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Marlene and Eric: love is in the air

Dan Carrier talks to Marlene Hobsbawm, whose memoir, Meet Me In Buenos Aires, tells the story of her life with her husband, Eric

28 November, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Marlene Hobsbawm

A MECHANICAL glitch on a plane bound for Cuba meant its passengers had to disembark at Prague airport – and the travellers, which included historian Eric Hobsbawm and director Joan Littlewood, had to accept they were not heading across the Atlantic to meet Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Instead, Eric returned to London – and the silver lining came in the form of being just in time to accept an invitation to supper with a woman he had recently met, Marlene Schwarz.

They would fall in love and spend 50 happy years together.

In a new memoir, Meet Me In Buenos Aires, Marlene lays bare a world formed by family, friends, music and intellectual discourse.

Their story also reflects the experiences of many who managed to find safety from the turmoil of fascism and Nazism and gave their adopted home their talents.

But it also reveals the sad fact that because Eric’s political views had been formed on the riot-torn streets of Hitler’s Berlin, he was to be labelled as somehow a danger by the British establishment.

Marlene’s life began in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of 1930s Vienna. Her family would find a haven in the UK – and she would find love with another émigré.

Eric, born in Berlin, had joined the Communist party as the natural enemies of Hitler. He did not leave the party when he arrived in England as a teenager – and his political background meant there would be trouble in store.

Eric was spied on by MI5 for much of his life. His files, released in 2015, made for uncomfortable reading for Marlene.

“There were anti-semitic remarks, they did not like his clothes, they said they thought he was ugly, they thought he was a nuisance,” she adds.

Marlene reveals the distress caused by the unfairness and stupidity that sought to stop Eric enjoying the academic career his contemporaries knew he deserved.

Eric Hobsbawm

“I felt sore when he could not go to teach at Oxford, even though he had double-starred first. They saw it like this: you haven’t left the party, so you must agree with what is going on in the Soviet bloc – but he didn’t. He tried to change things from inside the Communist party, and they didn’t like him.

“I felt MI5 were outrageous but I was disappointed in them, rather than upset for us. Eric never wasted time harbouring grudges. I bore them more than he did.”

Oxbridge’s loss was Birkbeck’s gain, though the simplistic approach towards Eric’s politics were a source of frustration.

“He didn’t leave the party, particularly for emotional reasons,” she adds.

“He felt that if you were well known, like Eric was, it would give the wrong message to people who were not Communists: ‘It can’t be any good, even Hobsbawm left…’ He would say it is OK to want to leave something, a husband, wife, club, society, party – but you do not want to harm them by doing so.”

Eric would settle into a life of teaching and writing – work that made him a household name.

The memoir is partly the product of historian Richard Evans’ biography of Eric. It began the process for Marlene of looking back.

“I started thinking about my life with Eric, before, during and after,” she adds, and she reflects with candour how leaving Vienna affected her childhood.

As a young woman, Marlene studied in Paris and would work in Italy and Africa for the United Nations.

She describes Eric as a “groovy single man about town” when she met him, introduced by her brother Walter and sister-in-law.

They hit it off – and then the faulty plane meant he found himself back in London unexpectedly with an empty diary.

“Eric told me how scared he was of marriage,” she says.

“He snobbishly connected it with having boring holidays in a caravan by the seaside.”

But they did marry, had two children, and settled in South End Green.

“I was head over heels in love. He was every­thing to me. Once I apparently put my fingers to my lips and whispered to a guest at supper, ‘shh, he is speaking…’”

She would roar with laughter at the memory.

As for Eric, he too fell in love – Marlene describes it as a love that “grew little by little until one day, a few years down the line, he said he didn’t enjoy going to places without me by his side”. She wonders whether at first “he felt it was too bourgeois to actually let himself go crazy for me”.

She ends her story by talking of Eric’s death – and of how he was laid to rest in Highgate Cemetery.

“Depending on how you approach the grave and perhaps your political beliefs, it is situated either a little to the right or a little to the left of Karl Marx,” she states.

“I still feel his presence, and talk to him – he was always a good listener. In whimsical moments, I daydream about meeting him in Buenos Aires after all.”

• Meet Me in Buenos Aires: A Memoir. By Marlene Hobsbawm, Muswell Press, £12.99

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