Three-D Issue 22: Remembering the chuckle

Garry WhannelGarry Whannel
University of Bedfordshire


Everyone who knew, worked with, wrote with, argued with or just met Stuart Hall will be mourning his passing in their own way. For many of us it will not be an easy or a quick process.

His lasting memorial will, of course, be left in the traces of his work – his writing, and recordings of his talks, of course, but also in the many works on which he collaborated and the many people whose work he influenced profoundly.

I encountered Stuart while I was a student at CCCS in the late 1960s – but first knew him much earlier. He and my father became friends, through the New Left of the late 1950s after we moved to London when I was eight. They co-wrote the book The Popular Arts in the early 1960s. I remember Stuart coming around a lot, staying for Christmas at least once, and building me a fort from corrugated cardboard.

After the 1959 election the Tories were back in but with a wind of change blowing, more powerful than Macmillan could have suspected. What with the rise of the New Left, the Partisan Café, CND, the Aldermaston marches, the Profumo scandal, Beyond the Fringe, Private Eye, the Establishment club and then Carnaby Street, Mary Quant and the Beatles, it was clear, even to a thirteen year old in 1963, that the times they were a changing.

As an early teenager, my first understandings of the intersecting worlds of culture and politics were shaped by listening to my parents and their friends, including Stuart, talk and argue about jazz, music-hall, cinema, visual arts, Macmillan, Gaitskell and Wilson, Nuclear disarmament, empire, and economy. This, more than attending an educational establishment, was my real schooling.

When Stuart died, though, the hardest thing for me was realising that we will never hear that chuckle again. This may seem very trivial, but I think it is not. I have since though a lot about that chuckle – its causes, its functions and its resonances.

The Causes

The chuckle would appear in the middle of his flow of words. It often registered a wry amusement – at the contradictions, and the manifestations of those contradictions.

It seemed to be token of an amusement – a recognition of the frequent absurdities of ideological elements and their never quite secured character – always striving for a neat and seamless closure that could never be attained. Just as hegemony, properly understood, is a process never fully realised. It registered the flaws in the process, the teeth gritting effort behind the attempt at forging an ideological unity.

So the chuckle was born out of these recognitions, this wry amusement. And, probably deep down, a sense that you had to find some amusement in the workings of late capitalism, because if all you had was anger it could drive you mad, and make you obsessed, in an unproductive manner.

The Functions

It was certainly a chuckle that aided the intellectual and analytic endeavour because it made that endeavour enjoyable, absorbing, and, I will insist, sexy. Stuart’s modus operandi somehow managed to make the struggle to decode dominant ideologies the best, the most fun thing you could be doing – he made it seem sexy.

I recently spent three days in Birmingham at a conference marking the 50th anniversary of CCCS. It was a rather extraordinary event that brought together around 100 people, a good half of whom had been at CCCS at some point. As someone pointed out, we spent the best years of our lives on the 8th floor of the Muirhead Tower arguing about ideology, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. It was very intense, but as Chas Critcher also pointed out, there was a lot of laughter, a lot of fun.

It needs to be remembered too that the Centre was never well resourced and was always beleaguered – under threat from the medical mafia that ran the University, who never valued its work. It never had more than two and a half academic staff and one administrator, but had to manage as many as 50 full and part time students, plus many more hangers on and fellow travellers. Collectivity was an intellectual commitment but also a material necessity – students had to be involved fully in the administration of the centre or it could never have worked.

Amongst my own memories of the Centre are three vignettes. Everyone at the Centre was expected to be in at least one sub-group. The Media Group, which included Stuart, and consisted of around 15 people, met on Fridays at 11.00. Being a combination of party animals and steely activists, the group met as usual on the grim Friday morning, after the Thursday night election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, despite most of us having been up all night, staring gloomily at the television results programme. It was a much quieter meeting than normal. Mainly it was silent – with Stuart occasionally pointing out the extent to which this was a profound shift in the conjuncture and not merely an electoral defeat. The contribution of the rest of us mainly consisted of hung-over groans.

The second memory was to do with the uncanny way in which Stuart not only seemed to have read more and thought more than anyone else but also seemed so well versed in current popular culture (the latest story lines in Coronation Street, and The Archers, for example.). The sub-sub group of four people within the Media Group studying game shows had been viewing and analysing the programme Blankety Blank for some time, without getting anywhere special. Stuart stuck his head round the door of our room, watched for a moment, and then pronounced, of the contestants, “they win movement – they gain access to the world of celebrities” and then left. Of course it unlocked the whole thing for us.

The third story does not concern Stuart directly, but does relate to the intellectual political and social hothouse that he, and his colleagues Richard Johnson and Michael Green helped ferment. The lavatories on the 8th floor were for women, the men’s being one floor down. Centre members, male as well as female, had taken to using the water tap in the women’s loo to fill the giant centre kettle to make tea. Always looking for reasons to complain about the dangerous radicals with whom they shared the floor, our neighbouring department complained. Joan Goode, the friendly but formidable CCCS secretary sent a memo of admonishment which concluded, “In future, please use the facilities appropriate to your sex rather than your gender.”

The thing that Stuart fostered, painfully and through struggle as well as through fun, was a politics of intellectual work – the commitment to group work in its fullest and real-ist sense – working together to unlock problems, to understand better, to find a way forward, often, of course, in the spirit of Gramsci’s injunction to recognise pessimism of the intellect but maintain optimism of the will.

The Resonances

Stuart, unlike many other major intellectual figures of our era, never really wrote the magisterial monographs that other such figures were famous for – such was not his mission. His commitment was to the collective endeavour – the books Resistance through Rituals, On Ideology, and Policing The Crisis – were jointly written, but inspired by Stuart through mentoring, encouraging, and collaborating.

Stuart himself thought his great talent was teaching and indeed he was an inspiring lecturer. Even late in life, his ability to unpack from something very small, a compelling and unfolding analysis rarely ceased to amaze. Listening to him start, a little tentatively and cautiously, and then become more expansive, enthusiastic and incisive, was rather like taking off in a jumbo jet.

I believe his great skill was as an animateur – he could galvanise people into trying harder. Without this input, a small and local campaign protesting an injustice in sentencing three black youth in Handsworth, organised by Centre-linked people, would never have mushroomed (slowly it is true) into the magisterial book Policing the Crisis.

As a public intellectual, he was always animated by the spirit for change – the awareness that the point was to change the world and not merely to analyse it. The chuckle resonated with the spirit for change – the dogged optimism of the will maintained, sometimes in teeth-gritting manner, against the pessimism of the intellect.

It was in part, I think, also the amusement of the outsider – a post-colonial chuckle, if you will. I recall Stuart Hall, gazing out at a largely white British middle class audience and saying, with a chuckle, if memory serves “now that you all feel marginal, I feel centred. Now that you feel somewhat peripheral, I feel I am at the core.”

Those of us who were taught by him, who were inspired by him, will also remember the character of his approach to intellectual work – the rigour, the commitment, the enthusiasm. It is always hard when someone who has been such a great influence dies, and for those of us lucky to have known him, perhaps the hardest thing to bear is knowing we will never hear that chuckle again.


This text was originally prepared for the IAMCR 2014 tribute to Professor Stuart Hall, organised by Hopeton Dunn, University of the West Indies, Jamaica (Convener and Chair). It also featured contributions from Suzie Tharu, cultural studies and feminist scholar, formerly of the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India; Colin Sparks, Hong Kong Baptist University in Hong Kong and formerly of University of
Westminster in London; and Sandra Ristovska, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, USA and Co-Chair of IAMCR’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN)

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