Julia Hobsbawm on battling sepsis, facing down failure and being a Jew who doesn’t support Israel

May 23, 2024. Series 7. Episode 89

Julia Hobsbawm is the award-winning author, commentator, publisher and, quite possibly, one of the world’s most connected women.  During the course of her brilliant career, Julia has faced serious business, personal and health crises and yet … she strides on, time and time again, with a drive and resilience – and a sense of humour – from which we can all learn.

From living in the shadow of her renowned father, the Communist historian, Eric Hobsbawm, to founding – and in one instance closing – her own media companies, receiving an OBE and writing seven books … Julia’s is a life littered with triumph and crisis. Notably, in this conversation, she talks powerfully and candidly about the ‘identity crisis’ of being a Jewish woman who does not stand with Israel in the war with Gaza.

Her latest book Working Assumptions is a must read for anyone concerned about the future of work … and the workplace crisis business leaders are now wrestling with.


Working Assumptions: What We Thought We Knew About Work Before Covid and Generative AI – And What We Know Now, 2024.


Julia’s Podcast: The Nowhere Office

Julia’s SoulCycle: https://www.justgiving.com/page/julia-hobsbawmsixtysoulcyclesforjessica

Stream/buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm

Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk

Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682


Host – Andy Coulson

CWC team: Jane Sankey, Louise Difford, Mabel Pickering

With special thanks to Ioana Barbu and the brilliant people at Global


For all PR and guest approaches please contact – [email protected]



Andy Coulson:                   Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then do please hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really does help make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.

Today I am joined by the award-winning author, commentator, publisher, and quite possibly one of the world’s most connected women, Julia Hobsbawn.

During the course of her brilliant career Julia has faced business, serious personal and health crises, and yet she strides on time and time again with a drive and resilience and a sense of humour, I should add, from which I think we can all learn.

From living in the shadow of her renowned father, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn, to founding and in one instance closing her own companies, receiving an OBE and writing seven books, Julia’s life is littered with triumph and with crisis.

Her latest book, Working Assumptions, is a must-read for anyone concerned about the future of work and the workplace crisis business leaders are now wrestling with.

Julia Hobsbawn, welcome to Crisis What Crisis.

Julia Hobsbawn:                Thank you. What a big up.

Andy Coulson:                   How are you?

Julia Hobsbawn:                Well, I’ve got a dog crisis at the moment as I said to you before we came on air. Yes, my life must be littered with crises, just for you Andy. I laid one on this morning.

Andy Coulson:                   You’ve got one this morning, I’m sorry to hear that.

Julia, before we get started let’s get this out the way. We’ve worked together a little, we are pals, and we share I think a strong belief in the strategic healing power of an early evening martini.

You’re known as a woman who can connect people. Indeed, you once held the title of Professor of Networking, a title I think you gave up, let’s discuss that later.

Julia Hobsbawn:                Yes. Silly title, to be discussed.

Andy Coulson:                   Let’s discuss it later.

Julia Hobsbawn:                My pretend professor years, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   But rather than networking, I would suggest your superpower actually is loyalty. You are a fiercely loyal individual. You have no problem with sticking by those who fall out of fashion for one reason or another, maybe scandal. You are a ‘run towards the gunfire’ kind of woman, aren’t you?

Julia Hobsbawn:                Well, I’ll take that as a compliment. I think I am, I hope I am. Yes, I don’t have a problem being loyal outside of the boundaries of fashion. In fact I’m really interested actually in the public mood and how people are often doing things that they don’t question because they are fashionable, rather than sticking to what they know and what they feel and what’s right.

Andy Coulson:                   It’s less about fashion, my point I think, it’s much more about risk, right? Because you are, as I said in the intro, super connected. You put people together, you’re a zeitgeist kind of operator. Quite often those types of people are very sensitive to difficulty and to scandal.

Julia Hobsbawn:                Yes, no I’m not, I don’t care.

Andy Coulson:                   They tend to kind of step into the wallpaper when those moments come

Julia Hobsbawn:                No, no. Well, I mean I don’t abandon my friends, is the first thing. And the second thing is that I also don’t feel I hit a tribal box, so I’m sort of circling back to the point that I called fashion a moment ago. I think lots of people act tribally, they act in a group, they act in a way, and then if somebody that the might be friends with falls out of fashion or falls foul of certain norms or rules or whatever, then they scuttle. And that isn’t my thing. I’m just interested case by case. And yes, I’m loyal.

I’m also- I am an entrepreneur. I mean, I’m not the entrepreneur that makes squillions kind of entrepreneur Andy, I should hasten to say, but I am an entrepreneur. And entrepreneurs take risks.

