Eric Hobsbawm … The History Man

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Eric Hobsbawm (1917 – 2012)

Eric Hobsbawm is a renowned and respected British historian, social theorist and author.

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 In 2008, aged 91, he was interviewed by the Guardian for their Writers Rooms series.

I work in what used to be our son Andy’s room on the top floor of a Hampstead semi. The room has changed dramatically since it went from teen-age to old-age use, except insofar as it still looks chaotic, though in a different way. Indeed, much of it is: piles of research notes, print-outs, writings, unanswered letters, money stuff and newly arrived books, all retrieved chiefly by a no-longer-reliable memory. Because I am a historian who works surrounded by multiple papers, they tend to accumulate on the surface of my two desks round the lap-top without which I could no longer function, having been shamed into the computer-era in the late 1980s by my students in New York. The carrying case hangs on the door.

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There’s little to distract me from work in this room. Apart from looking up references, I do my reading elsewhere. There are no comfortable armchairs. A picture of Billie Holiday (visible) and a red-black painting of Brazil (out of sight) are on the only wall not covered with bookshelves. That’s about it. There is a radio/record player, but I hardly ever listen. Music imposes itself too much. I like this light room, coloured by the books, spilling over from other parts of the house, but never socialise in it.

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Some of the shelves visible on the picture behind the two desks contain books on subjects I still work on: nationalism, the history of banditry. Most of them, however, are filled with the foreign editions of my books. Their numbers amaze and please me and they still keep coming as new titles are translated and some fresh vernacular markets – Hindi, Vietnamese – open up. As I can’t read most of them, they serve no purpose other than as a bibliographic record and, in moments of discouragement, as a reminder that an old cosmopolitan has not entirely failed in 50 years of trying to communicate history to the world’s readers. And as an encouragement to go on while I still can.

Photo : Karen Robinson

Photo : Karen Robinson

Happy trails until we meet again …

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18 responses to “Eric Hobsbawm … The History Man

  1. I don’t feel so bad about the shape my desk is in now. Loved this post! ~Elle

    • It is amazing that the greatest British historian in modern times could actually function with a desk like that. But he did. Good luck with your desk Elle. Thanks so much for dropping by!

  2. Oh, yes, Hobsbawm! I like you already.

  3. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life and commented:
    Most of us are fascinated by history but there are some people who have a wonderful grasp and depth of the subject.. Wonderful articleon Eric Hobsbawm by A Writer’s Den

  4. I can relate to Hobsbawm’s inability to work while listening to music. I enjoy music but find it distracting while writing so very rarely listen to it when working. My desk is somewhat messy although it did recently get a makeover! Kevin

  5. Hi Kevin. Yes, I agree. Music distracts me. As does my cat Halo Solero who will insist on sleeping on my desk when I’m trying to write. All the best.
    Kris.

    • What an interesting name for a cat. It is my guide dog, Trigger who distracts me with his cold, wet nose, nudging me and demanding attention. Dogs are good for writers as they force their owners to concentrate on something other than their craft. Its extremely healthy to be taken away from one’s desk into the fresh air as it assists in recharging the batteries. Does your cat share Hobsbawm’s politics? I make it a point never to discuss matters political with my dog as it isn’t worth falling out with friends if one happens to hold differing views on things political.

      Best. Kevin

  6. Hi Kevin. Ah yes … the cat! He just might be a Marxist cat. He did purr when I asked … but he also purrs when I threaten to cut his head off. Having said that, some of his friends definitely are. They have their own website …http://marxist-cats.tumblr.com/
    Say a big hello to Trigger for me. All the best.
    Kris

  7. I’m glad I’m not the only one buried in paper. Eric Hobsbawm was an interesting man. I agree music is much to distracting, as are my cats who pester me for attention.

  8. I’ve just realised that I had been here already. My father and Eric Hobsbawn were both at King’s Cambridge and a few years ago they had a long chat at a reunion lunch about the activities of the Secret Services. There is a book about media, edited by his daughter Julia Hobsbawn – Where the Truth Lies, that I found very interesting.

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