Professor Stuart Hall, cultural studies pioneer, public intellectual and friend, colleague and mentor to many Goldsmiths staff, died earlier this week aged 82. Professor Angela McRobbie remembers him.
I knew Stuart Hall for exactly 40 years. As a graduate student, struggling to articulate a feminist critique of youth cultural studies and spending hours on end with a semiology of Jackie magazine, there he was in the background, fired with enthusiasm for Althusser and Gramsci. He would enter the seminar room with a pile of books under his arm which would form the basis of his weekly lecture at the Birmingham Centre for Cultural Studies where he was director. After a wonderfully turbulent period, he left in 1979 for the Open University where he stayed until his retirement.
Then came the INIVA years, resulting in the gallery at Rivington Place, now including the Stuart Hall Library. Most importantly, in this later period, he worked in giving intellectual leadership to the generation of Black and Asian British artists whose work can only be made sense of through the lens of a string of influential articles written from the mid 1990s and into the 2000s.
Stuart has remained ‘in conversation’ with so many of these artists, David A Bailey, Sonia Boyce, Isaac Julien, John Akomfrah (who made the recent feature film, The Stuart Hall Project), Chila Burman and others. They will all miss his generous insight, dispensed over tea at his West Hampstead home.
For forty years I have felt his presence, real and imagined, through many intellectual journeys. On one occasion I was delighted to travel with him to Japan. Where the rest of us, on average twenty years younger than Stuart, flagged at the packed schedule our hosts had set up for us, Stuart beamed and fulfilled every minute of the timetable, unhesitatingly. There was the conference and party for his retirement from the Open University in 1997, where we talked, argued and everyone danced until the early hours. More recently there was a Westminster conference where the room was so packed we had to adjourn until another bigger space could be found.
Some of my most treasured memories are more local to London. The DEMOS, New Times and Marxism Today years were, in my view, among the most highly charged because this brought Stuart so close to the idea of an incoming Labour (or rather New Labour) government. Labour had been out in the cold for so many years during Thatcherism and its aftermath, but the fall out after New Labour came to office and then the willingness with which the Blair government signed up for war, backing George Bush where almost all other European governments stepped back in horror, was a profound turning point. Indeed it was the twists and turns of New Labour that became the focal point for many of my own discussions with Stuart in the last few years.
If asked to sum up what was at the heart of his persona I would say that Stuart had a deep and abiding love for ordinary everyday life and ordinary people. He loved to talk in detail about popular TV series, and he and I would laugh about which Masterchef cooking programme or X Factor talent show on primetime BBC most exemplified the values of contemporary neo-liberalism.
He was vehemently anti-elitist and had no time for snobs, intellectual or otherwise. He did not want to assume privileges that many would see as part and parcel of success. With pleasure he would tell me about the people on his dialysis ward at St Mary’s in Paddington, and how he had ended up discussing the A level Sociology coursework of one of the children of his nurse, who was so delighted to find that her patient was indeed ‘the’ Stuart Hall.
Stuart also had great regard for what used to be called ‘the polys’, now the new universities. He never seemed to yearn for honours from Oxbridge and instead would be delighted to give keynote lectures at what was then the Polytechnic of East London for which he remained a great champion, and likewise Middlesex University. And of course he was honoured with awards from universities across the world.
Stuart was always palpably there, engaged, interested, animated. On one balmy evening in Naples he, I, and Larry Grossberg flagged a taxi to take us to the waterside restaurant to meet with our conference hosts. Stuart sat in the front seat and within seconds was taking part in the most animated conversation about the fine details of Italian football with the handsome young cab driver, who was keen to try out his English and who sensed the warmth and sheer friendliness of this unpretentious, stylish academic.
Stuart leaves a loving family and many friends but mostly, a lasting intellectual legacy.