Eric Hobsbawm: thought and worked until the end

Tuesday 02 October 2012

Director of The Orwell Prize, Professor Jean Seaton, pays tribute to the historian who died yesterday in London Eric Hobsbawm, who has died at 95, was a member of the Orwell Trust (which started the Orwell Prize). This was puzzling: Orwell had been anathema both to the old Communist left, because he was so forensic about communist totalitarianism (which Hobsbawm never confronted) and indeed to parts of the New Left (which worshipped international ‘theory’) both of which Hobsbawm remained loyal to. When I asked Hobsbawm about his own view of Orwell he said, ‘The fellow wrote as one would want to. He saw clearly. He was his own man.’ As was Hobsbawm himself – although unlike Orwell he was a joiner and at home in the approbation of the left. At an inspiring party last summer, celebrating his birthday, 50 years of marriage to the incomparably warm, original and beautiful Marlene and her 80th birthday, Eric started his address, entirely accurately, by saying that he expected that we are all thinking ‘How long can he go on?’ But he went on to say that he would go on thinking and working to the end – and so he did. Many of the obituaries of Hobsbawm have been by great historians and men. But Eric – who was by no means a ‘new man’ – was however an instinctive feminist. He certainly liked women and women liked him (despite the magnificent equine head that was hardly conventionally handsome), but he had an unerring eye for intelligent and thoughtful women and Isabel Hilton, Dorothy Wedderburn, Marina Warner and many others were always part of his intellectual universe. He was not exactly charming – but he was so interesting, interested and drivingly intelligent. One of the wonders was that a man who had such a disrupted childhood: his mother and father both dead by the time he was 14, bundled around Europe with his sister, was nevertheless so very well made as a person. As he was handed from uncle to uncle they must have cared and loved this precocious boy. But of course the way in which European history coursed through his life also forged a unique and Olympian view of the relationship between history and the present. He was perhaps one of the very last of a damned generation. Yet, if they survived the horror it was a generation that had an overview of world circumstances that made for extraordinary achievement. I remember him once at a dinner party given by Hella Pick – herself part of that generation and a legendary foreign editor of the Guardian. He and Eric Roll, the great Economic historian but also the man who negotiated with America to save the British economy at the end of World War 11 – and rivetingly – the only person I ever saw Hobsbawm defer to really, competitively quoted alternative German translations of the Tempest to the rest of us. It was a privilege to see middle Europe in action. Marlene made all of the really great work possible. She composed a household based on devoted intelligence around him – and added her graceful, sensitive sociability to the mix. Good food and high thinking; Nobel Prize winners, economists, historians, politicians, novelists, writers, as well as activists from every world continent (many of whom Eric had taught) coursed through their house. And although there were taboos the conversation was always the very stuff of thinking. Peter Hennessy said that Hobsbawm represented a particularly British communist tradition: humane, clever, and life enhancing.