A global memoir of a short century

The New Century
December 15, 2000

Eric Hobsbawm is a true cosmopolitan. He was born in Alexandria, educated in Vienna, Berlin, London and Cambridge, and he taught for most of his life in London and New York, at two of the great reception centres for the intellectually eager and culturally dispossessed: Birkbeck College and the New School for Social Research. In addition to these metropolitan axes, he has a long familiarity with the roads less travelled by the lumpen professoriat on the package-deal chicken-dinner conference circuit that is now the acme of our extra-curricular expectations.

Hobsbawm, by contrast, has lived. One of his unorthodox early books, Primitive Rebels (1959), a study of "social bandits" of various stripes, contains in an appendix "The Conversation of Giovanni Lopez, Cobbler", recorded by E. J. Hobsbawm, in September 1955, in San Giovanni in Fiore, Calabria, in the cobbler's workshop. More unorthodox still - so much so that it was originally published under a pseudonym - was The Jazz Scene , which appeared in the same year and was in some sense a companion volume. This work dealt with social bandits of a different kind and custom, evincing a profound feeling for "that remarkable noise from the Mississippi Delta that has conquered an astonishing range of geographical and social territories", and segueing effortlessly into "the sort of relation between art and the people" of which William Morris (and Hobsbawm) dreamed. "An art made by the people for the people as a joy for the maker and the user."

Half a lifetime later, the most striking feature of Age of Extremes (1994), his magisterial history of "The Short 20th Century, 1914-91", is the voice of authentic experience that permeates its pages. Not only is the author's span almost coterminous with that shortened century - he was born in the year of the Russian revolution - but he brought to the work something very like an act of witness at crucial moments in the narrative. "For historians of my generation," he writes, "the past is indestructible, not only because we belong to the generation when streets and public places were still called after public men and events (the Wilson station in prewar Prague, the Metro Stalingrad in Paris), when peace treaties were still signed and therefore had to be identified (Treaty of Versailles) and war memorials recalled yesterdays, but because public events are part of the texture of our lives. They are not merely markers in our private lives, but what has formed our lives, private and public. For this author, January 30 1933 is not simply an otherwise arbitrary date when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, but a winter afternoon in Berlin when a 15-year-old and his younger sister were on the way home from their neighbouring schools in Wilmersdorf to Halensee and, somewhere on the way, saw the headline. I can see it still, as in a dream."

It would be too much to call Age of Extremes a kind of globalised autobiography, but personal memoir, together with scything erudition, is what gives the book its huge authority and its equally huge appeal.

The New Century is a transparent attempt to capitalise on that intellectual and commercial success (not a very Hobsbawmian thing to do, one might think) - a pendant to the previous work, to which it makes frequent reference, presented as a series of "conversations" or interviews with Antonio Polito, evidently held in 1998-99. The conversations are well ordered and one sided. Polito asks the questions; Hobsbawm delivers remarkably cogent answers in complete sentences - paragraphs, even. Their talk is structured around seven topics: "War and Peace", "The decline of the western empire", "The global village", "What's left of the left?", "Homo globatus", "October 12 1999" (the date of birth of the six billionth human being), and "Hopes for the future".

Pontification, urbi et orbi , is a doubtful recipe for a good book, as the intellectual pontiffs of the day continue to demonstrate. But, in this instance, the format works modestly well for Hobsbawm, who gives a brisk account of himself and his thinking, commendably refusing the higher speculations. In answer to the question about the left, for example, he begins: "There is a left, because there is still a difference between left and right. Those who deny the existence of this division are generally on the right."

He produces a magnificent riff on "the pursuit of happiness", and offers some suggestive thoughts on the cultural "syncretism" of homo globatus. "In my opinion, more probable than a reaction against globalisation is a kind of syncretic combination of cultures, as with kung-fu films produced in Hong Kong, where there is a mixture of western elements, traditional Chinese ones, and various other practices. In this way, a number of local variants of global culture develop and fuse, rather than clash with each other."

The lucrative phenomenon of the River Café in London, with its Tuscan-Neapolitan sourcing and London-Californian resourcing, is perhaps another instance of this fusion; to say nothing of the author's beloved jazz and "world music".

Direct speech serves to naturally sharpen Hobsbawm's tone of voice. Interestingly, there is a certain pessimism of the intellect here, even occasional bafflement. He appears deeply pessimistic about the "depoliticisation of the young"; the seeming impossibility of mass mobilisation, especially in electoral politics; the pernicious consequences of "free-market fundamentalism"; the mutual incomprehension of the first world and the third; and the isolation brought on by a vanishing sense of solidarity or society - he is almost as keen as Theodore Zeldin on the necessary virtue of conversation. "'It's good to talk' is the slogan of the 20th century," Zeldin has said; and Hobsbawm notes that "even those who are most enthusiastic about the advantages of communicating over long distances prefer to meet each other at the same bars to find out how things are going and what is state-of-the-art. The same is true of universities. The first question that a good scientist will ask when a university offers him or her a place is how many other people are there with whom he or she can talk about their work?" Hobsbawm's fellow Alexandrine, C. P. Cavafy, once wrote a poem called "But the Wise Perceive Things About to Happen". That is the burden of The New Century . Its cosmopolitan conversationalist is a wise man and a humane one. Long may he reign.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at Keele University.

The New Century

Author - Eric Hobsbawm with Antonio Polito
ISBN - 0 316 85429 8
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £16.99
Pages - 176

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