Every year I give a lecture to my postgraduate design students about writing: how and why we write, and in particular how to write well. This latter quality is not one that I myself possess, so I refer them to people who I believe exemplify the art of writing. My rather select list comprises Susan Sontag, Peter Dormer, Malcolm McCullough and Eric Hobsbawm. I learned this afternoon that Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95.
It is certainly not for me to write his obituary, for that has been done today by others. Indeed the obituary of this seemingly obscure British Marxist historian can be found in the pages of newspapers in just about every country on earth tonight. That is a reflection of the impact of his writing, of the power of his storytelling. For Eric Hobsbawm was a masterful storyteller, who made history come alive and make sense. But as a Marxist, his concern was as much about the future as it was about the past, and his genius was in crafting the vision and the narrative to help us understand just where we were in time and space, and where we might go in the future.
Scattered over my home, on various bookshelves are books by him that stand as markers in my life. Way up high in the study is a small Penguin volume Industry and Empire that has my 16 year old signature on the first page. It guided me through my A level years. On the bookshelves up the stairs is his collection of essays The Forward March of Labour Halted which shaped my ideas as a postgraduate student, and which (as Tony Blair admits himself) provided the intellectual impetus for New Labour. But please let us not blame Eric for that. In the living room is a collection of his key works – Age of Capital, Age of Revolution, Age of Empire, Age of Extremes – which are vital contributions of this time lord. And alongside is his autobiography, one of the last presents from my late father, which is his personal history of the 20th century.
I loved Eric Hobsbawm as a writer because of the effortless way that he shaped his vision and ideas into words that told a story. As a Jew born in the First World War, brought up in Vienna and Berlin and living through everything that followed, then his experience of the twentieth century shapes his unique insights of history both before and after. But more than that, it was his problematic and contradictory relationship with the Communist Party that I found most inspiring. I was a member of the Party when Eric Hobsbawm was the focus for those of us in the Eurocommunist faction, providing a real sense of political vision. He helped many of us through all those contradictory feelings.
Tonight it feels like a light has gone out. It was always there: a pole star of wisdom and insight against which you could judge your position and navigate yourself into new territories. But we will find our own way forward because of the inspiration and insights he leaves us with. Great writers do not just leave us with their words, but with the actions that those words inspire. Thank you, Eric Hobsbawm.