Literary Review

Skilled storyteller

Illustration: P. Manivannan  

I first encountered Stuart Hall through the Radio. After a crisp introduction from the BBC presenter, his velvet voice and articulate conviction filled the room. For the next 45 minutes, I listened captivated, as Hall recalled this childhood in Jamaica and his time as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, where he arrived escorted by his mother with an enormous steamer trunk, a felt hat and a checked winter coat. Always laced with nostalgia, he spoke of discovering modern Jazz with Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, dancing to Marvin Gaye, and the many complexities of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. He was a skilled storyteller, who placed his memory, his deep sense of alienation and his autobiography at the heart of his theory and politics.

Once when Heidegger was asked to articulate Aristotle’s life, he is said to have replied, “He was born, he thought, and he died. And all the rest is pure anecdote.” Contrary to this, Hall’s theory was inexplicably linked to his story. Unlike the pure theoretical and philosophical traditions that discounted the empirical accidents of life, Hall almost always began with the anecdote and regularly returned to his early childhood experiences in colonial Jamaica and its formative impact on his intellectual preoccupation with class, race and identity.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1932, Hall grew up in a family of mixed English, African, Indian and Portuguese Jews, who he described as ‘a lower-middle class family… trying to be an English Victorian family.’ Hall grew up in a society where race was the pivot to all human interactions. Hall recalls that race was everywhere, “that’s just the air you breathe, and that’s how everyone saw and understands society.” People lived their lives based on classifications along colour lines. As a child of mixture, Hall was the darkest child in the family and recalls his sister asking his mother, ‘where did you get that coolie baby from?’

In the narration of himself, a sense of estrangement and being an intimate stranger is palpable. Hall was also witness to another incident that dramatised for him the colonial predicament. When his sister fell in love with a young doctor, a black Barbadian, the family intervened and stopped the relationship. The doctor’s “blackness” was against the family’s ideals of what was appropriate. Shortly after, his sister went into a tremendous nervous breakdown that recurred throughout her 20s. Hall saw his sister as the “unconscious victim” of the entire colonial system. What had colonisation done to the civility of daily life? Each family bore the trauma of hate, a constant need to be something else, someone else and anything but oneself.

The truth about childhood is that bad things shape you, even when you resist them. Unconsciously, Hall had been shaped by many of the ideas, including his resistance to them. He could never escape the “argument and frustration” that was built into him. In his own words, “I couldn’t become something else…”

By the time Hall arrived in England, he was a young man with impeccable intellectual faculties, who was deeply affected by the colonial experience. His politics were anti-imperial and anti-colonial — but those ideas were an immediate, almost knee-jerk intellectual response. They had not yet achieved the intellectual sophistication or intricacy that Hall is known for. In those formative years of postgraduate work, instead of working on his thesis on Henry James, Hall was working on ideas of culture, reading Jamaican literature, debates on anthropology and the idea of Creolisation. Who he was in relation to society, and what was society in relation to him would inform the fundamental questions of Hall’s life.

Hall’s life was marked by curiosity, a need to discover and articulate the “new” in music, art, film, photography literature, text and narrative, because the old belonged to someone else. In search of the new, he discovered modern literature through Joyce, Pound and Eliot, with Eliot’s The Wasteland leaving a deep impact. The paintings of Paul Klee, the license that Klee had with realism, “both amused and kind of shocked” Hall. He talked about discovering the first sounds of modern Jazz with Miles Davis, the music he said belonged to him, born out of a “world from the margins, but a world that opened up possibilities.” This newness he discovered in literature and music was at once sophisticated, intricate, and subversive.

Similarly, Hall’s politics, his involvement in the New Left, was characterised by creating a new space, in-betweens, an intermediary position both politically and intellectually. For Hall, socialist politics had to be democratic; politics had to reach for equality between people, but must do so by recognising their differences. For him, the politics that had to choose between equality or legislating difference was incomplete and flawed. His position for equality through difference was complex and often critiqued because nuance had become untenable.

Similarly, in his most formidable work, Policing the Crisis, he tried to understand and articulate the British state, society, and why race had become a kind of prism for all the other crises of the state. He found himself beginning to write a book about a crime that three boys had committed in Handsworth, a predominantly Black neighbourhood, against an Irish labourer, and ended up writing a book about the emergence of Thatcherism. Policing the Crisis was finished in 1978 and Margaret Thatcher won the election 1979. The book prophesied the coming of Thatcherism in the 1980s, stemming out of the unresolved crisis of social democracy and of race and urban deprivation in the 1970s.

Throughout his life, Hall wrote with a sense of outrage and intervention, yet considering himself a spirited reformer, rather than a revolutionary. He also strongly believed in leading and winning political arguments in the public sphere, because it was here that power and resistance were situated. Everyone who has ever encountered Hall describes his immense generosity, his willingness to engage in open conversations, unquestionable allegiance to diversity of ideas, clarity of thought and conviction. His greatest legacy, however, is not what Hall was, but what he represented. To discover Hall was to discover the immense possibility of being different.

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Printable version | Jun 9, 2021 8:27:38 AM |

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