Richard Hoggart: Scholar who wrote incisively on media, education and class, most of all in his great work, ‘The Uses of Literacy’

Hoggart offered sombre predictions about how commercial culture would injure the English temper

“All democratic societies, and especially the wide-open claimant consumer democracies such as ours, need many more people who try to think hard about the value of the lives they are offered and then, describe, straightforwardly, what they find.”

Richard Hoggart wrote that in his magnificent three-decker autobiography. Insofar as the remark characterises his own life so absolutely, it does so because he was not only a remarkable analyst and historian of his country’s culture, but also one of the most upright, principled, intelligent and effective of its public administrators, adviser-bureaucrats and makers of its civic institutions.

He was born in 1918 to a mother who would be widowed by the death of her soldier-husband in 1920, just after she became pregnant with her third child. He was brought up by her in respectable but exigent poverty in Potterstown in north Leeds until the eight-year-old Hoggart came home one day to find her on the rag rug in front of the range, coughing her life away.

Thereafter, and until her own death when Hoggart was in his first year reading English at the University of Leeds, his grandmother looked after him while brother and sister were taken in by aunts. He was, he would say, a cheerful, happy child, brought up in a safe, close, womanly environment – one in which he learned the domestic English working-class virtues which would provide the subject matter of so much of his intellectual life and scholarship.

Hoggart won a scholarship to Cockburn High School, passing beneath its solid and stolid architecture into “a liveable congregation, accessible, available, firm but not frightening”, discovered Swinburne and Hardy, and sailed through his Higher School Certificate into the University with a bit of help from the British Legion, to whom, with great initiative, he wrote for a cheque as a soldier’s orphan.

At Leeds he was excellently taught and befriended by Bonamy Dobrée; it typifies Hoggart’s moral and intellectual manners that he saw so plainly Dobrée’s distinctive compound of vivacious charm, high scholarly seriousness, pedagogic power and English-gentlemanly elaborateness. Plain, direct, entirely egalitarian, at once generously warm-hearted and of a candour to make you wince, Hoggart all his life was at pains to see the strengths and virtues of those whose social-class assumptions he nonetheless opposed and sought to overcome.

He gained a first, a scholarship towards an MA at Leeds, met Mary on her way to her own degree in English and qualification as a teacher, married her and went to war for six years.

As first a gunner and then an intelligence-and-education officer, he experienced the close, coarse matiness of guncrew life in North Africa and Italy. An unpredictable mail brought with it six-week-old pledges of anxious devotion from Mary, reaffirmed by the birth of their first child, the distinguished journalist, Simon, who died in January this year.

Hoggart didn’t come home until 1946, kept on to help launch the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, the military’s sally into social democratic education. They offered him his majority; he took a position at £400-a-year as extra-mural tutor at the University of Hull, based between the little Victorian seaside towns of Saltburn and Redcar, serving the industrial sprawl of Teesside.

It was out of this rich, representative medley of experiences that Hoggart’s peculiar genius contrived his great book The Uses of Literacy and inaugurated a quite new way of seeing the history of a mighty social class and its final coming to a full confidence in itself. At the same time, and out of the same necessities, The Uses of Literacy made possible a new intellectual discipline, one which broke away from the canonical authority of the old humanities and allowed its students to grasp and judge for their value the everyday meanings of domestic lives and the stories and precepts they taught about how to live well and do right.

So the book explored, in its plain eloquence, the significance of these close-ribbed streets, and the rise and fall of their neighbourhood life, how their people were born, made love, married and died, what their tinned salmon, peaches and thick sweet tea meant to them, and the way their language expressed their imaginings.

In this last, bold venture Hoggart offered some sombre predictions about how the new commercial culture, whose monstrous outlines were just becoming visible in the 1950s, might “unbend the springs of action” in such a way as to injure, perhaps fatally, the English temper (the title of one of his later books) which he so incomparably chastened and celebrated.

