The fine art of the British obituary
June 25, 2019 1:10 PM   Subscribe

At a time when malice and rudeness were highly prized by some rightwing Cambridge dons, Stone outdid them all in the abuse he hurled at anyone he disapproved of, including feminists (“rancid”), Oxford dons (“a dreadful collection of deadbeats, dead wood and has-beens”), students (“smelly and inattentive”), David Cameron and John Major (“transitional nobodies”), Edward Heath (“a flabby-faced coward”) and many more.
posted by Chrysostom (33 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
"One of the specialities of the historian Norman Stone, who has died aged 78, was character assassination." is how this obit opens.

Evans then proceeds to show us how it's done. Not since Cromwell's remains were exhumed and quartered has a corpse been treated quite so brutally.

Some of the other Stone obituaries were bitchily amusing; I think this is better because it's more direct.
posted by alloneword at 1:24 PM on June 25 [11 favorites]

What an asshole
posted by parmanparman at 1:25 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]

The Eastern Front really is a seminal book, but the rest about him, which I was not aware of, would explain why I wasn't familiar with any of his other work. A rather lovely evisceration by Evans.
posted by Palindromedary at 1:29 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

Live by the pen, die by the pen, I guess.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:33 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

Ouch. If you were planning on looking in the comments only, I suggest you do yourself a favor and read that obit in full because wow.
posted by acidnova at 1:43 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]

The obituary is by British historian Richard Evans; it looks like he started at Oxford in 1998, the year after Stone left. For better or worse, this is a colleague's, not a journalist's, account.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:44 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

Evans's obit led me to look up what Stone had written about Carr. Here is a sample:
It would appear that his own parents did not much care for him either. It is said that they farmed him out to live with an aunt, one of these sad Edwardian spinster-dependents. She adored him; she even learned Latin so as to help him with his homework. Once he reached Trinity College, Cambridge he dismissed her, and she died in loneliness and penury some years later. It was not the last act of cruelty which Carr was to perform. There were three Mrs Carrs (not one, as the Times obituary claimed), and each marriage ended in hideous circumstances: one wife was left when she already had terminal cancer, another abandoned, when Carr was almost ninety, because she was ‘depressing’. He died in an old people’s home, the matron of which he would ask, piteously, to hold his hand. For Carr very greatly wanted to be loved, and he much preferred women’s company to men’s, although he treated his women so badly. Curiously enough, his money survived these disasters. He was cannily generous when it came to settlements, and he was – until his declining years – adept at the Stock Exchange. He was also, it is said, very mean.
From the LRB, possibly paywalled. It is also very elegantly done.
posted by alloneword at 1:51 PM on June 25 [4 favorites]

Had it coming. On the other hand, so did the institutions who put up with his entitled upper-class white BS for so long.
posted by praemunire at 2:07 PM on June 25 [8 favorites]

As a teacher Stone could be inspiring, often winning over his pupils with his charm, which on occasion could be quite considerable, but he became increasingly undisciplined, neglecting his duties, and spending increasing amounts of time playing poker and drinking himself into oblivion in Soho.

The next time I’m asked for a 5-year career plan, I may just quote this.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:08 PM on June 25 [28 favorites]

Stone had many faults, and was unarguably white though his first wife was black at a time when interracial marriages were unusual. But he was not in the least bit upper class: he was a working class Scot and never let you forget it.

And at the end of the hatchet job on Carr that I quoted earlier (and it is very long) there are the letters of protest. Two of Carr's children wrote:
Our father was never farmed out. He spent his childhood and school years in the family home of which the spinster aunt formed part, for more than twenty years, where indeed I met her. The fact that she was not poor when she died could easily have been verified. Equally untrue is the reference to a wife dying of terminal cancer. Our mother suffered from cancer which was cured ten years before the marriage broke up. She lived a further 15 years and died of pneumonia. There was no recurrence of cancer. We are appalled that a historian, in writing of a colleague lately dead, should publish defamatory untruths which he could have researched. He has caused distress to the family.
posted by alloneword at 2:19 PM on June 25 [24 favorites]

They did not describe what events made him such an an asshole nor the antidote -- useless. I'm sick of hearing about these guys.
posted by waving at 2:30 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

He did some speechwriting for Thatcher and advised her on foreign policy, though she did not listen to his assurances that the reunification of Germany in 1990 was not a danger to European peace.

Did Thatcher believe that a newly-reunited Germany was going to put on its jackpots and march (again) on the rest of Europe?
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 2:34 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

> "Did Thatcher believe that a newly-reunited Germany was going to put on its jackpots and march (again) on the rest of Europe?"