Andy Coulson:                   Yes. We like to try and trace back characteristics on this pod. So if I were to try and trace back that characteristic of yours, the kind of running towards the gunfire, does that take me to your dad? Who was eminent, renowned, but also pretty controversial, right?

Julia Hobsbawn:                Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   You’ve used the word marmite. Such an accomplished academic but you know, a man of controversy as well at times.

Julia Hobsbawn:                Yes. So he was what was called in its day a Euro Communist. He was an intellectual. But there were and there still are some who effectively branded him a sort of murdering Stalinist even though he would say that he wasn’t. And I don’t think he was either, as it happens. But yes, he was controversial. He stuck with the Communist Party because he came of age literally in Germany. He was born in 1917, not in Germany but that’s another story, but he grew up in Berlin. So he was a teenager when Hitler came to power in 1933. That made him join the Communist Party.

And through the Communist Party’s trials and tribulations as the 20th Century progressed, there were moments when lots of people did leave and he didn’t. So from that point of view I think you’re right, I probably learned a stubborn stoicism from him.

Andy Coulson:                   Being the daughter of such a brilliant man can’t have been easy. High expectations. Just tell me a little bit about your childhood.

Julia Hobsbawn:                Well, I think in a way being the daughter I didn’t have very big expectations. I mean, generationally you know, I cling to the hashtag #only59 Andy, but only for a couple more months. You know, my mother is engulfed by Alzheimer’s at the moment now, and she is 92, but in her day she was pretty remarkable. But there were no expectations on her, because it was the era when there weren’t expectations of women. And I was the daughter.

So to some degree I didn’t face pressure, and I felt a bit ignored, like I wanted the pressure, I wanted to prove myself.

Andy Coulson:                   The surname alone must have brought a certain expectation.

Julia Hobsbawn:                That brought sort of almost mistaken identity issues, you know? Even to this day some people are disappointed that I’m not like my father politically, and so you know, it’s complicated. It is complicated having a famous surname, especially if your parent is marmite, as I say. You know, it’s not like somebody that’s completely universally adored.

I would say though I had a really interesting childhood in which I was born with a silver networking spoon in my mouth, you know? Lots and lots of connections and contacts and dinner parties and a multitude of people, and I learned the soft skills that I wish every single child in every country could be graced with, which is the ability to just soak up what’s around. So I had a very lucky childhood. I had an anxious childhood.

Andy Coulson:                   You use the word lucky rather than privileged, which I like.

Julia Hobsbawn:                I think you know, my family comes from Mitteleurope and eastern Europe and the Holocaust, so I think they were lucky, and I’m lucky as a result of them being lucky. Look, privilege I’m happy to debate it. I don’t know. I’m middle class but I hope that I’m not the kind of blind spot middle class that really doesn’t recognise how lucky and/or privileged they are.

Andy Coulson:                   That environment then, a confident young girl? Did you have-

Julia Hobsbawn:                No, I wasn’t. And you know, gosh, I don’t want to turn this into a therapist couch Andy, but I don’t know why but I wasn’t confident. I think probably you know, I was the first generation of the generation that came out of Europe because of the war.

Andy Coulson:                   Truly, truly out of crisis.

Julia Hobsbawn:                Yes. And I certainly think as regards my mother, you know, my mum, her family in Vienna came out in 1936, they were an affluent family with servants and, you know. My grandfather was a textile and a marble importer and he had connections, and he heard that things were going to get tricky, and he used his connections to get the family out to Manchester in 1936. A lot of my other cousins, they left later. In fact I reunited them all in Vienna last years, which was really powerful.

Andy Coulson:                   That must have been astonishing.

Julia Hobsbawn:                It was really intense. We all sat around a table and exchanged stories, some of which we didn’t know, about how on Kristallnacht in 1938 when anybody Jewish absolutely knew, one of my cousin’s mothers came home from school because she’d been sent home and told, “We can’t teach you any more, you’re Jewish.” She came home and her brother had been beaten up. You know, really, really tough stuff.

But my mother’s family came out earlier. She was four, and she was traumatised. She didn’t speak for a year,

Andy Coulson:       You said that the family history left you sort of allergic to self-pity. And also it seems a real driving work ethic. Are those two things connected, do you think?

Julia Hobsbawn:    I think so, yes. I mean, if you run your own business as I have done and as I do, you’ve got to- yes, you’ve got to be resilient, you’ve got to be tough, you’ve got to take the knocks. You’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to pick yourself up when things go wrong. And you have to work hard. You know, being self-employed, which is what owning your own business is, you know, there isn’t really a safety net.

But again it comes back to risk. Some people are comfortable with risk and some aren’t, and I realise I am. I don’t quite know where that comes from, because actually you know, my comfortable family background financially came from a tenured academic position. On the other hand, the family came from poverty. My father’s father dropped dead on the doorstep aged 48 of a heart attack looking for work.

