This is a wonderful book and reminds us, if we need any reminding, that we have lost, with Tony Judt's untimely death in August, perhaps the foremost historian of our troubled times.The Memory Chalet is a memoir that traces Judt's life from a secular Jewish childhood in South London to his last years as the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of European Studies at New York University. Each short chapter is arranged thematically and his descriptions of Putney, of solitary excursions to the countryside on the then publicly owned Green Line Buses, trolleybuses and British Rail as well as his other childhood and adolescent recollections of life in the 1950s and early 1960s tenderly evoke a Britain where there was still a sense of public purpose and community now largely replaced by a culture of individual selfishness and what Judt terms an "impoverished view of community - the `togetherness' of consumption". But what distinguishes this book is Judt's wit, humanity and wisdom. As he takes us through his education at Cambridge and the Ecole Normale Superieure and his life teaching in Oxford and later in America there are astute critiques of today's emphasis on utilitarian approaches to secondary and higher education whose justification is almost solely in terms of education's contribution to the economy and the level of salary of its beneficiaries. And there is an underlying anger in the book at the growth of inequality in Anglo-American society and of the servitude of politicians and commentators to neo-liberal capitalism and unregulated market orthodoxy.
Both The Memory Chalet and Judt's advocacy of a modernized social democratic politics,Ill fares the Land, published earlier this year, were composed while he was totally immobilized by the motor neuron disease that was to lead to his death within a few months of their publication. The books are a testament to his courage and a fitting memorial to a great historian and a wise and humane man.