Music of time: A night with Eric Hobsbawm’s record collection

I had heard that a new pop-up space, Spiritland in Shoreditch, would be playing records from Hobsbawm’s personal collection, so I went along to listen.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

On a Sunday afternoon in Shoreditch, east London, a group of strangers sat around listening to jazz. Or maybe they didn’t. There were tables full of people – some chatting, all drinking – but it was difficult to know if anyone was paying much attention to the music. That was until Cannonball Adderley’s Them Dirty Blues came on. Then they began to shuffle in their seats.

The record used to belong to the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died in October 2012. Hobsbawm wrote about jazz for the New Statesman in the late 1950s and early 1960s under the pseudonym Francis Newton – a name adopted from a communist trumpeter who played on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”. I had heard that a new pop-up space, Spiritland, would be playing records from Hobsbawm’s personal collection, so I went along to listen.

“The experience of listening to music has been downgraded to the point where to sit down and listen to an album is actually quite a challenge for some people,” says Paul Noble, a producer at the net radio station Monocle 24, DJ, consultant and the inspiration behind Spiritland. “It’s all about reconnecting with music in a meaningful way . . . We’re shamelessly looking to bring back that magical hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck experience of listening to music.”

The huge speakers, amps and decks installed along the entire length of one wall of the bar reminded me of the way people describe early computers: a living machine whose size seemed appropriate to the cleverness of its operations. They are the reverse of Spotify, or the low-quality speakers and headphones through which we generally encounter music.

“We’re not vinyl fetishists,” Noble is quick to add. “If you know nothing about music, or if you’re a world-class music snob, hopefully you can come here and have a good time.”

I met Julia Hobsbawm, Eric’s daughter, along with her mother, Marlene, just as they were leaving the building. “Dad would have loved this,” Julia said. Hobsbawm began to write about jazz at a time when bebop was becoming popular and the idols of 1930s and 1940s trad jazz had largely been forgotten.

Hobsbawm wrote about life in the clubs as though tracking a revolutionary movement, as obsessed with the fashion and politics of the “hipsters” he met as with the music. He saw himself as aloof – “the players . . . accepted me as an oddity on the scene . . . sometimes as a sort of walking book who could answer (non-musical) queries,” he wrote in 2010.

On seeing Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald in London in 1966, he wrote: “Ellington has had his band without a break since before Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic. Ella made her first record before Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. In a world increasingly dominated by fashion-change and where artists not only have obsolescence built-in like ears but are actually becoming disposable like paper handkerchiefs, such permanence calls for a special salute.”

It does. In the same way that the tide of rock music seemed to sweep away everything Hobsbawm had loved before the 1960s – he famously misconstrued the Beatles, predicting that “in 20 years’ time nothing of them will survive” – the digital revolution will feel incomplete so long as it fails to connect us with the past. The first step might be to stop and consider how we listen to music. 

Spiritland is a free music residency at the Merchants Tavern in Shoreditch, London EC2, until 1 January

Philip Maughan is an editor at 032c magazine and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Free trial CSS