The Tell-Tale Trolley

Stefan Collini

  • Townscape with Figures: Farnham, Portrait of an English Town by Richard Hoggart
    Chatto, 205 pp, £16.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 7011 6138 8

Walking along the main street of Farnham one afternoon, Richard Hoggart was accosted by a drunk. He didn’t ask for money or spit ill-focused abuse. ‘I know who you are,’ he slurred, ‘and I’ve got one question for you. Who’s the better writer, you or Raymond Williams?’

Reading this, I found I was disappointed that the level of literary criticism among Farnham’s drunks was so low. Surely an unrelieved diet of British Sherry cannot obscure the fact that Hoggart is a far better writer than Williams. His prose – colloquial, concrete, structured rather than merely adorned by metaphors and similes – constantly suggests a craftsman who appreciates the natural properties of the materials he works with and respects their resistance to his will. His work contains remarkably little writing that is merely dutiful, though in the Sixties fame perhaps gave him too many opportunities to sound off, and some of his lectures and essays of that period lack the wryness and specificity characteristic of his prose. His best writing has nearly always been his most autobiographical, whether in the thinly-disguised form of the first part of The Uses of Literacy (1957) or the three-volume Life and Times published between 1988 and 1992, in which one again and again senses the presence of a strong writerly urge that has only found partial fulfilment in conventional academic genres.

The tone of the Farnham drunk’s question conjures up a background of learned disputation with his park-bench colleagues, which had left this earnest seeker after truth with one nagging uncertainty. Hoggart and Williams are a natural comparison, though Williams and E.P. Thompson, the third side of the familiar triangle, are the more discussed, partly because of their greater prominence as left intellectuals. Since Williams’s death in 1988 there has been a small industry of writing about him, both in Britain and elsewhere; Thompson died earlier this year, and the commemorative conferences and volumes are well under way. But what of Hoggart? Though he has been a lifelong socialist, of that English kind that owes more to Tawney than to Marx, neither his career nor his opinions have qualified him to be exalted as an exemplary intellectual of the Left, at least as that category is usually interpreted. Though constantly invoked as the celebrant of the virtues of ‘community’, he has in fact been something of a loner: he has not always been willing to toe the party-line on test issues of the day (the Falklands War, the miners’ strike); on the other hand, he has been willing to take on practical tasks which the purists tend to regard as inherently corrupting. He has not pretended to be a theorist, but nor has he, like Thompson, set himself up as an anti-theorist. He exercised great institutional influence through his founding of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham in 1963, but his own work has been idiosyncratic and not readily imitable.

Although Hoggart is now the only one of this trio still alive, many readers may have the vague impression that he has nothing left to say. The peak of his fame came in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and his later writing has never achieved the same impact. By publishing an autobiography, the last volume of which appeared when he was in his 75th year, Hoggart himself may have contributed to the sense that the finishing touches could be put to the draft obituaries. But now he has produced another book, and it is both sufficiently like and sufficiently unlike his earlier work to make it easier to see the shape of his still unfinished career (a new book on cultural studies is promised).

Townscape with Figures is a difficult book to classify, and in this as well as much else it is representative of Hoggart’s writing. It is at once a piece of impressionistic empirical sociology, an essay on social change, a meditation on the everydayness of life, a report from the frontier of the Third Age. But although in these ways unclassifiable and intensely personal, it belongs in a particular tradition it is a Condition-of-England book. Among the properties that announce its affinities with this tradition are its winning and distinctively personal voice, its direct appeal to its readers’ experiences and emotions, its deft touch with anecdotes, its unembarrassed moral passion, and that mix of fondness and exasperation that comes from a deep familiarity with the long-sedimented characteristics of English life.

But it is a more informal, chatty book than this rather earnest company may suggest. Surprisingly, one might think, for someone who has been a professor, an Assistant Director-General of Unesco, and a member or chairman of several nationally important committees, Richard Hoggart loves shopping. It is not just the fact that, being retired, he can now potter off at hours when others are chained to their desks; even in The Uses of Literacy there were signs that we were talking serious shopping. Love of a bargain is one thing at work here (he reports with some pride that even now most of the books he buys are second-hand or remaindered, including extra copies of his own works), and his responsiveness to the charms of family life and the rhythms of domesticity is another. But beyond this, shopping is Hoggart’s preferred form of field-work.

Indeed, to judge by this book he must be the chief economic support of Farnham’s supermarkets. The check-out queue is his laboratory for social observation. One suspects him of deliberately buying only a few items at a time in order the sooner to justify another jaunt with the trolley, an activity he seems to regard as children do fairground rides. Shopping has become a fashionable academic subject or metaphor, but Hoggart is not interested in clever stuff about the commodity as signifier: he’s interested in peering into his fellow-shoppers’ trolleys and inferring whole ways of life from their contents. Hoggart can see life in a handful of dusters.

He is not simply a disinterested ethnographer. He is ultimately a moralist, brooding on the human condition as manifested in the mundane and the habitual. When Hoggart pops down to the shops, he is always on the look-out for little packets of significance. At one point, he remarks with satisfaction that he has been able to live in Farnham practically anonymously, none of his fellow inhabitants (the representative of the park-bench cultural studies seminar apart) giving any sign that they know who he is. But he has blown his cover now: the days when he could stand unrecognised in the check-out queue are surely over. Will outraged housewives complain to the manager about That Man standing in Cakes and Biscuits who is persistently appraising their class background? If so, the park-bench seminar might get a new recruit.

Townscape with Figures is a very writerly book, and this is one of the ways in which it helps us to see Hoggart’s earlier career in its proper perspective. Observing the abstracted, day-dreaming secretaries waiting for the morning train to London, he describes them as ‘stroking or turning their engagement rings like one-bead rosaries’. Or again, in contrasting the styles in which young middle-class and working-class women walk, he says of the latter that they ‘tend to walk from the knees, trottily’. The observation may not allow enough for changing styles of skirts and shoes, but ‘trottily’ is perfect.

His prose is marbled with phrases from the spoken language, old and new: he speaks of a machine that has ‘packed in’ (not the now more common ‘packed up’), but also of a tradesman who will ‘rip you off’ and of ‘double-breasted conmen’. Seeing a bumper-sticker – in the supermarket car-park – which says, ‘The horse was on our roads before the car,’ he comments laconically: ‘a bit wonky, that, historically; the car brought the roads’ (the precision of punctuation here indicates how carefully-wrought the effect is). Another sign of his vocation is his penchant for quite ambitious prose effects. He closes his reflection on family life in the second volume of his autobiography with the cautious judgment that the pleasures seem to have outweighed the pains in his own children’s relation to their parents, and then adds, ‘As we, characteristically inhibited by nature and by Englishness, just manage at last to say’, the effect of which is to enact (to use one of his own favoured critical terms) the hesitations and indirectnesses it describes.

Nothing is more revealing of the centrality of writing to Hoggart’s identity than his tendency to see the world as populated by so many topics for essays. He begins his rumination on the language of advertisements for local private schools by saying: ‘what a revealing, sad, hilarious essay could be written on those repetitive, gesturing, imprisoned themes; or threnodies.’ The sentence is in one respect untypical: the six adjectives make up just over a third of the words used (as he says himself elsewhere, ‘piling up adjectives is a second best’). But their presence suggests he is already sketching that essay in his mind; the adjectives are aides-mémoire, shorthand symbols for what he would want to go on to say, and in the fuller saying they would disappear as adjectives to reappear as paragraphs.

This new book reminds us once again that Hoggart’s cultural reference-points have always been overwhelmingly literary. Arnold Bennett, Virginia Woolf and Robert Louis Stevenson appear in the first, short, paragraph of this book, and Auden, James and Flaubert have all made their appearance before the end of the second page. Re-reading The Uses of Literacy now, one notices that a work usually recalled for its intimate portrait of working-class culture is studded with references to the hallowed names not just of English literature but of European culture more generally – Tocqueville, Freud, and Kafka are there alongside Arnold, Eliot and James. There has always been much more to Hoggart than hostile allegations of professional eebygummery have allowed.

In Townscape with Figures the two literary presences who are repeatedly acknowledged are Cobbett and Sturt. Hoggart tells us he came to live in Farnham largely by accident, but one could be forgiven for thinking that Cobbett and Sturt, both sons of Farnham who wrote memorably about the place, had already fingered him as their most likely successor in the mixed mode of writing about the moral life of the local community. Hoggart recognises (self-knowledge is his strong suit, often played in this book) that he shares with Cobbett ‘a touch of driven puritanism and a special hatred of ... the incivilities of presumed status’, but the greater warmth of fellow-feeling is reserved for Sturt, ‘a quieter, more solitary and ingrown man’. Insofar as Sturt has had any kind of presence in recent literary-cultural discussion, it has largely been on account of Leavis’s high regard for his depiction of a world we have lost. Hoggart, characteristically prone to be counter-suggestible where a party-line might seem to be involved and, like Orwell, tending to take pride in the stubborn honesty of his own achieved identity, confesses that he had ‘always been a little uneasy with the didactic way Leavis and some of those most influenced by him seemed to use Sturt’. Hoggart may not be too well placed to tick others off for their didacticism, but the resistance to ‘using’ someone, dead author or contemporary acquaintance, lies deep in his ethic.

