Sunday, March 11, 2018

Lynsey Hanley's Respectable, crossing the class divide

There's such a tenderness and sense of love running through Lynsey Hanley's memoir cum sociological journey through Britain's class structures that you sort of miss the anger at first. But it's there.

I'm a few years older than her, but I found it relatable. A few years earlier my devouring of the NME led a straight line to George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, Marx, Dickens and the Lakeland poets. It was an alternative education that prised open a cultural door. A universal intellectualisation of low and high culture that you can place in a time and place.

For a while my own connection back to a trace working class identity was football. But when I mentally scroll through my friends I go with, those I have accumulated along the way, then our shared experience is of a particular type. You can share the same view of a pitch and 22 players, but there's the Sky Sports Soccer AM view of life and the When Saturday Comes one, and many others beside. A constant thread on this blog is irritation at other fans, which rather proves the point. 

But this is an enjoyable read, if a challenging one at times, made more pleasurable through the elegance of her prose, even when I don't agree with the point she's making. Quite starkly, for example, on page 100, I had to stop and check I'd read it right: "working class school children must reject the values of their parents and community if they are ever to be a part of society." In a single sweeping statement about the assumptions of the education system, it blows apart every working definition of what it is to be from a working class community and, more pointedly, a strange meaning of what "be a part of society" constitutes. I found myself asking then how narrow were the parameters that she was defining both class terms.

But here's the thing. She can really write. Take this, on transferring class: "I have this feeling all the time, and the greatest fear that accompanies it is not of losing the substantial privileges that come with being middle class, but of knowing that, if I had to go back, I'd fit in even less now than I did back then".

She takes on board some underlying themes-in-motion that pre-occupy me in my day job. The difference in character of the university I work at, compared to the rest of sector. It plays itself out at varsity events where the boorish Russell Group students chant 'your dads work for our dads'. The challenge of widening participation and the link from study to work and whether this is really producing a new transfer class, or notching up the skills levels right through all social strata.

Three things, I think, require further scrutiny and evidence to take her observations on. 

One, has her journey been just a transfer of class, or also a transfer of place? London's norms; London's intellectualism and London's economic options still open up more opportunities to be with people like you and become even more marinaded in the spice of cultural life.

Two, the impact of property prices on social mobility, both negative and positive. To have got on the property ladder in London in the 80s and 90s is to have won the lottery of life. Even those who are cash poor, but asset rich, have a massive inbuilt route to stability. To have missed it in London is the subject which dominates so much of our public discourse.

Thirdly, the baking in of social norms and class status through consumption of media probably needs updating. I'm fascinated by the way internet has reconnected people and created a nostalgia industry already enriched by books and TV programmes (usually featuring Stuart Maconie), but made more personal through a Past and Present Facebook experience.  It gives us a way of never really leaving, of measuring success against others - in and of itself a particularly middle class thing to do. If the Daily Mail shaped attitudes of the angry, self-righteous and defensive middle class, and the Guardian it's liberal equivalent, then what's guiding the emerging generational touchstone? Twitter as opposed to Facebook?

This is a terrific body of work from an important writer I'm looking forward to reading more from. 

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