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The uses of misery

The Way We Live Now, By Richard Hoggart, Chatto and Windus Pounds 18. 0 7011 6501 4.

Adam Lively catches Richard Hoggart grumbling. There is nothing duller, of course, than other people's opinions. Even our own, if we are honest, can feel a bit stale from over-familiarity, but other people's are death.

Humour, argument, fantasy, reportage - all these widen knowledge and enliven discourse, but the baldly stated, unadorned opinion is the sludgy sediment that settles at the bottom of the mind when mental activity has ceased. If one were to play the Jeremiah concerning our cultural decline, one could surely do no better than point to rampant opinionism. "That's just my opinion", as a tag to some door slamming, conversation-stopping edict on anything from Islam to water privatisation, has become less an apologetic acknowledgement of the weaknesses of individual judgment, and more a defiant, in-your-face self-justification. The sound-bite is the apotheosis of the opinion. And if the sound-bite is opinion's haiku, the 1,000-word newspaper column is its sonnet. This is what our culture has come to.

All the above is, of course, just my opinion, and I suspect that Richard Hoggart would be in two minds as to whether he would agree with it. On the one hand his principal target in The Way We Live Now is "relativism", a portmanteau term that, if I read him right, embraces the rake's progress of opinionism through our culture. On the other hand, Hoggart himself has written an epic of opinionism, a book stuffed with verdicts on just about everything to do with "the state of the nation". Imagine, if you can bear to, a hundred newspaper columns placed end-to-end and you will get some idea of its tone and range.

So what are Richard Hoggart's opinions? At their heart lies a belief that post-war Britain (or, rather, England - he somewhat disingenuously excludes Scotland, Ireland and Wales form the outset) has experienced a pernicious erosion of certain basic moral positions - "core values", as the New Labourite jargon would have it. These include, centrally, a commitment to the common welfare (family, wider community, society at large) and a belief in the humanising, truth-telling function of art and education.

Such admirable virtues have been undermined by rampant commercial greed, post-modernism and marshalling and manipulating these dark forces, Tory governments of the past 15 years. Hoggart has a somewhat Manichean world-view, seeing signs and wonders of this battle between darkness and light being fought out in every corner of our culture from arts funding and the future of the BBC to the humble world of the book review, where integrity and straight-dealing have been supplanted by smart-Alecism or off-the-cuff puffery. By warned.

If one can be allowed a little flippancy in describing these views it is because they are so familiar, a boiling-down of thousands of why-oh-why newspaper columns down the years. Tory ministers are philistines; advertising demeans our culture; the English language has been debased by bureaucracy and the media; respect for literature has been undermined by the fashion parade of criticism. All these may be true, but truths can lose their value by over-use. They are also all partial or relative truths, a point demonstrated by the fact that many of them have been expressed by people on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

And what of Richard Hoggart's forces of light, his "grit on the flywheel" of contemporary relativism? The Way We Live Now is basically a gloomy tract, and Hoggart has to search hard to find his sources of light. In the end he finds what hope he can for our future in a certain kind of person - middle-class, though often of humbler origin, probably working in the public sector, and most probably education; someone earnest about their intellectual self-improvement, likely to attend (or teach) adult education classes; someone serious about the idea of public service, a sitter on committees. Someone, in fact, like Richard Hoggart himself. There is, it has to be said, a tone of slightly priggish self-righteousness to the book. If English cultural and intellectual life has been divided down the years between Roundheads and Cavaliers - a division that cuts across that of Left and Right - then Richard Hoggart is definitely one of the Roundheads.

With the best prospects for a Labour government for many years, it is at first perplexing why a figure of the liberal-Left like Richard Hoggart should have written quite such a depressed and backward-looking book. The answer, more generational than ideological, may lie with difficulties in coming to terms with the centrifugal forces that are rocking our society.

Hoggart persistently underestimates the complexity and mysteriousness of these forces. To take one example, he treats post-modernism and the wilder shore of cultural studies with a certain lofty disdain, as an assault on truth by relativism. But is relativism so self-evidently wrong, especially for a liberal? How does one distinguish truth from mere opinion? It is a question that has troubled thinkers ever since Plato. Hoggart would presumably answer that he was not writing a book of philosophy, but one might expect at least an acknowledgement that there was a problem there.

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