Eric Hobsbawm

Karl Miller

I am not an economic historian, which did not prevent me from being friends with Eric Hobsbawm for many years. It keeps me from opinionating here about his work as a historian, a more than economic historian, in fact, who wrote for a wide public. But it doesn’t stop me from writing about him in a personal way, with recourse to memories.

My first memory of him lingers in my cells as located in a Cambridge college, Caius, just after the war, and after lunch, over coffee. Two undergraduates were there, Neal Ascherson and myself, and someone academically senior but disinclined to pull rank: this was Eric, lean, fair-haired, Jewish-looking, German-looking, lumber-shirted, trousers arrested by a leather belt. By his own seniors he had earlier been deprived of promotion, because of his communism. He (like Neal) was very impressive. Cambridge was asking, while refusing to promote him: ‘Is there anything that Hobsbawm doesn’t know?’

He was far from the first communist I had met, and far from the stereotype that had become familiar – a threatening austerity relieved at times by a self-conscious cheerfulness. There seemed to loom from his talk that afternoon what were to be the qualities of his later ‘Age of’ books: a command of detail and of scope, of structure and of sweep. There were choice, past-piercing details like the one he was to release on the page: ‘the number of letters sent in Britain at the outbreak of the wars against Bonaparte was perhaps two per annum for each inhabitant, but about 42 in the first half of the 1880s.’ It may have been on this occasion that he observed that British cities tended to have two major football teams, not only one, and that this meant something. Some cities don’t, I reflected, while beginning to grasp the appeal of sociology, then in its heyday. It was a prime stroke of luck to meet these two men – the writer and the scholar, as it might appear, but in each case both. A sustained flow of memories survives for me from the time when I was literary editor of the New Statesman and he was the paper’s jazz critic – known to his fans as Francis Newton – and a regular book reviewer. He was presently to move into full ‘synoptic power’, in Neal’s expression, working away at his serial account of the 20th century and its surrounding decades. No one young could have managed this account, but its foundations were laid in the writings and dedicated teachings that preceded it from his early days. He was not the kind of scholar who shuts himself up in the one big book. Eric was also an aesthete. Francis Newton was palpably musical, including classical-musical. I was to find out that Eric’s engagement with the arts was extensive and sometimes surprising. I should, of course, have known. Perhaps it was the word ‘economic’ that misled me.

Several years ago I was with him in a sunny, leafy garden. As I sat before him in his Oxford and Cambridge straw hat (or not – I certainly recall his wife Marlene’s referring to such garments in fine satiric vein), I spoke eagerly to him of my new admiration for the stories of our Canadian contemporary Alice Munro – only to learn that he already shared it. I felt as if I was sitting at his feet. There can’t have been many Oxford and Cambridge dons who might have said the same at that point.

Another surprise involved another female writer. When he was 90, he gave me a birthday present of the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, the Regency courtesan. This is a work which he had fathomed that I might want to read. I had wanted to. But there was no communion here between an older man’s prurience and my own. I think of Harriette’s autobiography (rumoured to have been written by her publisher) as a well-written serious work, as much a work of social history, a study of class and of sisterly relations not in all respects incongruous with the age of Jane Austen, as a pillow book. It’s true that it was once ragingly popular. But I can imagine it as a footnote in Eric’s Age of Revolution.

When he was 94, he gave me another present, in the shape of a sympathetic letter on the publication of a book I’d written, with chapters on the countryside and its writers. It’s a very interesting letter, and one which is highly revealing and forthcoming of Eric. His sympathy with my efforts proved to know certain bounds, in which an aspect of his nature was disclosed, and an urban Englishman, a very Francis Newton, emerged, an English gentleman who liked to end his sentences with an interrogative ‘what’. The letter admits:

A priori I’m not the ideal reader of your book. I am a megalopolitan who has never lived in a city of less than a million, except Cambridge which I didn’t like as a town. I can’t remember ever handling, as against watching, lambs, calves or foals, and Marlene can tell you how little I care for gardening or growing things. So while I am a passionate intermittent countryman in the metropolitan mode (‘I couldn’t stand London if I didn’t have that place of refuge in wherever’), I really have no organic connection with the country as a place where they produce things, or for that matter with rural pastoral. I can’t even say that I go overboard for literary graves.

This must be to underrate his house on the Anglo-Welsh border. He proceeds:

As for the Celtic bits, are you really sure that Trevor-Roper was so wrong about the shortage of (English-language) poetry in Scotland, balladry aside? Could it be due to the tension between English as actually spoken in Scotland, which couldn’t become a generally written idiom, and the standard English which did? The German-Swiss, in a similar bind, never even tried to turn Schwyzerdütsch into a literary language.

This is to set aside, as Hugh Trevor-Roper did, the poetry which Scots people wrote in Scots, and which was not without a generally written idiom. It is to set Burns aside, something Soviet Russia failed to do. And the Ballads are written in Scots (as well as Anglo-Scots). As for the perceived weaknesses of the Scottish history of modern times, Eric had always put them down to ‘the enthusiasm of Scots nationalism for anti-English mythology’.

His attitude to nationalism was complex. He knew its power and had felt its pain. He was aware of what it had done to halt the spread of communism and he was opposed to the policies of Israeli Zionism: the opposition was scarcely mentioned in obituaries, and did not halt his progress in later life to a worldwide celebrity.

One of the most impassioned pieces he did for a paper I edited was a defence of civil service practice as constituted by the Trevelyan reforms of the Victorian period. He can’t have relished the blackguarding of the civil service which Labour leaders like Harold Wilson and Tony Blair thought it wise to go in for. He was as decent as he was dialectical, and this intervention was a clue to his kindly English patriotism. But it was not the only sort of patriot he was. He was and remained a patriot of the Left, as doesn’t need saying. When Stalin fell from grace and the Soviet Union from sovereignty, he explained why he did not quit the Communist Party somewhere along that line. He did not leave because the party had once been his family, during the hard, wandering times he and his real family had endured from his birth in the throes of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. He worked hard for the British party and was eventually close to its summit, while also an antagonist of the Stalinist rearguard that held on after the Second World War. It was startling to see him quoted recently as saying that some Sappers he was with during the war had caused him to feel that the British working class ‘were not very clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people’. He could be synoptically sharp with persons and categories of person, but no one who saw much of him can have doubted his feeling for working-class folk and for the sufferings of poverty. One of the most dismal prejudices to be encountered in Anglo-America has been its worsening failure to imagine how decent people could choose to be communists in the 1930s.

Eric has also explained why many may choose to be Marxists again. We may return to asking Marx’s questions, even if we no longer believe, as perhaps in his own case, in the Soviet model of socialism. His own late fame may be a portent of such a future. Old left-wing sages have been popular before now, and this is all the more likely to happen at a time when the government is intent on destroying the welfare state and subsidising the rich – to an extent that has people crying out for guidance and exclaiming: ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ This must be a part, but not all, of why we mourn his death. What I especially want to say about him here is that the better I knew him the more I grew conscious of his good heart; his sterling qualities, his gravity of mind, were evident from the outset, but it may be that something more was in store. His eighties and nineties were just a little of an apotheosis, quite independently of his consolidated fame.