Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History
RICHARD J. EVANS
(Little, Brown, 800 pp, £35)
Tablet Bookshop price £31.50 • Tel 020 7799 4064
Eric Hobsbawm was like the hero of an Eric Ambler novel. International intrigue followed him around. Born in Alexandria 18 months before the end of the Great War, he was raised in Vienna the son of a bourgeois family whose wealth was laid waste by the Great Depression. With both his parents dead before his fourteenth birthday, Hobsbawm was sent to school in Berlin just as the Weimar Republic was imploding. Isolated and impoverished, he was drawn to the Communist cause. Out leafleting one night during the election campaign of March 1933, he found himself on a streetcar alongside a pair of Nazi stormtroopers from whom he desperately tried to conceal his Party badge. Imagine what Hitchcock could have done with that scene.
A few weeks later, with the Nazis in power, Eric and his sister, Nancy, were moved to London (where their late father had grown up). Enrolled at St Marylebone Grammar, he was granted a single term in which to get up to speed for the general School Certificate. Even though his English was still rudimentary, Hobsbawm aced the exams and, a couple of years later, went on to King’s College, Cambridge. There he took a Double Starred First in history, edited Granta and was invited to join the Apostles, the quasi-secret society whose previous members had included J.M. Keynes, Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster and Ludwig Wittgenstein.