The death of custom "The remnants of what was at least in part an urban culture 'of the people' are being destroyed." Richard Hoggart, 1957. That was then. DJ Taylor sees how things stand now, in the era of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Rupert Murdoch guardian.co.uk, Saturday 11 November 2000 01.35 GMT If one wanted to settle on the most "influential" book of the immediately postwar era - there is a strong case for Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, first published in 1957. The Hoggart thesis has suffered so often at the hands of sympathetic commentators anxious to prove the negative effects of mass culture on "ordinary life" that it is worth restating it in the author's own terms. His argument was not, as he put it, "that there was, in England one generation ago, an urban culture still very much 'of the people' and that now there is only a mass urban culture." Rather, it was that the appeals made by what he called "the mass publicists" were made "more insistently, effectively and in a more comprehensive and centralised form today than they were earlier; that we are moving towards the creation of a mass culture, that the remnants of what was at least in part an urban culture "of the people" are being destroyed". In his studies of cheap novels and magazines, popular newspapers and postwar cinema, Hoggart detected drift on almost every side. The old, close, tightly-knit working-class culture of stuffy front rooms, allotments, back-to-back housing and charabang trips was breaking up. In its place was emerging a mass culture composed of tabloid newspapers, advertising and Hollywood. Forty years later, it is important to realise that what Hoggart is complaining about is not popular culture - defined as the ordinary routines of working-class life - but mass culture. This is a serious distinction. After all, when an early 21st century critic laments the victory of "popular culture", the chances are that he or she means McDonald's, Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mirror - in other words something that is imposed on the populace from above. The value that Hoggart found in "popular" culture, whether lived out in working men's clubs or around the family hearth, lay in what he saw as its fundamental integrity, but also in the fact that it was self-created, evolving according to its own laws and dictates rather than at the promptings of the mass media. Using this as a yardstick, it is tempting to wonder whether such a thing as "popular culture" still exists, whether TV, the VCR and the Kentucky Fried Chicken bar on every corner haven't simply ironed out genuine manifestations of popular will and choice into a uniform consumerist whole. At the same time, the cultural landscape of the past five decades is littered with the bones of more or less unforced manifestations of popular taste. Practically any musical movement of the last 40 years, for example, can be traced back to a crucible far beneath the mass-cultural assembly line. The early 60s beat boom, and by extension the Beatles, began with merchant seamen bringing back obscure American rhythm 'n' blues records back to Merseyside. "Mod" started life in a handful of west London pubs, just as a dozen years later punk rock crawled off the streets of London and Manchester, and a dozen years after that the popularity of a new kind of dance music and the availability of a new kind of recreational drug combined to produce Acid House. The essential element of these movements was that no one - no music press journalist or marketing baron - had foreseen them. They had simply taken root somewhere in the subculture before growing to the point where the media was prepared to take an interest. It hardly needs saying, of course, that "media interest" nearly always means an immediate expropriation and assimilation by the mass culture. But very occasionally, a genuinely "popular" phenomenon manages to survive and prosper beyond the constricting net of the mass culture and the mass audience. A good example from the world of music might be the "Northern Soul" movement of the 60s and 70s. Centred on the famous Wigan Casino and various other up-country venues, based on rosters of little-known records imported from the States, it inspired a fanatical following of weekending dancers and its own patterns and rituals, without ever finding the wider commercial interest to extend it beyond its original base. Elsewhere, if any of the threads of the genuine "popular culture" whose disappearance Hoggart was regretting 40 years ago still exist, they do so far out of sight, deep down on the factory floor or the street corner - in hobbies and small-scale activities that the tabloid newspapers and television have never approached. Oddly enough, out beyond the cultural horse collar of the M25, there are still substantial numbers of people taking part in Cumberland wrestling, pigeon racing, caged-bird fancying and whippet- rearing. Such things go unreported and unexploited by the mass media merely because there is no money in them, but they are there. Even a car boot sale, that odd 80s version of the street market, represents "popular culture" at work at the most basic level: something self-creating and with its own private ordinances. Richard Hoggart would probably be appalled to think that the, undoubtedly limited, but also warm and comfortable working-class world he described in The Uses of Literacy should come to rest in a semi-circle of hucksters selling counterfeit videos from the backs of cars. But given the ravages that mass culture has wrought on our national life in the past half-century, even this is a survival of a sort.
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