Richard Hoggart / The uses of decency

Richard Hoggart

The uses of decency

Orphaned at eight, Richard Hoggart was raised in 'Dickensian' conditions but eventually went to Leeds University. He drew from his experiences in a ground-breaking book on working-class culture and became a hero of the 1960s liberal intelligentsia. He remains a passionate opponent of condescension in the media, as his new book - which he describes as a swansong - reveals

Nicholas Wroe
Saturday 7 February 2004

The publication of The Uses of Literacy in 1957 propelled Richard Hoggart, then an extramural lecturer at the University of Hull, to the forefront of the changes that swept British culture from the sclerotic 1950s into the swinging 60s. The book was a groundbreaking study of working-class culture and a critical appraisal of the changes wrought by the commercial forces - "publications and entertainments" as he puts it in the subtitle - that impinge upon it. Not only did it anticipate the opening-up of the cultural landscape, it also contributed to a critical and popular climate far more receptive to the subsequent explosion of books, films and art about working-class subjects by working-class artists. Hoggart soon found himself well placed to make important interventions that helped remake the cultural landscape. He was the driving force behind the Pilkington committee, which eventually led to the founding of BBC2. More dramatically, he was the star defence witness at the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial.

"Richard Hoggart was a hero of the liberal literary intelligentsia in the 1960s," recalls David Lodge, who worked under him as a young lecturer at Birmingham University. "Uses of Literacy is still in print and is still studied and read, but in those days it was a kind of Bible for first-generation university students and teachers who had been promoted by education from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds into the professional middle class." Such was the seismic impact of the book that it is not surprising that Hoggart has not produced anything quite like it since. But he has continued to offer principled critique of contemporary culture as a writer, administrator, academic and committee man. His observations on the state of public broadcasting remain trenchant. Hoggart is a lifelong member of the Labour party but recently considered resigning over "something most people would regard as negligible. I thought the government's attitude towards the Communications bill was quite inadequate and I do wish there was a George Orwell around who could burn Blair's jacket politically and intellectually." In a Guardian article he called the bill "one of the most ill-conceived legislative proposals for many decades that would continue wrecking one of our major cultural achievements of the last century, that of creating a sound, independent democratic structure for broadcasting". He drew on Ezra Pound, RH Tawney and Shakespeare to reinforce his argument and compared "vapid programmes" to "mild drugs" in that they have "increasingly to spice themselves up" - to beat the competition rather than make better programmes.

Of last week's resignations at the BBC he says: "I don't think Greg Dyke was a great Director General in terms of public service. He did do some very good things, and the outstanding achievement was the creation of BBC4. But I got the feeling he was doing that to buy off criticism of some other pretty awful programmes. You can't justify The Weakest Link by putting on some decent arts programmes and I don't think he really grappled with the issues behind the BBC."

It is some sort of backhanded compliment to the weight still placed on Hoggart's views that Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, the producer of Big Brother and the recent controversial sleep-deprivation programme Shattered, was prompted to take issue with what he saw as the assumptions behind Hoggart's views. "One is a sort of misplaced utopianism: that all programmes should be morally improving and none should be merely diverting," complained Bazalgette. "Another is that to enjoy programmes whose sole purpose is entertainment you must be stupid, depraved or educationally deficient."

Cambridge professor Stefan Collini has written about Hoggart's work and says Hoggart "is not so much concerned with the standard dumbing-down argument, but much more with the way the most powerful forces at work in a commercialised culture constantly drive provision down to an assumed lowest common denominator. There are many people in television and elsewhere who will think he is outdated and represents a past orthodoxy, but I don't think that is quite true. He has kept the argument against condescension very much alive and is particularly against the view that a mass audience can only appreciate pap."

