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20 February 2014

Remembering Stuart Hall, a denizen of the twentieth-century left in Britain

He expressed better than most what it meant to be red under Thatcher.

By Dan Hancox

A few weeks ago at the British Film Institute’s public archive, I watched a programme by Stuart Hall called It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum. It had been broadcast on the BBC in 1979 and consisted of the late Professor Hall and a colleague from the Campaign Against Racism in the Media explaining, face to camera, against a plain black background, how racist ideas were disseminated through popular culture – in sitcoms, news reporting and documentaries.

It was clear, interesting, intellectual public-service broadcasting, cultural studies for the masses, impossible to imagine on today’s BBC, though much of the insidious racism it addressed remains unchanged 35 years later. Hall, instrumental in the creation of cultural studies, doyen of the 1960s New Left, passed away on 10 February and his loss has been keenly felt.

In last year’s documentary by John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project, Hall’s interviews and archive footage dovetail brilliantly with the music of Miles Davis; something about the rhythms works to soothe yet reflects the fraught issues of identity, culture and politics that consumed Hall. In the late 1970s, when Margaret Thatcher was still seen as an oddball right-winger, Hall was the first to coin the term Thatcherism and recognise the paradigm shift that was about to come.

“People ask, well, how did you know?” he reflected in 2007. The answer was almost jazz-like: “I had to feel the accumulation of things going on and think, ‘This is a different rhythm’ – we’ve lived with one configuration, and this is another one.”

Hall didn’t join the Communist Party, but went to its meetings and argued with the tankies. History, he felt, was not about absolutes but about reconfigurations of the past; he wanted “a politics which constantly inspects the grounds of its own convictions”. Through the 1960s and 1970s he was a truly public intellectual, always more at home sharing his spirit of inquiry outside the ivory tower – as a supply teacher at a school in Kennington, south London, doing TV and radio work and speaking at countless anti-racist and CND meetings across Britain.

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Born in Jamaica in 1932, he was from a middle-class family, “part Scottish, part African, part Portuguese Jew … living out this huge colonial drama”, internalising the tensions of race and class. He left Jamaica in 1951 for a different, entirely new type of alienation – that of the elite swagger of Oxford. His commentary on the diaspora in Britain and what it meant always to be from elsewhere, wherever you are, was both the result of intellectual inquiry and extremely personal.

As globalisation further exploded the norms of home and place, Hall suggested that some comfort could be taken from a widening of this experience of dislocation. “I can’t go back to any one origin – I’d have to go back to five; when I ask people where they’re from, I expect to be told an extremely long story,” he said in The Stuart Hall Project.

The trials of multicultural identity are “never being able to say ‘we’ or ‘us’ about anything”, he told Les Back from Goldsmiths in a 2007 interview. And yet Hall always preferred collaborating to working alone; in fact, he rarely used the first-person singular in his writing. Hall was the man who first identified the scale and contours of the neoliberal assault on solidarity and collectivism that Thatcher would begin – and all this because ultimately he wanted everyone to be able to say “we” and “us”.
 

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