August 27th, 2009


The moral perils of milk

There was an interesting appreciation of the 91 year-old Richard Hoggart on Thinking Allowed yesterday. Hoggart basically invented Cultural Studies in Britain, opening the Centre for Cultural Studies in Birmingham in 1964. His thing was to link English Literature with Sociology, which meant that for the first time people were being encouraged to "read" soaps like Coronation Street using the kind of practical criticism formerly reserved for the poems of Pound and Eliot.

Now, Hoggart, for my money, has always been a bit of a stuffed shirt; he never did anything as incisive, elegant or inspired as the work of continental semiologists like Barthes and Eco, and even at Birmingham he was eclipsed by the sharper, more Gramscian Stuart Hall. His public pronouncements -- and he was wheeled out regularly until the 90s -- were huffing, humanist, sentimental, slightly banal. When Hoggart defended D.H. Lawrence at the Chatterley obscenity trial, his main line was that Lawrence's rumpo romp was redeemed by being, in the truest sense of the word, "puritanical".

This clay-footed quality to Hoggart emerged strongly in Thinking Allowed when they read out a passage from The Uses of Literacy about the corrosive dangers of milk bars. It seems quite incredible to us now, but there was a time when milk bars -- places where grown men sat around sipping milk -- were considered a social danger. The passages about them in Hoggart's book are hilarious, and I thought I'd give you a couple of pages (courtesy of Google Books) here:

Of course this isn't a Daily Mail-style rant about society going to the dogs, it's really a socialist protest against what Hoggart called "the new mass arts" -- trashy imported American popular culture, the thing Peter Fuller later called "the mega-visual tradition" -- mixed with a sort of Grammar School snobbism against those feckless wastrels of the industrial working class who hadn't pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made it to university. But its judgmentalism is fairly shocking -- cultural studies, forty years on, wouldn't dare condemn popular culture the way Hoggart condemns juke boxes, pop hits, mass market magazines and, er, milk bars here.

But there was a widespread association of milk bars with crime and delinquency in the Britain of the late 50s and 60s; we could almost call it a "moral panic about milk". Why else would Anthony Burgess have started A Clockwork Orange with "me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim... sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening.... The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultra-violence." Oo-er missus! Milk! With drugs in it!

Back in the real world, milk bars only sold milk. Well, milk with various fruit and malt flavourings, vanilla milk shake, coffee and tea, and chemical-tasting orange squash dispensed from a swirly tank with a plastic orange bobbing around in it. Vaguely remembering a milk bar called The Hungry i on Shandwick Place in Edinburgh in the mid-60s -- it had a 1950s sci-fi design, raked sheets of glass, some sort of flying saucer-like motif -- I asked my mother about the place on the phone. She remembered it too, but started telling me, instead, about how she'd met my dad often at a milk bar on the corner of West Nile Street, after they'd both been cramming Latin (which you needed in those days for university entrance) at Skerry's in Glasgow. She didn't remember it being particularly criminal or delinquent, but she said that milk bars were often outside town, in fields in the middle of nowhere, spreading by ribbon development.

In fact, the Edinburgh Hungry i was named after a famous jazz den and comedy club in San Francisco. Some said the lower-case "i" represented the word "intellectual", or was meant to spell out "id" in the Freudian sense (but the "d" fell off), or simply meant that the ego was hungry. The club is still there in San Francisco. Its milky, delinquent Edinburgh imitation is long gone, replaced by a tourist information office... and by social evils even more sinister than milk-drinking. Trainspotting, for example.