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Richard Hoggart dead: Farewell to the man who created the tract for our times

His great book was The Uses of Literacy

Every generation has to have its tract for the times. An anthem from a writer who takes her or his own experience, gathers it together to make sense of a changing world – and strikes gold.

It seem to sum up the way things are going, and argues persuasively where we might go from here.

In 19th century Britain – or, more precisely, England – Mathew Arnold and John Ruskin were such men, writers who were central to the way the rest of us cobble together our own patchy understanding of the world we live in.

For the mid to late 20th century, Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, was another such writer. His great book was The Uses of Literacy, published in 1957. Until his final years of illness, he never ceased to write. One of his collections of essays was entitled The Way We Live Now (1995), with its clear echo of Trollope. (On the whole, he ticked us off for not living better – that is more morally aware – than we do.)

His core, always, was the experience of growing up poor in Leeds. And, for him in his childhood years, “poor” meant “very poor indeed”. He didn’t need to battle with the sociology of what “poverty” is. Both his parents died when he was very young. Remembering his mother, Hoggart wrote : “When you have seen a woman standing frozen, while tears start slowly down her cheeks because sixpence has been lost ... you do not easily forget.”

Hoggart was a man of great modesty and charm. The element of “Yorkshire tyke” mainly took the form of great stubbornness.

I believe that his great book was originally due to be called The Misuses of Literacy, drawing on his long experience of teaching adult education classes in Yorkshire. The autobiographical element – which gives the book its power – was, I think, added later, along with the ironic title. 

Though he himself had had the luck to edge up into a grammar school, and then university, his most famous chapter in The Uses of Literacy was a melancholy interpretation of the process. The grammar school child could only progress by cutting off his roots – unable, for example, to share a pint or a joke with his father. Not long after publication, I was given a copy of the book by a former teacher of mine. “That is the way it is,” he said.

Part of the impetus behind Hoggart’s new fame – which meant that, for years, he was cited everywhere – was the social mobility that was beginning a new surge forward. “Meritocracy” was a new word invented by the sociologist Michael Young in 1958. And many of the new meritocrats welcomed a guided tour of what they had escaped from.

Sometimes the outcome was a kind of inverse snobbery – a rush to claim to be “more working-class than you”. But much of Hoggart’s message was optimistic. He was one of those who were convinced that comprehensive schools would work a new magic. He was also a pioneer in believing that the right kind of mass media could help. He lambasted the arrival of commercial television, taking advertising into the home in a way the popular press had never achieved.

Meritocracy, it turned out, meant Americanisation, which Hoggart deplored. He saw the arrival of milk bars as a new trap: “Compared even with the pub around the corner, this is a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk.”

The most celebrated milk bar in English literature is the setting for Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962). As Hoggart himself would always democratically acknowledge, life never stands still, whatever judgement you pass on it.

Paul Barker, writer and  broadcaster, is the former editor of ‘New Society’