30 April 2016

Tea or Dinner?

Posted by Lynsey Hanley

Lynsey Hanley is at the Bookshop on Thursday 5 May, in conversation with Dawn Foster about ‘Respectable’, Hanley’s exploration of class in Britain. Here’s a taste of the book’s introduction, in which Hanley considers the idea of social mobility through the prism of what meals should be called.

I can’t remember the day I started calling dinner ‘lunch’ and tea ‘dinner’, but I know that it happened, because that’s what I call them now. That must mean I’m middle class, where once I was working class; though, no matter how posh I get, I can’t bring myself to call (what I now call) dinner ‘supper’. Supper for me means (with apologies to the writer Stuart Maconie) having a Kit-Kat in your dressing gown in front of something racy on Channel 4.

Social mobility has its limits: limits which, perhaps, you have to set yourself in order to stay at least halfway related to the person you started out as. It is often talked of as a ladder, which you can climb from bottom to top. The walls are less talked about. This book is about how people try to get over them, whether they manage to or not. I grew up on a West Midlands council estate as part of an extended family which would once have been described as ‘respectable working class’. I went to school in the eighties and early nineties on the same estate, in an educational environment which didn’t expect or prepare young people to stay on beyond sixteen, and progressed from there to a sixth-form college in a middle-class area full of straight‑A students. I went on to the University of London, and from there, eventually, I got to here: writing books about the anxiety induced by being socially mobile. The questions for me have always been: how did that happen? Why does it induce such anxiety? Why is it such a big deal to change social class?

The subject of class obsesses me, as it does a lot of people who started life in one class and have ended up in another. Changing class is like emigrating from one side of the world to the other, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life, even if they are among the relationships and things that are dearest to your heart. The effect of this is psychologically disruptive, sometimes extremely so; yet it’s rarely discussed alongside the received wisdom about social mobility, which is that it is unequivocally a Good Thing for individuals and for society as a whole.

UPCOMING EVENT: Lynsey Hanley with Dawn Foster, Thursday 5 May at 7 p.m. BOOK TICKETS.