Eric Hobsbawm was a master of the historical profession; but he was much more than a professional historian. He literally lived history — his own life, which stretched from his birth in Alexandria, Egypt in 1917 to his death on October 1, 2012 in Hampstead, England, made him witness to the rise and fall of empires and nations, ideologies and ideals, of all hues.
Perhaps it was that rush of momentous events — events that both destroyed and remade the world in which he had grown up — that gave him such a profound historical perspective.
He had an acute grasp of, and commitment to, the present-day and its politics; but in every conversation, no matter how trivial, he would summon a historical example or fact that would subvert the narcissism of the present moment. Hobsbawm’s almost instinctual connection to the past left us younger historians at Birkbeck College (where I began my teaching career) awestruck. I remember discussing this once over lunch with my colleague the great Irish historian Roy Foster, and coming to the conclusion that Eric didn’t just study and write history, in his sleep he actually dreamed historically too — something we could never aspire to.
Grasp of detail
Hobsbawm could appear an austere figure. Intellectually he certainly was: while his many books are remarkable storehouses of fact and details, he was not a flamboyant stylist in the way his younger colleague the historian Edward Thompson was, nor was he attracted to sweeping historical theories, as his friend the anthropologist Sir Jack Goody is. His unique skill was an unmatchable grasp of detail — he would know about the 19th century Bolivian miners protest that stood as a counter-example to some theory of labour unrest, or about a 20th century Corsican feud that undermined some claim about the extent of the state and law in Europe.
In his personal style too, he maintained an exemplary austerity — into his 90s, he insisted on taking the bus to attend seminars in Bloomsbury. But he also possessed a honed aesthetic sense. He began early in his life to collect Indian and Persian miniature paintings, and built a small but exquisite collection (one of his regrets was how in later years his academic salary left him priced out of the rising market for such paintings), and the dinner parties that he and his wife Marlene gave were always memorable not just for the conversation but for the wine and food. His great passion was of course jazz, and he became an acute critic of jazz performers and styles, writing a regular column (pseudonymously, under the name Francis Newton) for the New Statesman through much of the 1950s, pieces later collected in his book, The Jazz Scene.
Hobsbawm was also a deeply engaged intellectual, wanting to change — not merely understand — the world. Here, he was a good deal less efficacious than he would have liked. He stuck to his principles — which infuriated other intellectuals who preferred the personal melodrama of Damascene salvation from their earlier convictions — and preferred sometimes to be dogmatic rather than pragmatic; but in an age when principles and opinion blur, where clicking on the thumbs up ‘Like’ symbol passes for critical judgment, one grew to admire his steadfastness.
Among my library, one of my most prized possessions is a 1960 edition of The Jazz Scene, published by the Jazz Book Club. It is inscribed: ‘For Sunil, Who was not born when this book was written, with good wishes and in friendship, Eric Hobsbawm’. Even in that inscription, the historian — ever aware of the complex rhythms of time and experience — was at work, reminding me of my own place in history. All of Hobsbawm’s work stands as such a reminder to us – of other times, other places, other possibilities.
(Sunil Khilnani is a historian and Avantha Professor and Director, India Institute, King’s College London.)