The reference to Leavis suggests one helpful way of placing Hoggart in English cultural history. He shares some of Leavis’s deep belief in the power of literature, and has similarly worried over the morally damaging effects of a commercially-driven ‘mass’ culture (The Uses of Literacy was immediately recognised as a kind of successor to Queenie Leavis’s Fiction and the Reading Public). But he has always firmly distanced himself from the Leavises’ intransigent é1itism, and their ‘barbarians-at-the-gate’ pessimism, and he has taken a far more positive view of the potential of new media such as television, though latterly his optimism has taken some hard knocks. Leavis could never have written such a mild and indulgent (occasionally self-indulgent) book as this, and not just because, in his untravelled case, Cambridge would have had to take the place of Farnham. One of the things that makes this book such agreeable reading is the way Hoggart largely accepts the weaknesses and fallings-short of his fellow-citizens without requiring of them implausibly strenuous feats of self-transcendence.

In going back to Hoggart’s earlier work, I had expected to find it sentimental, my own memory of first reading it now overlaid with later academic charges that it evoked too fondly a world of scrubbed doorsteps, bread and dripping, and a ha’porth of wine-gums from the corner shop. But it is the literary confidence and stylishness of The Uses of Literacy that now seem so striking, its experiments in form and its allusive, learned manner. Its assurance also indicates that Hoggart was able implicitly to take for granted the existence of an educated, non-specialist audience that was not confined to an academic discipline. The book has none of the defensiveness about transgressing academic norms that one might today expect to find in a comparably ambitious work by an unknown lecturer in his late thirties.

In retrospect, its central concern can now be seen to have formed part of a quite general but historically specific theme: the ‘entry into society’ of the old urban working class. A certain effort of historical reconstruction is now required to recall just how separate and self-contained the world of the industrial working class had been between the period of its formation in the first half of the 19th century and World War Two. The first half of The Uses of Literacy, composed in the mid-Fifties but set in the inter-war period, was widely seen as something of an elegy for the passing of this separate world, while much of Hoggart’s later writing has been preoccupied with the consequent democratisation of culture and ‘communications’, as well as with the pressures encountered by individual members of the working class displaced by social and educational mobility.

These were fashionable concerns in Britain in the late Fifties and early Sixties, although it is arguable that Hoggart did not just benefit from this fashion but helped to create it. This was, for example, the period that saw the ‘discovery’ of the so-called working-class novelists (Sillitoe, Braine, Barstow et al), the discussions surrounding the work of Jackson and Marsden on education and the working class, the beginnings of ‘labour history’, even Dennis Potter’s early television plays. A special premium attached to those who embodied as well as analysed this social change, and Hoggart, an articulate and engaging speaker who was never afraid to commit himself and was what editors and producers regard as ‘good value’, achieved a national reputation.

Two more specific episodes completed the transition from being a university lecturer who had written a little-noticed book on Auden’s poetry to being a ‘public figure’ (an experience that he has written about with his now customary wryness). One was the unforeseeable turn of events which led him to appear as a star witness for the defence in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960, where he memorably trumped all the po-faced moralism appealed to by the prosecuting counsel by describing Lawrence’s treatment of sex as ‘highly virtuous, even puritanical’. The other was his membership of the Pilkington Commission on Broadcasting, which reported in 1962, especially the rumour that he was largely responsible for its principled defence of the ideal of public service broadcasting. In both cases, the relation between culture and class was a central issue.

In the Sixties, Hoggart had a programme: the imaginative understanding of social change in contemporary Britain and the maintenance of serious moral assessment of it in public debate. The first part of this fathered what has become known as ‘cultural studies’, though the place Hoggart assigned to literature in fostering that ‘imaginative understanding’ has changed out of all recognition. But the second half of the programme has fared less well, as it was perhaps bound to do: moral appraisal of the Hoggartian kind has struggled to get a hearing in political debates increasingly conducted in the idiom of double-entry book-keeping. Nonetheless, this insistence on moral judgment has been both the foundation and the distinctive note of his career.

