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Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley

Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley
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In her new book, Lynsey Hanley tells the “age-old” story of the “lonely journey” from lower class to middle class, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday – a journey she describes as “like emigrating from one side of the world to the other”. Although she grew up on a Birmingham council estate (an experience she wrote about in an earlier work, Estates), Hanley wasn’t “classically working class”. Her father, a clerk, wore a tie to work; the family ate “HP Sauce, not Daddies”. From an early age, Hanley felt herself a “misfit” on the tough Chelmsley Wood estate, with its “casual racism and casual violence”, and she had a strong “urge towards self-improvement”. Aged 17, she was “doing five A-levels and four jobs”; as an adult, she became a successful journalist and academic. These days, favouring “ground coffee” and “continental travel”, she belongs to London’s “established middle class”.

Respectable is an “ambitious” and “impressive” attempt to update Richard Hoggart’s seminal 1957 study of class, The Uses of Literacy, said Colin Grant in The Guardian. Using herself as a “case study”, Hanley “quietly” exposes the lack of mobility and equality at the heart of British society. Occasionally, she can’t stop her true “fury” rising to the surface – as when she describes being laughed at by a “snobbish don” during a Cambridge interview. Hanley is an “engaging” writer, but her view of class is “dated”, said Melanie Reid in The Times. I wasn’t convinced by her descriptions of “rigid class divisions”. Things today are “more fluid and egalitarian”– especially among the young, for whom class is “an analogue cliché in a digital age”. Though Hanley is “undoubtedly” sincere, “you want to shake her and say: ‘Get over it, woman!’”