Glimpsing the title of Lynsey Hanley’s absorbing new book as it fell out of the jiffy bag, I found myself thinking of my grandmother, Mrs Lilian Taylor. This lady, who died in 1957, spent the first part of her married life inhabiting a couple of furnished rooms on the western side of Norwich and the second part of it living in a white stucco council house on the newly built Earlham estate. She was an intensely respectable woman, implacably opposed to strong drink and strong language, but of what, materially, did her respectability consist?
On the one hand it meant goading my father through the scholarship exam to a place at the local minor public school. On the other, it meant distancing herself from those of the neighbours who took to brawling in the street on Saturday nights and whom my grandfather was occasionally brought out to pacify. It included aspiring to rent a ‘double bay front’ — a comparatively rare kind of council house with twin bay windows. And, above all, it involved supporting the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin’s slogan of ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage’.
A Marxist critic of the English social system would probably mark my grandmother down as a traitor to her class or, at best, a kind of hopelessly deluded member of that very common demographic, the working-class snob. It is to Lynsey Hanley’s credit that, like her inspiration Richard Hoggart, she defines the pursuit of ‘respectability’ not as one-upmanship by another name but as an absolutely vital means of keeping your head above water, preserving your dignity in a world where a sense of self, ambition and personal integrity might not survive the tallyman’s weekly call.
As for her credentials to write this slimmed-down and considerably less puritanical version of Hoggart’s great conspectus of postwar working-class culture, The Uses of Literacy (1957), these are pretty much impeccable. Born into a sprawling Sixties estate in Birmingham commissioned by the Labour housing minister Richard Crossman, imagining her family to be ‘neither rough nor posh… skilled tradesman class’, she attends Dickensian schools where the teachers sit and weep while the class riots around them, and prospers by virtue of patience, quiet industry and an odd feeling, never quite got to the bottom of, that there is more to life that the fatalistic conformity of her peers.
Not, of course, that most of the children with whom she mixes are, strictly speaking, her peers. She sympathises with the teenage girls conferring over their make-up bags, but feels no solidarity ‘because I felt they were completely wasting their time’. Hanley, in other words, is a projection of Hoggart’s scholarship boy — or rather girl; exceptional and self-aware, who prefers the solid, communal Daily Mirror to the soaraway, trivialising Sun, hopeful, curious yet, like Hoggart’s exemplar, made deeply unhappy by her skip through the hoops of sixth-form college and university and her arrival in a room with, as she puts it, the potential to unlock every subsequent door while closing off the way back to the first.
What might be called the trauma of Hanley’s deracination sees her attempting to negotiate the outsize obstacle course of middle-class privilege, a sense of entitlement so profound that it scarcely occurs to most of the people who benefit from it, with a set of tools (voice, tone, poise, style, connections) to match. En route, she laments the decisive change that has come over the concept of ‘respectability’ since her childhood, the idea that its moral carapace is only obtainable in middle-class terms. Merely by aspiring to join the ever more crowded ranks of the bourgeoisie, she insists, you forfeit most of the values that made you what you are in the first place. Meanwhile, the yobs at the back of the comprehensive school class are never going to listen to the teacher because they dislike being told what to do by someone who shows no understanding of their predicament.
Almost inevitably, the best bits of Respectable — and they are very good indeed — take in the author’s own observations. One or two slightly less good bits recycle the deductions of contemporary sociologists. An outsider, with no personal experience of the things she complains about, may wonder why she agonises so much about the social transit hereby accomplished. After all, an authentically popular working-class culture à la Hoggart has largely ceased to exist in the face of the mass-consumer tide. Why care if one is no longer a part of it?
But Lynsey Hanley is astute enough to know that these things matter to the social voyager, just as they mattered to my grandmother, whose discovery that the lease of the privately owned house in which she spent her widowhood forbade the hanging out of washing on Sundays was one of the proudest moments of her life.