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Richard Hoggart

Richard HoggartDespite his distinguished academic and literary career, Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, was best known for his comments on Lady Chatterley's Lover as a defence witness at the 1960 obscenity trial, and for his seminal work, The Uses of Literacy , on Northern working class life.

Before Hoggart's 1957 book there had been no thorough and sensitive narrative which combined analysis and description of working class culture in a manner which painted its strengths alongside its struggles. Hoggart came directly from the tough back streets of inner city Leeds, made more harsh by the death of his father when he was just eighteen months old, followed by that of his mother when he was seven. Parted from his two siblings, he was brought up by his paternal grandmother in industrial Hunslet.

Thanks to a perceptive and persuasive headteacher, Hoggart gained a scholarship to the local grammar school and from there to Leeds University and a First in English Literature. Twenty years later came The Uses of Literacy which combined a clear recall of his childhood with a mature analysis of its significance. His ability to judge himself appealed to many influential individuals and it became a reference point for much social policy debate.

Hoggart could be blunt, as shown by his comment that "you are bound to be close to people with whom …. you share a lavatory in a common yard," but he was also reflective, as when he wrote that "a writer who is himself from the working classes has his own temptations to error, somewhat different but no less than those from another class. I am from the working classes and feel even now close to them and apart from them. In a few more years this double relationship may not, I suppose, be so apparent to me; but it is bound to affect what I say." Such a doubt may have shaped his personal concerns but his three volumes of autobiography and his books of intimate personal commentary demonstrate that he never lost the ability to relate to his roots.

His testimony for the defence in the 1960 obscenity case against Lady Chatterley's Lover was regarded as the turning point of the trial. To those who expected otherwise of a scion of the working class, his evidence came as a shock, but to those who had read Uses of Literacy it was no surprise. In the book he had carefully differentiated between male "locker room" obscenity and the natural directness of sexual expression. He wrote of his grandmother reading many of the books he brought home when in the sixth form, including D H Lawrence: "much of it she admired, and she was not shocked. But of his descriptions of physical sex she said, 'E makes a lot of fuss and lah-de-dah about it'."

At the trial Hoggart reclaimed explicit sexual language for the "tradition of British Puritanism" that used words for their forthright meaning rather than as macho obscenities. Mervyn Griffith-Jones QC , the prosecution counsel, had clearly not been prepared for Hoggart's line of defence and the prosecution case slowly unwound until the jury's not guilty verdict became inevitable. Hoggart wrote later: "The judge and Griffith-Jones were a well-matched pair; both seemed to think they were trying not so much a book as Lady Chatterley herself, for letting down her class; and Mellors for getting above himself (and by getting on top of her.)"

Following wartime service in North Africa and in Italy with the Royal Artillery he returned to the first of a series of academic posts, including inaugurating the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and a five year stint as Assistant Director-General of UNESCO, the United Nation's cultural and educational agency. At the latter he took charge of a number of heritage projects and his autobiography records many of his clashes with bureaucracy and corruption. He tells of being in the VIP lounge at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport when a Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister tried to give him a "fat envelope of roubles for 'incidental expenses'. This was one of the oldest tricks in the book. The packet went back and forward until I asked my interpreter to buy champagne for everyone in the lounge. The minister and the interpreter thought that a nice move."

Richard Hoggart was regarded as a "safe pair of hands" and was in great demand as a member of government committees, but his open recognition of media "dumbing down" was explicit, even if qualified by a typical Hoggart reticence: "I don't read or watch them myself but if they want the popular press as we have it, or the trashier programmes on television who am I to regret or judge their tastes. That's democracy." Tony Benn records, however, that after such comments "Wilson thought Richard Hoggart unacceptable as a BBC Governor."

Richard Hoggart differed from his fellow working class Leeds authors in that, whereas they tended to emphasise the ludicrous and the comic, he was an academic who observed society with a watchful eye and a sensitive ear. He wore his learning and achievements lightly and regarded them as a means to a positive end. His writings draw out warmth rather than whimsy and enabled those who knew the conditions and the humanity that he described to feel that he respected them and saw the potential in those constrained by their circumstances.

He leaves a wife, Mary, whom he married in 1942, their son: Simon, a prominent Guardian journalist died in January, their second son, Paul, is a television critic, and their daughter, Nicola, a specialist Special Needs teacher.