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Niall Ferguson Inc, or history as a business

As he moved from journalistic elan to TED-friendly gimmickry, the historian racked up an impressive roster of enemies.

Twenty-five years ago, the journalist and historian Max Hastings asked a young Niall Ferguson, then a graduate student in history at Oxford, where he wanted to be in two decades’ time. “He said,” Hastings reported, “he wanted to be the A J P Taylor de nos jours.”

Ferguson, who is now 48, has since devoted himself to realising that ambition with assiduity. Like his hero Taylor, who once boasted that he was “fast on the typewriter”, Ferguson is prolific. Since 1995, when his doctoral thesis on German politics in the “era of inflation” was published, he has written 11 books. He is working on his twelfth, a biography of Henry Kissinger.

Also like Taylor, of whom it was said that his name appeared in print “with the regularity of the Sabbath”, he contributes with Stakhanovite frequency to newspapers and magazines, both here and in the US. Ferguson is good on television like Taylor, too: he has, at the last count, presented six TV documentary series. He was also this year’s Reith lecturer on Radio 4.

The comparisons with Taylor, the prototype of the “telly don”, don’t end there. Although he espouses libertarian, free-market views at odds with Taylor’s professed socialism – as an undergraduate at Oxford in the early 1980s, Ferguson belonged to a coterie of ardent provincial, mostly lower-middle-class Thatcherites that included the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the writer Andrew Sullivan – he shares his predecessor’s taste for paradox and the bracingly counter-intuitive conclusion. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s description of Taylor’s “love of firing squibs and laying banana-skins to disconcert the gravity and upset the balance of the orthodox” could be applied to Ferguson, who is an enthusiastic practitioner of “counterfactual history”.

Revision time

It was the revisionist brio of his book on the First World War, The Pity of War, published in 1998, that secured Ferguson’s reputation with the wider reading public. He blamed Britain, not Germany, for causing the war, which, he argued, had the unintended consequence of fatally undermining the British empire, whose merits he trumpeted in a subsequent book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, published in 2003. (Ferguson’s imperial predilections later caught the eye of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who hired him as a consultant to help with his overhauling of the secondary school history curriculum.)

The journalistic elan of his early books has curdled somewhat in recent years into a kind of TED-friendly gimmickry (though this probably makes his work a more saleable commodity in the US, where now he spends most of his time, as a professor at Harvard). His most recent book, Civilisation: the West and the Rest, is tricked out with a crude, though eye-catching, conceptual apparatus that identifies the six “killer apps” on which he claims the supremacy of western civilisation was based. (In a review of the book published late last year, Pankaj Mishra wrote that Ferguson sounded “like the Europeans . . . who ‘wanted gold and slaves’” and harboured a deep “nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of 1914”. Ferguson complained that Mishra’s article was defamatory and demanded an apology, which has not been forthcoming.)

With his spat with Mishra still unresolved, Ferguson has found himself tangled up in another public imbroglio. This was occasioned by a Newsweek cover story he wrote in mid-August, under the title “Obama’s gotta go”. (If ever an editor and a writer were made for each other, it is Newsweek’s Tina Brown, the neophiliac queen of “buzz”, and Ferguson, the Tory contrarian and provocateur.)

Ferguson launched a full-frontal attack on Barack Obama’s economic record, describing the country the president has bequeathed to the electorate as a “50-50 nation” in which “half of us [are] paying the taxes, the other half receiving the benefits”.

The article’s demotic fizz (Paul Ryan, Ferguson wrote, “psychs Obama out”) no doubt played well in Peoria, but its deployment of economic data turned out to be dubious, to say the least. The Nobel laureate Paul Krugman found “multiple errors and misrepresentations” of official statistics; Ferguson’s old friend Sullivan criticised his “sleight of hand”; and other commentators completed the fact-checking that Brown’s staff apparently neglected. Little of his argument was left standing.

Ferguson, however, has affected imperturbability. To understand his reaction, it is worth recalling something he told the New Yorker in 1999. “Why be a passive, unworldly academic, who expects to sit all day in an ivory tower writing great works that no one will read? After all, history is a business.”

The question is whether Niall Ferguson Inc has overleveraged itself this time.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis