The British Notion of “Fairness”: Punish the Poor by making them Poorer/ Reprimand the Rich by Raising their Salaries!
There was some more apposite polemical comment on the recent Maria Miller debacle in the Morning Star on Thursday, aptly describing David ‘No Magnet in my Moral Compass’ Cameron’s abysmal lack of moral leadership throughout the affair as an ‘Eton Mess’ (the name of a highly eclectic and gooey dessert which is, symbolically, becoming ever more common on refrigerated supermarket shelves.
Perhaps unwisely, given that this week it was held in gentrified, oligarchic West London, this writer watched Question Time on Thursday night, only to be reminded, once again, that double standards are not the sole attitudinal remit of the political classes, but also have a tendency to overspill into certain portions of the British public, particular the more ‘well-to-do’ metropolitan types. This was most marked in sporadic audience contributions to the inevitable topic of Maria Miller’s fraudulent expenses claims: whilst there seemed to a broad unanimity of opinion that Miller has got off lightly by only having to return £5k of the £45k she falsely pilfered from the public coffers, a depressingly significant number of the audience inexplicably appeared to think that perhaps the way to stop further parliamentary expenses abuses from happening in the future isn’t to crank up punishments and reprisals on MPs, but, oppositely, to increase their salaries!
This came in response to one panellist –I can’t recall who at this point, I’ve since repressed whole parts of that particular instalment, but it could have been almost any of them (bar Billy Bragg)– who absurdly –and insultingly– suggested that evidently MPs’ salaries were too “modest”, otherwise they’d not be forced by some sort of ‘parliamentary relative poverty’ to bumf up their wages by putting expenditures on expenses. Now, let’s remember here that the average British wage is about £26,000 per annum, while the average MPs’ wage is the princely sum of approximately £66,000 per annum –£40,000 above the average wage! And then, with regards to this particular context, we also need to remember that Miller’s salary, as a Secretary of State, is/was more in the region of £86,000 per annum. And yet almost all in West London QT audience (and panel –bar, again, Billy Bragg) seemed to conclude that, clearly, based on parliamentary behaviours, MPs aren’t being paid enough!
What this demonstrates, for the umpteenth time, is not only Westminster’s but also the almost self-immolating British ‘notion of fairness’ in post-Thatcherite society, which essentially goes like this: if someone who is well-salaried, even rich, is powerful and has status, their malfeasances, driven almost always by sheer venal greed and opportunism, are “mistakes” or “errors of judgements”, and symptomatic, in spite of all facts known, of some almost mystical ‘necessity’ or ‘justification’; but, on the other hand, if someone who is already poor, unemployed and/or sick and disabled, and is found to have over-claimed benefits to as little as the tune of a couple of hundred quid, is instantly judged as having “committed fraud” and tagged as a “benefit cheat” and a “scrounger”, their behaviour seen as symptomatic not of genuine ‘need’ due to the glaring facts of their significant and chronic poverty, but simply of some equally mystical tendency towards ‘greed’ and deviancy which is characterised more in the form of a social trait, a “scrounger” genotype, than the desperate measure of impoverished circumstance.
Those are the kind of morally subverted, ethically illiterate, near-feudal verdicts afforded by the contemporary of “fairness” in Tory Britain. As to the sentences recommended: the rich, propertied, handsomely salaried persons of power, position and status, with no material justifications whatsoever for their embezzlements of public/ ‘taxpayers’’ money should have their wrists slapped, lose their ministerial posts but retain their jobs as MPs, not be de-selected, or prosecuted, and, in the longer-term, alongside their fellow MPs, have their salaries –also paid by ‘the taxpayer’– increased, almost proportionate to the expenses they abused; while, quite oppositely, the impoverished benefit claimant literally scraping pennies to survive and cover the most basic costs of living, who are found to have not “made a mistake” but made a calculatedly dishonest ‘claim’ for extra benefits (even if their actual material want clearly shows they do need such extra monies), should be at the very least sanctioned by an imposition of even more abject poverty via suspension of claim for a suitably punitive period, and/or publicly labelled as a “scrounger” in the tabloids, prosecuted, and even imprisoned.
And, briefly, on the constant rhetorical Tory theme of “taxpayers’ money” being their money –as recently emphasised by Cameron at a podium only days after his Culture Secretary was in opprobrium for behaviourally flaunting such attitudes– it’s not: it’s tax, it’s the individual’s contribution to the running of a state which (theoretically) protects them and, if they are ever without jobs and with little if no savings (again, theoretically) supports them with the equivalent former contributions reimbursed to them in the form of benefits. By constantly framing taxation as some kind of ‘state theft’ the Tories not only grossly miss the point of such a pecuniary subscription to a ‘democratic’ society, but also risk undermining the very foundations of democracy itself. But then, the Conservatives Party –as is implicit in its name– has ever been the party for policing democracy, for damage-limiting its infringements on the vested inherited interests of the landed classes (cue the old “rotten boroughs”), as opposed to championing it, or promoting its expansion (and this has never been more apparent than through the Tory gagging law).
We have seen such grotesque display of this society’s ‘scales of injustice’ at work, of course, through the welfare cap, which, in part to ‘curb’ alleged “abuses” of benefits, was steamrollered through a mostly complicit Parliament –with majority public backing!– as a way of literally and symbolically answering what is clearly a mass need for more generous welfare provision among the nation’s unemployed and poorest with an antipathetic response of actually doing the complete opposite and drastically reducing levels of state assistance, in spite of the obvious fact that this would inescapably tip hundreds of thousands of poorer families into destitution, and their children into malnutrition. Mushrooming food banks, escalating evictions, street homelessness and 80,000 families with children stuck in B&Bs are all evidence that the welfare caps have indeed achieved the mass pauperisation of an already relatively impoverished section of society.
The Tories thought it “only fair” to cap the amount any one family could claim in state benefits at £26,000 per year –apparently the average working wage, and likely to remain so for some considerable time given that wages across the board are still pretty much static, and so effectively decreasing. (The kind of wage which, incidentally, flush Nigel Farage nonchalantly alluded to as “extremely modest”, in such a tone as to almost suggest the £25k annual remuneration paid to his wife as an assistant –brazen nepotism notwithstanding– was some sort of pecuniary ‘sacrifice’ made on her behalf to support her husband’s career, when the UKIP leader was interrogated by Jon Snow on C4 News the other day as to his party’s world-beating record in fraudulent expenses claims at the European Parliament; this expertly sabotaged Farage’s attempt to milk some political capital while visiting Maria Miller’s constituency of Basingstoke. Farage flushed even more purple-in-the-face than usual at Snow’s remorseless scrutiny of UKIP’s pecuniary exploitation of a political institution it explicitly wishes to dismantle).
This is the Tories’ way of ‘Making Work Pay’: by making benefits hardly pay anything at all, so that by comparison, working poverty and underemployment seem comparatively prosperous. Most of the British public continue to applaud such neo-Malthusian policies –sops to the resentful “hardworking taxpayers” of the nation, whom are, however, ripped off much more prolifically by the very politicians whose salaries and expenses they subsidise to a far greater degree than any tiny percentage of unemployed in the benefits budget; and the very politicians who, in turn, attempt to ingratiate themselves with said “taxpayers”, in hope of harvesting more votes for their respective parties, by ‘socially cleansing’ the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled through iniquitous caps, cuts and bedroom taxes.
So, in short, when a small section of the nation’s poor were found with their ‘hands in the till’ out of desperation, the response was to cut and cap their already punitive rates of benefits; but when the wealthy and powerful are caught with their hands in the national kitty, out of pure opportunism and greed, the response appears to be that their salaries should be increased! It’s precisely the same perverse response as government has shown to the parasitic speculators in the City and banking sector whose corrupt practices caused the “Great Recession” in the first place –which in turn ‘necessitated’ a decade of austerity resulting in such mass-pauperisation as induced by the welfare cap: that they should not be prosecuted or held to account in any way for their crimes, but oppositely be paid even more in salaries and ‘bonuses’ to stop them from abandoning the nation they’ve ransacked and bankrupted, so their mystical “talent” can keep Britain “competitive” and “attract more business”!
This is the ultimate legacy of British Thatcherism –the ultimate antiserum to Robin Hood’s quixotic motto, indeed, its definitive bouleverement, more akin to Dick Turpin’s personal ethic: rob from the poor to give to the rich; or, more specifically, if a poor person pilfers, then punish them by making them even poorer; but if a rich person thieves, then they’re clearly not rich enough, so reward their greed with greater riches. A society with such utterly twisted ethics as these is, bluntly, on a hiding to more severe civil unrest, even eventual social collapse, and, as union leader Len McCluskey warned the ever-pinking, austerity-lite Labour Opposition today, a quite possible implosion of British democracy itself. That is, unless a genuine political alternative is offered to the cuts-spattered electorate to vote for in 2015.
Cameron Appoints Culture-Sceptic Sajid Javid as new Culture ‘Secateury’
With the belated resignation of Maria Miller, David Cameron promptly selected arch-Thatcherite philistine ex-banker and “self-made” multimillionaire Sajid Javid as new Culture Secretary. Recruiting against type yet again for the head of a Department traditionally treated as a ‘Cinderella’ Ministry by the Tories, Cameron has hand-picked not only a man solely qualified in the pecuniary prestidigitation of investment banking and speculation, but also one who is on record as previously suggesting that the very Department for Culture Media and Sport to which he is now been appointed should “be scrapped”. Well that’s a really good start isn’t it? Inexplicably, prime philistine Cameron saw this former comment as evidence of Javid’s exemplary credentials for becoming new Culture Secretary; that, and his professed liking for Star Trek movies and the music of U2 (well, he’s well on his way then).
And the beleaguered artists of this nation thought they’d had it pretty bad under Miller! Well, they had, of course, but then when haven’t they under “Art is all well and good, but what’s the financial return?” Tory Culture Secretaries? Miller embarked on her brief Brief by making a brazenly philistine and arts-antipathetic speech as to culture needing to be perceived as a “commodity” and justified solely on economic grounds –clearly a philistine herself, no doubt Miller remained completely unaware that she had, without any irony whatsoever, made the ultimate oratorical statement as to the commoditisation of the arts that would have been the bete noire of, among others, Thirties’ poet and polemicist Christopher Caudwell, whose Illusion & Reality denounced, in great depth and detail, such barbarian attitudes to arts and literature implicit in the makeup of capitalism. Caudwell called this the “trustification of the arts”, which he saw sprouting in incipient patches at the tapering end of the Great Depression –now we can see it becoming so marked that we are almost at a period of post-commoditisation of the arts and its unpleasant after-tremors, at the ‘alleged’ fag-end of the Great Recession.
But enough of the glacially faced, Miller; the austerity-stricken arts culture now has to contend with a new Culture Secretary who is all twinkling cufflinks, sharp suit, belligerent manner and polished bald pate. Oh, and not only that, but Javid was also one of the more hawkish of George Osborne’s Treasury ministers, who was particularly keen on even deeper benefit cuts –and if someone is to be known by the kind of friends they have, the very fact that Javid can count such an ethically despicable Chancellor as a close associate really doesn’t make for the best of character references.
Contrasting with his aristocratic mentor’s synthetic Thatcherism, Javid is, more dangerously, a literal 'Thatcher’s child', being the son of a Bristol bus-driver, who ‘worked his way up’ from a relatively poor background through an enriching City career and associated property portfolio –aggregate self-gains of the very early-Noughties boom which he now remorselessly blames Labour for having light-touch-regulated, even when, apart from ‘making his own fortune’ from it –and via the very type of parasitic financial speculation that actually triggered the financial crash (rather than Labour’s over-borrowing and overspending, as he constantly argues)– he and other Tories at the time were petitioning the Labour Government to de-regulate the sector even more! To add even more insult to injury, Javid worked for one of the banks later found guilty of “fixing” the LIBOR rate. Additionally, Javid is already being touted as a future ‘Tory leader’ with “Thatcher’s Muslim heir” as attached epithet –what a sales pitch!
Javid is one of what is called the “new right” of the younger Tory generation –think Genghis Khan in pinstripes! Bluntly, his beady-eyed demeanour replete with fashionably sandblasted head does rather call to mind a certain ‘look’ historically associated with certain other political factions of the far “right”. While it is always a good thing when the very few Tory MPs from working-class and/or ethnic minority backgrounds are promoted to Cabinet positions, it says so much about the fundamental character of most people drawn to Toryism (particularly today as it lurches furthest to the Right than it has arguably since the Hitler-appeasing Tory-led ‘National’ Government of Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s) that even the few such contenders from less advantaged/traditional ‘Tory-type’ backgrounds who have come to some prominence have –certainly within the lifetime of this particular Government– almost always demonstrated such quantum of state-hating, labour-bashing, benefits-stripping fanaticism (e.g. Warsi, Patel, and Javid et al.) as to be completely indistinguishable from the more typical ‘WASP’-type Tories parachuted into Parliament on the back of public school nepotism (e.g. Cameron, Osborne, Hunt and ‘Boris’, et al.).
In other words, very little about the attitudes and opinions of ethnic minority Tory MPs seem in any sense either typical or representative of the ethnic and cultural minorities from which they have sprung –bar the mantra of “hard work”, which, however, applies as much to the Left as it does to the Right; no matter how much the Tories like to think they’re its’ prime parliamentary champions, they are in fact quite the opposite: they are the champions of the parasitic exploitation of others’ “hard work” –i.e. capitalists– and also the defenders of inherited privilege and entitlement, and of the inalienable rights of the tax-dodging super-rich. Javid might claim to have “worked his way up”, but many wouldn’t regard financial speculation as actual “work”, let alone “hard work”, but more what it says it is: idle betting on the profits of others’ labours in a bid to “get rich quick”. And it clearly worked.
But I’ll leave this topic with the following Guardian piece by Mark Brown which reports on two swiftly condemnatory high profile literary responses to Javid’s appointment as Culture 'Secateury', from poets Blake Morrison and –Emergency Verse contributor and part-funder– Michael Rosen:
The writer Blake Morrison said on Friday that the job of culture secretary should be given to politicians with a passion for the arts, citing the "dismal" record of previous incumbents.
