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Respectable: The Experience of Class

Wall in the Head

Carolyn Steedman

  • BUYRespectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley
    Allen Lane, 240 pp, £16.99, April, ISBN 978 1 84614 206 2
‘All I can offer is my years of lived experience,’ Lynsey Hanley wrote at the end of Estates: An Intimate History (2007). Her account of growing up on the vast Chelmsley Wood housing estate south-east of Birmingham in the 1980s (she was born in 1976) was an offering to policymakers, architects, planners and politicians: if they knew what it was like they might consider ways and means of making social housing a less miserable setting for so many people’s lives. She writes eloquently about the contempt with which post-1945 architects dreamed up New Brutalist quarters for the poor. The book was as much about class as it was about housing estates. ‘Class is built into the physical landscape of the country,’ she said. Hanley took a memorable walk around Chelmsley Wood: pale terraces, dead ends, empty streets, the haggard shopping centre, burned-out garages; the M6 traffic thundered past on one side, planes roared into land at Birmingham Airport on the other. ‘The empty town of strangers gave me space and light,’ she said at the end; ‘but it didn’t give me a chance to see what life could be like outside it.’ In Estates she first described the Wall in the Head that Chelmsley built in her: ‘You cannot know what that was like unless you grew up inside it.’
Respectable revisits another proposition from Estates: ‘If you attend school on a council estate, having come from a council estate, you get a council-estate education … survive five years in a school on a council estate and you get a medal from the Nietzsche Society.’ Respectable is about having been there, in an unnamed estate primary school (there were quite a few in Chelmsley in 1980, with a ward population pressing 14,000), its secondary school, and then, the world-away Solihull Sixth-Form College, half an hour on the bus from ‘The Wood’. Local historians, bloggers and just plain old Midlanders get pretty shirty at the faux-Rasta designation of Chelmsley Wood as ‘The Wood’, and particularly irate at the pronunciation ‘Da Wood’. Hanley really nails class condescension in her discussion of the linguistic usage ‘these people’: ‘These people just don’t know how to bring up children/eat properly/not look like fat slags’; ‘These kids don’t want to learn/these parents don’t care if they do.’ Oh let’s cut to the chase, go back to Wigan Pier (1937) and say: ‘If you give these people baths they’ll only put coal in them.’ Even sitting writing this review 18 miles away in the bourgeois fastness of Leamington Spa, I feel pretty offended myself at the attribution of low-life character to any of my Warwickshire neighbours. Here in the West Midlands we all come from somewhere else, as George Eliot pointed out when presenting her study of provincial life – Middlemarch (Coventry) and Loamshire (Warwickshire) – in 1872. This middle bit is the most crossed over, moved about in, arrived at and abandoned part of the country and has been so since the 18th century, when itinerant harvesters worked their way from the Welsh coast to the North Sea and back again. Best not to take much notice. Everyone will soon be off somewhere else.
Hanley found it quite difficult to get out of Chelmsley Wood and into Solihull: for two winters she got up at dawn to wait for the local bus. No one told her that dedicated transport collected students from Coleshill, northeast of Birmingham, and Chelmsley, and delivered them to the college door. She says she didn’t find out about it until it was too late because of her social isolation: a bit bookish, a bit determined, a bit odd, up in her room reading Smash Hits; an only child. Buses are important to her story: a woman, a man (doesn’t matter which) walks out of the barren shopping centre, waits in the bitter cold with Farmfood bags cutting into their hands ‘for buses that never come’. The figure haunts Estates and Respectable. One evening, home from London and university, her father turned from the telly and asked her: ‘Have you ever been down at the shops and just looked around and thought, all these wasted lives?’
By now Chelmsley Wood was officially part of Solihull. It was north Solihull, as opposed to south Solihull, where the sixth-form college was: haut bourgeois Solihull, High Anglican Solihull, mildly risible Solihull with its Midlands’ reputation for pretensions to gentility, where the six-year-old Wystan Auden had his first significant encounter with a gasometer, round about 1913. Maybe he was taken to the bluebell woods six miles north of leafy Lode Lane where the Audens lived. Birmingham City Council compulsorily purchased the ancient Chelmsley woodland in 1966 to build 15,590 dwellings to rehouse families on the council house waiting list. The Chelmsley Wood Estate became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull in 1974, though Birmingham City Council retained control of its dwellings until they were transferred to Solihull Metropolitan Borough in 1980.
Two journeys back, one literal for the 2007 book, another into flickering memory for this one. On both Hanley is accompanied by some very nice men. I’d love to meet her mate Richard, first introduced in Estates. At Solihull College they were ‘the much-talked-about, little practised coming together of north Solihull and south Solihull, a clash of the provincial titans to match Adrian Mole and Pandora’, without the romance. In and out of their A-level history and politics class he kept talking at her about things she didn’t know but knew she wanted to know. A year later she had begun to plait the rope of knowing that would haul her over the Wall. In Respectable Rich remembers the 1990s, the college, the rich kids whose parents had done well enough to get out of Brum and into Solihull: ‘They were all very pleased with themselves because their house had a gravel drive with a third-hand BMW parked on it. They and their children seemed to think they were kings of the world.’ ‘Get you, Rich,’ Hanley says; posh Richard, you with your sociology-of-class on repeat. What she remembers is people whose parents worked ‘in the more cuddly parts of the public sector’. She learned about being nice in her two years at college; about being what she is now; projecting an image to others of being pleasant and above all reasonable. By watching, she learned how to be middle class: her fellow students were ‘the nicest and most reasonable individuals I had ever met. I mean, I’m not reading the bloody news here; that’s what being-middle-class-in-the-world is about. Darkness is managed or hidden.’
Then there’s the other Richard, whom she’s found a much better guide to journeys of class transition than the sociologists of class and culture who throng Respectable. Richard Hoggart walks with her through Chelmsley telling her of emotionally uprooted scholarship boys for whom education was the way out, over the Wall, and of the price you have to pay for the climb. Her experience of want was nothing like the one Hoggart described in The Uses of Literacy (1957); 1980s Chelmsley Wood was nothing like 1930s Hunslet. But you can’t write about a childhood on the other side without Hoggart’s haunting sense of ‘the fragility of having things’, without his memories of always, always only just getting by, without the nagging feeling that life could be more than this, if only you knew what more looked like. Hanley retells the story of Hoggart’s mother, her two little boys mithering for pieces of her only treat, an ounce of boiled ham, sometime in the 1920s. In 1982 when the first 20p coin was issued Lynsey spent the gift of one on two felt tips. ‘Spending the 20p on something we didn’t even need caused such anguish in my mum that I’ve never forgotten it.’ Pasting her bread with butter to make it look like the advertisements almost made her mum cry: ‘I can see now that these acts would have upended her whole week’s effort to budget, down to pennies, so that we could live without actually feeling poor all the time.’
Hanley has a respectful conversation with the departed Hoggart on the topic of popular music. It’s respectful because he is the silent partner: his passages on cheap music in The Uses of Literacy, that ‘Invitation to a Candy-Floss World’, aren’t mentioned.What Hanley remembers is the sophistication and irony of Annie Nightingale’s voice on Radio 1. There’s a paean to the Pet Shop Boys, from whom she learned something like Basil Bernstein’s ‘unrestricted code’, a mode of language between class speech patterns, in ‘a place mediating between the posh and the non-posh, the inaccessible and the … accessible’. This book has provided me at least with a social history of music that I didn’t know was there to be had. Hoggart’s shade is not much use to Hanley in interpreting the education she experienced in Chelmsley and Solihull between 1980 and 1994. He’s more acute, less condescending, cleverer, than the small army of modern sociologists of education by her side; but he didn’t know about schools in the 1980s and early 1990s, about an education for the working classes itself inflected by postwar sociology of education. Of her secondary school she writes that ‘as a body of schoolchildren we were insulted by the education we received, in a half-empty school that was falling down, in a society which itself, in the late 1980s and 1990s, appeared to be falling down … We spent our formative years being insulted, and we knew it … the institution, the set-up, the joke of it, was the insult.’ Back in the 1970s when the school was founded there were high hopes for the power of education to democratise social relations; debate and critical thinking had been encouraged; hierarchies between teachers and taught deliberately broken down. That’s what some of the first intake told her when she went to a reunion in 2001, though they also said they’d have liked to have been taught to spell. It seems clear to Hanley now that the school’s original determination to avoid replicating the hierarchies of the wider education system and society ‘did little more than remind the children of Chelmsley Wood that they were working class, and that was, you know, great, so the best thing they could do was to stay working class and be proud of it’. Her education was ‘tailored to and directed at a perceived idea of working-class children’s abilities; you are expected to reach a certain level of understanding, and no higher.’
