My brother-in-law handed me Lynsey Hanley’s paperback, Respectable, telling me I may find it of interest. He was right. It is a book about crossing the class divide from the working class to the middle class (however we define that). Like Lynsey, I grew up as part of the respectable working class in Birmingham. Guess I’m now not really a wage slave but am a property owner, and have so-called middle class ‘pretensions’ which probably firmly places me in a different class group to that in which I was born. However, I remember having this precise conversation about crossing the class divide with an old university friend who found herself in exactly the same boat as me. She said: “it’s as if you don’t quite belong anywhere”. Certainly, as a working class university student, product of the 11+ grammar system, I never felt confident at university, never quite good enough. I probably only ultimately conquered that feeling many years and five degrees later, when I managed to work my socks off while working and raising children, to attain a First in Literature. When I went home (and this started at grammar school when I wore a different uniform to the rest) I didn’t feel a part of things, either. My tastes had moved on: food, film, television, music, culture, language. It was hard to slip back into the old ways of being.
Common ground is that Lynsey Hanley and I both had those Birmingham roots, though she was at Chelmsley Wood. To the child me, Chelmsley Wood was desirable, as it contained modern housing estates with gardens, rather than the terraced houses with yards, like where I lived. However, there was also a distinction in those days between the council and privately owned properties. A great deal of this book resonates. The desire to aspire to a new way of living, to be different, but in a way which ensures you cannot ever fully return; which is not to denigrate working class life and culture, despite feeling that something else is needed, that in itself it didn’t feed my desire to know more. It always and invariably reminds me of that pub scene in Educating Rita.
I was raised in Winson Green and one thing I didn’t know, which I learned from the book, was that it had riots in 2011. By then I was living in Devon and my parents had also moved from that specific area so I had become disengaged. Now I have no great desire to go back because it seems pointless. What use would it be to anyone, including me? Anyway, it’s probably changed. Hanley wrote:
Most people probably remember the Channel 4 documentary based in Winson Green, Benefits Street, focusing on James Turner Street, the road parallel to where I spent my first 18 years of life. The community agreed to the programme because it was supposed to represent their “strong, mutually supportive community”. Oddly enough, despite it being a stone’s throw away, James Turner Street felt posh in my Perrott Street days as most houses had small front gardens. Walking out onto the street was seriously poor. Hanley writes: “The programmes that resulted, shown under the title Benefits Street, seemed designed not to highlight such a community, but instead tacitly to encourage its viewers to denounce the welfare state and insult the people who’d agreed to be filmed”.
We always knew the neighbours in Winson Green, and we children played on the street together; adults looked out for each other’s offspring. Was there a real community spirit? It depends on how you define it. Did everyone work together to make life better? No, that was largely a middle-class prerogative, which I see now in towns and villages, though maybe it happens in some inner-city areas, too. However, if someone died we all closed our curtains as a mark of respect and women would go round the street for a door to door collection to help pay for the funeral, so maybe that was the elusive ‘community’. Largely though, during my childhood, people were too busy working to feed their families to engage in large-scale improving the community for others. Men like my Dad worked long hours, often in two manual jobs, while women like my mother relied on tranquillisers to get them through life; it wasn’t a life I aspired to.
As for Lynsey, education was my way out. I went to grammar school, which I largely hated until the sixth form, as I didn’t fit in there either, but I gleaned from it the desire to move on and the qualifications with which to do it.
In principle, I’m anti grammar schools (and aspirations for us working class children within them were still low, such as being told in the sixth form I only needed latin if I was going to university, and that I’d be a leading light at a polytechnic) but it remained part of my engineered escape to something which, if not better, was different, and for which I’m eternally grateful.