Fred Inglis on Richard Hoggart

A leading light in the study of culture fought many battles that now need to be fought again

May 8, 2014

Source: David Newell Smith/Guardian News & Media Ltd

My commemoration of this one life, which did so much to make the history of British emancipation intelligible and even admirable, tolls a surly, sullen bell

In his epoch-making book, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Alasdair MacIntyre contends that in a time when it is so difficult to agree on a commonly held system of ethics, when our moral vocabulary is so fragmentary and disputable, the best way to live a good life – one of which one may be proud and one to be acknowledged as worthy and admirable by others – is to make of it something that has the properties of a work of art. That is to say, a good life will have a formal shapeliness, imaginative force, originality, purity. It will be as beautiful as time and chance permit, it will tell truths and shame the hordes of darkness.

What George Eliot calls “hidden lives” may certainly be works of art. But for a public life, lived in the glare of fame with all its attendant spite and sentimentality, to be a work of art demands of its author rare strength, natural grace, terrific stamina and more than a touch of innocence.

These opening cadences make it clear that in my judgement – and in the judgement of innumerable others who lived faithfully a hidden life – Richard Hoggart’s life indeed displayed the properties of a magnificent narrative fresco, telling how one might live well and with exemplary goodness in the years between the end of the First World War and the uneasy, incoherent first decades of the new millennium.

In any rehearsal of his life story it is bound to be hard to avoid plangent or wistful chords. No one, of course, would want to speak wistfully of the extreme exigencies of Hoggart’s early life set in acute poverty down by the dull canal and round behind the gashouse in Potternewton, in 1920s Leeds. Nor can one do anything other than shut one’s eyes in horror at eight-year-old Richard, then known by his first name, Herbert, coming home from school one day to find his mother, only in her thirties, coughing her tubercular life away on the rag rug in front of the living room range.

Her three children were distributed around the extended family; Bert went to Hunslet to a house full of women consisting of his grandmother, two aunts – one of them a volcanic termagant – cousin Ivy aged 20, and an amiable, mostly plastered, unemployable uncle. There he learned compelling class lessons, taught by way of home’s dense crowdedness, strict timetable, solid just-sufficient menu, sudden loud quarrels and patched-up peace. These heavy presences shaped, at best, beautiful qualities in its people: resilience, tolerance and quiet acceptance for sure, but also courage, intimacy, steadiness, loving kindness, and those mighty pillars of its best politics, solidarity, mutuality, defiance, dutifulness.

Hoggart himself would have wriggled a bit at an encomium such as this, and always preferred to uncover goodness in hidden lives from which one can take away, as W. H. Auden put it, the capital letters from the big words that make us afraid. Nonetheless, he built his life on those virtues, while adding to them the natural cheer and openness of his disposition.

It is part of Hoggart’s enormous achievement that all those who would recognise his name, whether or not they had read The Uses of Literacy, would know something of these originary virtues and the circumstances that nourished them. It was a happy if an obvious idea for Penguin to put an L. S. Lowry painting on the cover of a later edition of his great book. Lowry’s quiet, orderly, civic crowds are perfectly of a piece with the unpolitical, maternal safety of Hunslet, keeping at bay the hideous dangers of a politics almost wholly indifferent to the welfare of individual families such as the Hoggarts.

It has long been an axiom for the proper understanding of an intellectual oeuvre that life and work be kept methodically apart. The severity of this principle has however been much softened by historian Quentin Skinner’s insistence, guided by R. G. Collingwood, that a thinker’s thought can only be understood as answers to questions in the thinker’s mind, questions posed by the very particular circumstances of the historical life that is the subject matter to hand. The life’s work is to work out those life puzzles.

Richard Hoggart/Woman and child walking in industrial UK town

The life Hoggart studied and the life he lived can by this token not be told apart. Nor was it a merely personal topic; he wrote not about himself but about his social class, and about the way that that class – with an extraordinary lack of bitterness or resentment – bore the routine oppressions of pre-war capitalism.

Capitalism, not accidentally, is a word that scarcely ever appears in Hoggart’s work. When politically minded people first read The Uses of Literacy, they were baffled by the absence of strikes and blackened faces. On the contrary, what Hoggart recreated so affectingly was the patience, even the docility, of the British working class; the form of its patient, cheerful playtime – the club, the high tea, the jokes and dogged commonplaces – and then its sudden, selfless access of energy on behalf of those of its numbers who had the necessary talent and willpower to leave the rest behind.

This is the deep history of British emancipation during the 20th century, and my commemoration of this one life, which did so much to make that history intelligible and even admirable, also tolls a surly, sullen bell. For Hoggart’s embodiment of a moral fable going far beyond his individual success warns us that the hoped-for progress of his nation and its fissiparous peoples towards a common good and equally shared fulfilment has stalled; it has been, for a season, stopped in its tracks. Bloodthirsty old capital and horrible class greed have warped into inhuman distortion what once seemed, here at home, the feasible prospect of a goodish society.