The comments came after children's writer Michael Rosen criticised the appointment of Sajid Javid to the post in an open letter questioning his qualifications. Rosen said he was "not holding out any hopes" that the new culture secretary would be different to previous ones.
Morrison said: "The truth is there hasn't been a culture secretary with an interest in the arts since Chris Smith.
"Once upon a time politicians seemed to read books and even write them and I guess it is symptomatic of present-day Westminster politics that they can't find culture secretaries who are interested in culture or know anything about it or for whom it is part of their life to go to the theatre or exhibitions. There just don't seem to be those people around.
"People can mug up and learn quickly but it is not what you want. You want passion and you want it to have been part of their life."
He added: "The record of culture secretaries is dismal. It seems to be a job they give to people when they can't think of what else to give them but they want to encourage their career. It doesn't count, so give them culture. It's all a bit grim."
Others in the arts community were less quick to raise alarms but said they remained cautious about the appointment. The playwright David Edgar said the best and most memorable culture secretaries were passionate about the arts. "The arts are such a weird business, basically looking at life and expressing life in another form. If you've no sense of enjoyment of that and no experience of that being transformatory then it would be like having a pacifist defence secretary."
Many in the sector were dismayed by Maria Miller's first big arts speech in which she said culture needed to be seen as a commodity and the argument for it needed to be made on economic grounds.
The actor Samuel West, who chairs the National Campaign for the Arts, said he hoped to see Javid "at lots of the UK's brilliant cultural events". He said Javid's Treasury background should ensure he understood "how much the tiny fraction of our public spending invested in the arts does for the country, both here and internationally".
But he added: "I hope Sajid Javid's first speech doesn't ask the sector to prove the 'financial value of the arts' again – I can send him at least 18 recent reports that have already proved exactly that. What's needed is a more far-sighted vision that sees the creative industries as not just profitable financially but good for people's physical and mental health, their continuing education and their sense of self. As things which bring joy."
The playwright David Greig said in Scotland they were "very blessed" to have a culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, who had a knowledge of the arts and was a regular at theatre and arts events. He said it was plain she was interested and that this was reflected in her speech that the arts should be valued because they are "our heart, our soul, our essence".
He said New Labour and the Tories had "corporatised" culture. "Nothing in the new guy's CV suggests he is going to change any of that but I don't think it's reasonable to judge anybody on what they arrive with, you have to judge on what they do."
In his open letter, Rosen questioned Javid's affinity with the arts. "You're an ex-banker who made millions during the fatal bubble of the early 21st century. You were at a bank that has been fined for rate-fixing … The fact that people like you got up to all sorts of greedy lending and fiddling is why we're in the crisis."
He added: "Perhaps you're mad keen on culture. Perhaps in between making all that money, you were hanging around galleries, theatres, cinemas, concert halls, comedy clubs, libraries, dance studios, painting classes. Perhaps you've seen how people manage on a shoe string, perhaps you've seen the awful conditions backstage in many theatres, perhaps you know about the crap wages that most people in the arts work with. Perhaps you know about the terrible crisis we have in libraries, depriving people of access to knowledge and culture.
"If you do, you'll know it's a very, very different world from the outrageous, lavish, crazy world you lived in while you were at Chase Manhattan and Deutsche banks."
The Recusant commends both Morrison and Rosen for their very public intervention on this latest trans-satirical ministerial appointment, which “sends out a clear message” from government that while “Britain is open for business”, it’s likely to be on ‘half-day closing’ for the arts –all those kinds except, of course, for the profitable. Once more under Tory rule, Britain reaffirms its historical status as “a nation of shopkeepers” and petit bourgeois money-grubbers; a society of diminishing returns and ever-diminishing culture. Over to Javid, then…
Richard Hoggart: Last of the Giant Autodidacts
Given this latest symbolic nail-in-the-coffin of British culture, it seems equally symbolic that this week saw the death of one of the last great working-class autodidacts, Richard Hoggart, writer, social documenter and author of the famous polemical work, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life (Chatto and Windus, 1957), one of the most iconic tomes to come out from the prolific sociological and polemical explosion of the post-war consensus. This is all the more symbolic for the fact that Hoggart personified the more cultured aspirations of a certain autodidactic section of the old/pre-Thatcherite working classes –in Hoggart’s case, even pre-Attleean, of the 1930s and early 40s– who saw scholarship rather than entrepreneurship as a path to a more soul-nourishing form of ‘self-betterment’; whereby the aspirational grail was the acquisition of knowledge, the sap of which was a nectar to the more inquisitive intellects of the old working classes blighted by not only literal but also educational malnutrition.
Tragically, since the philistine-materialist transmutations of Thatcherism through the Eighties, most working-class aspirations were manipulated into purely material ones. Not only did such philistine influence encourage greater ignorance among large sections of the materially upwardly mobile working classes, but it also helped to inhibit and even undo what sense of ‘class consciousness’ was left among said section of society –thus playing into the hands of capitalist interests, and uprooting cooperative and socialistic class tendencies at the very roots. Thus was the sadly efficacious directive of Thatcherism with regards to the working classes: the transplantation of cultural acquisitiveness and intellectual aspiration with material acquisitiveness and associated philistinism (most graphically expressed through the deification of football as the tribal ‘working-class religion’ –the new and very primal opium of Thatcherism’s masses, as it remains to this day).
And simultaneous to this specious uplift of the carrot-grasping portions of the working classes, was the destruction of the manufacturing and mining industries for the monetarist preference of refocusing the economy in the financial sector (culminating, ultimately, in the financial crash of 2008, for which not the capitalist classes but the poor, unemployed and incapacitated have had to pay –many with their very lives!)– all of which in turn stripped vast swathes of the working class of their only source of bargaining power: the demand for their skilled labour. It was Thatcher who sowed the seeds of today’s “bloated” welfare state and so-called “culture of benefits dependency” –and now the Tories are set on even dismantling that last port of support for the industrial proletariat their very party uprooted and atomised in the first place. Capitalism offers no compensation for those it displaces and pauperises, only further punishments.
(And this is where the timing of the death of Richard Hoggart, one of the last great working-class autodidacts, who came to prominence during the hopeful optimism of the progressive post-war consensus and its rising meritocracy, in the same week that a working-class ‘self-made’ finance man, Sajid Javid, a true ‘child’ of Thatcherism, motivated by that materialist doctrine’s purely pecuniary aspirations, is appointed the new Culture Secretary at a time of peaking cultural philistinism and rampant acquisitiveness, where the kind of educational net-holes incipiently torn in the national fabric of Hoggart’s generation, through which he was able to progress academically through a scholarship, are being rapidly patched up again with the advent of a new privatised university system of financial exclusiveness through trebled tuition fees that is destined to increasingly exclude potential students from working-class and poorer backgrounds, and thereby reassert the British anti-meritocratic, pro-nepotistic tradition of class reproduction after a clean break of four decades and a hiatus of a subsequent three).
While Hoggart’s meteoric rise through autodidactic scholarship to significant heights of academic recognition (a veritable ‘Jude’ who managed to overcome the obscurity of his origins through successful exercise of his scholarly genius) might not have been absolutely typical of a still largely public-school-educated –though more socially compassionate and progressively minded– intelligentsia, much of his outlook and polemical tilt shared comity with many of his contemporaries, even if, in Hoggart’s particular case, of an experiential –rather than empathetic– type. In these senses, Hoggart –along with peer Raymond Williams, son of a Welsh railway worker, and the younger polymath Colin Wilson, whose father worked in a Leicester shoe factory –was a kind of scholarly equivalent to the 'Angry Young Men' or ‘kitchen sink’ school of writers and playwrights of the junior rung of his generation: John Osborne, Keith Waterhouse, Allan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, John Braine, Arnold Wesker, Edward Bond, and to a slightly lesser degree, the lower-middle-class Harold Pinter et al.
Hoggart certainly had more than his share of competition: the likes of such titans of left-wing historicism and social document as Raymond Williams, J.B. Priestley, Eric Hobsbawm, A.J.P. Taylor, E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, J.H. Plumb, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Cyril Connolly, Michael Young, Peter Willmott, G.M. Trevelyan, George Thomson, Hugh Thomas, R.H. Tawney, Arnold Wesker, Humphrey Jennings, Stuart Hall, Ken Coates and Richard Silburn et al. –most of whom have long since been enshrined in the blue spines of the prolific Pelican range –many after initial publication by Victor Gollancz’ Left Book Club (1936-48)– forming a veritable library of human flourishing covering five decades of progressive thought until truncated in the definitive Thatcherite year of 1984.
Today, the soothing blue spines (or the earlier Thirties and Forties sky-blue-and-white striped covers) of such paperback relics of better times and aspirations are frequently found on the shelves of charity shops or specialist second-hand bookshops (and, fortunately, this writer has recently discovered one such emporium, UBU Books, furnished with rich seams of mostly first edition blue Pelicans and orange and purple Penguins; Christopher Hill’s classic The World Turned Upside Down (1972) being among some of his most exciting finds of late); though Pelican is apparently going to be re-launched this May with five brand new titles –a timely polemical intervention in a period which has uncanny similarities with the similarly austerity-hit decade in which the imprint was founded.
Indeed, this writer has a rather spine-creased copy of Hoggart’s beautifully written, in-depth but compendious polemical primer on the then-thorny and hardly treated subject of the social, political and cultural effects of language and literacy on the British working classes of his period (the 30s to 50s), how the exclusive lexicons of the middle classes excluded them to opportunities for self-betterment, while their own idiomatic class-vernacular liberated them in terms of self-expression, as well as enabling them to sustain a sense of comity, cameradarie and even protection through the sublimations of certain types of sub-dialects or ‘pidgin’ English (Cockney rhyming slang being one particularly mnemonically encoded example).
It’s a while since this writer read The Uses of Literacy, but as testament to the impression it had on him, his spine-chewed Pelican copy is scrawled through with pencil marks and marginalia, and concertina-d with folded page-tops. For any scholar of post-war social document –that is, contemporaneous works, rather than the vicarious nostalgia of David Kynaston’s hyper-aphorismic retro-compendiums of his highly informative, well-written, engrossing, but somewhat factually-bombarding Tales from the New Jerusalem series (Austerity Britain etc.)– Hoggart’s book is an absolute must-read, and, moreover, undoubtedly warrants re-reading at various intervals, so vast is its polemical scope, which also includes some extremely insightful experiential chapters on the author’s own working-class upbringing in Leeds during the 1930s and early 40s, his orphaned upbringing by an aunt in Hunslet, his scholarship to Leeds University, his tutorship at Hull University, and his contrapuntal propulsion into an autodidactic scholarly career thereafter, whose high watermark was, indeed, the very book in which he furnished said account.
And what a book. It comes highly recommended by The Recusant. And although Hoggart never rose to such epic heights again, he himself, recognising this, remarked once to an interviewer’s question as to why he hadn’t produced another Uses of Literacy: ‘"Did you really expect that I would?" he asked an interviewer. "I didn't. That's the sort of book that – if you're lucky – you can write once in a lifetime."’ Every person has at least one book in them, so the old axiom goes, and Richard Hoggart exemplified this epithet, against all the social, educational, cultural and material odds that capitalist society could throw at him.
We leave you with the obituary by John Ezard from The Guardian, which incorporates a potted biography of Hoggart, in its way, almost like a biography of the epic period through which he lived, he being, definitively, a man of his times. Curiously, but as is often the case in the journalistic world, obituaries are often penned proleptically, that is, prior to the actual death of the subject, but in anticipation of their impending passing, either due to extreme old age or terminal health; so, by a strange twist of fate, Hoggart’s obituarist himself, John Ezard, is also now in the posthumous tense, having died in 2010 (Hoggart’s son, Guardian political sketch writer Simon Hoggart, also predeceased him, though only by three months, having died on 6 January 2014)–this is, then, that slightly ghoulish of things, a posthumously published obituary:
Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, opened his autobiography by saying: "This is an attempt to make, out of a personal story, a sense rather more than the personal." Virtually all his writing had the same touch, and across a spread of 40 years it produced some of the most penetrating, vivid and durable cultural commentary of the time.
Hoggart's classic, The Uses of Literacy (1956), is firm in its place among the great books of the 20th century. It gave an immensely detailed picture, lit up with knowledge and affection, of British urban working-class people in the years spanning the Second World War. Hoggart caught them at the point where their lives, values and culture were being changed by postwar advertising, mass media influences and Americanisation. He was one of them and always remained so in his loyalties.
The book was at once recognised not only as "an exquisitely drawn portrait" but for its rarer trait of "complete intellectual honesty", which was to remain Hoggart's hallmark and helped him become one of the most watchful, formidable consciences of his age. Warning of a gradual process of cultural debasement – "as dangerous in its way as in totalitarian societies", the book influenced the social and political insights of a generation. It proved decisive in popularising cultural studies as an international academic discipline. It also gave him a very busy life.
When he reread the book 25 years later he said, ruefully, "Good God". This was not, he stressed, because he saw it as a work of any genius but because he realised how much time he had had, as a young, undiscovered lecturer, to write it. In his 40 working years he held down six senior full-time jobs with hardly a break. He wrote 15 books and edited more. He was an active pamphleteer, speaker and reviewer. He was also a Reith lecturer and a decisive witness in the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, which liberalised British pornography laws and was instrumental – through the Pilkington Report on Broadcasting, which he largely wrote – in creating BBC2 as a quality television channel.
He worked untiringly on cultural quangos for lifelong causes, which included public libraries, adult education and the arts. He was Arts Council vice-chairman until Margaret Thatcher sacked him in 1982. At home he was a conscientious DIY man. Several friends saw his workload as evidence of unfocused energy. The poet Philip Larkin felt he should have stuck to writing. But Hoggart said he never had the nerve to go freelance because of his insecure early life. He admitted to the lack of a clear sense of direction coupled with "a drive to go on, usually to the point of overworking".
Late in life he wondered if his readiness to serve on committees was a by-product of a childhood that had left him "unusually glad to find myself wanted". Yet he was sceptical about the idea that these compulsions had stopped him from producing another Uses of Literacy. "Did you really expect that I would?" he asked an interviewer. "I didn't. That's the sort of book that – if you're lucky – you can write once in a lifetime."
He never found writing easy. All his book chapters went through multiple drafts, and sometimes this made them discursive and digressive; he had a weakness for lists and for over-elaborating on the importance of Woolworths in working-class life. He called the process "panning for gold". At its best it produced 24-carat material, from The Uses of Literacy to Townscape with Figures (1994), his retirement portrait of Farnham, Surrey. An anthology of the best of Hoggart, culled from all his other volumes, would produce a work longer than The Uses of Literacy.
He could often be a more responsive and warmer essayist than George Orwell, with all of Orwell's eye for the main point. He tried to be rigorously unsentimental. But one can still hear, across the decades, the great proud lift in his voice as he wrote the last sentence of his famous passage about liberty, equality and fraternity among the working classes: "As for fraternity, they have lived that out day by day for centuries," he wrote.
The hallmark of his writing was a sensitivity rare in English prose: an almost unfailingly respectful attention (or "reverence", as he sometimes put it) to the speech and writing of people in all walks of life, coupled with a poet's sense of the nuances of such language. He treated the commonplaces of life as though they could bear the intense scrutiny that a literary critic would bring to a great work of literature. And often they could bear this weight, as his work proved. In 1998 he wrote the introduction to the Guardian's yearly anthology of its writing. What he generously said about the paper is true also of his own life's effort: "A newspaper such as this has to have above all a hinterland, a background, body, bottom, moral texture, rather than merely a daily succession of rhetorical 'ooh-ahs'. It says implicitly: 'There is more to life ...' "
The grandson of a boilermaker, Hoggart was born in the Potternewton district of Leeds, one of three children in an extremely poor family. His father, a housepainter and regular soldier both in the Boer war and in the 1914-18 conflict, died of brucellosis when his son was only a year old. "When I see – or see film of – a driven bird flying to its nest and anxiously, earnestly feeding the open mouths, the image of our mother comes to mind," Hoggart wrote. "When you have seen a woman standing frozen, while tears start slowly down her cheeks because a sixpence has been lost ... you do not easily forget."
His mother died of a chest illness when he was eight. The children were split up. He was taken to live with a loving, widowed grandmother in an overcrowded Hunslet back-to-back which had one pretension – the only mains-connected bathroom in the street. The household's driving force was his fierce Aunt Ethel, a tailor who, when a headteacher picked him out as a promising pupil, began to realise he might break out of their class.
He grew up healthy, mainly cheerful, and tough. His elder brother, Tom, became the first Hoggart to go to a grammar school. Richard was the second, helped by hardship grants from bodies such as the Board of Guardians and the Royal British Legion. He failed the 11-plus maths paper, but got a scholarship on the strength of his English essay, supported by a plea from his elementary school headteacher. Although at the age of 13 he had a brief nervous breakdown through overwork, he went on to win a distinction at the equivalent of O-level maths.
That close squeak helped shape his support, as an adult, for comprehensive schools. His scholarship, as he later discovered, was one of only 30 available pre-war for a catchment of 65,000 children of his age. While Cockburn grammar school eventually took the boy out of Hunslet, he never let it take Hunslet out of the boy. The ways of his aunts and their extended society, with their acknowledged limitations, gave him an unbreakable bond of affection and an inexhaustible resource on which to draw.
In 1936 Hoggart won one of 47 Leeds University scholarships available to his generation of 8,000 18-year-olds. At a freshers' party he met his future wife, Mary, the daughter of teachers. He got a rare first in English but while doing an MA thesis was called up to fight in the second world war. This meant six years in the social mix of the Royal Artillery as an anti-aircraft gunner. Serving in North Africa and Italy, and working in education and intelligence, he ended in the junior officer class as a staff captain.
Afterwards, like Raymond Williams and EP Thompson, he became part of the post-war explosion in adult education as an extramural tutor at Hull University for 13 years. In 1951 he published his first book, a full-length study of WH Auden's poetry. Then The Uses of Literacy changed his life. About some trends the book proved uncannily far-seeing. Writing a year after the launch of commercial television, well before Rupert Murdoch and multi-channels, he argued: "There are many who can take cultural debasement remarkably easily. They are not closely acquainted with the mass-produced entertainment which daily visits most people. In this way it is possible to live in a sort of clever man's paradise, without any real notion of the force of the assault outside."
The Uses of Literacy caught the experience of a subsequent generation of scholarship boys, far bigger than his own, who had graduated from grammar schools since the 1944 Education Act. Hoggart, though no ideologist, was haphazardly bracketed as part of the cultural "new left" with Williams, Thompson, Perry Anderson, Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, Alan Sillitoe, Stuart Hall and others regarded as prophets of a resurgent class. He put the class terms "them" and "us" into political currency.
After publication of his great work, he took up position as a senior lecturer in English at the University of Leicester, cherished for his accessibility to students, and in 1962 became professor of English at the University of Birmingham. There, with Hall, he founded and was first director of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which set out to tackle the old British separation between high culture and "real" life, between the historic past and the contemporary world. The project blended three approaches: historical-philosophical, sociological and – most important to Hoggart – literary–critical. In its early days it was described as "an experiential, even autobiographical way of examining culture and class-consciousness". After Hoggart left, it took on a neo-Marxist direction.
In 1969, at the age of 51, he was offered three jobs at once: an Australian vice-chancellorship, a New York professorship and an assistant director-generalship at Unesco. Hoggart puzzled friends by choosing Unesco. He travelled three times round the world but was appalled by what he regarded as the misconduct, bureaucracy, infighting and laziness he found within the organisation. In 1975 he resigned and wrote a critical book about it, An Idea and Its Servants (1978).
More vice-chancellorships and chairs were offered. But he chose for family reasons to be warden of Goldsmiths College in London, a "good-hearted place" in which to end his career. He set up its National Centre for Orchestral Studies and continued to "overwork" on official committees. As a close to a career, it was a diminuendo. His scrupulous, exploratory, fraternal style was never cut out for a great public role. Yet his books carry on selling and his ideas have entered the bloodstream of English discussion.
He is survived by Mary and their children Nicola and Paul, three granddaughters, five grandsons, a great-granddaughter and a great-grandson. Their son Simon, the Guardian's parliamentary sketch writer, died in January.
• Richard Hoggart, author and teacher, born 24 September 1918; died 10 April 2014
Sue Townsend: Molehills Out of Mountains
Finally, The Recusant also pays tribute to children’s author Sue Townsend, who passed away this week aged 68. Townsend’s grittily escapist Adrian Mole books –The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ (1982) and The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984)– were veritable thumbing pick-me-ups -in the days before the mass prescription of antidepressants to numb and incubate depressions mostly caused by societal iniquities- for those adolescents brought up on the wrong side of the fence in Thatcher’s Britain.
Later in the decade came the televised series, starring Gian Sammarco as the angst-ridden teenager growing up in the town of Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicester. Among other symbolic rebellions, Mole paints his bedroom black in a fit of pubescent moroseness. But the books and the series were, like much of the cultural product of that polarising period, implicitly polemical, the adumbrations of the Thatcherite experiment –stampeding unemployment, atomised communities and a general atmosphere of hopelessness and despair– part of the backdrop as if always threatening to spill into the narratives.
