ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

The Stuart Hall I knew

RIP Stuart Hall, doyen of cultural theory (1932-2014). "The cultural dimension is not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society."

I found Ranjit Hoskote’s tweet quoted above, worth retailing, because it encapsulates Hall’s vastly influential work most admirably and serves as a suitable introduction to the Jamaican-born thinker the world has been mourning since 10 February, 2014.

I first heard about Stuart Hall from Tejaswini Niranjana, an Indian scholar who visited Jamaica for three months in 1994. She was a Homi Bhabha Fellow (named after the physicist not the theorist of hybridity) and had come to the University of the West Indies to familiarise herself with Caribbean culture. Teju (as she is known to her close friends) was interested in and fascinated by the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean but equally by Jamaican popular culture which is predominantly Afro-Caribbean.

Stuart Hall at INiva (Institute of International Visual Art) with Annie Paul and artist Steve Ouditt from Trinidad and Tobago

I credit Teju with awakening my now abiding interest in Caribbean, and in particular Jamaican, popular culture by introducing me to the relatively new field then, of Cultural Studies. Having studied English Honours at Lady Shri Ram College and Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the 70s followed by Journalism at the University of Kansas, and even a foray into visual art, I had found myself rudderless. Neither English Literature nor Sociology really enthused me; it wasn’t until that fortuitous encounter with Cultural Studies that I began to feel an interest in matters intellectual again.

Having wandered through several different ‘disciplines’ as I had, I was excited to find new ways of thinking and writing that synthesized my different areas of knowledge. Of course this was something that JNU’s multi-disciplinary approach to scholarship had also prepared me for. In 1995 I started writing a weekly column in a Jamaican newspaper while working at the University of the West Indies in scholarly publishing.

I named my column ‘Hyphen’ to signal my lifelong feeling of ‘in-betweenity’, of being formed between cultures in an India that was rapidly modernising, producing tectonic cultural shifts not always easy to navigate. Born and brought up a Syrian Christian, albeit by liberal parents, I always felt envious of my Hindu friends, especially the numerous rituals and festivals they could lay claim to. There was also a sense of feeling illegitimate, especially since I grew up in Ahmedabad, not Kerala, where I wouldn’t have been as out of place.

There is something profoundly destabilising about watching your mother carefully crow-proof fishbones and other scraps of our non-vegetarian meals in secure little packets before consigning them to the garbage can in case rapacious birds outed us in front of our finicky vegetarian Gujarati neighbours, forcing us to leave the community in disgrace. There is also a deep discomfort in feeling disconnected from the vernacular culture around you because your father thought English was the only language you needed to know. Not being allowed to go to Hindi movies like all my friends did produced yet more alienation; by the time I reached my teens I felt like a classic misfit, like someone looking at the world through an impervious bubble.

It wasn’t till I came to Jamaica in 1988, after sojourns in the United States and Brazil that I started to feel at home, leading me to settle down here. Here was a vibrant, vernacular culture I could be part of. Jamaica is also the most welcoming society I’ve ever come across.

When I was introduced to Stuart Hall in 1996, in person this time, it wasn’t surprising that we hit it off...he instinctively understood my complex cultural background (after all it wasn’t so dissimilar from his own) and the lingering sense of illegitimacy that haunted me; a long and warm friendship developed between us, interrupted only by his recent death.

Stuart Hall, Annie Paul, Parminder Vir (of whom Khushwant Singh once wrote a column titled The Reluctant Sardarni) Golden Spring, Jamaica, 1998

In the years that followed Hall served as my main referee, opening many doors for me in the process. He encouraged my nascent critiques of the visual culture of Jamaica, reading what I wrote with relish, and generally taking a great interest in my writing and thinking on cultural politics. The confidence this engendered in me can’t be overestimated. He was a great sounding board for new projects; I felt so comfortable in his presence that it was easy to forget what a giant among men he was. During the last decade I spoke with Stuart regularly by phone from Kingston, once every two or three months, when he would eagerly ask about the art scene in Jamaica, the politics, the latest happenings.

I was lucky enough to see Stuart every time he and his family came to Jamaica or I passed through London, occasionally making special trips just to see him. In the early days I would be instructed to wait at some busy street corner in the city while he drove up in his little car, scooped me up and took me to dinner and drinks or to an exhibition at the Serpentine. My London visits were always planned around the times when I could see him and everything and everyone else took second place.

Once I was whisked off to meet the famous artist Isaac Julien at the opening of his tri-screen film The Long Road to Mazatlan at the South London Gallery. Someone impudently asked Stuart if I was his wife. Regretfully no, answered Stuart, before I could reply. Occasionally he (and his wife, the historian Catherine Hall) organised dinners at their home and invited people he thought I should meet, Paul Gilroy for instance or curators Gilane Tawadros and Mark Sealy. At other times we would meet at the St Pancras Hotel in Russell Square for tea. I was impressed by how many people recognised him on the street, the waiters and doormen who knew him from  his famous Open University TV lectures, and who felt comfortable enough to approach him. Clearly Stuart had reached a lot of regular people way beyond the circuits of academia.

So many memories. Sitting at the dinner table with Stuart in his kitchen, just hanging out. The phone would ring frequently. Once it was from a prisoner charged with murder, who apparently was a regular caller, and with whom Stuart spoke at length. Another time it was some cultural technocrat we both knew, who Stuart complained phoned far too frequently.

Stuart and Catherine Hall at home, hosting dinner

One particularly memorable occasion involved a dinner in Colchester at the home of my friend Sheri Markose, an economist at the University of Essex. I was spending Easter weekend with her and that Sunday Sheri was making appam (pancake, originating from Kerala, made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk) and stew. Stuart was in Colchester that weekend with Catherine, now also my friend; they frequently spent weekends at her cottage there and I invited them both to come and partake of some appams and stew. At one point one of Sheri’s other guests, a young student from Germany named Frank, expressed mild annoyance at always being asked to bring Black Forest gateaux with him just because he happened to come from the region. “Don’t worry young man,” said Stuart without missing a beat, “we all have our ethnic ghettoes.”

Incidentally Stuart Hall had an Indian connection. His son Jess is married to Radha, daughter of the couple who founded the Anokhi chain so he visited India more than once when he was still able to travel.

It saddened me that each time I saw him in London after intervals of a year or two, Stuart was steadily losing his mobility. First he could no longer drive, so there were no more giddy excursions in the city, then he could no longer walk so we couldn’t go out to eat at exotic restaurants; after that I always visited him at his and Catherine’s home, a warm, inviting place in West Hampstead full of photographs and paintings and a tall potted banana plant in the living room where Stuart used to sit. The last time I visited him there, on December 14, 2013, I noticed that the banana plant was no longer around. I knew from looking at his ravaged body that this might be the last time I would see Stuart in person. In this post-Stuart world I hope I’m able to do justice to the great example he set of how to think, write and be human.

About Author

<p>Annie Paul ( born in Tiruvalla, Kerala, is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies, Mona. &nbsp;Paul is author of the blog Active Voice ( You can follow her on Twitter <a href="">@anniepaul</a>.</p>
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