Hoggart writes on broadcasting in his latest book, Mass Media in a Mass Society, published this month, "as well as some other of my favourite themes", he says, "relativism, popularising, levelling". Hoggart has likened his career-long preoccupations to a delta with four or five main tributaries. "Their common source is a sense of the importance of the right of each of us to speak out about how we see life, the world; and so the right to have access to the means by which that capacity to speak may be gained. The right, also, to try to reach out to speak to others, not to have that impulse inhibited by social barriers, maintained by those in power politically or able to exercise power in other ways." Collini points out that Hoggart "keeps returning to an ethical appraisal of contemporary culture and his touchstone is to take it back to family life and common decencies as he knew them as they arose from his own working-class experience".

Going as far back as Uses of Literacy, Hoggart has drawn on his own experiences, most famously in the chapter "Scholarship Boy", in which he dealt with the deracination of the clever poor boy uprooted from his class by education. "It's not just writing about your own experience," he explains. "It's writing about everything else that comes through your prism. The people I have learned most from are Orwell and Samuel Butler."

Although he acknowledges he is a "centripetal" writer - not centrifugal like Shakespeare or Tolstoy - he usually uses his own biography to highlight more general trends and circumstances and calls his three-volume memoir, written from 1988-92, "a cultural autobiography in which you see the author in terms of what he represents in a particular culture at a particular time and place. In this case a working-class person from a very class-bound society and the efforts it takes to get out of it. I don't want to exaggerate it, but you had to climb hand over hand and I see myself in that book as representative of what affected many people. It's a subject that is very tied up with class and education and money and geography and whatever happens, you always partially have one foot in what you were."

Richard Herbert Hoggart - he was Bert to friends and family as he grew up - was born in Leeds in 1918. His father, who had served in the Boer war, was a house painter, who served in the first world war in the pay corps. He died in 1920 of brucellosis, "which was commonly called Maltese fever", says Hoggart, who, with his brother and sister, was brought up by his mother in a "stone cottage with a small yard and outside loo. It really was something out of Dickens. She managed on £1 a week, which was what the local social security, as it is called now, gave her. She also had tokens she could exchange in one shop for groceries."

When he was eight, Hoggart returned home from school one day to find his mother collapsed on the floor. She died of TB shortly afterwards and one of his few memories of this time is of holding hands with his siblings at her funeral where he heard an aunt say that "orphanages are very good nowadays". But the children were distributed among members of the family and he says he "got the best deal" in going to live with his grandmother, although for several years he had to share a bed with an uncle. His primary school was Jack Lane, where he failed the 11-plus - as did Keith Waterhouse at the same school a decade later - because of a poor maths paper. The headmaster appealed to the education officials, pointing out how good Hoggart's English essay was and arguing that the maths teaching was inadequate. Hoggart was awarded a grammar-school place; one of several key interventions he cites in his life, along with the social worker who persuaded his grandmother he should stay on at school by increasing her allowance, and a particularly supportive professor at university.

Just before he won a scholarship to Leeds University in 1936 - "the only choice was the local university," he says, "Oxbridge was never even mentioned"- Hoggart's aunt gave him elocution lessons because he couldn't pronounce his Rs or Ls. When he arrived he was quickly taken up by Professor Bonamy Dobree, then a young lecturer and fringe member of the Woolf and Lawrence literary circles. "He picked out talented young English undergraduates to encourage and he gave me my first coddled egg and my first taste of gin," says Hoggart. "I was a very hard-working student and because there were no books in the house I would spend long periods in the reading room of the library. I discovered Swinburne for myself there, and other poetry, which was wonderful."

Hoggart began courting fellow student Mary Holt France, who went on to become a teacher, in his second term at Leeds. They married in 1942 and have three children: Guardian journalist Simon, Nicola, who teaches children with special needs and now lives near them in Norwich, and Paul, who was a further-education lecturer but is now a television critic for the Times. They have eight grandchildren. He says his family is the first priority in his life, "which I suppose comes from the fact that I didn't have a family".

Hoggart got the only first in English in his year - he was introduced to TS Eliot at the degree ceremony - and was offered a two-year scholarship to do a PhD at Cambridge. But the second world war was looming and so, within a week of graduating, he started an MA on Swift which he completed in nine months. Two months later, in 1940, he was called up to the Royal Artillery and took part in the invasion of North Africa. Although he served for six years and saw action, the example of bravery he cites comes from his time when seconded as a junior intelligence officer. His rank obliged him to attend the execution of a British soldier who had murdered a fellow serviceman. "It would have been my job to take my pistol and finish off the victim if for some reason the firing squad didn't kill him outright", he says. "But a more senior officer, a solicitor from the West Country, took my place, saying it was unfair and I should not have to do such a thing. I thought that showed real moral courage." Hoggart later served in Naples - "Leeds in Technicolor" - before returning to England and finally being demobbed in 1946 as a staff captain.

On his return, Hoggart applied for nine assistant lectureships. "Nothing grand," he says, "I didn't even apply to Leeds." Eight universities turned him down without interview, as did the John Lewis department store where he had also applied as graduate trainee. But Hull took him on in the extramural department and he stayed at the university for the next 13 years. Jean Hartley, who went on to found the Marvell Press, which first published Philip Larkin, was a student of Hoggart's as a 15-year-old in 1948. "He was the most inspirational teacher and was tremendously encouraging," she says. "He gave very imaginative homework, like, 'describe something in the town in the style of Graham Greene'."

Hartley says the students were mostly women, some of whom had very little formal education. "But he was a scrupulous marker and didn't patronise us or pull his punches. We were all in awe of him so it was fascinating to read Uses of Literacy years later because we had no idea until then that his background was probably more underprivileged than most of ours."

Hoggart's first book, the first book-length study of Auden's poetry, was published in 1951 while he was at Hull. He had started it while serving in Naples, where all he had to work with were copies of the poems, but he still produced 30,000 words. He says it is today inconceivable that a young lecturer could write the first book on an established poet. "I sent the book to Chatto where Cecil Day-Lewis asked me to lunch. And he was very nice considering I had criticised his poetry in the book. He didn't mention it at all."

Edward Mendelson, who went on to edit Auden's poetry and become his literary executor, saw Hoggart lecture on Auden in America in the late 50s. Mendelson says that he recently "turned over some pages of the book, and was startled by how much Richard Hoggart had seen about Auden that no one had seen before, and that few people had seen since, and how much of it seemed to have been written yesterday, not half a century ago". In the preface to the book, Hoggart says it is "addressed to people with no special literary training, but with an interest in the quality of our lives today, and a readiness to examine whether the reading of poetry has an important relation to that interest". This has been his audience throughout his career. He says the people he speaks for are those whom "Matthew Arnold called the 'saving remnants'. Arthur Koestler called them the 'anxious corporals' who always had a Penguin paperback sticking out of the back of their battledress and Dr Johnson called them the 'common reader'. They are always a minority, but they go right through our history."

Hoggart describes the impulse to write his next book, which turned out to be The Uses of Literacy, as being like an "intellectual tapeworm" inside him. It started as a textbook for adult tutors about popular fiction and tabloid newspapers. "But halfway through I realised that I wasn't dealing with the culture these books and newspapers were trying to hit," he says. "So I started to write about working-class culture as I knew it." Chatto accepted the book but its lawyers claimed it was libellous and that the newspapers Hoggart had analysed and a writer "of sex and violence novels" he had cited might sue. "Some of the libel advice was actually ridiculous," he says. "But I ended up writing my own dirty literature for the book. And it wasn't a bad pastiche," he laughs. "I probably could have made some money from it."

The late playwright Dennis Potter, who went from a Forest of Dean coalmining family to study at Oxford around the time the book was published, called it "a great book and an emancipated one". He wrote a few years later about being uncertain whether to be ashamed or proud of his background at Oxford and drew comfort from Hoggart as "one of the few Englishmen who look straight at what they are writing about, so much so that his prose itself rarely embroiders, slithers, side-tracks or evades. He changes the arrogant political rhetoric of 'what kind of a people do they think we are?' to 'what sort of people do we think we are?'"

Soon after publication, Hoggart was asked to contribute to the Albemarle report on youth services and in 1958 he moved to Leicester University as a senior English lecturer. Two years later he joined the Pilkington committee inquiry into broadcasting and drafted the final report, which recommended that the proposed third television channel (BBC2) should be given to a public, not private, broadcaster. Also in 1960, Hoggart was asked by Allen Lane of Penguin, who had published the paperback Uses of Literacy , to help in the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley's Lover. "I agreed to speak if necessary but when I got a call I really didn't know what to expect," Hoggart recalls. "Then I was met at the Old Bailey by one of the defence team, who told me I'd better get in there and dig in hard because the prosecutor, Griffith-Jones, who was snobbish and a bully and everything I come out in spots about, had just made a distinguished woman professor cry."

Kenneth Tynan, writing at the time, identified Hoggart's testimony as a turning point. "Mr Hoggart is a short, dark, young Midlands teacher of immense scholarship and fierce integrity. From the witness box he uttered a word that we had formerly heard only on the lips of Mr Griffith-Jones; he pointed out how Lawrence had striven to cleanse it of its furtive, contemptuous and expletive connotations, and to use it 'in the most simple, natural way: one fucks'. There was no reaction of shock in the court, so calmly was the word pronounced, and so literally employed."

With Hoggart's profile raised, Birmingham University offered him a chair. He accepted with two conditions; that he didn't move for two years because of his children's education and that he would want to start a centre to study contemporary cultural studies. "The Lady Chatterley trial made me think there should be a body that was interested in English not just as it was academically defined, but also as it applied to the general culture," he says. "At that time the definition of English studies was very rigid and yet outside there was a culture that was not derisory but was little understood and said something about the human spirit." Lane made a financial contribution and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was founded at a time of academic experiment when the traditional English syllabus was redesigned.

"But students who came and thought they would be dealing purely with new theories were disappointed," says Hoggart. "We were still in the English department and we'd start them off with two hours dealing with a late Yeats poem." Hoggart has watched Cultural Studies grow into an industry and a highly theoretical discipline. "I don't want to attack it," he says. "But it has changed a lot." He has never been particularly comfortable with or intellectually sympathetic to theory of any kind and it is a distinction he draws between himself and two other former extramural teachers, the Marxists Raymond Williams ( Culture and Society, 1958) and EP Thompson ( The Making of the English Working Class, 1964), with whom he and Uses of Literacy are so often bracketed. "None of us knew the others were writing their books at the time," he says. "And while there are some things in common, in fact we were running on parallel lines." Williams reviewed Uses of Literacy warmly, but, Hoggart says, "he thought you should write based on good theoretical foundations and so he objected to the Scholarship Boy chapter as a piece of near-fiction personal impressionism".

As the 60s progressed, the currents running in English studies became increasingly uncongenial to Hoggart and so in 1970, drawing on his facility for administration and committee work, he accepted the deputy director-general post at Unesco in Paris. Coincidentally, the same week he was asked to go to New York University to discuss the Albert Schweitzer chair and was also offered the vice-chancellorship of the University of Queensland. His Unesco brief was wide and included peace, racism, human rights and culture. The personal characteristics habitually attached to him - decent, honest and straightforward - meant that operating in an environment then rife with accusations of bureaucratic skulduggery and corruption was particularly testing. But Hoggart stayed for five years and, while he now thinks of the period as an "interlude", he did take pride that "most of the countries I respected" later said he did a good job. On his return to Britain in the mid-70s, he became warden of Goldsmiths College in south-east London. He continued serving on public committees, but as the Wilson/Callaghan years ended and the Thatcher period began, the increasingly polarised politics saw him marginalised. There was a tempestuous period as chairman of the New Statesman and then a bumpy ride as vice-chairman of the Arts Council. Sir Roy Shaw, then executive head of the council, says Hoggart is "a very good committee man and was the outstanding office-holder at the Arts Council during my time, but unfortunately the government dropped him. Mrs Thatcher didn't regard him as one of us, which of course he wasn't."