When Hoggart, much inspired by his grandmother and his unforgettable teacher, Mr Harrison, took off from Hunslet and won admission to the University of Leeds, he discovered his path alongside Mary France, first and last love, poetess and teacher, by way of the incomparable liberation great literature always has on offer to those who find her. This conversion (for that is what it is) went with the young officer to war in North Africa and Italy. There, he learned the lessons of the equal fellowship of all poets, and had this life-shaping instruction confirmed daily by the routine terrors of enemy bombing, of (for Hoggart himself) fearful burns incurred and healed during the Sicilian invasion, and of renewing the pledge to the arts in the unexclusive company of the multilingual arts club in occupied Naples.

The superordinate pattern in the fresco of Hoggart’s life then outlines a diminutive figure going to its proper destination as a teacher in adult education, presager of The Open University and guardian of its nation’s culture by way of evening classes for all classes, not in search of training for a job but for enlightenment, moral enrichment even, for a loss of one’s mere local self in the thrilling freedoms and fearful, exhilarating truths to be found in, say, King Lear, Bleak House or Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.

Out of these dogged and beautiful passages his great book began to take its several shapes in the writing space he contrived in the ramshackle garage shed hung with old carpets for a bit of warmth, in Marske-by-the-Sea in North Yorkshire, his beloved Mary indoors, little Simon and baby Nicola interrupting composition, Paul still to arrive.

The figure on the ground of the fresco is now fully formed but never still. Hoggart, inevitably, moved from outside the university walls to its heart, but always heading for its outlaw accommodation. After extramural teaching up and down the coast of northeast England, and straight lecturing at the University of Leicester, when he moved to a chair at the University of Birmingham, it was in order to design the guerrilla uniform of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, whose very interdiscipline was to be the content and methods of all his own thought and writing, and the vast association of other writing that it had plainly implied. For a while, his centre seemed an image of the future of social thought and cultural criticism, including sociology, politics, ethics, literature, aesthetics, film and television in a common pursuit of true judgement as to old and new lives, and their meanings.

Richard Hoggart/British workers eating in staff cafeteria

So when the offer came of appointment as assistant director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation it deepened and confirmed the pattern of a life. He left the Birmingham centre in the commanding care of Stuart Hall, moved alike by a natural delight in being chosen for a part on the world stage, by his lively sense of public duty and by, goodness knows, an overpowering sense that he could now test out his tough and tender feeling for the sheer variety of human culture on a global scale.

In the event, Hoggart’s human sympathies were less enlarged than when, between 1970 and 1975, his stern principles of bureaucratic straightness were put to the test. Time and again, he ran up against gross venality, flagrant corruption and, for some colleagues, the danger of murderous reprisal from their home governments. All he could do was stick to his own guns and keep up the struggle to protect and conserve the amazing beauties of the wide world.

Finally, when meeting head-on unignorable and lying injustice, he took from his desk his long-prepared letter of resignation and came home to write his unservile affirmation of UNESCo’s formative vision, An Idea and its Servants: UNESCO From Within.

For his last job, as is still keenly remembered by the college, he became warden of Goldsmiths, University of London. One or two people have spoken of this as a falling-off of his ambitions and talents. Not so. It perfectly fits our picture. Goldsmiths, spread out on its packed and tidy campus, is one best miniature of the British effort to conceive the good society. It provides a medley of courses and teaching, ranging from painting, sculpture and dance, to teacher training, instrumental music and computing, and claims to have the biggest media studies department in the country, started by Hoggart of course. The college is also a Babel of nations and tongues, Asian, African, Eastern European, Latin American, Italian, Cockney, Geordie, Irish, Scots, Welsh…there could not have been a happier expression of Hoggart’s lifelong fidelity to the ideals of a people’s education. He brought the college right up to the gates of full membership of the university, opposed for years by antique academic snobbery, and after eight years of 10-hour days, he retired.

He framed this vast and vivid picture of his life with 20 more years of writing and 11 more books, including his great three-decker autobiography, meanwhile much honoured and invoked in public life. Only his very last years were blemished and made incomplete by gradual dementia until, just last month, he died at 95. The work of art made by his life is now entire, and magnificent.

As with all great works of art, we then ask, what shall we do with it? Let us say, it is like a rich deposit of moral energy laid down in veins in our cultural morphology. Who is there who will draw on that energy? For many battles that Hoggart and his generation fought – for equal access to the riches of culture and education; for a decent respect between classes, colours, genders; for a generous and humane covenant between state and citizen – these battles are having to be fought again. What Hoggart’s hero, William Cobbett, named Old Corruption is back in ravenous business and the signs of the times are not propitious for beating down the vile monster.

Our academic duty is plain enough to read, however, and we cannot fail to read it in the life of Richard Hoggart. In any case, we are all of us pressed into service. The study of culture, as Hoggart’s old friend, Edward Thompson, used to say, is a way of struggle.

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