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Drunken Uncles

Detail from the cover of The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart.

Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1957) was once a very fashionable book but, like Room at the Top, is little read these days. It is a review of working class culture in Britain which sits neatly alongside the ‘angry young man’ fiction of the time. Its thesis is that working class life, with its many complexities and regional variations, is being eroded by industrialised ‘mass culture’, especially that imported from the United States.

Of course, no study of British life would be complete without a look at drinking.

On the one hand, drinking is accepted as part of the normal life, or at least of the normal man’s life, like smoking. ‘A man needs ‘is pint’; it helps to make life worth while; if one can’t have a bit of pleasure like that, then what is there to live for? It is ‘natural’ for a man to like his beer. Women seem to be drinking more easily now then they did a generation ago; even as late as my adolescence [in the 1930s] the ‘gin-and-It’ woman was regarded as a near-tart.

He goes on to explain that men in different situations are ‘allowed’ to drink more or less depending on their particular circumstances. Widowers can drink as much as they like as they have nothing to go home to; men without children can’t be said to be ‘taking the bread from their children’s mouths’ if they spend a lot on beer; but a man with wife and children should always ‘provide’ first.

On the whole, the emphasis is a double one: on the rightness of drinking in itself, and on the realization that, if it once ‘gets hold’, complete collapse — a near-literal home-breaking as the furniture is sold — may well follow.

Is it any wonder, Hoggart observes, that the Temperance Movement had such success from the 19th century until the 1930s? ‘I had a drunken uncle, the last of a line which stretched well back to the seventies,’ he recalls. Publicans must miss those drunken uncles.

We’re reading Hoggart, along with Ian Nairn, as we get to grips with the post-war fear of cultural homegenisation which we think was important in the emergence of CAMRA and ‘real ale’ culture.

5 replies on “Drunken Uncles”

I tried to finish The Uses of Literacy, but couldn’t get past the frankly condescending attitude Hoggart displays towards the working class, like a sociologist studying a tribe in New Guinea and arguing that their way of life needs to be uncritically preserved in the face of the encroachments of Western civilisation.

His son, of course, is the Guardian journalist Simon Hoggart, a man who brings out conflicting emotions in me: I admire his excellent facility with words, while finding him too frequently a smug git.

I find it interesting that homogenization is still feared, and overestimated. As an American who lived in Brighton (well, Hove actually) for a few years about a decade ago, I was immediately struck by the small set of high street shops repeated at intervals, and also by the American shops and fast food chains sprinkled liberally around. But my lasting impression was that England was much less similar to America than I had supposed, and that, if you bothered to stray a bit from the big chains, local variety and character was everywhere you looked.

I think a good deal of interest in craft beer in America is driven by wanting something different, that has a unique local character. In my town, you often see signs advertizing local beer that echo our local brewery’s slogan, or perhaps lumping them together with other breweries in our region, but always focusing on Florida and being different (presumably from the bland macrobrew Pilsners).

“Publicans must miss those drunken uncles.”

I am not sure there are any fewer drunken uncles. It’s just that the drinking (and other drug abuses) has shifted to all parts of the family tree… or were they alway was there? My family stories of industrial Scotland at Greenock in the first half of the 1900s are filled with tales of all ages and both sexes having battles won and lost with the bottle. One branch of the family’s success now clearly stems from a decision made well before WWI to separate a drinking father and son pair through emigration. It was done in order to break the generational cycle that also placed the mother participating in the middle of many tales in the pub.

Martyn — I guess he didn’t realise he was being patronising, or felt he had ‘a pass’, being from such a humble background himself. You’re right, though — the tone hasn’t aged all that well, and lots of his assertions beg the response “Sez you.”

Esme — we’re going through an interesting period in the UK. The small town where we live is seeing an exodus of national chains from the high street. For now, that means empty shops, but will the value of those high street shops eventually fall far enough that local businesses can afford to take them over?

Alan — in my family, the tale that makes me shudder is of a great uncle whose wife had to make sure there was a pint pot of cold tea waiting for him when he woke up so he could down it to calm the alcoholic jitters.

Some are distant enough to be funny like my great-great-uncle (whose daughter 25 years ago in her 80s insisted had “taken the pledge”) coming home to the apartment pre-WWI with his hat at a very odd angle, singing loudly as he climbed the stairs accompanied by the dog he had won at the racetrack. Apparently he had been convinced to spend his actual cash winnings on the dog that he had backed! I understand a pint of cold tea would not have solved his resulting problems.

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