Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lynsey Hanley's "Estates" - a personal review

I wanted to write something in praise of Lynsey Hanley's incredible book 'Estates' which I have belatedly just finished reading (having started it earlier in the year).

I wanted to praise her eloquence in articulating such an excellent analysis and history of council and social housing in the UK (and to some extent placing it in a broader global context).

I wanted to praise her wit and dark turn of phrase for describing the utterly soul destroying poverty of body and spirit that encompasses the lives of 'estates': those visibly different worlds on the edge (even when they're in the centre).

I wanted to acknowledge how she doesn't just rail against the iniquities established and reinforced almost from the very start of the concept of 'estates', but also manages to offer inspired hope and vision for the future.

I wanted to say so much.

On finishing one particular chapter - "The Wall in the Head" - I tried to read some passages aloud to Neil. Even as he unwittingly said aloud 'that sounds like you' I was already breaking into tears and before reaching the end of the passage I was choking and had to put the book into his hands instead.

I know that my education, my experiences, my cultural and economic status no longer keep me 'working class'. But the rawness remains with me of my early education (till at least 20+), my early experiences (at least till I left home aged 25), and my early cultural and economic status (both personal and familial household status till at best a decade ago and probably till just half that).

And so in reading her words I was transported back to feeling the same emotions that she captures so well.

Will Hutton cited the following extract:
'If you attend a school on a council estate,' writes Hanley, 'having come from a housing estate, you get a council estate education. It's not so much that you get told kids like you can't ever hope to achieve their full potential: it's just that the very idea of having lots of potential to fulfil isn't presented... inculcated into every child at a council estate school is the idea that you shouldn't hope for too much.'
But it was this from the follow up passage that broke me:
Unless you show extraordinary levels of ability, initiative and maturity - in a school context where 'extraordinary' can mean anything from merely turning up, to showing an interest and then applying yourself - you are unlikely to be let in on the little secret that is the World Beyond The Wall. I am a child of the little secret, which is not to say that I showed extraordinary levels of ability, unitiative and maturity. Indeed, I showed the sort of qualities that most middle-class parents would regard in their children as deeply average, which is to say that I was quiet, conscientious, anxious to please, anxious full stop [my emphasis added]. My teachers - the only middle-class people I knew - let me in on the whole thing purely because I stuck out. I showed signs of knowing, or suspecting, what was possible if I put my mind to it: signs that the wall in my head was lower than can usually be expected in a place like ours.
I couldn't help my reaction. Sure, generationally, Hanley comes from the GCSEs era rather than my own CSE/O level life. But the sentiments she expressed when she wrote she "was told by some that, 'Oh, but you were the sort of kid who would have done well anyway'..." rang very true for me. When I first started reading the book, I kept marking passages in pencil, highlighting lines that dug deep into my psyche and my history. I had to stop by the end of the introduction: I was picking out almost every other line.

So, Lynsey, thank you for writing the book I wish and probably could have written (though I doubt half as well as you did). And if you haven't already read it, then buy a copy now and read it. It is a brilliant piece of smart historically rooted and personal analysis of housing today.


John said...

I read it a couple of months ago and just loved it. I know Chelmsley Wood mostly from playing footie there as a kid and from having schoolfriends who lived there; my mom and dad grew up in council houses elsewhere in Brum (Chelmsley Wood is technically Solihull because of boundary changes). But the shared experience and the period she writes about were very familiar to me. It reminded me of Richard Hoggart's Uses of Literacy but with greater resonance for our generation.

I hope it provides the springboard for a much more encompassing and broader project because as a subject I think she's only just beginning to touch the surface.

John said...

Hi again Lisa--

Just to let you know, Lynsey Hanley was on Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed show this week on Radio 4 discussing suburbia. It's very enjoyable and available as a podcast.


Lisa Rullsenberg said...

thanks! I love reading LH in the Grundie and will enjoy catching this on the iPlayer I hope!