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.