24th September 2020 / Article
Review of Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands
By: Ruth Ramsden-Karelse
Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands Stuart Hall, with Bill Schwarz (Penguin Books, 2017).
Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands is “not a memoir in any formal sense” (10), but rather “an experiment in drawing out” the “connections between the ‘life’ and ‘ideas’” of Stuart Hall (63), the enormously influential intellectual whose incisive commentary is sorely missed by many of us living in Britain’s uncertain present. I hope he would have forgiven me for describing him as such: for Hall, the term “intellectual” suggests “too much posturing,” and he explains that although it “doesn’t seem exalted enough for most people,” he prefers to think of himself “as a teacher” (13).
Across nine essays, this characteristically untraditional memoir gives an account of Hall’s existence between entangled colonial and post-colonial worlds, centring on his 1951 journey from colony to metropole: from Kingston, Jamaica to a post-war Britain rife with racism. It gives insight into his life prior to his Directorship of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (and later Professorship of Sociology at Open University). And narrating these first thirty-two years, before he became known as the godfather of multiculturalism, Familiar Stranger maps the early development of Hall’s ground-breaking ideas on cultural theory, through various challenges including stints of generally rather inadequate formal education, and through key partnerships, alliances, and periods of feverish political engagement.
Born in 1932 to a socially-ambitious family with a “fantasy relationship to colonial dependency” (51), Hall was educated alongside future political and literary giants at elite
boys’ school Jamaica College. In the midst of challenges to Colonial rule, Hall details his alienation, from an early age, from the stifling respectability of the Jamaican middle class, the product of “a social system … inflected by the full force of white bias” (63). He arrived in England three years after the Empire Windrush, as a nineteen-year-old Rhodes scholar – a recipient of funding from the Jamaican Government to read English Literature at Merton, “a seductively beautiful place” of “medieval seriousness, solidity and gloom” (156, 155). Of his first meal in College, he remembers thinking that his “survival chances did not look good!” (156)
Upon completing his undergraduate degree, Hall embarked on and then abandoned a graduate thesis on Henry James, and left in a College basement the trunk in which he had brought all his belongings. “I sometimes wonder what became of it,” he writes. “For all I know it’s still there” (155). He did some work for BBC’s Caribbean Voices, crossed paths with V. S. Naipul, and forged friendships with American students, also outsiders at Merton, and others from the Caribbean including George Lamming and working migrants with whom he played jazz piano.
Describing his “rebirth” as “a diasporic subject” caught between “colonial formation” and “anti-colonial sentiments” (171), Hall names the University of Oxford as a key location in which those arriving from places where “colonization had done its divide-and-rule work … came to understand that they were seen by the British as all having the same racial/ethnic identity” (164-165). Ultimately, the “diasporic perspective” provided an “opportunity to change not the answers but the questions” (172). Becoming “seriously committed to critical
ideas” and more actively involved in British politics was, for Hall, “the start of a lifelong intellectual disengagement from Oxford and all it stood for” (223).
In a transforming social landscape, between 1956 and 1964, “‘normal life’ was suspended” by “political activity” (228). Hall gives brief and exciting sketches of early meetings and collaborations with key figures such as Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, his involvement in the founding of the New Left political movement, the Universities and Left Review and the New Left Review, and his work with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. It was at a CND march in 1962 that he met Catherine Hall, then Catherine Barrett, before she embarked on her own ground-breaking academic career. He pays tribute to her influence on his own thinking, and explains that “even when we are not actually speaking, I am in perpetual conversation with her and have been for years” (267).
Familiar Stranger ends in 1964, with Stuart and Catherine Hall on the eve of their move to Birmingham, where each would take up university posts. Describing some of the racist abuse they would be targeted with there, as a newly-married couple, Hall draws a parallel with the experiences of his daughter some twenty years later. Reading his memoir, fifty-five years after he moved to Birmingham, Hall’s desire to “change British society, not adopt it” continues to be felt (271). And, happily, his enormous body of writing is still being collected and published, partly in the form of the eponymous series from Duke University Press that includes Familiar Stranger as well as Selected Political Writings, which covers a five-decade period beginning in the year the former ends.
It seems apt that Familiar Stranger, published three years after Hall’s passing, is the product of collaboration with long-term interlocutor and friend Bill Schwarz. Hall’s lifelong commitment to working and writing in partnership is just one aspect of the inspiring model he offers for doing important thinking generously. In that spirit, the text makes frequent direct and indirect reference to some of the scholars and writers who have informed Hall’s thinking, and a list of works cited (including some of Hall’s own) is helpfully included in the appendices. It seems characteristically generous, also, that Hall and Schwarz worked intermittently over a period of two decades to create the material Schwarz has carefully edited into this final volume, which is incredibly rich. Exemplifying Hall’s concern with the relationship between the individual and the collective, it discusses the formation of his ‘life’ and ‘ideas’ as part of broad patterns of historical change: “the social processes of history” (63). It is at once academic and personal; it is often funny and deeply moving.
At a time when his insistence that Britain had never come to terms with colonialism and its legacies is further evidenced daily, we might consider this self-described teacher’s memoir as a lesson of sorts. Our struggles to live in an increasingly-divided Britain should be guided by Familiar Stranger, a product of Hall’s longstanding dedication to carefully grappling with the nature of belonging – “the chaos of identifications which we assemble in order to navigate the social world” (63) – and with his own personal relation to the still-painful entanglement of race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic class.
Ruth Ramsden-Karelse Stuart Hall Doctoral Scholar (2017-2020)