The first ten essays address topics in British working class history during the "long 19th century". They deal with Thomas Paine, the Luddites or machine-breakers, the radicalism of shoemakers, the difference between labour traditions in France and Britain, the development of a distinctive working class culture, the place of the skilled manual wage worker in Victorian moral frameworks, the iconography of male and female representations in labour movements, the origins and history of May Day as a working class celebration, the relationship between socialism and the avant-garde, and Labour Party stalwart Harold Laski.
There are two long pieces on peasants — a general overview of peasant politics and a study of land occupations, both drawing on Hobsbawm's work in Peru — and one on bandits. There are pieces on Vietnam and guerrilla warfare, May 1968, and sexual liberation. And finally there are half a dozen pieces on jazz, looking at Sidney Bechet, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, jazz in Europe, jazz after 1960, and jazz's relationship with blues and rock.
The pieces are mostly non-technical; several were written for the New York Review of Books. Some are a little dated, such as the essay on May 1968, written the year afterwards, but others are surprisingly topical, such as the 1965 piece on guerrilla warfare in Vietnam, which is perfectly applicable to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Uncommon People gives a reasonably good idea of the scope of Hobsbawm's work, but is probably not the best entry to his work for newcomers unless they have a particular interest in jazz.