At some point everyday, I turn my attention to the headlines on the Guardian website. Today I checked them fairly early and learned the news that, as the headline put it, Eric Hobsbawm had died aged 95. Whilst I will often pause and reflect on the passing of public figures, there are few who have had quite such a profound impact on my thinking and research interests as Hobsbawm. Searching through the drawers of notes at home, I find just one set of obituaries: for Michael Foot who died in March 2010 aged 96. The pictures that accompanied Foot’s death were invariably of him in his donkey jacket but a handful in the Western Mail highlighted Foot’s strong association with Wales. In 1960, after all, Foot had inherited the Ebbw Vale constituency after the death of his friend and mentor Aneurin Bevan. Going through the obituaries that have followed this afternoon, it struck me that with Hobsbawm’s passing the most fruitful gathering of historians in modern British history – the Communist Party Historians Group – has now, itself, passed entirely.
For me, as a historian, the influence of Hobsbawm is second only to that of E. P. Thompson, whose seminal work The Making of the English Working Class (1963) remains at the very top of my league table of history books, and Gwyn Alf Williams. But if Thompson’s influence can be summarised in that one book, Hobsbawm’s breadth of scholarship makes the choice of a single work impossible. A brief glance at the bookshelf and I find well-thumbed copies of his Age of quartet, his autobiography, his collections on Revolutionaries, On History, Labouring Men, Uncommon People, and that blistering defence of the relevance of Marx and Marxism that was published just last year. In every field, from banditry to jazz, from football to the Fabians, from Gramsci to Neil Kinnock, Hobsbawm was there and his work remains a fruitful guide in the combination of political commitment, scholarship, and intellectual curiosity. I, for one, am grateful to him and lament his passing greatly.
As I pondered the headlines, my itunes clicked over to Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which were relaesed just a few short weeks before his death in September 1982. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Gould’s death and his would-be eightieth birthday. The 1981 Goldberg has been described by one review as ‘autumnal’ in tone and this is nowhere more true than in the aria da capo. A slow, almost adagio, tempo gives voice to a solemn and reflective artist and the perfect music in which to lose one’s thoughts. I can think of no more fitting piece with which to accompany the news today.