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This artist book was published by the Govett-Brewster Gallery on the occasion of the exhibition a library to scale (at The Govett-Brewster), by Ann Shelton, 2007. Essays by Francis Pound, Jan Bryant and Jermey Cooper. Repurposed notebook, 80 pages, hand assembled, full colour, 13x21cm.

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Above all, mass consumer culture and democracy have undermined old elite tastes and certainties.

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That was once true. While the old 19th-century order carried on as if nothing could change, artists, including fashion designers, somehow anticipated the chaos that was coming in their work. Can they still do that?

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There is another problem. “Fractured Times” is not a fully worked book but a collection of essays from the 1960s on. I wish Hobsbawm had found the time to reconsider some of his judgments before he died. He repeats his beautifully nonchalant line, “Why brilliant fashion designers, a notoriously nonanalytic breed, sometimes succeed in anticipating the shape of things to come better than professional predictors, remains one of the most obscure questions in history.”

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Yet regret at the passing of his certainties still lingers. Writing the introduction just before he died, Hobsbawm says he was, “looking forward with more troubled perplexity than I recall in a long lifetime, guideless and mapless, to an unrecognizable future.”

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Really? The world is more troubled now than during the battles between dictators of the 1930s and 1940s? Or during the “mutually assured destruction” of the cold war? I do not think that this is just the pessimism that comes with age.

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American economist Brad de Long was the first to notice that for as long as the Soviet Union survived, Hobsbawm believed that humanity was progressing in some form, as a Marxist should. Once it was gone, despair engulfed his writing. This rings true. My grandfather was Hobsbawm’s mentor in the British Communist party. He died before the Soviet Union did, but I noticed that his friends gave up once it had gone.

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“Fractured Times” shows this revolutionary traditionalist at his best. It is an account of the collapse of the high bourgeois culture of the 19th century, and an examination of the ruins it left behind in the 20th century. He loved them both, but understood why they could not last. All the certainties of the 19th century turned out to be lies. Instead of progress there were total wars and genocides that mocked liberal optimism. Instead of a rational science, there was quantum physics, which no one, not least quantum physicists, could understand. The scientist J.B.S. Haldane, a comrade of Hobsbawm on the Marxist left, who is celebrated in these pages, suspected in 1927 that the universe would turn out to be not only “queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose” — his suspicion has been vindicated.

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Published by the Hocken Collections, University of Otago on the occasion of the exhibition once more with feeling by Ann Shelton, (at the Hocken Library), 6 Dec 2008—24 Jan 2009. Essay by Natalie PolandSoft cover, 36 pages, full colour, 10.5x15cm.

With a text by Pip Adam.

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As that statistic implies, the “revolt against tradition” by what we can loosely call the modern movement, even if it is now very old, failed. The artisan crafts of classical music, fine art, sculpture, jazz and, Hobsbawm believed, maybe rock ‘n’ roll, too, are for aging audiences in the wired 21st century.