Familiar Stranger: a Life Between Two Islands, by Stuart Hall with Bill Schwarz
Allen Lane, 302pp, £25
“Sometimes I feel I was the last colonial.” This is the first line of Stuart Hall’s memoir. Or not-quite-memoir. In one passage Hall, then ill and in his eighties, discusses his ambivalence about taking on the project. He never wanted to write a memoir. His memories are present to him as “a generalised absence” and loss runs deep throughout this book, which has been put together through a serious of conversations with the academic Bill Schwarz. As the introduction tells us, the publisher later decided to recast the conversations as a first-person narrative that Hall, who died in 2014, never saw.
Hall is a key thinker. His analysis remains profound. In these days of Brexit we need his nuanced view of identity more than ever. When his voice comes through in this book it is rich with longing and the constant stretching of asking how we think about who we are and where we come from. Hall in full flow was quite something. He remains one of the best speakers I have heard.
The insights are often found in what he calls the in-between spaces, in the gap between the colonial and post-colonial worlds. His craving for ackee and plantain, his horror of white food (literally so: white fish with boiled potatoes and cauliflower) when he first gets to Oxford, resonate alongside passages about his childhood. His intellectual formation is outlined here but scholars of Hall and cultural studies will want much more. The book stops when he is 30.
Nevertheless, his locating of himself in place and in history is crucial to understanding the way he thinks of identity, as a constantly shifting position. Calling on anthropology and psychoanalysis helps him move to what we would now call “intersectionality”, which he describes as always awkward and always unsettled.
Hall’s interventions as a thinker – his writing on Thatcherism (he coined the term), or his work on law and order in 1978’s Policing the Crisis – depend on an extraordinary understanding of how multiple identifications are played out through existing power structures. This is much more sophisticated, and more real, than the simplistic “false consciousness” that Marxism allows.
Familiar Stranger charts his childhood and youth in British-ruled Jamaica in the 1930s to 1940s with a benign but absent father and a socially climbing mother who, he comments sardonically, disastrously turns her family into a project, because working outside the home would be low class. There is a sadness around his sister, who has a breakdown from which she never recovers. He pinpoints the gradations of melanin. He is part of a brown elite, not the black masses, but still he is too dark; he feels himself often to be in “internal exile” in his mixed family. Even as independence approaches he would not describe himself as black. Black consciousness comes much later.
His school valorises the British imagination. It is almost as if the empire has been acquired accidentally. Jamaica is a diaspora in itself, with a history of violence, bloodshed, trauma. So Hall begins to assemble another life. In 1951 he leaves, with a scholarship to read English at Oxford University. There he finds an Englishness that is both dreary and exalted. The shock of seeing the poor black people who arrived on the Empire Windrush stays with him. A huge part of his consciousness, though, comes through modernism: poetry, art and particularly jazz, whose tension between structure and freedom without sentimentality speaks to him. As he said, Miles put a finger on his soul. In this music, he finds what Frantz Fanon calls “the fact of blackness”.
In England he understands what C L R James said about Caribbean migrants being “in, but not of, Europe”. At Oxford, V S Naipaul is hostile to “Negroes”. Hall feels tense much of the time but starts to pour his energy into the New Left and cultural theory. He gives us fascinating glimpses of his contemporaries. Raphael Samuel is chaotic but charismatic. E P Thompson is really quite snotty – he disapproves of cultural studies and doesn’t see why Hall has to bang on so much about race. Raymond Williams is gentle. Brian Walden at one point tells him he has no place in the Labour Party.
Familiar Stranger functions best as a memoir of diasporic thinking. Hall is not of England. He cannot return to Jamaica. A deep sense of melancholy pervades the book. Yet life was brimming with possibility. He skewered dogmatic Marxism and was alert and joyful about visual art. The purpose of “decoding” culture was also to produce it and he inspired and worked with many black artists. The Stuart Hall Project, a gorgeous film about him by John Akomfrah, is evidence of that.
Hall’s thinking is never about just race or class or gender, but all of these things all the time. This is why he analysed power, whether in conservative ideology or structural racism. Ideology matters. Language matters. How do people identify with what may work against them? What do they aspire to? Who controls the discourse? Who counters it? How do we transform politics through our lived culture?
The dynamic of history interests him more than personal reflection. His life was a conversation, not a monologue. “Theory,” Hall once said, “is a detour to somewhere more important.” The route of his detour still guides us, even though “home” for him was never simply in one place. And never could be. That is what colonialism means.
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble