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Municipal Chic: Lynsey Hanley

Andrew Stevens interviews Lynsey Hanley.

3:AM: For those who’ve not read it, what is your book Estates concerned with?

LH: I grew up on a very large council estate — with 60,000 inhabitants — on the eastern periphery of Birmingham that was built between 1965 and 1971. Now I live on a much smaller estate in the East End of London, in a flat that I bought from the original Right to Buy tenants-turned-owners. I came to write the book because of an obsession with council housing and its place in Britain’s physical, recent historical and emotional landscape that developed — or, rather, crept up on me — after moving away from home to London and university aged 18.

3:AM: What I like about it is that it doesn’t fit into one neat category — it’s both analysis and personal history. That’s something the reviews focused on, but was that how you intended it from the start?

LH: Yes. I never wanted it to be too messy but I thought that if I could bring in each element — memoir, history, social science — as it seemed apt, it would make the book appeal more to the general reader. The most important thing to me was that this book would not be consigned, through dryness or dullness, to the academic shelves. The best non-fiction can be enjoyed by anyone, no matter what their usual fields of interest are, and I tried to keep that in mind all the way through. I felt like I had a burning message to impart to the world, not just to students at RIBA! The problem I had initially was giving the book any kind of structure at all, and for its eventual neat backbone I’m indebted to my editor, Matt Weiland.

3:AM: The book belongs to what I’d like to think of as an almost lost social journalism in this country and you mention George Orwell to that end, though I guess Polly Toynbee’s also had a stab at it recently. Have you read the more recent American stuff like Barbara Ehrenreich?

LH: Thank you. I guess that’s what I was aspiring to, although I think the strong personal element in mine makes the ‘social’ element much less rigorous. I’ve read both Polly Toynbee’s and Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent books — the former’s Hard Work came out not long after the latter’s Nickel and Dimed, and both were valuable works of reportage and polemic. Of American writers who write about public life, I think Jonathan Franzen is discounted too often because he is seen primarily as a fiction writer, yet if you read his essay collection, How to be Alone — never mind The Corrections, itself a truly coruscating ‘social’ novel — it’s full of excellent reportage about the decline of certain aspects of the American social fabric.

3:AM: The reviews were mostly positive but Simon Jenkins claimed in his that Margaret Thatcher once said she’d never met a working-class person who didn’t secretly aspire to be middle-class. What did you make of that assertion?

LH: I think it’s rubbish, like everything else that twisted woman ever said. For a start, if you’re growing up in a sort of de-politicised working-class environment — i.e. a community that isn’t knitted together by union activity, party membership and so on — you never even hear the phrase ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’. It’s ‘the likes of us’ and ‘them’, or ‘posh people’. It rings very hollow when you hear an apparently working-class character on television slagging someone off for being ‘middle-class’. I never heard reference to the class system in terms of ‘working’ and ‘middle’ until I went to sixth-form college. That said, it’s rare to meet working-class person who didn’t want to be considered respectable, or at least respected by their peers. Even people who you might consider to be very rough have strict criteria concerning their superiority to those they regard as ‘scum’ or ‘the lowest of the low’. The outside world doesn’t get a look-in in my experience, so middle-class values are irrelevant.


3:AM: She looms quite centrally in the book, not least because of your own chronology and obviously the Right to Buy comes into play here. Rather than bemoan the effect it had on the housing stock, don’t you think there was some benefit in terms of how it incentivised and facilitated a modicum of social mobility in a society that was otherwise beginning to lag on that score?

LH: Grrr. How I wish she didn’t loom so centrally — but having been born in 1976, I think her shadow is imprinted on my soul. I do think there was a benefit to a lot of people because it gave them more autonomy in their lives, and you can’t blame them for making a pragmatic decision that would enable them better to participate in the wider trend towards individual affluence and so on. For these people, the right to buy permitted economic mobility, but social mobility — I’m not so sure. Also, I think a lot of working-class people were headed towards voting Tory by 1979 without factoring in the right to buy — they hadn’t suffered financially under Labour in the 1970s — income differences were at their narrowest in the 70s — but they’d seen a lot of control taken away of their lives, what with strikes, hardcore union bargaining — perversely, when you think about it — blackouts, poor maintenance and management of their estates by local authorities, and so on.

3:AM: Also, you don’t mention Shirley Porter in the book, surely the greatest abuse of council housing by a Tory?

LH: You know, I think she was in an earlier draft but didn’t make it for some reason — I think because although it was a terrible abuse of council housing, it was limited to a single borough and, of course, she got her come-uppance when she was jailed and made to pay it back — except, err, she seems to have got out of that bit. We — that is, me and the book’s editor — tried to keep the central historical section as closely as possible to do with the actual fabric of the housing and estates built and political decisions that affected the nationwide stock.

3:AM: Given the similar scope, have you read Julian Baggini’s recent enquiries into the values of the white working class in Rotherham?