So that drive probably percolated invisibly.

Andy Coulson:       That came down, for sure.

Julia Hobsbawn:    I think so.

Andy Coulson:       You dropped out of university. That’s a moment of risk, certainly one assumes of minor crisis as well. Do you recognise that, can you remember the feelings at the time? That can’t have been an easy conversation with your mum and dad, I wouldn’t have thought?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, I was a terrible dud academically, which is a bit weird because actually I now realise it doesn’t matter, that if you’re curious and you self-learn it sort of compensates for it. They were very- it was a crisis for them. I did very badly in my A-levels. I wanted to do English at Sussex University, that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to read literature. I didn’t get the grades, and that- there was a sense of crisis around that.

I went to the Polytechnic of Central London as was, became the Publications Officer, got involved in student occupations, met the President of the Students Union who is now, reader, my husband. But it was a crisis for the family because I just wanted to work.

Andy Coulson:       You’re in publishing to start with, then television not soon afterwards.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes.

Andy Coulson:       You were a researcher at Wogan.

Julia Hobsbawn:    I was a researcher at Wogan. So I worked my way up, because I came in as a secretary in a publishing house, as a self-taught typist having watched my mum type, I self-taught myself to touch type. And in the old analogue days I worked in a small medical publishers in Camden Town, having dropped out of Polytechnic.

I was pretty much one of the first people in media to work without a degree. So I got a job in Thames Television and was the first researcher they had hired without a degree, and worked on a programme called Books by my Bedside when there was a crisis, in fact. We did the last TV show with Salman Rushdie before the fatwa. And it went out as the programme was- you know.

Andy Coulson:       So how was that? You’re now finding yourself in some really interesting rooms.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, I found myself in some interesting rooms.

Andy Coulson:       Was that the thing, did that ignite something? The kind of being around- when we now look what kind of came after, was that a sort of moment at which you decided or could recognise, “Ah hang on, there’s interesting stuff going on in the world. I can be- I can get a seat in the front row”?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, and I think- it’s interesting, we’re recording this as live, and I like live. That’s sort of probably when I’m at my best. And working on television programmes, which is a lot faster than working in slow-mo publishing, was something that I enjoyed. And the strategy side, you know, how do we play this? How do we handle this?

Julia Hobsbawn:    And you had great licence in those days. I was at the BBC: you only had to phone up and say, “I’m with the BBC,” and you could sort of walk in any door.

Andy Coulson:       So the picture we’re getting here is of someone who is- how old are you at this stage?

Julia Hobsbawn:    I was early twenties.

Andy Coulson:       Early twenties, the picture being painted here is someone who is uber confident. But the truth is, I suspect, you know, a little bit more mixed I would have thought.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes weird, I wasn’t.

Andy Coulson:       There’s two things going on here, right?

Julia Hobsbawn:    I think I’ve got a lot of front. I think anybody that knows me would say I’ve got a lot of front. But of course it’s very common that the performers, the high performers, are the ones that, you know, have anxiety or imposter syndrome or whatever. And I think arguably it made me feel probably quite safe making other people look good. But no, I wasn’t confident and I felt a bit of a failure. But I think that’s healthy.

Andy Coulson:       Were you concerned that the lack of qualifications was going to somehow catch up with you at some point?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, I absolutely was. And to some degree I think it’s not unvalid in that I’m untrained. You know? And I do believe in training and teaching and learning, it’s just that interestingly now we all have to constantly skill and learn.

But there was a period of time where I out of sync. I went to a very famous school, the Camden School for Girls.  Everybody was either the daughter of someone or they went to Oxbridge and I was very, very unconfident in this school in the beginning. I mean, I didn’t look the part, I didn’t feel confident, I was bullied really badly at the beginning, horribly bullied, and never ever felt that I was in the right group or anything like that. And then I was told, when it came to A-levels, “After A-levels forget going to Oxford, you wouldn’t get in.” So yes, that wasn’t great.

Andy Coulson:       I mean, even at that stage in your life, right? That’s tough stuff to be dealing with. So there’s something in you, isn’t there, that is- and what do attribute that to, I suppose is the question? And where are you on nature nurture on that stuff?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Well, I think as a lesson it is important to keep pushing on, but it’s important to also come to terms with what it is you’re feeling. So I think if I could have those years again I would be a little bit kinder to myself, and I would be a bit more sympathetic. Which is, “Oh, you’re having a hard time. You don’t feel like you fit in. Never mind, you’re doing the best you can.” Whereas I was quite sort of punitive on myself.

Andy Coulson:       Is it not that though that caused you to keep pushing on and pushing through? This is the difficulty of this stuff, isn’t it.

