Great Helmsman or Mad Wrecker

By Caute, David | The Spectator, October 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

Great Helmsman or Mad Wrecker


Caute, David, The Spectator


INTERESTING TIMES: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY LIFE by Eric Hobsbawm Allen Lane, L20, pp. 464, ISBN 0713995815

KOBA THE DREAD: LAUGHTER AND TWENTY MILLION by Martin Amis Cape, L16.99, pp. 306, ISBN 0224063030

Eric Hobsbawm is arguably our greatest living historian - not only Britain's, but the world's (as the torrential translation of his oeuvre tends to confirm). The global reach of his knowledge and culture, his formidable linguistic armoury, his love of jazz (although the saxophone was banished by Stalin), and his acute readings of personalities (though not Stalin's) are invariably conveyed in a prose measured yet fluent. Perhaps there is no substitute for an emigre background, for schooling in Vienna and Berlin before arriving at Marylebone Grammar School and King's College, Cambridge. Even the drawback of having an expatriate English father more interested in boxing than ideas was offset by an early death, sad and penurious.

Hobsbawm (like Isaac Deutscher) bucks the trend in one notable respect: as Perry Anderson pointed out, the main impact of immigrant scholars in Britain has been conservative or 'Cold War liberal': think of Namier, Popper, Isaiah Berlin and all the other knights. Having witnessed the rise of Nazism at close quarters while on the tram to school, and having fervently embraced communism during its most sectarian phase, the young Hobsbawm, Jewish on both sides and now orphaned, was sent to absorb the mild charms of English culture, including schoolmasters with a sense of humour. Elected to the elite Apostles. he was a year or two too young to have expanded the famous spy-ring known as the Cambridge Five into the Six, although he mentions that a little spying in a good cause might not have been rejected had it come his way. What really annoyed him, one gathers, is that British Intelligence would not have him and his linguistic skills for a war in which he did not believe (until Hitler attacked Russia), consigning him to the Royal Engineers and the excitements of shoring up East Anglia's coastal defences.

He loved Cambridge and King's, where he was later awarded a fellowship, and remained a loyal Apostle; Hobsbawm comes across as a sociable man who has known everyone worth knowing, happy at conferences and congresses, never more so than when addressing a lecture audience under Orozco murals, with a network of close friends around the world and a keen interest in sex - he offers a bemusing comparison of political demonstrations and the male orgasm. With affectionate wit he recalls his rapt, undergraduate attendance at the Cambridge lectures of the economic historian M. M. Postan, an immigrant of earlier vintage and later a loyal friend with the endearing habit of mentioning that his former pupil was a party member whenever recommending him for academic posts during the Cold War. To what extent Hobsbawm's career did and did not suffer during that time is an interesting topic fully discussed. Better England than America is the verdict; Hobsbawm's liking for New York and academic America's admiration for Hobsbawm meant that almost annually he had to apply for exemption from the anti-communist provision of US visa regulations.

Chapter 17, 'Among the Historians', interested me the most, although the author modestly advises the uninterested reader to 'skip' it. I could have done with more. Here one finds Hobsbawm, along with Christopher Hill, E. P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Lawrence Stone, joining the then unstoppable tide of `social history' - not G. M. Trevelyan's kind, which passes unmentioned, but the broader, interpretative, social-anthropological approach associated with Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel and the Annales, later to flourish in the British journal Past & Present. These 'modernisers', as he calls them, were busy sweeping away 'kings, ministers, battles and treaties' - though Hobsbawm's own Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century is not short of these redundant entities. …

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