On Knowing Stuart Hall

On Knowing Stuart Hall

As Stuart Hall’s biography, Familiar Stranger, has now been published and I will soon read it, it is time to recall knowing him before memory is overtaken by the text. Though how well a post graduate student can ever know his superviso lefr is questionable,  my first Masters Degree was by research and so face to face meetings were frequent during the two years I was registered at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham. And sometimes thereafter: Stuart was willing to be consulted even though not paid to do so.

I had not planned to study with him initially, the plan being to study with Richard Hoggart having read his Uses of Literacy when in the sixth form. I had identified  strongly with Hoggart’s account of a  working class upbringing and life as a scholarship boy. Having tired of History and Politics despite excellent teaching at Warwick, for my second degree I wanted a new perspective, in a new cutting edge field. The Centre seemed to fit the bill. Perhaps I should have wondered why Hoggart had moved on relatively quickly – only four years  as Director – but the chance to be supervised by Stuart for a history of the folk song movement was too good to miss. Hall knew little about the folk revival, but a lot about the counter culture of the sixties. And he was more left wing than Hoggart.

My  main reasons for wanting to study at the Centre were personal – I needed to get back to Brum to look after my  parents who were struggling  in the dirty little slum house as the area was slum cleared – and academic – I wanted to be in a cutting edge new project for my MA -but  the fact that Stuart had replaced Hoggart was a plus. I knew of him from his co-editorship of the New Left Mayday Manifesto in 1966 with E P Thompson and Raymond Williams. I had already forced my way into Warwick to study with Thompson, so moving to study with his political collaborator in the New Left was attractive. But would Hall be another mandarin like Thompson, whose Oxbridge elitism took me years to counteract? The interview was positive. He was a friendly guy who put effort into making personal contact. We realised we had a bond in loving the music of Miles Davis. He was still only acting director – he did not become director till 1972, when I had already finished my formal study (1970-72), but this did not make any difference to the work we did.

I did not understand the difficult politics of the Centre. Broadly speaking, the university never liked the Centre, and  Hoggart did not get the support he would presumably have been promised when he set it up in 1964. The number of staff was small – Michael Green served all the three directors through the Centre’s history, but there was no major staff funding. Much later,  Stuart’s acceptance of a Sociology Professorship at the Open University reinforced my view that the University outlook was that Cultural Studies was merely a branch  of sociology and wanted to merge the two departments. It was sad that Stuart had to leave Birmingham to be made Professor, sadder still that merger and the closure of the CCCS took place – but well after Stuart left.

 My view of Stuart Hall was positive in all academic areas. As a supervisor he was superb. It is rarely the case that a post graduate supervisor knows in detail what a student is researching, and my subject – the folk song revival and counter culture  - had little academic  literature and few sources. The task was sociological in the sense that it was a study of a grassroots movement, and could only be done by empirical research among singers and audiences. That was a task for which history had prepared me and what I needed was practical  support while finding and sorting evidence. Stuart was on my wavelength politically, sympathetic to popular initiatives   and was supportive when I hit problems. The English Folk Dance and Song Society proved to be useless as a source of information  and it was clear I would take an extra year to find enough evidence for a thesis.

As Stuart is rightly regarded as a black intellectual of stature, it seems odd now that his colour never seemed to to me important.. Although he later said that he was part of Britain but never became an Englishman, his distinctive character as a black academic working in English culture was a great advantage to me, precisely because he was an outsider – though no more so than other immigrant marxists like Eric Hobsbawm and Ralph Miliband. There is a photo on the Stuart Hall Project DVD with him in his twenties wearing a small moustache – but otherwise clean shaven and with a collar, tie and double breasted jacket, a style which the Americans call  ‘preppy’*.  He looked more Oxford than the Oxfordians, easily falling into the pattern of Merton College where he had studied as an undergrduate.  Indeed, had he not come through the English grammar school processes imported into  colonial Jamaica, he would not have been able to cope with Oxford University when he arrived in 1951.  The fact he was a Black Jamaican never posed any problems, partly because he never came over as Black. The big  afro hair cut was popular in America, Angela Davis making it well known in Britain through her Black Power activities, but never took off in England and for Stuart, short back and sides was his chosen style. It was virtually that of a skinhead, though Stuart was modelling himself on the coolest of all the jazzmen of the period,  Miles Davis. By the time I knew him, he was in  his late  thirties and always wore a beard, neatly trimmed and was simply focussed on  taking care of business.  

