Consider the ‘Overture’ to Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire, 1875-1914… where we are told how a young Viennese woman and a young male English immigrant of Polish-Russian origin happened to find themselves during 1913-14 in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. There they met by chance, fell in love, and were eventually married. The marriage, though, took place in Zurich, because, as citizens of two combatant nations in the Great War, the marriage of these two young people could be solemnised neither in Austria nor in England, but only in neutral Switzerland.
“It is extremely improbable that such an encounter would have happened in such a place, or would have led to the marriage between two such people, in any period of history earlier than the one with which this book deals. Readers ought to be able to discover why.” The two young lovers, it turns out, were Hobsbawm’s parents. The historian thus launches on his narrative of a portentous period (1875-1914) of world history via an audacious plunge into an individual’s – in this case his own – personal history…
Probably his last piece of writing published in Eric Hobsbawm’s own lifetime was the obituary he wrote for The Guardian of the noted British academic Dorothy Wedderburn, formerly principal, Bedford/Royal Holloway College, University of London. The short article is classic Hobsbawm – crisp, poised and completely unsentimental, though his sense of loss at the passing of a dear friend comes across quite unmistakably.
“She was also a socialist, university principal, enemy of all self-advertisement and an untypical member of the community of ‘the great and the good’…” Almost in the same breath, but this time tongue firmly in cheek, he goes on to say: “A notably attractive woman, Dorothy continued to take her appearance seriously. At the lunch with which Royal Holloway celebrated her 80th birthday, she reserved a table for her Knightsbridge hairdressers…” But he rounds off his tribute with great warmth: “For her survivors, her greatest gift was her friendship.”
These lines came from a man who was confined to his hospital bed with terminal illness: the obit appeared only 10 days before Hobsbawm’s own death on October 1, 2012 at the age of 95. Clearly, those 95 years sat lightly on Hobsbawm, as his many friends and admirers – and even those who disagreed with his worldview, sometimes violently – remembered in print after his passing….
A great teacher passes: Eric Hobsbawm (1917- 2012), witness to an era