LH: Yes, I did, and thought it was great, although what I think needed to be made a bit clearer in that piece is the difference between casual racism and hard racism. I do think someone having a racist film on their mobile is racist, even if it’s meant to be “a laugh”. I also think, unlike Baggini ultimately, that the ‘P’ word is totally racist even when apparently used without malice. But I also know what he means when he suggests that that very lack of malice proves how marginal the BNP continue to be, despite their relative electoral ‘success’. Unfortunately the persistence of soft racism is as hurtful to those it’s directed at — psychologically, in the long-term — as hard, BNP-type racism. Words hurt like fists do.

3:AM: You refer to Richard Hoggart’s work throughout the book and the Guardian ‘Public’ magazine review of it remarked that: “Hanley writes as if she were the first person since Richard Hoggart to muse on their family origins and social ascent, though maybe her wide-eyed discovery of the maldistribution of life chances, income and accommodation makes her point about the persistence of disadvantage.” A fair comment, do you think?

LH: The last half, certainly, but not the first half, which I think is pretty mean! At no point, from my perspective, do I even infer that that I consider myself the first person since Hoggart to write about these things. I think anyone who goes through social mobility and then gets to ruminate on it in public — whether for a hobby or for a living — can avoid writing about it. It’s central to what made you, and such an obvious point of departure or change between your childhood life and adult life that it’s hard not to spend lots of time thinking about it.

3:AM: You do a good job of charting political attitudes to social housing, from the erection of the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch by the London County Council, to the post-war boom and the more recent attempts of New Labour to externalise the remaining housing stock. Aside from the market imperative there and the shunting of the resource burden out of the public sector, don’t you think tenant control/influence is preferable to returning to allowing patrician councillors to stipulate the colour of people’s doors etc.?

LH: Yes I do, definitely, and the more tenant control there is over decisions that are made on their estate, the better for its sustainability, community cohesion and — again — its residents’ sense of autonomy, which improves health and longevity. Also, on estates that are being regenerated and rebuilt, it lessens the chance of costly mistakes being repeated over and over, because tenants are there to say: “Don’t put the bins there, they’ll get set fire to”, etc.

3:AM: You seem to have a go at people in Liverpool for wearing Lacoste…

LH: I haven’t got anything against Lacoste in particular, more the uniformity of the sportswear decisions made in the Liverpool area. I love Liverpool and spend a lot of time there, but it breaks my heart to think you have to have £500 worth of rustling sweet wrappers in your wardrobe in order to have the acceptance of your peers. But as I say in the book, I went through exactly the same phase myself with Nike and Adidas in the 1980s — just that I got it all discounted from BeWise!

3:AM: You mention Stanley Kubrick utilising the then recently-built yet already dilapidated Thamesmead as a backdrop for A Clockwork Orange. A recurring theme in the book is that council housing is stigmatised and an emblem for belonging to the lower orders, the untouchables as it were. What do you make of supposed ‘municipal chic’ — just another appropriation of outsider space by someone seeking to make a quick buck?

LH: I was more surprised the first time I saw a fashion shoot done not in front of a tower block — that’s got more obvious arty Brutalism/Clockwork Orange connotations — but amidst an estate of low-rise maisonettes. ‘Municipal chic’ is part well-intentioned, part-cynical, I think, depending on the person who commissioned the shoot! It could be that that person grew up on an estate themselves and wants to see it represented in the mainstream press, or — more likely, alas — that it seems terribly exotic for its uniformity. Either way, bucks are made out of it, to be sure. High fashion has as much to gain from looking ‘gritty’ as sportswear labels.

3:AM: You write of council estates that: “They sap the spirit, suck out hope and ambition, and draw in apathy and nihilism.”, and note that the Sex Pistols aptly managed to rhyme “anarchy” with “council tenancy” in ‘Anarchy In The UK’. But where you live now has spawned the grime scene, not to mention the Community Music project of Asian Dub Foundation. Do you think that environment also lends itself to creativity as a means to circumvent or just cope with these conditions?

LH: Hmm. I think desperation can force it up, but I’m not sure you should have to endure so much as a result of other people’s decisions, with the result that it makes you creative. It seems quite a cruel way of bringing about creativity! Grime, unfortunately, remains at least partly mired in the terrible problems of the estates that spawned it — manifested in the recent Crazy Titch murder case; Dizzee Rascal has a very positive message for kids who he knows are poised at the same crossroads as he was as a teenager — between self- and community-destructive behaviour and intense, possibly inspiring, creativity — but his records still thrum with the sheer stress of trying to keep it together on an inner-city estate.

Lynsey Hanley was born in Birmingham in 1976. She moved to London in 1994 to study politics and history at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. She writes for The Observer and The New Statesman. She is married and lives in the east end of London. Estates is out now on Granta.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 3rd, 2007.