In the 1945 General Election, after more than five bitter years of the war against fascism, the British electorate - including the returning Army - voted overwhelmingly for a Labour government. The railways, mining and steel production were brought into public ownership, social housing developed, education substantially reformed and a universal system of free public health was introduced. This was the welfare state: the first time that any UK government had recognised that the welfare of its people should be its primary concern.
Richard Hoggart sprang to the attention of the new reading public created by these reforms with his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, which, in its Penguin edition, sold 20,000 copies annually for more than a decade. Its autobiographical cast spoke to and for the emergent generation, offering them a version of their own cultural struggle, many finding that in discovering the value of culture they had left behind their own class familiarities and, indeed, families. Fred Inglis, in this welcome first biography, tells a compelling story about Hoggart with warmth and a wealth of family and contextual material. He shows with great clarity and insight how Hoggart was one of the first to negotiate, from the inside, the transition from working-class to “mass” culture in the post-war period, and the struggle to oppose the trivialisation of “the predatory consumerism and guiles of late capitalism”. In a kind of political refusal, however, Hoggart tried to capture and embody in his writing and public service what Inglis rightly calls “decency”. This sense of decency - we might now call it “respect” - encouraged the richness of debate for many on the Left in the next generation.
Inglis tracks Hoggart’s inverted Rake’s Progress through the class system from the impoverished “women-dominated” household of his childhood in Leeds, through his exceptional academic achievement and exemplary public service to his late-period autobiographies. Emblematic of his generation’s scholarship boys, his ability to capture the tone not only of novels such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which he defended magisterially in court) but also of a demotic learned discourse, without descent into academic jargon, became a trademark. For Inglis, it was Hoggart’s plain speaking in his reports for the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting and Unesco that set a new standard for public communication - E.M. Forster’s “only connect” being his watchwords.
Hoggart will be justly celebrated for the innovatory graduate school he established at the University of Birmingham in 1963 - the legendary Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Funded by Allen Lane of Penguin and wholeheartedly loathed by traditional academics and Tory education ministers ever since, it was itself a cultural landmark. Here the narrative might have been rewarded by more judicious analysis. For example, while Inglis acknowledges the importance of the adult education tradition, he seems unaware of, or ignores, the archaeological work that has unearthed the emergence of cultural studies from that milieu. For Hoggart, as with Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, it was their engagement with the “social purpose” democratic tradition of the Workers’ Educational Association that was galvanic. Here the young Lionel Knights had taught classes in the close reading of newspapers in the early 1930s, new anthropological approaches such as Ruth Benedict’s were aired and Marxisant émigré intellectuals including Karl Polanyi and Karl Mannheim made key contributions.
Some lapses of tone mar Inglis’ achievement. His account of the Birmingham CCCS ends on a regrettable rant against “structuralism” and “bitter Red feminists”, while the suggestion that “maybe Stuart Hall takes some of the blame” for the “historic disappointment” of the centre is unworthy. It was Hoggart’s great gift to cultural studies to combine F.R. Leavis’ close reading of texts (while resisting his metaphysical pessimism) with the WEA’s student-centred, interdisciplinary practices, while Hall nurtured a theoretical and sociological grounding. Instilling this approach into the academy is their enduring legacy.
Inglis also delights in “vivid description”, quoting substantial chunks from literary contemporaries for context. While they are entertaining, rather than illuminating his subject’s own existential wrangling they seem to distract from them. Nevertheless, he is to be thanked for his painstaking and highly readable account of what was in many ways an exemplary life - and an unjustifiably neglected one, the fashions of culture being what they are.
Tom Steele is honorary senior research fellow in education, University of Glasgow, and co-author of British Labour and Higher Education, 1945-2000 (2009).
Richard Hoggart: Virtue and Reward
By Fred Inglis
Polity, 280pp, £25.00
Published 18 October 2013