Shaw has known Hoggart since the late 40s and says that although he has had a wide-ranging and high-level career, "he has never become in any way pompous, no matter how important his job was. He always stayed an ordinary bloke, although in fact he was always an extraordinary, ordinary bloke." Others who know him say that as the archetypal scholarship boy who has been incorporated into the establishment, Hoggart is both proud of his success while being determined not to be assimilated. He has stuck to a series of principles, such as refusing a knighthood and then a peerage in the 70s, not using private medicine despite a long-term knee injury, flying economy class while at Unesco and even balking at selling a house for more than he had paid for it. "He is a decent, old-fashioned socialist and that's how he lives his life," says one old friend. "He is the real thing."

This approach has seen Hoggart accused of being chippy, too alert to social slights, romanticising working-class life and being over-wary of business and commercial enterprise - he certainly says the word "executive" with magnificent disdain. "I was driven by my childhood to get on," he explains, "but not in the sense of becoming a millionaire or anything like that. The ambition was to do something useful and interesting and somehow involving my writing. And I did have an impulse to criticise because there was a lot to criticise. I was brought up in a world where just about everyone assumed they would stay there all their lives and I resented that deeply. There are two types of life; the first is the escalator life, where you move inexorably upwards, the other type is the carousel where you go round and round. One of my arguments is that there are enough people making it their business to ensure that people stay on the carousel." He says that unlike EP Thompson, whom he knew, liked and admired, he has never been a joiner or a public protester. "I tend to be a bit leery of people making public causes in the streets," he says. "The hairs rise on the back of my neck when I see a group of teachers chanting. I can't bear that kind of thing. It seems to me populism of the worst kind. I can deal better with these things by writing about them. That's how I try to persuade others. I'm not saying my way or Edward's way is better or worse, that's just my character."

Collini says: "It is often overlooked that he is very much a writer with a strong sense of writerly craft. Those who are inclined to dismiss him as unsophisticated or someone cultivating a professional working-class voice are not reading him carefully enough." Lodge sees his style of writing as intensely personal. "As a critic he belongs to an English tradition that is descriptive and intuitive and conversational in manner. But his conversational manner isn't senior common-room and patrician. It is gritty, salty, northern, educated working class. It aims to persuade by the vividness of the prose and its manifest sincerity. It's a kind of critical discourse that has now almost completely disappeared from academic publications."

Hoggart describes his latest book as a coming-together of all that he has published in the past. "It is a kind of swansong and perhaps does cover a lot of old ground, although I think I have developed it. But I did want to bring these things together and I also realised that I need to write. It really is the best substitute for bowls or going to the pub in retirement. Without it I should be bereft. I've known for a while now that I'll die with my boots on and my hands on the computer."

Life at a glance

Richard Herbert Hoggart
Born: Leeds, September 24 1918. Education: Jack Lane Primary School; Cockburn Grammar School; Leeds University. Married: 1942 Mary Holt France; two sons, one daughter. Career: 1940-46 Royal Artillery; '46-59 Hull University; '59-62 Leicester; '62-73 Professor of English, Birmingham; '70-75 Deputy Director-General Unesco, Paris; '76-84 Warden, Goldsmiths College, London. Some books: 1951 Auden; '57 The Uses of Literacy; '64 The Critical Moment; '66 Technology and Society; '70 Speaking To Each Other; '78 An Idea and its Servants; Life & Times -'88 A Local Habitation, '90 A Sort of Clowning, '92 An Imagined Life; '94 Towns-cape with Figures; '95 The Way We Live Now; '99 First and Last Things; 2001 Between Two Worlds; '02 Everyday Language & Everyday Life; '04 Mass Media in a Mass Society.