Friday 18 October 2013

R.I.P. Norman Geras (1943 - 2013)

It must have been some time in 2003 that I came across an article in a Sunday newspaper, about a Marxist professor who supported the Iraq war. Although it had been a long time since I’d called myself any kind of Marxist, and at the time I was sceptical of the rationale for invading Iraq, I was intrigued. Perhaps it was because I’d been having my own internal debates with conventional Left thinking and was increasingly disappointed and depressed by my fellow progressives’ failure to condemn (and in some cases their tendency to find apologetic ‘explanations’ for) terror and tyranny, as long as it was directed at the ‘imperialist’ West.  To my shame, I hadn’t heard of Norman Geras before then, despite the fact that he was a recently retired professor at Manchester, where I’d been a postgraduate student.

The newspaper article mentioned that Geras wrote something called a ‘blog’ – the first time I’d come across this neologism. Curious, I looked up the eponymous normblog and was immediately hooked. I found myself nodding in frequent agreement with Norm’s concise but elegant posts and reading his disquisitions soon became a daily habit. From normblog, I branched out to read the bloggers and commentators that he linked to, many of them associated with the Euston Manifesto, of which Norm was one of the key authors, and the broader anti-totalitarian, liberal-interventionist Left. As well as finding myself in immediate sympathy with many of Norm’s political opinions, I’m happy to acknowledge that he was also influential in changing my mind on a number of important issues, most notably Israel. In fact, as time went on, I came to see Norm as one of the key influences on my political thinking, on a par with figures like Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall at earlier stages in my life. Of course, it wasn’t all about politics: Norm was just as stimulating and entertaining when writing about Jane Austen, country and western music, John Ford movies, cricket or his beloved Manchester United.

As time went on, I decided I wanted to be a participant in, and not just an observer of the online debates to which Norm had introduced me, so I started my own blog. I was enormously flattered when Norm started to link to my own posts, and like many other bloggers, I regarded being granted a normblog profile as the highest possible accolade. I now realise that, as well as being the inspiration and model for my blogging, Norm was also my imaginary ideal reader: on many occasions, I’ve held back from posting something, not so much because I thought Norm would disagree with it, but because I knew the argument wouldn’t come up to his exacting standard.

Despite his towering reputation as a political philosopher, Norm was a generous supporter and nurturer of the talents of others, and although I had only met him virtually, I regarded him as a mentor and a friend. Then, earlier this year, came the opportunity to meet him in person: Norm and Adele Geras kindly invited Helen and me to lunch at their new home in Cambridge. I was as nervous as it’s possible to be at meeting one of my political gurus, but we were made to feel very welcome. Norm must have been quite ill at the time, but characteristically he didn’t mention it once. Instead, we got a guided tour of his book collection, including the unrivalled cricket section, and the extensive ‘waiting to be read’ shelf. I was surprised to discover that this most well-informed of bloggers, who somehow managed to read and comment on everything before the rest of us, was in the habit of not switching on his computer before mid-morning. Instead, he spent the first hour of each day reading a novel – a practice that he repeated every evening. Normblog regulars will be aware that he was a voracious reader of fiction, something that I believe shone through in the imaginative and humane sympathy that characterised his posts.

Nick Cohen has written about his own habit of turning to normblog when he wanted to find a way through a difficult moral or political issue. For many of us, ‘What does Norm think?’ became a reflexive response to perplexing items of news or complex debates. One of the many sadnesses of his passing is that he’ll no longer be around to help us think things through in his characteristically clear, rational, humane and often highly amusing way. That won’t stop us from occasionally wondering 'What would Norm have thought?’ And that won’t be a bad starting point for any debate.

Today my thoughts and prayers are with Adele Geras, who is of course a well-respected and much-loved writer herself (Norm kept a detailed and devoted bibliography of her numerous publications), though to normblog devotees she’ll always be (and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind the appellation) ‘WotN’: Wife of the Norm. May he rest in peace.


SnoopyTheGoon said...

Thanks for sharing this, Martin.

Sarah AB said...

Thank you Martin. I've certainly had many 'what does Norm think' moments.

Rosie said...

Lovely piece, Martin. A lot of us are grieving today.

Eve Garrard said...

Thankyou for writing this lovely piece, Martin. What Rosie said.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful tribute Martin! I'm proud to have been WotN for so keep in touch with me.

Martin said...

So pleased you liked it, and thank you for taking the trouble to say so, at this difficult time. It will be a pleasure to keep in touch.