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31 October: The Uses of Literacy Today

Published onJul 09, 2019
31 October: The Uses of Literacy Today

It was a real honour today to be asked to speak at the event Celebrating the Life and Work of Richard Hoggart, not least because Richard Hoggart – who died in 2014 – was the Warden of the college when I was a student here in the 1980s. It was something of a comfort then – in the midst of the vertigo of a non-traditional student’s experience of university life – to know that someone like Richard Hoggart was in charge. Regardless of his lofty title, Hoggart had grown up as a young man in a working-class world in Hunslet, Yorkshire. He had in part been drawn to Goldsmiths because of its association with the arts and humanities but also because of the college’s commitment to offering adult education locally.

In 1989 Hoggart wrote an introduction to a then new edition of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. He commented that in 1937, when Orwell’s book was published, it was fashionable to say that class divisions were fading. Then twenty years later when he published The Uses of Literacy the same kinds of things were being said in the year that Harold Macmillan said boldly ‘many of our people have never had it so good’. Hoggart wrote, ‘Class distinctions do not die, they merely learn new ways of expressing themselves . . . Each decade we swiftly declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty.’

I think the question that remains an open one is how to best understand and write about the vitality of class as it is lived and felt. What The Uses of Literacy offers us are some answers to that question that are beyond time and place. Many people have a sense that their own lives or the people that they know and love are written into this book in some way. It provided luminous fragments of classed feeling and sensation. It comes through in the ways he writes about food, the cheap cuts like pig’s feet and liver, but also his descriptions of occasional luxuries of tinned pineapple or tinned red salmon that is, as he puts it, ‘far tastier than fresh salmon’. It is a specific observation that is resonant with a wider feeling even when the specific details vary.

Hoggart’s account of the northern cities of his childhood is often misrepresented as sentimental. Writing about the same charge levelled against Orwell, he comments: ‘That final ‘‘-al’’ in ‘‘sentimental’’ is an escape mechanism – to escape from considering the true expression of ‘‘sentiment’’.’ So much of the richness of class sentiment escapes or slips out of the ways in which we write about the sociology of class today.

Hoggart himself is scathing of the images of working-class people made from simply ‘adding together the variety of statistics given in some of the sociological works’. He might have been writing about the thin descriptions contained in the recent BBC Great British Class Survey. The Uses of Literacy is written with a sometimes shuddering and withering honesty. Much is made of his use of autobiography but I actually read him as a kind of proto-ethnographer of, not just his own life, but the life of the world he remained part of well into his thirties, however tenuously.

Hoggart’s female characters are the real heroines of this book. I would argue, along people like with Sue Owen, that there is something distinguishing about Hoggart’s account of the lives of working-class women. While the overall frame of the book remains patriarchal, the women are extraordinary. Consider this passage:

She had the spirits, and I say this with no intention of disparaging her, of a mongrel bitch. She fought hard and constantly for her children, but it never ‘got ’er down’, though she often exploded with temper among them. She was without subservience or deference, or a desire to win pity.

Women like that are recognizable today but their struggle is against the new moralism of class hatred that is of a different order of governmental structure and control.

What would those vital fragments of class feeling include now? They’d include the nail salon, the sun bed, the tattoos of children and relatives that are inscribed on adult working-class bodies like kinship diagrams and the Technicolor excess of the Christmas lights that decorate working-class homes.

I think much critical attention has focused on what Hoggart saw as the ‘spiritual dry-rot’ of the world of rock’n’roll and milk bars and the threat of a historic break. There is also something else that he outlines about the ways in which the ‘older attitudes’ carried through time. It’s captured in the phrase about middle-aged folk: ‘Agh, you sound more like your mother every day.’ It makes me think how limited our understanding of these feelings are within the council estates of our cities.

I have been going to a lot of funerals of men and women who came of age in Hoggart’s ‘candyfloss’ world. I am struck by how much the elemental structures of classed feeling – the personal, concrete and the local – endure through time. It is somehow captured and brought back to life in those funereal eulogies.

My last point is about what is not in this extraordinary book. In July 1939 George Orwell wrote in the pages of Adelphi magazine that ‘what we always forget is that the overwhelming bulk of the British proletariat does not live in Britain, but in Asia and Africa’. It is a warning against the ways class culture is still colonized by a normalizing sense of whiteness. Today more of the British proletariat – in the way Orwell would definite it – lives in Britain, but their experience is not confined to these islands.

