Eric at 90
Today's Scotsman has a 'happy birthday' interview with the British left's greatest living historian and worst ever political strategist. You have to admire a man who can look that geeky and still write a best-selling history of banditry...
Along with Dorothy Thompson and John Saville - two of the people I had the pleasure of meeting during my research trip to Britain in 2005 - Eric Hobsbawm is one of the last surviving former members of the Communist Party Historians Group, an outfit that flourished in the years between the end of the Second World War and the invasion of Hungary in 1956. Working together in the tense atmosphere of the early Cold War years, these brilliant young men and women created a new and very much improved account of Britain's past - 'a history from below' - that eventually entered the mainstream of academic and public discourse. Even today, in the aftermath of the postmodernist counter-revolutions of the '80s and '90s, it's hard to study the English revolution without contending with Christopher Hill, and the spectre of EP Thompson* still haunts historians of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century England, not to mention scholars of subaltern history in India.
Here's a melancholy thought: how much has Eric Hobsbawm written since he reached seventy, an age that Edward Thompson never made? How much have we lost to Legionnaires' disease and the several other strange maladies that combined to kill off the most remarkable member of a remarkable group of historians?
*Alright, technically Edward was never actually a member of the group - in the late '40s and early '50s he still fancied himself as a poet, and hung out with the Party's organisation of writers, along with the likes of David Holbrook, Jack Lindsay, and Randall Swingler - but he earned his stripes retrospectively, by forging close associations with the likes of Saville and Hill, and taking up some of the main thematic threads in their work. Certainly, the common belief that he was a member of the group doesn't seem too unjust.