He moved from Hull to Leicester in 1959, with a year in Rochester, New York in between and in 1962 assumed the Chair at Birmingham from which he founded the Centre for Comparative Cultural Studies, whose scholarly purpose was precisely to take further and test out the speculations of The Uses of Literacy.

But the power, timeliness and wisdom of the book swept Hoggart onto a more public tide. He was appointed to join Lady Albemarle’s Royal Commission on the Youth Services; to follow up an essay in Encounter about commercial television by joining the Pilkington Committee; and, famously, to testify in court to the unpornographic seriousness of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Of the latter engagement it is only necessary to quote Hoggart’s rejoinder to the parodic Crown Prosecutor who, with throttled incredulity, asked the witness to confirm that he had heard aright of “reverence for a man’s balls”. Hoggart answered with unintimidable calm, “Yes, indeed”.

His part in the Pilkington Report, then and now so much denigrated by the stooges of the robber-barons controlling commercial media, was central. He wrote most of the final text – and started out from the conviction that “triviality is worse for the soul than wickedness”. One could now say that, unimaginably more dreadful as today’s commercial television is than in 1962, the retention by the BBC and the reflorescence on Channel 4 of the great principles of serious argument, authoritative reporting and unafraid interrogation would have been a much harder business without the implicit constitutional protection written out by Hoggart under Sir Harry Pilkington.

As pure an English man as he was, Hoggart also displayed an active Europeanness. Early in 1970, he moved to Paris in bitter cold weather to become one of the assistant director-generals of Unesco, the only international guardian of world culture that there is, and from which, with the English chauvinism Hoggart detested, the Thatcher Government seceded a few years later.

His work “was harder than ever before”. He learned old lessons on the job about English racism, class bullying, imperial arrogance, and even-handed new ones about parallel venialities from other cultures. For five years Hoggart steered a path through a dense rainforest of contested publications (“is anyone offended?”), packed and multilingual conferences (“how do we prevent big fish eating little ones?”), grant-jostling, prestige-barging, bureaucratically stupefying meetings, and came home reckoning a bit doubtfully that the break was lucky and the game worth a candle.

He returned home in 1976 as Warden of Goldsmith’s College, a good place to go in spite of the hours of committee work preparing to take the College belatedly and deservedly into full membership of the University of London. They couldn’t have found a better head. They needed one. Those were, soon afterwards, the early years of sado-monetarism, and Hoggart stood for all that the bellowing penny-pinchers stood against. So his Commission on Adult Education was wound up by the late Lord Joseph, and he spent five doughty years on the Arts Council deciding between the merits of grants to the arts in Billingham as opposed to Covent Garden.

Official retirement, when it came in 1984, meant in practice a translation from the office back to the study, and there followed, from his home in Farnham with Mary, a truly astonishing flow of books. In 1994 he published Townscape with Figures, a generous-hearted study of fat, rich, handsome Farnham. He followed that the next year, this blunt, modest moralist, with a more comprehensive study in the same genre, The Way We Live Now, still movingly and acutely saying the old things about the new ways.

The great work of his 20 prodigal years of writing-in-retirement was, of course, the three volumes of autobiography, as fine an example of its kind as any in English literature. It bears witness to a life which was itself a work of art, and as such, imaginatively powerful, morally uplifting, politically self-reliant, humanly vivid, crowded and affectionate. His quest was, as E M Forster once put it, for “love and the beloved republic”, and he found more than enough local instances of both, in civic as in personal life, so fought with all his heart for them – in his books, in his committees, in his friendships and in his family.

His was one of the finest embodiments of a historically compelling figure in British as in European history: the public-spirited, privately loving, wholly independent scholar-radical. There haven’t been a lot of them, but they have told disproportionately. What they tell us, as Richard Hoggart did for the 50-odd years of his civic life, is of things ill-done and done to others’ harm, and then of the best that is in us and the good we may yet bring about.

Richard Hoggart, academic and author: born Leeds 24 September 1918; married Mary (one son, one son deceased, one daughter); died 10 April 2014.

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