Remembering Stuart Hood

by Peter Lewis, London Metropolitan University
January 2012

I read Brian Winston’s fascinating obituary of Stuart Hood (Guardian, 22 December 2011) with sadness, surprise and a touch of guilt. Surprise that his death had not been reported till now, sadness and guilt because we had been colleagues at Goldsmiths in the 1980s and I had failed to keep in touch since then. We were not close – it was difficult to get close to a man for whom reserve was “a defence against the world” – but I felt I knew something about him before we first met. I had read his autobiographical account of wartime action with the Italian Resistance, Pebbles from my Skull, when it first came out in 1963. (It was republished with an Afterword as Carlino in 1985). The next year he left the BBC to come as Programme Controller to Rediffusion where I worked in the Schools Television Department. His arrival meant I was demoted from the library’s reading list of The Listener: ‘1: S.Hood, 2: P.Lewis 3: return to Library.’ The copy would arrive sometimes weeks later with intriguing annotations in red ink, suggestive of programme ideas.  Ten years later, I encountered him in the smoke-filled meetings of the Free Communications Group, then from 1980 we taught in the Visual Communications Department at Goldsmiths. The College’s new joint degree in Communications with Sociology had got approval from Senate House too late for advertising in UCCA so recruitment came mainly through an ad in Time Out. The Time Out year, as they became known, were a diverse, mature and talented group, some of whom after graduation formed the company, Pictures of Women, won a commission from the new Channel 4 and hired Stuart as an adviser.

His wide experience, mediated through quiet dialogue in seminars and distilled in lucid lectures, often without notes, often supported by documentation from his broadcast days, won the students’ respect. I remember an astonishing, seemingly ad lib, performance to a first year course introducing Marxism and media studies which ran for an hour and a quarter. A public lecture on John Reith explicitly drew the parallel with his own Presbyterian upbringing, echoed in the novels he wrote in this fruitful period. For me and others in the community radio movement, his translation of Brecht’s ‘Talk on the function of Radio’, first published in Screen (vol 20, no 3/4,1980) became a much-quoted founding document, and On Television was a timely addition to the degree’s reading list. He took his part in the NATFHE struggles forced upon us by the College management’s behaviour and it was in this period that some of us got a little closer to him over meals. I remember a delicious fish lunch he cooked for us in Brighton, and being gratified for his praise for a meal I served colleagues (“I didn’t know you were a cook”) – actually straight from a Sainsbury cookbook.

After reading Brian Winston’s obituary I went back to my copy of Carlino and realised I had either forgotten, or perhaps not even read at the time of first buying the book, its Epilogue (from which the above reference to reserve is taken) and the Afterword. These fascinating few pages of reflection enable me to get a little closer to Stuart. He discusses the motive for his reticence about his political position – to the Italian partisans at the time and in his original account, written while still at the BBC. “It would have been difficult for an executive of the BBC to admit that he had for some years been an active member of the Young Communist League and then of the Party.” (It  was more than a decade later that the ‘Christmas tree’ was revealed as the coded symbol attached to the personnel file of BBC staff who were of interest to MI5).  He describes his return with his wife in 1981 to the Tuscan village where a family had sheltered him in 1944, a return made partly to verify the theory proposed by an unnamed “English sociologist” about the relationship between an escaped prisoner of war and those that shelter him. Because the escapee brings prestige to the hosts, even has exchange value in dealings with the Allies, the eventual victors, he becomes a prisoner all over again, this time of his hosts. and a further escape becomes necessary. So, much to the chagrin of his hosts and the local Communist Party, Stuart disappeared from Tuscany, the war ended, he was repatriated. By coincidence, I and my wife were also in Italy in the summer of 1981, on holiday and staying for a time with a Calabrian family, at the invitation of an Italian colleague. There we underwent a peacetime version of ‘friendly imprisonment’ from which we too had to escape. Recounting this on my return for the autumn term I learned from Stuart that our experience was recognised in sociological theory. Ever since, at home, we refer to it as ‘the Hood Syndrome’.

Stuart was indeed “a born escaper” as Brian Winston reminded us, and escaping is a continual necessity for those whose reserve, of whatever origin, makes attachment difficult. I hope others who knew him will add their reminiscences so that together we can continue to decipher the attractive mystery that was Stuart Hood.

MeCCSA invites members who wishes to share their own experiences of Stuart Hood to do so in the comments field below. We also invite suggestions for a memorial or way of commemorating him (e.g. a scholarship, conference or similar in his name).

Posted by Einar Thorsen