Thursday, February 13, 2014

My Log 405 Feb 13 2014: Death of British sociologist brings back a flood of memories to me of great days in the intellectual ferment of 1960s London, England

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a l...
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor giving a lecture at the New School in 2007.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The death has occurred this week in Britain after a long illness, of an iconic left-wing academic,  sociologist and cultural analyst, Stuart Hall, Jamaican-born, and a thinker and activist  of such distinction that many fulsome tributes have broken out in The Guardian newspaper, and elsewhere.
This may not be an event of seminal importance in Canada, but for me it is something that brings back a flood of memories, most of which are attached to seeing Hall, alongside his equally charismatic friend Charles Taylor, from Montreal, as they lined up each morning outside the Labour Party annual conferences to distribute by hand their cyclostyled comments on the previous day’s debates. Those debates, in the early 1960s, on whether Britain should join the European Common Market, and whether or not the Labour Party should support Nuclear Disarmament for Britain, were probably the most impressive democratic debates I have ever heard, in which the decision was in doubt until the last vote was counted. The sense of being present at an important moment of history was  heightened by the passionately-argued positions taken by the Hall-Taylor intervention every morning, enough to set the assembly abuzz even before the gavel 
was dropped.
I revelled in all this, the sense of commitment, the passion, the idealism. I had arrived in England in 1960, to take up a post as London correspondent for The Montreal Star, fifteen years after beginning my career in journalism in a small city on the far southern coast of New Zealand, and 10 years after leaving that small country with my wife on a sort of odyssey that had taken us to live and work in five Commonwealth countries (if you count England and Scotland as two), including three Canadian provinces. During most of this time I had been working in isolation from the left-wing intellectual and political background in which I grew up  in New Zealand, so it was a relief to me to be back in England where the ideas of the Labour Party were still so lively a part of the political discourse.                     
It did not take me long to seek out the Partisan   coffee house in Soho, founded by the movement that  was built around the New Left Review, a solemnly serious journal of which Stuart Hall was a founding editor. There I ran into an aggressive Aussie intellectual who tended to treat me as one of the enemy until convinced of my sincerity, and we became friends.
I fell into the habit of attending left-wing meetings in my spare time, and often listened to speeches by Stuart  Hall. He was one of the finest speakers I had ever heard, something attested to in this week’s Guardian by Suzanne Moore.    “… to see him speak was to be overwhelmed by his charisma, his eloquence, his desire to include everybody in the room, his sheer moral force. My God! I remember saying. This man should be in charge of the universe,” she writes.
It was clear to anyone who heard them that Hall and Taylor, both, were not only major intellectuals, but people who had the stature, the authority and the brains to play an important role in the politics of their native countries, if they so chose, as I hoped they would.
I tend to agree with  Bertrand Russell who said that men are not born stupid, they are made stupid by education. And it became a habit of mine when a decade later I was invited to speak at various universities,  always to preface my remarks by saying how pleased I was to be back in one of those institutions that are turning out the very people who are  making such a mess of the world, a judgment that seems to have been confirmed by the recent economic meltdown, presided over by people who were considered geniuses at Harvard.
Thus it came as a slight, but not unexpected, disappointment when Stuart Hall chose to take shelter in academia in the Midlands rather than to return to Jamaica to fight the anti-imperialist fight. Charles Taylor, for his part, did attempt to enter politics in Canada, four times during the 1960s attempting to get elected to the Canadian House of Commons, and four times being defeated, thereafter also taking refuge in academia.
No one, however, could deny the immense subsequent success of these two young men in their chosen fields. The obituary notices for Hall, 82 years of age at his death, testify to the immense respect he won for himself in England, not only for the forcefulness with which he presented his ideas, but for their relevance to the social and political discourse in that seminal society, where so many of the world’s advances have been spawned.
As for Taylor, he is, if anything, even more elevated in the opinion of others through his combination of social activism and rigorous intellectual inquiry. Like his Jamaican-born compatriot, he has poured out a succession of ground-breaking books. I remember the enthusiastic reception given the 2007 publication of his book A Secular Age, by Harvard University Press, described by some reviewers as one of the most important books written in modern times.
I have one last anecdote to round out this account.
In the late 1960s the Political Science Association at McGill University went on strike, demanding that the university be turned into a francophone university, or at least make way for more francophone students and studies, the argument being that French-speaking youngsters, compared with the English-speaking, were being denied equal opportunity to advanced education. A lecturer who supported this strike was Stanley Gray, a brainy working class scholar whom I had first met when he was studying at Oxford University a few years before. Eventually the McGill administration quelled the strike and decided to fire Gray for offending the rules of university employment, and a hearing was held at which Gray with the support of a student called John Fekete, confronted the administrators of the university.  I sat through the whole event, reaching the conclusion that Gray and Fekete were running rings around the rather grey, dull apparatchiks opposing them.
Nevertheless the two activists were being pounded by a stream of establishment-minded professors. When Charles Taylor  stepped forward, I thought, at last, someone of authority will be coming to Stanley’s rescue. To my surprise, however, Taylor launched into a root-and-branch attack on Gray and his defection from the established routines.
At the end of the week I wrote a long article that occupied a full page of the newspaper under the title Shades of Gray.  Since it was many years since any even mildly critical article about McGill   had appeared in The Montreal Star (whose owner J.W. McConnell was one of the university’s biggest benefactors, making McGill second only to the Royal family in the editorial favoritism stakes), naturally my article had to be carefully worked over. I remember my editor asking, “Why are you so tough of Charles Taylor?” Well, that was okay: to get anything published at all I would have to agree to some changes, and a certain toning down of my enthusiastic support for the accused side was achieved. (On reflection, I can see where Taylor was coming from. He was a university man, and depended on the institution to make it possible for him to achieve the remarkable work he has since done. In addition to which he would probably argue that, given his head, Gray [who later was proud to be called Canada’s biggest shit-disturber), could have destroyed the University.])
Even so, people who had followed my work in the newspaper   asked, “How did you ever get that article on McGill into The Montreal Star?”  The answer was: because in my 25-year career working for newspapers with whose politics I never agreed, I had become fairly skilful at suggesting things which I didn’t actually write down. I may as well call it for what it was: self-censorship.  (I think my peak achievement of this kind came four or five months after Castro marched into Havana when he visited Montreal to collect some toys gathered for Cuban children.  I followed him around all day, was mightily impressed by h
im, and wrote it up very carefully. Again, my friends asked, “How did you ever get that article on Castro into the paper?” But on the day it was published my boss approached with a smile and said, “I see you didn’t think much of Mr Castro.” A triumph!)
Here is another reason I felt close to Hall. He said in an interview two years ago,  “I'm not English and I never will be. The life I have lived is one of partial displacement. I came to England as a means of escape, and it was a failure."  I myself lived in England for 11 years, and it was because I knew I could never be English that I returned to Canada, and have only twice  briefly re-visited.
I have to confess I have not read the books of these two great scholars, since they work in areas far over my head. But, having seen them in their youthful activist days, I am pleased at the immense influence they have both  gained around the world. And you never know, although I am three years older than Taylor, maybe I might yet get to read his views on the secular society before I breathe my last.

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