Beggared belief

November 10, 1995

THE WAY WE LIVE NOW. by Richard Hoggart. Chatto and Windus. 352pp, Pounds 18.00 - ISBN 0 7011 6501 4.

The Uses of Literacy came out in 1957. In a far more beneficent and sunny climate for culture, it was immediately and justly recognised as a classic in the line of "condition of England" books.

It told, as its hundreds of thousands of readers now know, its tale of working-class life in Hunslet, a life whose sometimes desperate privations also embodied some of what Hoggart celebrated as the best values of a political culture he still, indomitably, stands up for. With an honest, admirable patriotism unrecognisable either to the cynical bawling of the Sun or to the generalised uplift of the Guardian, Hoggart still seeks out and finds the decent neighbourliness, the ordinary lovingness, the respectful keeping of rights and pieties and Sunday support which tie him and us to the glory of everyday life.

Thirty-odd years later he painted his strong, fond little portrait of Farnham, and found England still - as he puts it here - "going on going on". He rediscovered that strictly within-class and altruistic watchfulness keeping up its Englishness and its continuity. But he also found that what he had identified in 1957 as an "unbending of the springs of action" had penetrated much further with its deadly, enervative narcotics. The well-fed, well-paid folk of Farnham were still people of the same polity as those of Hunslet in the year the railways were nationalised; but although they were agreeably civil, they were hardly civic or citizens at all.

As the sacked managing director says at the end of Nice Work, "Something has happened to this country". David Lodge would, I think, be pleased by the idea that he is novelist to his friend and former colleague's intellectual theory and social history.

The Way We Live Now - Trollope's title, first, of course - is Hoggart's cultural vision of the times. It comes a bit late on its cue. There has been a crying need for such a book ever since the consequences of the new and even more horrible beasts of capitalism released by the Big Bang, casualisation of labour, Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and all that hoo-ha became so quickly apparent. William Keegan, Wynne Godley and Will Hutton did their bit for economics pretty promptly, but as Hoggart says here, "the left seemed to lose its creative impulse, become directionless, to lack contact with its own heart". The demon responsible is, he says a bit baldly, relativism.

Hoggart's new book is testimony to his astounding energy and stamina. At 77, after the effort of his enormous autobiography, he sets himself to take the temperature of his nation's times, to test its blood for health and heartiness, sample its imagination for largeness and magnanimity, conduct a few examinations of its intelligence, judgement and moral sense.

He returns with a bleak report. But so would anybody not sent delirious by the ravings of government about the enterprise culture. One might say that the point of cultural studies as an academic discipline since its inception by Theodor Adorno in the United States and Richard Hoggart in Britain has been to answer the question: was Adorno right? Right, that is, in claiming that consumer capitalism is the galloping and truly totalitarian victor of the three-sided clash of ideologies which constitutes the 20th century?

Hoggart answers yes. But the fight is not over yet, least of all for this bonny fighter. He arraigns his own academic subject for pusillanimity; for its dereliction of the duty to judge the culture of the day without all that mouth-filling jargon about cultural materialism.

With no academic centre of resistance, the fight is all the harder to coordinate. Hoggart has therefore to attempt to speak to that worthy but elderly fiction, the common reader. It has to be said that he sometimes does so in an idiom surprisingly sprinkled with the solecisms and cliches he is so at pains to criticise in the general conversation of the day. He has his unhappy loosenesses and lack of carpentry, his failure to think an argument to its end as advertised by his repetition of the exculpatory "to some extent", his elderly garrulity which, for instance, leads him even to add his own little riders to the epigraphs copiously placed at chapter heads.

This is a sort of commonplace book compiled by a man easy to accept as our best elder. The faults I hesitatingly note are of a piece with a calmness, a perfectly justified habit of intellectual (but always egalitarian) authority, and a considerable courage. He names for what they are the cowardice of civil servants before the vanity and vengefulness of Tory ministers; the demeaning cupidity and raucousness of so much television; the greedy complicity in this of the planners and managers of popular culture; the corruption of the arts and their national administration.

Hoggart's unswerving rightness makes this an easy book to read. As with Robert Hughes's The Culture of Complaint, all through the book you find yourself nodding, once or twice nodding off, in agreement. But it is far from clear what we can do about things, beyond trusting, as Hoggart himself does so affectingly, in Wordsworth's "inherent and indestructible qualities of the human mind".

The depredations of Thatcherism have made servitors of the civil service; turned almost all our citizens into obedient consumers; beggared one third of our people; silenced opposition and eradicated idealism.

It has been one hell of an achievement. Rebuilding the public-spirited institutions capable of renewing a national culture will take, in the absence of war, at least a generation. On could not ask of Hoggart, who has done so much for so long and for good, that he write the book describing the kind of architects such reconstruction will demand. The book we have here, in its tough, principled, talkative way should be quite enough to call a straying, scattered but not altogether heedless intelligentsia back to their true colours.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies, University of Warwick.

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