I cannot claim to have known Eric Hobsbawm at all well, but my few encounters, over the years, as a student and after, made a vivid impression on me. They became linked to my more general sense of what historical inquiry and sensibility are supposed to be about. I was struck, of course, in meeting him (as much as in reading him), by the dizzying range of knowledge, the powers of synthesis and analysis, not to mention that facility with languages and ease with other cultures. Then there was his presence as participant and witness at some of the tumultuous historical events he described in his work. All this came to constitute for me, as a student, and since, the impossible Everest of the historian’s erudition and style.
I’d read most of his books before I set eyes upon him; I devoured his work in a hurry, part of my attempt to provide myself with a crash course in modern history, just before starting work at King’s College Cambridge on a Ph.D., supervised by Gareth Stedman Jones. EH was very present in his absence from the start of that process: like E.P. Thompson, who also figured in those years for me (as much through the anti-nuclear movement as the writings on history), EH was a friend of Gareth’s. King’s was not only the base of my then supervisor, but also EH’s own stamping ground, past and present. I occasionally glimpsed Hobsbawm at King’s; he would appear at certain grand college occasions, and quite often more directly he was the trigger for discussion (during and after my PhD) with Gareth.
My ‘crash course’ was all the more urgent as I came to King’s and the History Faculty in the early 1980s, without the usual perquisite of a first degree in the subject: I’d transferred from English, which was, in those days, in a state of civil war, at least in Cambridge. The Age of Revolution and of Capital, and later that decade, The Age of Empire became my bedtime reading, and Primitive Rebels, Captain Swing, Labouring Men and the rest, the stuff of my train commutes back and forth to London. The Invention of Tradition (1983), which he co-edited with Terence Ranger, was a landmark publication too and I think of it, along with Anderson’s Imagined Communities as something historians at large invariably take ‘as read’ in any discussion of nationalism.
In 1990, Hobsbawm came to talk at Queen Mary, University of London; I was by then in a teaching post there. EH was asked to kick off a lecture series, named after a former professor at QM, a certain Stanley Thomas Bindoff, well-known for his writings on the Tudors. This impressive series was dreamed up by the late Professor John Ramsden and was one of his many endeavours to raise the profile of the Mile End department. JR, who was a prolific historian of and indeed local councillor for the Conservative Party immediately zeroed in upon the name of Hobsbawm as the ideal person for him to secure for the first year. Google ‘Bindoff’ and ‘Hobsbawm’ and the title of the lecture come up at once: ‘Birth of a Holiday: The First of May’. This first glittering lecturer was to be followed by a rich variety of speakers in the years that followed; few of those asked from home and abroad refused the invitation, given whose footsteps they were following.
I recall Hobsbawm’s s skilfully crafted lecture on the international history of ‘May Day’ and also how quickly the resourceful Ramsden moved to ensure it was published in a Queen Mary pamphlet. I was fortunate, as the most recent junior appointment to the department to be invited along to the dinner, held in some Soho restaurant, straight after the lecture; I found myself wedged in a booth between the Conservative Party expert and the most celebrated Marxist historian of the age. EH was straightforward and brisk; and I found myself quizzed about Italian criminology, Victorian evolution, and French degeneration theory, the field of my own then research. At this Brasserie, whose name I’ve forgotten, EH could not resist a brief foray into French, as he spoke to the waitress; he sighed and recalled his own nostalgia for Paris, a city he said, looking meaningfully at his wife, Marlene, that they had both greatly enjoyed. It was my chance to hear something of his own vast storehouse of knowledge on nineteenth-century France and Italy; he talked of his own inquiries on the subject of Sicilian and Calabrian bandits, before turning to the question of the relationship of the Second International to Darwinism.
Years later I wrote to him, whilst researching the reception of Freudian theory in Britain, to ask about the Communist Party Historians Group and their relationship, or better lack of relationship, to psychoanalysis. He seemed intrigued and puzzled by the question, and as we spoke on the phone he said, what are you doing this week? ‘Come over for a drink and we’ll discuss it’. So I went to Nassington Road and spent a very interesting couple of hours in his ground floor sitting room, nursing a whisky, and hearing about the culture of the CP. He spoke of Freud as ‘in the air’ during the 30s – ‘we all knew of the “talking cure”, of course’, he mused; but he conveyed that it had left him cold: he acknowledged how far he had gone along with Soviet visions of psychology and the orthodoxy that Freudian thought and practice were ‘bourgeois’ concerns, of no direct consequence, at least in his work. In an essay that particularly intrigued me, concerned with Annales, he wrote of Freud as ‘a bad historian’ and thought psychoanalysis an unfortunate distraction for the student of the past. In those days perhaps, he mused, Pavlov had the better case. But he mentioned a cousin of his, of whom he sounded rather proud, who had indeed sought to bring Freud and Marx together. The conversation was inconclusive, and the question of why there had been no English version of ‘the Frankfurt School’ remained somewhat opaque at the end of our discussion. I took up the issue a few years later in a chapter of the Festschrift for Gareth Stedman Jones, edited by David Feldman and Jon Lawrence, in which Hobsbawm’s work figures quite large, although I never found a way to make use of our personal conversation, and kicked myself afterwards for failing to take proper notes or bring a tape recorder.
Living not far from Hobsbawm, I sometimes ran into him in South End Green, and often enough at Birkbeck, where I moved some years ago. My address was a few doors up from the house of an old friend of his, Roderick Floud. I recall one of Hobsbawm’s memorable lectures, when he was already into his 90s, to a packed audience at Birkbeck; and of that capacity to ‘think aloud’, move across countries, continents, centuries, picking out examples with such facility, and few if any notes; it was pretty astonishing to hear him ‘live’, and he had the students spellbound.
My final chance meeting was at Hay this summer. I’d never been to this book festival before, but had been invited to speak about my work, and promptly ran into Eric and Marlene Hobsbawm having tea in the ‘Green Room’. He was of course the president of the Festival as he was of Birkbeck. I was struck by his frailty; he looked far more gaunt than in my previous encounter in London. Having figured out, with a couple of prompts, who I was, he was immediately interested in the subject that had brought me here and alert to the potential significance: what was the talk about? The book? What was the historical problem? What was I arguing? And this was quickly followed by some thoughts of own of the period in question. It was a fleeting exchange. I didn’t want to overstay, well imagining the irksomeness for the two of them of being buttonholed in this way.
Before I left, I reminded him of our conversation all those years ago about psychoanalysis and history, and asked again about that cousin whose identity I’d by then forgotten: he came up with the name at once: it was Reuben Osbert, who wrote under the name of Osborn, and produced a book for Gollancz in 1937, Freud and Marx, A Dialectical Study. He also reminded me of a detail, that John Strachey had written the introduction. A review of the book that appeared in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly in 1940 might rather have confirmed Hobsbawm’s own doubts about the utility of Freudianism. The reviewer noted how the author tried to prove that Marxism and psychoanalysis are complementary, but concluded: ‘It is doubtful whether [Osborn’s] genuine sympathy with Freud adds much to his revolutionary efficiency.’ Hobsbawm was for me, in these chance meetings, and, of course, all the more in the vast wealth of his books and articles, the very epitome of ‘the historian’.