Anyone wishing to understand how the forces of history shape who we are and the society we live in could do no better than read this remarkable memoir.
Stuart Hall lived through the last days of colonialism in Jamaica and the early days of migration in Britain, where he became part of the formidable New Left political movement.
When he died in 2014 he was regarded as the father of cultural theory, having been a pioneer thinker about race and class in Britain, and demonstrated the role of popular art forms in mainstream culture. Director of the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary Studies in the 1970s, he would go on to invent the term ‘Thatcherism’.
Familiar Stranger begins in 1930s Kingston where Hall found himself caught between two worlds, the stuffy milieu of the brown-skinned elite who measured their lives against the Mother Country and the grindingly poor but less subservient black peasantry, whose violent rebellion that swept the island in 1938 was the first inkling that the old colonial order was coming to an end.
When he arrived in Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1951, Hall was relieved to be free of the hypocrisy and snobbishness that had characterised family life and caused his sister to have a mental breakdown because she wanted to marry a man considered too dark for his mother’s liking.
But his immersion into UK society just a few years after the arrival of the SS Windrush at Tilbury docks with some 500 Caribbean migrants on board, immediately brought to mind novelist George Lamming’s wry observation to the English, “We have met before”. For it was clear few people saw any connection between British colonial history and the new arrivals, who seemed to have landed on these shores “by some incomprehensible sleight of hand or ruse”.
Hall writes of the racism of post-war and post-imperialist Britain, which regarded the migrants as an affront, and even saw them as the principle agents of disorder when attacked by Teddy Boys in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958. The cold and at times hateful reception helped shape the new black diaspora, whose destination, Hall says many years down the line, is yet to be decided.
At Oxford, Hall met other Caribbean writers and thinkers including the aforementioned Lamming and Samuel Selvon and VS Naipaul. This was a first staging post into his becoming a West Indian. Although bound by a common history, it was only in the “imperial metropole” that islanders strung out along the 1,000 mile archipelago of the Caribbean first encountered each other en masse.
Hall also forged friendships with leading left thinkers of the day, among them Raphael Samuel and EP Thompson. This saw him plunged into political activity, ultimately editing the influential New Left Review and joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The book ends in the mid-1960s with the new discipline of cultural studies alongside his “wonderful mentor” Raymond Williams at Birmingham University just round the corner.
This is a compelling portrait of Hall’s own struggle to forge his own identity and sense of belonging as well as unflinching history of slavery, colonialism and racism in modern Jamaica and Britain. Hall’s humanity and honesty pour from every page as he connects the ideas that formed his thinking to his own life.
Familiar Stranger – A Life between Two Islands by Stuart Hall is published by Allen Lane, price £25 hardback
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal on June 9 2017