Lynsey Hanley is much younger than me. She cites often in her new book Respectable Richard Hoggart, and an intermediate generation of working class writers who made good via grammar school, who are much older than me. The continuity of experience, theirs and mine alike, is striking. The specifics have changed over the decades since Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy was published in 1957, but Britain remains a firmly class-based society, with the (im)possibility of social mobility mediated through the education system. Having spent decent amounts of time in the US and France, I think they are equally class-bound, and maybe only Scandinavia is really different (although actually the OECD adds Canada and Australia to its list of socially mobile countries). However, the exact mechanics of keeping people in their place differs.
Hanley wrote an excellent book, Estates, about growing up in a large council estate in outer Birmingham. Respectable takes up the story with her personal experiences of a working class education, and the lack of quality and lack of ambition for pupils in her first schools. I found the sections of the book where she describes her personal experiences the most interesting, partly because her reaction to her culture shock was so different from mine (my journey was a more ‘conventional’ social mobility story of 11 plus-grammar school-Oxbridge). I went from a northern working class household where we hardly ever had meals out, ate plain food at 5.30pm for our evening meal, had holidays in Blackpool B&Bs or Butlins holiday camps, had never been abroad to an Oxford college stuffed with southerners who had been to posh schools, listened to classical music, and knew how to tackle an artichoke. Although it was a shock, I relished it. Hanley is far more equivocal about her climb into the middle class, and seems to have felt the deracination as a far more painful process. She argues that upward social mobility leaves the individual permanently anxious in both kinds of context.
This contrast in our attitudes made the analytical parts of Respectable less compelling for me, but Hanley has many interesting observations about how monstrously hard it is for working class children to gain access to the privileges the middle classes take for granted. She is particularly astute about the lack of autonomy that goes with lack of confidence. And also on the fear – the fear of the ‘respectable’ working classes about falling downward which manifests itself as disdain for ‘chavviness’ or casual racism, and the fear of the middle classes about all of the lower orders. (This echoes the emphasis Julia Unwin places on the emotional role of fear in her excellent book Why Fight Poverty?)
Respectable is also very strong on the ideological use of the idea that all an individual child needs to do is to work hard and behave well to get on, as if individual responsibility can by itself overcome embedded social structures. However, Hanley appears to argue against the idea of early intervention in some families, and free nursery care or extended hours at school, whereas I’m persuaded that, given the family context some children experience, this is absolutely the right thing to do – even if it would of course be great to be able to sort out the thicket of social, economic, health and crime problems experienced by poor families in poor areas. One point on which I wholly agree with her, though, is in marking the use of the phrase “these people” with a red flag. (“A characteristic feature of such pronouncements [about the fecklessness of the underclass] is the use of the phrase ‘these people’. ‘These people’, over there, are not and cannot ever be people like us.”)
Even if your own experience has been different – or especially if it has – Respectable is a terrific read. There are too few writers who can describe working class life with any authenticity, and this book gives real insight into why Britain is so socially stratified.