. Norman shot back the same day:

(8 June) ‘Have a great time!….I remember Salzburg from 30 years ago, we went with G Weidenfeld and Anne Getty , a rather grotesque Zauberflöte and a Capriccio which I didn’t like – how on earth do you stage a thing as to why words are superior to music in 1943 just as Stalingrad has happened and the great bombing starts. Mad. Anyway it will be very good to see you. The train’s excellent, takes under three hours and ÖBB makes anyone British just cringe with embarrassment at our terrible handling of railways. We should go back to Sedan chairs’. He added: ‘I’d find even the Handel operas hard work’.

Finally, my visit was scheduled for 18 June. I came to Norman’s flat at lunch time on the 18th – a very elegant apartment in the heart of old Budapest. Norman’s resident factotum, a Turkish Kurd called Kabat Sebahattin, let me in. Norman was standing in dressing gown and pyjamas in the kitchen. I was shocked by his haggard, shrunken appearance. ‘Just got up,’ he told me. I had been looking forward to a bibulous lunch in a nearby eatery, but it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere soon. He was racked by a bronchial cough, though I noticed that he still reached surreptitiously for a cigarette. ‘You go and have lunch with Seba’ (a large portrait of the handsome Seba hung on the drawing room wall).

Seba told me that Norman had been to Ankara for three days to sort out pension arrangements. He had been in good health before his trip, but had returned very ill, gasping for breath. He must have caught an infection. He would be seeing the doctor the next day. There were other things wrong: a cataract had come loose in his left eye, he was partially sighted, and with all the pills he was taking for his other conditions it was too risky to have an operation.

When we got back from lunch, Norman was still standing undressed by the kitchen counter. He said he was going back to bed. We were due to go to a reception in the evening, but I said we’d better not go. ‘Naw’, he replied, ‘it’s not a very good idea’.

I returned at six with a bottle of wine. Norman, now dressed, was sitting in an armchair, with a great tome in a foreign language across his knees. I sat opposite. He sipped some wine. ‘I’m exhausted’, he said. ‘Don’t mind me if I drop off’. He closed his eyes, waking up intermittently. I flipped through a book on Germans who had committed suicide after the Second World War, which he had promised to review. After an hour or so I slipped out, and had supper on my own at the Gellert Hotel, with its famous baths. At 9 o’clock in the evening I got an email: ‘Robert, sorry you can see there’s a problem, oh Lord. Is our phone just not working. Maybe talk tomorrow’.

I rang at 11 the next morning. The phone was picked up by a tearful Seba. ‘I’m sorry to tell you Norman died in the night. I came to wake him in the morning, and there was no pulse, no heartbeat. I called the ambulance, it was too late’. Seba and I were the last people to see Norman alive.

I was never taught by Norman: former students have testified to the influence of his instruction. His hatred of humbug must have been a joy to the young. But I suspect that it was the same with friends: you either got the point of him or you didn’t. The apercus, anecdotes, comic flashes, injunctions for living flowed effortlessly with the booze. The truth was that Norman preferred living history to writing it. My last question to him that Tuesday June 18 was, ‘How did your book on Hungary go?’ Norman gave me his familiar naughty grin. ‘I got away with it’. Not a bad summary of his life.