Neal Ascherson – England

Charles Neal Ascherson (born October 5, 1932), is a Scottish journalist. He was born in Edinburgh and educated at Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, where he read history. He was described by the historian, Eric Hobsbawm, as “perhaps the most brilliant student I ever had. I didn’t really teach him much, I just let him get on with it.” After graduating with a triple starred First,  he declined offers to pursue an academic career. Instead, he chose a career in journalism, first at the Manchester Guardian and then at The Scotsman (1959-1960), The Observer (1960-1990) and the Independent on Sunday (1990-1998). He contributed scripts for the 1974 documentary series World at War and the 1998 series The Cold War. In recent years, he has also been a regular contributor to the London Review of Books.He has lectured and written extensively about Polish and Eastern Europe affairs. As of 2008 Ascherson is a Visiting Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has been editor of Public Archaeology, an academic journal associated with UCL devoted to CRM and public archaeology issues and developments, since its inception in 1999. Neal Ascherson is married to fellow journalist, Isabel Hilton. They currently live in London with their two children, Iona and Alexander. (wikipedia).

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer. Among his books are The King Incorporated: Leopold the Second and the Congo (1963; Granta, 1999), The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; reprinted 2007), and Stone Voices: the Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003). (openDemocracy).

His Bio on Spartacus Schoolnet.


Neal Ascherson – England

The Black Sea, Chapter 10.

May 3 elections: A disaster and a mystery – After a farce of spoiled ballots and confused voters, Scotland awakes to a new political landscape … (full text).

He says (about freedom gained): “The new right for which I am most grateful has to be visa-free travel. A right still limited to certain parts of the world. But the knowledge that, within a few hours of an impulse, I can be not just in a capital city (Prague, Warsaw, Berlin) but wandering down Piotrkowska Street in Lodz, or standing on the cobbles of an East Bohemian village inhaling its scent of pork chops and cabbage, or buying the real original Weihnachtsstollen at the Christmas Fair in Dresden — that’s still miraculous. Do I regret the long waits at frontier stations, the sound of jackboots slowly moving along the corridor from compartment to compartment? No, it’s all been perfectly preserved in novels. And if you still hanker for that paranoia kick, just put on a burqa for your return journey to Britain”. (full text).

His statement: If the West had learnt the lessons of the past, it would now be supporting even the smallest countries’ dreams of freedom, August 17, 2008.

I returned from our last trip desiring to read more about Scotland. I was especially pleased with Longitude’s list. One title I’m particularly looking forward to reading is Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, by Neal Ascherson. With some books, the introduction/foreward/preface alone is worth the price of admission. To wit, this passage from the opening of the Preface to Stone Voices: “Some countries are tidy with their past. Until recently, English historiography resembled the work of a landscape gardener at a stately home: vistas of Saxon lawn and Norman shrubbery led up past Tudor and Hanoverian flowerbeds to the terrace of the present, where the proprietor sat contentedly surveying his estate … (full text, October 27, 2007).

Victory in Defeat, 2 December 2004.

He writes: … But when the tanks came, I wasn’t there. A week earlier, the Bratislava conference of Warsaw Pact leaders seemed to promise a lull in the crisis. It had been a wild year already for me, covering the Polish crackdown in March, the West German student revolution and the shooting of Rudi Dutschke, the barricades of the Paris May. I fancied it was safe to leave Prague for a few days. Then, after a hard-drinking night at home in Scotland discussing whose ancestors had stood where in the front line at Culloden, I turned on the radio. It was the early morning of 21 August … (full text, January 20 2008).


He writes also: … They are Ossetians, helped by savage warriors from other nationalities in the northern Caucasus and by ultra-patriotic Russian “Cossacks”. A year ago, most of these Ossetians probably lived in neighbourly peace with the local Georgians in the next village. But the spark of war ignites madness. The neighbours become “other”: traitors, spies, saboteurs, snipers. They must be rooted out, exterminated … (full text, 19 – 08 – 2008).

The Pope’s role in the fall of Communism was really I think, in a sense, confined to Poland. I mean a lot of people say, “He spread a spirit of revolt, defiance, at a critical moment throughout Eastern Europe.” Well, I don’t think he ever made a great dent or hole, certainly in countries whose basic religion was Orthodox, for example … But what really mattered was what happened in Poland. That became the lancehead, which in 1980 went straight into the bowels of the whole Communist Soviet empire, if you like, in Eastern Europe, and gave it a wound from which it simply didn’t recover. Went home and died. So it’s there, it’s in Poland that it matters … (full interview text).

He says also: … “No. I thought communism would adapt itself and change radically. I thought that what was inevitable was that freedom of discussion and a much freer press would enter. I thought the communist systems could accommodate open discussion; I thought they probably would never accommodate true political pluralism, but I didn’t think they would collapse, particularly the east European systems – not the Soviet Union – I thought they would change out of recognition, but would remain one party systems; although perhaps enlightened, livable one-party systems. So I didn’t foresee until really very, very late in the process that it was just going to collapse” … (full interview text, 08-06-2004).

Find him and his publications on amazon; on Prospect; on the NY review of books; on New Statesman; on e-bay; on IMDb; on World Cat Indentities; on inauthor Google-search; on Google Book-search; on Google Scholar-search; on Google Group-search; on Google Blog-search.

And he says: … “Starting with Poland, there is no way that it will lose its identity in the EU. First of all, it’s a big country and secondly, it has started on the traditional Polish kind of foreign policy within the EU and that traditional policy is ‘being difficult’. “You can never tell what the Polish are going to do. Everybody is just about to say ‘yes’ and suddenly the Poles say ‘no’. That is going to go on. There is absolutely no question about it, Polish independence is going to be an enormous difficulty for the EU. It will be a thoroughly healthy challenge. “I hope the Czechs will be difficult as well, but I think the Czechs particularly are destined for the core of Europe. My own view is that the Union will actually divide in effect, and possibly formally one day, into a core and a periphery and the Czech Republic is going to be right at the core”. (full interview text, 13-05-2004).


The Caucasus effect: Europe unblocked, 16 Sept. 2008;

The world after the Caucasus war, 06 Sept. 2008;

Russian war and Georgian democracy, August 22, 2008;

Georgia’s forgotten legacy, 4 September 2008.

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