Book review: Stuart Hall – Familiar Stranger (Penguin)

Stuart Hall – born Jamaica 1932, moved to study English Literature at Oxford Univ 1951, became active in the New Left and CND from mid-50s onwards, godfather of Cultural Studies at Birmingham Univ from mid-60s – famous for his “Forward March of Labour Halted” thesis and analysis of Thatcherism in 80s (particularly in then-trendy Marxism Today magazine) – died 2014. This book is his memoir, written up from interviews/conversations, covering his life but mostly the development of his thinking up to the mid-60s, at which point he was getting married, committing to staying and working in UK. It’s fascinating to read someone so versed in theory and consideration reflecting on his life, from feeling like a middle class outsider in pre-WWII colonial Jamaica, to feeling like an outsider at post-war Oxford, in the social/intellectual heart of the colonial power – and eventually finding himself at home in the British new left intelligensia, reconciled to being part of a Caribbean diaspora still defining itself. Again, another book that demonstrates how easy it is to know very little about recent history, or about the wider history of the slave and sugar trades, the British “Empire” and the ways in which those relationships continue to distort Britain itself (and its deliberate avoidance of understanding itself). It might be nice to know more of the personal details or tribulations or successes of his life, but his main concern is to describe his intellectual development, with quite occasional digressions into everyday details. But I ws glad to discover that he was also a keen jazz pianist, inspired by Parker and Monk and Coltrane. I’m hoping there will be a second volume to follow – but in the meantime, I wish I could retrieve my (long-disposed-of) old copies of Marxism Today and New Left Review from the 1980s, and recover his analyses. A writer worth reading. And not to be confused with…

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