Respectable

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The moment I read the first sentence of this book I knew I’d made a mistake agreeing to write a review of it. Determining class based upon whether you call dinner “tea” or “lunch” doesn’t bode well for a book which seeks to focus upon the nature of class in Britain today.
Nevertheless, I’d agreed to write it so it was too late to change my mind.

The book seeks to identify the changing nature of the working class and the distinguishing features of privilege for the middle class. Its starting point is Richard Hoggart’s use of language as a means to generate class differentiation. As Hanley recognises, every time attempts are made to bury class the coffin stubbornly remains empty.

However, the book fails to understand the continuing relevance of class for the most basic of reasons — it fails to provide a definition of what “working class” is. As a result the identifying marks of being working class are which TV channel you watch, whether you read the Sun or Mirror, and similar superficialities.

The book treats class as a sociological descriptor of individuals rather than an objective feature of the structure of society. It therefore makes no distinction between class as structure and class consciousness as subjective understanding.

There is a central explanation, in my view, for why class is undefined and that is the author herself. Despite claims to be firmly within the middle class she still looks remarkably working class. Lynsey Hanley is an “honorary researcher” at a university and a “regular” contributor to the Guardian and the Financial Times.

Universities and journalism are two of the most casualised industries in Britain. To be “honorary” or “regular” means that you are among the most casualised in these respective industries and have no control over your labour. Indeed, if you applied Guy Standing’s ideas of a “precariat” class, Hanley would fit nicely into it. Far from being upwardly mobile Hanley is firmly downwardly mobile. Becoming working class would be something to aspire to!

The above reflects my disappointment and frustration with the (lack of) theoretical underpinning of the book. If it were instead treated as a novel focused upon the subtitle of the book — “the experience of class” — the author has written a highly readable, funny and witty piece. Examining her experience of growing up in a working class community in Birmingham through the 1980s and 1990s, Hanley demonstrates the potentiality of education for liberation.

University provided Hanley with a means of empowerment but not one of changing class.