Professor Angela McRobbie remembers Richard Hoggart

Richard Hoggart Portrait Pic: Goldsmiths College

Richard Hoggart Portrait Pic: Goldsmiths College

Richard Hoggart , who died last week (10th April) aged 96, was a figure whose life, teaching and books, tell an important story, not just about the rise of  ‘cultural studies’, but also about what it is to be a public intellectual.

Hoggart chose very carefully where to invest his energies. He was never part of an Oxbridge elite instead staying true to his working-class upbringing and aligning himself with the kinds of institutions which bore the hallmark of the social democratic years of Britain in the post-war period.

He had posts at Hull University, Birmingham (the archetypal red-brick) where he set up the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies recruiting both the late Michael Green and Stuart Hall, and then some years later he became Warden of Goldsmiths College.

Born into a poor working class family in Leeds Hoggart became an orphan at the age of six and was  ‘taken in’ by his grandmother and aunts who clearly looked after him with much love and affection.

He got into Grammar School because the headmaster of his primary kicked up a fuss. In those days this was the only possible route for anyone from a poor background to aim for a career beyond the confines of the factory floor.

He chose to study English literature at university and this training in language and literature was widened by a tutor who also taught him an introduction to cultural anthropology which in turn permitted him to think about customs, rituals, and ways of life.

After the war Hoggart moved in the direction of adult education, doubtless seeing this as an avenue which could become open to more people like himself, enormously talented and socially committed but for whom reliance on chance, luck, or simple good fortune was far too random and ultimately unjust.

There were several  turning points in Hoggart’s career, his defence at the trial of Lady Chatterleys Lover, and his subsequent career as a public figure including years at UNESCO and then at Goldsmiths but probably the most important was the publication of The Uses of Literacy in 1957. This is in my mind one of the great works of 20thC literature and I feel to this day that it should be required reading for all undergraduates in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Its novelistic detail, its close-up observation of how working class women living in the back to backs in Huntslet in Leeds would  enjoy a daily gossip while hanging out the washing, the appeal of cheap women’s magazines such as Peg’s Paper,  the inside decoration of the respectable working class ‘two up two down’ terrace house, with its front parlour immaculate and rarely used except for births marriages and funerals etc, all of these rich descriptions accumulate into a wondrously rhythmic account of the space-time dynamics of working peoples lives in those inter-war and post-war decades.

I got to  know about Hoggart’s work when I went to Birmingham CCCS in 1974, by which time he had already left for UNESCO in Paris.  While honoured for having made the study of popular culture a legitimate activity (for which I still owe him a debt) the times had changed and experiential studies such as these were sidelined in favour of ‘scientific Marxism’ in particular the writing of Louis Althusser, and the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci.

While in his 80s I met  with Richard Hoggart for a coffee at Waterloo Station  as he was on his way home to Farnham. He was immaculately dressed in a pin-striped suit, the attire of the older gentleman and senior statesman. His piercing blue eyes shone out as he pondered the problems of the Birmingham CCCS,  “What had gone wrong?” he asked me.  Why had the bright star of cultural studies suddenly dimmed?

The next time I met Hoggart was round a table in the Chesterman Room at Goldsmiths.  He was being honoured by having a building named after him. Though fading in strength, his lively  style and his choice of topic said a great deal about a tradition now being lost:  that of municipal non-metropolitan British social democracy. He remained the boy from ‘up north’.

Professor Angela McRobbie, Goldsmiths, University of London

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