Wednesday 03 October 2012
Further to yesterday's obituary of Eric Hobsbawm, in 1952 and 1953 it was my privilege - a word he often used in various contexts – to be supervised by Eric, as an undergraduate, a raw youth straight from a tank crew in the British Army of the Rhine. Unlike a number of distinguished don colleagues, he required one's essay to be delivered to his rooms at least three days before the submission date. The result was that he had time to read it more than cursorily and knew exactly the points he thought it was worth pursuing. No tutor could have been more dismissive of irrelevance or cant, and more direct in getting to the substance of any historical issue.
Hobsbawm epitomised rigour. Eighteen-year-olds who had come straight from school and whose National Service had been deferred told me that he frightened them. I'm not surprised; he was very formidable indeed. But Hobsbawm was quite superb with those of us who had gone through two years' National Service, perhaps in Korea, and especially those in my position who had served in BAOR, and travelled round Germany in the early 1950s. His knowledge of German history and places was prodigious. He never flaunted his communism or Marxism – and I think that he was not only stimulating for, but was also stimulated by, the old Etonian contingent who were kings at the time.
Half a century after I had journeyed to his room in the early evenings – he had a good taste in sherry – he and his wife came to dinner with me at the House of Commons. Undiminished, he exuded a critical curiosity in his late 80s that had been his hallmark as a young Cambridge don.
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