Julia Hobsbawn:    No. I think I pushed on because I’ve got a natural enthusiasm and curiosity and a drive. And I think I probably got that from two sources. One is my dad, which is my dad was endlessly curious about the world and I think that was a fantastic gift to be given. And I saw him eat up ideas and life, and I wanted that.

And the second is there was a woman in my family called Gretl Lenz who I even look a bit like, who was my grandmother’s niece. My grandmother was the youngest of a number of sisters. And Gretl’s mum Susie died in the Holocaust, she was one of the ones that didn’t get out in time, and Gretl did with her brother Hans, if you can believe it. Hansel and Gretel. And she was just an extraordinary woman. She had a business called Lindsay Design. Her business partner was shot dead in the ‘60s in Soho, you couldn’t make it up.

Julia Hobsbawn:   And when I was very young and very unconfident she pointed her bony finger at me and she said, “I put my money on you,” and I’ve never forgotten it, and I held onto that little thought.

Because actually my mum didn’t really have confidence in me, that was the problem I think. You know, my mum who had problems of her own, bless her, she thought I was going to be like her, which was the girl who is never allowed to shine. And so I think it probably narked her that I behaved like the girl that did want to shine. Do you know what I mean? In that unconscious thing that happens between parents.

So it was very nice to have a role model who just said, “No, no, you can do it.”

Andy Coulson:       So often you hear that people who seemingly kind of defied or punched through, that it comes down to a conversation like that.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Oh definitely.

Andy Coulson:       That it comes down to just someone saying that you’ll be alright.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Oh definitely, and you’ve got to have people around you who see you, or see something in you. And if you don’t, I definitely think you’re in trouble.

Andy Coulson:       Let’s shoot forward a bit, let’s go to the ‘90s. You became a fundraising consultant for the Labour Party. But as we’ve already touched on, the truth is you were not, you are not rabidly tribal at all. But it obviously felt like the right team to back at the time. You were raising money for John Smith, I think I’m right in saying?

Julia Hobsbawn:    I was, I actually did the fundraiser for John Smith the night before he died, and we are interviewing- we’re doing this podcast around the time of thirtieth anniversary of his death, which I remember vividly. I mean, I thought I was tribal at that time Andy, you can imagine. I grew up in my background, my Euro Communist father backed the Labour Party, Neil Kinnock and all that crew, you know, my father was a big figure in those days in the Labour Party. And I was the Labour Party’s first high value donor fundraiser, and I loved it.

Peter Mandelson spotted very early on that I was a liability, he never trusted me, because he could tell that I wasn’t overly committed to the kind of- it was very interesting.

Andy Coulson:       Right, you’d failed some test or other that he’d sent you.

Julia Hobsbawn:    I’d failed a Peter Mandelson test, and I’m rather proud of that really. But I thought that I was tribal. I think I was the right person at the right time. Because I’ve got this sort of slightly entrepreneurial risk tendency I did these high value donor dinners which were rather unpopular with the left at the time. I remember Newsnight and Jeremy Paxman doing a programme about how can the Labour Party be doing £500 pay by plate dinners?

Andy Coulson:       When do you start, do you think, at what age do you start to understand that what was going on in those rooms was really about influence and power?

Julia Hobsbawn:    I think I understood that funnily enough earlier. When I was at Virago Press I was Maya Angelou’s book publicist, which was the big privilege of my life. And there was a wonder coterie of Maya Angelou and Jon Snow and Jessica Mitford and Neil Kinnock and the Tambos and the anti-apartheid movement people. I remember realising- I was very, very young and I used to be in these sort of social settings. It’s when you’re in a social setting with people with influence that you really begin to feel it, because people are off-guard and they-

Andy Coulson:       You can be excited and you can be interested, that doesn’t necessarily give you the understanding of what’s really going on in those rooms. You seem to have worked that out pretty early,

Julia Hobsbawn:    I think I probably am a strategist, I think I can notice power but also I’m not really very turned on by it. That might be why I understand it, you know. I think it’s crucial if you work with people who are powerful that you’re not- they don’t feel you’re fazed by them. And they only feel you’re not fazed by them if you’re not, right?

Andy Coulson:       Yes.

Julia Hobsbawn:    And I’m not fazed by them. Maybe that did come from my background, you know.

Julia Hobsbawn:    If people know that you are on the level, you know. I mean, I’ve only broken someone’s trust once, and it was awful. I did it kind of under pressure, in that it was a very, very close friend whose husband was playing away from home and it was kind of obvious, no one talked about it. And a mutual friend, who was tricky, who had her own issues, sort of went, “Oh go on, go on, tell me what you know, tell me what you know,” and in a moment of weakness I basically confirmed what I knew.

Andy Coulson:       Right.

