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Entertaining the masses: The Uses of Literacy 60 years on

How Richard Hoggart's poor upbringing informed his classic book.

One of the sharpest testimonies to Richard Hoggart’s status as a cultural pundit turns up in the Beatles film Magical Mystery Tour (1967). It arrives at the moment when the coach party rolls in to London for a stopover at the somewhat unlikely locale of the Raymond Revuebar in Brewer Street, Soho.

Here, with John, Paul, George and Ringo leering from the front row, they are entertained by those archetypal Sixties scene-swellers, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (later joined by one of Paul Raymond’s pouting artistes), whose singer, Vivian Stanshall, belts out an Elvis-style pastiche called “Death Cab for Cutie”. This, as any reader of The Uses of Literacy will straight away twig, is one of the gangster film titles fabricated by Hoggart in his critique of the mass-cultural diaspora hastening across the Atlantic to ruin the morals of our nation’s young.

It wasn’t the first time that the postwar media had picked Hoggart up by the scruff of the neck and deposited him in front of an audience of millions. Back in February 1957, for instance, Hoggart, a hitherto deeply obscure ornament of the adult education department at the University of Hull, had been startled to find himself plastered all over the review pages of the left-leaning Daily Herald and elevated at a stroke into one of the decade’s most significant cultural pantheons – that of the Angry Young Men. Twenty-four hours later, Uses was featured in a Herald quiz-cum-questionnaire, aimed at unpicking the readership’s attitude to a variety of urgent social issues. Hoggart, who, at 38, was neither very young nor very angry and had yet to set eyes on Kingsley Amis or John Osborne, had arrived.

First published 60 years ago this spring, a fixture of university reading lists from the late 1950s onwards and never out of print since, The Uses of Literacy is still one of the great interpretative tools brought to considerations of post-1945 British life. In some ways the clue to its significance lies in the precision of its subtitle, Aspects of Working-Class Life With Special Reference to Publications and Entertainments.

Here, in effect, is an attempt to establish how “ordinary” people led their lives in the mid-20th century, and to map out some of the external pressures to which those lives were increasingly subject. As for Hoggart’s influence, the “cultural studies” movement that began to flourish in the 1960s would scarcely have existed without him. Coronation Street, which began broadcasting in 1960, is framed in a context that he helped to create, and in the character of Ken Barlow it offers one of the standard Hoggart “types” – the humbly born scholarship boy moving from one social class to the next and, we infer, traumatised by his ascent.


Anthony Powell’s “question of upbringing” looms large over Uses, for you sense that most of its conclusions about working-class life are drawn from sometimes bitter experience. Born in 1918, Hoggart was brought up in conditions of unutterable poverty by a mother who died young, leaving her three children to the care of their grandmother and a succession of “aunties”.

Some of his starkest memories are of this ground-down pre-teen existence: his brother treading silently to the drawer to stow away the two-penny packet of Woodbines if a visitor called; the twenty shillings’ worth of coupons a week, courtesy of “the Guardians”, on which the family survived; the occasional teatime dessert of sweetened condensed milk on bread. “We need to avoid any suggestion of a sense of heroism in the people . . . who actually live this kind of life,” he diffidently suggests, shortly after an account of his mother “bursting out in real rage” after the children nagged her to share a handful of shrimps she had bought as a treat; and all of a sudden a screen previously filled by a literary-minded cultural theorist is crowded out by the grim ghosts of the past.

That Hoggart made his way out of this world was down to his own prodigious ability, but also to luck: a friendly headmaster who talent-spotted him for grammar school after he had failed the eleven-plus; Bonamy Dobrée, T S Eliot’s friend, who encouraged him at university in Leeds.

The money was found to educate and advance him, and by the time he emerged from war service he was well on the way to infiltrating an altogether different part of the demographic: what later became known as the “Herbivore” – the soldier with a Penguin Special tucked into the pocket of his battledress; the Third Programme-listening, New Statesman-reading intellectual in whose absence the cultural life of the postwar era would have taken a very different shape.

Borne away on Uses’ flood tide, he became, successively, a professor of English at Birmingham and the director of its cultural studies centre, an assistant director general of Unesco, and warden of Goldsmith’s College, London. Like E P Thompson, another icon of the cultural studies brigade, he is supposed to have regretted that he never became a novelist: one of Uses’ characteristics, it turns out, is a deep-dyed romanticism, which surfaces every so often in a phrase of the kind applied to holiday-week charabanc rides, “the gondolas of the people”.

All this made Hoggart a potent figure on the postwar scene, not least for the dozens of individual writers who lit the blue touchpaper of their imagination at his flame. Alan Bennett, in his preface to his play The History Boys (2004), maintains that “it was reading Hoggart forty years ago that made me feel that my life, dull though it was, might be made the stuff of literature”. David Lodge, born a year after Bennett in 1935, had made exactly the same point a quarter of a century earlier: Uses, he diagnosed, was a kind of Bible for first-generation students and teachers, all those beneficiaries of the Butler Education Act of 1944 “who had been promoted by education from working-class and lower-middle-class backgrounds into the professional middle class”.

All the same, no tribute to Hoggart’s sanctifying influence, and no journey through his panoramic vistas of working-class life, can travel very far without acknowledging one or two of the myths to which Hoggart criticism has always been prey. One of them is a matter of straightforward chronology – the idea that the world it describes is only contemporary. The other is that its account of the mass-cultural tide sweeping away native proletarian culture is purely negative.

In fact, as a trawl through the opening section of Uses makes plain, much of Hoggart’s evidence is taken from memories of his childhood in the Hunslet area of Leeds in the 1920s and 1930s (Bennett, who came from nearby Armley, notes that the detail seemed to be drawn from Hoggart’s parents’ lives rather than his own). Neither is he merely wringing his hands over the spectacle of one culture – real, self-sustaining and authentic – giving way to another that is false, imposed and contrived.

As he explains, his argument is not that “there was, in England one generation ago, an urban culture still very much ‘of the people’ and that now there is only a mass urban ­culture”. Rather, it is that the appeals of what he calls the “mass publicists” – film, television, popular newspapers and magazines – are being made more insistently, more effectively, and “in a more comprehensive and centralised form today than they were earlier”.


All this sets up a three-part critique of working-class life in the immediate postwar period. On the one hand, “we are moving towards the creation of a mass culture”. On the other, the remnants of what was potentially a genuinely popular culture are being destroyed. Finally, this new mass culture “is in some important ways less healthy than the often crude culture it is replacing”.

If these sentences are enough to root Hoggart in that centuries-old tradition of moralising English nonconformity (how many modern cultural gurus would care to use an adjective such as “crude”, or even “healthy”?), they also gesture at his keenness for nuance. The punch-up-prone and sex-strewn “Yank mags” that have such a devitalising effect on British teendom may be morally disgusting, but Hoggart the literary critic, working his way through Sweetie, Take It Hot and The Lady Takes a Dive, is forced to concede that their high-octane, sub-Hemingway, jump-on-his-testicles prose style isn’t altogether to be despised.

It’s the same with the world glimpsed behind the specimen working-class window, a landscape in which people may well be “living intuitively, habitually, verbally, drawing on myth, aphorism and ritual” – which makes them sound practically Lawrentian – yet are also prone to “cruelty and dirt” of a “gratuitously debasing coarseness”. That Hoggart can be so even-handed towards a social class that simultaneously entices and repels him is a mark of his inseparability from the things he is writing about and the moral attitudes at their core. Most pre-1960 working-class reportage is only a kind of high-minded slum-visiting, but if Hoggart is not exactly a postwar version of Orwell’s old adversary Jack Hilton – who titled his autobiography Caliban Shrieks – he is near enough to him in upbringing and outlook to understand his detachment from most of the protocols of middle-class existence.

Towards the end of Hoggart’s long life (he died in 2014), I discovered that he and his wife lived a mile away from me on the outskirts of Norwich. Home visits were never easy: Mary was nearly blind by this point, and Hoggart had begun to lose his memory. The last time I saw him, for an interview to celebrate the half-century of Uses, he pronounced that it was a highly puritanical book and that the world it commemorates was entirely gone. If this makes it sound a museum piece, nothing could be more acute than some of its prophecies about the colonising sweep of the mass market, all those cultural seductions, from Hollywood movies to the Daily Mail, which, as he put it, “are not of the people, but of the world where things are done for the people”.

And nothing could be more relevant to our own social arrangements than Hoggart-man and Hoggart-woman, who might be defined as people who are enabled to move from one social class into another by dint of their ability but end up stranded on a kind of pontoon bridge between the two.

Take my father (born 1921). He was every inch a Hoggart type: a boy from a council estate whose exam technique landed him a place at a minor public school, a white-collar job and – it has to be admitted – a whole heap of psychological hang-ups stirred by this journey from one world into another. But so, too, is Lynsey Hanley (born 1976), whose 2016 account of her own similarly conflicted upbringing (Respectable) is not so much an examination of class as an analysis of identity and the damage that social aspiration can inflict on the travellers’ sense of who they are. My father never read The Uses of Literacy, but the chapter titled “A Note on the Uprooted and the Anxious” might have been written with him in mind.

Meanwhile, as long as Britain has a class system, Hoggart – serious, committed, never afraid to pass judgement on the material that floats beneath his lens, forever focused on the advantages of the “good and comely life” – will have to be read.

D J Taylor’s BBC Radio 4 “Archive on Four” documentary about Richard Hoggart will be broadcast in the autumn

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.

Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder