Wall in the Head

Carolyn Steedman

  • Respectable: The Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley
    Allen Lane, 240 pp, £16.99, April 2016, ISBN 978 1 84614 206 2

‘All I can offer is my years of lived experience,’ Lynsey Hanley wrote at the end of Estates: An Intimate History (2007). Her account of growing up on the vast Chelmsley Wood housing estate south-east of Birmingham in the 1980s (she was born in 1976) was an offering to policymakers, architects, planners and politicians: if they knew what it was like they might consider ways and means of making social housing a less miserable setting for so many people’s lives. She writes eloquently about the contempt with which post-1945 architects dreamed up New Brutalist quarters for the poor. The book was as much about class as it was about housing estates. ‘Class is built into the physical landscape of the country,’ she said. Hanley took a memorable walk around Chelmsley Wood: pale terraces, dead ends, empty streets, the haggard shopping centre, burned-out garages; the M6 traffic thundered past on one side, planes roared into land at Birmingham Airport on the other. ‘The empty town of strangers gave me space and light,’ she said at the end; ‘but it didn’t give me a chance to see what life could be like outside it.’ In Estates she first described the Wall in the Head that Chelmsley built in her: ‘You cannot know what that was like unless you grew up inside it.’

Respectable revisits another proposition from Estates: ‘If you attend school on a council estate, having come from a council estate, you get a council-estate education … survive five years in a school on a council estate and you get a medal from the Nietzsche Society.’ Respectable is about having been there, in an unnamed estate primary school (there were quite a few in Chelmsley in 1980, with a ward population pressing 14,000), its secondary school, and then, the world-away Solihull Sixth-Form College, half an hour on the bus from ‘The Wood’. Local historians, bloggers and just plain old Midlanders get pretty shirty at the faux-Rasta designation of Chelmsley Wood as ‘The Wood’, and particularly irate at the pronunciation ‘Da Wood’. Hanley really nails class condescension in her discussion of the linguistic usage ‘these people’: ‘These people just don’t know how to bring up children/eat properly/not look like fat slags’; ‘These kids don’t want to learn/these parents don’t care if they do.’ Oh let’s cut to the chase, go back to Wigan Pier (1937) and say: ‘If you give these people baths they’ll only put coal in them.’ Even sitting writing this review 18 miles away in the bourgeois fastness of Leamington Spa, I feel pretty offended myself at the attribution of low-life character to any of my Warwickshire neighbours. Here in the West Midlands we all come from somewhere else, as George Eliot pointed out when presenting her study of provincial life – Middlemarch (Coventry) and Loamshire (Warwickshire) – in 1872. This middle bit is the most crossed over, moved about in, arrived at and abandoned part of the country and has been so since the 18th century, when itinerant harvesters worked their way from the Welsh coast to the North Sea and back again. Best not to take much notice. Everyone will soon be off somewhere else.

Hanley found it quite difficult to get out of Chelmsley Wood and into Solihull: for two winters she got up at dawn to wait for the local bus. No one told her that dedicated transport collected students from Coleshill, northeast of Birmingham, and Chelmsley, and delivered them to the college door. She says she didn’t find out about it until it was too late because of her social isolation: a bit bookish, a bit determined, a bit odd, up in her room reading Smash Hits; an only child. Buses are important to her story: a woman, a man (doesn’t matter which) walks out of the barren shopping centre, waits in the bitter cold with Farmfood bags cutting into their hands ‘for buses that never come’. The figure haunts Estates and Respectable. One evening, home from London and university, her father turned from the telly and asked her: ‘Have you ever been down at the shops and just looked around and thought, all these wasted lives?’

By now Chelmsley Wood was officially part of Solihull. It was north Solihull, as opposed to south Solihull, where the sixth-form college was: haut bourgeois Solihull, High Anglican Solihull, mildly risible Solihull with its Midlands’ reputation for pretensions to gentility, where the six-year-old Wystan Auden had his first significant encounter with a gasometer, round about 1913. Maybe he was taken to the bluebell woods six miles north of leafy Lode Lane where the Audens lived. Birmingham City Council compulsorily purchased the ancient Chelmsley woodland in 1966 to build 15,590 dwellings to rehouse families on the council house waiting list. The Chelmsley Wood Estate became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull in 1974, though Birmingham City Council retained control of its dwellings until they were transferred to Solihull Metropolitan Borough in 1980.

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