She knew ‘teachers who loved the very bones of us’; teachers who would rather teach Chelmsley kids any day over the well-primed middle classes; teachers who couldn’t understand why the pupils didn’t love them, considering everything they tried to do to be down with the kids. And, of course, ‘teachers who loathed us because we disgusted them. But even the teachers who loved us didn’t see great futures for us.’ This book is the most painful – agonising to read – account of five years of keeping your head down when the boys kick off, the noise and terror of the classroom, just hoping that they might exhaust their witless mucking about in time to get ten minutes’ teaching out of the fifty assigned. ‘We didn’t know how to get her to teach us,’ Hanley says of one teacher: ‘All we could do was to show her what would happen if she couldn’t control us.’ Another shows that it needn’t have been like that: Mr Bowell in year four or five of primary school. ‘He took us seriously: not … like miniature adults, but in the way he acted upon his belief that we had a right to be heard … I never saw stronger evidence that you are taught how to be inarticulate, and you learn how to be ignorant, through what is withheld from you.’ He gave nine-year-olds a chance to think and speak before their ability withered from inattention.
Hanley is in close conversation with educationalists past and present, and with modern historians of class and social mobility. She has a careful argument with Selina Todd, whose book The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 was published in 2014, over the proposition that in the absence of any programme for ending economic inequality, ‘race’ has become the only legitimate means by which white working-class people can claim their right to some of the goods and services they help produce. Hanley, on the other hand, thinks that someone who ‘even remotely considers voting for a far-right party is simply a racist git and needs to be told so’.
‘I had “respectability” on my side, which increased my chances of acceptance on the journey from working class to middle class,’ she writes, but I’m as flummoxed by ‘respectable’ and ‘respectability’ as I ever have been. It makes a great title, but what is it? Hanley says it’s about getting right how you look and how your children look (you’ll always be judged on the length of their hair, the trainers they wear, how they behave in public); ‘It’s about being sensible, and not being caught out. You can’t let yourself go … except when you do, and the plug of repression pops out with the force of a champagne cork.’ Most of the people she grew up with regarded themselves as respectable whether or not they seemed that way to others. ‘Everyone was careful not to classify themselves as “rough”.’ (But over the hundred and fifty years in which the term has been used for social classification, who has ever said: ‘I’m rough, and I’m proud’? No one.) During her childhood ‘respectable’ was about ‘“giving a shit” or “not giving a shit”: what you would … or … wouldn’t do in order to maintain dignity and self-respect in the face of another individual or an institution’. It was about the mystery of those middle-class people who didn’t appear to care about keeping a clean house, while for working-class people ‘maintenance of self-respect in private and public is a fundamental priority.’ It has changed as a concept, and the book maps its new political and ideological underpinnings. In the 1980s it operated as shorthand for ‘the emergent and politically favoured affluent wing of the working class’. Then ‘respectability was recast, through policy and media, not just as a way for individuals and communities to hold depredation at bay, but as a crusade against evil.’ As things are, respectability is seen as ‘a property of your specific circumstances’, not a character trait, or a set of abilities; but some quality laid down in you, stratum by stratum, deepening like a coastal shelf, making it easier to maintain ‘the appearance and feeling of self-respect’. That’s my best answer: in Respectable ‘respectable’ equates to having ‘self-respect’.
There have been many much less funny, far less graceful discussions of respectability. There is vivid evidence in the sociological literature of the psychic pain of knowing yourself to be wrong: never having the right sort of body, the right sort of voice, the right sort of taste; always being the wrong sort of person. But well into the 20th century, ‘respectable’ connoted the careful, self-aware middle classes, able to display character through public demeanour and the possession of certain types of worldly good. Working people – the working and non-working poor – knew it as a dress of attributes you must put on if you wanted even the tiniest thing from the system you inhabited. It might be used when defending yourself in a court of law, or before a relieving officer who could report your domestic environment to the Board of Guardians as clean and respectable. (It was a fine line to tread, between putting a cloth on the table to denote those qualities, and having the officer wonder why, if you were in the want you claimed to be in, you didn’t sell the cloth for the price of two loaves of bread.) Historically, ‘respectability’ was a public form; modern sociology of class suggests, as Hanley does, that it has become an item of self-identity. In the 20th century the term didn’t quite perform the conceptual work wanted from it; ‘respectability’ was often a framework imposed on subjects’ experience by a researcher. Hanley’s important conceptual advance could be seen as giving the term the connotations applied by its users, c.1980-2010, so that it is seen to provide some kind of agency in the world and in language, albeit a severely constrained kind. But there is no evidence that people actually used the term in 1980, or use it in that way now.


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