Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley - review by Robert Colls

Robert Colls

Made in Chelmsley

Respectable: The Experience of Class


Allen Lane 240pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

I remember a Militant university comrade telling me that it didn’t matter about the individual, it was class that mattered, and the quicker I realised this the better. It was rubbish, of course, and I decided to change my team of advisers then and there, although I did wonder – as Lynsey Hanley continues to wonder about herself – how I got from my working-class ‘there’ (northern blacking factory, etc) to my middle-class ‘here’ (Sussex University) when plenty of other people didn’t.

Hanley was born in 1976, the only child of a couple from the Birmingham section of the utility clerking classes. They lived in Chelmsley Wood, a giant council estate that hadn’t quite turned out the way its planners had hoped, where she went to a ‘comp’ and wanted to learn, somewhat against the odds. After that she attended a nice sixth form college on the other side of town, which she loved. This didn’t save her from anxiety and stress, however, and we find her aged seventeen doing five A levels, four jobs and, according to her friend Richard, having her 19th nervous breakdown. She recovered and eventually took flight to Bourgeois London Heaven, where she read English and did rock journalism, becoming what she is now (and probably always was) – smart, nervy, eloquent and deadly honest, with a great ear for how we think.

She wants to explore both the deepest sanctuaries and the slightest brush-offs of class in England, and has written a book that is part memoir and part ethnography to show how they applied to her (and maybe to the rest of us). Less interested in glass floors and ceilings than

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