This summer I went to the appropriately named Home Park in Sydenham to hear Janet Kay and Carol Thompson perform their Lover’s Rock anthems. Lover’s Rock is a sweet form of melodic reggae music that was pioneered in London in the late 1970s and 1980s through innovators like Dennis Bovell but featuring lots of local people. When Janet Kay sang ‘Silly Games’ the crowd of all shades and three generations erupted. It made the think of Hoggart’s club singers and the songs that he characterizes as expressing the ‘feeling heart’. The song animated shared sentiments across the line of colour within what seemed to me a profoundly classed experience. They’d gone to the same schools, lived in the same areas and had to contend, perhaps in varying degrees, with the same social workers and defenders of law and moral order.

It seems really vital – remembering Stuart Hall’s observation – to think about how race and ethnicities serve as the modalities through which class is lived, as well as how class is the modality through which race is lived. In order to do this we need a much better understanding of culture as a structure of feeling that contains traditional elements with emergent forms, that is made in place but where the here and elsewhere of history and culture is part of that interaction.

While Hoggart was personally liberal and open-minded on issues of race, he was less sanguine about the forms of anti-racist politics that emerged in the early 1980s, particularly in response to the 1981 New Cross Fire when thirteen black teenagers lost their lives just a street away. He was sceptical of the link between the fire and accusations of racism levelled against the police for their failure to prosecute those responsible.

The striking thing when remembering Richard Hoggart is his lifelong commitment to education. It came through in the democratic clarity of his books and the intelligent sense of purpose of his arguments. It’s not just that working-class readers recognized themselves in his books but he inspired them to be more than the ‘persuaders of modern life’ offered. Hoggart was an inspiring and dedicated teacher, a legacy of his days as an extra-mural teacher at Hull in the late forties.

Even as Warden of Goldsmiths he continued to teach, contributing lectures on his literary heroes such as D.H. Lawrence and W.H. Auden. The value of education for Hoggart was in thinking together critically in an open and inclusive way. The task of the university was, as he put it, ‘to intellectualize its neighbourhood’. Isobel Armstrong – his first PhD student – commented ‘teaching was at the centre of his life’.

There is a scene in his memoir An Imagined Life that illustrates his commitment to teaching. During the seventies and eighties academic staff at Goldsmiths had to apply to Senate House to become a ‘Recognised Teacher of the University’. This indignity was the result of Goldsmiths not being a full and equal member of the University of London. It was a kind of academic quality check. As an active teacher, Hoggart mischievously made an application; he thought ‘so longs as it exists’ he should ‘go through the same hoops’ even though he was the head of the college. This caused the university bureaucrats at Senate House considerable embarrassment because it made the second-class status of Goldsmiths academics cringingly evident.

In his memoir he describes a student that embodied ‘Goldsmiths’ peculiar strengths’. A young woman of about thirty, she had escaped a series of dead-end jobs and been given a grant by the Local Educational Authority to study English at Goldsmiths. Richard Hoggart – the Warden of the College – was her seminar teacher. After a seminar he asked her how she was getting on. She said she was finding the commuting from north London, and also the disciplined routine of study, difficult. ‘But’, she added, ‘it’s wonderful. I can’t get over the fact that I’m being paid to read books all day.’ Sadly, the same luxurious opportunity offered to this student is not available – except to a limited few – today. Now students have to pay to read books all day. This politically manufactured indebtedness is a betrayal of a whole generation but it is also a betrayal of Hoggart’s vision of education’s power and value.

As Stefan Collini rightly pointed out, this is more than just a matter of the introduction of student fees. Rather, it is about the full marketization of higher education and introduction of new commercial players into the once publically funded educational sector. The political intent is to split higher education into an elite of selective universities and ‘a selection of cheap degree shops offering cut-price value for money’. Collini argues in the new candyfloss world of higher education once first-rate universities are turned into third-rate businesses.

As they find themselves in a new situation something eats away at faculty, as metrics are used to measure and judge their academic worth. ‘It is the alienation from oneself that is experienced by those who are forced to describe their activities in misleading terms’, Collini concluded. This is reminiscent of Coleridge, who put it rather well when he wrote that the value of a person is ‘to be weighed not counted’.

So many of us are Hoggart’s children. Remembering him now I realize how much his life and work provided an outline for my own. Among the ruins of the university of commerce are the embers of what Hoggart called the ‘Great Tradition’ of transformative learning. This is best captured in Albert Mansbridge’s idea that adult education is a ‘collective highway’. For Hoggart this was the refusal to accept intellectual wantlessness, where thinking can suture and balm lives that feel as if they are falling apart, where we have the right to ask to be more than what we already are. As teachers in his wake, we are left with the difficult task of ensuring that those embers do not go cold.

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