Mass Media in a Mass Society, by Richard Hoggart

A Ruskin for the couch potato generation
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The Independent Culture

Richard Hoggart is today's John Ruskin. Ruskin saw the 20th century in, and had then been writing about England, capitalism, art and work and life, for 50 years. Hoggart has been writing on the same subjects, and for as wide an audience, for even longer. He shares Ruskin's terrific high-mindedness, but none of his crotchets and pottiness.

Richard Hoggart is today's John Ruskin. Ruskin saw the 20th century in, and had then been writing about England, capitalism, art and work and life, for 50 years. Hoggart has been writing on the same subjects, and for as wide an audience, for even longer. He shares Ruskin's terrific high-mindedness, but none of his crotchets and pottiness.

Indeed, for the almost 20 years since his official retirement (he is 86 this year) he has flourished amazingly. This is no late autumn of a patriarch but the endless Indian summer of a thinker still vividly engaged with the facts of life, his eye and ear as keen as ever for matters of high seriousness and low life.

This latest book addresses old themes, all subsumed under the grand Victorian heading, "the moral condition of the nation". But Hoggart is one of the few people alive capable of addressing so vast a topic without sanctimony or narcissism, and with a human solidarity allied to a truth-telling firmness.

A style of writing must also be a way of living: that is the lesson of a master. The coincidence of the two is never more apparent in these pages than in his brief meditation on the public mourning of Princess Diana. Hoggart names for what it was the sentimental debauch, and judges the princess for what she was: a silly girl, a shockingly mistreated wife, a spontaneously loving mother, a shrewd self-promoter, a celebrity with beautiful manners, a tender heart and no gifts of wisdom.

By the same token, he makes of a simple encounter with that fount of folk-wisdom, a taxi-driver, an occasion to rebut the notion that this or that little town (Farnham in his case) is a deadbeat hole. He lists all the things the taxi-driver's daughters could be doing - joining one of 100 societies, perspiring at the sports complex, practising hobbies - if only the meanings of life were not confined to clubbing on alcopops or slumping in front of the set.

The monsters of this book are Britain's innumerable Royle families. Hoggart is far from despising them; his cheerful hopefulness is his most affecting trait, and marks him off from Ruskin. He carries his hopefulness both ways, back to the audience and up to Broadcasting House and Television Centre. The audience he reproaches for its deathly impregnation with consumer totalitarianism and the mesmerising fatuities of celebrity conduct. The broadcasters he criticises in calm and bitter tones for failure to do their best to bring out the best in all of us.

Occasionally Hoggart rambles a bit. He makes too much of a demon he calls "relativism", but really means moral gutlessness. But this strong, talkative, upright and very intelligent man is a version of one of the nation's best selves. It is just as well that he is clearly going on for ever.

The reviewer's book 'Culture' is published by Blackwell in May

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