Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class is a book that, in many respects, is about me. Hanley was born on a working class housing estate in Northern England in 1976, which makes her three years younger than me, and unlike most of her peers she left her working class origins to become middle class, by dint of getting a university education and a middle class job – just like me. In this book, Hanley describes the challenges of getting from there (the working class housing estate in 1980s Britain) to here (her current middle class position and lifestyle), and the challenges of living middle class when your upbringing was working class. Both aspects of this story are very important to me: escaping the bonds of working class life is a kind of cultural version of getting into orbit, requiring a huge personal effort and risk to get a single shot at hitting escape velocity, but the journey doesn’t end there. Getting into a new class, whether stolid middle class or some internationalist transcendental state, is not necessarily enough to free you from the old bonds of working class culture, and you can spend a long time – for me, perhaps a decade or more – feeling like a stranger in a new land, and even after you become to some extent familiar with the rules of your new world, you still feel like a fraud, and you still are stalked by this fear that it can all be taken away from you in an instant, that you’re just there on sufferance.

Hanley describes the social, cultural and spiritual challenges of both stages of this journey in rich and stunning detail in this book. She does not just describe the general challenges, though, but pinpoints specific, stunningly accurate details about the process that speak so powerfully to me of my own experience that it feels as if she has reached out from the pages into my own memory, and crafted an explanation for feelings and memories that I couldn’t pin down and understand until she shaped them. In both the general issues and in these details, she captures the essence of Britain’s class problems brilliantly.

On generalities, she describes the social and cultural barriers to a proper education for working class people in Britain, both those imposed on the class from outside (such as sub-standard schooling, economic barriers to progress, the difficulty of getting into grammar school for working class people) and those imposed on the working class by the working class – things like the way that working class children punish any of their own who show too much interest in school, the way that working class families don’t push their children to achieve or don’t consider the possibility of sending them to better educational opportunities (like grammar school) outside of their own experience, and the punishing assumptions they have about their own limited futures. For example, in describing the general atmosphere of working class culture in Britain in the 1980s, Hanley writes

Casual violence – symbolic, domestic and public – was endemic in the place and times in which I grew up. Casual racism was part of the fabric of daily conversation. Casual cynicism pervaded: a consequence of casual exploitation and casual displacement, which fed into people’s souls and manifested in their treating everything like one great frigging joke, because that’s how they felt they’d been treated their entire lives.

She follows this with a discussion of one of the motivating factors underlying this atmosphere, loss:

You may wonder what led to this collective conviction that there was no point. It might be argued that another primary aspect of working-class experience, a feeling which most defines a certain way of being in the world, is loss. Loss is everywhere: the loss of optimism as experience victory-laps hope; the loss of loved ones too soon to war, workplace accidents or to ill-health; the loss of a sense of home, going back generations as families move repeatedly in search of relief from poverty; the loss of close ties as families are broken up in a similar way by moves down south, to America, Canada, Australia; and the loss of a sense of place as families attempt to remain rooted in a changing environment, such as when a local works that once employed just about everyone in the area closes down.

This really struck at my own understanding of growing up poor in Britain – we were always moving looking for a better job or opportunities, then our family ties were broken by moving to New Zealand (and then Australia), and finally my older brother was taken from us by the state because of his continued involvement in crime, no doubt partly because his constant sense of dislocation stopped him having any sense of responsibility to the community he was victimizing. Hanley’s description of the economic, cultural and educational environment of England in the 1980s is exactly how I remember it, and her piercing insight into working class culture of that era really closely mirrors my own.

On the details, Hanley has a remarkable ability to isolate small incidents and moments that bring to life the challenges of trying to grow out of working class culture, and trying to get an education that will matter in an environment that is so inimically opposed to anyone standing out, as well as so committed to its own failings. For example, she describes a simple moment in her day like this:

While working in the library I go downstairs to Greggs to get a cup of tea … In the time takes to reach the bottom of the staircase I overhear a total of two sentences: one, by a woman speaking into a phone, is ‘FUCK OFF about your rizlas, I don’t wanna hear it,’ and the other, from a young man to a young woman, is ‘I can’t hear a FUCKing thing you’re saying with you walking ahead of me.’ My bones turn to glass again and I remember that often things do seem terrible just because of where you are. I’m thrown back into a world of ignorance and everyday violence – and if that sounds extreme, you needed to hear the way in which those ‘fucks’ were said: the desperation and life-fatigue of the first and the casual aggression of the second.

This is such a perfect, crystal clear description of an ordinary moment in the working class world that it might have been grabbed straight from my own everyday life. And it’s a reminder of how hard it is to operate in a different world – a world where people only swear when they’re surprised or angry, and never with the same venom – that you didn’t grow up in and have no familiarity with. Somehow you have to negotiate an entirely new set of manners and norms you don’t know anything about, at the same time as you’re still traumatized by and accustomed to an entirely different set of behavior that marks you out as trouble to everyone else.

This switch in background and norms is hard to adjust to, but it’s made even harder by the discovery of how much you were being held back from, and how much your own class is despised. Early in the book Hanley observes

The interesting thing about entering the middle class is that everything you have known is turned on its head. You go from being invisible to society, and yet at the same time the object of constant scrutiny and mistrust, to being at once anonymous and in possession of a voice. You are trusted to get on with things, and encouraged to go on endlessly about the way in which you do them

Everything about this sentence speaks so clearly to my own experience of growing up a working class boy and then stepping out to middle class life, and the different assumptions and expectations that are made about and of you when you are in one group compared to another. These changes can be like a slap in the face sometimes, in those moments when you realize just how much you were being denied. For example, when I first attended university – my big chance to step out of my class, though I didn’t realize it then – I was surrounded primarily by the children of the wealthy middle class in Adelaide, and I was shocked at the casual wealth of their lives and their casual assumptions about their rights and what they could and couldn’t do in public. These same middle class children refused to believe my achievements in high school, which were far superior to any of theirs, simply because my presentation as a poor kid from the country did not match their stereotypes. These children who had sailed through high school to an assumed berth in university, with the minimum of effort because their high quality schools ensured they got a good education and they had been groomed for progression from birth, were unable to comprehend that in my struggle to escape a terrible school I had worked hard every day and as a result got vastly better marks than them and won coveted awards – simply because of where I was from and what the signifiers of social class attached to me said about my potential. Eventually, of course, as I became more comfortable with the middle class world, I stopped wearing my working class history on my sleeve – changed my clothes, moderated my accent, dropped the swearing and rough language – and people stopped assuming limits to my achievement based on where I was from. Once I became more comfortable navigating the particular landscape of middle class life, people started assuming I was one of them, and a new world of opportunities and possibilities opened up to me.

But as comfortable as you become, you never truly forget or overcome that upbringing, and in discussing this Hanley brings up a recurring image that I think very well describes the crippling limitations the working class places on itself: the wall in the head. This is the barrier you build inside your own soul that stops you properly appreciating, and properly navigating, the middle class world you have entered. It can manifest in little ways, like an unwillingness to spend more than a certain amount of money on certain things, or in big ways like a fear of debt or an inability to manage money the way rich people do. It can also stop you grabbing opportunities that your peers take for granted, because it holds back your confidence and makes you timid about your own possibilities, and I think (Hanley doesn’t say this) in some ways it acts as a kind of PTSD, making you subject to a kind of existential fight-or-flight syndrome that makes you fearful of change and easily cowed into not taking risks. This is also part of the second trait of people who have moved up, which Hanley identifies: a fear that it will all be taken away from you in a moment and that you are living in your new, freer world on borrowed time. I think I still carry this fear inside me now, and I think most who have risen out of poverty to the middle class carry this feeling inside them. It can be a positive reminder of how far you have come, but it can also be a whip that strikes to stop you taking risks, or doing things that other middle class people do, because of a fear that you might be pushing your luck. This, for example, is why I did not travel in most of my 20s, even though most of my middle class peers had. Too risky!

