Media families; 10. The Hobsbawms

Eric Hobsbawm (historian) begat Andy (Internet expert) and Julia (public relations director)

To his critics, the historian Eric Hobsbawm is that incorrigible old communist, who failed to say sorry - sorry for being on the wrong side for too long, for not leaving the party after the suppression of the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, sorry for overlooking the horrors of Stalinism. Yet, to his more numerous admirers, Hobsbawm, 80 in June, is an intellectual giant. His trilogy - The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Empire, - makes European history since the French Revolution readable and understandable and his last major work, Age of Extremes, persuasively shapes a narrative of the 20th century as a story of socialism saving capitalism.

Both detractors and supporters would, however, agree that this son of a bourgeois Jewish family, who fled to Britain from Berlin when he was 14, is more than an obscure academic. Eric Hobsbawm has the lean, gangling frame and shock of grey hair of the mad professor. But, glamourised by the New York Review of Book's set and at home in the Hampstead habitat, his elegant use of language has always made him part of the media world. He and his wife, Marlene, 65, were never prone to left-wing asceticism and love to entertain. (She is, herself, a successful author of music books and sister of Walter Schwarz, a former Guardian journalist).

Under the pseudonym, Francis Newton, Hobsbawm revealed another indulgence, when he wrote The Jazz Scene in 1959. But his political writings brought him most to the public's notice. His famous 1978 article, "Forward March of Labour Halted?", published in Marxism Today, was the first to recognise, before Margaret Thatcher came to power and years beforeTony Blair's New Labour, that the left was in serious decline and could be revived only if it achieved far wider social appeal.

Neither of the Hobsbawm children, Julia, 32, and Andy, 34, has followed in their father's academic footsteps. Indeed, they don't have a university degree between them. But each is considered bright and successful - Julia runs her own PR company and Andy runs a New York company which creates Web sites on the Internet. The rise and rise of the Hobsbawm family is, indeed, a perfect match for the recent history of the Labour party - Marxist antecedent produces offspring whose success is rooted in presentation and computer-based wizardry.

It's an outcome which probably neither surprises nor worries Eric Hobsbawm. They have excelled in modern media which might well have attracted their eclectic father too, had he been born when the Beatles rather than the Bolsheviks were getting to be really big.

Julia Hobsbawm, Labour luvvie and a Blair supporter of the apolitical variety, co-founded her own PR company, Hobsbawm Macaulay, in 1993 and does a roaring trade, specialising in good causes such as the CRE, the Runnymede Trust, Refuge and Emily's List, the campaign to encourage more women to stand for Parliament. Her parents' passion for socialising and networking endowed her with many skills and the surname, she'll admit, is a huge advantage; most people imagine she has several degrees.

Edward Bernays, founding father of public relations, described it as the art of "telling the truth persuasively". Julia Hobsbawm claims this moral high ground, as, no doubt, her father does for his own discipline. Indeed the links between the professions are explicitly made in Stewart Ewen's recent book, PR - A Social History of Spin, which locates the origins of PR in Roosevelt's attempts to galvanise support for the New Deal. Guess who Ewen quotes about the crisis in capitalism caused by the Depression? Eric Hobsbawm. But now we know that it wasn't socialism that saved capitalism. It was public relations.

Andy Hobsbawm is the more low key of the siblings, who after a period in an unsuccessful rock band, the Tin Gods (a cross between the Psychedelic Furs and the Waterboys) hit his stride as director of New York-based Online Magic, which has created Web sites on the Internet for clients such as Channel 4 (featuring an animated Michael Grade in braces puffing a large cigar). Like his father, though, Andy is also trying to make sense of British politics. His greatest innovation so far? Britain's first and critically acclaimed general election Web site - GE97 at http://www.ge97.co.ukn

Jack O'Sullivan

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