Entertaining the masses: The Uses of Literacy 60 years on

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

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

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