In the end Richard Hoggart, who has died at the age of 95, outlived not just his best known son but also himself.
A personal hero of mine for various predictable reasons, he was one of the most important British intellectuals of the 20th century and his death has been noted in countries other than this one. The influence of The Uses of Literacy is so immense that any form of measurement is impossible: indeed, I would argue that it is literally impossible to understand British cultural and intellectual life between the publication of The Uses of Literacy in 1957 and the election of the Thatcher government in 1979 without having at least a reasonable understanding of the book and the arguments contained within it. One of its early readers, for instance, was a young Dennis Potter, and a clear Hoggartian strand runs through his vast and brilliant output, from Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton to Cold Lazarus and everything between (including the Hamlet of television that is The Singing Detective). Even in post-social democratic and post-industrial Britain (in which Hoggart’s big-hearted highbrow labourism with its almost evangelical agenda of cultural democracy has been eliminated even – especially? – in academia), The Uses of Literacy continues to matter, to provoke, and, yes, even to influence, even if as as a sort of opposition manifesto. Consider, just for a moment, the distinction that Hoggart made between what he described as ‘popular culture’ and what he dubbed ‘mass culture’: popular culture to Hoggart was culture created by ordinary people for themselves, while mass culture is the product of the culture industries. Much contemporary discussion about football and the culture of football could be improved with reference to this careful distinction. And Hoggart’s legacy does not end with his most famous work: he was (amongst other things) a co-founder of the Centre for Contemporary Studies, a key figure in the creation of BBC2, and a star witness in R v Penguin Books Ltd. (also known as the Lady Chatterley trial). Hoggart was not just an important intellectual, he was one of the faces of the genuine cultural anti-elitism that mattered so much in the 1960s and 1970s. Given the main argument of The Uses of Literacy, it is perhaps appropriate that the death of Hoggart reminds us with a sudden sharpness of what has been lost in recent decades.
The Uses of Literacy concludes with the following passage:
‘So much is profoundly encouraging. And it may be that a concentration of false lights is unavoidable at this stage of development in a democracy which from year to year becomes more technologically competent and centralized, and yet seeks to remain a free and ‘open’ society. Yet the problem is acute and pressing – how that freedom may be kept as in any sense a meaningful thing whilst the processes of centralization and technological development continue. This is a particularly intricate challenge because, even if substantial inner freedom were lost, the great new classless class would be unlikely to know it: its members would still regard themselves as free be told that they were free.’