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The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Resistance through Writing

Stuart Hall did not feature on any of my undergraduate reading lists when I studied sociology in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The whole cultural studies thing might  have been going on elsewhere but it didn't touch the LSE. The nearest I got to it was taking a course with Alan Swingewood on the sociology of literature. Hoggart I'd already read. Williams I couldn't really make out, but the words seemed to make English sentences. Lukacs, Goldmann, Barthes and Benjamin, I had no idea what they were on about and secretly felt that it was unlikely to very important and that I'd get by without it. I imagine I wrote a very unimpressive exam. 

So Hall for me was a road not taken and I never really felt the need to tread it. From time to time an acquaintance would tell me how great his and the work of the Birmingham CCCS was. Occasionally I'd glance through some of the latter, but  failed to get anything out of it. It just wasn't concerned with the same sort of things that I was. I was aware that for some Hall was a cult figure, but he apparently arrived too late on the scene for me to join the cult. One place I did catch up with him was in Redemption Song a 1990s BBC documentary series about the Caribbean. It was worth watching and I certainly learned a few things from it, but I don't recall it being revelatory.

Which brings me to a chance encounter in a bookshop. I rarely enter such places these days unless it is to buy books for my daughter or sheet music, but on one of the last days of the Summer vacation, which I largely spent building two decks in two two different locations, I crossed the threshold of Waterstones in Twickenham. I had a few minutes to kill and I didn't expect to buy anything. More or less the first thing I saw was Familiar Stranger, Stuart Hall's autobiography. This is actually a slight misnomer as Hall didn't actually write an autobiography, but he gave hours of taped interviews to his friend  Bill Schwarz who put it together in autobiographical form. I looked at it, thought what the hell, and bought it. To be honest I was expecting to hate it, but at least I'd be able to say that I had actually read something that Hall had written, more or less.

So the punch line is: I was surprised. Of course about a quarter of it was written in the impenetrable and obfuscating language of cultural theory - first time I've read an "interpellation" in quite a few years. I have no idea what that bit was about. But the rest gives us a portrait of an intelligent, sensitive man  trying to make sense of a life lived simultaneously in several cultures, both in Jamaica and in London, dealing with the lived contradictions of a dying colonialism - the Halls were a rather well to do light skinned family - living in a society where skin tone was as important as class in delineating the status order. The story of his engagement with anti-nuclear politics after his emigration to Britain, student life in Oxford and the foundation of the New Left  Review are equally fascinating as are his encounters with the British class system in the marriage market. 

I don't think I learned that much about sociology, but I did get some sense of a man who led an interesting life and insight into why he became, for some, such a charismatic figure. I don't think I'll be reaching for Policing the Crisis though just yet.