Tom Haines-Doran reveiws Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain by Lisa McKenzie, published by Policy Press (2015)
“Do the lower classes smell? Of course, as a whole, they are dirtier than the upper classes”
This quote from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier stayed with Lisa McKenzie since she read it at the age of 16. Until then she did not know that others had such views of working class people like her.
McKenzie is from a Nottinghamshire mining family. Having worked for many years in a tight making factory, she took up an Access course at University, progressing through to complete a PhD in Sociology.
She is from St Anne’s, a pebble-dashed council estate in Nottingham, synonymous to the outside world with crime and deprivation. Getting By is the result nine years’ intensive research into St Anne’s. Her status as a well-known St Anne’s resident gave her the opportunity to interview people, mostly women, who would not open up to researchers from the ‘outside’. As McKenzie argues, this is part of the value of working class people doing social research.
Over the last few decades attacks on working class jobs and welfare services have been accompanied by an ideological assault by the political class and the media. They frame the poorest 10% as an ‘underclass’, understood as a group of people who ‘lack’ essential qualities, such as education, motivation to work, and accepted moral standards.
At the same time many academic studies of inequality miss the cultural value of working class lives because they only look at statistical measurements of the material aspects of poverty, without asking people how they feel. People from St Anne’s don’t feel ‘poor’, but do feel ‘looked down on’ by other areas of Nottingham and by social and welfare services.
Life in St Anne’s is a struggle, particularly with deeper to public services in recent years. Yet the community has an informal support network that help its people ‘get by’. For example, one recurrent topic of conversation in the community centre café, staffed by volunteers from the estate, is how to give the ‘right’ answers to job centre staff to avoid punitive benefits sanctions.
‘Being St Anne’s’
McKenzie doesn’t simply counter-pose the right-wing, common sense ideas of council estate dwellers with a romanticised portrayal of triumph over adversity. Instead we witness an unravelling of a complex tapestry of cultural practices that make up ‘being St Anne’s’ – a term used by residents to describe their identity.
Through this unravelling we are presented with a series of contradictions. For example, women describe how they stereotyped in the more affluent parts of Nottingham as ‘rough and ready’. ‘Rough’, meaning ‘shabbily dressed’; their choice of clothing and accessories helps them to fit in with local tastes and identifies them as ‘being St Anne’s’, but outside of the estate leads them to be ‘looked down on’. ‘Ready’, meaning sexually promiscuous and ‘available’; many of the white women are mothers to mixed-race children, which is still a ‘taboo’ to many in Nottingham. As such their identity is both ‘sexualised and racialised’, as McKenzie puts it.
Yet St Anne’s offers relative safety from the racism they experience elsewhere. Indeed Jamaican culture especially is a vital part of ‘being St Anne’s’, expressed in music, food and dialect, and white residents are proud of their ability to embrace ‘black’ cultural practices, seeing themselves as ‘modern’ and ‘multicultural’.
On the other hand there is a measure of animosity towards recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia. Residents make it clear that their discomfort is not informed by racist ideas, but because they feel the authorities ‘disrespect’ them by placing recent arrivals in St Anne’s, while none can be found in more affluent areas. But it is difficult not to draw parallels with the experiences of Caribbean immigrants who arrived in St Anne’s in the 50s and 60s, who initially faced similar hostility by the English and Irish St Anne’s residents.
Drugs have been an increasing problem in St Anne’s and are of great concern to its residents, particularly because of the criminal activity related to it. Dealing is aided by the poor design of the urban space, where narrow passageways or ‘rat runs’ provide an opportunity for hiding and escape, and gang-related violence is common. But in the context of the declining availability of stable and rewarding work opportunities where many residents are trapped in a ‘low pay, no pay cycle’, young men can find relatively well paid work as low-level dealers, despite the risks involved.
The estate’s mothers have a complex relationship with this informal economy. While it is a great source of worry for them that their sons might be injured or worse through their occupation, it enables them to have an independent income and sense of self-worth. The mothers also benefit by proxy from the street cred afforded to gang members, allowing them greater acceptance in the community.
All of these contradictions are part of the overarching contradiction of St Anne’s. Despite the problems that residents face as a result of precarious work and welfare cuts, it is a place of security where they feel valued. Yet at the same time people become ‘very inward looking’ and ‘fear what is outside’, where they are ‘looked down on’. Despite being right next to the City Centre, residents rarely venture into it. Their problems become internalised and individualised, resulting in ‘anger, desperation, and fragility’ that occasionally explodes, just as it did in the 2011 riots, which further reinforces right wing common sense prejudices against them.
Triumph of social research
Getting By is a triumph of social research that provides a timely antidote to both the ideological attacks on working class people and academic studies of poverty that are ignorant to the positives of estate life. McKenzie’s masterful use of qualitative methods – semi-structured interviews and participant observations – is employed to create bold and dynamic portraits of life in St Anne’s, while giving voice to its residents.
There needs to be more research like this and more researchers like Lisa McKenzie. Standing in the way of this is the famine of postgraduate social science funding, which denies working class people access to research positions, and funding bodies’ obsession with quantitative methods, meaning that the few scholarships available are largely directed towards the technical management of society by our ruling elites in the interest of capital.
This review was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine