Edited text of a talk given at ‘In the Footsteps of Giants: Remembering Stuart Hall, Richard Hoggart and John Tulloch’, The Annual Conference of the ICE (Institute of Communication Ethics), Friday 24 October, 2014
Since my father died on April 10th this year, three months after my brother Simon and one month before his beloved wife Mary, I have been helping to organise his Memorial event at Goldsmiths College. The response has been remarkable.
Speakers will include Peter Hennessy, David Lodge, James Curran, Melvyn Bragg and Laurie Taylor with filmed contributions from Catherine Hall, Alan Bennett, Sir Tom Courtenay and the poet Tony Harrison … Sometimes it has felt like producing some kind of awards ceremony …
But this process has made me acutely aware of his impact over the decades through the influence of The Uses of Literacy, the foundation of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and through his work as, to use that rather clunking phrase, a ‘public intellectual’. I cannot offer authoritative overviews of the development of Cultural Studies as a discipline, although I did some postgraduate research into popular literature in the late seventies, tutored on the Open University’s Popular Culture course in 1982 and started a raft of Media Studies courses during my years as a teacher in Further Education.
Later my work as a television critic and feature-writer constantly brought me up against the issues Dad grappled with from the Uses of Literacy, via the Pilkington Committee to his spell on the Arts Council. So I have always had at least peripheral awareness of the issues raised by the work of the three ‘giants’ celebrated at this conference, and I tried to address some of the issues around the fate of ‘the academic left’ in my first novel ‘A Man Against a Background of Flames’, published last year.
But what I did do throughout my entire life - and therefore do have some kind of authority - was talk to my father … a lot. Or rather he talked; I listened and occasionally got a word in. So I do know a fair amount about his private views of all these matters and on that basis I have a few opinions of my own about what he stood for and how those opinions and values have fared over the decades.
I would, very roughly, divide my father’s areas of influence into three different ‘zones’, although they clearly overlap and run into each other all the time. The first of these is personal and comes from his writing in the first half of The Uses of Literacy. I suppose you could call that a sort of Autobiographical Social Anthropology, often written in a style which betrayed his life’s great unfulfilled ambition, for he was, by his own admission, a novelist manquee. (He told me in his late seventies that he felt a failure because he had never become a novelist, an admission I found astonishing, revealing and actually ludicrous, in view of what he had achieved in life).
The second zone arose from the second half of the U of L - his attempt to begin to frame an academic mode of analysis for the study of popular culture. This was influence of a very different kind, more important perhaps within academia, but also more problematic.
The third zone was my father’s engagement with public life which began with the Albermarle Report on Youth Work and my father’s evidence at the Chatterley trial, then progressed through the Pilkington Committee on the future of broadcasting to work with the RSC, the BBC, his five years at UNESCO, and, on return to England work with the New Statesman, a long significant spell on the Arts Council and even a curious spell on the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification).
It is hard to underestimate the impact of the quasi-autobiographical sections of the Uses of Literacy. The lives of all three of his children have been punctuated by people coming up to us, sometimes complete strangers, to tell us how much that book meant to them. His description of the awkward transition from one social class to another, and the trials and insecurities of the ‘scholarship boy’ struck very deep chords.
Only last year a former colleague and close friend from my last FE college, with whom I had worked for fifteen years, revealed for the first time that as a young woman she had treasured the book and saw Dad as a hero. I had had no idea. For some reason she had felt awkward about telling me this while we were colleagues.
For the rest of his life Dad got letters to this effect from strangers, the last I saw came only two years ago when he was 93 and suffering from advanced vascular dementia. It was from the MP Frank Field. The actor Tom Courtenay has recorded an interview for us about the book’s personal resonance for him and Alan Bennett has now done the same favour. Also Leeds born and raised, Tony Harrison dedicated a poem to him ‘Them and Uz’ about how his native language was mocked by grammar school masters.
What is more this effect has resonated down the generations. Dennis Potter, probably the greatest television dramatist of his generation, wrote about how the book helped him make sense of his childhood in the Forest of Dean. Stan Barstow has described how much it meant to him. So has the novelist Tim Lott. The Guardian journalist Stuart Jeffries wrote about how the book made so much sense of his difficulties as a working-class undergraduate at Oxford in the 1980s that it reduced him to tears.
In her excellent introduction to the most recent Penguin re-issue, Lynsey Hanley described how it made sense of her own experiences and conflicts being brought up on a West Midlands council estate in the 1980s. (Both she and Tom Courtenay particularly appreciated Dad’s observations about the delight of tinned peaches). Even people with relatively genteel backgrounds can get in on the act. When I interviewed Sir Ian McKellen recently about his Broadway Pinter revival, he finished the conversation by telling me how much the book had meant to him when he was young.
For years there was a family myth – perpetrated by myself, as it turns out – that the book had inspired the creation of “Coronation Street”. I contacted the soap’s originator, Tony Warren recently and he explained my mistake. In fact he had not heard of the book until they were already making pilot episodes, when a young researcher told him the U of L must be his ‘Bible’. He duly read it and was, he said most impressed, but it had not inspired him to write the show. Decades later he was in conversation with his friend and near neighbour LS Lowry and asked the painter how he coped with the constant barrage of interviews and the endlessly repeated and inane questions. I paraphrase: ‘I just agree with whatever they suggest,’ Lowry told him. ‘I have a quiet life and they go away happy.’
Warren had this in mind while he was walking round the market in a northern mill-town, making a documentary about the umpteenth anniversary of the show he told me. When the eager young reporter asked if he had been inspired by the Uses of Literacy he took Lowry’s advice and agreed. ‘Can you say that again as a statement?’ asked the reporter. He did. ‘I was inspired by reading a book called The Uses of Literacy,’ he said …’ I saw the documentary, and a family myth was born.
"Uses of Literacy was the articulation of a particular kind of personal experience"
What this also tells us, of course, was that part of the book’s success was that it captured a widespread and growing movement, the same desire for recognition and the right to self-assertion among the working-classes which had swept Attlee to power after the war, a tidal wave of social pressure which did not finally peak and crash until the end of the 1970s.
But it was the articulation of a particular kind of personal experience, a description of what it felt like to be on the inside of a shift in social mobility, which resonated most deeply with a growing demographic group. It made people who felt like isolated individuals realise they were part of a much broader group and that their conflicted feelings and awkward experiences were shared by others and were wholly understandable. This, I am sure, is what elicited the intense sense of gratitude which emanates from all those letters.
And it was my father’s ability to capture the texture of a certain very specific time and place in working-class social history that resonated too. In this respect his modern heirs are not so much other academics as, say, screenwriters like Paul Abbott, the creator of “Shameless”, or Shane Meadows, creator of the “This is England” films.
My father’s background, upbringing and trajectory through life affected him in many ways, of course. Brought up by his beloved grandmother after he was orphaned, he wrote that she could be very crude sometimes, and his own sense of humour could be surprisingly rude, and in a rather childish way. He loathed onions for some reason and playing Consequences with the family (a rare enough event) one Christmas while he was Assistant Director General of UNESCO, he invented the worst dish he could think of: ‘Shark’s pizzle in onion sauce’, giggling at his own silliness when it was read out.
He once told me about a hostelling holiday he took with my mother in the Lake District before they were married. One night they were the only guests in a hostel, so to ensure there would be no hanky-panky, the woman who ran it actually locked them into separate men’s and women’s dormitories for the night, separated by a wooden partition wall. They found there was knot-hole through which they could converse like Pyramus and Thisbe in the Mechanicals’ Play in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Dad told me, ‘I said to your mother, “If I’d a penis as thin as a pencil, then where would she be?”.’ I resisted the temptation to point out that if that had been the case Mum might have had second thoughts about their future together.
In fact he could be quite naïve sexually. In a famous exchange in the trial of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, Dad had surprised the court by asserting that Lawrence’s writing about sex belonged to an English puritan tradition. The prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones tried to ridicule this by reading a particularly intimate passage and asking if it was ‘puritan’. Dad stood his ground, insisting it was true to an English puritan tradition of truth to one’s conscious. Griffith-Jones, apparently knew it was a thinly veiled description of anal sex, but could not say so. My father told me later that he simply hadn’t realised. (I read later that the practice was once a common form of contraception among Nottinghamshire miners).
He wrote in the “Uses of Literacy” about his capacity for unpolished directness, and he could appear brusque and even dictatorial. My brother Simon once overheard a woman in a House of Commons bar fulminating about this. He never discovered who she was or how she knew Dad, but it was a revealing glimpse of another view of him. Partly this was due to insecurity. he had the opposite of a sense of entitlement, so the thought that he might be wrong could seem intolerable, and having the wrong opinion about something always somehow became a moral issue.
It also made him unusually sensitive to perceived slights and put-downs – a waspish remark delivered during an early visit to Cambridge – dismissive remarks about his courses by a distinguished professor at Birmingham and so on. These lodged like burrs and would be recalled resentfully even as the early stages of dementia began to cloud his memory in his late eighties.
Yet he was usually genial and had a lively sense of humour (often perfectly clean) and many have attested to his generosity and willingness to help those who needed it. In matters of personal morality he was generally open-minded and tolerant, even though his own relationships appeared utterly conventional. He could be shockingly politically incorrect, but was anything but homophobic.
I once went into a pub with him in the West End, a handsome Victorian place with ‘snob panels’ over the bar. I recognised at once that it was a gay bar and wondered what the clientele would assume about our relationship. After a few moments sitting at the bar Dad leaned over and said in one of his embarrassingly loud whispers ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Paul, but this place is full of homos.’
He was deeply irritated by the appropriation of the word ‘gay’. Yet his first book was on Auden who visited our house in Birmingham. In Leicester he lent money to the young writer and broadcaster Ray Gosling and visited him in hospital when he was beaten up (possibly in a homophobic attack), and he had several close gay colleagues over the years who he spoke of with unfailing respect and affection.
It could sometimes seem a curious mix. But all of that was part of the Hunslet package, a carry-over from the experiences described in the U of L and later in the first volume of his autobiography.
Of course we children did not always hear appreciative remarks. A much smaller category of people delighted in telling me, at least, that they had read the book and it was crap. ‘We call it “The Uses of Shitteracy”,’ giggled a friend at a Birmingham Arts Centre I attended in the 6th Form, forced to study it for A Level in her FE college.
If I bothered to probe, I would usually discover that this was a reaction to the analytical second half of the book. A section on milk-bars in particular has been repeatedly cited as unsympathetic, judgmental – not ‘getting it’. By the late sixties, anyway, attitudes to popular culture and subcultures had been transformed. Intelligent teenagers pored over the lyrics of their most meaningful musical or sub-culture heroes. Adopting the coolest, deepest style became a critical issue of identity. When the U of L came out, almost nobody was writing seriously about popular culture. Ten years later, everyone was at it, and the music press in particular was achieving stratospheric heights of pretentiousness.
In that sense Dad was out of touch. Unlike his old friend Sir Roy Shaw – also working-class – Yorkshire adult education – later Secretary General of the Arts Council - he did not have much time for popular entertainments. It was my six years older brother Simon who brought rock music into the family home, along with satirical comedy and an interest in popular television. Once in the noughties, when I was working as a television critic on The Times, Dad rang me up and asked if I could furnish examples of shows which were popular but of high quality. He was struggling, he said, the last he could think of was Morecambe and Wise. I provided a short list, but it brought home how out of touch he was.
Yet when he did turn his attention to popular forms his analysis was usually sharp and sympathetic. Generally his judgments were shrewd and true, which is one reason why they continued to resonate with so many readers.
Much has been written about this over the years, but the pioneers of what became Cultural Studies were feeling their way in largely uncharted territory and both Dad and Raymond Williams were from literary critical backgrounds, largely shaped by F R Leavis. So when Dad started the CCCS in Birmingham with his newly appointed deputy Stuart Hall (also from a literary background incidentally) they insisted on close textual analysis and Dad made the motley collection of graduate students analyse Yeats poems before turning their attention to the latest batch of women’s magazines.
There was an understanding between Dad and Stuart, who Dad knew was far more interested in theory, that their approaches were complementary. They planned their courses and activities in close collaboration, each respecting the other’s talents and strengths. I spoke to Stuart’s widow Catherine only this week and she spoke warmly of the closeness of their working relationship in the early years of the CCCS. I myself recall Dad coming home and talking enthusiastically about some of the texts Stuart was getting them to read and getting me to read Barthes’ Mythologies. (I thought the first half an amusingly flamboyant Gallic version of the kind of work my father did).
Yet there were fundamental differences in approach mainly because Stuart was a Marxist and Dad, while open to the possibilities of much Marxist analysis (Gramsci, I believe, resonated – are not ‘consensual hegemony;’ and ‘unbending the springs of action’ essentially describing the same phenomenon?) was definitely not. In fact he had a deep and long-standing mistrust of Marxism which dated back to disputes with CP members in the thirties, many of whom were still apologists for Stalinism.
My father had come out of the war desperate to avoid anything that smacked of totalitarianism. He remained committed to the principles of public ownership to his last days of coherent thought but he was, in the true sense of both words, a Democratic Socialist. He has sometimes been criticised by the left as a pro-nuclear deterrent ‘Cold Warrior’ and an apologist for Israel. Whatever the flaws in these stances, they are explained by that wartime legacy – the fear of the threat of a murderous absolutist tyranny and sympathy for what he saw as a small democratic enclave beset by undemocratic neighbours.
Of course this put him in a deeply conflicted position during the campus upheavals of 1968. Stuart was whole-heartedly backing the dissident Birmingham students while Dad was trying to defend his Centre in hostile Senate committees.
This discomfort may have contributed to his decision to leave for UNESCO at the start of 1970. I really couldn’t say. I do know that the prospect of a massive job in Paris, building on his long-standing work in public affairs and applying his ideas about the purpose and value of culture on a global scale, seemed incredibly exciting. My own view is that whatever his disagreements and discomforts back home, that world was always going to claim him.
Of course after Dad left for Paris, the Centre was transformed by what Stuart Hall has called ‘the turn to theory’. Dad had always recognised that Stuart was matchless at making the most abstruse theory lucid and accessible to intelligent readers. Although the very last time I saw him, late last year after several decades, even he admitted, with his characteristic warm chuckle, that here were passages in Derrida which he found utterly impenetrable!
For me the great unanswered question is what would have happened if my father had remained within British academic life through the early 1970s. Would he, like Raymond Williams, have embraced the new theoretical perspectives, melding them with his own intellectual framework and finding ways of explaining them to bright undergraduates. Or would he have thrown up his hands in horror and angrily rejected the lot like E P Thomson?
Incidentally in my year tutoring for the OU, the Popular Culture course began with an “overview” in which these three were described in terms that made them sound like the Trevithicks and Stephensons of a discipline which now sped around in sleek continental TGVs and Pendolinos. I guess my father’s acid test would have been the degree to which a particular theoretical approach could be translated into something that had meaningful resonance for intelligent lay readers, that said something that engaged meaningfully with life outside academia, and was not a system for generating pseudo-scientific jargon.
I am sure, however, that there would have been fireworks. Some have suggested that he might have floundered. If so, I am sure it would have been a fighting flounder.
In 1974 the Centre published a paper by Colin Sparks called ‘The Abuses of Literacy’ an attack on Dad’s liberal English approach, arguing that the discipline needed the rigour of late Marxist analysis. Other remarks about the patronising intellectual inadequacy of Dad’s ‘Arnoldian liberalism’ filtered back to him. “Freud calls it ‘killing your father’,” Dad told me ruefully when he read the Sparks paper. Years later I myself am tempted to ask what bloody good that approach did us in the long run. Whatever their differences in approach, however, on a personal level, my father remained enormously fond of Stuart, proud that he had appointed him as his deputy at the CCCS, took opportunities to collaborate with him and retained his huge admiration for Stuart’s talents.
So when Dad returned from Paris in 1976, taking up his post as Warden of Goldsmiths, he was out of the academic debate, yet very much part of public debate about culture in its broadest senses. He developed an abiding hatred for what he called ‘relativism’, which he saw as a fashionable tendency to avoid any kind of value judgment.
In his still Leavisite view you had to make value judgments. You could and should argue vigorously about how those judgments should be made, and how they might apply to understanding particular texts – but you should always be prepared to make them because the cultural experiences that are presented to people actually do affect the quality of their lives – they are not neutral events.
