Stuart Hall was an utterly unique figure. Although he arrived at the age of 19 from Jamaica and spent the rest of his life here, he never felt at home in Britain. This juxtaposition was a crucial source of his strength and originality. Because of his colour and origin, he saw the country differently, not as a native but as an outsider. He observed this island through a different viewfinder and it enabled him to see things that those shaped and formatted by the culture could not. It took an outsider, a black person from a former colony, to understand what was happening to a post-imperial country seemingly locked in endless decline.
His impact was to be felt across many different fields. Perhaps best known is his pioneering work in cultural studies, but his influence was to be felt in many diverse fields. By the end of the 1970s, it was the connections that he started to make between culture and politics that was to redefine how we thought about politics.
This was how my own relationship with Stuart began in 1978. Soon after I became editor of Marxism Today, I commissioned an article from him on Thatcher. The result was one of the most important pieces of political writing of the past 40 years. Stuart, drawing on his cultural insights and the work of Antonio Gramsci, proceeded to rewrite the way in which we make sense of politics; and in the process, incidentally, he invented the term Thatcherism. For the next decade, it felt as if we lived in each other’s pockets. The way in which Stuart wrote was fascinating. Some, like Eric Hobsbawm, the other Marxism Today great, produced a perfect text first time out. Stuart’s first draft, in contrast, would arrive in an extremely incoherent and rambling form, as if trying to clear his throat. Over the next 10 days, one draft would follow another, in quick succession, like a game of ping-pong. His was a restless, inventive intellect, always pushing the envelope, at his best when working in some form of collaboration with others. His end result was always worth savouring, his articles hugely influential.
Tragically, Stuart’s ill health slowly but remorselessly curtailed and undermined his ferocious energy. But his mind remained as alert and involved as ever. The response to his death has served to demonstrate how much his work has influenced so many people in so many different ways: cultural studies, race and ethnicity, politics, the arts, the media, academe. Little has been left untouched by his intellectual power and insight.
Stuart’s extraordinary impact was not because he happened to be black and from Jamaica. It was because he was black and from Jamaica. It took an outsider, a black Jamaican, to help us understand and make sense of Britain’s continuing decline. He was in so many ways well ahead of his time. It is difficult to think of anyone else that has offered such a powerful insight into what has been happening to us over the past 70 years.