Eric Hobsbawm interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 13th September 2009

0:09:07 Born in Alexandria, Egypt, where I was registered with the British Consulate; my birth certificate contains two errors as they misspelt my name and got the date of my birth one day wrong. The effect has been that I have had to live with what is in my documents, not what I know to be true On my father's side my grandparent was probably born around 1838 and died in 1927; he was a Jewish cabinet maker and migrated to England in the early 1870s; he was a widower by then and migrated with a daughter by his first marriage and with one child of his second. All my relatives from that time on were born in England; I think they migrated from Warsaw but have no idea why he came; he died before I knew him, and the rest of the family didn't know much either or didn't want to talk about it. or what it is worth, he arrived before the main migration from Europe started. They were first registered in the census in 1881; as usual the name was misspelt; if we still lived in an oral society it would have gradually have weathered down to either Hobson or Osborn. My paternal grandmother died long before I was born. On my mother's side, my grandfather was born about 1869; Jews were not allowed to go into Vienna before the 1840s except for a small privileged minority; they originally came from the area where Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary meet; by the time that I knew anything about the family they had migrated to Vienna. My paternal grandfather remained a cabinet maker and at least one of his sons carried on in the trade; I think it was a fairly undistinguished family; it had no record of education, learning, business activity or business success; the English part of the family remained on the very lowest slopes of lower middle class; the sons became post office workers, teachers, that sort of thing; only one somehow managed to get some kind of secondary education and became a chemist; he eventually emigrated to Chile; I was, I think, the first of the family to go full-time to university; at least one of the others, my cousin, managed to do some part-time higher education and became quite an important statistician in the Ministry of Labour. During the age of imperialism a number of the family left England; two of the brothers went to Egypt, one to Chile; the basis of the English family was and remained my uncle Harry, who eventually became the first Labour mayor of the Borough of Paddington,   a telegraphist all his life. Mother's family was sort of middle-middle class - business - my grandfather's trade was jewellery; that collapsed after the First World War and my grandfather ended his career as a commercial traveller to Alpine villages up to the end of the first war he was doing quite well  It was a much more cultured family; the essence of the culture of my father's family was that they assimilated and became very English; my mother's family shared Central European Hapsburg culture and I got a lot out of that; in neither case were they very successful in material terms

12:17:08 My father joined my mother after the First World War in Austria; he took some savings in hard currency but proved himself to be totally incapable of earning a living on his own; he was a person who could do well in the British colonial situation, where a young man, very good at sports, with certain social graces, could always find a job; however, plunged into Austria and trying to make his own living as an independent business man, he was a total failure; it put a lot of stress on the family, at least on my mother; it drove him to desperation and he died during a very bad winter; my mother could not forgive herself for berating him for his failure to provide money; within a few months of my father's death she got a very bad lung infection and within two years was dead. Fortunately my parents had married each other's sibling, and I and my sister were taken over by my uncle and aunt; we then went to Berlin where I stayed until we came to England

16:38:11 My mother was literary, in fact she wrote a novel or two; in Vienna she had circulated with other intelligent people; she was not ambitious for herself but I think she had hopes for me; she was an anglophile and as I was interested in things like birds she thought I might later join the Indian Forestry Service; she was a great admirer of Kipling. She died before there was any prospect of that; I can't recall anything about my father; I did not get on very well with him; he tried to teach me boxing and it didn't work; I think my uncle did have ambitions and wanted to be something other than just a businessman; he would work in music, show-business and culture, and eventually talked himself into the movie business; he was an extremely good chess player through which he got into intelligence during World War I; however in those days it was not a potential career, so there was nothing much he could do with it afterwards. He did realize that I was very bright and did his best to push me, although he had no idea about how to go about it

20:20:01 In the relatively short period when my father thought he had some money we lived in a very elaborate villa, which you can still see when you come into Vienna by train from the west; there we were two families; we made friends with the four girls of the other family; also we had visits from our relatives, so it was very nice; my first really political memory was in 1923 during the French occupation of the Ruhr; German children were evacuated to places like Austria, and one or two were in our class; I took one into our garden and showed him how to climb our favourite tree, and he explained what had happened; I remember the experience, but only in retrospect can I see that it was my first political experience

22:29:08 My first school was a primary school in the suburb of Vienna; I remember the school but none of the teachers; it was quite a good foundation for history because there was a lot about the Viennese past, and people used to take us out for walks in the hills and talk about cave men and encourage us to look for fossils; in so far as we heard about history, it wasn't the boring things, but accounts of the Turkish siege of Vienna, and the coffee that they left behind which led to the Viennese coffee houses; it is the sort of thing that registers with children. After that school I went to three secondary schools in Vienna because things got a bit rough after the death of my father; I  went to a fourth in Berlin, so I had a somewhat disrupted secondary education; I don't remember any of the Austrian teachers except the last one in the 18th District, because he was at the same time a noted football commentator; not certain I developed any degree of personal relationship with any of them, unlike the secondary school teachers in Berlin and later on in London. In Vienna I was two years at a school in the 13th District, one year in the 3rd District, and one year in the 18th District; I spent about eighteen months in Berlin, and was just coming up to sixteen when we moved to England

26:27:11 I enjoyed watching birds; the last time I saw my mother who was dying in a sanatorium, I looked out of a window and saw a Haw finch; that is in a sense my last memory of my mother.  I was not much of a sportsman but joined the Boy Scouts. After my father died I was sent to England and there was some hope that I would stay there with a sister of my mother; it didn't work out but I acquired a taste for the Boy Scouts and joined them when I got back to Vienna; I might have stuck with them if there had been any in Germany; after my mother got ill she couldn't look after anybody, my uncle and aunt took my sister to Berlin; I stayed in Vienna for another year or so; at one time I was supposed to live with some relatives but it didn't last; somebody arranged to put me into the house of a lady where I was supposed to talk English with her young boy; her name was Mrs Effenberger, an officer's widow, originally from Bohemia; while there I used to go and visit my mother in hospital every week or so; it was not a very successful year

30:10:05 Both my parents and step-parents were secularized Jews; I don't think I ever went to a Synagogue except for funerals; as far as I am aware my father's generation was also secularized; I didn't even know until I reached puberty that I had been circumcised; my mother's parents had insisted it was done; I was never bar mitzvared but I got some Jewish instruction because the Jews in school were sent to another school for such; There is no question of religious practice in my life, but at the same time it was clear to anyone in Central Europe whether you were Jews or not; Jews were regarded as different; I have conducted my life on the principle inculcated by my mother, who told me, when she heard me making an undesirable remark about Jewish behaviour, that in no circumstances should I ever say anything that would suggest I was ashamed of being Jewish; in Austria between the wars it was legally possible on reaching the age of thirteen to declare yourself without religion; I would have done so except for this principle; alas it doesn't mean that one wasn't part of the Jewish problem, but not from the point of view of traditional or religious practices

34:32:19 On the whole, while I was engaged in either history or political activities, being Jewish was not a thing that was particularly significant; I sympathize very much with Gombrich's remark that there was no Jewish culture in Vienna, and that he was brought up in the middle class culture of Vienna; seen from outside it is fairly clear that having lived a life between cultures, being the member of a kin group which was distributed over various areas of the globe, does give you a slightly different angle on nations and nationalism; it does not make you immune to nationalism; I never fell for the Jewish nationalism, possibly because it seemed to me to be too much the opposite number to the German nationalism that surrounded me; of course, I am interested in religion; I came across it very much when working on the pre-political movements of social protest; the language in which they spoke was a religious language; I would also say that one would recognise the force of the religious sentiment in some cases; it was very clear, for instance, in so far as I got interested in jazz and black music, gospel and spirituals were genuinely expressions of something that was profoundly important to the people concerned although it wasn't so important for me; I don't reject it, but to me personally religion has no importance

