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Obituary

Geoffrey Wheatcroft remembers his close friend, the historian Eric Christiansen

His sharp, funny reviews that appeared in The Spectator from the 1970s onwards were only bettered by his exquisitely entertaining letters

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

19 November 2016

9:00 AM

Over the past year, we have lost two names cherished by Spectator readers. Rodney Milnes, our opera critic for 20 years before he moved to the Times, as well as editing the monthly magazine Opera, died last December, and Eric Christiansen, the Oxford medieval historian, who was a regular book reviewer here for many years, followed on the last day of October. They both died at 79, both of cancer. Their upbringing and education were similar — Rugby and Christ Church for Milnes, Charterhouse and New College for Christiansen.From the last peacetime ‘call-up’ generation, both served unenthusiastically and unheroically in the army. They were both old and dear friends of mine.

Although I was sad that Rodney’s death wasn’t marked in these pages, I’ve written about him at some length for Opera, and so here I want to remember Eric. In the autumn of 1965 he had just returned to New College as a Fellow, and I had just gone up to the college, where Eric became a friend before he taught me, or tried to, about the Middle Ages, to which he had also returned, after a dissertation on the politics of the 19th-century Spanish army.

As soon as he began writing for The Spectator, he proved to be a marvellous book reviewer, clever, sharp and funny. ‘It seemed to go on for ever,’ a review of a book on the Thirty Years War began. ‘Leathery, unshaven pikemen traipsing over a frosty plain… unexpected gunfire… perpetual low
jabber…’ before telling us that this was the Coliseum in 1956, where the Berliner Ensemble had brought Mother Courage, ‘a drama of NAAFI life on the battlefields of 17th-century Europe’.

He had begun ‘that sad and sticky evening convinced that Brecht was right: if something is worth saying, say it in German and inaudibly’, and as the evening wore on, it seemed to endorse ‘the motto we National Service intellectuals had engraved on our metal cap badges: War is hell’, but by the end he wondered whether ‘even the Thirty Years War can have been as hellish as this’. I thought of that much later when one of Eric’s exquisitely entertaining letters mentioned his two years ‘as a glorified filing clerk’ in the ranks of ‘the dear old Steel-backs (Northamptons to you). No shots were fired in battle, but gosh! the uniforms scratched.’


Sometimes Eric could be derisive about ill-informed amateurs — ‘I could believe anything about the chronological system of the Mayans, but not from a source that thinks that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written up year by year from Alfred the Great onward’ — but then again he asked us to understand the plight of the don who knew that he ought to be pursuing his scholarly avocation rather than cutting a public figure, but was faced with ‘the rocketing price of leather patches for tweed jackets’. And with a gift that not many working journalists possess, Eric could write his own headlines. A review of a book by the tout ce qu’il y a de chic French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie appeared here under, ‘Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel’.

In another piece more than 20 years ago, Eric mentioned 1066 and All That, and said, quite rightly, that it’s a very clever and amusing book, but added that it was a joke which had lost any point, since the kind of narrative history Sellars and Yeatman satirised in 1930 simply hadn’t been taught in this country for a generation. At the time, I thought he was exaggerating; since then, my own children have been through the educational system and I now think that Eric was understating the problem. And he sardonically
lamented the decay of the Oxford history syllabus, and the hateful regimen of bureaucratic ‘assessment’.

Some of Eric’s wit was for private consumption. Many years ago I looked for him in his rooms in the Front Quad. On the table was a portfolio outlining the latest desecration of the Oxford townscape, a proposed new brutally brutalist edifice which had just been discussed at a college meeting. As well as plan and elevation, the architect had helpfully provided a perspective drawing of his work seen from the street. For added realism, a young couple were walking by, and a mother was pushing a pram. In Eric’s copy, a cartoonist’s bubble emerged from the hood of the pram, lettered in his fine copperplate, so that the little baby was looking up at the new building and saying, ‘Innit fuckin orrible?’

If Eric wrote anything better than his reviews it was his letters. He told me about the election of a new Fellow, and of one colleague who’d read this man’s books, ‘and announced delightedly, “He’s even more fraudulent than I am!”’ Some letters make me wince as well as smile. When I sent him a chapter of book I was writing, and apologised by way of saying that it had been turned out fast against a deadline, he replied that, if it had really been written so quickly, ‘I am astonished. Can this really be the man whose inability to complete an essay was once a source of such constant relief to me?’

And he snapped at any hint of affectation. Once when I incautiously wrote in the TLS that ‘One thinks again of Grillparzer’s haunting epitaph for Schubert…’ his next letter began, ‘Yes, no doubt in some circumstances “one” may think of the sodding epitaph, in consequence of having thought of it on a previous occasion, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t. I didn’t know you used the poufs’ pronoun, but if that marks a significant change in sexual orientation, I won’t even smile.’

His loyalty to his ancestral country went beyond his scholarly work on the 11th-century Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus. An idiosyncratic Tory and Churchman, and the most sceptical of Eurosceptics, Eric flew the Dannebrog, the venerable red flag with a white cross, above his house to celebrate the Danish vote against the Maastricht Treaty, and lived to vote Leave, though not to see the outcome of the American election. How I wish I could hear Eric on President Donald.


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