Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Britain is still a country for and says "Happy Birthday" to a very old academic called Richard Hoggart who changed its cultural landscape half a century ago

Richard  whose book, 'Uses of Literacy' published when he was 39 in 1957, propelled him, then an extramural lecturer at the University of Hull, to the forefront of the changes that swept British culture from the sclerotic 1950's into the swinging 60's, is 95 years old today.

What you possibly didn't know about Richard, that he :

* was born in Leeds in 1918, where his father, who had served in the Boer war, was a house painter and served in the First World War in the pay corps and died in 1920 of brucellosis, leaving Richard, with his brother and sister, to be brought up by his mother in a 'stone cottage with a small yard and outside loo. It really was something out of Dickens. She managed on £1 a week, which was what the local social security, as it is called now, gave her.'

* when he was eight, returned home from school one day to find his mother collapsed on the floor and witnessed her die  of TB shortly afterwards and then went  to live with his Grandmother and for several years, had to share a bed with an uncle.

* gained a place at grammar school and won a scholarship to Leeds University at the age of 18 in 1936 after an aunt gave him elocution lessons because he couldn't pronounce his 'Rs' or 'Ls' and became, in his own words : 'a very hard-working student and because there were no books in the house, I would spend long periods in the reading room of the library. I discovered Swinburne for myself there, and other poetry, which was wonderful." 

* within a week of graduating, started an MA on Swift, which he completed in nine months, then two months later, in 1940, he was called up to fight in the Second World War in the Royal Artillery and took part in the invasion of North Africa.and served in Naples, which he called "Leeds in Technicolor", before returning to England, being demobbed in 1946 as a staff captain. 

* became a lecturer at Hull University in the extramural department and described the impulse to write 'The Uses of Literacy', as being like an 'intellectual tapeworm' and in which he asked the questions : as a society becomes more affluent, does it lose other values? Are the skills that education and literacy gave millions wasted on consuming pop culture? Do the media coerce us into a world of the superficial and the material or can they be a force for good?
* soon after publication, was asked to contribute to the 'Albemarle Report on Youth Services' and in 1958 he moved to Leicester University as a senior English lecturer and two years later, joined the Pilkington Committee Inquiry into broadcasting and drafted the final report, which recommended that the proposed third television channel, BBC2, should be given to a public, not private, broadcaster.

 * in 1960, was asked by Allen Lane of Penguin Books to help in the obscenity trial of the D.H.Lawrence book, 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' and later said : "I agreed to speak if necessary but when I got a call I really didn't know what to expect, Then I was met at the Old Bailey by one of the defence team, who told me I'd better get in there and dig in hard because the prosecutor, Griffith-Jones, who was snobbish and a bully and everything I come out in spots about, had just made a distinguished woman professor cry."

* with the failure of the obscenity trial, found himself in the vanguard of the cultural change which ushered in the 'permissive sixties' which breached many old taboos.

* with his profile raised, was offered a chair at Birmingham University and accepted on condition that he would  to start a 'centre for contemporary cultural studies' and later said : "The Lady Chatterley trial made me think there should be a body that was interested in English not just as it was academically defined, but also as it applied to the general culture. At that time the definition of English studies was very rigid and yet outside there was a culture that was not derisory but was little understood and said something about the human spirit."

* in 1970, accepted the post of Deputy Director-General at Unesco in Paris where he worked for five years and on his return to Britain at the age of 57 in the mid-70s, became warden of Goldsmiths College in South-East London and then served and was dropped from the Arts Council because Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, did not regard him as 'one of us'.

* was described by Sir Roy Shaw, then Executive Head of the Council, as : "he has never become in any way pompous, no matter how important his job was. He always stayed an ordinary bloke, although in fact he was always an extraordinary, ordinary bloke."

* has said of himself : "I was driven by my childhood to get on, but not in the sense of becoming a millionaire or anything like that. The ambition was to do something useful and interesting and somehow involving my writing. And I did have an impulse to criticise because there was a lot to criticise. I was brought up in a world where just about everyone assumed they would stay there all their lives and I resented that deeply. There are two types of life; the first is the escalator life, where you move inexorably upwards, the other type is the carousel where you go round and round. One of my arguments is that there are enough people making it their business to ensure that people stay on the carousel."

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