I spent the early part of last week in London, filming what are known in the television trade as PTCs (‘pieces to camera’). These will form the connecting tissue for a three-part documentary series loosely based on my most recent book, The Square and the Tower. Ten years ago, I did a lot of this kind of thing. A series of books, beginning with Empire, started life as television scripts, in an effort on my part to bring history to a wider audience. (The effort was quite successful but earned me the disdain of a certain kind of academic prig.) In those days, PTCs were delivered on location, and the more exotic the better — I have an especially stomach-turning memory of dangling from a helicopter over the Victoria Falls. This new series, however, is about networks, not empires, and there’s only so much you can do visually with the blandness of Silicon Valley. Consequently, last week’s PTCs were shot in a stifling studio with an eye-numbing green background, which apparently makes it easier to drop in computer graphics around the presenter. This is not an activity you should ever try with a hangover. As luck would have it, I had attended a lavish dinner the night before at the home of a friend who happens to be a serious oenophile, with the resources to match his tastes. There were six of us around the table, including my old friend and occasional debate opponent Fareed Zakaria, and an equal number of bottles: Bâtard-Montrachet 2013, Montrachet 2005, Maison Leroy Musigny 1996 and 1966, Romanée-Conti 1985 and Château Latour 1961. I have never known a meal to match it.
Last Thursday found me in Scotland, where I gave a lecture at my old school, the Glasgow Academy, in memory of one of the most influential teachers in my life, Ronnie Woods. ‘The question is sacrosanct,’ was one of Ronnie’s favourite phrases. He also taught me that the obvious answer to the question is rarely the right one — and never the most interesting one. When Alan Bennett brought out his play The History Boys, he claimed that the character of Irwin was based on me. But there was more of Ronnie Woods in that character than he knew.
After the lecture I dined with four contemporaries I had not seen since we had gone our separate ways in 1981. With its roots in the west of Scotland’s redoubtable bourgeoisie, the Academy is (or was in my day) a bulwark of the Union. We were raised with the old superiority complex of the Scots as empire-builders: doctors and engineers in peacetime, bagpipe-propelled warriors when called upon to fight. Those days are gone now, as the song says, but the old prejudice remains —that without us, the effete English ruling class are sure to bungle things. The consensus around the table was that no man more perfectly personifies all the defects of that class than Boris Johnson. ‘If anyone can make Nicola [Sturgeon]’s story seem plausible,’ observed one of my classmates, ‘it’s him.’ I recalled with a shudder the YouGov poll of a few days before, showing that 63 per cent of Conservative party members would rather that Brexit takes place even if it causes Scotland to leave the United Kingdom. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time Boris has damaged something valuable.
This Friday, I shall be in Budapest, bidding farewell to my mentor and friend Norman Stone, one of the great Glasgow Accies. On reflection, it’s not a bad place for Norman to end up — preferable, certainly, to Ankara, where he taught after Oxford became too dull and disapproving. Norman was a Habsburg figure in more than one respect. It wasn’t just that he spoke the principal languages of the Dual Monarchy. Norman also had an intuitive feel for Mitteleuropa, which was why he flourished as much in the cafés as in the archives — not to mention in the Bratislava jail where he served time for trying to smuggle a Hungarian dissident through the Iron Curtain in his car boot. In Norman’s memory, I shall be proposing the appropriately double-edged Scottish toast my grandfather taught me: ‘Here’s tae us! Wha’s like us? Gey few — and they’re a’ deid.’ No doubt Norman knew a Magyar version.
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