39:44:18 When I came to England I first stayed with my telegraphist uncle, Harry, and he arranged for me to go to the school where his son had gone - St Marylebone Grammar School, a very good school, a London County Council school though it tried to follow the basic style of public schools, which irritated a number of us; I can remember the first interview with the headmaster, a man called Philip Wayne, who eventually produced a translation of 'Faust' for the Penguin Classics; he apologised to me that they could not teach me Greek as they only taught Latin; he immediately pressed me to look at a volume of Kant and to read Hazlitt; I think he had thought I looked fairly promising, but at all events these were people who took an interest; I managed to get through the matriculation in about two or three months, never having done any of the things before; I then went straight into the arts sixth form; I am bound to say that I owe them a great deal; here was someone who had never been to an English school, never knew much but domestic English, and to manage within a matter of two or three years to get to Cambridge was really quite an achievement for the school; I was also helped by the Marylebone public library; I am sure that for anybody of my age and perhaps later, the public library was an institution which was absolutely central for education; fortunately it was near the school so I used to go there for books in the lunch break; the combination of good teaching and the public library was really important for me

44:30:31 I remember the German headmaster who criticised my style; in those days my interests were mainly literary, certainly not historical as the teaching in the subject was useless; the terrible irony was that the man who taught us just dates of emperors was in fact a distinguished ancient historian and archaeologist, and was at least as bored with the stuff as we were; I was too far down the school for teachers to talk to us, although the headmaster did; he was almost immediately sacked by the Nazis as a republican; the history teacher in England, Harold Llewellyn-Smith, was not a particularly good historian, but very well connected - son of a major figure in Edwardian social policy, a  man who was then head of the New London Survey at the LSE;  He did everything he could for me, including sending my essays to the Webbs to check; He did his best though I did not really learn very much history from him; when I came to Cambridge I discovered that what was being taught was totally different from anything in secondary school, but without him I certainly would not have gone to Cambridge; he knew the ropes, and what to do to get scholarships; in fact I got most interesting teaching not from him but from the English teachers; there was a debating club at school and at one stage I won a debating cup; they tried to get me onto sports but as I had never done any cricket it was really too late at sixteen; curiously enough, in Germany I had been very sporting, particularly rowing; I tried looking for the boat club again in Cambridge and then discovered you were to spend all the afternoon there, and that didn't interest me; I spent a good deal of time cycling and wandering around England, with my cousin and close friends

50:21:00 I went to King's Cambridge because I won a scholarship; it was the first scholarship exam I took, otherwise I would have tried Oxford; took the exam in 1935 and I went up in 1936; Morris, Saltmarsh and Balfour were my teachers; of these, Saltmarsh was a genuine scholar; I didn't learn as much as I could from him but admired him for his sheer learning; Christopher Morris asked what he thought were Socratic questions which is quite good for bright undergraduates, but he didn't actually teach anything; the only person in Cambridge whose lectures I stayed with was Postan; he was fine until I became a graduate, then he was no good; his lectures were the ones that all the bright young historians went to, a marvellous act and a very clever man; one of his fantasies was that he knew everything so there was never a question to which he would say he didn't know the answer, which is very dangerous; I remember once in Harvard talking to Gerschenkron, who was also a Russian and in some ways of more solid achievement, who didn't hesitate to say that he didn't know the answer; Morgan Forster was not at King's until after the War but I got to know him pretty well then; King's was enormously tolerant, even of not very good looking people from grammar schools who were not homosexual, but I don't think I was ever part of the Fellow’ social scene; I was never invited to join the Ten Club and things like that; on the other hand, as between the various students, King's was particularly good because relationships were very close; the only other man in King's who had some kind of influence was old Clapham who still presided over a thing called the Political Society, which was a meeting of the history students; it was very good; frankly, I found that one learned much more from one's own contemporaries and from libraries, particularly from discussions with socialists, Marxists etc. - there was an enormous amount of debates and readings

57:20:11 I was the last election before the War to the Apostles; that was when I discovered there were higher echelons in Cambridge; after that the War almost immediately started and I almost de facto restarted the Apostles in Cambridge after the War because there were very few of us left; the Angels, the older members, were still around and I got to know a lot of them, and very obviously, Morgan Forster; I never met Keynes before the War, being neither an economist nor being in his social group; Morgan was difficult to define, he seemed a hangover from a past generation both in the way in which he behaved and his reactions; he had two really great loyalties, one was essentially to friendship and the other, being homosexual, was enormously important to him; looking back I can't give him retrospectively a sort of shape; I can see his behaviour, can see him coming to visit me when I was ill, can see myself taking him in London to the 'Establishment Club' and then back to his flat in Fulham, he was most polite and terribly nice