Julia Hobsbawn:    And this other friend beetled off to my real friend and told her that I knew and that I’d told her.

Andy Coulson:       And did that break apart your friendship?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Well it actually didn’t. It was calamitous, that was a crisis, that was a real crisis of friendship because I loved this woman. And she phoned up and she went, “What the hell have you done?” And I thought, “Well,” I literally went into crisis management mode actually Andy, I thought, “Be truthful, be transparent.” And I said, “You are completely right, I did confirm it and I absolutely shouldn’t have done. But I’m going to tell you the context. And the context is a) it was true, and you’re upset about the fact that it’s true not about- you know, really that’s the crisis for you. And b) can we talk about what was motivating our mutual friend?”

And then I said, “But you’ve now got a choice, which is you are completely within your rights to not want to be friends with me anymore, and I would accept that. I would feel devastated, but I have broken your trust.” And she was completely fantastic. She went, “I’d like to think about it,” and I said, “Okay.” And for about four days I thought that’s it. And then she rang up and she said, “I’m livid, but you’re right. You were coerced by somebody who was-” am I allowed to say shit stirring? “Who was shit stirring. And we are going to resume our friendship.”

And it became and still is one of the most valuable friendships of my life. Because in a funny way, in friendship you’re not allowed to have crisis, and I think you should more.

Andy Coulson:       Yes, how interesting. The principles of that anecdote hold in so many different other contexts.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, they do. I learned a really important lesson then. I guess I think crisis is in three forms. One is personal, one is professional/political, and the other is a way is cultural or existential, right? It’s sort of out there and it kind of infects everything.

But a personal crisis or even a professional crisis can be like that out of nowhere, quick. Whereas some of the other forms of crisis can be elongated. Do you know what I mean?

Andy Coulson:       I do, I do. Let’s go to the business that you’ve built. You set up a very successful PR firm with Sarah Macauley as she was then, you introduced Sarah I think to her husband Gordon Brown.

Julia Hobsbawn:    I did, I did.

Andy Coulson:       A superb piece of matchmaking.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes.

Andy Coulson:       You have a very successful business, but it goes horribly wrong, because of a debt I think that was rather unfairly lumbered on you, or lumbered on the business, and bankruptcy followed. Have I understood that correctly?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Well…

Julia Hobsbawn:    Well, slightly complicated, don’t want to go into crisis management mode, but there’s a big NDA that covers the end of the business relationship with Sarah Brown as was.

Andy Coulson:       [0:44:52] Sure, sure.

Julia Hobsbawn:    It was a bad debt, it was a bad debt, and yes, that was difficult. Because reputationally, especially in Britain, failure is not an option. Luckily I’ve been going to America loads so I’m really not frightened of failure.

It’s a bit icky sometimes and there was certainly a moment in the middle of this bad debt crisis when it was late at night and I emailed myself, I thought, the kind of direness of the financials. I remember driving back through Hampstead at 11 o’clock on a Sunday night, those were the days of the desktops when you had to do whatever your business was in the office, and my cousin-

Andy Coulson:       Glorious days, as we now look-

Julia Hobsbawn:    The glorious- well, discuss. And my cousin Zach, who is a brilliant comms guy, he phoned and he went, “Hi Jules. Erm, just got your email,” and I went, “Email? What email?” And he went, “Well, that’s why I’m phoning. Did you mean to send me that email?” And literally of course cold, cold, cold sweat.

Andy Coulson:       You had sent the most sort of damaging-

Julia Hobsbawn:    Oversharing email, to completely everybody.

Andy Coulson:       Oversharing email about your finances to everybody in your contacts.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes. And then the Evening Standard promptly ran an article, or maybe that was even later, there are so many crises Andy I can’t keep up with them. But at a certain point the Evening Standard ran a piece with the memorable headline, “Sun Sets on Queen of Spin.” And I thought, “Well, there’s only one way to contain this crisis, which is to sort of own it,” and I wrote to the then Editor, Veronica Wadley, and I said, “Look, all is fair in love, war and journalism. Do what you’ve got to do, but I have one absolute request. You know, you can be wrong, some of what you wrote was wrong, but please can you not use that ugly photo and can I get a nice photo to you to use, if you’re going to be mean in the future?” She was very gracious and she said yes.  

Andy Coulson:       You’ve had your fair share of criticism over the years, as well. One of the most unpleasant things that has been written about you is you know, “Great dad, shame about the lightweight daughter.”

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, yes.

Andy Coulson:       Unpleasant stuff. How do you handle criticism? Do you let it in for a bit? Get the context wrapped around it and then move on? Or do these things stay with you?

