History men: in memoriam Eric Hobsbawm (and my own father)

25 Apr

hobsbawm_interestingThis post hasn’t, I confess, much to do with film; though you can imagine an elderly remake of The Big Chill (1983), Lawrence Kasdan’s warm and witty film about a group of friends who reunite after a funeral, if you will. I simply wanted to do my small bit in remembrance of a giant of letters, the unapologetically Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died in October aged 95 and whose memorial service was held yesterday in London University’s Senate House (used as a location in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, if you want another film reference).

His family and mine stayed, for a few halcyon summers in my youth, in adjoining houses in Snowdonia. I studied History at A-Level and at Oxford, so I had read a couple of Eric’s many works, but I was more over-awed by the fact that Mick Jagger had once sat around the campfire here; besides, my father was also a distinguished historian.

Eric was a sweet man, ravenously intellectually curious, who also loved the countryside and had a peculiar habit, affectionately mocked by the younger generation I am ashamed to say, of expressing his greeting twice – “Hello, hi!” – as though the first utterance was not emphasis enough for the splendour of the day. I have kept in touch with his son and daughter and niece ever since.

The memorial service was a parade of the great and the good. The President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, sent a video tribute praising his “great courage, consistency and sense of resolve”. The author and journalist Claire Tomalin recalls asking Eric how living in a comfortable house in Hampstead squared with his socialist ideals. The wry response: “If you’ve living in a ship that’s going down, you might as well travel first class.” His views on the rottenness of the capitalist system certainly seem more prescient and urgent than ever.

Professor Donald Sassoon, on a panel with the journalist and writer Neil Ascherson, recalled Eric making some sweeping generalisation about some supposedly universal truth which Sassoon was about to dismiss as hot air, until Eric capped it with the devastating codicil, “Except of course in Tasmania.” The clear implication was that the state of affairs had indeed been considered in every country of the world, and found wanting only in one. The device is to be recommended to anyone wishing to add weight to an argument.

The BBC’s favourite historian Simon Schama was a verbal Catherine Wheel; almost to a fault. He recalled his first encounter, “bug-eyed with illumination”, with one of Eric’s works as a student; and how, when he years later got to discuss matters historical with the great man in the BBC canteen, he found himself outclassed by the breadth and specificity of his learning; he likened Eric to “a truffle-hunter digging delicious pungent nuggets of analytical [something] from the undergrowth”, and suggested “his mind was in itself an enacted dialectic”.

But just when you started to feel the speech was more about Schama’s own gift for words than Eric’s, he began to break down. The final lines were almost lost for tears. Eric was “someone who could not get enough of the exhilarating peculiarity of the human condition”, he managed to say, counselling his fellow professors at the memorial event, which had been organised by Birkbeck College along with Eric’s family, to “tell your students to read Hobsbawm if you want to know what history can do – what a great historian is.”

Eric’s widow Marlene and daughter Julia also gave touching tributes, though you might be even better served by reading Julia’s wonderful encomium in the Financial Times, here. Overall the strong sense was not merely that Eric’s work had touched a chord with the distinguished company here assembled, as well as generations of students all round the world, but that Eric the man had, as well.

It is never easy to lose a father, but easier when you know that they have lived well and long, and that the ripples from their life will continue to spread long after the stone has sunk to the bottom.

Colin_WellsMy own father (right), the Ancient Historian Professor Colin M Wells, received a page obituary in The Times, which I dearly wish that, impossibly, he could have lived to see, and a library in his name at Wolfson College. I also exorcised the extraordinary pain (to us, I’m not sure he was aware of it) of his final five days in a coma by writing a radio play inspired by the subject – which was cathartic though I have not submitted it anywhere and perhaps never will. Three years on, the sucking, surprisingly brutal grief has dissipated, and my father’s visits to me in the dreamworld are less frequent and more genial.

I heartily wish Andy and Julia the same.

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