Richard Hoggart – ‘so good that it annoyed me’

‘This is a difficult chapter to write, though one that should be written’: so begins the eleven pages of Richard Hoggart’s ‘Scholarship Boy’, the first half of chapter ten of his masterpiece and founding text of Cultural Studies, The Uses of Literacy. Hoggart’s death and its coverage in the press – Fred Inglis’s excellent obituary and Lynsey Hanley’s comment piece – sent me back to those eleven pages, which I first read as an undergraduate in 2007, fifty years after they were published.* I remember how lucid and penetrating Hoggart’s insights were and how applicable, despite the intervening half-century’s social change and educational reforms, they were to people I knew. Hoggart had had the same effect on two previous generations, for many of whom those eleven pages were difficult to read but were also a thrilling, liberating moment of recognition and connection.

One of the reasons ‘Scholarship Boy’ was difficult for Hoggart to write is because, at one level, it is about his own experience. In the introduction to The Uses of Literacy he quotes Marlowe, Conrad’s narrator in The Heart of Darkness: ‘Of course in this you fellows see more than I could see. You see me’. Throughout the book Hoggart’s personal experiences of working-class life in the 1930s and ’40s are drawn upon to evoke and examine, sympathetically and in great detail, the meanings made by that culture. It can be difficult to read, too, for any reader whose working-class background has ever made them feel uneasy – ‘uprooted and anxious’ – because there is an uncanny sense that not only is Hoggart writing about people you know, he is writing about you. The incisive potency of ‘Scholarship Boy’ is due to Hoggart’s unique combination of a sociological eye – the ability to identify and describe the characteristics of groups of people – and a novelist’s skill of entering imaginatively into the internal, emotional reality of individuals’ personal experiences.

The formal range and rich analytic and emotional complexity of Hoggart’s prose, though, was acknowledged far more widely than amongst those whose experiences chimed with the culture described in the book. Jean-Claude Passeron, in the introduction to the French translation, calls Hoggart’s technique ‘novelistic sociology’ and argues that his ‘style of analysis deliberately breaks with’ the phoney objectivity of academics, journalists and politicians whose attitudes towards the working class are ‘as racist in their own way as those of pre-scientific ethnography’. On reading Passeron’s translation in a single sitting, Claude Levi-Strauss was compelled to write immediately to Hoggart commending it as a ‘great classic’ that is ‘not only a scientific study, but also and at the same time a literary work’.**

‘Scholarship Boy’ is the passage that best exemplifies Hoggart’s skillful novelistic sociology: his technique is to identify and describe a type or group and then to focus in and evoke the lived experience of individual members of it. The result is that, whilst describing the effects of social mobility in terms of people’s changing class relationships, he never loses sight of those people as individuals and is always alert to the problems of a too-scientific approach. He reflects on his sketches and encourages the reader to register their limitations: ‘this description simplifies and over-stresses the break; in each individual there will be many qualifications’; ‘that is over-dramatised, not applicable to all or even to most’. Despite his qualifications, everywhere neat phrases perfectly capture the complexities of conflicting class identities as they are experienced by the ‘upwardly mobile’: there is ‘an underlying sense of some unease’; the scholarship boy ‘is at the friction-point of two cultures’; success brings with it ‘the tendency to vertigo’ and leaves some ‘gnawed by self-doubt’. There is a candour and sensitivity about the ‘fear and shame’ that can erode working-class students’ self-confidence and cause crippling stress and anxiety and a subtlety in dealing with the odd cocktail of superciliousness and inferiority that can emerge from a dependence on academic success and acknowledgement.

The line that struck me most brought back an experience that exemplifies the lasting relevance of ‘Scholarship Boy’: ‘Once at the grammar-school, he quickly learns to make use of a pair of different accents, perhaps even two different apparent characters and differing standards of value’. As an undergraduate I worked as a cleaner in the Arts Tower from 7-10 every morning. On the module in which I first encountered Hoggart, I had a class at ten so I often arrived late and out of breath. On one occasion I’d borrowed a buffer from Pat (a jovial colleague with a beautiful, thick Sheffield accent who commuted in twice a day from Intake) on the 15th floor and when I returned it at the end of the shift she asked how my studies were going. ‘What is it you do again? Oh English, that’s right. Oh I wish I’d done better at English at school, you speak properly you do’. The seminar straight afterwards was on women’s poetry from the Miners’ Strike and when I apologetically bustled in late the tutor asked if I’d mind reading as my accent wasn’t too far from Barnsley. In the five minute rush across campus I’d gone from the plummy-mouthed top rung of the ladder down the  snake of the class system to token proletarian: although for me it was a matter of how I was perceived rather than how I acted – in those five minutes I didn’t have to switch accents, characters or values – Hoggart’s alertness to the slipperiness of multiple and conflicting class identities seemed to speak to my own experience and helped me to understand the class dynamics that so profoundly shaped university life.

Many of the novelists of the post-war era dealt with the scholarship boy phenomenon (e.g. Stan Barstow and David Storey) and it was also an important factor in the development of British realism in cinema. Along with decolonization and mass immigration, the scholarship generation spawned by the 1944 Education Act was the most significant social and cultural development in British society in the post-war era, and Hoggart had his finger squarely on the pulse. John Braine felt that Hoggart had articulated something that himself and many writers of the time were grappling with: ‘Your book was so good that it annoyed me – there was so much in it that I was saving to write about myself’.**  I’ve since had the opportunity to read and discuss Hoggart with students, who often remark on the same sensation of having their own complex and often awkward and difficult feelings suddenly articulated for them. It is testament to Hoggart’s genius that his best work still has the capacity to teach working-class readers something about themselves nearly sixty years on.


*Hanley’s ‘Wall in the Mind’ chapter in ‘Estates: An Intimate History’ is a brilliant reworking of ‘Scholarship Boy’ for the comprehensive age. And the whole book’s fantastic, you should give it a read…

**Levi-Strauss and Braine’s letters are in the Hoggart Archive at the University of Sheffield