April 19, 2013 6:56 pm

Remembering Dad

Julia Hobsbawm on the daunting intellect and tireless curiosity of her father Eric Hobsbawm, the historian and champion of the left who died last year
Eric Hobsbawm©Getty Images

The historian Eric Hobsbawm at his typewriter, January 1976

One morning last October, five of us converged on the entrance to Highgate Cemetery in London to be met by my father’s gravedigger. I can’t tell you anything about this man except that he wore deep green overalls and that his manner was perfect for the occasion, sincerely solemn. Unlike us, he clearly knew what he was doing: we were tense and grievingly clueless. In the fortnight since my dad’s death I had been surprised by the kindness shown by different officials. From the hospital bereavement office and Camden Council’s registrar to Leverton & Sons – the Claridge’s of funeral parlours – and now here, everyone looked me straight in the eye and said quietly “I’m sorry for your loss.”

My father died at the age of 95 with scores of global editions of his books in print, countless honorary doctorates and visiting fellowships and something close to a cult following among people of all classes, ages and types. He had political enemies in death as he had in life – he was resolutely a Marxist historian and never relinquished his membership of the Communist party – but mostly people seemed as upset as we were, which was a comfort. In the hours after he died, while the Twitter feeds lit up and the news agencies rang in alongside relatives, I phoned through a death notice to The Times. The young man taking copy on the phone sounded stressed: he asked me to repeat the credit card number several times and then blurted out suddenly that he had read history at university and had loved my father’s books. Former students rang in tears from time zones which suggested they had woken to the news and had acted on impulse.

Our family grief took hold in a private cocoon while the news began to swell outside. At the Labour party conference, which had started that morning in Manchester, his death was announced from the platform. Ed Miliband put out a statement, the BBC dusted off its obituary and ran it on the news bulletins. In Brazil, university students hung out banners saying “Hobsbawm Vivat”. For over a week the mail arrived in piles as thick and regular as Christmas cards, including one of those Post Office “While You Were Out” notes. Its pre-printed boxes should have been ticked to indicate a parcel or a letter requiring signature but they were blank. Instead there was a scribble in black Biro from the postman who signed off as “David” and is a history buff: “I liked his work and just wanted to send my condolences.” Being bereft in public does have its benefits.

Eric Hobsbawm with daughter Julia

With Julia at Soho House, London, 1996

The gravedigger navigated through the avenues of distinctive and charismatic headstones. My father will fit right in here, I thought, as I held his green plastic urn, labelled efficiently by Golders Green Crematorium on October 10 with a bitterly ordinary white printer label on the top: “Cremated remains of the late Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, Crem No 326824”.

The cemetery plot, situated as my husband Alaric wryly pointed out later “just to the right of Karl Marx”, had been freshly dug. We were led up a slim track, slippery and muddy from persistent drizzle. The gravedigger moved the green baize surround back like an impeccable waiter moves back a stiff white linen cloth. My mum Marlene had bought the plot in an expensive and expansive act of love several years earlier. She is 81 and was my father’s unsung muse for 50 years, dealing constantly with demands on his time from students, publishers, editors and broadcasters while acting as his general reader. She secured it despite space being incredibly limited: getting a burial plot in Highgate Cemetery is harder to land than a Jil Sander-for-Uniqlo coat (something she marched off to queue for in Oxford Street at eight in the morning in her late seventies).

My dad was pleased knowing that he would end up there. Highgate Cemetery’s east wing is full of iconoclasts from the intelligentsia. I can picture him, glasses pushed up over his high forehead, peering longsightedly at the guide produced by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust about its history, hoovering up the text and filleting it for us in an exact and pithy way. “Ah yes,” he might say, energised like a freshly charged battery by what he had just read, “you see what is really interesting about this is…”

. . .

Hobsbawm family gathering©Paul Rough

A family gathering in the 1970s, including (in front, from left to right) Eric, his wife Marlene and their children Julia and Andy

For someone who read constantly and widely every single day of his life (he loved the poetry of W.H. Auden and the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes as much as political economic theory) it felt fitting that he would rest among writers and campaigners he either did hang out with in his lifetime – or happily would have if they’d met. My parents were known for their relaxed dinner parties in Hampstead: Christmas in the 1970s was always shared with global academics who in my mother’s words had “nowhere else to go until the British Museum reopens”. In later years they held annual lunch parties in their pretty cottage in the Brecon Beacons during the Hay Festival, where my dad was president, for the passing authors who were life-long friends – Amartya Sen and Emma Rothschild; Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn; the late Sir John Maddox and his wife, the writer Brenda Maddox. And Tom Stoppard, who apparently based the Red Cambridge don in his play Rock ’n’ Roll on my dad.