Townsend’s real gift was to draw out sometimes side-splitting black comedy from such tragic scenarios: the scene which most sticks in my own mind is when Mole comes home from school –a drab, Brutalist state comprehensive, naturally– to find his unemployed father (played by Eighties’ TV stalwart Stephen ‘voice of Marvin the Paranoid Android’ Moore with his typical gift for helpless dishevelment) stood in front of the TV tentatively attempting to mimic a tree on the instructions of a Play School presenter’s soothing tones; he performs this almost in an hypnotic state of unoccupied lassitude, until he’s caught mid-branching arms when his son comes into the room, which snaps him out of his almost trance-like state.
Given Townsend’s strong social conscience (she was very public about her socialism), it’s difficult not to see this scene as a metaphor for the hopelessness of long-term unemployment. The hypnopompic responses of Mole’s unemployed father now seem in retrospect symbolic of the string-manipulations of capitalist puppetry; not to say for the kind of automaton depersonalisation of the ‘proletariat’ under capitalism (Mole’s family is described as ‘skilled working class/ lower-middle class’), which supremely alienates workers from their own skills and talents, then only to berate and punish them for their subsequent occupational paralyses. In these senses too, such scenes served as a kind of children’s corner parallel to the more ghoulish anomies of ‘Yosser’ Hughes from Alan Bleasdale’s contemporaneous Boys from the Blackstuff (1980-82). The early Eighties was a pretty hostile time to be among “Maggie’s millions”, with an unsympathetic state telling people to “get on their bikes” while simultaneously puncturing their tyres.
Such aspects to Townsend’s narratives were particularly poignant at the time the series was broadcast (1985), and for some years afterwards, certainly in my own experience too: my father, through no fault of his own and in spite of his best efforts to find work, was periodically unemployed during the dark days of the late Eighties. Perhaps like most children growing up in such insecure and unsettling conditions so commonplace back then –and, again, today– the grim realities of relative poverty, familial strain and depressed unemployed fathers that featured in much of the otherwise highly witty Mole scenarios was a little too close to home to find full escape in (though no doubt the upwardly mobile middle classes of the time could enjoy a vicarious ‘poverty fix’ through the series, in the same manner that the more well-heeled of the Sixties and early Seventies were titillated by the often hopelessly depressing antics of penny-scraping rag-and-bone men Steptoe & Son, or, less figuratively and more viscerally, the gentrified lounges of the metropolitan elites are entertained with the “poverty porn” of the likes of Benefits Street or Saints and Scroungers).
But then this was seemingly part of the point to Townsend’s social-realist approach to children’s writing, and in those senses her books serve, in part, as a kind of satirical social document. The adolescent lens through which the narratives unfold can also, retrospectively, be seen as in itself metaphorical for a period of societal and economical puberty: the ‘growing pains’ induced in the less adept of the populace at the painful and abrupt change to a de-industrialised, privatised and compassionless new social order architected by the acquisitive and vindictive (anti-)‘values’ of Thatcherism. In these respects, this was, oppositely, a period of senescence for the soon-obsolete social-democratic ‘post war consensus’ of which Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan had been as much of a champion as the Labour Clement Attlee government which had architected it with the birth of the Welfare State and the NHS.
But since the Eighties was the time of germination for Thatcherite ideas –i.e. rampant though they were, they’d not yet been active for long enough to have completely inculcated the entire attitudinal fabric of British society (although it wasn’t long until they did –and certainly the Thatcher’s third term sealed this destiny) and there was still a seam of significant intellectual and attitudinal resistance. Much of this resistance expressed itself through the freshly insurgent medium of what was then-termed “alternative comedy” –and certainly Adrian Mole, albeit ostensibly for children, was unmistakably a part-product of this new and rather bittersweet type of politicised humour (other comedies or comedy dramas of the period –the mid-to-late Eighties– also reflected such sweet-and-sourness of humour, such as Auf Wiedersehen Pet, which was almost like a light-entertainment take on Bleasdale, and lesser known sitcoms such as Comrade Dad, which consciously chafed against the right-wing ideas of the time by provocatively depicting a Soviet England of the near-future where the proletariat diet almost entirely revolves around evermore creative uses of beetroot).
But on the subject of unemployment, and, much less often discussed than it should be, its perennial inter-relationship with the incipient careers of struggling writers and the future published, particularly ironic in the rags-to-riches cases of future bestselling authors, Townsend had more than her share of personal run-ins with a dilapidated welfare system before she fully ‘made it’ as a popular novelist. Indeed, it’s also hugely significant that two of the most popular children’s book icons of the past four decades of post-Thatcherite society –the similarly spectacled Adrian Mole and Harry Potter– were the products of the giro-charged imaginations of two mothers struggling with tight budgets and stigmas under a punitive benefits system: though Potterology is loathe to ever signpost it, J.K. Rowling was an unemployed single mother on benefits when she penned the iconic character’s first quixotic outing.
It’s to Rowling’s considerable credit that, subsequent to her astronomical success, she has spoken out on several occasion specifically against this Government’s demonisation of single unemployed mothers and the scabrous rhetorical persecution of the unemployed in general as “scroungers”. This has also expressed itself through Rowling’s post-Potter socio-polemical novel, The Casual Vacancy (actually, I believe, the first book she wrote, though, ironically, only marketable now it is tagged by her post-Potter apotheosised ‘name’), based on her own experiences as a stigmatised unemployed struggling single mother in an unsympathetic community. (It's so true that everyone has a book in them, once they've got the Roald Dahl/Enid Blyton/J.R.R. Tolkein pastiching potboilers out of their systems!).
But Rowling’s own curious record had already adumbrated by Townsend, who also published a much lesser-known polemical pamphlet, Mr Bevan’s Dream: Why Britain Needs Its Welfare State (Chatto counterblasts, Chatto & Windus, 1989), an empirical extract from which, originally published in The Observer in 1989, was reproduced in said paper this week, to accompany her obituary. It is a particularly poignant extract, not to say, a still painfully apposite one in today’s even more punishing benefits system:
We were waiting at the bus stop. "If the conductor asks how old you are, tell him you're four," I instructed my five-year-old son. All I had in my purse was 11 pence. Enough for my fare into town but not his half fare.
Throughout the journey he asked in a voice that could cut through limestone: "Am I four or five?"
"Four," I mumbled, looking at the conductor. We were on our way to the town hall. Our party consisted of me, the five-year-old boy, the two-year-old boy and my baby daughter. For a treat we sat upstairs on the bus. When we passed Leicester prison my eldest son shouted: "Daddy lives there, doesn't he, mummy?" His podgy finger pointed at the forbidding building. I was now tired of this family joke. My ex-husband was not and has never been in prison, but naturally the other passengers on the bus were not to know this.
The five-year-old is now 24 and has (in my opinion) an unhealthy obsession with Kafka. I blame this on his earlier, obsessive interest in Leicester prison – which looks like a sinister Ruritanian castle.
