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The historian who saw the past — and the future

G Arunima | Updated on December 20, 2020

An admirer bumps into Eric Hobsbawm. Or wishes she had

* But you made history writing seem so easy, and then you wrote constantly about contemporary politics, too

* I look at him, hopefully, as though he would give me some sign about how to change the world, or tell me why writing about people’s past should make a jot of difference to anyone

* Did this really happen or was it all going on in my head?

***

I am standing by the side of a road leading up to Snowdon and stop every now and then at a local pub for a quick bit of refreshment. I am on a walking holiday in Wales and it’s been stunning thus far, the world seemingly divided into rocky hills, stretches of open land dotted with the odd old church and sometimes meadows with grazing sheep and cattle.

People I’ve met thus far have all been polite, well meaning and dull. I can see someone striking ahead of me, walking rather purposefully, peering out at the countryside and then at a piece of paper that he has in his hand. Must be a map, I think. I like the look of his weather-beaten rucksack and drab khaki trousers. He’s stopped and is now scribbling something in a small notebook. That looks promising. I build up to a brisk trot and am soon by his side.

No. It can’t be. Can it? Meanwhile as I stand sizing the poor man up, he looks at me quizzically through his glasses, placed on the edge of his slightly crooked nose.

“Indian? Student?” he asks. “You are Professor Eric Hobsbawm,” I announce to him and the rocks and grass. “Yes I am. And you are?” “I am a huge admirer,” I say, and then look embarrassed.

“Thank you.” he says in a kindly manner, and asks, “Shall we walk?”

“I thought you had already walked here many times before,” I reply.

I had read that in Interesting Times, his autobiography that brought together the personal and political seamlessly, and could double as a history of socialism and communism, stories about his own travels, especially in Latin America, friendships, music and amusing asides on academia. Of course, having read it alongside his wife Marlene's memoir (Meet Me in Buenos Aires), I had also realised that there was so much more to him, and their lovely life together, that only she could narrate.

“I thought Primitive Rebels was brilliant, rethinking the social bandit as a people's hero, making so many of us question our own class based assumptions about 'the criminal’,” I say. “I really want to write something like that but it’s so hard to find the sources…” My voice trails off.

“One has to look. It wasn’t easy to write, you know. But I wandered about Italy, talked to so many people,” he says. “History writing isn’t just about all those texts, you know, it’s the people. You need to think and feel about them, even as you analyse why they did all manners of rebellious things.”

“But you made history writing seem so easy, and then you wrote constantly about contemporary politics, too. That great essay when Margaret Thatcher was taking over (The Forward March of Labour Halted?) which outlined the changing character of the British labour movement. We all read it, you know. I think back on so much of that now, especially about how what you said that the ‘new socialist activists’ were mostly students and white collar workers. So true for us too…”

I look at him, hopefully, as though he would give me some sign about how to change the world, or tell me why writing about people’s past should make a jot of difference to anyone.

“And The Age of Extreme, too. I re-read that, and it made so much more sense now, especially as the 21st century will be the death of what so many of us take for granted back home,” I add. So much of what he had described, the social and economic upheavals, the horrific mass slaughter, the loss of so many rights we take for granted, from the domains of the intimate to the public political, all would soon be lost the way we were headed. “Yes, India seems to be going the German way,” he nods, agreeing, and I think that he lived through those terrible times, but never gave up…

“Would you change anything, if you were to live through all that again,” I ask. He smiles and replies, “I am too old for counterfactuals, and all that ‘pomo’ stuff, but I think not. It was all worth it, the politics, travel, my friends, the Party, jazz… and, of course, Marlene. No I wouldn’t change a thing.”

We stand silently for a while, and then he turns to go, and says, “I should go, but it was lovely to stop and chat.”

I watch after the gangly old man as he disappears into the distance, and then wonder, did this really happen or was it all going on in my head? But then as a wise old man once said, just because it’s happening in your head doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

(If Only is an occasional column on people — real or fictional — we wish we had met)

G Arunima is a historian and the director of the Kerala Council of Historical Research

Published on December 20, 2020

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