This is a review of my academic relationship with Stuart Hall (1932-2014) who supervised my first Masters Degree, at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and was written from memory before the Bill Schwarz biography appeared.
I only knew Stuart as my MA Supervisor, never met him after completion, but have very vivid memories of working with him. My degree was by research, plus attending the highly intense seminars at the Centre, so face to face meetings were frequent during the two years (1970-72) that I was registered at the Centre. I did not complete till 1973 but Stuart was willing to be consulted even though not paid to do so. This was a measure of the man, getting the work done was always the priority.
I had not initially planned to study with him, my aim being to study with Richard Hoggart, whose Uses of Literacy I had read when in the Sixth Form. I had identified strongly with Hoggart’s account of a working class upbringing. His account of life as a scholarship boy at Leeds University had been inspirational for my own plans. Having tired of History and Politics despite excellent teaching at Warwick University, for my second degree I wanted a new perspective in a cutting edge field which would take me back to the city of my birth. I knew Hoggart as an English professor at Birmingham had started the CCCS. I wanted to get back to Birmingham and explore whether an academic career was one to pursue. This Question would be answered.
I needed to get back to Birmingham, though Warwick had been an easy place to get to and from, because I needed to look after my parents who were struggling with illness in the dirty little slum
house which was due to be demolished under a slum clearance scheme. Hoggart had left before I applied, having moved on relatively quickly, leaving Stuart Hall as acting director, but I had no real idea who Hall was – he had only published a joint work with Paddy Whannel of the British Film Institute The Popular Arts which made the case for taking popular art seriously. This made sense to me, as I wanted to research the folk song revival and counter culture of the period. I was curious that a movement that had inspired classical musicians like Vaughan Williams and Bela Bartok had become a mass movement in the back room of pubs involving communists like A L Lloyd and Ewan MacColl.
Hall knew little about English folk music, being from Jamaica, but a lot about the counter culture of the sixties – and he was more left wing than Hoggart. I knew he had co-edited the New Left Mayday Manifesto with E P Thompson and Raymond Williams. I had already stumbled into Warwick University and studied with Thompson, so I assumed Cultural Studies would have some connection with the world of Thompson, who was a Marxist with a background in the Communist Party. Hall was a Marxist but had never been in the CP, which I did not find a problem. Though I never joined the Party, I knew a number of Communists and spent a lot of time with protest singers in the folk clubs across the country. I was not hesitant about the politics, but as I was going to study for an MA by research, which meant a lot of personal contact with my supervisor, wondered if the CCCS was going to be a good experience? As an undergraduate I had not found Thompson easy to relate to. Thompson had been a mandarin and it had been difficult to study with someone whose Oxbridge elitism would take me years to come to terms with. Hall I knew was ex-Oxford.
My first point of contact with someone I would be relying on for support and guidance was the interview, and this went well. We realized we had a bond in loving the music of Miles Davies. Stuart was a friendly guy who put effort into making personal contact. He was still only acting Director following Hoggart’s unexpected departure but this did not seem to be a problem and two years of formal study (1970-72) would seem to be straightforward.
What I could not understand till I arrived was the curious mixture of angst and stress that made the Centre a very inward looking place, and one where one was expected to show a good deal of loyalty to something which was still in the process of formation. The Centre was a founding element of Cultural Studies, now an international academic discipline, but then finding its way. I was pretty much a conventional historian, seeking to discover evidence to make an account of the movements I was interested in. I did not see much relevance in studying abstract theory by people like Herbert Marcuse and Roland Barthes and as this was central to what the Centre saw itself as doing I was an outsider.
Unlike Warwick, Birmingham was not a supportive place, particularly for a post graduate who did not have a grant – I was teaching part time to keep myself alive. Post graduate work is always likely to be isolated, Birmingham’s student union was mainly undergraduate and joining societies was not an option given my time constraints, so I hoped to blend in with the Centre’s personelle. However those in the centre especially the PhD students demanded intense commitment to a working programme based on theorists I had no interest in. This problem was made worse by the hostility of the university to the Centre, whose politics were at odds with the university because of its involvement with student and radical protest widespread at the time. The result was a lack of funding and staffing
I might have realized that Hoggart had left early for a reason – the reason being a lack of support. Apparently Stuart Hall had been paid for by private funding not university funding and it was only after I left that Hall got the funding he deserved from the university – but despite a second in department in Michael Green funded by the university there was a distinct lack of back up. Which meant the Centre turned in on itself as it struggled to define an academic niche which required students commit to working on a central project, something never made explicit but one reason for the accusation made against the Centre that many students did not complete their research.
That central project had no interest to me, I was always a historian not a cultural student, so until I managed to overcome the difficulties of finding the research material I needed, life was very difficult for me as I had to teach to keep body and soul together
I do not understand the internal conflicts with the academic power structure at Birmingham, but I suspect that as Stuart eventually left to become Professor of Sociology at the Open University – and was never effectively replaced at the Centre – the University thought the work was a branch of sociology and should be inside that deparment. The Centre resisted and made its working model one of intense collectivism.
It is significant that when Stuart died in 2014, Professor Matthew Hilton and Dr Keiran Connell wrote on the university website re the Blue Plaque erected in 2011 (after the centre had been closed for some years) “The work of the centre was marked by a collective memorial. This underplayed Hall’s own key contribution to the work”. It seems an accurate comment, for the collective was the dominant issue as the people in the Centre strove to define a discipline – and made a success of this. Cultural Studies is now an internationally recognized area of study. But not in Birmingham University, apart from a blue plaque, and never to recognize the part Stuart as an outstanding thinker had made.
Goldsmith’s University has named buildings after both Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall. Hoggart had worked there after leaving Birmingham, so that is appropriate. Hall never did, and the Goldsmith’s tribute seems to be an altruistic comment on a major British intellectual. He made his name in Birmingham, but the University never recognized him. The issues this raises need debate. I sometimes wonder if Stuart was experiencing racism – few black academics prosper in the UK – but on the whole I think Hoggart’s leaving simply proves Birmingham was too provincial an institution to welcome the CCCS. The initial funding came from Penguin books not the university. And it is often said that Stuart was marked down as he did not publish a major book while at Birmingham. But from my viewpoint, whatever his reputation may have been one thing was very clear to me. He was an excellent teacher.