The four of us were on our way to collect our weekly maintenance. I was expecting £9. It wasn't there. The woman behind the grille looked through a large ledger. "No," she said. "No money has been paid in."
I didn't know what to do. I asked her advice. "You must go to the Social Security office," she said. She gave me the address. I ran across the town, pushing the little ones in the pushchair and urging the five-year-old to pretend he was in a running race. We got there at about a quarter to four. The office was up three flights of filthy stairs. The lift was out of order. Precious time passed getting the children up the stairs.
We were given a number and told to wait. It was an awful room: the walls and the seats were institutional orange, the floor consisted of fag holes, and there were no ashtrays, although most of the claimants were smoking. The receptionist sat behind a glass screen. I had to bellow to be heard. "I've got no money."
I gave my name and address. She frowned. "You're in the wrong office." The office I wanted was on the other side of town; it closed at 5.30. It was now five o'clock, the children were hungry, the baby was crying. I was near to tears myself. We reached the other office at 5.20pm. This new waiting-room was worse than the earlier one. It was an older building, the one where the winos and tramps were registered.
There was an air of panic in the room, and a pool of vomit in the corner. I had 10 minutes in which to state my case and leave – with money in my pocket. I needed the bus fare and money to buy food. As before, I was given a number and told to wait. I explained I couldn't wait, I needed 50p in cash. An emergency payment. "We'll send it to you," I was told.
"In a few days, when we've looked into your case. We need your birth certificate, marriage certificate, and a copy of your legal separation documents." I agreed to bring these documents in the next day. But in the meantime I had no bus fare – how would I get home, and how would I feed my children?
"Haven't you got any relatives who'll lend you some money?" said the young man behind the desk. It is impossible to convey to somebody who has money and no children the nightmare of having children and no money. I knew nobody who was on the telephone at that time. I couldn't even reverse the charges and ask for help.
I couldn't face walking the five miles home. I begged the young man for 50p, but he wouldn't relent. The staff in the back office started to put their coats on and tidy their desks. Half-past five arrived. Most of the people in the waiting room were ushered out. Others, desperate like me, stayed – explaining – some in tears, others shouting, that they hadn't eaten, had nowhere to stay. It was bedlam. My children were hot and thirsty. Could I give them a glass of water? "No," the office was now closed.
"You lend me 50p – as a person, you'll get it back," I said.
"No," he said. "Where would it end if I started to do that?"
I wanted to tell him that I was a literate and intelligent person, not just the young mother of those crying children – for Christ's sake, I had read every page of War and Peace. When I could afford it I read the Guardian. I was a Bessie Smith fan. I had won several prizes for verse speaking. I could read a menu in French. A poet had been in love with me. I knew how to spell and pronounce Dostoevsky. I had worked hard since I was 15. I had paid my taxes and my national insurance. I had never broken the law and all I wanted from the welfare state was a stinking, lousy, sodding 50p. I didn't get it.
It is a terrible thing to see your mother crying. I tried very hard, I contorted my face this way and that but eventually, when we were out on the street, the tears came. The four of us walked along – a quartet of cry-babies.
I was too proud to stop passers-by and ask for help. I scanned the pavements looking for money. Instead I found lemonade bottles, Corona brand. There was a returnable deposit of 4p on each bottle. My eldest son cheered up; he knew that these bottles represented hard cash. My pride vanished, I looked in litter bins, I looked over walls and behind fences. Soon we had enough for my bus fare, and then we had enough for four ice lollies – don't anybody dare to even think that those children should have been given something healthy to eat.
When we got home I bathed the children, and, when they were clean and shining in their pyjamas, I said we were going to have a special treat for dinner. I emptied the food cupboard of its contents. It didn't take long. There was a packet of beef suet, a tin of golden syrup, a tin of peas and one Oxo cube. For dinner we had pea soup (put another pea in the soup, Mother) and the golden roly-poly. My eldest child still remembers this meal. We laid a tablecloth on the living-room floor and ate in picnic fashion.
Late that night I put a note out for the milkman asking him to leave bread, butter and eggs, and in the morning our breakfast was waiting on the doorstep. Milkmen are a good source of credit. God bless them every one.
Later that day I rang the town hall. There was still no money, so I went back to the Social Security office. My family lent me £5. My friend looked after the children. I took my documents, but most important of all I put a copy of that day's Guardian on the counter between me and the young counter clerk. He talked to me with considerably more respect than he had done the day before. A fat lot of good it did me; my social security payment took nine days to arrive, but by then I had taken three part-time jobs and employed two young girls as baby-sitters, and the system had beaten me. I became a working mother.
I would like to report that the DSS conducts itself with more humanity today, but I can't because it doesn't.
In early January 1989 I read a report in the local paper. It said that a man had gone berserk in a DSS office. He'd broken the office Christmas tree and stamped on the glass baubles. My second son was in the waiting room with a friend; he'd already told me about this unhappy scene. Apparently the man had been waiting two weeks for a promised giro. He was married with children, he'd been sacked from his job as a hosiery mechanic and like all sacked people, he was refused dole. He was desperate for money, it was two days before Christmas.
The counter staff told him it was in the Christmas post; they had been telling him this for eight days. The man had tried telephoning but the DSS phone lines were permanently engaged. Finally, in bad temper, knowing there were only two shopping days before Christmas, he had got on a bus and come in person for his money. In court he was described as being "of previous good character". But in the DSS office he turned into Dr Jekyll, he started to shout.
The police were sent for. When they arrived he tried to explain his case. They wouldn't listen, they started to push him out. He refused to leave without his money, they pushed harder. The Christmas tree was knocked over, the man stumbled and fell amongst the glass baubles which had fallen with the tree. Soon wild confusion reigned, the man, the policeman, the DSS staff and a few disgruntled DSS petitioners fought amongst the pine needles. Quite soon the man was overcome, arrested, and taken to the police station.
He was charged with assaulting the police, resisting arrest, and criminal damage to a Christmas tree and decorations. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. I don't know how much it cost the state to prosecute the poor man and lock him up, but I'm sure, absolutely positive, that it would have cost at least a hundred times more than his paltry, delayed, giro.
The DSS offices are not given enough funding, their staff are poorly paid and are driven to distraction by the amount of work they have to do. There is frequent turnover of staff. Morale is extremely low. Working with desperate people all day is very dispiriting; their unhappiness rubs off on you. For the sake of self-preservation you develop a thicker skin, you come to regard the claimants as the enemy. Because they are inarticulate in the presence of articulate officialdom, you do not respect them and habitually talk to them as though they are of lower intelligence than yourself. You are frightened of them, and all your communication takes place behind a glass screen. The furniture they sit on is screwed down because, in the past, this furniture has been thrown at you.
They offend you in their poverty, you despise their clothes and their shoes. Some of them smell and have disgusting personal habits. That is why it is impossible to allow them free access to the lavatory; why they must queue up and ask for the key.
Nobody goes to a DSS office to ask for state benefits if they are well and happy and employed. Nobody needs to. There is no need to have vile surroundings and seemingly uncaring staff as a disincentive.
People down on their luck deserve the best: beautiful surroundings and well-paid professional staff to help them out of their difficulties. Why not train thousands more social workers and let them sit in on claimants' interviews? Most social problems could be helped or prevented if people had more money and practical advice. The present benefits system is unfair, inefficient, and totally unprofessional; which is why millions of people do not claim the benefits to which they are legally entitled.
There is hysterical emphasis today on preventing the abuse of the system by a tiny proportion of fraudsters (known as scroungers). But the abuse lies elsewhere; in the Department of Social Security. They do not aid their staff or their clients' health, and they undermine everyone's security.
This is an edited extract from Mr Bevan's Dream by Sue Townsend.
But her obituary, by The Guardian’s Kate Kellaway, is just as instructive, and it’s included here since it also includes much further detail about Townsend and her career not touched on in my own tribute:
Sue Townsend, who has died aged 68 after suffering from a stroke, was one of Britain’s most celebrated comic writers: novelist, playwright and journalist. She was best known for the fictional diaries of Adrian Mole, a character who, unlike Peter Pan, is allowed to grow up, evolving from the penis-measuring adolescent who confides “I was racked with sexuality but it wore off when I helped my father put manure on our rose bed” in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ (1982) to the middle-aged and, Townsend liked to insist, more evolved and better-dressed bloke who survives prostate cancer in Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years (2009).
The glory of Mole is his inability to see the funny side, his self-importance and the way in which his diaries unwittingly accommodate his creator’s social commentary. The first book, which in the 80s made Townsend the decade’s bestselling novelist, took a shrewd look at Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. In Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years (1999) she took on New Labour with equivalent relish. Mole was a hapless Blairite, in love with Pandora Braithwaite, on-message MP. By the time of his last sighting he was living with his dissatisfied wife, Daisy, in a converted pigsty.
The Mole books have been translated into 48 languages and sold more than 10m copies. Adrian’s career has extended to radio and television adaptations and he has been a smash hit in the West End. “Adrian Mole, c’est moi,” Townsend said when I interviewed her in 2010.
Unlike Adrian, she could spot a joke a mile off. Her ability to entertain without compromising her integrity was a gift that defined her and her writing. And she was not in the least self-important.
Townsend was born in Leicester, the eldest of five sisters. Her father worked in a jet-engine factory and became a postman when it closed. Her mother worked in the factory canteen. At Glen Hills primary school, Townsend was terrorised by a teacher who, when children had failed to master their lessons, would slap their legs and make them do handstands.
She could not read until she was eight. It was her mother who taught her, with Richmal Crompton’s William books – the inspiration for Adrian. After failing the 11-plus, she went to a secondary modern, South Wigston high school. She left at 15 but kept reading. She devoured Woolworth’s Classics (Jane Eyre, Heidi and co) and moved on to Russian and American literature.
As a chain-smoking teenager, dressed in black, she was fired from a job in a clothes shop for reading Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol in the changing rooms. From the age of 14 she was also writing in secret.
By the time she was 18, she had married a sheet-metal worker and, by 22, had three children under five: Sean, Daniel and Victoria. She lived on the Saffron Lane estate, not far from the house in which the playwright Joe Orton – another of Leicester’s claims to literary fame – had grown up. When, after seven years, her marriage ended, she worked in assorted part-time jobs: at a petrol station, as a receptionist and for Birds Eye foods.
The toughness of that time was something she never underplayed. She remembered making pea soup for her children out of one Oxo cube and a tin of garden peas. Although her books later made her fortune, she said that no amount of balsamic vinegar or Prada handbags would make her forget what it was like to be poor.
Through one of her many jobs, at an adventure playground, she enrolled on a canoeing course, where she found herself attracted to the man running it – initially by the way he tried to take off a jumper while simultaneously smoking a Woodbine. This was Colin Broadway, who was to become her second husband and father of her fourth child, Elizabeth. It was he who encouraged her, in 1975, to join a local writers’ group at the Phoenix arts theatre in Leicester.
There she wrote her first play, Womberang, set in a gynaecology clinic, which won the 1979 Thames Television Playwright award and gave her a bursary at the theatre. Soon afterwards she dug out Adrian – or Nigel, as he was in his earliest incarnation – from the cupboard in which he had, for years, been snoozing.
She showed the script to the actor Nigel Bennett, who recommended it to John Tydeman, then deputy head of radio drama at the BBC. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 and its success as a radio drama led Methuen to offer to publish the novel, insisting that Nigel be renamed Adrian (to avoid clashing with Ronald Searle and Geoffrey Willans’s Nigel Molesworth).
For some years, in Who’s Who Townsend listed her interests as “mooching about, reading, looking at pictures, canoeing”. But all these, apart from the mooching, were to be sabotaged by illness. She had TB peritonitis at 23, a heart attack in her 30s, and Charcot joint degenerative arthritis, which meant she had to use a wheelchair. She described herself as the “world’s worst diabetic” – finding the disease hard to manage. In the 1990s, she started to lose her sight. In 2001, she was registered blind and although, characteristically, she made jokes about it, she also wrote about the sense of loss, the disappearance of detail, the misery of suddenly finding she could no longer distinguish between a daffodil and a tulip.
She talked about what it felt like to “throw words into the dark”. She dictated all her later books – usually to her son Sean. In 2007, she suffered kidney failure (also diabetes-related) and was put on dialysis. In 2009, after a two-year wait for a donor, she had a transplant when Sean donated a kidney. In 2013, she suffered a stroke.
She did not appreciate being hailed as “brave” – pointing out that she had no choice about her blindness. But her writerly staying power and the continuing buoyancy of her prose were remarkable. She used her poor health and failing sight in the novels (Adrian’s cancer and his friend Nigel’s blindness, for starters). In addition to the Mole books, she wrote half a dozen novels, most notably Ghost Children (1997) about the psychological effects of abortion, The Queen and I (1992) in which the Queen, after a revolution, is compelled to live on benefits (the novel became a play in 1994, starring Pam Ferris and directed by Max Stafford-Clark) and its sequel, Queen Camilla (2006), in which Britain is run by Jack Barker’s Cromwell party and talking corgis provide the commentary.
She wrote a dozen plays and two works of non-fiction, and was a prolific journalist, writing for the Observer, the Sunday Times and the Daily Mail, and contributing an Adrian Mole column to the Guardian, The Secret Diary of a Provincial Man (1999-2001).
A lifelong socialist, Townsend made no secret of her disappointment in New Labour. She wrote repeatedly about the way ordinary lives are disfigured by politics. While her books made her fortune, the money did not bring about any change of heart. She lived in a Victorian vicarage outside Leicester and championed the city; she also bought two pubs that would otherwise have closed down. She enthusiastically backed Leicester's bid to become City of Culture in 2017 (it did not succeed, but gave rise to a programme of events starting this summer).
In 2009, she was given the freedom of Leicester. She was an honorary fellow at its university, a doctor of letters at Loughborough University and a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Townsend's last novel, The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year (2012), was her darkest. It is about a middle-aged librarian who, when her children leave for university, climbs between the sheets, and stays there. She has her bedroom painted luminously white (in contrast to Adrian’s all-black teenage bolt hole) and decides to shed all her possessions. It is a fresh start – of sorts. And as Townsend had done in the Mole books, she made an invisible character visible.
A.M. 11-14 April 2014