Eric the Red

Journalist Neal Ascherson recounts his first encounter with historian Eric Hobsbawm, who publicly insulted him as a new undergraduate at King’s College Cambridge in the early 1950s before Hobsbawm apparently even knew his name:

I lurched up a dark wooden stairway into a room full of chattering, laughing young men (no women, I noticed) and was handed more wine. Presently a lean, bespectacled man with fairish hair came over to me, with a few students drifting up behind him. One of them I vaguely recognised, an American, but I didn’t know his name.

Eric inspected me. A specimen, indeed.

“What’s that medal affair you’re wearing?”

“It’s my national service campaign medal. For active service in the Malayan emergency.”

Eric pulled back and took another look at me. Then he said, very sharply but without violence: “Malaya? You should be ashamed to be wearing that.”

I don’t think I said anything at all. I remember noticing the students around us, round-eyed with shock. Then I left the room, stumbling back down the dusky stairs, and out into the huge court where it was beginning to rain.

And the American?  Daniel Ellsberg!  Of course it was.  Of course.

I am reminded of that old joke about time being God’s way of preventing everything happening at once, while space is His way of preventing everything happening at Cambridge.




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