The Stuart Hall Project celebrates the cultural crusades of an important historian

Jonathan Brick on a new film about Stuart Hall, the lecturer and academic born in Jamaica who found a home in British academia but not Britain itself.

Stuart Hall lectured at the University of Birmingham and presented BBC programmes on behalf of the Open University. He also founded what would become the New Left Review. His views were informed and personal, and he constantly spoke and wrote about social change and international affairs in the postwar, postcolonial world.

John Akomfrah has used both his own appreciation for Hall and exhaustive footage and stills of him for this cinematic eulogy. Hall is shown to be a man of clear, thoughtful expression when given a platform to respond to big global events. Akomfrah has previously worked on films about Louis Armstrong and Malcolm X, and The Stuart Hall Project is an exploration of politics underscored cleverly by Hall’s beloved Miles Davis. Hall says the trumpeter “changed my soul” and forced him to move away from Jamaica.

“I was an outsider from the time I was born,” Hall says, calling himself a “twenty-first century man”, representative of the group of people who have mixed heritage. He is a man of many origins, “three shades darker than my family.” Hall seems in control of his own destiny from a very young age, as a reaction to his sister’s mental breakdown when she fell in love with a white doctor.

Hall ends up at Oxford, alluding to the “profound shock” of his new country. He was a black man in a Britain becoming more used to seeing former citizens of colonies arriving for jobs or education. By the end of his twenties, he says that he does not “belong anywhere any longer”. He chuckles when he spells out that he is a man of “many ‘routes’”.

With Homer and Joyce as literary guides, he throws himself into socialism, and into publishing magazines dedicated to discussing it, forming proofs on his knees. His fellow academics are important to him, but he has no real role models for his work. Cultural criticism, after all, sprouted in his era as a response to social change in Britain; one key term Hall uses is “interpenetration” which leads to cultural globalisation.

The BBC’s Panorama interviews him at The Partisan cafe, where he iterates that he is “angry”. He wrote pieces called ‘The Deep Sleep of England’ for the Universities & Left Review, in which he responded to Soviet struggles in Egypt and Hungary. We later see a still of him marching against the H-bomb, and hear him recall three years at CND meetings, calling on Britain to set a unilateral precedent for the UN.

The meetings gave him an appreciation of industrial northern Britain, which he shares in his broadcasts. Hall also speaks for those who simply had to escape their birthplace, with Akomfrah using footage of ships on sea. Throughout, the footage matches the narrative perfectly, and the layer of Davis’s modal jazz gives it an artful quality.

Akomfrah uses chapter headings such as ‘A Public Intellectual’ and ‘The Neo-Liberal Problem Space’ to construct his filmic essay and frame Hall’s recollections. Cuba and Ghana are examples of nations whose people fought to be “free not to be unequal.” In his adopted country, however, Hall reckons British politics cannot whip up its people; the old class society became a mass society and belatedly joined the new century.

The rock revolution, which Hall says brought adolescence into the public arena for the first time, leads to the stirrings of 1968, the rise of a “genuine underground” in “anti-adult” protests. By this time Hall is a professor, also pioneering film criticism as a subject for teaching. He lectured for the BFI and wrote the book The Popular Arts (1964); astutely, he recalls how drawn he was to films where the protagonist was on the move.

Hall experienced the racism of Birmingham’s denizens when he married a white woman. For “coloured” kids, as Hall terms them, “the vice of colour seems to entwine with aptitude and intelligence.” He seems more resigned than angry at this, as he describes the “muted optimism” for assimilation.

As Enoch Powell is shown marching off to work, Hall accuses the country of amnesia, provoking fear and alienation in the new arrivals. Thus the dream of assimilation is “buried on both sides.” Identity is writ large in his discussions, a “conversation” that can “never be traded away.”

He shows no real love of Britain in the film, choosing to praise concepts and ideals instead. When feminism makes itself known in the 1970s, he admires the “conviction in the head” held by its advocates. By the end of that decade, he had noted the lack of “particularity” in things, and is pessimistic both for the welfare state and Britain’s “multicultural drift”. As the film shows, sometimes it takes a relative outsider to bring home cultural truths, and Hall has been one of the most perceptive on the left to do so.

The Stuart Hall Project screens at the Curzon Renoir and the ICA from 6 September and BFI Southbank from 13 September

The Stuart Hall Project.
FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism