Thursday, February 5, 2015

Martin Gilbert: A personal obituary

Amongst the lesser works of Martin Gilbert’s famous pen is a speech he wrote for me. It was January 1989 and, as they had done for my brothers, my parents had brought us from Sydney to London to celebrate my bar mitzvah with our extended family. Martin offered the speech of congratulations. How it came about, and precisely why he agreed, I don’t know. But, a quarter of a century later, hindsight reveals the foresight: Martin, his sister, the philosopher Margaret Gilbert, and I are—now, sadly, were—the three family academics, and it was Martin who gave me my first glimpse of the life of scholarship that we would come to share and that would lead to our own brief collaboration, shortly before his illness.

The glimpse occurred on a visit to his home. While the adults talked, I was left to myself and wandered into his study, a large room, dark (it seemed to me), with a desk proudly in the middle, looking outwards to the entrance. I found a two-volume Russian dictionary and amused myself by listing all the one-letter words—so many more and so much more exotic, like к and ж, than our paltry a and I. But what sticks in my mind, and feels recent even now, is the desk:

At its centre, a ring-bound collection of unlined paper, the pages wider than they were high. On the page lying open are written just two lines. Thick black ink, the handwriting squat and slightly angular. The lines confidently occupying the whole page and making their author’s intention clear: these are new ideas, scaffolding, carapace, to which will come additions and revisions, and subtractions and reconsiderations, until the page is full or spills over and the binder is popped open, for other leaves to be inserted and old ones removed.

That process is so familiar to me now and I’ve carried the memory with me for years, silently, an oddly visceral recollection of the intellect. Mentioning it yesterday to Margaret was the first time I had ever voiced it.

If matters of the intellect formed the abstract connection between me and Martin and Margaret, it was my grandmother who gave the connection physical form. For part of the Second World War, my great-grandmother had taken my grandmother and Martin away from the dangers of wartime Britain to the safety of Canada (Margaret had not been born). The anxiety and separation proved too much though, and they returned with war ongoing. These crossings only narrowly avoided making Martin and the family victims of the war that he would later document so extensively: on the outward trip and on the return, my great-grandmother told me, their convoys were targeted by U-boats, and both times, the ship before them and the one behind were struck.

Uprooted and fatherless in Canada, my grandmother came to regard Martin almost as a sibling. So, years later, Martin was only too happy to collaborate with me on a project for my grandmother’s 85th birthday: an edited collection of my great-grandfather’s journalism, centring on his dispatches from Palestine, Egypt, and Turkey. His perspective on the material was bound to be enlightening. He highlighted, for instance, the foreshadowing of the emergence and importance of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was the intricacy of his factual recall that truly astounded. Several of the articles (in an early version of Modern Hebrew) contained Arabic place names that were hard to unravel. Most eventually yielded but some remained mysterious until I called on him for help. Without consulting sources or even straining his memory, he immediately pronounced on all of them:

“That one’s famous. Such-and-such a battalion of the British army under so-and-so’s command was defeated there,” and then he rattled off the date.

“That one’s trickier: it’s the old name of some-such-place, which no longer exists. It was flooded to make the Aswan dam.”

And closer to home: “You can spell Liège with a grave accent if you like, but at the time it was written Liége. The spelling was only changed officially in 1946.”

Yet, he was Churchillian in his command of such facts. Details never obscured his clarity of thought, but facilitated his view of the big picture—and what a big picture it was, spanning decades and continents and filling almost ninety volumes.

My grandmother kept the product of our joint enterprise, with contributions from other family members, in her bedroom, its green cover complementing the leather of her writing desk, where she would sit and watch the trees of Green Park. Copies of our other books were kept in the sitting room, where my small collection was dwarfed by the shelves that Martin’s filled. Yet, of all his gifts, the one she cherished most was a ring he had made before entering academia. Trying his hand at his father’s trade, he had produced a simple chain of hearts set between two slight bands. The work was rough, but my grandmother treasured it and wore it beside her wedding ring until the day she died, shortly before Martin’s illness struck. By then, he had long since become Sir Martin, and she, Lady Kaye, but that modest ring embodied the bond they had formed seventy years earlier, as children at sea in a world at war.