Obituaries & Appreciations

07/01/16

The latest update of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has just been published. It contains biographies of 222 men and women who shaped modern British history and who died in the year 2012. Martin Jacques has written the biography for Eric Hobsbawm, one of the twentieth century’s greatest historians. By kind permission of the Oxford DNB and OUP you can read the biography below or at the Oxford DNB website.

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Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall was an utterly unique figure. Although he arrived at the age of 19 from Jamaica and spent the rest of his life here, he never felt at home in Britain. This juxtaposition was a crucial source of his strength and originality. Because of his colour and origin, he saw the country differently, not as a native but as an outsider. He observed this island through a different viewfinder and it enabled him to see things that those shaped and formatted by the culture could not. It took an outsider, a black person from a former colony, to understand what was happening to a post-imperial country seemingly locked in endless decline.

His impact was to be felt across many different fields. Perhaps best known is his pioneering work in cultural studies, but his influence was to be felt in many diverse fields. By the end of the 1970s, it was the connections that he started to make between culture and politics that was to redefine how we thought about politics.

This was how my own relationship with Stuart began in 1978. Soon after I became editor of Marxism Today, I commissioned an article from him on Thatcher. The result was one of the most important pieces of political writing of the past 40 years. Stuart, drawing on his cultural insights and the work of Antonio Gramsci, proceeded to rewrite the way in which we make sense of politics; and in the process, incidentally, he invented the term Thatcherism. For the next decade, it felt as if we lived in each other’s pockets. The way in which Stuart wrote was fascinating. Some, like Eric Hobsbawm, the other Marxism Today great, produced a perfect text first time out. Stuart’s first draft, in contrast, would arrive in an extremely incoherent and rambling form, as if trying to clear his throat. Over the next 10 days, one draft would follow another, in quick succession, like a game of ping-pong. His was a restless, inventive intellect, always pushing the envelope, at his best when working in some form of collaboration with others. His end result was always worth savouring, his articles hugely influential.

Tragically, Stuart’s ill health slowly but remorselessly curtailed and undermined his ferocious energy. But his mind remained as alert and involved as ever. The response to his death has served to demonstrate how much his work has influenced so many people in so many different ways: cultural studies, race and ethnicity, politics, the arts, the media, academe. Little has been left untouched by his intellectual power and insight.

Stuart’s extraordinary impact was not because he happened to be black and from Jamaica. It was because he was black and from Jamaica. It took an outsider, a black Jamaican, to help us understand and make sense of Britain’s continuing decline. He was in so many ways well ahead of his time. It is difficult to think of anyone else that has offered such a powerful insight into what has been happening to us over the past 70 years.

24/04/13 — Beveridge Hall, Senate House, London University

Eric was a deeply political person. He was shaped, above all, by, in his own words, ‘the two most decisive years of my life,’ those in Berlin between 1931 and 1933, during which, as a young teenager, he witnessed the rise of Hitler and the parallel rise of the KPD. In 1932 he joined the SSB, a young communist organisation. ‘As I entered the school year 1932-3’, he wrote, ‘the sense that we were living in some kind of final crisis, or at least a crisis destined for some cataclysmic resolution, became overpowering.’

His experiences in central Europe gave Eric his near-lifelong commitment to communism. He grew up in a period of volcanic change, he lived with a foreboding of catastrophe. His political co-ordinates were profoundly different from what they would have been had he spent these years in Britain. At the same time, growing up in central Europe before moving to Britain at the age of 15, imbued him with a highly cosmopolitan outlook, including a facility with so many languages, that, certainly in a British context, was most unusual and was to shape his subsequent political and intellectual development.

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06/10/12 – The Guardian

Eric Hobsbawm

The first time I met Eric Hobsbawm was at an annual gathering of the Economic History Society. As a fellow historian I had long admired his historical writing. But it was not until a couple of years later that I was to actually get to know him. By this time I had changed my clothes and become editor of Marxism Today. Having read Eric’s articles in the now-defunct New Society, I was aware he had much of great interest to say about contemporary politics. I phoned him in autumn 1978 soon after commencing my editorial duties and we had lunch at Birkbeck College. I wanted to run a special issue on the tenth anniversary of 1968 and it was patently obvious that there was no better author than Eric to write the overview. He did not disappoint. The grand sweep of the piece was breath taking. It was typical Eric.

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Turkish edition just published!

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