A true original
Stuart Hall, who died on February 10th at the age of 82, was an academic for almost the whole of his working life. But in almost every respect he was a highly unconventional one. He did not come from Britain, where he was to spend all his adult life, but from Jamaica, which was still a British colony when Hall arrived in Oxford from Kingston, having been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. In 1997 when he finally retired as professor of sociology at the Open University, Hall, as a black academic, remained highly unusual; when he took up his first university post in 1961, needless to say, he was almost unique.
Nor was his academic route an orthodox one. He made his academic reputation at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University where he became a research fellow in 1964, acting director four years later, and its director in 1972. The Centre was a most extraordinary institution: dedicated to cultural studies, at the time a totally new area of intellectual enquiry, there was nothing like it, either then or even since. The place was teeming with debates, arguments and ideas. Despite minimal resources, it became a honey-pot for postgraduates, some funded, most seemingly scratching together an existence on bits of money and thin air, prepared to do almost anything to be part of it. It is difficult to think of another academic centre, certainly in the social sciences and humanities – especially one funded so parsimoniously – that has had anything like the same kind of impact on the academic world, both in Britain and internationally, or indeed the media and politics, as the Birmingham Centre. Hall was its leader, the presiding genius, full of intellectual energy and originality, possessed of a great synthesising mind, forever supportive and encouraging, enormously at home in a collaborative environment in which he almost invariably assumed the role of joint author, with one or several others. In fact, he was never to write a book on his own, preferring the essay and the article, or the jointly authored book. He was in so many ways the antithesis of most academics and so much academic work. He was unique.
Martin Jacques was the editor of Marxism Today, 1977-1991. He is the author of When China Rules the World: the End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. He is a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University, a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, and a non-resident fellow at the Transatlantic Academy, Washington DC.