Writer, academic and guest blogger Lisa Mckenzie provides a personal and powerful insight into what it means to see her book Getting By published this week.
After a lifetime of working class experience (mine as well as those in the book) and ten years’ of research, Getting By, is being published.
I have mixed feelings about reaching this stage of my research and my life: I am nervous about its publication, but also about the route my life is taking. I appear to have become part of the establishment at the London School of Economics, and, heaven help me, in ‘that London’.
The anxieties I have over my book becoming an item that you can hold in your hands, and something people can buy, are I suppose the normal anxieties every writer has when their thoughts are allowed out of their heads and into the public domain. Will anyone read this book? I hope they do, is my first reaction, quickly followed by, I hope they don’t.
With this book there is an added anxiety about how I have represented the people who have given me their time, their stories, allowed me to share in their lives. I carry a responsibility, as all researchers do to their respondents, to ensure they are not misrepresented. The way working class people, especially those who live on council estates, are misrepresented is at the heart of this book, and at the heart of the activism I undertake.
Devaluing and dehumanising
I know first-hand the painful consequences of what happens when working class people are devalued, what it means to be ‘looked down on’, ‘laughed at’, ‘ridiculed’ and despised. It hurts, and it is damaging. This type of institutional devaluing of any human being is also dangerous.
“the process of devaluing people…has been at the root of fascism, racism, slavery, and capitalism”
Without being too dramatic (actually why not, it is dramatic), the process of devaluing people is a way of dehumanising them which has been at the root of fascism, racism, slavery, and capitalism. It allows for the justification of the process and outcome of inequality, where some people can be treated badly, and/or cruelly while others receive equally unfair societal advantage.
The essence of this book is to show that the people who live on St Ann’s council estate in Nottingham have been subject to unfair disadvantages because they are working class, because they live in social housing, because they are low paid, unemployed and precarious. The book also makes clear that this kind of disadvantage, and any systematic devaluing of groups of people is structural, purposeful and historical.
People ‘like me’
I left school before I was 16, worked in a factory making tights for nine years, and am now researcher, author, teacher at the LSE, and in ‘that London’.
In 1984 when I left school at the beginning of the Miners’ Strike, education was not for the likes of me. My school careers interview consisted of asking me which factory I wanted to work in, and had I got one lined up? I said ‘yes thank you I’m going to work with my mum’, and I did.
“I believed the rhetoric and thought that it was my fault: I hadn’t worked hard enough at school”
My own story demonstrates clearly and obviously that I was subject to the unfair disadvantages that class inequality bestows on people ‘like me’. I, like many, believed the rhetoric and thought that it was my fault: I hadn’t worked hard enough at school and I wasn’t interested in education as a child.
However (and fortunately) that changed as I somehow found myself doing a sociology degree at the University of Nottingham as a mature student. It didn’t take me long to understand that I should have always been in higher education.
A university education is a remarkable thing, and I am grateful for it, and to those who have imparted their knowledge to me, helped me and supported me. However that doesn’t stop me from being angry for my friends, my family, my community and my class, that the process of de-valuing working class people hurts them, and benefits others.
A question of representation
Consequently it lies heavy on me that I represent people who I think of ‘like me’ fairly and accurately. Does this mean that I show the people of St Ann’s in Nottingham as tireless working class heroes, chirpy in the face of inequality like the Downton Abbey servants? The deserving, humble, and not-angry-at-all working class? I’m sure those who are advantaged by our disadvantage would like that.
Or do I represent them as downtrodden victims of the endless misery that class distinction, and class inequality produces, perhaps in the way that George Orwell does in the Road to Wigan Pier?
And of course there are other ways to represent working class people and the neighbourhoods where they live as one-dimensional ghettos full of gangs, drugs, sex, and violence. This view would definitely grab the headlines give me a bit of fame, perhaps allow me to curry a bit of favour with the Daily Mail, and even get the ear of a Minister, they love that sort of thing.
None of this would be true, it wouldn’t be fair, and it would say nothing about the complexity of family life, community, and inequality in Britain today, or in actual fact, ever.
So what I have tried to do is bring to life the life, the people, and the situations I have known and lived. These are all of the above – heroes, villains, victims – and everything in between.
Stories from the ‘inside’
And lastly, since I have been in constant turmoil and anxiety of my own class position and how it relates to this book, my research, and now my life… why did I write this book at all?
I wanted and still want to tell the stories from the inside, from the position of a working class woman, with a common Nottingham accent. From the position of an academic who doesn’t know the correct grammatical use of ‘borrow’ and ‘lend’. From a granddaughter whose Granddad couldn’t read and write, and died from emphysema from working down the pit his whole life. And whose Grandma had 10 children and only left Nottinghamshire to go to Skegness for our holidays. She had never been to ‘that London’.
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