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Historian, jazz critic and Soho ‘observer’

22 February, 2019 — By The Xtra Diary

 Historian Eric Hobsbawm, aka Francis Newton

An intriguing insight into life in the hurly-burly of 1950s Soho has been shed by the biographer of perhaps the greatest English-language historian of the 20th century.

Richard J Evans’s comprehensive tome Eric Hobsbawm: A Life In History, which tells Hobsbawm’s story, weaves together a fascinating picture of his world. And while, of course, there’s plenty of politics and publications to cover, Hobsbawm’s love of jazz and the clubs that provided a platform for his favourite sort of music get plenty of page space, too.

We learn that after Hobsbawm had left Cambridge in the mid-1950s to teach at Birkbeck, he was living in Bloomsbury and needed to find another regular income on top of his modest lecturer’s salary.

“He noticed novelist Kingsley Amis, who surely knew less about jazz than he did, was writing on the subject for a national newspaper, the Observer, he overcame his diffidence and asked Norman McKenzie, whom he had known at the LSE and was on the editorial staff of the New Statesman, to secure him the post of jazz critic for the magazine.”

He decided to used the pen name Francis Newton, an American musician who was a known Communist, thinking it might not be good news for his academic career to also be known as a jazz critic; though, according to his biographer, it did become something of an open secret.

“Eric was commissioned to write his monthly column as a cultural reporter rather than a music critic,” adds Evans.

The book states Hobsbawm became a “participant observer” of Soho life in the late 1950s, rising late, teaching at Birkbeck between 6pm and 9pm, then spending his evenings in “places where the day people got rid of their inhibitions after dark”, and meeting and befriending the likes of George Melly, Humphrey Lyttelton, Kenneth Tynan and Wally Fawkes.

It prompted him to look at pop culture in a way that had knock-on effects for how he presented his historical analysis; and the impact of Soho life cannot be underestimated.

Humphrey Lyttelton

“While he continued to go to jazz concerts and clubs, he also frequented the Downbeat Club in Old Compton Street,” adds his biographer. The book describes the club as being somewhere musicians and others in the business like to drop in “…for a little drinking, gossiping, watching the dancers – players are rarely dancers themselves – and perhaps sitting in with the band”.

Club regular, the novelist Colin MacInnes, is quoted at length and sums up the world that attracted the famous Communist historian: “The great thing about the jazz world and all the kids that enter into it, is that no one, not a soul, cares what your class is, or what your race is, or what your income, or if you’re a boy, or girl, or bent, or versatile, or what you are – so long as you dig the scene and can behave yourself, and left all that crap behind you, too, when you come in the jazz club door…” He added you “meet all kinds of cats on absolutely equal terms who can clue you up in all kinds of directions – in social directions, in culture directions, in sexual directions and in racial directions – in fact, almost anywhere, really, you want to go and learn.”

Hobsbawm also became a member of the Colony Club in Dean Street, his membership card using the name Francis Newton, though apparently he felt “rather out of place due to the fact it was primarily a drinking den, packed with sozzled types, rather than a jazz club”.

And he did not, the book says, follow Kingsley Martin’s request to write more about the bohemians of the area and their avant-garde lifestyles. Instead, he wrote about the music he heard.

Such a culture appealed to Hobsbawm’s mores and wants, and sheds light on how the freewheeling spirit of Soho inspired one of the greatest thinkers of modern times.

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