A CLEAR, calm, and clever new voice has burst upon the Left of politics. Respectable (Allen Lane, 2016), a book by Lynsey Hanley, is a wry and perceptive account of her transition from a life growing up on the huge Chelmsley Wood council estate in Solihull to that of a member of the established middle class as a writer of sociology.
Sounds dull? Not in Hanley’s hands. She has been an acute social observer from the time she first clocked that the old yogurt pots that her primary-school teachers brought in for seed-planting were always from Sainsbury’s, not KwikSave.
The book unsentimentally charts her course from a school where the female teacher was typically in tears by 11 a.m., as 15-year-old pupils wandered round, singing aloud, chatting about hair mousse, or offering a diversionary fusillade: “Look, Miss, he’s torn me cowt! Ah fookin’ ’ell, man! Arr, God! Me pen’s run ewt! I cor write enythin’ dewn! Arr, Miss, I can’t do me work now!” Not everyone subscribed to the disruptive dog-eat-dog, siege-survival mentality, but it dominated the school environment.
The author travelled, via a job in Greggs, to sixth-form college and university, and middle-class respectability — but at the cost of estrangement from the working-class relatives she loved: “You buy, or are sold, a one-way ticket. You can go back, but never again on the same terms.”
Her reflection on the cost of climbing the social ladder was inspired by Richard Hoggart’s 1957 classic The Uses of Literacy. He experienced a similar sense of dislocation. His journey from the close-knit working-class community of Hunslet to Leeds University was not far in miles, but crossed a social chasm. It made him “uprooted and anxious”, but prompted his seminal text on how mass literacy had, with the arrival of a new homogeneous US-style mass culture, produced bad as well as good effects. Literacy is wasted on consuming pop culture. Increased affluence endangers deeper values.
Hanley examines what has happened since Hoggart wrote. The form has changed, but not the substance. She watched her Nan read The Sun (her Dad, a tie-wearing clerical officer, read the Mirror), and concluded that, for all its material advances, her birth tribe were kept culturally starved. As Caliban put it: “You taught me language; and my profit on’t Is, I know how to curse.” Hanley speaks of a media politics that wilfully ignores the malign effects of class and poverty. Caliban is unwittingly prophetic when he speaks of “All the infections that the sun sucks up”.
There is a self-knowing authenticity to Hanley, who read her work on the Radio 4 Book of the Week slot all last week. She has never lost her warm Brummie accent, or her respect for the innate dignity of working-class people. What we need is not a society that lets a few people up the ladder, and visits on those below what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls the “symbolic violence” of snobbery and exclusion. Getting on should not mean getting out. It means creating a society in which everyone, regardless of occupation, is equally respectable.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.