Julia Hobsbawn:    I’m terribly, terribly thin skinned. My husband is brilliant at sort of saying, “Get over it, don’t worry about it and da da da.” So it’s sort of odd in a sense, because when it’s like the really big stuff I can be strategic, but equally if I’m misunderstood it upsets me, and I think lots of people feel that. I think it causes a personal crisis to feel misunderstood or to be wilfully distorted.

Andy Coulson:       Yes.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes? It’s not a good feeling, especially when it’s motivated.

Andy Coulson:       [0:50:53] That’s where anxiety really lives isn’t it, the gap between the truth and what- in those sort of reputational circumstances, how you’re being characterised. Does it manifest into anxiety for you, when those moments have come?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes. I do suffer from anxiety and confidence. I don’t suffer from depression, but I do get in a state quite often and I have to learn how to overcome that, and. I get cross and angry and start babbling to anyone who will listen, like, “This happened, grr,” and then I’ve learned to recognise, “Oh wait a minute, you’re in a bit of a state. Calm down, calm down.” Look, I’m older now and a bit wiser, but the point I’m making is yes, I do sometimes take criticism personally.

But on the other hand, if you don’t then you’re not connected with what you’re doing, so you have to be criticised sometimes.  

Andy Coulson:       Let’s talk about 2007. You’re on holiday with your family, you realise that your health was in decline, actually in a pretty dramatic way. You go out for a run and collapse, I think I’m right in saying.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes. I was running Editorial Intelligence, my third baby was one-and-a-half, I’d just moved us from home where I thought I was going to be a school-gate mum running the business from home, into an office, because the baby once nibbled the corners off all the envelopes in my mailing when I was at home. And that was a bit of a crisis, so I thought I’d better get an office.

So I got an office, worked all hours, had a cold for six months, didn’t really pay attention to it, and then went on holiday. And yes, went for a run, which was a bad idea because I wasn’t a runner, I was quite overweight, and collapsed. And had pneumonia and sepsis, and just- I was really lucky because I really did nearly die.

Andy Coulson:       You’re taken from there to a local hospital.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Well, it’s a bit of a weird story. We had all five kids, I’ve got two step children and three kids, and everybody was eleven or under I think, so it was like heavy. It was very hot, and I stuck it out for a few days, my husband just thought I had flu upstairs, and then I called my cousin who is a brilliant doctor, and he screamed down the phone at me, “Get in the car now, go to hospital.” And I thought, “I’m going to wait until the evening when the baby’s in bed, otherwise it’s going to because chaos,” and I sort of thought, “I know I’m really ill but I know that I’ll be alive, if I could just get through to the evening.”

And then it was a bit blue-light. They told my- we went to the local hospital and they told my husband to drive very fast, to Ipswich Hospital.

And then that was the beginning of what now turns out to be quite a horrible autoimmune thing.

Andy Coulson:       Yes, that’s manifested itself in other ways with your eye.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes. So I sort of got over that, got well, then I got all sorts of sort of colitis related problems, which are all inflammatory. And they are also- everything is a bit anxiety related, you know. Stress, good stress, bad stress, it’s all a bit of a murky area.

But the real kind of, and present problem started just after the pandemic, and one of my eyes just felt wobbly. The vision was wobbly and I thought- I didn’t know what it was. I went and got tested and they were kind of like, “Get to the hospital,” sort of thing. And I’ve got a really complicated eye condition. I’m at Moorfield’s all the time, I have to have horrid injections once a month, I’m on lots of medication, and it’s part of a systemic thing. Basically any soft tissue in my body appears to go into meltdown given half the chance.

Andy Coulson:       So we’ve talked about how you’ve been handling the business pressures and the sort of professional stress. Can I ask how you- a similar approach, are you taking, in terms of your- obviously the process itself is completely different, but I mean in terms of your mindset how are you handling that?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Well, you have to- if you get quite ill, chronically ill say, you have to lean into it and take it seriously and absorb it and assim- there, I said that interesting word, assimilate. I definitely don’t feel self-pity, I feel enormously lucky. Partly because I’m a bit of an operator, so I know how to operate the system, say, of the NHS, which is hard to operate. You have to be assertive, you have to know when to say, “Hang on a minute, I need to be seen,” or whatever. So I feel lucky that I have those skills, I feel lucky that I live near Moorfield’s. Goodness me, there are some people they come in from miles away Andy, and they’ve got much worse problems than me.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, we have a mutual friend, Jessica Morris who I knew all my career. Absolutely dazzling woman

Andy Coulson:       Another mentor.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Definitely a mentor, but a kind of unconscious mentor in that we just riffed off each other and I watched what she did, I watched the way she’d have a baby on one hip and she’d be stirring a cool looking risotto in her wonderful kitchen and juggling a tremendously demanding job as Head of Campaigns and Communications at Shelter, the housing homeless charity, and I thought, “Wow.”

You know, role models are sort of separate to mentors, I think, and she was definitely a role model to me. And she got very sick. She had a glioblastoma which as you know very well all about. And then she set up her charity, Our Brain Bank, and I got involved in that.

But it was five years of crisis, and it’s possible that my health problems were triggered by the combination of coping with the stress and anxiety and pain and wretchedness of the pandemic and her final years, and these nightmarish book deadlines I was on.

Andy Coulson:       Yes.

Julia Hobsbawn:    It’s unquantifiably upsetting when somebody you love deeply is so ill, you don’t need me to tell you that.

Andy Coulson:       Well, let’s explain that you very kindly introduced me to Jessica after my sister unfortunately received the same- Deb received the same diagnosis. And thanks to that connection I was then lucky enough to get involved with Our Brain Bank as well, and to meet Jessica and the Our Brain Bank team who do fantastic work, for people with that diagnosis and their families.

Julia Hobsbawn:    I think that’s what made us very connected, is that we’ve got a shared history, we’ve come across each other in a previous life professionally, and I saw you not long after you reemerged into kind of the life you’re living now. And almost the first thing you told me about- I said come and have a cup of coffee, and the first thing you told me about was your sister. And it was so obvious that that was top of your mind, that nothing else mattered as much to you.

And I was very moved by that, and then I told you about Jessica. And you know, it comes back to that trust thing. If you can find a point of connection with somebody, and sometimes it can be a really positive, wonderful thing, but quite often it’s a really negative thing.

Andy Coulson:       Yes.  You’re embarking on a mission to complete sixty SoulCycle sessions before your birthday in August, Julia, to raise funds for Our Brain Bank.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, I am.

Andy Coulson:       You started in March, I think.

Julia Hobsbawn:    How am I doing?

Andy Coulson:       How is it going?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes it’s fine, I did one yesterday. What it is is that I go to New York a lot for work, Jessica lived in New York, and I used to go more frequently because at the time I was on the board of Our Brain Bank and she got really quite dangerously ill several times and I’d nip over. And I used to go and do these SoulCycles, which for anybody who doesn’t know what they are it’s basically the Peloton stationary bike but in a fitness class like kind of aerobics.

And I used to think about her and will her on in those moments. And then the pandemic happened, nobody did SoulCycle any more then I got all my health problems and I couldn’t do it. And then a few months ago I thought I really miss that adrenaline and that buzz, I wonder whether I can do it.

And then I sort of had a bit of a lightbulb moment and I thought this is how I can contribute to the charity, is to fundraise. And I’ve got to say, I’m having a wonderful time doing it.

Andy Coulson:       Wonderful. We’re going to put the link in the information alongside this podcast, so you know, anyone listening to this, watching this, please support Julia. The cause, I can tell you, cannot be more important.

Let’s talk about Israel and Gaza, which is obviously front of mind now. You are a proud Jewish woman, how have those events impacted you given that history that you’ve explained, given your family’s history. How has it impacted you?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Well, it’s impacted me severely like everybody who is Jewish but not necessarily in the way you might expect. First of all I think back to the point I made about there being three kinds of crisis; personal, professional and existential or cultural. I think that Israel Gaza is a massive existential crisis for Jews, because it conflates being Jewish with being Israeli or pro-Israeli. And all my life I have known that I am Jewish but not part of the Jewish community that unthinkingly, unquestioningly supports Israel.

Now, I can’t tell you why that is, Andy. I do have relatives in Israel, I do absolutely appreciate and understand the origins of the state of Israel, but I’ve never quite bought it as a reason to do what I think has been done for many, many years which is the suppression of the Palestinian people. And I’ve always been slightly shunned in Jewish community quarters here.

Andy Coulson:       You’ve felt that pretty clearly?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Oh yes, yes. And I tried really, really hard to be a good British Jew Andy, I’d haul my husband off to synagogues and we’d do Friday night dinners and everything, I just found it really, really alienating. Whereas you know, if I died tomorrow one of the first things people would say about me, other than probably being my father’s daughter, is that I’m Jewish. I mean look at me, I’m doing the hand thing, I look Jewish, ethnically Jewish, I’m culturally Jewish.

And yet and but I’m not in the mainstream, or what was the mainstream until October 7th. And I think it caused a personal crisis but also a personal epiphany for me, which is I realised I’m actually not alone. There’s a lot of Jews who feel like me, absolutely 100% Jewish, rooted, connected to the history of the Holocaust.

                               I struggle to see anything about the Holocaust because I find it too painful because it’s too raw because some of my family perished in the camps, right? I literally can’t see certain things without just- I become ill, actually, if I watch certain programmes.

But I don’t feel an affinity to Israel. I feel my Jewishness is not to do with Israel. And that is a crisis, but it’s sort of-

Andy Coulson:       Do you feel like you’re in crisis now?

Julia Hobsbawn:    No, now I feel liberated from it. It was a crisis in the month between 7th October and about the middle of November. And interestingly I went to New York, and the depth of the crisis was laid bare to me when I had a conversation with a very, very dear friend of mine, in fact. He is passionately pro-Israeli Jewish, and we had a huge row.

I said, “Listen, this is a crisis, this is real. This is- we have a decision to make. I do not think the same as you, and you do not think the same as me.” I said, “But I love you and I respect where you’re coming from, and I hope that you respect where I’m coming from, but if you don’t you don’t.”

And to his great, great credit, he struggled with it but no, we’re still friends. But we don’t talk about it.

Andy Coulson:       Doesn’t therein lies perhaps a piece of advice that could go an awful lot wider?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes.

Andy Coulson:       If we put it that way. The ability to disagree agreeably, to use that horrible phrase.

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes. It’s so painful for everybody. I hate the vulgarity of some of the language that’s used, I had the sarcasm and the brutality and the simplification of a situation that’s really complicated. But on the other hand I am pretty uncompromising.

I am not a Jew who stands with Israel in this war, and I can’t make myself that kind of Jew, and it makes me unpopular with quite a lot in my own community, and that’s the way it is.

But it doesn’t mean I don’t feel sympathy or respect for their position, and I’d hope they feel the same for mine.

Andy Coulson:       Julia, let’s talk about the book, Working Assumptions: What we thought we knew about work before Covid and AI – and what we know now. In short, is the workplace in crisis?

Julia Hobsbawn:    Yes, absolutely in short the workplace is in crisis. And it’s in crisis because it was in crisis before the pandemic but sometimes it takes a different crisis to uncover the underlying crisis.

Andy Coulson:       As you know, I like the word crisis, I use it as often as I possibly can. The title of this podcast is a bit of a clue. But I do also think that the word crisis is overused,

Workplace has always been in a form of crisis because it comes with change, right? Our work is at the centre of change, whether it’s technological, whether it’s societal or whether it’s- you know, what kind of state was the workplace in post-War?

Julia Hobsbawn:    I think you’re completely right, and in fact I write about the past, present and future of work, and in fact in my last book The Nowhere Office I dated the changes to the Second World War. And I said that the Normandy landings was a good example of the first pop-up office Andy where you know, we think about the troops and we think about the boats but we don’t think about the Hollerith machines and the typewriters and all the back end that was also on the beaches.

Andy Coulson:       Indeed.

Julia Hobsbawn:    You are completely right. Flux and statis are in competition with each other, and the workplace is always in flux. But I think work and working life has been in crisis for a very long time and it’s always been covered over. I mean,

Just to give you an example, the American economy is $300 billion a year caused by stress. A lot of stress is caused by workplace problems.  So my argument is that work could work so much better. Actually I’m an evangelist for work, and really what I’m trying to do is tell the story of work.

But I will just say, I think there is a particular crisis of work at the moment caused by three things. One is the pandemic; we are not over it. Three million people died, huge numbers of people have got long Covid, that’s the first thing. And that created all the upset around hybrid working and the end of certain office spaces being viable and all the disruption.

The second is AI. AI is going to change jobs, cut jobs, cause stress in the workplace. That’s not exactly a crisis but it’s a challenge.

Andy Coulson:       A challenge for sure.

Julia Hobsbawn:    And then the third thing is that we are at an incredibly important pivotal generational shift, where dare I say our generations and a little bit older, we are phasing out of the workplace. Not right this second but soon enough, and a new what I call amazing age is emerging of millennials, alphas and even the baby zeds, sorry, zeds, millennials and baby alphas that are coming into the workplace.

And that is a crisis for the workplace, because I can tell you through the consulting that I do, millennial managers haven’t the foggiest how to deal with their zeds. You know? The boomers don’t know how to talk to the millennials, there is a crisis of communication now. It doesn’t mean that each individual workplace can’t have happy stories and you know, then we’re talking about leadership. But do I think the workplace and work has been in crisis and is in crisis? Yes I do.

Andy Coulson:       Julia, we’ve covered a lot of ground, I think.

Julia Hobsbawn:    You’ve been stabbing your iPad rather purposefully.

Andy Coulson:       I’ve been so looking forward to this conversation and I’ve- really, thank you, I have thoroughly enjoyed it. I said at the beginning that I think there’s a lot to learn from you, and I don’t think I was wrong about that. I really appreciate you coming in-

Julia Hobsbawn:    My pleasure.

Andy Coulson:       And being so- well, you are just a force of nature.