Hoggart casually classifies his new book as belonging to the genre of ‘discursive non-specialist writing’, and one of the interesting things about his career is how little his cultural authority has rested on his presumed command of a body of specialist knowledge. In the wake of The Uses of Literacy he was invited to hold forth as an expert on ‘working-class culture’, but it soon became clear that his public standing rested at least as much on the moral force of his personality. This, to use Bourdieu’s idiom, has been his ‘cultural capital’. The frequently rehearsed story of his background and upbringing has functioned almost as a professional qualification. In the Britain of the Sixties, it could seem hard to challenge the moral authority of someone who had grown up in a back-to-back. But Hoggart has never been simply reducible to this stereotype, partly because the intelligence at work has been more creative and wide-ranging than this suggests, and partly because he has cultivated a writing voice which constantly implies that freedom from cant is the chief prerequisite of serious ethical appraisal.

The danger of this voice is not priggishness and preachiness, but self-congratulation, complacency, an excessive pride in its own integrity. Hoggart has been guilty of this earlier in his career, and it is not altogether absent even from this gentle, unstrenuous book. But perhaps it is impossible to use one’s own character as a touchstone in public debate, as he has done, without a bit of moral stiffness setting in.

Townscape with Figures is Uses of Literacy for the garden-centre age. As far as Hoggart is concerned, a lot of things haven’t changed. Class remains the dominant social fact of British life, and you can still, he thinks, spot someone’s class a mile off. And what has always bothered him most about class still does: not so much the inequality or unfairness or exploitation, though he abhors all those things. It is the arrogance and condescension he can’t stand. Both here and in his autobiography, as also in The Uses of Literacy in muted form, the anecdotes of class are nearly always about this. Again and again one meets his sensitivity to slights, to being patronised or put down. And this suggests from another angle how individual, almost private, his focus really is. Though he talks a lot about class, he does not in fact deal in social structures and their systematic injustices: he deals in individual instances, frequently instances where he is both actor and witness. In his autobiography he recalls an anecdote in which a buffet-car waiter, expertly appraising the details of Hoggart’s appearance and manner, challenged his right to occupy a seat in the first-class buffet. In reflecting on the episode, he tartly labels the man ‘a sniffer-dog of class’, but the cap fits, for Hoggart himself is as ready as the fiercest enforcer of ‘political correctness’ (which he deplores) to denounce language that pre-judges or diminishes people on account of their origins.

Townscape with Figures is also a minor Domesday Book of English moral possessions. Hoggart returns, as he has done throughout his writing life, to certain prized qualities which he sees as quintessentially if not uniquely English. ‘Decency’ must lead the field, with a cluster of related terms close behind: ‘neighbourliness’, ‘fairmindedness’, considerateness’ and so on. Like Sturt, he celebrates ‘the settled phlegmatic decency’ he finds in so many of his Surrey neighbours, a ‘strain of reasonably fair-minded, laconic considerateness’. Although he tries to end his book by dwelling on the concreteness of Farnham, tries to resist taking it as a text for a wider moral, he can’t in the end manage it: the book concludes with an appropriately muted little cadenza on the historical good fortune that has allowed ‘fair play’ to flourish in England.

Continuities, both national and personal, continually strike Hoggart now, and reflecting on the brute, purposeless fact of personal existence he has more than once been drawn to the bleakly Beckettian: ‘One goes on going on.’ But the manner of Hoggart’s going-on compels admiration, and the terms of praise that most readily come to mind to describe his public voice point, for all the distinctiveness of that voice, towards one typically English kind of intellectual: unpretentious, morally serious, reflective, and (the word is inevitable) decent – unshowily decent. Above all, he has had the gift, apparently from quite an early age, of knowing who he is. Some may not like who he is, some may think it doesn’t amount to much; but he has shown an enviable conviction not just that it’ll have to do, but that, in the end, nothing else will do as well.

Townscape with Figures confirms that Hoggart’s natural home is not with that international company of cultural analysts, literary theorists, and assorted academic superstars who are today’s most familiar intellectuals. He belongs to an older family, one with strong local roots and some pride in ancestry; his forebears include Ruskin and Lawrence on one side, Cobbett and Orwell on the other.