My mother always used to tell me the story that when I was born, in 1964, she told the nurse that the way to recognise my father was to “go out into the corridor and find the one not pacing up and down but the one reading”. He did apparently once read a telephone directory in a hotel room in Seville instead of the Bible, and got as far as H. He was an anthropologist at heart. His mind was fed by what he told me he most wished for his grandchildren: “Curiosity”. He took in culture as widely and in as many countries as possible, reading anything and everything, often in Spanish, Italian, German or French.

For a couple of years the burial plot lay unoccupied, though illness and great age took my father very close to death several times during that period. By the end he was in a wheelchair on a merry-go-round of medical visits at home and sudden dashes to hospital. He always charmed the staff because he immediately asked each nurse and orderly where in the world they were from, and seemed to know very detailed economic data about their country of origin.

. . .

My father grew up in Vienna. His childhood was poor and precarious. He writes in his autobiography, Interesting Times, that his own father collapsed and died on the doorstep, aged 48, after “another of his increasingly desperate visits to town in search of money to earn or borrow”. Within two years his mother had died, aged 36, from lung disease and he was moved to stay with relatives in Berlin. Watching the rise of Adolf Hitler to power first-hand, he wrote that “the months in Berlin made me a life-long communist”. He came to Britain to stay with relatives in 1933. He won a scholarship to Cambridge, and went up in 1936.

Portrait of Eric Hobsbawn by Peter de Francia©Rosie Hallam

A portrait by Peter de Francia, 1955

He must have felt an affinity with the hospital workers because he would introduce them to us admiringly as we visited: they were from the Philippines or Nigeria; they had a PhD. I think that he saw in them the thing he valued greatly as someone who started poor and worked his way up in life through his curiosity and ability to learn. I think they reminded him of the students he loved during a 65-year association with Birkbeck College, University of London, which specialises in evening degrees for daytime workers. The life of the immigrant, of the émigré, of the student, lifting themselves from desperate lives through education, was what he understood. In return the ward nurses and nursing assistants leaned in close to him as they did dressings and lifts, saying cheerfully “Hello, professor!” and mostly doing their very best.

A grim routine of psyching myself up for “the end” through much of 2010, 2011 and 2012 was accompanied by relief when he rallied, force of spirit – both his and my mother’s – and modern medicine keeping him alive. But on the periphery of my senses was a lonely tinge of something which felt a bit like let-down: knowing this angst would return, knowing he would die, inevitably, and in the meantime waiting, powerless. There was guilt and shame in my desperation to know when, as if knowing could somehow stave off or ameliorate the loss, which of course was a pointless exercise. I called this period of time “Jewish Waiting for Godot”.

Eric Hobsbawm with wife Marlene

With Marlene in London, 2012

When he had hospital appointments and was waiting around he always chose a pocketbook-size book to read in case he was kept in. Food he could do without; ideas not. One winter night my mother slipped and fell in the street and he called an ­ambulance to take her to hospital. In his anxiety he forgot his pocketbook routine. I arrived mid-evening to find them at A&E with nothing to do except wait. After a while they took her to X-ray. By now it looked more like a bad sprain but the process was going to take several more hours. He was being stoic but I was in a panic about him as much as her: how will he manage with just the windowless wall of a green hospital curtain to occupy his brain? Then I remembered. I had just downloaded The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal on to my iPad. So I showed him how to navigate the touchpad. His long finger traced the words and he muttered softly in something close to wonderment: an ancient E.T. in a world whose modernity was becoming strangely alien.

On Sundays towards the end we would visit and I would bring, like contraband, newspapers “from the right”: The Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Times or The Spectator. While the children played swingball in the garden he would lay down The Observer and read hungrily, enjoying his dislike of their politics and often pronouncing witheringly on David Cameron with his worst criticism: “He’s a lightweight.” Not that this stopped him lapping up news of my encounters with people who were not of “the left”, including the prime minister. Dad was refreshingly un-tribal. After his death I received a very kind handwritten note from Boris Johnson, recalling a conversation he had recently had with Dad in the green room at Hay. Boris remarked that my father had looked up at him from his wheelchair “as wise as a treeful of owls”. I remembered that conversation clearly because I had introduced them: he had made the Conservative Mayor of London squirm a bit by asking him straight out whether it amused him that he irritated “quite so many people in your own party quite so much of the time”.

I suspect my father rated Boris Johnson’s love of books, if not his politics. At home in Hampstead every one of my parents’ rooms had a table covered with hardbacks, paperbacks, manuscripts and papers which he could graze at. Up until the end he was writing something new or editing something old. Although he could use email and read internet links, he was a book man. We are still sorting through them. After he died I began to collect up all the books he had given me throughout my life – a collection of poems by Bertolt Brecht, a novel by Josef Skvorecky, a history of “the European world” and, from 1983, a pre-glasnost edition of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev: a Guide published by Progress Publishers. In many of them I found a sweet brown ex libris bookplate he had given me, which funnily enough featured a line drawing of a little brown owl. Perhaps he assumed everyone could be wise as he was. But this was a tall order especially for a child like me, more at home initially with First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton than some of his early reading gifts.

When I was nine, he gave me an impossibly grown-up academic book. Maria Theresa was bought after he decided the empress would be the perfect subject for a school project on “Important Women in History”. It was published in the Prentice Hall “Great Lives Observed” series: a far cry from Puffin paperbacks. I still feel a shudder of resentment and recall precisely feeling stupidly useless as I hold this well-meaning present in my now adult hands.

While he was not actually the kind of parent who force-feeds his children Great Works – he read every Tintin book aloud to us and seemed to love shouting “Blistering barnacles!” as Captain Haddock as much as we loved hearing him exclaim it – I think he forgot sometimes that we were ordinary children, not high-minded scholars. At his funeral my brother Andy gave an address recalling how embarrassing it was as children when “everyone else had sporty, handsome, track-suited young dads, whereas mine strode into the assembly hall like an archetypal absent-minded professor, with wispy grey hair and glasses, and an academic satchel slung over his back.”

As a child I often felt out of my depth and out of sync with him but by adulthood he was the best a parent can be to a child: cool. He was a keen jazz historian, writing under the pseudonym Francis Newton (named after Billie Holiday’s trumpeter) and we would listen to Ella Fitzgerald while he told me about the time he saw her live with his cousin Denis Preston, a jazz record producer.

Eric Hobsbawm with daughter Julia

With Julia on her wedding day, 2004

On my wedding day he walked me into the register office in Marylebone, gallantly holding an umbrella up to ward off the London rain. I was wearing blue organza and green shot silk and a pendant from my mother. He was wearing a suit hidden under his normal anorak and his satchel which inevitably contained something to read. I think of him now as a tall striding figure in soft brown shoes with a flapping tie, talking animatedly and being capable of forbidding intensity and snorts of laughter in the same conversation. I think of him and his books: ready for anything, certain that there was always something interesting to discover at any minute. In his final few days, that certainty finally began to fade. He asked my brother Andy a question with his usual unfailing polite exactness: “Is this the last chapter, or the second-to-last chapter?”

. . .

He died on October 1, early in the morning and 25 days before his 50th wedding anniversary. He was halfway through completing a text for the Serpentine Gallery’s Memory Marathon, which they named in his honour, and had managed by a whisker to complete his last book, Fractured Times. The worst thing anyone said afterwards was along the lines of “well, he had a good innings”. No, he wanted to go on for ever, thinking, talking, writing, reading. He may have been nearly a century old in his body but his mind remained young and endlessly inquiring.

Eric Hobsbawm receives the Companion of Honour from the Queen

Receiving the Companion of Honour from the Queen, 1998

His final belongings reflected the essence of who he was: a radio to listen to the BBC World Service and Radio 4 on, a stack of newspapers including the International Herald Tribune, and books. This time his pocketbook was a neat blue leather edition of George Bernard Shaw’s Plays & Players, published by Oxford University Press in 1952.

I had a flashback to two years earlier when, in a dramatic prelude, I had been called to help get him urgently to hospital – his first pneumonia. He looked barely alive and I knew he felt he was not going to make it. “How are you feeling?” I asked him. “In very poor shape,” he replied. We were all struggling to get him downstairs. But once at the bottom he insisted on delaying. With extremely faltering moves he fetched a book from the uppermost shelf of the front room, above his jazz LPs. This emergency reading book was as ever pocket-sized, and was bound in red leather, its print close and elegant. It had been given to him as a boy by his beloved “Mama” in Vienna, eight decades earlier.

On that occasion, he was very much alive a couple of days after the antibiotics kicked in. I called his mobile to check in and asked if he needed anything. He had a big sweet tooth and I expected him to ask for some fruit jellies, a favourite, or perhaps some dark chocolate. “I managed to bring a most turgid book in with me,” he said apologetically. “Would you mind getting me something better?” It turned out that the book he had picked up, assuming it was the last he would ever hold, was a German edition of The Brothers Karamazov, and with the crisis over it was now not to his liking. Knowing his weakness for thrillers – one book wall is covered in the Penguin crime paperbacks with the green spines, his old Ed McBains and more recently Elmore Leonards – I brought him in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. It got him through the hospital tedium and even prompted a rather racy discussion about how much marital bed-hopping it featured. “Too much,” he declared.

Eric Hobsbawm with Tom Stoppard©George Littlejohn

With Tom Stoppard

We used to range widely in our chats in those ending years, discussing everything from gossip, which he loved, to the goings-on in the political world. He was always completely up to speed. He engaged in the lives of all of us, his two sons and his daughter, his nine grandchildren, and his young great-granddaughter. He always asked me avidly “How’s business?” during each visit, enjoying my tales from the front line of capitalism. He celebrated every entrepreneurial step forward but was always a bit anxious, leaving answerphone messages saying: “It’s Dad. Just checking in to see how you are. Don’t overdo it. Kiss, kiss.” My dad, the academic historian and giant of “the left”, and me, his degreeless, politically plural daughter who loves doing business. I never felt so close to him as towards the end.

. . .

Now in the closing months of 2012 there would be no more discussions about ideas, frivolous or intense – no more hearing his panoramic view of the present viewed through an immaculately detailed grasp of the past. No more watching him steeple his fingers in deep listening interest at the ideas of one of his army of devoted friends who came calling wherever they could find him, in London at home, in Wales, and in the stygian holding pen of the Royal Free Hospital, London.

I don’t know if he read much of Plays & Players, or if it just fitted his pocket and ended up being his last book by accident. But I took it with me everywhere immediately afterwards as I went through the official process of registering his death, while my mother sifted through nearly 1,000 beautiful messages and letters of condolence.

There were readings at the funeral of course. And great music. Guests listened to Mozart followed by the Kenny Barron trio before filing past him to – what else for a life-long Communist? – “The Internationale”.

Despite being a secular Jew all of his life, he had requested that his friend the American academic Ira Katznelson from Columbia University recite Kaddish at his funeral. His mother, he told me, “always said to me: never deny you are Jewish”. So at the very end when Ira, fresh off the red-eye from Manhattan, read the most important prayer of the Jews, I knew that my Dad – unobservant of the Jewish faith in any way during his life – was keeping true to her wish and her memory now, possibly when it mattered most.

Our final goodbye as a family at Highgate Cemetery was marked mainly in silence. It was cold, but autumn was still flaming away in the trees in Waterlow Park next door. Earlier, as I was buying a small bunch of flowers to lay on the grave, I had an overwhelming sentimental urge to give my father one last thing to read: it seemed impossible that he would never breathe in ideas again. I bought the London Review of Books, which he had regularly contributed to in life and which featured, as it happened, his friend Karl Miller’s obituary of him. We laid the copy, fresh and folded, on top, and then the gravedigger finished his work.

© Julia Hobsbawm. All rights reserved. Memorials for Eric Hobsbawm are being held on April 24 at Birkbeck College in London and in October at the New School for Social Research with Columbia University in New York. Both will be webcast

The Eric Hobsbawm Scholarship Fund is launched this week: www.bbk.ac.uk/hobsbawm-scholarships

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