Hanley manages to combine this political and economic analysis of the conditions facing the working class with an almost anthropological understanding of how these conditions manifest at a personal level to give a really engaging and powerful description of the process of social mobility, and its consequences for those who are able to climb the ladder. She combines her own insights and stories with the work of a wide array of sociologists who have studied class, in particular a book by Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy, that describes the same phenomena in an earlier age, from a similar standpoint. In updating this book for the modern era she incorporates more pop culture, and I guess tells stories that are more relevant to people like me. But in weaving all this together she tells a story that is almost perfectly about me, and I guess about people like me. It is the first time I have ever seen anything about the experience of poor people taking advantage of social mobility, that combines a sensitive and genuine respect for the class she has left with a scathing criticism of that class, without blame or sneering. For that alone, this book was like an awakening for me, the first time I ever thought that my experience of fighting so hard to become a scientist was unusual or challenging or rare, and exactly what forces I had to overcome to do what I unthinkingly did when I was just 17 years old. There are, of course, some differences – she grew up in the industrial north while I grew up in the rural southwest, and she never had the good fortune to migrate to Australia, a country that determinedly set out to make sure that the economic and political barriers to social mobility were lowered considerably (at least for my generation). Australia doesn’t have the same class structure or the same rigid divisions as Britain, and it’s possible that for people who were born and raised in Australia this book has nothing to say. But for someone like me, with an experience grounded strongly in British class barriers, this book was a powerful and eye-opening attempt to describe my own life story – an amazing experience for anyone who sees their story told by someone else, in a sympathetic and detailed account of their own life that mirrors yours. It’s the first time it has ever happened to me, and I will always be grateful for it.

The book does have some flaws, and for me the main one is its poor structuring. The book as a whole and the chapters within it don’t really have a strong introduction/body/conclusion structure, so that at times it comes across more as a rambling series of anecdotes rather than a coherent story. Some chapters end abruptly without anything resembling a review or conclusion, leaving you wondering exactly what Hanley was trying to say, and then the next chapter doesn’t really flow from the previous one, starting almost on a completely separate topic without any coherent structure. For me this was not a problem, since I was reveling just in having my story told, but for someone reading from a more dispassionate or disinterested perspective it might render the book far less readable than it might otherwise have been. Also, for someone reading from outside the class – i.e from the perspective of a middle class person who might influence policy – the lack of coherence might conspire to hide any possible conclusions that can be drawn about what needs to be done. This is particularly problematic when combined with the book’s other main flaw – its lack of recommendations. I would have loved to have seen a conclusion that gives concrete ideas about what needs to be done to make social mobility easier, political and economic recommendations on the one hand for weakening the stultifying grip of Britain’s class culture , and on the other hand a kind of self-help guide for those of us who have managed to climb the ladder. I don’t know how we can climb that wall in our head (or break it down) or how to escape that cloying fear of failure that haunts us, and I wonder if Hanley does either – but if she does, I’d love for her to have shared it with me. These flaws mean that while the book may be a powerful explainer for those coming from inside the experience, and potentially a powerful guide to understanding barriers to social mobility for those in other classes who are trying to break them down, it may only provide a limited guide to what can be done, and may turn off others who aren’t already approaching the problem with a sympathetic ear. Coming from inside the story, I can’t really say how much damage these two flaws do to the book’s overall mission, and I hope that they aren’t too overwhelming for other readers.

I was recommended this book on the left wing blog Crooked Timber, in a post by Chris Bertram, who turned to it as part of his attempt to understand Brexit. I don’t know how much it would help with this but I think it definitely provides a strong insight into how people in the working class experience class, and how hard it is to escape. I have written before on this blog about how I think social mobility is not the solution to inequality that many people hope, and have instead suggested we need to make all work rewarding and dignified. Hanley seems to have absorbed the same lessons from her own experience of changing class, writing in the conclusion of the book

I hope that by using elements of my own experience I have illustrated some of the shortcomings of a political narrative that places the onus for social mobility – for ‘getting out’ of the working class and into the middle class – on to individuals, rather than making it possible for everyone, regardless of occupation, to live comfortably.

I agree with her on the importance of this, and I hope that in reading this book others – especially from those classes that actually influence policy – will see how challenging it is to be ‘socially mobile’, both in taking the chances offered and in living with the consequences, and will rethink the way British society is organized to stop people at the bottom living comfortably, and to force them to climb so high and so hard to get out of the class they’re in. It’s not exactly a manifesto for revolution or social change, but I hope if more people read this book they will come to understand through its eloquence and insight just how hard they make things when they demand that everyone in the working class be respectable, and the impossibility of making Britain a better place by social mobility alone.

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