Tuesday Book: Anecdotal, eccentric, enchanting and wise

First and Last Things

by Richard Hoggart,

(Aurum Press, pounds 14.99)

AFTER HALF a century as a distinguished critic (author of The Uses of Literacy), educator (Warden of Goldsmiths College) and international civil servant (assistant director-general of Unesco), Richard Hoggart has now in his old age become the English Montaigne. He writes in that tradition of the speculative, ruminative essay. He loves the homely as much as the profound, and ordinary folk as much as the book.

And what a well-produced book this is. It should please the author, as the great defender of literacy. There are six blank end-pages to make one's own index (the publisher has not provided one). What to index must be a very personal decision in such a discursive, anecdotal, eccentric but wholly enchanting and wise set of essays.

Hoggart has called this book "a mixture of memoir, manifesto and meditation". But the quotations from his canon of English writing always fit like a glove the arguments of his major themes. There's none of that sense of strain that can hit those essayists who seem to have invented an argument merely in order to justify their use of a striking quote.

Here are gentle meditations on life, on death - and not always in tranquillity. When unrest is obvious on or beneath the surface, the rage is more in sorrow than in anger - at, for instance, the old working class who did not use the free public library to their greatest advantage, or at the post-war university generations who have squandered a liberal education simply for peculation. They become philistines or fashion trendies once the exams are over.

It is love, not irony, that makes me mimic for a moment his way of writing. Hoggart has employed a homely style to convey serious messages ever since The Uses of Literacy (1957); more recently he used it in The Way We Live Now (1995). This new book is more impressive than the latter work, because he has released himself here from the burden of trying to find a single theme where there is none. Life is like that.

Hoggart can respect those who have religious belief, but he finds no grounds for it except the fear of death; a somewhat irrational fear, since there is nothing we can do about it. By all means rail against anything that may increase the chances of violent death - whether from war or Railtrack. But death itself needs facing, calmly.

He is "gently moved" by the poet Christopher Smart invoking the living God to aid his "poor cat Jeoffry", bit by a rat, but he cannot accept Cardinal Manning's injunction that while "we can believe what we choose, we are answerable for what we choose to believe". Hoggart rejects, too, the argument that only belief in immortality can ensure morality: "My whole experience - of love, of self-sacrifice, of the sense of the comic - cries out to reject that conclusion."

We are answerable to our fellow men. "One should go out and do something for others... We have to learn to speak to each other, to talk more about what kind of society we want beyond all the hype which thinks only about what other people think we want in their pursuit of profits."

So, from a chapter on "Love of Others and Self-Love", he moves to begin another section like this: "A democracy may live with capitalism, but on its own terms, not those of capital. It does not have to be friends with capital; instead, a wary relationship." Banal? Perhaps, but it needs saying in plain language, not in social science-ese or Anthony Giddens- like abstractions.

Very Montaigne-like is his chapter on the senses, "Be Happy, Precious Five". The comic and the tragic are inseparable in his account of the lifelong, hopeless struggle of his spinster aunt Clara against "horrid, nasty" toilet smells. He refers to a friend musing how odd it was of God to place the anus so close to the genitalia. For once, his commonplace book has missed Yeats: "the place of excrement so near the seat of love".

Even here, there is a kind of secular pietism in Hoggart. He sees the extraordinariness of the ordinary - whether the comic or, a word he dares to use despite mockery, "the lovely". And this is a lovely book by a lovely man. He reminds us of a genuine Englishness, mocked by the fashionable, discredited by the Europhobes: a mixture of the "down-to-earth; companionable, sometimes optimistic, humane, even mystical".