I was very sad to hear about the death of Professor Norman Geras on Friday. He and those who were in turn influenced by him such as Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and John Rentoul have had a truly profound impact on the evolution of my politics over the last decade.
When you learn of an honourable person’s death, even that of someone you don’t know personally, a strange anxiety overtakes you. It is the feeling that you must race against some kind of imaginary clock to let the world know how much you admired this person.
I learned last week of the death of Norman Geras. Norm, as he was known to everyone, was not a pundit in the conventional sense. We can all thank our lucky stars for that. He was instead a man of ideas in an age of impulses. A relentless defender of the open society, he was one of that rare breed of writer who had admirers across the political spectrum.
I only met Norm once. It was at the Adam Smith Institute, at one of the “Whither blogging?” jamborees they used to organise, in which three well-known bloggers would make short speeches about the pros and cons of the medium. Once done, the fun started and we’d all hit the booze. I hadn’t planned on going to this one, but days before it was due I got an email from Norm asking if I were attending and, somewhat startled that such an eminence was interested in meeting, I showed up.
I don’t quite remember how I began reading the weblog of Norman Geras. I know it was before I began my Master’s in 2006, because perhaps his greatest book, The Contract of Mutual Indifference, was on the course reading list. It must have been before that, because I remember it taking several months before I realised that this Norman Geras with the weblog was the same Norman Geras who appeared on my university reading list. I was so taken aback that I emailed him to check that I hadn’t made a mistake. “I’m only surprised,” he wrote, “that you didn’t see the Norman Geras connection earlier”.
Notebook: A professor from my student days was a great influence on me
On Friday morning I received an e-mail to say that Professor Norman Geras was dead. It is a peculiarity of the internet age that you can meet someone no more than a handful of times over a decade and still feel that you know and like them. So it was with Norm, as almost everyone—at his instigation—called him. I will miss him badly.
There will be an obituary for Norm in the paper, so I won’t try to duplicate what you will find there. I just want to explain, not least to myself, why he was important to me.
[link to Bob’s Writer’s Choice entry]
Probably not many of Norm’s fans and friends shared the full range of his enthusiasms. I didn’t share his fondness for film or jazz or country music, but I did share his interest in certain political matters and his passion for cricket (“one of the most sublime creations of the human spirit” in Norm’s words). The first time I contacted him (in 2005) I praised his blog for its political content but also complained mildly about the amount of publicity given to Australian cricketers. However, I conceded that some of them were in fact rather good. He in turn agreed that there were one or two decent English cricketers and that they perhaps deserved some more attention. A bit later he invited me to contribute a piece to his Memories of Cricket series, which I did in October 2006. I then contributed another, and another, and in the end I provided nearly as many as Norm. He always seemed pleased to have them (and they weren’t all about English successes and Australian failures). I was also able to provide a team of food-related cricketers as a follow up Norm’s teams of philosophers and literary figures.
Norman Geras, a deeply dear friend from Bulawayo, passed away earlier today in Cambridge, England…
He became a prominent, thinking, Leftist political philosopher, an authority on Marxism, the Holocaust, Antisemitism and Crimes of Humanity.
He had a hugely generous mind, and later, after retirement, became a popular bloggist at normblog whose writings on politics—always original, often controversial, even criticising the failings as he saw them of the Left — on country music and jazz, on literature and especially on cricket and football—indeed on a panoply of subjects in skillfully crafted vignettes, became obsessive reading..
Norman’s passing is a shattering loss to us all.
Leftwing theorist and pioneer blogger with a mission to take on political orthodoxy
Norman Geras—professor emeritus of government at Manchester University, philosopher, cricket fan, country music lover, Marxist, liberal socialist, democrat, political blogger behind the influential Normblog—has died of cancer aged 70. His interests were rich and varied, but his thought and writings form an integrated whole. He was centrally and always a man of the left, but one who became a scourge of those parts of left/liberal opinion which, in his view, had slid away from commitment to the values of equality, justice and universal rights, and in so doing ended up by excusing or condoning racism and terrorism.
It’s a commonplace, on hearing of the death of someone, to say we’re ‘shocked’ or ‘saddened’. The news that Norman Geras has died is prompting these words more than most I can recall. A shock. A sad, sad shock. And it makes me sad to see his picture and his name like that at the top of this post.
Back in the day, I started a blog, and called it Baroque in Hackney. Then, wondered what on earth I was doing, and in the course of working it out I got interested in what other blogs were doing. So I read blogs, and read and read them. For months I did little else: all sorts of blogs. Book blogs, personal blogs, silly blogs and arty blogs, and lots and lots of political blogs. And among those political blogs was one unlike all the others: a sane, intellectually rigorous, carefully reasoned, often amusing, and usually madly prolific blog, with the says-on-the-tin title of Normblog. It was the blog of Norman Geras, a Marxist academic and writer, cricket fan, reader, movie buff, and country music enthusiast, who would blog several times a day—just quickly—about whatever had come up in the news, or what he was reading, and wanted to untangle his thoughts on. It was a politics blog the way this is a poetry blog: politics, plus everything else, a daily intellectual life filtered through a cast of mind. Gentle but razor-sharp paragraphs, using persistent (never bullying or unkind) logic to get to the crux of an argument or a position. Norm was a philosopher. You trusted implicitly what he said, and you trusted in his decency, even if you didn’t yourself agree with the position he arrived at. (I’m more of a pacifist, to put it mildly, for example.)