My own personal bugbear, watching from the side-lines as we passed through the 80s, and I know that my father shared these misgivings, was that I became increasingly aware of large sections of the academic left disappearing up its own theoretical fundament. However enlightening the late Marxist, post-structuralist and discourse theories may or may not have been, the fact is that they had the effect of withdrawing academic cultural analysis from mainstream public debate.
I have suggested that this was a massive, historic abnegation of responsibility and left the public field open to the unopposed ravages of free market fundamentalism and the most cynical and ideologically manipulative forms of commercialism. I have always exempted Stuart Hall from this criticism (I gather he later suffered his own ideological attacks at the CCCS anyway) because he offered the most lucid and accessible analyses of politics and culture. However, he tended to reassure and bolster the already converted. Dad had always rolled his sleeves up and pitched pugnaciously into debates about public policy.While gentle academics in England still abed, as it were, were arguing intensely about how many discourse theorists you could fit on the end of a Lacanian jouissance.
Where are the Richard Hoggarts of the next generation?
I was made acutely aware of this in the early 200os, some time after my parents moved Norwich under the watchful eye of my sister Nicola. “Newsnight” had a debate about whether television was dumbing down. Peter Bazalgette, then best known as the importer of the reality show format “Big Brother” and Lord Puttnam were in the studio. To put the case for the prosecution, Dad, in his eighties, appeared from the BBC’s Norwich studio. He looked pale and a little haggard like some Old Testament prophet without the beard, and he was clearly out of touch with current developments. Why, I wondered, had the producers’ Rolodex lighted on him? Where were the Richard Hoggarts of the next generations?
It has been pointed out to me that there were plenty of accessible cultural commentators on the left, but that they simply could not get a hearing beyond a limited range of sympathetic outlets. I have to admit that is probably true. Others have conceded that there was a tendency to preach to the converted, or to withdraw behind the safety of campus boundaries as the onslaught of free market ideology gathered pace.
Perhaps, but working in Further Education as the old democratic idealism of that sector lost traction and was pushed ever further back by the new Gradgrinds, I began to despair about the lack of voices from the universities, fighting our corner with resilience and resonance in the mainstream public debate. I should add that I am painfully aware that my own writing has been no more effective in this area than any academic’s.
My father always pitched in when he could, attracting criticism from all sides. He and his old friend Roy Shaw were burned in effigy for implementing unpopular cuts at the Arts Council. Yet he was accused of being an ‘elitist’ by both Peter Bazalgette and Peter Hitchens (who regarded this as compliment!).
From the Pilkington report onwards he was accused of being culturally patronising. How is it patronising to think that people might be capable of enjoying and appreciating material which is more demanding, yet rewarding than their normal fare? It is an obvious enough point, but if anyone is patronising it is the purveyors of lowest-common-denominator drivel for easy financial returns.
The U of L lamented the cynicism of commercial culture and in this his analysis remains as relevant today as it was in the 1950s, witness the staggering amorality of the tabloid press as exposed by the hacking scandals.
"Literacy of every type still needs to be used not abused"
More interesting is the case of reality TV which Bazalgette himself defended as ‘democratic’, citing the case of Jade Goody after her spat with Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty during “Celebrity Big Brother 5”. Where else would someone from her background get a hearing? he argued. But Goody had been ‘cast’ from the start to arouse controversy – set up as a sort of sideshow freak, manipulated by a wealthy media outfit for public entertainment. She benefitted financially on an undreamed of scale, of course, but it was about as undemocratic a process as you could dream up.
So what do I conclude from all this? That my father was right about everything? Of course not. That the specific analyses of the Use of Literacy still hold water? Some do; some certainly do not.
No, my conclusion is much broader than that. What we seem to have lost today is the kind of drive, belief and optimism that motivated him and so many like him during the so-called ‘post-war consensus, a belief that social justice and equality of opportunity are achievable, and that we should not allow ourselves to be constantly brow-beaten by the threat of global markets.
Above all it is a belief that the acquisition of the kind of critical literacy my father believed in so fervently is actually a right, that ‘ordinary’ people. That ‘ordinary’ people as well as academics can and should make considered and informed judgments about the value of the cultural material they encounter and should always be encouraged to do so.
That is democratic. Setting people up to fight each other like insects in a matchbox in order to line your own pockets isn’t. Literacy of every type still needs to be used not abused.