Blog Post

You can do it yourself: class, place and culture


Writer Lynsey Hanley on social boundaries, cultural choices and doing it for yourself.

Ashington District Star recreate Fish and Chips by Fred Laidler working with photographer Julian Germain

Photo: Ashington District Star, supported by bait, and working with photographer Julian Germain, recreate Fish and Chips by Fred Laidler, one of the 'Pitmen Painters' or Ashington Group Painters.

Writer Lynsey Hanley was the keynote speaker at our conference People, Place, Power. You can watch a film of her talk here and download our conference report here. In this blog, Lynsey unpicks social boundaries, cultural choices and doing it for yourself.

In my experience, growing up and being educated in a working-class environment, it went without saying that some things were ‘for us’ and others weren’t. Chart music was ‘ours’ and indie music wasn’t, for instance. Classical music wasn’t even on the radar. Such boundaries, as geographers such as Danny Dorling and the late Doreen Massey have written, are remade and reinforced through the places we find ourselves living and the places we tell ourselves we can and can’t go.

One of those places was university, which appeared as a distant planet, though one which, upon discovering such a thing existed, prompted in me the obsessive goal of getting there. My grandparents read The Sun and my parents the Mirror, while the Daily Mail seemed unattainably posh. I didn’t see a broadsheet until after I left school. Class tropes, expressed through which newspaper you read as much as the level of education you were expected to attain, seemed as solid and immutable as genetic material.

We take in this information so throroughly that it appears to become part of our common sense: it becomes what we believe ourselves to be. Social boundaries make us, and in turn we remake, or reproduce, them: back and forth it goes, between what we are ‘told’ (though rarely explicitly) we are entitled to in terms of education, social esteem, pay and political power, and what we ‘tell’ others through our cultural choices. 

Creative People and Places is a set of projects whose aim, as I see it, is to help people become aware that there is nothing out there that isn’t for them. Ultimately, it is about building confidence in the idea that you are as much a producer of culture as you are a consumer of it. In the critic Raymond Williams’ words, ‘culture is ordinary’, and is therefore made by ordinary people. It is when it is boxed off and called ‘art’ that culture acquires its invisible velvet rope. This is why CPP’s work resonates with me.

In 2011 the cultural researcher David Osa Amadasun took his teenage daughter for ‘a surprise trip’ to the Southbank complex in London to see an exhibition by Tracey Emin, an artist who has spent her career making glaring and uncomfortable statements about her status in the art world as a sweary, common interloper. ‘Shaniah glared at me as we neared the Hayward,’ writes Amadasun in an article titled ‘“Black people don’t go to galleries”’. ‘Before I could say anything, she froze and said that she wasn’t going into the gallery. “It’s not me dad, it’s not me”.’

With every fibre of her body, Shaniah felt black and working-class in an environment which gave every impression of being reserved – implicitly cordoned-off – for people who were white and middle-class. The question was whether she was able to step out of her zone of cultural comfort – a place where the join between her body, mind and environment felt seamless – and, guided by her father, stand the discomfort of exposure to something new and, to her, implicitly hostile.

Art galleries don’t need to display signs stating who is and isn’t welcome on their premises: we help to make them for ourselves in response to innumerable, and far subtler, signals from the culture we are immersed in. This is for us; that isn’t. For those of us who do arrive on that distant planet – usually called ‘university’, but sometimes through some other trial-and-error means of discovery – there is a long period of adjustment (some would say lifelong) while you learn to accept that new worlds have opened up from which you are not automatically banished.  

This is why a book such as read Richard Hoggart’s 1957 book The Uses of Literacy is treated by its readers and re-readers as a manual for life, a map to negotiate the feeling of being ‘uprooted and anxious’ wherever you take yourself. Those who recognize themselves and their experiences in it on first reading find they carry the book with them in the minds from then on.

Why ‘uprooted and anxious’? Because, as Hoggart recognised of his childhood in the 1930s and the supposedly less class-ridden world of the late 1950s, to be socially mobile more often than not involved a degree of upheaval that someone born into relative privilege was more easily able to avoid. This remains as true today as it was then. What makes the book so valuable, sixty years after publication, is his commitment to finding working-class experiences, relationships, and values of worth – in the sociologist Les Back’s words, ‘luminous fragments of classed feeling’. 

Back, professor in sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, paid tribute to Hoggart’s influence in a deeply-felt eulogy, in which he recalled the experience of attending a concert in Sydenham, south-east London, at which Janet Kay sang her 1979 lovers’ rock hit ‘Silly Games’ to a ‘crowd of all shades and three generations’. 

Describing those ‘luminous fragments’ of class in culture, Back saw how Kay’s performance ‘animated shared sentiments across the line of colour within what seemed to me a profoundly classed experience.’ Her audience had ‘gone to the same schools, lived in the same areas and had to contend, perhaps in varying degrees, with the same social workers and defenders of law and moral order.’ 

Shaniah, the teenage girl frozen at the doors of the Hayward, had already, in her father’s words, ‘held her own in a rough school and area’. Her daily life was rough enough: it didn’t need any more roughness. The search for authenticity, often expressed through material things such as ‘proper’, or artisanal, food, is, for Hoggart, a sign of middle-class anxiety about comfort: the need to find some rough edges in lives characterized by smooth transitions. By contrast, what finally induces Shaniah to enter the gallery is her dad’s promise of a sweet, smooth, Frappuccino afterwards. 

The contrasts between what is regarded as ‘authentic’ and ‘artificial’, ‘rough’ or ‘smooth’, are significant to think about in the context of engagement in the arts. I often think about my lifetime love of pop music, which has never been supplanted – though enhanced – by discovering classical or jazz or other less accessible forms in spite of undergoing Hoggart’s classic trial-by-education into the cultural middle class. 

Pop to me is art: there are popular musicians who have elevated the form to such an extent that to dismiss the significance of their contribution to culture would be pure snobbery. The most obvious exemplar is David Bowie, who, the writer Paul Morley commented following Bowie’s death on 10th January last year, ‘maintained a loyalty to the purist idea of progress, and the importance of distinctive, disobedient imaginative action’. In other words, don’t let other people decide what is for you and what isn’t. You can do it yourself. 

Lynsey Hanley

Photo: Ashington District Star, supported by bait, and working with photographer Julian Germain, recreate Fish and Chips by Fred Laidler, one of the 'Pitmen Painters' or Ashington Group Painters.