Outsider with a mission

No Discouragement
May 9, 1997

Sociology is one of those disciplines - like anthropology and English linguistics - which in Britain have been created essentially by outsiders: Scots, Jews, "colonials" from the Dominions, English provincials. It is difficult now to imagine the early suspicion of sociology in such bastions of the establishment as Oxford, where even in the late 1950s a student could be marked down for using outlandish jargon like "subculture" or "nuclear family". That Oxford ever admitted this most subversive of all disciplines to its embrace was due in no small measure to the qualities of the author of this book, an English provincial who became in due course Britain's first professor of sociology - known universally from childhood among his "huge proletarian tribe'' in Kentish Town, as "Chelly'' Halsey.

Halsey's father, a railwayman gassed in the first world war, moved his nine-member household away to a Midlands council house. Here the boy's education by lamp light, nourished by readership of the Champion, was extended through the good fortune of having an inspirational teacher at Kettering Grammar School. Kettering became famous as a centre of amateur astronomy, and later became a comprehensive thanks partly to the author's efforts as adviser to secretary of state for education, Tony Crosland.

Halsey left school at 16 to train as a sanitary inspector and then RAF pilot in Southern Rhodesia. That he was not commissioned is (though he does not say so) a telling comment on the wastefulness of the British class system. Opting for sociology at the London School of Economics led to his joining a remarkable and close-knit group of around a dozen researchers in the early 1950s who formed the British Sociological Association in 1951, and all but two of whom went on to chairs when the new discipline exploded into British universities from the 1960s. When, after spells at Liverpool and Birmingham, he accepted the headship of Oxford's social administration centre at Barnett House in 1962, it was in preference to five other options, including chairs at Manchester, York and Essex. He had already turned down an offer from California worth four times his Birmingham salary, though he was to remain an admirer of many aspects of American education and culture.

His accounts of his reign at Barnett House, and of his long association with Nuffield College - where he was relieved that he narrowly failed to be elected warden - will become essential sources for the history of both institutions. Unsurprisingly, three of his first five colleagues at Barnett House went off to chairs, and there can hardly be a sociology department in the UK which does not host a staff member who has sat at Halsey's feet; all over the world there are students who attest his personal influence on their lives. Halsey represents the central stand of sociology which never surrendered to the intellectual terrorism of Marxism, and this book is suffused with the instincts of decency, humanity and tolerance associated with his particular brand of socialism, which have in turn helped to fashion the British version of sociology. He is untypical in being a man of religion, nurtured in boyhood by his parish church, and the title of his autobiography comes from Bunyan's hymn "To be a pilgrim". This also explains his involvement in the Faith in the City commission in the 1980s.

The roots of his undogmatic Christian socialism lie in his personal experience of family values - in the traditional working-class family of his upbringing, and the family he and his wife Margaret created, which included adopted children as well as their own. But if some matters of faith are not up for discussion, we can regret that his impassioned exposition does not deal with some of the more persistent difficulties about socialism, such as the culture of dependency it appears inevitably to create, which for many Christians conflicts with the doctrine of personal accountability. He is clearly aware of the differences among the working classes between on the one hand the respectable, law-abiding, educationally ambitious, and on the other the feckless and school-resistant, so it is puzzling to find him advocating the wholesale replacement of grammar school by neighbourhood comprehensives, while imagining that this could "abolish the conflict between school and home''. As an expert on both social mobility and the sociology of the school, he obviously knows that the values that will dominate his own children's comprehensive school in north Oxford may be radically different from those prevalent in such a school on a working-class council estate in Liverpool, but he gives no hint of what is involved in ensuring that, in either school, the values he would obviously favour will predominate.

These are small quibbles: this is a valuable and interesting book. My more serious criticism is that a hardback costing Pounds 40 gives only tantalising glimpses where it could have provided the very full and perceptive documentation of a working-class childhood that we get from (for example) Richard Hoggart. Though Halsey is not a sociolinguist (and indeed confuses accent and dialect) he has interesting observations on the patterns of speech of his parents and siblings, and of people he meets in the course of travels around Britain which are made the basis of illuminating sociological commentary. He is good, too, on the boyhood influence of the cinema in a period when the British public made 20 million visits a week. But at that price his publishers could have edited out slips of spelling (like "grammer") and punctuation.

John Honey is visiting professor of English, International American University, Kyrenia, Cyprus.

No Discouragement: An Autobiography

Author - A. H. Halsey
ISBN - 0 333 64957 5 and 67710 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00 and £15.90
Pages - 263

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