Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands, by Stuart Hall, with Bill Schwarz

Book of the week: Fred Inglis yearns for post-1964 insights from the life of an icon of the intellectual Left

April 20, 2017
Stuart Hall

Stuart Hall’s autobiography! For the genteel, graminivorous, public-spirited and presently glum (Donald Trump, the European Union referendum, the Labour Party, all that) constituency of the intellectual Left, it should be the publishing event of the year. The Stuart Hall (to distinguish him from the forgotten presenter of pop TV) was for 50 years, until his death in 2014 aged 82, not merely the leading theorist of the black diaspora, vividly present on half a dozen television programmes discussing his people, our people, the people, but a constant contributor to another dozen journals of the garrulous Left, and invariably steady, sane, generous and formidably fluent as well as bewitchingly attractive with it. Speaking for myself, a dazzled admirer five years his junior, I have never met anyone I more longed for as a friend; but then, countless others felt the same, and Hall (pictured), with all his handsome charm, also had his dignified reserve.

Admirers will therefore fall greedily on this fresh, unlooked-for volume, self-effacingly edited by his longstanding ally, Bill Schwarz. They will find a rich resource of Hall’s swift, lucid and beautifully turned theories of black identity, as assembled in the grumbling hostility of British racism following his own arrival as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford, just three years after 492 West Indians and one stowaway were emptied off the Empire Windrush.

What readers will be disappointed not to find is anything much resembling autobiography. Certainly there is plenty of absorbing reminiscence, most of it set in his Jamaican childhood and all of it shaped by a class consciousness precisely adjusted to the different shades of skin colour visited upon different social groups around him.

Later in the book, he sketches his attitude towards, and affection for, Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson, the two men who, alongside Hall, became the leading musketeers and strikingly romantic heroes of the New Left, its celebrated journal New Left Review, and the short-lived but widely supported National Confederation of the Left. Williams and Thompson were a decade Hall’s senior, and equipped with the imposing qualification of having seen active service in tanks in Normandy and Italy. Intellectually, Hall was every bit their equal, as well as being more accessible and gregarious than Williams and less touchy and self-righteous than Thompson.

What Hall lacked – as Schwarz, in a kindly aside, concedes – was a writerly compulsion to finish. He wrote prodigiously; he turned out articles with phenomenal celerity for a handful of journals or collections at a time. After leaving Oxford, he became a secondary modern schoolteacher, in the evenings an adult education tutor and, meanwhile, one of four editors of New Left Review, and eventually national secretary of the New Left at a salary well below that of his tough schoolteaching days.

These enormous labours, however, never led to the finished, solid volumes his admirers longed for. Given just how plentiful his writings and broadcasts are, it may seem importunate to ask for more. After all, in this new, final contribution, there is his full-fledged theory of diasporic identity, which is to say an analysis of how a brown (not black) skinned Jamaican Oxonian accommodates the conflicted self-assertions of race, colour, class, exile and very high intelligence and moral principle. He then turns all this into becoming the well-loved husband of a white historian 17 years his junior and father of two paler brown children, as well as into a public figure of unimpeachable rectitude, enormous influence and not a trace of boastfulness.

Faced with this grand achievement, is it childish to feel thwarted? I think not. For one thing, the diasporic theory that Hall offers in these pages is not without its triteness. Identity politics is a raucously crowded field. The great Charles Taylor, Hall’s friend and co-editor, thinks of the fierce identity debate that is gathered under the label of “multiculturalism” as having three axes, which taken together define “the horizon of my moral world”. The first is relatively fixed: skin colour, family membership, first language, nationality, gender, religion; the second – a much freer business, especially since, say, 1945 – leaves open large spaces for self-definition and existential choice, the product of a mobile world, the quarrelsomeness of rank, the invention of authenticity; and third, this free play of individual choice and rights as they collide with other groups and cultures demands, as self-vindication, recognition of legitimate difference.

The disappointment of this book is that Hall doesn’t theorise for us his long engagement with exactly these great themes of modernity. It is as though, having won such well-deserved acclaim and possessed, in any case, of such easy grace, he wins his struggle with his past almost blithely.

It was also true, as Schwarz mildly observes, that the swiftness of Hall’s thought compelled him past yesterday’s writing into tomorrow’s, and that therefore he constantly rewrote, abandoned, started again, found new topics. In the book to hand, he treats vividly his growing up in imperial Jamaica (fresh coconut water straight from the nut), the painful story of his sister’s forbidden engagement (her chosen fiancé was too black for Mrs Hall) and her subsequent breakdown, and all the time, Hall’s own deep politicisation as anticolonial, as black Jamaican, and – his signal achievement – as free-thinking, reckless (in his way), wholly winning and supremely intelligent citizen of, and teacher about, a brave, new and feasible world.

So one is dismayed when he announces not only that this is not a memoir but that he is going to call a halt at 1964. He is, he says, not concerned to write a memoir “in any formal sense” but rather, writing in his eighties, in poor health and his eyesight failing, to discover the connections between “a life” and “ideas”.

Stopping, however, at 1964 prevents his telling us of the politics he evolved with which to identify and fiercely oppose “Thatcherism” (his own coinage) and its “populist authoritarianism”. In his finale, the chapters “England at Home” and “Politics”, he celebrates captivating memories but fails to tell us what politics to build and how to oppose the slow degeneration of the British polity now accelerating to some godawful end. He speaks, in passing, of his own invention of cultural studies as a discipline but not of its rapid ineffectuality and theoretic obesity. We needed Hall to tell us how to make the Left into a force for straightforward social reform and the enhancement of democracy, and to have done so in that happiest of partnerships with Richard Hoggart at the University of Birmingham. He turned away from his subject, and now we are bereft.

Fred Inglis is honorary professor of cultural history, University of Warwick.

Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
By Stuart Hall, with Bill Schwarz
Allen Lane, 320pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780241289990
Published 6 April 2017

The Editor

Bill Schwarz, professor of English at Queen Mary University of London, “was born in the capital of an ex-colonial dominion, brought up in the Home Counties, and attended, as a recipient of charity, an antediluvian school. My life has been spent endeavouring to imagine another way of being. If only in this respect the trajectory of my life is similar to Stuart Hall’s.”

He first met Hall in 1974, when Schwarz was interviewed for an MA at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham. “Instantly one became aware of Hall’s human warmth – however grave the matter under discussion, an ironic smile was never far away – as well as his dazzling intelligence. He was a thinker keen to share ideas with his interlocutors – to listen, learn and discuss – rather than presenting himself as an authority who used his intellect to flatten you into submission. For a young postgraduate this was most welcome.”

Hall was never Schwarz’s official supervisor. But “he was, throughout my time as a graduate student, a close intellectual presence. His advice on the first two collective books I co-edited at Birmingham – On Ideology and Making Histories – was profound. For the third, Crises in the British State, 1880-1930 – Hall was the progenitor of the project.”

Familiar Stranger, Schwarz says, “has existed as an idea for some 20 years. We were invited to produce a ‘conversation’ about his life and ideas, to appear as a short book. After a little while the dialogue was transcribed and the allotted word-count nearly there. I passed the script to Hall. He was concerned with many other pressing issues, which continued to intervene. When he had the time he began, as was his habit, radically to recast the manuscript. We would meet and talk, but over the years progress was slow.

“Later in life, when he was ill and housebound, he returned to the text with an extraordinary vitality, producing page after page of luminous prose. When he died three years ago he left a huge, incomplete manuscript, of some 300,000 words. Familiar Stranger, which recounts his growing up in Jamaica and his coming to England, is extracted from this first part.

“A kind of sequel will follow, not as a memoir, but as a final analytical reflection on the relations between culture and politics.”

Schwarz is general editor for the multi-volume series The Writings of Stuart Hall. Is it a daunting responsibility? And how long will this project take?

“Hall wrote at a ferocious speed, only ever errantly keeping copies or records of what he wrote. His writings are scattered to the winds, in many small magazines across the world. He wrote collaboratively, never writing an entirely single-authored book.

“Duke University Press generously offered to remedy this dispersal by agreeing that we compile a Stuart Hall list, gathering up thematically his most important writings. Some dozen or so volumes are planned – most, but not all, appearing under the Duke imprint. This is an extraordinary commitment from a university press in these austere days. The books are now beginning to appear (Familiar Stranger is published by Duke University Press in the US and by Penguin in the UK).

“How long will the project take?

I have little idea. But, with luck, the bulk of it could be completed within five or so years.

If Schwarz could change one thing about his institution, what would it be?

“Queen Mary is a relatively enlightened place to work, where the vestiges of an older social-democratic sensibility are still present. But the contrary forces are fierce, and show no signs of weakening.

“What would substantially change the situation?

Some means by which greater autonomy could be returned to the teachers, such that the teachers in dialogue with the students could determine the intellectual basis for the organisation of learning.”

What gives him hope?

“My children and their generation.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: The anti-memoir of a restless mind

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