More people than you'd think were nervous about exactly that at the time. It was a dumb view, but far from an unknown one.
posted by kyrademon at 2:37 PM on June 25 [12 favorites]

posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 2:43 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

Did Thatcher believe that a newly-reunited Germany was going to put on its jackpots and march (again) on the rest of Europe?

Is that auto-correct, or have we decided that the Nazis hit the jackpot rather than wearing jackboots?

I'm genuinely asking, because I'm trying to stay current. The other day I heard someone say something was like a "bowl in a china shop" and I genuinely wondered if anything makes any sense anymore.
posted by The Bellman at 2:45 PM on June 25 [9 favorites]

Germany was going to put on its jackpots

Un Perm’ Au Casino Hermann Goering?
posted by chavenet at 2:46 PM on June 25 [9 favorites]

He was also, it is said, very mean.

Game recognizes game.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:58 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

I liked the account of how Cambridge got rid of him:

The Cambridge University history faculty became impatient with his behaviour, but solved the problem of how to deal with him by encouraging him to apply for the professorship of modern history at Oxford

Also, credit to Evans for speaking plainly about Stone's sexual harassment of his female students, which other obituaries have treated as an amusing peccadillo.
posted by verstegan at 3:04 PM on June 25 [16 favorites]

I liked the damning with faint praise of, "Stone was undoubtedly clever."
posted by Chrysostom at 3:04 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

On the other hand, I did enjoy this line from the Times obituary (paywalled):

A few weeks after arriving in his adopted home of Turkey he was asked why he was the only foreigner who never complained about Ankara. In his answer he managed to insult Scotland and Turkey in the same breath: “You have to understand that, in the depth of my being, I’m a Scotsman, and I feel entirely at home in an enlightenment that has failed.”
posted by verstegan at 3:18 PM on June 25 [11 favorites]

I had a couple of classes with British academics and yeah, don't stir it up with those folks, will not survive. And mine were, normally, very nice.
posted by thelonius at 3:21 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

Read that obituary earlier today, and it's just an amazing piece of work. How many knives did the author bury in the deceased?
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 3:40 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

I mean, schadenfreude is a thing - it's an entertaining public evisceration, for sure - but also: this man was an unaccountable far-right apologist who literally sexually assaulted female students at Oxford after Cambridge palmed him off on them. Absolutely fuck him and every single part of the "elite" establishment that is complicit in - nay, encourages - this kind of behaviour. A "fuck you" of an obituary is one thing, but the very real problem of institutional blind-eye turning and apologia for "brilliant-but-flawed" abusive men very much continues, and that ought to be the real story here.
posted by parm at 3:54 PM on June 25 [24 favorites]

Wow. Is there a name for what was wrong with this man? Something in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual?
posted by Bee'sWing at 4:23 PM on June 25

He sounds like a real turd's turd.
posted by scruss at 4:35 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]

he was not in the least bit upper class: he was a working class Scot and never let you forget it.

You know what's worse than an upper-class guy?

A working-class guy who digs himself a nice comfortable nest at an upper-class institution (or, um, two), but still tries to pretend he's working-class.

(I'm aware this is an American view of social mobility; nonetheless, it's true.)
posted by praemunire at 4:48 PM on June 25 [6 favorites]

Is that auto-correct, or have we decided that the Nazis hit the jackpot rather than wearing jackboots?

It was auto-correct; I didn't even see it until you pointed it out.

I hate auto-correct.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 5:40 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]

I was initially amused to read how Cambridge sent him on to Oxford, but really, academia is a small world. And...I assume Oxbridge is a much smaller and clubbier one. There's no way Oxford should have been surprised by what they hired.
posted by grandiloquiet at 7:54 PM on June 25

Oh shit This Richard Evans. I'm about two-thirds through the last and most soul-killing of those wonderfully researched and written books.
posted by Mei's lost sandal at 10:42 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]

"Rancid" and "deadbeats" are pretty good insults, but far more devastating is "no-one -- literally no-one -- will be sorry that when you die".
posted by Quindar Beep at 6:00 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]

Eastern Front is an important book for that field.
But what an awful person.
posted by doctornemo at 6:48 AM on June 26

That Reddit thread is quite interesting. The tl;dr seems to be "yes, yes it's accurate", and there are some people who seem to suggest that it's even more evenhanded than the guy's scholarship probably deserves.

What a jerk.

Makes you wonder what other rejects are holed up in random universities in the European periphery, getting their sins overlooked in exchange for legitimizing authoritarianism or genocide denial or other various horrors. (Stone seems to have happy enough to do both of the former.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:37 AM on June 27

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