The Uses of Literacy was one of the earliest attempts to understand the divide between culture and popular culture. Richard Hoggart’s book, written in two distinctly different parts, introduces the reader to memories of his own pre-war, north of England, working-class family life. The book then deals with what Hoggart feels is the step decline of this tight knit working-class culture by the assault of the rapidly developing mass media. It received a lukewarm reception when first published, but arrived just as the educational debate about cultural change was starting.
It then became an essential part of university reading lists and examination syllabuses1. As such, its importance cannot be understated. Hoggart’s memories of ‘his’ working class are what Taylor describes as, ‘An old, close tightly knit working class culture of stuffy front rooms, allotments, back-to-back housing, fish-and-chips suppers and charabanc trips’. 2 It is a culture that seems alien and distant to a more modern eye, an era that has links back to the Edwardian Age. One of Hoggart’s strength is to bring this world to life with his intimate memories of what Mulhern describes as a reflection on an older order3.
While evocative his memories can, at first, appear as a parody of the working class – a Whippet breeding, flat cap wearing, cockroach infested parlour, Victorian diseased working class. It can be very easy to dismiss such memories as ‘romantic tosh’. However, it is wise to remember that it is Hoggart’s ‘romantic tosh’ – these are Hoggart’s memories of a particular regional section of his class, and as long as the reader remembers this, they are perfectly valid. Mulhern mentions a significant absence from the book; that is ‘the record of working-class self-organisation in politics, work and education’.
4 Hoggart’s explanation that they were the interests of a small minority untypical of their class is not really explanation enough for such a serious omission. His working class are far too inactive. It is interesting to note that F. D. Klingender, a friend and admirer of Hoggart, disliked the book intensely for the same reason; in his view it was damaging to the working classes because of the omission of their active political history and for displaying the working class as far too ‘passive’.
5 Hoggart’s memories are of the mass of the working class being unable to afford the cost of a doctor, living in poverty, economically living as ‘as a raft on the sea of society’. 6 The post war Labour government has been described as ‘A great reforming government, comparable with that which followed the Reform Bill of 1832’. 7 British society changed massively after 1945, not the Britain that the middle classes expected, a world returning to the old order, but an altogether different society.
A society of free state education, pensions and sick pay, a society of the National Health Service, the creation of which has been described as ‘the single most enlightened piece of legislation of the century’. 8 The pressure for all these monumental social reforms came from below, from an active and aware working class – an empowered working class that seems opposite to the one described by Hoggart. The real strength of the book is in its ability to foretell trends. As Taylor states, ‘All that Hoggart foresaw has happened, and with inconceivable haste and nastiness’.
9 Hoggart’s prophetic warnings of the rise of consumerism, dumbing-down, and Americanisation are very impressive. It could be argued that a new culture has developed based on tabloid newspapers, cheap magazines, advertising and Hollywood. This culture is imposed from the outside, bearing down, crushing any individuality or regional variation; a culture external to the one it dominates. If one were to look at any high street you would see row upon row of large name, identikit concerns; even the spread of ‘Estuary English’ stifling regional accents; all have been used in support of Hoggart’s arguments10.