Hair style was symbolic of other issues.  I was becoming aware of Rastfarianism at that time, a period before the breakthrough of Bob Marley and the Wailers, but that aspect of  Jamaican culture was not part of Stuart’s heritage.. Despite his radicalism, this was the marxism of C L R James not the radicalism of Black Power As a marxist influenced, Oxford educated academic, who had worked with Thompson and Raymond Williams, he fitted into a well known English radical  matrix. It was not until much later I realised his Jamaica was neither England in the Carribean nor a simple issue of a black culture possessing a unified  identity as the US black community was asserting in the late 60s.

Those issues of identity did not surface, and as he was married to a white English woman, Catherine, who I knew from occasional social events in Moseley, I saw only a very good academic worker – but with a distinct style. He was, as one of my colleagues at the time said, the “coolest man on the campus”. Indeed, the only cool man Birmingham University had to offer. Like Miles Davis, Stuart was well dressed though he had abandoned

the preppy image for  the student uniform of   jeans, sweat shirt and sneakers. Not I think as a style gesture, style wars in Cultural Studies came later, but simply to save money: he had a family to support. I never knew how this went down in the Senior Common room, a place post graduates  rarely went to, but I assume that other academics viewed it as odd clothing for an odd person doing odd academic work. It is clear Birmingham never valued Stuart academically, and he did not produce a major book while at the Centre. There was a culture clash  with this old fashioned Redbrick University which was not visible at the time I was there, but could be felt. Certainly Stuart  had to leave to gain a Professorship. It was Birmingham’s loss.

Stuart’s image was controlled, cool and purposive. There was no hint of inner turmoil or discontent, he appeared to be a man for all seasons.  I was very pleased with him as a supervisor, though puzzled by the internal politics of the Centre, and its strained relationship with the rest of the university. I will read the autobiography with great interest to understand more, hopefully gaining  insights into Stuart at Birmingham University,  and Stuart as a man. As an MA supervisor, he was everything I had wished for.

Trevor Fisher
                                                               15 8 2017

* adjective =  typical of a pupil or graduate of an expensive prep school, especially… their neat style of dress.

 

On Knowing Stuart Hall

 

As Stuart Hall’s biography, Familiar Stranger, has now been published and I will soon read it, it is time to recall knowing him before memory is overtaken by the text. Though how well a post graduate student can ever know his superviso lefr is questionable,  my first Masters Degree was by research and so face to face meetings were frequent during the two years I was registered at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham. And sometimes thereafter: Stuart was willing to be consulted even though not paid to do so.

 

I had not planned to study with him initially, the plan being to study with Richard Hoggart having read his Uses of Literacy when in the sixth form. I had identified  strongly with Hoggart’s account of a  working class upbringing and life as a scholarship boy. Having tired of History and Politics despite excellent teaching at Warwick, for my second degree I wanted a new perspective, in a new cutting edge field. The Centre seemed to fit the bill. Perhaps I should have wondered why Hoggart had moved on relatively quickly – only four years  as Director – but the chance to be supervised by Stuart for a history of the folk song movement was too good to miss. Hall knew little about the folk revival, but a lot about the counter culture of the sixties. And he was more left wing than Hoggart.

 

My  main reasons for wanting to study at the Centre were personal – I needed to get back to Brum to look after my  parents who were struggling  in the dirty little slum house as the area was slum cleared – and academic – I wanted to be in a cutting edge new project for my MA -but  the fact that Stuart had replaced Hoggart was a plus. I knew of him from his co-editorship of the New Left Mayday Manifesto in 1966 with E P Thompson and Raymond Williams. I had already forced my way into Warwick to study with Thompson, so moving to study with his political collaborator in the New Left was attractive. But would Hall be another mandarin like Thompson, whose Oxbridge elitism took me years to counteract? The interview was positive. He was a friendly guy who put effort into making personal contact. We realised we had a bond in loving the music of Miles Davis. He was still only acting director – he did not become director till 1972, when I had already finished my formal study (1970-72), but this did not make any difference to the work we did.

 

I did not understand the difficult politics of the Centre. Broadly speaking, the university never liked the Centre, and  Hoggart did not get the support he would presumably have been promised when he set it up in 1964. The number of staff was small – Michael Green served all the three directors through the Centre’s history, but there was no major staff funding. Much later,  Stuart’s acceptance of a Sociology Professorship at the Open University reinforced my view that the University outlook was that Cultural Studies was merely a branch  of sociology and wanted to merge the two departments. It was sad that Stuart had to leave Birmingham to be made Professor, sadder still that merger and the closure of the CCCS took place – but well after Stuart left.

 

My view of Stuart Hall was positive in all academic areas. As a supervisor he was superb. It is rarely the case that a post graduate supervisor knows in detail what a student is researching, and my subject – the folk song revival and counter culture  - had little academic  literature and few sources. The task was sociological in the sense that it was a study of a grassroots movement, and could only be done by empirical research among singers and audiences. That was a task for which history had prepared me and what I needed was practical  support while finding and sorting evidence. Stuart was on my wavelength politically, sympathetic to popular initiatives   and was supportive when I hit problems. The English Folk Dance and Song Society proved to be useless as a source of information  and it was clear I would take an extra year to find enough evidence for a thesis.

 

As Stuart is rightly regarded as a black intellectual of stature, it seems odd now that his colour never seemed to to me important.. Although he later said that he was part of Britain but never became an Englishman, his distinctive character as a black academic working in English culture was a great advantage to me, precisely because he was an outsider – though no more so than other immigrant marxists like Eric Hobsbawm and Ralph Miliband. There is a photo on the Stuart Hall Project DVD with him in his twenties wearing a small moustache – but otherwise clean shaven and with a collar, tie and double breasted jacket, a style which the Americans call  ‘preppy’*.  He looked more Oxford than the Oxfordians, easily falling into the pattern of Merton College where he had studied as an undergrduate.  Indeed, had he not come through the English grammar school processes imported into  colonial Jamaica, he would not have been able to cope with Oxford University when he arrived in 1951.  The fact he was a Black Jamaican never posed any problems, partly because he never came over as Black. The big  afro hair cut was popular in America, Angela Davis making it well known in Britain through her Black Power activities, but never took off in England and for Stuart, short back and sides was his chosen style. It was virtually that of a skinhead, though Stuart was modelling himself on the coolest of all the jazzmen of the period,  Miles Davis. By the time I knew him, he was in  his late  thirties and always wore a beard, neatly trimmed and was simply focussed on  taking care of business.  

 

Hair style was symbolic of other issues.  I was becoming aware of Rastfarianism at that time, a period before the breakthrough of Bob Marley and the Wailers, but that aspect of  Jamaican culture was not part of Stuart’s heritage.. Despite his radicalism, this was the marxism of C L R James not the radicalism of Black Power As a marxist influenced, Oxford educated academic, who had worked with Thompson and Raymond Williams, he fitted into a well known English radical  matrix. It was not until much later I realised his Jamaica was neither England in the Carribean nor a simple issue of a black culture possessing a unified  identity as the US black community was asserting in the late 60s.

 

Those issues of identity did not surface, and as he was married to a white English woman, Catherine, who I knew from occasional social events in Moseley, I saw only a very good academic worker – but with a distinct style. He was, as one of my colleagues at the time said, the “coolest man on the campus”. Indeed, the only cool man Birmingham University had to offer. Like Miles Davis, Stuart was well dressed though he had abandoned

the preppy image for  the student uniform of   jeans, sweat shirt and sneakers. Not I think as a style gesture, style wars in Cultural Studies came later, but simply to save money: he had a family to support. I never knew how this went down in the Senior Common room, a place post graduates  rarely went to, but I assume that other academics viewed it as odd clothing for an odd person doing odd academic work. It is clear Birmingham never valued Stuart academically, and he did not produce a major book while at the Centre. There was a culture clash  with this old fashioned Redbrick University which was not visible at the time I was there, but could be felt. Certainly Stuart  had to leave to gain a Professorship. It was Birmingham’s loss.

 

Stuart’s image was controlled, cool and purposive. There was no hint of inner turmoil or discontent, he appeared to be a man for all seasons.  I was very pleased with him as a supervisor, though puzzled by the internal politics of the Centre, and its strained relationship with the rest of the university. I will read the autobiography with great interest to understand more, hopefully gaining  insights into Stuart at Birmingham University,  and Stuart as a man. As an MA supervisor, he was everything I had wished for.

Trevor Fisher
                                                               15 8 2017

 

* adjective =  typical of a pupil or graduate of an expensive prep school, especially… their neat style of dress.

 

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