When I was growing up, the antique shop at the top of our road had a book trough containing a range of secondhand, very cheap paperbacks.
That trough and the public library were my gateway drugs to a lifetime hooked on books, so it’s appropriate that this bookstand was where I first came across Richard Hoggart’s seminal work, The Uses of Literacy.
It was the Pelican edition, a little creased and battered, a reprint of the original 1957 volume. On a quick flick through, I saw references to milk bars (whatever they were), a candy-floss world (whatever that was), adverts, council houses, working class people, radio programmes, popular songs, magazines.
It was unusual and exciting to find this material in a book which looked as dense and serious as the history text book we used at school.
The news of Richard Hoggart’s death recently sent me back to The Uses Of Literacy, in fact, the very same copy I bought all those years ago. What first struck me was how his analysis of the deadening effects of the imposition of mass culture on genuine popular culture rings as true today.
Before the phrase ‘celebrity culture’ was coined, Hoggart was noting how newspapers had begun to include news of ‘notorious film actresses’ and were publicising ‘the domestic doings of private individuals’.
He describes the emergence of small monthly magazines crammed with pin-up images of chorus girls and models and laments that ‘working people are exchanging their birthright for a mass of pin-ups’. It’s a dismal thought that discussions of the role of the media in society still engage with such issues.
One really enjoyable aspect of The Uses Of Literacy is Hoggart’s examples of tabloid and pulp fiction writing. He made up the examples himself to avoid using the originals and shows flair and zest for such genres.
I particularly like his newspaper piece attacking an archbishop who was laying down the law to ordinary people. Right from the opening, ‘Here we go again, chums!’ Hoggart gets the ‘Blimey, guv’ tone bang on, and I love the mischievous spelling of ‘alright’.
Even more delicious are Hoggart’s made-up titles of American crime novelettes, such as The Killer Wore Nylon and Miss Fandown Takes The Drop.
You might recognise one of his titles: Death-Cab for Cutie, which the ever-inventive Bonzo Dog Dooh-Dah Band turned into a song, which featured in The Beatles’ 1967 television film Magical Mystery Tour and then there’s also the American rock band formed in 1997 who named themselves after the song title.
If you were at school during the 1960s and 1970s, you may have felt the influence of Richard Hoggart’s work. In 1964, he established the Centre For Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University, where the other eminent cultural theorist Stuart Hall (who died two months before Hoggart) had a leading role.
Flakes of meaning
Studies which developed from The Uses Of Literacy gave teachers and educators a language and a framework for bringing mass culture into the classroom. That teacher with the loon pants and droopy moustache who got you to analyse All The Young Dudes? The one who alerted you to the semiotics of the Cadbury’s Flake advert? Hoggart-influenced, without a doubt.
And, of course, the great Richard Hoggart could also be held responsible for the more impenetrable pages of the New Musical Express at that time…